by Bill Ascol
The Bible doctrine of regeneration has suffered at the hands of its enemies as well as its friends. Its enemies marketed the doctrine in the 1970’s after a Southern Baptist layman who was running for the office of President of the United States announced that he was a “born again Christian.” Not long after this, many products on the market were described as “born again.” Love songs spoke of feelings which were akin to “being born again.” Actors and athletes alike were considered to be “born again” in their respective careers when they made a comeback of one type or another. More tragic than that, perhaps, is the treatment that the Bible doctrine of regeneration has received at the hands of its professed “friends.” In many Christian circles today experiencing “regeneration” (or “being born again”) is simply something that happens when a person “makes a decision to accept Jesus Christ into his heart as personal Savior.” Now it is certainly true that Jesus is the Savior, and that he saves sinners on a personal level. However, the idea that the experience of regeneration is a decision which every sinner ought to make and indeed every sinner can make is an idea which is seriously defective. The defects in this idea become increasingly clear when viewed from the vantage points of Biblical material, historic Baptist teachings, and the contemporary Southern Baptist position on this doctrine. Regeneration may be defined as that supernatural work of the Holy Spirit of God which is performed in the life of a sinner whereby the sinner is given a new heart, being brought from spiritual death to spiritual life, and is made able and willing to repent of his sin before God and trust alone in Jesus Christ to be his Lord and Savior.
The Bible and Regeneration
There are many texts of Scripture which teach us about this work of the Holy Spirit. Two particular Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were led by the Holy Spirit to communicate the doctrine of regeneration in terms of what God will do. One such reference is found in Ezek. 36:26-27: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” From these verses (and others like them–see Jer. 31:31-34, and Ezek. 11:19) it is easy to see that the force of the work of regeneration is bound up with God’s initiating activity. It is also evident that the stony-hearted sinner will do nothing until God gives him a heart of flesh.
It should not surprise us that the New Testament writers are of one mind in their agreement with the language of the Old Testament writers concerning this matter of the new birth. For John, the only explanation for the fact that any “received Jesus” was that they were “born . . . of God” (see John 1:12-13). In fact, John categorically denies the possibility of a person being born again by virtue of a human decision when he states that these believing ones “were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” It is John who records for us the teachings of Jesus on the subject when he instructs Nicodemus that the new birth is mysterious much like the movement of the wind, and that, furthermore, it is a supernatural work so that we must be “born of the Spirit.” (see John 3:1-8).
Paul reminds the Ephesian believers that it was while they were still dead in their trespasses and sins that they were quickened to life by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the new birth (Eph. 2:1-5). James asserts that our new birth experience must be traced back to the will of God (James 1:18). Peter exults that the new birth did not come to pass by the agency of anything corruptible, but by that which is incorruptible (1 Pet. 1:23-25).
It should be clear from this brief overview that the key Old and New Testament passages on the subject of regeneration do not teach that it is the decision made by a person to accept Jesus as personal Savior. The Biblical language forces the serious and honest student of Scripture to consider regeneration as a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a sinner producing a change of heart that is the equivalent of being brought from spiritual death to spiritual life. Repentance and faith are evidences that this spiritual life has been planted in the soul of the individual. Some of this may happen in a manner that is beyond our comprehension, but those things which are comprehensible cannot be denied.
Historic Baptists and Regeneration
There is much talk today by people from all corners of the Southern Baptist denomination calling for the need “to return to our historic Southern Baptist heritage.” That is a wonderful desire and a prospect much to be longed for. In order to do this, however, one must go back before 1925 (the year the Cooperative Program was initiated). Indeed, one must go back before 1845 (the year the Southern Baptist Convention was established). One must go back at least to the first Baptist association in the South in order to understand and appreciate what actually is the “historic Baptist position” regarding the doctrine of regeneration. The Charleston Baptist Association in South Carolina was organized in October of 1751. This body of Baptists in the South adopted for its confession of faith The London Baptist Confession of 1689. Later, in 1813, the association commissioned the printing of a book which came to be known as The Charleston Manual, consisting of The London Baptist Confession of 1689, A Summary of Church Discipline, and The Baptist Catechism. This association was the womb out of which the Southern Baptist Convention was born. Turning to their catechism we find the following instruction on the doctrine of regeneration (or, effectual calling, as they spoke of it):
Q. 32. How are we made partakers of the redemption obtained by Christ?
A. We are made partakers of the redemption obtained by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us [o], by His Holy Spirit [p].
o. Galatians 4:5
p. Titus 3:5-6
Q. 33. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption obtained by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption obtained by Christ, by working faith in us [q], and thereby uniting us to Christ [r], in our effectual calling [s].
q. Ephesians 2:8
r. Ephesians 3:17
s. I Corinthians 1:9
Q. 34. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit [t], whereby convincing us of our sin [u] and misery [w], enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ [x], and renewing our wills [y], he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, revealed as the free gift of God to us, in the gospel [z].
t. II Timothy 1:9
u. John 16:8
w. Acts 2:37
x. Acts 26:18
y. Ezekiel 36:26
z. John 6:44-45
These brethren were followed by a great host of Southern Baptist statesmen who agreed wholeheartedly with the above statements concerning the nature of the new birth. A few excerpts will have to suffice.
