Regeneration in the Old Testament

by John Hendryx

The following is a visitor's set of questions regarding the nature of the new birth in the Old Testament...

How is it that Israel could swear with all their heart and seek God with their whole desire? Were these affections necessarily the result of regeneration, or could they be produced by Jews under the law? Was pre-Christ Israel regenerate? Only some? Everyone at that time, not not necessarily later? Is regeneration a primarily new covenant occurrence, or could Jews under the law also receive regeneration? If so, what is the significance of Ezekiel 11:18-20, where God apparently promises to grant regeneration only later (after Christ?).


Ggood questions....

A passage that immediately comes to mind in the context of God gathering the Israelites back to Himself is Deuternomy 30:3

"And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.: Deut 30:6

Circumcising the heart if often used synonymously with the concept of regeneration in the Old Testament. Further, it can be clearly demonstrated, I believe, that regeneration is a frequent occurrence in both the Old and New Testaments. Human nature is the same under both and human beings (who are by nature in bondage to sin) cannot extract themselves, by way of self-effort, to follow YHWH. Apart from grace, the natural man has no Christward inclination. And the law in itself does not produce the needed affection for God in the naturally uncircumcised hearts of the Israelites. This is not a shortcoming of God's Law but a radical indictment of the corruption of man's heart.

Clearly the Old Testament taught from start to finish that God had chosen a remnant within the physical decedents of Abraham. By no means were all Jews regenerate. Romans 9:6-13 speaks of this phenomena:

For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel;
7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but:
8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God,
but the children of the promise
are regarded as descendants.
9 For this is the word of promise: "AT THIS TIME I WILL COME, AND SARAH
10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived
twins by one man, our father Isaac;
11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good
or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not
because of works but because of Him who calls,
12 it was said to her, "THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER."
13 Just as it is written, "JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED."

You are correct in assuming that Israel having the moral ability to seek God with their whole heart was a necessary result of their regeneration.

Sometimes in the Old Testament God even reveals behind the scenes how He enabled particular Jews to obey his Word when they were called to repent: In 2 Chronicles chapter 30, for example, when couriers with a message of repentance passed from city to city through the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, and as far as Zebulun, they laughed them to scorn and mocked them when they were called to repent, "Nevertheless some men of Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem. The hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the princes commanded by the word of the LORD." (Chronicles 30:11-12)

OK lets look at this event... the text says some tribes resisted the call to repentance, but only those tribes which the HAND OF GOD GAVE A HEART TO OBEY THE WORD, repented. So here is a clear instance of the Spirit of God working faith and repentance in the hearts of certain persons among Israel while leaving others to their own rebellious self-will...

Your question...
If so, what is the significance of Ezekiel 11:18-20, where God apparently promises to grant regeneration only later (after Christ?).

Notice the wording that Jesus uses in John 14 about the promise of the Spirit...

16 "I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; 17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you."

Jesus claims in this passage that the disciples KNOW the Spirit already because he is ABIDES WITH YOU [the disciples]... but notice His change up here -- AND WILL BE IN YOU. This is a future tense of an indwelling. Apparently the saints of the OT enjoyed regeneration but may not have enjoyed indwelling to the extent and fullness that we do. Just as the Old testament saints only had partial light as to the coming redeemer, so they had the Holy Spirit in a way that was less full than we do now.Biblicall speaking, regeneration and indwelling are not exactly the same, for in regeneration the Spirit works to illumine our minds and renew our hearts prior to our faith in which He comes to indwell us. One is the fountain the other is the river, so to speak. That pre-salvific action is not called indwelling. "WITH YOU" and "IN YOU" appear to demonstrate qualitative differences.

The Spirit has been active since creation. Deut 30:36 when YHWH is speaking to the Jews themselves, he says, "Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live."

Obviously and uncircumcised heart cannot love God according to this passage. A certain quality of heart is required to be present BEFORE understanding or love of God can take place. The natural man does not understand (by nature) and thinks all spiritual truth is foolishness (1 Cor 2:14). That is not something you can simply talk him out of by means of human persuasion. Your preaching of the word must be accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit so that he might understand. The Apostle Paul makes this plain in 1 Cor 2:12: "Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God." Likewise Deuteronomy 30 expresses that a love for God comes about through grace (circumcision of heart). This is clear indication that God's promise for regeneration was for the hearers of these words as well as their children, not just some eschatological far-away promise ....

But the INDWELLING of the corporate body by the Spirit presupposes the resurrection. The Spirit helps us to obey Jesus commandments (vs. 15) where the righteous demands of the law are met for those who walk according to the Spirit. Of course the Jews are also part of Christ's body but they only experienced the promises in the form of types and shadows. Look at the hall of faith in

Hebrews 11 ...
39 And all these , having gained approval through their faith, did not
receive what was promised,
40 because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.

Furthermore passages like Joel speaks of the Spirit being poured out on all mankind (Jew & Gentiles), so that this promise was no longer just confined
to the Jews.

Joel 2:28
"It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.

So while all Jews were part of the physical covenant in their circumcision, but not all were spiritually circumcised. While the work of the Spirit was active in the OT what we have is founded of better promises for everything which the OT pointed to has been fulfilled.

Related Articles
Are Regeneration and Receiving the Spirit the Same Thing? by Ra McLaughlin
What About the Passages Which Show Receiving the Sprit After Faith by John Hendryx
Did Jews Understand the Promises of the Messianic Age?