The Holy Spirit and Christian Living
'O Comforter, draw near...'
Regeneration: The New Birth
- Greg Haslam is senior pastor at Westminster Chapel in London. He travels widely as a conference speaker, and is the author of several books. View all resources by Greg Haslam
It’s a sad fact, but many modern churches don’t clearly preach the Gospel and on many university campuses, students with church backgrounds – even in Christian Unions – often have a Primary School level knowledge of their faith. A Presbyterian layman once declared publicly that he had joined the church on ‘confusion’ of his faith! He meant ‘confession’, but the slip may have been more accurate than he intended. How does spiritual life begin? A little boy writing on the mystery of life, interviewed his brother, his father and grandfather and asked each of them how they had been born. They all replied ‘A little stork brought me.’ The boy wrote in his essay, ‘There hasn’t been a normal birth in our family for at least three generations’!
Similarly, many believers are confused about the new birth! Yet churches can be smug and proud about mere traditions. Louis Evans, American pastor and Bible commentator, says ‘Many churches use different ways to get devils out of a person. Episcopalians chant them out. Methodists sing them out. Congregationalists vote them out. Pentecostals shout them out. Baptists drown them out, and Presbyterians freeze them out!’ The truth is, Christ alone can get them out. We need to build churches that expect him to be actively present among us by his Holy Spirit, doing mighty things, including regular conversions involving a radical new birth.
‘Born again' icons?
To discover what Christ intends, a good place to start is his midnight encounter with a hungry religionist, as yet devoid of the experience of being ‘born again’ – the secretive Nicodemus (John 3:1-21). This is one of the best known, but least understood stories in John. Most people have heard of Nicodemus, some know he was urged to be ‘born again’, but that’s often where understanding ends and confusion begins. Our culture has frequently hijacked this evocative phrase simply to enhance the quality of our natural life. Advertisers, journalists and television programmers understand its evocative power. In recent years we’ve heard of:
- ‘Born again’ Ford Mondeo’s.
- ‘Born again’ US Presidents: Jimmy Carter (1970’s), Ronald Reagan (1980’s) and George W. Bush (the ‘noughties’).
- ‘Born again’ Celebrities: Johnny Cash, Cliff Richard, Bono, Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda. ‘Born again’ Serial Killers: Jeffrey Dahmer, David Berkowitz (‘Son of Sam’).
- ‘Born again’ Make-overs - with Trinny and Suzanne, Gok Wan etc. ‘Born again’ restaurants – thanks to chefs like Gordon Ramsay.
- ‘Born again’ New Agers – involving ‘birthing pools’ and ‘divinisation’.
- ‘Born again’ lifestyles – via New Year resolutions, the Atkins diet, and ‘Quit Smoking’ campaigns.
We seem to be mixing categories here! Few of these lead to positive results. And most are not what Jesus actually had in mind. Even the concept of ‘born again’ Christians does not appeal to some. One American female journalist asked, “How is that so many people you meet who are ‘born again’ make you wish they had never been born in the first place?” Sad, but true. This is why Christ’s dialogue with Nicodemus in John chapter 3 is so important. It goes to the heart of what Jesus Christ came to do.
Introducing Nicodemus as 'Everyman'
Nicodemus was a prominent figure in the Jerusalem religious establishment. He was a Pharisee, an Old Testament scholar, and guardian of the Torah and its lifestyle from any contamination with paganism. He sat on the Jewish Supreme Court or Council – the Sanhedrin. He was a highly qualified trained theologian and serious thinker – ‘The Archbishop of Israel’. Apparently fair-minded and tolerant of new movements within Judaism, he refused to be dismissive or condemning without checking the facts first-hand. He was devout, spiritually-minded, polite, intelligent, and eager to discover the truth. Yet, Jesus told him he needed to be ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ (the Greek anothen can be translated both ways, whilst pointing clearly to God’s action alone).
We can infer some important things immediately about the ‘new birth’, taking our cue from John 1:1-12.
1. It’s not connected with a person’s social standing or status – The life Christ offers is not the ‘good life’ measured in terms of money, sex or power. Indeed, everybody who has made these things their main pursuit has ended up ‘burned out’ and disillusioned, often concluding that they’ve wasted their lives on trinkets and trivia. So Christ said, ‘You must be born again!’
