Doctrine of Salvation (Part 8)

March 02, 2014     Time: 00:33:18

In our lesson, we’ve been talking about the doctrine of regeneration, or what is popularly called the new birth. Last time we saw what was involved in the nature of regeneration. Today we want to wrap this up, and then turn to the subject of justification.

Let’s turn to John chapter 3, the classic New Testament passage on the new birth – Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus. I want to say a few words about what the new birth is not, based upon this passage.

First, it’s clear that the new birth is not a matter of religious heritage. In verse 1 it tells us, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.” This man had a tremendous religious pedigree. He was a member of a religious order within Judaism that was extremely strict. Yet it was to this man that Jesus said, “You need to be born anew in order to see the Kingdom of God.” So it is not enough just to have a denominational background or religious heritage in order to be a regenerate Christian.

By the same token, it is clear that this is not something that is biologically inheritable or something that is a matter of one’s family – from one’s parents. In verse 4, Nicodemus says, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Here, this is probably intended to be a pretty sarcastic comment. Nicodemus isn’t serious, of course. He is really ridiculing what Jesus has said. Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” So this is a spiritual rebirth. It is not a matter of biology or family inheritance.

By the same token, it is not a physical thing. Notice that Jesus says, “That which is born of Spirit is spirit.” It is your spirit which is regenerated, which is born anew, so that what was once dead is now alive and in fellowship and communion with God. So this is an inner spiritual quickening that enlivens the spiritual element in a person and puts him into a right relationship with God.

Also notice that this is not something that is granted by human beings. Jesus goes on to say in verses 7-8, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” It is the Holy Spirit who bestows the new birth. It is not something that is granted by human beings; it is under the control of human beings anymore than the wind is. Rather, this is something that God does.

Finally, it is not just a matter of right doctrine or head knowledge. In verses 10-11 Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony.” Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel. He was trained in the Old Testament law. Yet, that isn’t enough to ensure a genuine rebirth of the spirit and a right relationship with God.

So this new birth – regeneration – is something that is not of religious heritage, it is not inheritable biologically or from one’s family, it is not a physical thing, it is not under human control (it can’t be bestowed by human beings, it’s got to be at the discretion of the Holy Spirit), and it is not a matter of simply knowing intellectually and believing intellectually right doctrine.[1]

How It Occurs

So how does the new birth work? How does regeneration occur? How does one become born anew? Let’s look at a couple of passages that are relevant to this. John 1:12-13, just a couple of pages over from the dialogue with Nicodemus. Here John writes,

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Here is this spiritual rebirth that Jesus describes in the conversation with Nicodemus. It is not something that is physical, under human control; it is something that comes from God and it is given to everyone who receives Christ and who believes in his name.

Look over at Titus 3:3-7, Paul’s epistle to Titus. Titus 3:3-7 is a wonderful passage describing our salvation. Paul says,

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another;

[What a description of life as a non-believer! As someone who spent many of his teenage years as an unbeliever I can identify with this description of what it was like.]

but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life. The saying is sure.

What do we learn from these two passages about the new birth and how one comes to be a regenerate Christian? First notice that it is open to all men. John says “to all who received him.” To everyone who believed in his name, he gave this privilege to become God’s children. So this is an open invitation to everyone.

And the first step to this would be repentance. In Titus, Paul talks about how we lived once under the slavery of passion and sin, malice and envy, hating others and hated by them. It is from this life of sin that one must turn. That is what repentance means. It means to turn your back on that life and turn to God for forgiveness and cleansing. So the first step toward being born again is repentance, turning away from the old life, and turning now to God.

The next step is placing one’s faith in Christ. John says in verse 12 of chapter 1, “To all who received him who believed in his name.” So having repented of sin, one turns to God and places one’s faith in Jesus Christ. It is not just enough to give intellectual assent to Christian doctrines about Christ. It is not enough to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, that God raised him from the dead. All of those things must be believed, true. But that is not sufficient for saving faith. Notice that it says here, “They believed in his name.” It is not just a matter of believing propositional truths about Christ.[2] It is believing in him. It is trusting in him, committing your life to him. This is the full concept of saving faith. Not just intellectual assent to doctrines about Christ, but trusting in him personally; placing your faith in him.

