God has initiated our salvation by choosing us and by calling us. He did that because of all that Jesus Christ has done, is doing, and will do for us. We are chosen “in him”. The initiation is all of God and his grace. If we ever take the initiative in seeking God, it is only because of his previous work by his Holy Spirit in our hearts making us uneasy in our guilt and hopelessness. When we seek God, it is always a proof that he is already at work seeking us. In response to Paul’s great sermon in Pisidian Antioch, “all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48). Election, all of the work of Jesus Christ, and calling all occur before the beginning of our salvation.
In response to God’s call, a whole series of wonderful thing begin to happen. Perhaps it is better to say; “A wonderful thing begins to happen” for all of the things we are going to speak about are facets of a single salvation. None of them happen alone. These things are listed on page sixty-one above.
D. Newness of life
F. Baptized into the body of Jesus Christ
G. New Standing with God
K. Consecration as saints
The order of treatment here is not significant. They all happen at the same instant. Not only that, even a demand for a logical order has cause problems throughout the history of the church. The logical order between regeneration and conversion has been especially divisive. But they are the inside and the outside of the same act. I have chosen to treat conversion before regeneration only because God’s grace is defended above in the chapter on the initiation of salvation, and because when Calvinists have demanded that regeneration precedes conversion they do have a most difficult time distinguishing the effectual call from regeneration. I have placed conversion between the two in order to distinguish between these two significant facets of our salvation.
Conversion includes repentance and faith. I have not been concerned with which should be treated first because they are not two different acts, but are rather facets of the same act at the beginning of our salvation. I choose to treat repentance first because that seem to be the order in Scripture more than its opposite.
Conversion is basically a turning around, a decision to go in a direction opposite to the previous direction of one’s life. There are conversions in all different areas of life, in one’s profession, in one’s diet, in quitting smoking, etc. Most religions are entered through some kind of conversion experience which includes a change of mind, a change of will, and a change of direction. William James made an impressive study of conversions that remains a watershed study of the phenomenon.
So “conversion” is not necessarily a conversion to Christianity. It may be a conversion to any religion, cult, or philosophy of life. Because of our more narrow definition of conversion, we usually misinterpret the conversion experiences recorded in the fourth and fifth centuries of the early church. Augustine’s famous conversion is one of a series of conversions recorded in his Confessions. It is a turning to Christ, but it is at the same time a conversion to an ascetic life style that will include celibacy. Most of the recorded conversions in those centuries are conversions to a monastic life style.
That is quite different from the last three centuries, deeply impacted with the great awakenings. We view conversion as an experience of new birth which often has a limited impact upon the way that we live the rest of our lives. We cannot quite understand Augustine. He certainly could not really understand our concept of conversion.
Some Definitions Of Conversion
I have selected some definitions of conversion that will give some boundaries and suggestions of content for our discussion.
“What then is this Christian conversion that is so vividly described by Augustine and so diligently studied by William James and many other researchers of the psychology of religion? A wide range of answers to this question could be discussed. These answers are grounded in the following propositions that incorporate the essence of current theological and psychological models:
L. Christian conversion is the experience whereby a person turns to God by reason of faith in Jesus Christ.
M. It is a once-for-all, unrepeatable event that has some well-defined precursors and consequences.
N. The process leading up to the conversion crisis consistently involves a period of incubation.
O. The result of such a turning to God is a change of ideas concerning religious beliefs, feelings, values, and behavior. The new orientation of ideas and behavior coincides to a large extent with those in the community into which the person is incorporated.