2. It’s not a matter of adherence to one of the world’s major religions – Nicodemus was a Jew. Judaism has left an incalculably rich legacy upon western civilization – our courts, civil laws, literature, theology, commerce, and entertainment industries. The same is claimed, with less justification, for Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism etc. Each has helped some, but none offer what Christ declares to be essential for ALL, ‘You must be born again!’
3. It doesn’t depend on intellectual attainments or lack of them – Western philosophy speaks of ‘The Enlightenment’ and sets great store by rational thinking, scientific research, discovery, invention and solutions to common problems. But education alone cannot change the human heart or make us children of God, rightly related to Him. This entails a deeper, more radical, change than ‘switching horses’ philosophically. ‘You must be born again!’
4. It’s not a question of age, ethnicity, or gender – We tend to label or ‘box’ people in ascending categories. The elderly are more/less significant than the young, men are superior/inferior to women, and certain ethnic groups have a ‘manifest destiny’ to rule the ‘useless eaters’ or ‘sub-human’ species among the rest. But the Bible does not endorse class-ism, racism, sexism, or age-ism. Instead, it calls out to us all, ‘You must be born again!’
5. It is not mere external or ‘cosmetic’ change in your life – Your car, home, fashion tastes, or cell phone may be seen as a major ‘statement’ of your identity, but they tell us little about the real ‘you’. It’s not the clothes you wear, but the person who stands up in them that counts. Most of these acquisitions effect only temporary and superficial change in us. The greatest change of all is demanded in Christ’s words, ‘You must be born again!’
6. It’s not connected with natural breeding or descent - some people are ‘a breed apart’ due to wealth, schooling, accent or manners, tracing a ‘blue blooded’ ancestry many hundreds of years long, with a family crest to prove it. But Christ’s words level us all, insisting upon one vital distinguishing factor – ‘You must be born again!’
7. It’s not a matter of church attendance or denominational distinctives – Nicodemus was a regular worshipper, Psalm-singer, Bible reader and liturgical practitioner for all of his life. But he was not born again. You may be an Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or member of a South Carolina ‘Snake Handling’ sect! But having your name on a church role or attending services regularly does not automatically convey the change Christ envisaged here - ‘You must be born again!’
Why must we be born again?
Nicodemus illustrates the answer in many ways. It’s not sufficient to be a ‘secret admirer’ of Jesus, and respectful of his authority and power, which is often lacking even in theologians like Nicodemus. Our problem is not a few deficiencies in our education, dysfunctional emotions, arrested personal development or bad social conditioning. Christ asserts that none of us are ‘normal’ in the divine estimate. We’re not quite human now. It is a potato problem not a lettuce problem! A lettuce goes bad from the outside in. A potato goes bad from the inside out. So a radical solution is required to make us fully human again. We need new birth from the inside out, an ‘inside’ solution. The symptoms are plain.
1. Nicodemus was a man ‘in the dark’ - He came to Jesus ‘at night’, a graphic picture of his spiritual and mental condition too. This was an act of self-protection in fear for his reputation, more afraid of peer opinion than what God might think of him. He was ‘the’ teacher or top theologian of Israel, and had a lot to lose. He ‘loved the darkness’, as we all once did (v.20-21).
2. He flattered Jesus but failed to truly honour him – ‘Rabbi’ was a term of respect for a theological teacher, but it’s inadequate as a description of Jesus’ person, total worth, divine status and mission. Jesus cannot simply be categorised among the world’s greatest teachers. He is peerless. He was God walking among men in sublime theanthropic union with our humanity – the God-Man. He deserves total submission, worship, and whole-life obedience, not misdirected flattery.
3. He had not yet understood that his human lineage back to Adam had transmitted total depravity to him – The effects of sin are all-pervasive, affecting us in our entirety. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. Sin affects our minds, emotions, will, body, soul and spirit. It is an all-pervasive terminal illness. We’re carriers of strong and lawless lusts, amid treacherous rebellion against God. We hate God, ‘use’ people, lack self-control, lie through our teeth, abuse our bodies, and pollute God’s creation. We must be ‘born again’.
