Regeneration

I have long held that the biblical references to ‘regeneration’ and being ‘born again’ need to be understood to be referring, not primarily to individual conversion, but to the new creation ushered in through the work of Jesus Christ. They are numerous arguments in favour of this position. In fact, I find it hard to understand how people who have read their whole Bibles with any degree of care could interpret these terms in any other way. Everything seems to point to this reading. I do not want to lay out the case for this understanding from scratch, but I will briefly rehearse some of the lines of reasoning here. I couldn’t find many of my thoughts on this subject online, and I wanted to write some brief notes here. I apologize to those of you for whom such a position is olde hatte.

The locus classicus for the concept of being ‘born again’ is, of course, John 3. Here Jesus is addressing Nicodemus, a teacher and a ruler of the Jews. He does not merely address Nicodemus as a private individual, but in his public role as Israel’s teacher (v.10). It should be observed that in Jesus’ statement ‘you must be born again’ (v.7), the ‘you’ is a plural one.

I believe that there is every reason to believe that Nicodemus was a pious and faithful Jew, who genuinely believed in YHWH. However, he was not ‘born again’. The rebirth that Jesus is speaking of here is not a component of a timeless ordo salutis, nor is it primarily something that happens to detached individuals. Rather, it is a redemptive historical event that is about to take place. There are a number of elements of the context that support such an understanding.

Firstly, it should be appreciated that Jesus is speaking of entry into the ‘kingdom of God’. Whilst countless years of misuse of such language have trained us to regard the concept of ‘entering the kingdom’ as ‘going to heaven when we die’, this was certainly not what Jesus had in mind. In the gospels the kingdom of God / kingdom of heaven is ‘the new world-order, in heaven and on earth, produced by the revolutionary changes brought about in Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Covenant in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.’ Jesus is telling Nicodemus what is necessary if he is to become part of this new world order and questioning his failure to understand the things that He is speaking of.

In Matthew 11:11 Jesus speaks of John the Baptist as the greatest of those ‘born of women’, but argues that the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. One wonders why Christ would use the terminology ‘among those born of women’ to refer to John if there were not some sort of intended contrast to be drawn with those belonging to the kingdom, who have received a new birth, and those who still belong to the old world order, like John the Baptist.

A second thing to notice is the reference to the Holy Spirit. Throughout John’s gospel the Spirit is seen as a gift that is still expected. The gospel explicitly teaches that the Spirit was yet to be given (John 7:37-39), strong indication that Jesus is speaking of a primarily redemptive historical blessing in His conversation with Nicodemus.

The third point that we must recognize is the flesh/spirit contrast in John 3:6. The flesh/spirit distinction is used in a very particular way in John’s gospel and in the NT in general. This is loaded terminology, referring to a distinction between the old and new world orders. The old world order is the world order of the flesh; the new world order is that which is formed by the Spirit. This distinction is especially clear in the Pauline corpus, but it is also to be seen in John’s gospel.

In Romans we see that Christ comes in the flesh as the descendent of David and dies in the flesh, rising again by the Spirit as the ‘Son of God with power’ (Romans 1:3-4). This is what I believe is in view when the NT speaks of regeneration and being ‘born again’. Not only is Christ the firstborn over all creation, He is also the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:15-20). He is the twice-born. This is one of the reasons why, I believe, Paul so closely connects the resurrection of Christ with His divine sonship (e.g. Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4).

The connection between resurrection and new birth is a close one throughout the NT. A classic example can be found in Romans 8, where the themes of adoption, new birth, the contrast between flesh and Spirit and the like are all quite pronounced. The creation is groaning for new birth and those who have been born of the Spirit are the firstfruits of the long-awaited new creation. The curse of the womb is broken as Christ is born of the virgin; the curse of the tomb as Christ is re-born from the dead.

The OT seems to give further support for such an understanding of regeneration and new birth. In John 3, Ezekiel 36:25-27 and 37:1-14 are easy to discern in the background. These passages speak of national restoration by the work of the Holy Spirit. The wind of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wishes, is going to bring dead Israel back to life. These are all promises of new covenant (which, as N.T. Wright observes, must entail new creation). I have dealt with the subject of new covenant at length in the past, and will not cover it again here.

Does such a reading dismiss any use of regeneration to apply to the individual? No. However, it gives clear priority to the redemptive historical fact of regeneration on Easter morning and the Day of Pentecost. Our personal regeneration is coming to participate in this Regeneration. The work of the Spirit is of cosmic proportions and throws open new horizons in the world outside that we never knew existed. In so doing, the Spirit also throws open new horizons within ourselves. Our lives are expanded in every dimension. Regeneration does not just make me into a new creature; it knits me into a new creation order. In Christ we experience the firstfruits of the regenerating Spirit, forming the Church as the new world order.