P. The change of the person is neither thoroughly unconscious nor completely conscious.” 1
Millard Erickson described conversion as follows:
“The first step of the Christian life is called conversion. It is the act of turning from one’s sin in repentance and turning to Christ in faith. The image of turning from sin is found in both the Old and New Testaments. In the book of Ezekiel we read the word of the Lord to the people of Israel: ‘Therefore O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourself of all the offenses you have committed and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!’ (Ezekiel 18:30-32, see also 33:7-11). In Ephesians 5:14 Paul uses different imagery, but the basic thrust is the same: ‘Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ In Acts we find Peter advocating a change in direction of life: ‘Repent, then, and turn to God, so that you sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.’ (Acts 3:19). While contemporary evangelists frequently plead; ‘Be converted, it is noteworthy that in the passages we have cited, the command is in the active: ‘Convert!” 2
“When we turn to our English Bibles, however, we discover that the word conversion appears only once (Acts 15:3) and a few times as a verb…. This is a striking example of how misleading the study of a single word can be. The Bible does teach the necessity of conversion, but it uses different words to describe this process and to emphasize its theological nature. The biblical writers did not focus upon the converts feelings or emotions, but on the content of the gospel. Thus the New Testament records several dramatic conversion experiences (Paul (Acts 9:5ff, Cornelius (Acts 10:44ff, the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:2944) without showing any interest in the psychology of conversion…. The New Testament writers view conversion dynamically—as something one does—and they interpret it theologically with words such as faith, repentance, grace, forgiveness, and regeneration.” 3
Augustus Strong gives another of his impressive definitions:
“Conversion is that voluntary change in the mind of the sinner, in which he turns, on the one hand from sin, and on the other hand , to Christ. The former or negative element in conversion, namely, the turning from sin, we denominate repentance. The latter or positive element in conversion, namely, the turning to Christ, we denominate faith. Conversion is the human side or aspect of that fundamental spiritual change, which, as view from the divine side, we call regeneration. It is simply man’s turning.” 4
We are commanded in the Scriptures to turn from our old form of life, our chosen story, and to turn to a wholly new form of life, God’s story. This turn is a radical rejection of everything that we were before and a total commitment to Jesus Christ and an obedient following of him in discipleship. The first is repentance and the second is faith.
The New Testament records of the conversions of Saul, Cornelius, and the Philippian jailor for us. The clearest of those is the conversion of Paul. We not only have the description of his conversion three times (Acts 9:5ff, 22:6ff, and 26:12ff), but we hear him describe that experience in theological terms.
“If anyone else thinks he has reasons for such confidence [in the flesh], I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; in regard t the law, a Pharisee, as for zeal, persecuting the church, as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider lass for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection of the dead.” (Phil. 3:4-11).
Paul’s turning is radical. He turns his back on his former life and everything that gave it meaning. He commits himself to Jesus Christ in full discipleship, following him in everything and looking for every good in Jesus Christ and his story
It is important now to look at the two words that describe this turning from: repentance, and this turning to, faith. In doing so, we need to be constantly aware than there is not repentance apart from faith and not true faith apart from true repentance. They are integral parts of the same act of turning.
Repentance is a major theme in the Scriptures. The prophets preached it regularly. John the Baptist made repentance the theme of his ministry: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:1). Jesus continued this emphasis:
“Jesus continues John’s theme but adds, significantly, ‘The time is fulfilled…. All life relationships must be radically altered (Matt. 5:17-7:27; Luke 14:25-35; 18:18-30. Sinners, not the righteous are called to metanoia (Matt 9:13, Mk. 2:17, Luke 5:32) and heaven rejoices over their repentance (Luke 15). The preaching of repentance must be joined to the proclamation of the cross and the resurrection (Luke 24:44-49). The apostles are true to this commission (Acts 2:38, 3:19, 17;30, 17:21). Unfaithful churches must repent (Rev.3:5, 16).” 5
Definitions Of Repentance
Kromminga gives a definition of repentance.
“Generally, however, metanoia can be said to denote that inward change of mind, affections, convictions, and commitment rooted in the fear of the Lord and sorrow for offenses committed against him, which, when accompanied by faith in Jesus Christ results in an outward turning from sin to God and his service in all of life. It is never regretted and is given by God. Metanoeo points to the inward conscious change (Acts 11:18), while epistepho directs the attention particularly to the changed determinative center for all of life (Acts 15:19; I Thess. 1:9).6
Charles Ryrie defines repentance somewhat differently:
“The only repentance that saves is a change of mind about Christ….
Is repentance a condition for receiving eternal life? Yes, if it is repentance or changing one’s mind about Jesus Christ. No, if it means to be sorry for sin or even to resolve to turn from sin, for these things will not save” 7
Hendrikus Berkhof is not a dependable theologian for those who are conservative in their theology. But, in a theology far to the left of mine, he does make some very impressive statements that deserve our attention.
