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The Truth about Being Born Again

Stephen Pribble

Being born again is a change of heart, wrought in the individual by the Holy Spirit, that enables him to understand and act upon the truth of God’s word. The importance of this doctrine is underscored by Jesus’ words “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

The scriptural vocabulary for the new birth is rich and varied. Besides “born again,” the following terms are used: a new heart, a new spirit, born of water and of the Spirit, born of God, begotten of God, born of the Spirit, spiritual enlightenment, quickening, regeneration, washing of regeneration, renewing of the Holy Ghost, making all things new, being translated out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, being given new spiritual sight, being translated out of death into life, conversion, God’s beginning a good work in a person.

Being born again is closely related to the concept of the effectual call of God’s Spirit which ushers the sinner into a relationship with God by faith. Paul wrote, “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son” (1 Cor. 1:9). Regeneration is the inward working of the Spirit that induces the sinner to respond to the effectual call. What is effectual calling? “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel” (Shorter Catechism 31, https://opc.org/sc.html).

Regeneration should be distinguished from other terms such as justification, adoption, sanctification and salvation. Justification is the act of God whereby the sinner is declared righteous through Christ’s perfect righteousness being credited to his account. Adoption is the act of God whereby a person is received into God’s spiritual family. Sanctification is the work of God whereby the sinner is renewed after his image and enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness. Salvation is a broad term referring to the whole application of redemption to the sinner. Regeneration is often misused as a synonym for salvation, but the Bible does not confuse these terms.

A key statement on the new birth is found in the prologue to John’s gospel: “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). Here, the apostle distinguishes between the one true and several false views of regeneration.

False Views of Regeneration

God’s word declares that regeneration is not “of blood,” “of the will of the flesh” or “of the will of man.” Three popular but false views of regeneration are comprehended in these phrases. Let us consider these.

(1) “Not of blood.” There is a widespread misconception that a person is a Christian by virtue of being born into a Christian family. Such is not the case. The fact is that having Christian parents does not guarantee that the offspring will be born again. Some Reformed people entertain the concept of presumptive regeneration, assuming that the children of believing parents are born again unless they prove otherwise by denying the faith. This contradicts the express teaching that being born again is “not of blood.” A person is not born again by virtue of a biological or blood relationship. God’s covenant promise does involve families, to be sure (Acts 2:39). But the guaranteed regeneration of the offspring is not thereby to be assumed.

(2) “Nor of the will of the flesh.” There is a popular misconception that being born again results from a person’s “decision” to invite Christ into his life. This view is widely held in Baptist, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Pentecostal and independent churches. It is the view of most evangelists doing area-wide crusades. Billy Graham wrote a book entitled How to Be Born Again (as if the Holy Spirit needed instruction!). This view is designated decisional regeneration. It is demonstrably false, for it contradicts the express teaching that being born again is not “of the will of the flesh.” What does this mean? The New International Version has “not of human decision.” John’s point is that an individual does not cause his own new birth by making a decision.

Furthermore, this view gravely misunderstands the nature of unregenerate and unconverted man: that he is spiritually dead—utterly and hopelessly and irrecoverably dead by nature. “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). The apostle Paul paints a graphic picture of the sinner’s utterly hopeless condition outside of Christ: he is dead in trespasses and sins, a follower of Satan, given over to disobedience, the child of wrath by nature. Such an individual has not the slightest interest in giving up his sin and turning to God. He would never change except for direct divine intervention: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)” (Eph. 2:4–5). The credit for regeneration is not shared between God and man; all the credit goes to God: “But God”! It is God who intervenes to save when man is helpless, spiritually dead and unable to save himself.

In spite of this clear teaching of Scripture, many churches teach that the deciding factor in regeneration is man. P. C. Nelson wrote, “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit cooperate with the sinner in his salvation” (Bible Doctrines: A Series of Studies Based on the Fundamental Beliefs of the Assemblies of God [Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1981], 38). No Scripture proof is offered for this astonishing statement which has absolutely no basis whatsoever in the word of God. It would be bad enough if the author stated, “The sinner cooperates with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in his salvation.” But the way the statement is written the deciding factor in man’s salvation is man himself; God plays only an incidental role. Decisional regeneration must be rejected as contrary to Scripture.

(3) “Nor of the will of man.” A third false view is known as baptismal regeneration. Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran theologians teach that through the waters of baptism a cleansing from sin and change in nature is effected in the individual being baptized. By the will of the person administering water baptism the baptized is born again. The Church of Christ (Campbellite) also holds this view. Following are some statements illustrating how this view is held.

Roman Catholic. “The instrumental cause [of justification] is the sacrament of baptism . . . without which no man was ever justified finally. . . . If anyone says that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation, let him be anathema” (Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Decree Concerning Justification; Canons on Baptism—but cf. Luke 23:43). “Infants, unless regenerated unto God through the grace of baptism, whether their parents be Christian or infidel, are born to eternal misery and perdition” (Trent Catechism, quoted in Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962], 191).