4. He lacked spiritual understanding to grasp the truth – Don’t we all? He met Jesus words with crass comments, and bemused questions. Nicodemus claims sight, but Christ highlights his blindness and lack of understanding (v.10). He thinks his first birth was all important (a Jew, a family man, a Pharisee etc.), but it wasn’t. He saw himself as a Law-keeper, but in fact he was a Law-breaker - just like the rest of us! He was a Jew, with many privileges, but not yet in God’s Kingdom! And so he had to go back to the beginning and start over. But he thought of the new birth in terms of a natural ‘birthing experience’ like re-entering his mother’s womb. Knowing this was physically impossible, he concluded ‘I’m too old to start again!’, as if Jesus referred merely to making some kind of ‘fresh start’ in life, like we offer to ex-offenders, alcoholics, slum dwellers and those who return to night school to ‘try again’. All very well in their place, but Jesus refers to being born ‘out of water and Spirit’, not our mother’s tummy! Our ‘sink estates’ tell us that we can take a man out of the slums but we can’t take the slums out of the man. Christ can!
What is it to be born again?
The one thing needed to change the world – is changed men and women! A caterpillar climbs a tree and throws a robe around itself of woven silk until it’s fully hidden. Weeks later a beautiful butterfly emerges. Metamorphosis! If only we could wrap ourselves in silk pyjamas and wake up a new person! We can’t, but God can. The early church theologian, Irenaeus (d. circa 202 AD), once declared that ‘The glory of God is a man or woman fully alive!’ This is profoundly true. New birth is the miracle of new creation within our innermost being, so that we become fully alive spiritually again, literally a ‘new creation’ (Rom.8:29-30; II Cor. 5:17; II Pet. 1:4). It involves both a crisis and a process leading to metamorphosis. Without the crisis there can be no process. The crisis involves the miraculous action of God in connection with the preaching of the Word of God. This is necessary because we are ‘dead’ in sin, ‘deaf’ to God’s voice, depraved in heart due to diabolical deception, which made us idolaters in orientation and incapable of seeking God without his aid (Eph. 2:1-3, Rom. 1:18-23; 3:9-18). The undoing of this is a creative miracle (Eph. 2:4-10; Rom. 6:1-4), so God can ‘draw’ us to Christ (Jn. 6:44, 65).
The Holy Spirit illuminates the mind, re-orientates the heart, and persuades the will, enabling us to answer that call. He ensures that a special operative grace occurs in, with, and under the evangelistic message we read or hear. This is an effectual call, occurring within the general call of God to all people indiscriminately under the sound of gospel proclamation, whatever the medium that takes. The grace of regeneration occurs as a re-birth of our dead spirit, so we can respond to the saving call of God (Jn.3:5). This entails a sequence of life-changing effects or outcomes within the recipient of the call.
We can outline this conception and process in stages, analogous in some ways to our natural conception and birth, but of a different order altogether. Regeneration is both a creative miracle and a supernatural process. It is a momentary creative act, then a developing process. The former is instantaneous, the latter occurs in identifiable stages that we might call ‘The normal Christian birth’. The Apostle Peter called for these in heralding and promising salvation to his enemies in Acts 2:38-41. He called them to (1) Repent (2) Believe (3) Be baptized in water (4) Receive the Spirit and (5) Be added to the church – an example of a Biblical ordo salutis (steps of salvation). This is the ‘normal birthing process’ for a newly regenerate child of God, which is continuous and progressive. It is often vandalised or criminally neglected, and each ingredient has been the subject of much debate. Some churches major on only one or two of these ingredients.
Liberal churches emphasise repentance, a change in thinking, issuing in good works. Evangelicals major on faith or right beliefs. Sacramental churches value highly water Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Pentecostals and Charismatics champion ‘Baptism in the Spirit’, and Catholic and Orthodox traditions insist on membership of their own communion. God wants us to experience all of these foundational experiences. They have sometimes been labelled ‘The Peter Package’, and involve a birthing process that fully initiates a new convert into authentic Christian life, minimising the danger of short-changing seekers with one or two of these experiences alone (Acts 2:38-41). God is powerfully at work at each stage, supernaturally effecting radical change in the converts mind, heart, will, soul, spirit and body.
We see this in echoed substantially elsewhere in Hebrews 6:1-3, where five statements are made covering more or less the same ground
- Repentance from acts that lead to death
- Faith in God
- Instruction about ‘baptisms’, i.e. in water and the Spirit
- The ‘laying on of hands’ to receive the Spirit
- Resurrection and Judgement so that you are assured of your safety in God’s sight and have a guaranteed future along with all the people of God.
