Here we take up the issue of the new birth, or what we often refer to as regeneration or being born again.
(1) Being born again is not to be thought of in terms of moral reformation, a mere exchange of one set of habits for another set. Some mistakenly think that mankind does not need re-creation, only redirection. But as we shall shortly see, being born again entails a radical renewal of the entire inner being of a man or woman.
(2) One Arminian author argues that God alone regenerates the human heart but does so only when and because the individual believes by a free act of will, or does not resist the overtures of grace. We are told that “God cannot and to say the same thing – will not regenerate a heart that will not admit him. God respects the sovereignty-within-limitations with which he endowed man at creation” (William G. MacDonald, Grace Unlimited, 86).
Calvinists insist that the sole cause of regeneration or being born again is the will of God. God first sovereignly and efficaciously regenerates, and only in consequence of that do we act. Therefore, the individual is passive in regeneration, neither preparing himself nor making himself receptive to what God will do. Regeneration is a change wrought in us by God, not an autonomous act performed by us for ourselves.
(3) Man’s status in regard to regeneration is that of a recipient, not a contributor. Man is spiritually, in relation to regeneration, what Lazarus was physically, in relation to resurrection: dead, passive, unable to do anything at all, wholly subject to the will of him who gives life and breath to whomever he desires.
(4) In the doctrine of regeneration we are asserting that beneath and before all positive human response to the gospel, whether faith, repentance, love, or conversion, there is a supernatural, efficacious, and altogether mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. This work of the Spirit is both prior to and the effectual cause of all activity on the part of man. To sum up, the Holy Spirit regenerates a person in order that a person may convert to God.
(5) The doctrine of man’s total moral depravity, the bondage of the will, the teaching of Scripture on faith and repentance as God’s gifts to his elect, as well as the doctrine of grace, all converge to demand that we understand regeneration to be prior to and therefore the cause of faith (see also Titus 3:5; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:3, 23-25; 1 John 5:1).
(6) According to John 1:11-13, birth into God’s family is of a different order from birth into an earthly human family. One does not become a child of God by the same process or as a result of the same causal factors as one becomes a physical child of Abraham.
This text indicates that one does not become a child of God by being “born of bloods” (lit.). The point is that spiritual life is not genetically transmitted! Furthermore, spiritual birth is not “of the will of the flesh.” This probably refers to sexual desire. Nor is spiritual birth caused by the “will of man.” If these three phrases do not rule out all conceivable human causes in regeneration, the final phrase does. If regeneration is “of God,” with no additional comment, then surely it cannot be of anything or anyone else.
(7) Our Lord’s words to Nicodemus in John 3:3-8 shed considerable light on the nature of the new birth.
The reference to being born “of water” should be interpreted against the background of the Old Testament in which water was frequently a symbol for purification or cleansing from the pollution of sin (see Exod. 30:20-21; 40:12; Lev. 14:8-9; 15:5-27; Num. 19; 2 Kings 5:10; Ps. 51:2-3;Isa. 1:16; Jer. 33:8; Zech. 13:1). We should note especially Ezek. 36:25-26 – “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Thus to be born “of water and Spirit” is to be purified from the guilt of sin and inwardly renewed, both of which are wrought in us by the sovereign regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, in saying, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6), Jesus is telling us that human nature is capable of propagating or producing only human nature. It is unable to produce anything that transcends its character as human. Simply put: like produces like. Or better yet: you can’t get a spiritual effect from a physical cause.
(8) Among the many words used for regeneration or the new birth in the NT (“to create” [ktizo], “to make alive together with” [suzoopoieo], “to renew” [anakainoo], and “renewal” [anakainosis], and “to beget again” [anagennao]), several are especially worthy of note.
The word “regeneration” (palingenesis) is used twice, in Matthew 19:28 where it refers to the consummate renewal or regeneration of the cosmos, and in Titus 3:5 where it refers to the regeneration of the individual. In this latter text, “regeneration” is most likely synonymous with “renewal” (anakainosis). In other words, “to be reborn is to be made anew. At most we can say that the two phrases describe the same transformation from slightly different angles” (James Dunn, Baptism in the Spirit, 166).
(9) The principal word for the biblical doctrine of regeneration is “to beget” or “to give birth to” (gennao). It is used 96x in the New Testament, seventy-five of which refer to the physical act of conception or the event of giving birth to a child. Twice Paul uses it metaphorically of his “giving birth” to an individual in the sense of being the human instrument through which God brought that person to faith (1 Cor. 4:15; Philemon 10). It is used three times in a quotation of Psalm 2 of the Father “begetting” the Son (Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). It is used once in the general sense of “to produce” (2 Tim. 2:23). Our concern is with the fifteen places in which it is used to describe spiritual birth, regeneration, a divine begetting of the individual in consequence of which one lives spiritually. Interestingly, all fifteen occurrences are in the writings of John (John 1:13; 3:3,5,6,7,8; 1 John 2:29; 3:9 [twice]; 4:7; 5:1 [twice], 4,18 [twice]).
(10) The only other word of interest is “to bring forth” or “to beget” (apokueo), found in James 1:18 (“Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth . . .”). That James here used this word instead of gennao has struck some as odd in that apokueo more properly denotes the role of the female in giving birth and therefore seems inappropriate for God the Father. However, aside from the fact that the word is obviously used metaphorically, the very notion of God “begetting” at all is surprising! Also, James clearly used this particular word in order to maintain a parallel with what he said in 1:15 (“then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth [apokuei] death”). In other words, “from sin comes death; but God is the giver of all, and only, good gifts, and from him comes life” (Sophie Laws, 75).