“Repentance is the shocking awareness of a radial failing which cannot be undone, and the admission that God is just in his judgment…. Repentance is much more than and entirely different from regret. Regret deplores the consequences and to that extent the deeds that caused them. Repentance deplores the deed itself that disturbs the love relationship. Repentance means that, unconditionally, we assume the full blame ourselves, take full responsibility for it without coming up with excuses…. Repentance is thus much different from depression, self-hatred, or masochism. In repentance, we are not busy with ourselves but with God. Repentance is not despair. Despairing persons lack the vision of God whose love they have violated. Repentance presupposes that vision. Without repentance all the notes of the Christian faith are off key and fall silent…. For this reason, repentance is not just a passing mood at the start of the road to renewal, but also the abiding undertone of all Christian life. Without repentance, the gospel is turned into cheap grace.” 8
Repentance In The Scriptures
Joel taught repentance to his people in the midst of a terrible plague of locusts. His words are a good summary of the preaching of the prophets on this subject.
“Put on sackcloth, O priests, and mourn,
wail, you who minister before the altar.
Come, spend the night in sackcloth,
you who minister before my God,
For the grain offerings and drink offerings
are withheld from the house of your God.
Declare a holy fast
call a solemn assembly
Summon the elders
and all who live in the land
To the house of the Lord your God,
and cry out to the Lord.” (1:13-14)
“‘Even now,’ declares the Lord
‘Return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning’
Rend your hearts
and not your garments
Return to the Lord you God,
for he is gracious and compassionate.
slow to anger and abounding in love
and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and have pity….” (2:12-14)
The response of a believing sinner to this kind of preaching can be seen in David’ repentance and confession.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when yu speak and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Surely you desire truth in the inner parts, teach me wisdom in my inner part.
Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean,
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness, let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and grant me a willing spirit….”
David summarizes this response in another psalm.
“Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered
Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long
for day and night your hand was heavy upon me
My strength was sapped as in the head of the summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord—
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Psalm 32:1-5)
Repentance is not only for Israel. Peter preached it also.
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied; ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:36-38)
“Now brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. Repent then and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” (Acts 3:17-19).
Paul described the repentance of the Corinthian house churches.
“Yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (II Corinthians 4:9-10. See also Acts 20:21).
The Thessalonian believers were commended by Paul for their repentance and faith.
“…for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (I Thessalonians 1:9-10).
This was the first message that John the Baptist and Jesus preached:
“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying; ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near’…. From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.’”
(Matthew 3:1 and 4:17).
All of these references (which could be multiplied, see Elwell, TAB, pages 477-488) remind us that repentance is a significant them in both testaments. It is a responsibility both of the unbeliever to repent and believe for salvation and for the believer to practice repentance and faith throughout this Christian life.
Repentance cannot be understood apart from faith. Neither can it be understood apart from regeneration. It is not something that we can do to merit our salvation. Charles Ryrie is correct when he denies that repentance and faith are two different requirements for salvation. He is wrong when he goes on to say:
“Repentance may prepare the way for faith, but it is faith that saves, not repentance (unless repentance is understood as a synonym for faith, or changing one’s mind about Christ).” 9
Here, he has missed the biblical meaning of repentance by turning it into a full synonym for faith. In doing this, he has lost an important biblical truth. He needs to recognize that repentance and faith are not synonyms, but are rather the negative and positive sides of the same action. A real turning from sin in the same act that turns to Jesus Christ by faith.
Conversion is a turning to Jesus Christ from sin and self. The turn to Christ defines and determines the nature of the turn from sin, and the turn from sin defines and determines the nature of the turn to Christ. This double definition makes both the repentance and the faith radical acts, greatly different from many of the popular definitions of either word. Conversion is the key word. Both repentance and faith find their meaning here, rather than in faith as Ryrie demands.
Conversion was pictured clearly in the fourth century baptismal liturgy when the one being baptized would turn toward the west and renounce Satan and all his works and then turn to the east and confess Christ (See above, pages 20-21). Paul interprets baptism in this same way in Romans 6:1-4.
Repentance is then the negative aspect of conversion which turns the back upon all the sin, self-centeredness, and directions of one’s former life. It is much different from the regret that we committed that particular sin in which we were caught—more a sorrow for the consequences than for the sin itself.
