Saturday, February 13, 2021

Unless a Person is Born Again...

When Jimmy Carter was elected president of the United States, he described himself as a “born-again Christian.” Then Charles Colson, former hatchet-man in the Nixon White House, wrote a best-selling book by the title Born Again, in which he chronicled his own conversion experience to Christianity. Since these two famous personalities popularized the phrase “born again,” it has become part of the currency of modern speech.

To describe someone as a born-again Christian is (technically speaking) to be guilty of redundancy. There is no such thing as a nonborn-again Christian. An unregenerate (nonborn-again) Christian is a contradiction in terms. Likewise, a born-again non-Christian is contradictory in the sense the term born again is used.

It was Jesus who first said that spiritual rebirth was an absolute necessity for entering the kingdom of God. He declared to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

The word unless in Jesus’ teaching signals a universally necessary condition for seeing and entering the kingdom of God. Rebirth then is a sine qua non of Christianity. Without rebirth there is no possible manner of entrance into God’s kingdom.

Rebirth is usually called “regeneration” in biblical theology. It refers to a new generating, a new genesis, a new beginning. It is more than “turning over a new leaf”; it marks the beginning of a new life in a radically renewed person. Peter speaks of those who “have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).

Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit upon those who are spiritually dead. The Spirit recreates the human heart quickening it from spiritual death unto spiritual life. The regenerate person is a new creation. Where formerly he had no disposition, inclination, or desire for the things of God, now he is disposed and inclined toward God. In regeneration God plants a desire for Himself in the human heart that otherwise would not be there.

Regeneration is not to be confused with the full experience of conversion. Just as birth is our initiation, our first entrance into life outside the womb, so our spiritual rebirth is the starting point of our spiritual life. It occurs by God’s divine initiative and is an act that is sovereign, immediate, and instantaneous. Our awareness of our conversion may be gradual. Yet rebirth itself is instantaneous. No one can be partially reborn any more than a woman can be partially pregnant.

Regeneration is not the fruit or result of faith. Rather, regeneration precedes faith as the necessary condition for faith. Nor do we in any way dispose ourselves toward regeneration or cooperate as coworkers with the Holy Spirit to bring it to pass. We do not decide to be or choose to be regenerated. God chooses to regenerate us before we will ever choose to embrace Him. To be sure, after we have been regenerated by the sovereign grace of God we do choose, act, cooperate, and believe in Christ. God does not have faith for us. It is our own faith by which we are justified. What God does is quicken us to spiritual life, rescuing us from darkness, bondage, and spiritual death.

In the beginning, however, we are called, called by the same voice that commanded Lazarus to come forth from the tomb. This call is effectual, it works, it brings to pass what it commands.

The preaching of the Gospel represents the outward call of God. This call is heard audibly by both the elect and the nonelect. Human beings have the ability to resist and refuse the outward call. He will not respond to the outward call in faith unless or until the outward call is accompanied by the effectual inward call of the Holy Spirit. Effectual calling is irresistible in the sense that God sovereignly brings about its desired result. This sovereign work of grace is resistible in the sense that we can and do resist it in our fallen nature, but irresistible in the sense that God’s grace prevails over our natural resistance to it.

Effectual calling refers to the creative power of God by which we are brought to spiritual life. The apostle Paul writes:

“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Ephesians 2:1–3).

We who were once children of wrath and were spiritually dead have become the “called out ones” by virtue of the power and efficacy of the inward call of God. In His grace, the Holy Spirit gives us eyes to see what we would not see and ears to hear what we would not hear.