James P. Boyce (first president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky): “It is not strange, therefore, that they [i.e. regeneration and conversion] are often confounded. Yet, after all, the Scriptures also teach that regeneration is the work of God, changing the heart of man by his sovereign will, while conversion is that act of man turning towards God with the new inclination thus given to his heart” (Abstract of Systematic Theology, p. 374).
John A. Broadus (distinguished professor of New Testament and successor to Boyce at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): “1. Q. What is meant by the word regeneration? A. Regeneration is God’s causing a person to be born again. 9. Q. Does faith come before the new birth? A. No, it is the new heart that truly repents and believes” (taken from Broadus’ A Catechism of Bible Teaching, reprinted in A Baptist Treasury, pp. 67-68).
John L. Dagg (first writing Southern Baptist theologian; president of Mercer University in Georgia): “In our natural state we are totally depraved. No inclination to holiness exists in the carnal heart; and no holy act can be performed, or service to God rendered, until the heart is changed. This change, it is the office of the Holy Spirit to effect. . . . But, in his own time and manner, God, the Holy Spirit, makes the word effectual in producing a new affection in the soul: and, when the first movement of love to God exists, the first throb of spiritual life commences” (A Manual of Theology, pp. 277, 279).
B. H. Carroll (founder and first president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas): “The true scriptural position [concerning regeneration] is this: There is, first of all, a direct influence of the Holy Spirit on the passive spirit of the sinner, quickening him or making him sensitive to the preaching of the Word. In this the sinner is passive. But he is not a subject of the new birth without contrition, repentance and faith. In exercising these he is active. Yet even his contrition is but a response to the Spirit’s conviction, and the exercise of his repentance is but a response to the Spirit’s conviction, and the exercise of his repentance and faith are but responses to the antecedent spiritual graces of repentance and faith.” Carroll goes on to state that “repentance and faith are fruits of regeneration” (An Interpretation of the English Bible, Volume 4, p. 287).
J. B. Tidwell (professor of Bible at Baylor University in Waco, Texas): “Regeneration is a change of the soul’s affections from self to God–an act of God by which the governing disposition of the soul which was formerly sinful becomes holy, 2 Cor. 2:17–this making us new creatures.” (Christian Teachings, p. 54)
W. T. Conner (professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary): “This change [i.e., regeneration] is one that is wrought in the moral nature of man by the Spirit of God. Nothing but divine power could produce the change. . . . God’s power works this change. . . . The man who experiences regeneration knows as well as he knows daylight from darkness that he himself did not work the change.” (The Gospel of Redemption, p. 189)
Many more could be added to this sampling of Southern Baptist worthies who have taught in times past on this subject with Biblical faithfulness and crystal clarity. Though dead, truly they yet speak.
Contemporary Baptist Statements
One might be led to believe that the excerpts cited above reflect the beliefs held only by Baptists of days gone by, and that beliefs such as these went into their tombs with them. Such is not the case, however. In Southern Baptist life today two documents hold a high place of prominence: The Abstract of Principles and The Baptist Faith and Message. The Abstract serves today as the guiding doctrinal statement at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Every professor who teaches at these institutions must sign with a clear conscience The Abstract of Principles, agreeing to teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, its doctrinal precepts. As recently as October 4, 1984, the entire faculty of Southern Seminary unanimously reaffirmed The Abstract. Among other wonderful Biblical truths, The Abstract teaches the following on regeneration:
“Regeneration is a change of heart, wrought by the Holy Spirit, who quickeneth the dead in trespasses and sins enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the Word of God, and renewing their whole nature, so that they love God and practice holiness. It is a work of God’s free and special grace alone.”
The Baptist Faith and Message is a statement of faith adapted from the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. The Baptist Faith and Message has been vigorously reaffirmed by messengers to recent meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention, and presently serves as the confession of faith of very many local churches in the Southern Baptist denomination. In addition to this, it is the guiding document concerning doctrinal matters (subservient to the Bible, of course) for several Southern Baptist institutions and agencies. The article on regeneration reads as follows:
“Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The truth concerning the Bible doctrine of regeneration is the same today as it was when God the Holy Spirit taught it to the inspired writers of Holy Scriptures, and as it was understood by our Baptist forefathers who labored to the glory of God in the name of Jesus Christ within the confines of the Southern Baptist denomination. But then, that should not surprise us, because truth does not change. If the rank and file of Southern Baptists today do not embrace and impart the Bible doctrine of regeneration as set forth in this brief survey, then it must be either that they have not been taught or that they refuse to be taught.
Those who have not been taught need to be instructed. We must do all we can to teach this glorious truth to them for two reasons: 1) Their spiritual well-being depends upon a right understanding of this truth. 2) The task of mission and evangelism cannot truly advance apart from a proper understanding of this truth. Those, however, who refuse to be instructed in this way need to be identified as having forsaken the biblical and historic Southern Baptist understanding of this essential doctrine. Whether in the pulpit, the class room, the agency administrative office, or the trustee board room, it must be acknowledged that there has been a violation of doctrinal integrity when men (and/or women) teach an aberration of this vital subject concerning the new birth.
May our gracious God give to us a recovery of the glorious doctrine of regeneration, and may He then be pleased to teach us many divine object lessons by magnifying his grace in the salvation of a multitude of poor sinners.