Repentance is a whole new attitude toward the sin itself. Before it looked like something that would give us some happiness or profit. Now, even if we have not been apprehended and had to pay any consequences, we have learned to hate the sin itself as a relapse into Satan’s kingdom of darkness, as making us traitors to the Kingdom of God, as dishonoring the Name of our God, as self-destruction, as harm to all other believers, as a destruction of the power of our witness to unbelievers. It is a true view of the ugliness and stupidity of sin that is contrary to all that is good, beautiful, and fulfilling.
Repentance is not merely a sorrow for and a turning from one particular sin or bad habit. Unbelievers often do that. They keep telling their stories of how they lost twenty pounds, how they stopped smoking, how they learned to stay away from alcohol, how they stopped doing drugs. But biblical repentance is not that simple. God wants us to have deep sorrow for all of our sin and self-centeredness. He wants us to turn away, not just from a single habit, but from all sin, from our whole previous life-style, and from all of our dreams for our successes in the future. It is repentance from “sin”, not merely from a sin, or a group of sins. The repentance God accepts is universal repentance.
At the same time, the one who truly repents focuses upon particular sins, and particular areas of life and dreams which are destructive to true discipleship. It is sometimes too easy to repent of sin in such general terms that repentance becomes almost completely impersonal. Repentance is about our own sins. No matter what others do and have done, we are turning our backs upon what we have done and are doing against the goodness and love of the holy God whom we now want to serve. Murray wrote: “The test of repentance is the genuineness and resoluteness of our repentance in respect of our own sins, sins characterized by the aggravations which are peculiar to our own selves.” 10
Godly repentance does not give excuses. We never have excuses for our sins.
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (I Corinthians 10:13).
“Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (II Peter 1:2-3).
When we give excuses for our sins, we deny these promises. There are no honest excuses for any particular sin. God knows this and we are fools to try to make ourselves look good by excuses that he knows are lies. They only convince us and perhaps a few other people who also like to tell lies about the reasons for their sins.
John Murray describes repentance as follows:
“Repentance consist essentially in change of heart and mind and will. The change of heart and mind and will principally respects four things: It is a change of mind respecting God, respecting ourselves, respecting sin, and respecting righteousness.” 11
This is quite different from Ryrie’s description of repentance as “a change of mind about Jesus Christ.” Ryrie is right in what he says and wrong in what he leaves out. Murray is right in his expanded description—a change of mind about God, self, sin, and righteousness—, but he is wrong in leaving out the radical Christ-centered nature of repentance that Ryrie emphasized.
Biblical repentance has a whole new vision of the Father, of Jesus Christ, of self, of sin, and of righteousness. Before, we had viewed all of these from our own sinful, worldly, and Satanic viewpoint. Now, we have listened to God and view them all from God’s perspective. Before we viewed God as our enemy, Jesus Christ as a good man, self as the center, and righteousness as our good works that merited some respect and reward from God. Now we view God as our God, Jesus as our only Savior, self as empty until lost in true discipleship, and righteousness as a gift from God, both in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us and God’s gift of daily righteousness by the Holy Spirit in us Repentance is our deep and abiding sorrow for the total wrongness of our previous life of rebellion against the only Source of all goodness.
Repentance is a recognition that not only have we sinned and not only do we have no excuse for our sins, but we are objectively guilty before God. He is a holy God who hates sin, all sin, and our sin. True repentance confesses that God is right in his wrath against us (Ephesians 2:1-4), and that eternal hell is not too great a punishment for our sin. We join with God in thinking about this guilt of our sin and sins.
Repentance can always degenerate into some kind of religious masochism or despair and depression. It can be a life centered in ourselves. We are self-centered and do not feel free to brag about our goodness, so we talk about our sin and guilt. We just have to keep talking about ourselves, and if our sin is the only way to do that, we will think and speak about our sin.
But repentance is the exact opposite of this kind of self-centeredness. We view our sin and guilt from God’s perspective. We express our sorrow for our acts of sin, our thoughts and motives, our habits and states of life, and our indwelling sin, not in order to speak about ourselves, but in order to reject that old self and to speak about the Lord Jesus Christ. True repentance repents quickly and turns quickly to God and to Jesus Christ. This is described will in Nehemiah.