This perspective refocuses our attention. For many Reformed people the doctrine of regeneration is just that—a doctrine and little more. In my understanding regeneration is a fact of redemptive history. When I speak of ‘regeneration’ I do not refer to an element of an abstract theological construct called the ordo salutis, at least not primarily. Rather, I am speaking of an event that took place in history, primarily in the resurrection of Christ and the gift of His Spirit at Pentecost. I am speaking in terms of an event in an open story in which we find ourselves, rather than in terms of a doctrine within a closed and detached theological system.

The more that I engage with the NT in terms of this perspective, the more sense that it makes. In the past I have wondered whether there is further support for such a reading of John 3 within the Johannine literature. Yesterday the whole issue was brought to my attention again. The following verses come to mind as possible places where the theme appears in John’s gospel and the book of Revelation.

In John 16:21 there is a reference to a woman groaning in travail, until she delivers a son. The context is that of the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. I do not believe that this analogy is accidental. The great birth that Israel was awaiting was not so much the incarnation (first birth) of Christ, but His regeneration/resurrection (and in Him the regeneration of all things). John 19:25-27 may be another passage that sheds light on this question. The scene with Mary and John at the foot of the cross may be understood in the light of this theme. Mary, representing the OT people of God, receives her long-awaited son in John, who represents the Church, the people of Israel reborn from the dead. After this has taken place, Jesus knows that His work has been accomplished (19:28).

I also wonder whether Revelation 12, although it is often understood as a reference to Christ’s incarnation, might not be a reference to His regeneration. Jesus’ rebirth from the dead is the great event that Israel was groaning for. This might explain the rapid movement from birth to ascension described in verses 4-5.

Anyway, enough rambling. It is well past my bedtime.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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16 Responses to Regeneration

  1. Mark says:

    I’m about to publish an article about this on Theologia…

  2. John says:

    In John 16:21 there is a reference to a woman groaning in travail, until she delivers a son

    Interesting – I’ve not seen that related to regeneration before. Thanks.

    pax et bonum

  3. Stephen says:

    Sounds good to me.

    I would only take issue with one point. You say that for the Reformed regeneration is a doctrine. I would have said it is to them, yes, a doctrine, but mainly a personal experience. It may well be but, as you say, it is part of something much greater.

  4. graham says:

    On the whole, I would agree with you – especially for Paul. However, I think it might be a mistake to read all of the references to birth/born, etc. as referring to regeneration.

    I think there are strong arguments for taking John 3 as referring to baptism. And I’d want to argue that John 16 is simply a common eschatological metaphor.

    Nonetheless, good stuff. Thanks.

  5. Paul Baxter says:

    (in the context of agreeing with you) I see the problem as being largely due to our reading the Bible through individualist eyes. We see the fact that the new covenant is no longer with “Israel”, but with people from every nation and then think that that means that there is no longer a special covenant people (even though much of the NT argues quite the contrary).

    I have spent some time arguing with folks that the “world” of John 3 is in fact Israel, and like most arguments I make little headway. But reading John 3:16 and context as God’s generic love for the (whole) world seems to make little sense to me, and I would have to think it would not have impressed Nicodemus, presuming that that section is still part of Jesus’ coversation with him.

  6. Al says:

    Stephen,

    Yes, you’re right. I should have worded that better.

  7. Al says:

    Graham,

    I would see references to Baptism too. Baptism and regeneration are closely bound together in the NT (e.g. Titus 3:5). It is not a case of either/or.

  8. Patrick Ramsey says:

    With respect to John 3 referring to a historical event, how do you comport that with vs. 8, which seems to imply the mysterious sovereign work of the Spirit? In other words if we could locate the time and place of regeneration, as is the case in a historical event, the analogy with the wind would then seem inappropriate.

  9. Al says:

    Patrick,

    I don’t quite see the logic of your position. Jesus’ point is that just as the Spirit cannot be tied down, so those animated by the Spirit cannot be tied down.

    This is perfectly exemplified in the resurrected Christ. He goes where He cannot be followed. In John’s gospel people don’t know where Christ has come from or where He is going (8:14). The connection with John 3:8 is quite clear.

    We see the same thing in the book of Acts, where the Church cannot be tied down. The Church animated by the Spirit is like wind slipping through the fingers of its enemies.

    The old covenant was the age of earthy structures and a central place of worship. In the new covenant the sanctuary of heaven is opened up and the saints sit in the heavenly places with Christ. They are blown by the Spirit from the heavens and worship in all places. There is no longer a central temple that can be destroyed. The people of God can never be finally pinned down. Only God can shepherd the wind (Ecclesiastes echo completely intentional).

