What does it mean to be born again?
by Wayne Grudem
EXPLANATION AND SCRIPTURAL BASIS
We may define regeneration as follows: Regeneration is a secret act of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to us. This is sometimes called “being born again” (using language from John 3:3–8).
A. Regeneration Is Totally a Work of God
In some of the elements of the application of redemption that we discuss in subsequent chapters, we play an active part (this is true, for example, of conversion, sanctification and perseverance). But in the work of regeneration we play no active role at all. It is instead totally a work of God. We see this, for example, when John talks about those to whom Christ gave power to become children of God—they “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Here John specifies that children of God are those who are “born...of God” and our human will (“the will of man”) does not bring about this kind of birth.
The fact that we are passive in regeneration is also evident when Scripture refers to it as being “born” or being “born again” (cf. James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:3; John 3:3–8). We did not choose to be made physically alive and we did not choose to be born—it is something that happened to us; similarly, these analogies in Scripture suggest that we are entirely passive in regeneration.
This sovereign work of God in regeneration was also predicted in the prophecy of Ezekiel. Through him God promised a time in the future when he would give new spiritual life to his people:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezek. 36:26–27)
Which member of the Trinity is the one who causes regeneration? When Jesus speaks of being “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8), he indicates that it is especially God the Holy Spirit who produces regeneration. But other verses also indicate the involvement of God the Father in regeneration: Paul specifies that it is God who “made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5; cf. Col. 2:13). And James says that it is the “Father of lights” who gave us new birth: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (James 1:17–18).1 Finally, Peter says that God “according to his abundant mercy has given us new birth... through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3, author’s translation). We can conclude that both God the Father and God the Holy Spirit bring about regeneration.
What is the connection between effective calling2and regeneration? As we will see later in this chapter, Scripture indicates that regeneration must come before we can respond to effective calling with saving faith. Therefore we can say that regeneration comes before the result of effective calling (our faith). But it is more difficult to specify the exact relationship in time between regeneration and the human proclamation of the gospel through which God works in effective calling. At least two passages suggest that God regenerates us at the same time as he speaks to us in effective calling: Peter says, “You have been born anew not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.... That word is the good news which was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23, 25). And James says, “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth” (James 1:18 NIV). As the gospel comes to us, God speaks through it to summon us to himself (effective calling) and to give us new spiritual life (regeneration) so that we are enabled to respond in faith. Effective calling is thus God the Father speaking powerfully to us and regeneration is God the Father and God the Holy Spirit working powerfully in us to make us alive. These two things must have happened simultaneously as Peter was preaching the gospel to the household of Cornelius, for while he was still preaching “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44).
Sometimes the term irresistible grace3is used in this connection. It refers to the fact that God effectively calls people and also gives them regeneration, and both actions guarantee that we will respond in saving faith. The term irresistible grace is subject to misunderstanding, however, since it seems to imply that people do not make a voluntary, willing choice in responding to the gospel—a wrong idea, and a wrong understanding of the term irresistible grace. The term does preserve something valuable, however, because it indicates that God’s work reaches into our hearts to bring about a response that is absolutely certain—even though we respond voluntarily.4
B. The Exact Nature of Regeneration Is Mysterious to Us
Exactly what happens in regeneration is mysterious to us. We know that somehow we who were spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1) have been made alive to God and in a very real sense we have been “born again” (John 3:3, 7; Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13). But we don’t understand how this happens or what exactly God does to us to give us this new spiritual life. Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Scripture views regeneration as something that affects us as whole persons. Of course, our “spirits are alive” to God after regeneration (Rom. 8:10), but that is simply because we as whole persons are affected by regeneration. It is not just that our spirits were dead before—we were dead to God in trespasses and sins (see Eph. 2:1). And it is not correct to say that the only thing that happens in regeneration is that our spirits are made alive (as some would teach),5 for every part of us is affected by regeneration: “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Because regeneration is a work of God within us in which he gives us new life it is right to conclude that it is an instantaneous event. It happens only once. At one moment we are spiritually dead, and then at the next moment we have new spiritual life from God. Nevertheless, we do not always know exactly when this instantaneous change occurs. Especially for children growing up in a Christian home, or for people who attend an evangelical church or Bible study over a period of time and grow gradually in their understanding of the gospel, there may not be a dramatic crisis with a radical change of behavior from “hardened sinner” to “holy saint,” but there will be an instantaneous change nonetheless, when God through the Holy Spirit, in an unseen, invisible way, awakens spiritual life within. The change will become evident over time in patterns of behavior and desires that are pleasing to God.