“So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon…. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law….
“Then Nehemiah, the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. Nehemiah said; ‘Go, and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to the Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:2-3 and 9-10).
Nehemiah did not mean that repentance was unnecessary. The people had been weeping all morning for their sins. They had turned their backs on their sin. That was enough. It was time to turn to the promises of God and to rejoice in all of his goodness. Continued repentance would result in depression and defeat. Victory was in the joy that followed.
The only repentance that works is that which does not merely turn from sin and sins in godly sorrow, but that which turns to Jesus Christ as only place of joy and victory. All repentance that is not at the same time a turning to Jesus Christ is a false repentance. “Godly sorrow leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (II Corinthians 4:10).
Repentance stands at the beginning of every Christian life. But it is not a one time act. It continues as the heart beat of the life of a believer as long as sin has a part in our daily experience. I will discuss this more fully below.
Repentance then is the turning of the whole person from all sin and sins to God. It is grounded in the fear of God and his revelation of his holy hatred for all sin. It is made possible by the initiation and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. It manifests itself by an honest confession before God without excuses. It is always accompanied by faith. With faith, it lies at the beginning of the Christian life and continues to characterize the believer as long as he or she sins. Repentance is not concerned with self or even with self-hatred, but with Jesus Christ and quickly forgets itself as soon as it confesses sin and rejoices in God’s forgiveness and acceptance.
It is important to remind ourselves that, like all other good things, repentance is impossible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. In ourselves, we can turn from one sin to another. For example, we can turn from a habit to pride in our victory. Unbelievers do that often and write articles and make speeches on “How I quit , and you can too if you follow my advice.” But a complete 180 degree turn from sin and self to Jesus Christ and holiness is a decision which can be initiated by the Holy Spirit and an act which can be empowered only by the Holy Spirit.
Repentance is not an act which can be psychologized. We cannot look at our repenting and give a psychological description of what we have done. As soon as we look inward at the act we have to stop repenting and all we see are some vague tracks and fading memories of all that repentance is about. The Scriptures do not give us a psychological analysis of the act of repentance. Our focus must not be inward, but must be totally involved with the ugliness of our sin from God’s perspective and our own commitment to think of our sin and sins from his holy perspective. We listen to people repenting in the Scriptures and we follow their example
Few would deny that faith is a central theme in the Scriptures (see Elwell, TAB, pages 488-494). The problems arise when we attempt to define it. I will present a few significant definitions as a beginning point for our discussion of faith. The definition in The Heidelberg Catechism, is a classic.
“Q. # 21 – What is true faith?
A. “True faith is not only a certain knowledge by which I accept as true all that God has revealed in His Word, but also a whole-hearted trust which the Holy Spirit creates in me through the gospel, that, not only to others, but to me also, God has given the forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, out of sheer grace, solely for the sake of Christ’s saving work.”
Richard Muller gives the scholastic definition of faith.
“Fides salvifica (saving faith)…is usually explained as having three components, the first two belonging to the intellect and comprising the category of cognito certa (certain knowledge), the latter belonging to the will.
(1) Notitia (Knowledge) – The actual content of the gospel and of the
promises of God.
(2) Assensus (Assent)- The intellect acknowledges the truth of the notitia apart from any personal trust.
(3) Fiducia (trust) – Faithful apprehension which appropriates savingly, by an act of the will, the true knowledge of the promises of God in Christ.” 12
Francis Turretin wrote a more extensive description of faith.
“How many acts does justifying faith include in its formal conception? Six.
(1) Act of knowledge – Knowing all things to be believed by us whether pertaining to our misery or to the grace of God.
(2) Theoretical assent – Receiving as true what we know.
(3) Fiducial and practical assent – Judging the gospel to be good and worthy of our love and desire. Judging the promises of grace to be most certain concerning the remission of sins and the bestowal of salvation on all who believe and repent, including myself if I believer and repent.
(4) Act of refuge – Betaking ourselves by an act of desire to Chris, seeking in him pardon of sin and salvation.
(5) Act of reception and union – Apprehending and receiving Christ, embracing him, applying him to ourselves, and uniting ourselves to him.
