The miracle of regeneration

Christians in America often toss around the term born again while speaking of our salvation. If we ask someone when they were born again, we are asking when they were saved. The term is so widely used that many non-Christians immediately associate it with Christianity. When rapper Kanye West famously professed faith in Christ at the end of 2019 and spoke with late night host Jimmy Kimmel about his subsequent transformation, the first question Kimmel asked was “Do you feel born again?”

Let us take time to consult the Scriptures and consider the fullness of God’s grace in endowing us with this new spiritual life. The doctrine of regeneration—Greek palingenesia, meaning rebirth—describes God’s miraculous work in replacing a hard heart with a soft one that can respond to Him. Let us consider this truth and how it can transform our lives.

In Hebrew literature, the heart represents the control center of the individual. It is where one experiences emotion and affection; God promises His servants that they will “sing for gladness of heart” (Isaiah 65:14). It plays a role in the intellectual life; the father in the first section of Proverbs tells his son to incline his “heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2). It is the source of desires, which lead to choices; Jesus warns His followers that laying up treasure on earth will pull their desires away from heaven—“for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

Though the heart is central in the human experience, it was deeply corrupted by the fall of man. As summarized by the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Bible consistently teaches that man is “wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.” The heart is no exception—it is deeply polluted, warped, and twisted by sin.

The Scriptures spare no ink and pull no punches in describing the hopelessly dire state of the human heart.

In the days before the flood, God “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Drowning all of mankind except for its most upright members by no means purified the human race; even after the flood, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).

While speaking about the sin of the people of Judah, God says that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

While speaking about the legalism of the Pharisees, Jesus notes that the source of human sin is the wayward heart: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). 

The Scriptures show that a core aspect of mankind’s rebellion against God is our naturally sinful desires, affections, and predilections, encapsulated in the human heart. How can men and women with hearts that naturally run toward all manners of sin ever obey God, whose law is innately righteous and good? Even more so, how can fallen men and women ever love, revere, and adore God, seeing Him as beautiful and worthy of praise?

The answer is regeneration—the miraculous, sovereign, gracious renewal of the human heart.

God promises to exchange our rebellious, sin-hardened hearts—our “hearts of stone”—for “hearts of flesh,” which can respond to His calling. This promise is key to understanding conversion. God says to the Israelites, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh 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 obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Note that in these verses, God—not man—is responsible for regeneration. In His great mercy, God sovereignly changes the hearts of believers and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they can trust in Jesus’ perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection, and be empowered to follow Him.

Indeed, we see this reality—the Holy Spirit creating a new heart that can respond to God—emphasized repeatedly in the New Testament. Paul reminds Titus that God saved us “according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Interestingly, when Jesus tells the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, He says that the tax collector “beat his breast” (Luke 18:13) in mourning over sin while asking God for mercy, as if he were confessing his desperate need for a new heart. 

Echoing the language of Ezekiel 36, Jesus links regeneration with the notion of being “born again” (John 3:3), without which a person “cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Once again, it is worth noting that just as an individual has no role in his physical birth, he has no role in his spiritual rebirth—it is purely a miraculous act of God, lovingly bestowed upon a rebellious sinner, so that he may see his Creator as beautiful for the very first time.

Long after conversion, a regenerate heart prompts the believer to desire, worship, revere, obey, and follow God—not out of obligation, but out of joy. 

Once transformed by the Holy Spirit, believers are “obedient from the heart” (Romans 6:17) to God and His law. Instead of desiring their sin, believers are free to desire God above all else; in fact, even though believers often stumble in sin (1 John 1:8), they are unable to continue sinning in peace, because sin definitionally disrupts fellowship with the God they adore. Believers can furthermore rejoice, because when we confess our sin, God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Keeping the doctrine of regeneration as central to our understanding of God’s salvation can heighten our appreciation of His grace and constantly remind us of His love, even in the most practical aspects of our lives as Penn students.

At Penn, the large majority of our relationships are meritorious. We even call social events “networking.” To some degree or another, all of our connections are categorized by their usefulness. Likewise, we know that similar metrics are being applied to us. Regeneration is not a meritorious work and, if anything, is the first tangible sign in our lives that God loves usnot because of our inherent usefulness or worthiness, but because His love is purely unconditional.

Along similar lines, every Penn student—Christian and non-Christian—struggles with wanting to be truly accepted and loved. Simultaneously, all of us know to some degree or another that we each struggle to develop meaningful, caring friendships because we ourselves are too flawed to genuinely love and appreciate others, and to be a friend ourselves. 

Regeneration is the first work of the gospel where God not only saves us from bondage to sin, but also makes us capable of truly desiring to love Him and to love others selflessly. God looks on our helpless state and lovingly transforms us anyway. — Caleb Watt

As we are enabled to place faith in His Son, all of our relationships slowly but surely begin to take new form. We are enabled to experience the joy of vertical relationship with our Creator, which in turn redeems horizontal relationships with our classmates, family, and friends. 

We learn to no longer define ourselves by our merits, whether in good works or in academics. We learn to no longer define ourselves by our sins, because through Christ they were pardoned by the same God who redeemed us. We learn—slowly but surely—to only define ourselves by the infinite love set upon us by our Lord.

After all, what does anything have in comparison to the unconditional love of God and the newfound ability to delight in it?

Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

— John 7:37-38

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