In other cases (in fact, probably most cases when adults become Christians) regeneration takes place at a clearly recognizable time at which the person realizes that previously he or she was separated from God and spiritually dead, but immediately afterward there was clearly new spiritual life within. The results can usually be seen at once—a heartfelt trusting in Christ for salvation, an assurance of sins forgiven, a desire to read the Bible and pray (and a sense that these are meaningful spiritual activities), a delight in worship, a desire for Christian fellowship, a sincere desire to be obedient to God’s Word in Scripture, and a desire to tell others about Christ. People may say something like this: “I don’t know exactly what happened, but before that moment I did not trust in Christ for salvation. I was still wondering and questioning in my mind. But after that moment I realized that I did trust in Christ and he was my Savior. Something happened in my heart.”6 Yet even in these cases we are not quite sure exactly what has happened in our hearts. It is just as Jesus said with respect to the wind—we hear its sound and we see the result, but we cannot actually see the wind itself. So it is with the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
C. In This Sense of “Regeneration,” It Comes Before Saving Faith
Using the verses quoted above, we have defined regeneration to be the act of God awakening spiritual life within us, bringing us from spiritual death to spiritual life. On this definition, it is natural to understand that regeneration comes before saving faith. It is in fact this work of God that gives us the spiritual ability to respond to God in faith. However, when we say that it comes “before” saving faith, it is important to remember that they usually come so close together that it will ordinarily seem to us that they are happening at the same time. As God addresses the effective call of the gospel to us, he regenerates us and we respond in faith and repentance to this call. So from our perspective it is hard to tell any difference in time, especially because regeneration is a spiritual work that we cannot perceive with our eyes or even understand with our minds.
Yet there are several passages that tell us that this secret, hidden work of God in our spirits does in fact come before we respond to God in saving faith (though often it may be only seconds before we respond). When talking about regeneration with Nicodemus, Jesus said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Now we enter the kingdom of God when we become Christians at conversion. But Jesus says that we have to be born “of the Spirit” before we can do that.7 Our inability to come to Christ on our own, without an initial work of God within us, is also emphasized when Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), and “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65). This inward act of regeneration is described beautifully when Luke says of Lydia, “The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). First the Lord opened her heart, then she was able to give heed to Paul’s preaching and to respond in faith.
By contrast, Paul tells us, “The man without the Spirit (literally, the “natural man”) does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 NIV). He also says of people apart from Christ, “no one understands, No one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11).
The solution to this spiritual deadness and inability to respond only comes when God gives us new life within. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4–5). Paul also says, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ” (Col. 2:13 NIV).8
The idea that regeneration comes before saving faith is not always understood by evangelicals today. Sometimes people will even say something like, “If you believe in Christ as your Savior, then (after you believe) you will be born again.” But Scripture itself never says anything like that. This new birth is viewed by Scripture as something that God does within us in order to enable us to believe.
The reason that evangelicals often think that regeneration comes after saving faith is that they see the results (love for God and his Word, and turning from sin) after people come to faith, and they think that regeneration must therefore have come after saving faith. Yet here we must decide on the basis of what Scripture tells us, because regeneration itself is not something we see or know about directly: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Because Christians often tend to focus on the results of regeneration, rather than the hidden spiritual act of God itself, some evangelical statements of faith have contained wording that suggests that regeneration comes after saving faith. So, for example, the statement of faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America (which has been adapted by a number of other evangelical organizations) says,
We believe that the true Church is composed of all such persons who through saving faith in Jesus Christ have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and are united together in the body of Christ of which He is the Head. (paragraph 8)
Here the word “regeneration” apparently means the outward evidence of regeneration that is seen in a changed life, evidence that certainly does come after saving faith. Thus “being born again” is thought of not in terms of the initial impartation of new life, but in terms of the total life change that results from that impartation. If the term “regeneration” is understood in this way, then it would be true that regeneration comes after saving faith.