Orthodox. “At Baptism the Christian undergoes an outward washing in water, and he is at the same time cleansed inwardly from his sins” (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church [New York: Viking Penguin, 1963], 281). Alluding to an ancient practice of baptizing an individual naked, Anthony M. Coniaris wrote: “The removal of all clothes signifies also the old sinful nature which will be cast off entirely through baptism. . . . Human nature purified by baptism is made ready to receive the manifold gifts of the Holy Spirit” (These Are the Sacraments: The Life-Giving Mysteries of the Orthodox Church [Minneapolis: Light and Life, 1981], 35, 37–38).

Lutheran. “What does Baptism give or profit? It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this. . . . Holy Baptism is the only means whereby infants, who, too, must be born again, can ordinarily be regenerated and brought to faith” (Luther’s Small Catechism, 16, 173).

Church of Christ. Baptism is “a condition of salvation . . . our entrance into a new relationship with God through Christ where we become a new creation” (“One Nation under God” Bible correspondence course, lesson 3).

Does the Bible teach that water baptism regenerates? No! What sinful man needs is not cleansing of the flesh but of the heart, which only God is able to do. God is the sole agent of regeneration; he says, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (Ezek. 36:25–27). Peter’s statement “even baptism doth also now save us” does not refer to water baptism but to the Spirit’s inward cleansing, for he identifies it as “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh [what gets wet in baptism], but the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Pet. 3:21). Regeneration is not “of the will of man.” No pastor, priest or any other human being has the power to regenerate another person, by any religious ceremony whatsoever. You cannot be born again by “the will of man.”

If regeneration does not come through blood relationship, human decision or water baptism, where does it originate?

Biblical View of Regeneration

(4) “But of God.” John declares that regeneration is of God alone. Man plays no part in regeneration. The Holy Spirit is the sole agent of regeneration. This fact is humbling to human pride; as a result, this teaching is repugnant to the unconverted man whose eyes have not been supernaturally opened to the truth of God’s word. It is not a popular truth; however, truth is not determined by popularity but by Scripture.

John’s statement clarifies the relationship between the new birth and faith. Contrary to widely-held opinion, being born again precedes faith. John writes that those who believe on Christ “were” (past tense) born of God (John 1:13); he does not write that those who believe in Christ are thereby born of God on the basis of their faith. In other words, being born again results in faith; faith does not result in the new birth. Faith is not the precondition but the result of the new birth. This is the consistent teaching of Scripture.

James wrote, “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jas. 1:18). The expression is emphatic: it is of God’s own will, not of the will of man or the shared will of man and God together, that the spiritually-dead person is begotten of God.

John is in full agreement: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him” (1 John 5:1). The Greek term “begotten” is in the perfect tense, referring to an action begun in the past with continuing results in the present. This tense is often rendered in the King James Version by the English present tense. What John is saying is that the person believing that Jesus is the Christ has been and continues to be begotten of God. George Ricker Berry renders it “Everyone that believes that Jesus is the Christ, of God has been begotten” (Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament). This text does not teach that the person believing that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God as the result of believing; rather it teaches that the person believing on Jesus has already been begotten of God, which is the consistent teaching of the Bible. The Spirit of God gives the gift of faith, enabling a sinner to believe, to the salvation of his soul. Regeneration is indispensable to faith; the unregenerate sinner can neither “see” nor “enter” the kingdom of God by faith apart from the new birth (John 3:3, 5).

Regeneration reverses the sinner’s natural blindness, enabling him to understand his need of a Savior and put his faith in Christ. Paul wrote, “The god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:4). But God has sovereignly intervened in the case of his elect! “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). All glory to God!

Here are other Scriptures that confirm the truth that regeneration is alone the work of God: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. . . . Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Pet. 1:3, 23). “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5). “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63).

The uniform message of the Bible is that man is entirely passive in regeneration. This truth drives men to their knees to plead on behalf of their friends and loved ones who are without hope and without God in this world, if God perhaps will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; for the Bible-believer realizes that it is utterly impossible for any person to be saved without the intervening power of Almighty God. Millions of people are going to hell, thinking they are born again because their parents were Christians, they made a “decision” or they were baptized. If you personally have never repented of your sins and trusted in the perfect righteousness of Christ alone for your salvation, then cry out to God for mercy today.

Do you know the truth about being born again? The truth is vital, for your eternal wellbeing, and that of your family members, is at stake. If you attend a church that teaches a false view of regeneration, by all means do everything within your power to influence it to bring its teaching into conformity with Scripture. If change is impossible, then seek out a church that correctly teaches the Bible truth that being born again is entirely “of God.”