Ransomed, Raised, and Called
How Does God Regenerate Us?
Chapter 6 of Finally Alive by John Piper (excerpt)
One of the unsettling things about the new birth, which Jesus says we all must experience in order to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3), is that we don’t control it. We don’t decide to make it happen any more than a baby decides to make his birth happen—or, more accurately, make his conception happen. Or even more accurately: We don’t decide to make it happen any more than dead men decide to give themselves life. The reason we need to be born again is that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. That’s why we need the new birth, and that’s why we can’t make it happen. This is one reason why we speak of the sovereign grace of God. Or better: This is one reason why we love the sovereign grace of God.
Our condition before the new birth is that we treasure sin and self-exaltation so much that that we cannot treasure Christ supremely. In other words, we are so rebellious at the root of our fallen human nature that we can’t find it in ourselves to humbly see and savor Jesus Christ above all things. And we are guilty for this. This is real evil in us. We are blameworthy for this spiritual hardness and deadness. Our consciences do not excuse us when we are so resistant to Christ we can’t see him as supremely attractive.
Fire and Heat Inseparable
Something has to happen to us. Jesus said we must be born again (John 3:3). The Holy Spirit has to work a miracle in our hearts and give us new spiritual life. We were dead, and we need to be made alive. We need ears that can hear truth as supremely desirable, and we need eyes than see Christ and his way of salvation as supremely beautiful. We need hearts that are soft and receptive to the word of God. In short, we need new life. We need to be born again.
The way this happens, as we have seen so far, is that the Spirit of God supernaturally gives us new spiritual life by connecting us with Jesus Christ through faith. The new spiritual life that we receive in the new birth is not separate from union with Jesus, and it is not separate from faith. When God in the riches of his mercy and the greatness of his love and the sovereignty of his grace chooses to regenerate us, he gives us new life by uniting us to Christ. “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 John 5:11). Our first experience of this is the faith in Jesus that this life brings. There is no separation of time here. When we are born gain, we believe. And when we believe, we know we have been born again. When there is fire, there is heat. When there is new birth, there is faith.
Now the Question How?
We have focused so far on two questions: What is the new birth? and Why do we need to be born again? Now we are turning to the third question: How are we born again? or What is the way we are born again? Here I am asking the question from God’s side and from our side. What is the way God does it? And what is the way we do it? How does God regenerate us? How do we take part in it?
You might think I would say that we don’t take part in it, because we are spiritually dead. But the dead do take part in their resurrection. Here is an example of what I mean. When Jesus stood before the grave of Lazarus who had been dead for four days, Lazarus had no part in imparting his new life. He was dead. Jesus, not Lazarus, created the new life.
In John 11:43, Jesus says to the dead Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out.” And the next verse says, “The man who had died came out.” So Lazarus takes part in this resurrection. He comes out. Christ causes it. Lazarus does it. Christ brings about the resurrection. Lazarus acts out the resurrection. The instant Christ commands Lazarus to rise, Lazarus does the rising. The instant God gives new life, we do the living. The instant the Spirit produces faith, we do the believing.
So that’s why I am asking two questions, and not just one question, when I ask How are we born again? I am asking: What does God do in our new birth? How are we born again from God’s side? And I am asking: What do we do in our new birth? How are we born again from our side? It is the first question that we will be addressing in this chapter. How are we born again from God’s side? What is the way God regenerates us?
How Does God Regenerate Us?
The answer is given in at least three ways in 1 Peter 1:3–25:
Imperishability Unites All Three
Before we look at these in more detail, notice first what makes these three events hang together as God’s way of causing the new birth. In all three of these works of God, there is a reference to imperishability. Verses 3–4:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable.
So the point is that by the new birth, God means for us to have not just new life but eternal life. Verse 3: We are “born again to a living hope.” So the emphasis falls on the hope of our new life. It lives—and will not die. It inherits an imperishable inheritance. That’s the emphasis. Our new life in the new birth is forever. We will never die.
Then, notice the same emphasis in verses 18–19:
. . . knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
The blood of Christ (verse 19) is the ransom price paid for our life, and this blood is contrasted with the less valuable silver and gold that might have been paid. And the reason silver and gold are less valuable is that they are “perishable.” Verse 18: “not with perishable things such as silver or gold.”
So again the point is that the new life that Jesus ransoms with his blood is not in danger of going back into captivity because the price he pays for our new life (our new birth) is not perishable. The blood of Christ is of infinite value, and therefore, its value never runs out. It is an imperishable value. That is how we are ransomed. That’s the price of the new life we receive in the new birth. And Jesus paid it for us.
Then, thirdly, notice the same emphasis on imperishability in verse 23: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” Then, Peter quotes Isaiah 40:6–8 in verses 24–25: “For ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” So the point is the same as with the resurrection in verse 3 and the ransom in verse 18: The seed of God’s word is imperishable, and therefore, the life that it generates and sustains is imperishable.
So now we have a summary overview of Peter’s emphasis in the new birth. The emphasis is that we are born again unto a living hope. In other words, the life God creates in the new birth is eternal life, imperishable life. The new nature that comes into being in the new birth cannot die. It lasts forever. That is what Peter is emphasizing about the new birth. What comes into being in the new birth will never die. I think Peter is emphasizing this because the overarching context of his letter is suffering. Don’t be daunted by your suffering. Even if they take your physical life, they cannot take the life you have by the new birth. That is imperishable.