Nevertheless, if we are to use language that closely conforms to the actual wording of Scripture, it would be better to restrict the word “regeneration” to the instantaneous, initial work of God in which he imparts spiritual life to us. Then we can emphasize that we do not see regeneration itself but only the results of it in our lives, and that faith in Christ for salvation is the first result that we see. In fact, we can never know that we have been regenerated until we come to faith in Christ, for that is the outward evidence of this hidden, inward work of God. Once we do come to saving faith in Christ, we know that we have been born again.
By way of application, we should realize that the explanation of the gospel message in Scripture does not take the form of a command, “Be born again and you will be saved,” but rather, “Believe in Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”9 This is the consistent pattern in the preaching of the gospel throughout the book of Acts, and also in the descriptions of the gospel given in the Epistles.
D. Genuine Regeneration Must Bring Results in Life
In an earlier section we saw a beautiful example of the first result of regeneration in a person’s life, when Paul spoke the gospel message to Lydia and “the Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14; cf. John 6:44, 65; 1 Peter 1:3). Similarly, John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1 John 5:1 NIV).10 But there are also other results of regeneration, many of which are specified in John’s first epistle. For example, John says, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9 NIV). Here John explains that a person who is born again has that spiritual “seed” (that life-generating and growing power) within him, and that this keeps the person living a life free of continual sin. This does not of course mean that the person will have a perfect life, but only that the pattern of life will not be one of continuing indulgence in sin. When people are asked to characterize a regenerated person’s life, the adjective that comes to mind should not be “sinner,” but rather something like “obedient to Christ” or “obedient to Scripture.” We should notice that John says this is true of everyone who is truly born again: “No one who is born of God will continue to sin.” Another way of looking at this is to say that “every one who does what is right has been born of him” (1 John 2:29).
A genuine, Christlike love will be one specific result in life: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7 NIV). Another effect of the new birth is overcoming the world: “And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God has overcome the world” (1 John 5:3–4 NIV). Here John explains that regeneration gives the ability to overcome the pressures and temptations of the world that would otherwise keep us from obeying God’s commandments and following his paths. John says that we will overcome these pressures and therefore it will not be “burdensome” to obey God’s commands but, he implies, it will rather be joyful. He goes on to explain that the process through which we gain victory over the world is continuing in faith: “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4 NIV).
Finally, John notes that another result of regeneration is protection from Satan himself: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God [that is, Jesus] keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him” (1 John 5:18 NIV). Though there may be attacks from Satan, John reassures his readers that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4 NIV), and this greater power of the Holy Spirit within us keeps us safe from ultimate spiritual harm by the evil one.
We should realize that John emphasizes these as necessary results in the lives of those who are born again. If there is genuine regeneration in a person’s life, he or she will believe that Jesus is the Christ, and will refrain from a life pattern of continual sin, and will love his brother, and will overcome the temptations of the world, and will be kept safe from ultimate harm by the evil one. These passages show that it is impossible for a person to be regenerated and not become truly converted.11
Other results of regeneration are listed by Paul where he speaks of the “fruit of the Spirit,” that is, the result in life that is produced by the power of the Holy Spirit working within every believer: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). If there is true regeneration then these elements of the fruit of the Spirit will be more and more evident in that person’s life. But by contrast, those who are unbelievers, including those who are pretending to be believers but are not, will clearly lack of these character traits in their lives. Jesus told his disciples:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15–20)
Neither Jesus nor Paul nor John point to activity in the church or miracles as evidence of regeneration. They rather point to character traits in life. In fact, immediately after the verses quoted above Jesus warns that on the day of judgment many will say to him, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” But he will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Matt. 7:22–23). Prophecy, exorcism, and many miracles and mighty works in Jesus’ name (to say nothing of other kinds of intensive church activity in the strength of the flesh over perhaps decades of a person’s life) do not provide convincing evidence that a person is truly born again. Apparently all these can be produced in the natural man or woman’s own strength, or even with the help of the evil one. But genuine love for God and his people, heartfelt obedience to his commands, and the Christlike character traits that Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit, demonstrated consistently over a period of time in a person’s life, simply cannot be produced by Satan or by the natural man or woman working in his or her own strength. These can only come about by the Spirit of God working within and giving us new life.