Conception, Gestation and Birth
It might be helpful to inquire about what the Holy Spirit actually accomplishes in the conversion process outlined above in a little more detail, as he initiates and launches radical new birth.
1. ELECTION: God sovereignly and secretly chooses to conceive another spiritual child. This is his initiative, not ours. The Bible speaks of God’s election or choice as antecedent to our very existence (Eph. 1:4-6, 11-12). God determines our destiny before we are born. A review of Romans 9:10-18, where Paul discusses this matter of election and predestination, as illustrated from the story of the unborn twins Jacob and Esau, indicates that God’s choice has nothing to do with our achievements, age, status, good or bad deeds, personal choice, desires, faith or the lack of it, or even our subsequent personal response to God’s grace. It is rooted entirely in God’s sovereign will for reasons God has chosen not to disclose, other than his secret purpose and special electing love for us (Rom. 9:25). It’s due to God’s grace (Eph. 2:8-9).
2. CONCEPTION: The ‘fertilization’ or coming together of ‘sperm’ and ‘ovum’ (Jn. 3:4-6). The seed is the Word of God; the ovum is the human heart. Christ speaks directly through the preaching of his Word to the individual. God’s word is powerful (I Pet. 1:23-25), in that new spiritual chromosomes, packed with information and spiritual DNA, are imparted to make a brand new you! The Holy Spirit acts on this gospel truth to re-create us in a single moment of time – it’s not a result of human feelings, emotions, or volition (Jn. 1:13) – even enabling our response to that word by imparting faith to us as we become ‘good soil’ that receives, not resists, this word. God does the rest.
3. GESTATION: The Spirit unfolds a hidden supernatural impartation of new life into every part of our being, God working from the inside out (Jn. 3:6-8). This is what it means to be ‘born out of Spirit’. God’s Holy Spirit assaults our deadened and dying humanity, decaying in sin, and re-creates us in the likeness of Jesus Christ. Taking what’s old, he renews it, and performs a miracle of transformation that no ‘cosmetic’ changes can effect (Titus 3:3-6; Jas. 1:18). The result is that you change! You are changed! The Puritan Stephen Charnock says, “Regeneration is a universal change of the whole man…it is as large in renewing as sin was in defacing.” And Thomas Boston compares it to the skills of a doctor “Man is, in respect of his spiritual state, altogether disjointed by the fall; every faculty of the soul is, as it were, dislocated. In regeneration the Lord loosens every joint, and sets it right again.” As a result, you start to love the things you once hated, and to hate the things you once loved. Like the wind, we cannot predict this or know all of the directional changes occurring, let alone control it, but we know when the wind hits us and feel its effects upon us (Jn.3:8)!
4. SEPARATION: Entailing abandonment of the ‘old’ in repentance from ‘dead works’ (Heb. 6:6). In natural birth the womb is abandoned, the umbilical chord severed. Repentance is like this. Regeneration by the Spirit precedes repentance and faith. Biblically, no one ever repents or believes without the Spirit’s power enabling them to turn to God and trust the Savour (Jn.3:5; Acts 16:14). This is a sovereign work of God, for ‘the wind blows where it wills’ (Jn.3:8). Spiritually, repentance issues in a renewed mind and renounced sins - narcotics, fornication, thieving, idolatry, lying, slander etc. – which are dealt with very specifically, resulting in a complete life change over time (I Cor. 6:9-11). Even our ‘righteous’ and ‘religious’ deeds are considered ‘dead works’ here, because they were the product of our fallen ‘flesh’ not the Spirit, and done for our glory not God’s. We repent of the very idea that we were ever ‘good’ at all or could please God, realizing that this was a ‘dead-end’ that could ruin us eternally if pursued any further.
4. ILLUMINATION: We come out of darkness and into the light. The Holy Spirit now engineers a response of faith. He explains truth to us and then persuades us it is true. No one comes to faith without preaching (Rom. 10:14-15). We thus emerge from the womb of God’s secret work in our lives, to a state of full-blown faith in Jesus Christ. Two emphases are uppermost in His work:
(1) This illumination is primarily connected with the Cross of Christ (Jn. 3:13-14) - where we discover that everything necessary has already been done for us. We now cease trying to earn merit with God and transfer our trust to Christ and his finished work on the cross. This is the essence of saving faith. John 3:16 describes God’s love. Here God is said to have ‘so loved the world’ – a term that shows not so much how ‘big’ the world is, but how ‘bad’ the world was! It is a sinful world. At the cross, our sin and liabilities were reckoned as Christ’s, and paid for in full, including our death. Now, his righteousness can replace our crookedness. A ‘divine exchange’ took place (Jn. 3:16-18; 2 Cor. 5:21).