Notice that it says then that those who believed in his name “received Christ.” And by that it means they welcomed him. They welcomed Christ as their savior and their Lord. By so doing, by placing one’s faith in Christ, by believing in him and welcoming him into your life, you receive the Holy Spirit of Christ and are born again. Remember what Titus says. Turn back to Titus 3. He says, “He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit whom he poured out upon us richly.” So when a person believes in Jesus Christ and welcomes him into his life, the Holy Spirit comes into that person and regenerates his spirit. That dead spirit that was previously darkened and alienated from God is now quickened and comes alive and comes into a relationship with God.

This may be a little bit confusing to some of you because we often hear about the need to receive Christ, rather than receive the Holy Spirit. But I think that the idiom, or the expression, of receiving Christ is just a way of saying what is technically receiving his Holy Spirit. Look at Romans 8:9-10. In Romans 8:9-10, we see that the Holy Spirit comes in the place of Christ while Christ is absent from this universe ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit who comes in the place of Christ and continues his ministry becomes so closely identified with Christ that he is referred to as Christ. Look at, again, Romans 8:9-10,

But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness.

This is a description of the regenerate Christian – someone whose spirit is alive because of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Notice how Paul refers to this Spirit. He first says “the Spirit of God” then “the Spirit of Christ” and then simply “Christ.” The Holy Spirit is so closely identified with Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit indwelling the believer, living within us and quickening our spirits, is referred to as Christ – Christ in you. So when you receive the Holy Spirit, you are so to speak receiving Christ because it is the Spirit of Christ which you receive.

When one does so, then one is born anew – one is regenerated – into a new living relationship with God. One becomes united with Christ, as we saw in our previous study about the mystical union, and heir to all of the promises that belong to those in Christ.

So this is a transformation that is available to anyone who will turn away from sin and repentance, turn to Christ in faith, believe in his name, and welcome him into that person’s life, and thereby receive the Holy Spirit of Christ which will transform and regenerate you from the inside out and change your life.

Now, it may be the case that there is someone listening to my voice who has never come to know God in that way, who has never been born again. You are not sure if you are a regenerate Christian. So I want to just pause in the lesson now to give you an opportunity to make that sort of commitment.[3] There is no sort of recipe for doing this, but I think it is entirely appropriate to come to God in prayer and to talk to him about it and to ask him to come into your life, to give you the Holy Spirit, and to regenerate you. So what I’d like us to do is just take a moment to bow our heads, close our eyes, and have such a prayer of invitation for anyone who would like to pray it silently along with me. Let’s pray:

Lord Jesus, I really need you. I recognize that I’ve made a mess of my life and that I need your forgiveness and cleansing. I confess my sins and I turn away from them to you. I believe that you died on the cross to forgive my sins and restore me to a right relationship with God and that you rose from the dead to prove who you were. Right now, in the best way I know how, I want to open the door to my life and to welcome you in. Come into my life. Forgive my sins. Cleanse me from all wrongdoing and quicken my spirit, Lord, that I might be born again to new life and to the relationship with God that I was intended to have. Right now, as an expression of my faith, I thank you for hearing and answering this prayer. Amen.

If anyone has prayed that prayer, then I can give you assurance that, based on Scripture, God has heard that prayer and he answers that prayer to come into your life. I would encourage you now to look for signs of that renewed spirit within you – of a renewal and a relationship with God that wasn’t there before. The Bible says that when we become regenerate Christians, we are like infants and we need to be nourished by the milk of the Word which is the Bible. So you should begin to pray, to read the Bible on a regular basis, and to be nourished by that. So like a little baby, you don’t arrive stillborn but you begin to grow and become stronger in your Christian life as you walk with him.


Question: We have had some discussions with my Catholic brother-in-law regarding the Nicodemus encounter. The Catholics seem to believe that when it says you must be born of water and of the spirit, they are talking about baptism – that Jesus was talking about baptism as the water birth. Is there any Scriptural basis to believe that? He really believes you can’t be saved without being baptized.