QUESTIONS FOR PERSONAL APPLICATION
1. Have you been born again? Is there evidence of the new birth in your life? Do you remember a specific time when regeneration occurred in your life? Can you describe how you knew that something had happened?
2. If you (or friends who come to you) are not sure whether you have been born again, what would Scripture encourage you to do in order to gain greater assurance (or to be truly born again for the first time)? (Note: further discussion of repentance and saving faith is given in the next chapter.)
3. Have you thought before that regeneration is prior to saving faith? Are you convinced of it now, or is there still some question in your mind?
4. What do you think about the fact that your regeneration was totally a work of God, and that you contributed nothing to it? How does it make you feel toward yourself? How does it make you feel toward God? By way of analogy, how do you feel about the fact that when you were born physically you had no choice in the matter?
5. Are there areas where the results of regeneration are not very clearly seen in your own life? Do you think it is possible for a person to be regenerated and then stagnate spiritually so that there is little or no growth? What circumstances might a person live in that would lead to such spiritual stagnation and lack of growth (if that is possible), even though the person was truly born again? To what degree does the kind of church one attends, the teaching one receives, the kind of Christian fellowship one has, and the regularity of one’s personal time of Bible reading and prayer, affect one’s own spiritual life and growth?
6. If regeneration is entirely a work of God and human beings can do nothing to bring it about, then what good does it do to preach the gospel to people at all? Is it somewhat absurd or even cruel to preach the gospel and ask for a response from people who cannot respond because they are spiritually dead? How do you resolve this question?
(For an explanation of this bibliography see the note on the bibliography to chapter 1, p. 38. Complete bibliographical data may be found on pp. 1223–29.)
Sections in Evangelical Systematic Theologies
1. Anglican (Episcopalian)
2. Arminian (Wesleyan or Methodist)
1983–85 Erickson, 932–33, 942–46
1917–24 Pieper, 2:498–501
6. Reformed (or Presbyterian)
1559 Calvin, 1:592–621 (3.3)
1724–58 Edwards, 543–65, 849–55
1871–73 Hodge, 2:682–732; 3:3–40
1887–1921 Warfield, BTS 351–74; SSW 2:321–24
1937–66 Murray, CW 2:167–201; RAA 95–105
7. Renewal (or charismatic/Pentecostal)
1988–92 Williams, 2:35–59
Sections in Representative Roman Catholic Systematic Theologies
1. Roman Catholic: Traditional
2. Roman Catholic: Post-Vatican II
Hoekema, Anthony A. “Regeneration.” In Saved by Grace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, and Exeter: Paternoster, 1989, pp. 93–112.
Kevan, E.F. Salvation. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973.
Packer, J.I. “Regeneration.” In EDT pp. 924–26.
Toon, Peter. Born Again: A Biblical and Theological Study of Regeneration. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987.
John 3:5–8: Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
“I SOUGHT THE LORD, AND AFTERWARD I KNEW”
This hymn beautifully expresses thanks to God for the fact that, though we did not know it, he sought us, worked in our hearts in a mysterious way, and enabled us to believe, before we came to trust in him.
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Savior true,
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm—vexed sea,
’Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but, O the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
1 1. When James says that God “brought us forth,” he uses language that ordinarily applies to physical birth (being brought forth out of our mothers’ wombs, and into the world) and applies it to spiritual birth.
2 2. See chapter 33, pp. 692–94, on effective calling.
NIV niv—New International Version
3 3. This is the “I” in the “five points of Calvinism” represented by the acronym TULIP. The other letters stand for T otal depravity (see chapter 24, pp. 497–98), Unconditional election (see chapter 32, pp. 676–79), Limited atonement (see chapter 27, pp. 594–603), and Perseverance of the saints (see chapter 40, pp. 788–803) See also p. 596, n. 35.
