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.