Recently I preached a sermon called Regeneration: Rebirth in which I framed out the Bible’s teaching on regeneration. The premise of the sermon was that “Before you can be re-formed [which is the broader emphasis of this spiritual formation series], you have to be re-born.” The sermon was rooted in Jesus’ words recorded in John 3:7: “You must be born again.”
Sermons like this are good and biblical – they help us “examine [ourselves] to see whether [we] are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). They also cause some level of confusion and consternation for people, because assessing one’s own salvation is a weighty proposition. So I wanted to give some further material in this post that might be pastorally helpful to the many people who are journeying through this series with us. If you’re reading this post from outside the Coram Deo community, please realize that I’m assuming the common context of understanding created by the sermon in question. Also, recognize that this post is neither exhaustive nor technical. Much more could and should be said.
Regeneration vs. Conversion
The hard thing about talking about the new birth is that we’re talking about a theological reality that we don’t actually experience in isolation. Theologically, our salvation includes at least five distinct aspects: foreknowledge, election, effectual calling (regeneration), justification, glorification (see Romans 8:29-30). Focusing on only one of these – regeneration – is helpful for the sake of clarity, but sometimes not so helpful if it causes us to miss the forest for the trees. To capture the whole scope of salvation as experienced from our perspective, theologians often speak of conversion. What happens to us in salvation? We are converted. We turn to Jesus and become followers of him. What the Bible talks about in multiple ways (foreknown-elected-born-again-justified-glorified), we experience as one unified reality: conversion.
Therefore, to those taking stock of their own soul, it might be more helpful to ask not just “Have I been born again?” but “Have I been converted?” Have I experienced the wholesale turning-from-sin-to-Christ that the Bible calls conversion? If you have been born again, you’ll be able to tell not by peering into the recesses of your heart or parsing the nuances of your past experience, but by looking for the broader evidences of salvation: justifying faith in Christ, a confidence in God’s electing love, an appetite for the glory of God’s heavenly kingdom.
Stephen Smallman gives some helpful insight in his booklet What Is True Conversion: “Our first encounter with God is the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit (even though we don’t know it at the time)… [Conversion starts] with the Spirit, who leads us to faith in the Son, which gives us insight into the depth of the love of the Father… The starting point in understanding the meaning of true conversion is to recognize that it is the result of the moving of the Holy Spirit in conviction and regeneration.” To say it another way: if you have been regenerated by the Spirit, you’ll have faith in the Son, and you’ll sense the love of the Father. If whole-souled faith in the Son and a personal apprehension of the Father’s love are present in you, it’s a sure sign that you’ve been born again. Which brings us to another important distinction…
Regeneration Precedes Faith
All Bible-believing Christians affirm that “you must be born again.” But they differ on exactly how regeneration and faith are related. Some people, theologically classified as Arminians, believe that faith precedes regeneration. In other words, it’s your faith in Jesus that causes you to be born again. This is the theological emphasis behind most altar calls and emotional experiences and evangelistic crusades. After all, if your faith in Christ causes you to be born again, then the most loving thing I can do is to try to win you to faith in Christ. Any emotional appeal is fair game if it breaks through your resistance and gets you to the point of faith – which will then cause you to be born again.
Other people, theologically classified as Calvinists, believe that regeneration precedes faith. In other words, it’s God’s grace in causing you to be born again that moves you to respond in faith to Jesus. We believe this because it’s actually what the Bible teaches (see Romans 8:29-30, John 3:8, John 6:44, 1 Peter 1:3, 1 John 5:1). To quote Smallman again: “We do not begin the process of conversion, God does. Effectual calling results in our embracing Jesus Christ… We can be assured that we are converted because we continue to embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the gospel.”
Much of the angst-ridden soul-searching that Christians are prone to after hearing a message on the new birth is a result of bad (Arminian) theology. Those who have been taught that faith precedes regeneration will descend into fretting and anxiety: “Did I really mean it when I put my faith in Jesus? What if I didn’t? Does that mean I’m not born again? Maybe I think I’m born again, but really I’m just going through the motions.”
The solution is good theology. The Bible teaches that regeneration precedes faith. So: do you have faith? Are you trusting in Jesus right now? If you truly trust in Christ… if you are clinging to him in repentant faith… if your hope of acceptance before God is not your good works, but Christ’s finished work… then rest assured, you have been born again. “We can be assured that we are converted because we continue to embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the gospel.”
Ah, but we haven’t finished yet, have we? I gave troubled souls even more fodder for anxiety when I listed three counterfeits of the new birth: spiritual experience, moral living, and conviction of sin. Why are these things counterfeits?
Because they are entirely possible apart from faith in Christ. They’re necessary but not sufficient. If you saw a woman at the grocery store with a cart full of diapers, baby formula, and nursing supplies, that might mean she is a new mom. But not necessarily. She might be running an errand for her sister. She might be a midwife. She might be a store employee restocking shelves. Diapers, baby formula, and nursing supplies are necessary if a baby has been born. But they’re not sufficient reason to conclude that a baby has been born. Likewise, spiritual experience, a moral life, and conviction of sin are necessary effects of regeneration. But they are not sufficient to prove regeneration.
I trust this post is helpful to many readers who have been wrestling with these concepts. For further elucidation, I cannot recommend highly enough Stephen Smallman’s booklet, which is available through Amazon or at the Coram Deo Resource Table.