4 4. Some people will object here that God cannot guarantee a response that is still willing and voluntary on our part. But this objection simply inserts into the discussion a definition of “voluntary” or “willing” that is not itself supported by Scripture; see discussion in chapter 16, pp. 320–22, 334, 340–47, on God’s providence in relation to our voluntary decisions.
5 5. This view of regeneration usually depends on viewing man as trichotomous or consisting of three parts (body, soul and spirit), a position we discussed in chapter 23 above (pp. 472–83). But if we reject trichotomy and see “soul” and “spirit” as synonyms in Scripture that speak of the immaterial part of our nature, then such an explanation is not persuasive. Even for those who accept trichotomy, the Scriptures that speak of us as a new creation and that say that we have been born again (not just our spirits), should be good reason for seeing more in regeneration than merely making our spirits alive.
6 6. C.S. Lewis tells the story of his own conversion: “I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion” (Surprised by Joy [New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955], p. 237).
77. When Jesus talks about being “born of water” here, the most likely interpretation of this is that he is referring to spiritual cleansing from sin which Ezekiel prophesied when he said, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezek. 36:25–26). Here the water symbolizes spiritual cleansing from sin, just as the new heart and new spirit speak of the new spiritual life that God will give. Ezekiel is prophesying that God will give an internal cleansing from the pollution of sin in the heart at the same time as he awakens new spiritual life within his people. The fact that these two ideas are connected so closely in this well-known prophecy from Ezekiel, and the fact that Jesus assumes that Nicodemus should have understood this truth (“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?” [John 3:10]), together with the fact that throughout the conversation Jesus is talking about intensely spiritual concerns, all suggest that this is the most likely understanding of the passage. Another suggestion has been that “born of water” refers to physical birth and the “water” (or amniotic fluid) that accompanies it, but it would hardly be necessary for Jesus to specify that one has to be born in this way when he is talking about spiritual birth, and it is questionable whether first-century Jews would have understood the phrase in this way either. Another interpretation is that Jesus is referring to the water of baptism here, but baptism or any other similar ceremony is not in view in this passage (and it would have been anachronistic for Jesus to speak of Christian baptism here, since that did not begin until Pentecost); moreover, this would make Jesus teach that a physical act of baptism is necessary for salvation, something that would contradict the New Testament emphasis on salvation by faith alone as necessary for salvation, and something which, if it were true, we would certainly expect to find taught much more explicitly in the other New Testament passages that clearly deal with baptism (see chapter 49 on baptism).
8 8. The RSV translates Col. 2:13 with a relative clause: “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him,” but the Greek text has no relative pronoun (οὓς, from ὅς, G4005), which Paul could easily have used, but rather has a participial phrase with the present participle ὄντας (from εἰμί, G1639) “being,” giving a nuance of continuing activity that occurred at the same time that the action of the main verb (“made alive”) took place. Thus, the NIV expresses the appropriate sense: at the time when we were continuing in the state of being dead in our sins, God made us alive. No matter whether we translate the participle as concessive, causative, or expressing attendant circumstances, or with any other sense possible to the participle, this temporal nuance of time simultaneous with the main verb would still be present as well. Yet the NIV, in translating it as an explicitly temporal participle (”when you were dead”) seems to have given the best rendering of the intended sense of the verse.
99. It is true that Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be born again (John 3:7: “Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born anew”’), but this is not a command to Nicodemus to do something that no one can ever do (that is, give himself new spiritual life). It is an indicative sentence, not an imperative sentence. It is a statement of fact designed to point out to Nicodemus his total spiritual need and lack of ability on his own to enter the kingdom of God. A little later, when Jesus begins to speak about the response that is expected from Nicodemus, he speaks about the personal response of faith as the thing necessary: “So must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).
10 10. The perfect participle translated here “is born” could more explicitly be translated “has been born and continues in the new life that resulted from that event.”
11 11. Since we indicated above that a person is first regenerated, and then subsequently comes to saving faith, there will be a brief time in which someone is regenerated and the results (faith, love, etc.) are not yet seen. But John is saying that the results will follow; they are inevitable once someone is born again.
EDT EDT—Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Walter Elwell, ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.