(6) Reflex act – Concluding that I have believed and therefore that Christ has certainly died for me, I belong to him, and I will assuredly be made happy in him.
(7) Act of confidence and consolation – Experiencing the joy, tranquility, peace, acquiescence, and delight that arise from the possession of Christ.” 13
Jonathan Edwards wrote eighty-eight definitions of faith. The following is a fair summary of much repeated themes.
“Faith…is a belief o the truth from a sense of glory and excellency… from a spiritual taste and relish of what is excellent and divine…. Faith is the soul’s entirely embracing the revelation of Jesus Christ as our Savior.”
“Faith is the soul’s entirely acquiescing in, and depending upon the truth of God, revealing Christ as our Saviour. This is an entire yielding of the mind and heart to the revelation, and a closing with it, and adhering to it with the belief, and with the inclination and affection…. The soul receives it as true, as worthy, and excellent…. It is the souls’ entirely acquiescing in this revelation from a sense of the sufficiency, dignity, glory, and excellency of the author of revelation…. Then it is the mind’s quitting all other endeavours, and seeking and applying itself to the Saviour for salvation, fully choosing salvation by him and delivering itself to him, or a being willing to be his, with a hope that will save him…with a sense of his absolute, glorious sufficiency and mercy. 14
Augustus Strong gave the following definition:
“Faith is that voluntary change in the mind of the sinner in which he turns to Christ. Being essentially a change of mind, it involves a change of view, a change of feeling, and a change of purpose.” 15
Biblical Descriptions Of Faith
The closest thing to a definition of faith in the Scriptures (though it does not meet Aristotle’s standards) is found in Hebrews eleven.
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was not made out of what was visible…. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he is and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:1, 2 and 6).
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the thing promised, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own….They were looking for a better country—a heavenly one…” (Hebrews 11:13-16).
The entire chapter is a description of faith in the normal biblical way of giving us narratives of people believing. We watch the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses’ parents, Moses, Israel, Rahab, and a whole list of others. We learn about faith by reading the narratives of men and women of faith. This is God’s way of teaching us what faith is. He does not give definitions, because that would destroy the very nature of faith.
Abraham was a man of faith because when God spoke to him, he obeyed. God called him to leave his home and family and go to “a place that I will show you,” and he obeyed. He was told to offer his son as a sacrifice and he obeyed. He was promised great and mighty promises and he responded with a mixture of faith and doubt. Paul describes his faith in Romans:
“Against all hope, Abraham believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead– since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he promised.” (Romans 4:18-21).
Though Abraham did believe and act upon that faith in obedience much of the time, there were certainly times of wavering and doubts. Twice, he told foreigners that his wife was his sister, threatening her morality to protect his life because he doubted that God could or would protect him. After Ishmael was born, in a unbelieving attempt to help God give him a family, God did not speak to him for some thirteen years, years in which both he and Sarah passed beyond the ability to bear children. It was a time of doubt that resulted in both Abraham and Sarah laughing at God’s promise to give them a son.
“Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing.” (Genesis 17:17-18).
“Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of child bearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” (Genesis 18:10-15).
But though both had their doubts, they did not return to either Haran or Ur. They stayed even though sometimes they were not sure of the reason. God, through Paul, gives a more positive evaluation of their faith than either of them would have given. It could be described in the words of a distraught father: “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24).
Psalms one and two are powerful descriptions of faith against all experience and appearances. The man who meditates on the Torah is blessed.
“He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season,
and whose leaf shall not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.
Not so the wicked.
They are like the chaff that the wind blows away….” (Ps. 1:3-4)
The friends of Job, in the book immediately preceding this Psalm in our canon, would have liked to use this psalm as a proof that Job was a great sinner. Job would have been perplexed by it, at least until chapter forty-two. David presents quite a different picture of reality in Psalms three and following. Asaph summarized this psalm in the first verse of Psalm 73, and then describes his great doubts “until he went into the house of God.” But Psalm one is a picture of our “being certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).
Psalm two presents the history of the world in rebellion against Yahweh. But it is a world where God’s anointed Son is sovereign, and blessing comes only through submission to him. This is a picture of a promised reality which is quite different from most of the history of the human race. It is a picture of our “being sure of what we hope for” (Hebrews 11:1).