Answer: It is not just Catholics, but generally people who have a sacramental view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper will identify the moment of regeneration as being the moment at which one submits to water baptism. But I think it is very clear that there is such a thing in the New Testament as baptism in the Holy Spirit and water baptism. They are both referred to in the New Testament – being baptized in the Holy Spirit and being baptized in water. A supportive verse for our Catholic friends would be from 1 Corinthians 12:13 where it says, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” They might say, “Well, see that shows that Spirit baptism is coincident with water baptism.” Well, maybe. It doesn’t say that. What he refers to there is that it is by Spirit baptism that we are placed into the body of Christ. And when I read the book of Acts, I find that the relationship between Spirit baptism and water baptism is all over the place. There is no consistent pattern. Sometimes people get baptized in the Holy Spirit and then they are baptized in water. Other times they are baptized in water and then later they are baptized in the Holy Spirit after they have already been through water baptism. So I do not think that you can make a convincing case that regeneration always takes place, or even normally takes place, in the baptismal fount.[4] Perhaps for some people it does, but it is not going through dunking in water or being sprinkled that makes you born again. It is Spirit baptism. It is the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit may do that coincidentally with water baptism for some people. I know one fellow who I think that happened to. I think he was baptized in the Holy Spirit when he submitted to water baptism. But I think for many others of us we have experienced Spirit baptism first in placing our faith in Christ sensing a new relationship with God, and then in obedience we followed him by being water baptized.

Followup: One more point I have in regard to that. If, as the Catholics believe, it is so important, why is there no reference in the New Testament of the disciples being baptized?

Answer: Well, we don’t know about whether or not the disciples were baptized prior to, or as inaugural to, Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus submitted to baptism, right? He went to John the Baptist. Jesus and his disciples were baptizing other people. People thought that in a sense he was almost competing with John the Baptist because he was baptizing more people than John was. It would be very surprising, I think, if Jesus’ own disciples weren’t baptized. It is not recorded, but if Jesus submitted to baptism, if they were baptizing other people, I think it would really be odd that Jesus wouldn’t baptize his own disciples.

But I do want to second, I think, what you are saying in terms of the relative unimportance of water baptism compared to Spirit baptism. What I would refer to is 1 Corinthians 1:13-17 where Paul is talking about all the factions in Corinth. He says,

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius; lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel . . .

Now, clearly Paul there is thinking that the primary motivation is preaching the Gospel. He can’t even remember whether he baptized converts in Corinth. So it was obviously of secondary importance, I think, for Paul rather than thinking this is what you’ve got to do to get people into the Kingdom – you’ve got to baptize them. Baptism would be an act of obedience that represents in a sense the culmination of one’s conversion experience. We will talk about this more when we get to the Doctrine of the Church. Regeneration is that inner act of God whereby we are born anew into a proper relationship with God. Conversion is the outward and psychological manifestation of that commitment. I think that baptism is the culminating act of one’s conversion. It is the proclamation to the world that one is a disciple and follower of Jesus. So for the Christian who is regenerate but refuses to follow the Lord’s instructions in baptism is someone living in disobedience. His conversion is in a real sense incomplete. I think that is why it is very important here as JFBC when the opportunity to be baptized is given that anyone who is a regenerate Christian avail himself of that and follow the Lord’s instructions by submitting to water baptism as the culmination of his conversion to Christ. Good question.

Question: John 1:12 says this is not of the will of man. Does that mean that regeneration has nothing to do with the will of man?

Answer: That is a good question. I think our Reformed brethren would love that verse in the sense of saying that God and the Holy Spirit simply, like the wind blowing, selects whom he wills and it’s wholly independent of one’s will.[5] I don’t think that is what it means. After all, it does say, “To those who received him, who believed in his name” he gave this privilege. But I think he means to say that the new birth is not something that is humanly wrought. The new birth is a supernatural act of God, not something that is wrought by human desire or will or flesh or striving. I think that is what the intention is.

Question: I wonder if you could speak to the relationship of the human spirit to this new spirit that we have as regenerate Christians. The human spirit – before I became a believer, is that what was dead in trespasses and sins and then when I was born again that human spirit became alive to God? Or is it the Holy Spirit now indwelling within us along side of our human spirit?