Ransomed, Raised, Called
Now let’s look at these three works of God once more—only this time to see how each of them is a way of bringing about the new birth. Let’s take these one at a time and put them in the order that they actually happened: 1) God ransomed us by the blood of Jesus; 2) God raised Jesus from the dead; 3) God called us into life through his living and abiding word.
Verses 18–19: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” The point here, in regard to the new birth, is that new eternal life is not possible for enslaved sinners without a ransom being paid. This text implies that we were all in bondage or captivity to ways of thinking and feeling and acting that would have destroyed us. We were under the wrath of God who had handed us over to these futile ways (Rom. 1:21, 24, 26, 28). Slavery to these sinful ways would destroy us if we could not be ransomed from this slavery. God paid this ransom price by sending Christ to bear his own wrath (Rom. 8:3; Gal. 3:13).
This is the rock-solid historical foundation that makes our new birth possible. As a basis for God to unite us to Christ and create faith and give us new life, there had to be some objective, historical events in the life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus said in Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is why the historical event of the incarnation happened.
The Son of Man came “to give his life a ransom for many.” This had to happen as the basis of the free and gracious gift of the new birth for undeserving sinners like us. And since the new birth is the gift of eternal life, not just new life, the ransom price had to be imperishable—not like silver or gold. The blood of Christ is infinitely valuable and, therefore, can never lose its ransoming power. The life it obtains lasts forever. So the way God brings about the new birth is by paying a ransom for the eternal life it imparts.
The second objective historical event that had to happen for us to be born again with eternal life was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. 1 Peter 1:3–4:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.
“Born again . . . through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” So the second way that God brings about the new birth is by raising Jesus from the dead.
The new birth is something that happens in us when the Holy Spirit takes our dead hearts and unites us to Christ by faith so that his life becomes our life. So it makes sense that Jesus must be raised from the dead if we are to have new life in union with him. New birth happens, as we saw in Chapter 5, in union with the incarnate Christ, not simply the eternal Son of God before his incarnation. The new life we get in the new birth is the life of the historical Jesus. Therefore, if he does not rise from the dead, there is no new life to have. So the second way God brings about the new birth is to raise Jesus from the dead.
The third way God causes us to be born again is that he calls us. First Peter 1:14–15: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” Peter is telling us to live differently now because of something that happened to us in the past. Verse 15: “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” This act of calling is the way God causes us to be born again. He ransoms us with the blood of Christ. He raises Christ from the dead. And he calls us to life in union with Christ.
To understand what happened to us when God called us this way, it helps to distinguish it from the general calling that goes out to everyone when the gospel is preached. Consider verses 23–25: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” Notice: The new birth happens through the word of God. Verse 25 says that this word of God “is the good news that was preached to you.”
However, the gospel is preached to all people, yet not all are born again. That’s why we talk about a general call of God through the gospel. The general call—the preached word of God, the gospel—enters the ears of all the hearers who are spiritually dead. But not all live. Why do some live and have faith? Why do some of the blind see, and some of the deaf hear?
The Call Creates What It Commands
The answer is stated in many different ways in the New Testament. One is here in verse 23: Some are “born again . . . of incorruptible seed through the . . . gospel.” The gospel is preached to all, and the divine seed is implanted in some. That’s one way to say it. Another is to say that some are called. And this calling is not the same as the general call that all receive externally in the preaching of the gospel. Rather, it’s the internal effective call of God’s triumphant word of creation. It’s the call of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. He says to a dead man: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). And the call creates what it commands.
That’s the difference between the external, general call that all hear when the gospel is preached and the internal, effective call. The internal call is God’s sovereign creative, unstoppable voice. It creates what it commands. God speaks not just to the ear and the mind, but he speaks to the heart. His internal heart-call opens the eyes of the blind heart, and opens the ears of the deaf heart, and causes Christ to appear as the supremely valuable person that he really is. So the heart freely and eagerly embraces Christ as the Treasure that he is. That’s what God does when he calls us through the gospel (see 1 Peter 2:9; 5:10).
Perhaps the clearest text of all about the unique power of God’s internal, effective call is 1 Corinthians 1:22–24: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” All hear the gospel—Jews and Greeks. But some Jews and some Greeks experience something in the gospel: They stop seeing Christ as a stumbling block and as foolishness. Instead, they now see him as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” What happened? “To those who are called . . . he is Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The sovereign, creative call of God opened their eyes, and they saw Christ for the power and the wisdom that he is.
That is the third way that God causes us to be born again. 1) He ransomed us from sin and wrath by the blood of Christ and paid the debt for sinners to have eternal life. 2) He raised Jesus from the dead so that union with Jesus gives eternal life that never fades away. 3) And He called us from darkness to light and from death to life through the gospel and gave us eyes to see and hears to hear. He made the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ shine in our hearts through the gospel. And we believed. We embraced Christ for the Treasure that he is.
All Things for Good
O that every believer would know the glory of what has happened to you! Do you know what God has done for you and in you? You were ransomed with the imperishable blood of Christ. You were raised with Christ from the dead to an eternally living hope. You were called from death to life like Lazarus, and you saw Christ for the Treasure that he is. You were born again. You received him and were saved.
Perhaps the next time you apply Romans 8:28 to a hardship in your life it will have new power because of what we have seen: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” If you are called—if you are born again—all things work for your good. All things. And if you are not yet born again, hear the call! Hear God’s call in this gospel of Christ and believe. If you receive Christ for who he is, you will be saved from the wrath of God and he will work everything for your everlasting good.
Excerpts from chapter 6 of Finally Alive by John Piper