    Entering into the new age involves entry into an age of freedom from the flesh, and such things as the ‘elements’ in Paul’s theology. Those animated by the Spirit are no longer bound by these things, but are free as the wind. They move like the cherubim in the firmament.

    The freedom of the Spirit is not the same thing as the arbitrariness of the Spirit. The point that Jesus is making is that the Spirit cannot be harnessed or tied down. This is perfectly consistent with the notion of regeneration as a historical event. The disciples were expecting the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit’s coming on the Day of Pentecost in no way undermined the fact of His freedom.

  10. Mark Jones says:

    Alastair, you mention, concerning regeneration, that you “find it hard to understand how people who have read their whole Bibles with any degree of care could interpret these terms in any other way”; namely, that regeneration could refer to individual conversion. The history of Reformed dogmatics on this subject does not buttress your point unfortunately. In John 3 it is possible that verses 3-8 do not bear the sort of weight that Reformed dogmatics, for instance, has put on them. They are not, at least primarily, a proof-text for the place of regeneration, particularly its causal priority to faith, in the ordo salutis. Perhaps the new birth from “above” is “new” eschatologically? The kingdom of God ushers this in because it has finally arrived in Jesus; it explicates, and is explicated by, his claim, for example, that he is “the resurrection and the life” (11:25). I still, however, see plenty of evidence for regeneration = personal conversion, esp. in Genesis and other parts of the OT.

  11. Al says:

    Mark,

    Good to see you comment. How are things?

    As regards Reformed dogmatics, it seems to me that Reformed dogmatics has engaged with the Bible in a manner that has made such big misunderstandings almost inevitable. All too often the Bible has been approached, not as a unfolding story to be continually recapitulated in the Church’s liturgy but as a repository of timelessly applicable prooftexts. This has encouraged the idea of the covenant as a rather abstract transhistorical construct, rather than as a developing relationship between God and His people in history. Together with this goes a focus on an ordo salutis that is not really conditioned by redemptive historical considerations.

    My argument is that regeneration is not the same thing as conversion. I am not denying that there is such a thing as conversion. However, even in the case of conversion and effectual call I would argue that these things need to be understood against the background of redemptive history.

    I believe that Reformed dogmatics really needs to take account of the degree to which its use of theological terms has diverged from the biblical use of the same terms. I believe that the vast majority of theological problems around such things as the FV arise from the fact that the specialist language of Reformed dogmatics has prevented people from using terms as the Bible does and, consequently, thinking as the biblical authors do. Paul did not think in terms of the categories of Reformed dogmatics and you will persistently misunderstand him if you choose to frame his thought wholly in terms of the categories of Reformed dogmatics.

    Speaking for myself, the only purpose I see in adopting Reformed theological terminology is for the sake of making myself understood to Reformed folk who only know that language. For the constructive theological task such language causes far more problems than it is worth.

  12. Mark Jones says:

    Alastair,
    Things are well. My dissertation studies have led me to the conclusion that federal theologians like Owen and Cocceius had it right concerning their approach to theology. Owen’s theologoumena focuses more on the organic unfolding of the history of revelation (and redemption) in such a way as to safeguard against some of the problems inherent in the more scholastic methods (illegitimate systematization).

    Now, I know you’re not a big fan of Owen and sometimes he wasn’t always consistent in his approach, but I think you’d find his Theologoumena (now reprinted under the anachronistic title “Biblical Theology”) rather refreshing.

    I guess we come back to the systematic vs. biblical/exegetical theology argument again and there’s been a lot of – perhaps unhelpful – ink spent on that issue. Well, enough from me!

  13. Foolish Sage says:

    Alastair,

    A most helpful and stimulating post! You have put your finger on a growing bewilderment and frustration I feel in some of my classes here at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. My course in Gospels with Dan McCartney along with my present class in the Theology of Acts & Paul with Richard Gaffin both have, at least to me, proven beyond doubt that you are on the right track about the redemptive-historical setting of John 3. Yet when pressed in questioning, Gaffin falls back on ordo salutis, Reformed dogmatical categories, even though he’s just spent an hour proving that historia salutis is in view in the “coming of the Spirit” passages. It makes my head spin.

  14. Derrick says:

    http://www.hornes.org/theologia/content/derrick_olliff/eschatology_of_being_born_again.htm

    You must have read my paper just before Mark posted it. 🙂 Mysterious and sovereign timing. Maybe an example of verse 8?

  15. Al says:

    Yes, that was pretty weird! BTW, great essay. It is always encouraging to know that other people are thinking along the same lines as you are.

  16. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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