Answer: I would say yes to all of that. Paul says, “I was dead in trespasses and sins when I was unregenerate.” But obviously I was physically alive. My body was alive. Mentally I was alive. My rational faculties were operating. But what was dead about me? It was my spirit. I had no relationship with God. Paul says, “I was estranged from God. I was alienated from God. Morally guilty before him and groping in darkness.” So I take it that the human spirit (that dimension of the human personality that allows us to relate to God in a way, say, that animals cannot) was inoperative, was dead, apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes into a person, that dimension becomes alive again. It is born anew. It is regenerated. It is quickened so that now you are put into this relationship with God that you were meant to have. So there is now a living human spirit – that dimension or aspect to your person – but then you are also indwelt by the Holy Spirit as well. The Spirit of God lives in you and empowers you and directs you as you walk in the Spirit. We are to be filled with the Spirit. We are to walk in the Spirit, if you recall from our Doctrine of the Holy Spirit section. All that results from the Holy Spirit living within you.

Followup: It kind of sounded like when you were describing the human spirit that being dead its purpose is to relate to God. So it sounded like the human spirit before regeneration is non-functional. There is another point that I’m a little fuzzy on because, with the Olympics coming up, we always hear about the triumph of the human spirit. So in the world’s eyes, the human spirit is something in us that, like you said, animals do not have, that is functioning in terms of other humans. I wondered if would you speak to that?

Answer: Obviously, the New Testament isn’t using that word in the way that people talk about the “Olympic spirit” or “school spirit” or “the American spirit” or things of that sort. Remember in his Thessalonian correspondence, Paul says, “May God sanctify you holy in body, and soul and spirit.” That is to say, every dimension or aspect of the human person. I take it that the spirit there is that aspect of the human person that enables you to have a relationship with God. It is not like the Olympic spirit or school spirit. This is a uniquely divine, as it were, dimension of the human person in virtue of our being created in God’s image. Remember the Scripture says that man is the image of God. Insofar as we are in God’s image, we stand apart from the rest of creation. But because of the Fall – and I’m now recalling all of the things we’ve been studying the last several months – we find ourselves dead spiritually and in need of regeneration, of a new birth, to put us into a proper relationship with God.[6]

Question: Let’s talk about the signs of rebirth. In Romans, Paul talks about how when a child is born they have a lively hope. But then God gave us the law to point out our need for him, and the law took occasion and revived and condemned us. So we realized when we thought on things of trying to need to relate to God we were cut off, we had no hope. After you believe that Christ died for you and he loved for you, and removed the guilt, then now you are born again of a lively hope. When you think about those things, it is not like doing something in the physical world you didn’t have hope. But when you tried to relate to God you were cut off before. But now because of that in 2 Peter I think it says we’ve been born again of lively hope. That is the earnest money of the transaction. So faith maybe just enough hope.

Answer: Yes, this is in 1 Peter 1:3 where he says we have been “born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” So you are certainly right in saying that the Holy Spirit within us is a sort of down payment on our ultimate resurrection of the body. So Paul talks about having this treasure in earthen vessels. Our outer nature – our bodies – are wasting away, but our inner nature is being renewed everyday. That is the Spirit. We have a resurrected spirit, but not yet a resurrected body. That will come at the return of Christ when the dead are raised. Sometimes people will ask, “Why doesn’t God heal amputees?” Well, he will – at the resurrection. But until then we have mortal, decaying bodies that are infirm and not completely healed or immortal. But someday this earthen vessel will be done away with and we will have a glorious resurrection body in which to live. But for the time being, we live in mortal, corrupted, fallen bodies but with a renewed and regenerate spirit within us. So this is the wonderful hope, I think, that each of us as Christians enjoys – we are regenerate, we are born again. This is a great truth and treasure that each one of us should constantly hold to and rejoice in – that we are born anew to this relationship with God that will last forever.

With that we will close. Next time we will turn to a discussion of justification and ask what does it mean to be justified by God?[7]


[1] 5:04

[2] 10:04

[3] 15:07

[4] 20:10

[5] 25:06

[6] 30:05

[7] Total Running Time: 33:18 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)