Christ our substitute or ‘stand in’ became obligated to pay debts he did not owe, for people who could not pay. Consequently, Christ had no sin but ours, and we have no righteousness but his. We stop looking in here within ourselves for merit with God, and start looking out there to Christ and his cross (Jn. 3:14-16). Hence, Christ’s allusion to the ‘snake on the stake’ (Jn. 3:14; Numb. 21:4-9). The Israelites received healing from deadly snake-bites by looking at a model bronze serpent hoisted on a gallows. A mere glance would bring healing to the sufferer. So with Christ. We have to believe in Him, not just about Him, if we are to be made whole again and not perish.
(2) Illumination entails recognition of the true person of Christ – Not just a ‘good teacher’, but the unique Son of God and King of the Universe, the Co-creator of everything including ourselves, and the only Saviour God has authorized for mankind, the one who deserves our total trust and allegiance as well as our submission and obedience to him as Lord (v.16-17). This is ‘saving faith’, and it is part of the ‘birthing work’ of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift to believe, and links me to Christ so that all that I am responds to all that He is in such a way that I become justified from sin, assured of God’s favour in Christ.
5. DYNAMIFICATION: An experiential encounter with the Holy Spirit of God. This follows regeneration by the Spirit, in a new ‘separation’ and ‘electrification’ by the Spirit. We change kingdoms and the power is turned on. To be born ‘out of water and Spirit’ (wind and water!) is connected with God’s washing and empowering of our new life with God. The washing is signified by a public act of baptism in water. In the NT, every record of a water baptism follows faith without exception, it does not precede it. This is why we call it believers baptism. We wash newborn infants to remove ‘gubbins’ like mother’s blood and amniotic fluids as it leaves the darkness of the womb for the world outside. We also smack its bottom to enable it to breathe air for itself now the umbilical cord is cut. Baptism in water and in the Holy Spirit, are the spiritual counterparts to this. We are ‘washed’ and we’re meant to know that it has happened, not ‘take it by faith’ that we were (Acts 2:38-41). This is our ‘border crossing’ whereby we transfer kingdoms and supreme loyalty to take up new citizenship in Christ, on entering his kingdom. The first thing he asks of us is to ‘Be baptised…’ (Matt. 28:19, Mk. 16:15-16; Acts 2:38) The first privilege he offers us is to be filled with his Spirit to access his gifts. Immigrants leave the old to share in the new. They leave, they join. We do so as we ‘go public’ in baptism, bold in our new faith in Christ. We ‘bury’ the old life, and are ‘raised’ to a new one, i.e. ‘born of water and of the Spirit’. We simply cannot remain secret disciples anymore!
Hopefully, all of this occurs as soon as possible after believing! We don our new uniform, and take up our spiritual weaponry to become full soldiers of Jesus Christ in his conquering army. The Holy Spirit is God inside us, the personal energy of God from another world, who now comes upon us and fills our whole rescued humanity to energize it and enable us to do new things we never could before (e.g. Matt. 5-7; Acts 2:42-47; I Corinthians 12-14)!
6. PARTICIPATION: The new convert now baptized in water and Spirit, enters the Body of Christ. We don’t leave newborn infants in a hospital corridor lying on a trolley. Instead, we send them home to be with parents and siblings, because that’s best for them! The experiences of regeneration, repentance and faith in Christ is in order to emerge ‘out of water and out of Spirit’, then engage actively as vital member of the Church in the Body of Christ. We’ve already met Jesus. He then he introduced us to God as our Father. They both enable us to have an encounter with the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, and it’s now time to meet some of God’s bigger family! Experiencing meaningful love, service and unity with his people, the Church, is also essential.
This is what the Bible means by new birth. No one remains the same after it. It’s the gateway to a new order of fully human existence again, that is the core promise and demand of the Gospel - ‘You must be born again’. This is quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything we’ve had so far from our first birth. It means you can really start to live at last, and this will go on for ever. Life really can begin again!