Psalm 3 presents a common theme in those psalms which set a present experience and its appearances over against God’s word and promises. Verses one and two describe the present situation which is totally the opposite of what was promised in Psalms one and two. David reminds himself of God’s promises in verses three and four. He cries for a fulfillment of those promises in verse 7, and demonstrates his total confidence that God’s promises and his word are far more real and powerful than are all of his enemies in verses six and eight. He lives out the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1.
It would be valuable to include some of the narratives of unbelief as well. Numbers thirteen and fourteen is an outstanding example of Israel’s refusal to believe the promises of God in contrast to the faith of Caleb, Joshua, and Moses. Saul is an example of individual unbelief in his two instances of disobedience which were based upon appearances rather than on faith in Yahweh.
Theological Description – A Biblical Rather than a Psychological Description
It is impossible to give a psychological definition of faith or belief. (I will be using this noun and this verb as virtual synonyms at this time). It is far too complex, for one reason. For another, faith looking at itself is a contradiction of its very nature. Faith is a looking away form ourselves and our psychological processes. It is the act of giving total attention to the Living God who presents himself to us in the Scriptures. Faith flows out of listening to God in his Word and is not something we can do, but is a turning away from attention to ourselves in this act of listening to him. As soon as we look at what we are doing when we believe, we reverse everything that faith is all about.
Neither is faith mystical. Faith is knowledge. Too often we contrast faith and knowledge as if faith had a great element of uncertainty in it by its very nature. But the Scriptures present faith as the most certain of all knowledge. We believe what God has said, and there is no authority beyond him. We are committed to the ultimate reality of all that he describes to us in the Scriptures. God, the unseen and the future worlds are all revelations of truth more certain than any other truth can possibly be. Faith is therefore a deep conviction, a certitude of reality, and therefore knowledge.
But faith is not necessarily a good thing. Millions of people have been destroyed by their faith in the wrong people or ideologies. Christians are often hurt when they invent their own objects of faith—God will give us two hundred in church next Sunday if we all believe hard enough, or some such belief in something which God has never promised.
Biblical faith is always faith in the message of the Scriptures, as God intended those Scriptures to be understood. It is personal, in that it is ultimately faith in the Living God directed especially toward Jesus Christ as created in us by the Holy Spirit. Faith must never be creative. It must always be a response to God’s Word
The Modern Concept of Faith
The Reformers reacted against a Roman Catholic definition of faith as an act or habit: “Faith is a virtue and a work.” Luther developed a passive doctrine of faith that often was no more than mental assent, though in his own relationship with God, the mental assent was a radical form of letting God be God and Martin Luther nothing. Luther said:
“Faith is an unceasing and constant looking which turns the eyes upon nothing but Christ, the Victor over sin and death and the Giver of righteousness, salvation, and life eternal. This is why Paul, in his epistles, sets Jesus Christ before us and teaches us about him in almost every single verse. But he sets Him before us through the Word, for in no other way can he be apprehended except by faith in the Word….Faith is the yes of the heart a conviction on which one stakes one’s life. On what does faith rest? On Christ….” 16
John Calvin defined faith as follows:
“Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ both freely revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” 17
Both reformers here and throughout their writings emphasized their convictions that faith is not an act of ours but flows out of the Word of God by the Spirit of God.
There has been a great controversy since the death of the Reformers on the description of biblical faith. Some prefer to define faith as a passive assent to truth. Others prefer to define it as a total trust in him and in his word. There is great danger in both of these descriptions. Mental assent is too weak. “The demons believe and tremble” (James 2:19). Trust is too strong. It turns faith into a word, something we do with great effort.
Trust is a “leaning upon God” and when we define it this way we will always wonder if we are leaning hard enough. Those who demand trust often drive us to examine our faith, and with that turn trust into a work, something that we do. When faith becomes something that we do, we lose everything. We have turned faith into an action that merits our salvation. We have returned to the Roman Catholicism.
Since the great awakenings and the great evangelists of the 18th through the 20th centuries, faith has been downgraded into an assent to the fact that Jesus died on the cross for me and that asking him into my heart will result in eternal heaven rather than eternal hell.
A Description of Biblical Faith
We need to get back to the discipleship that is the foundation for understanding the Christian life. Repentance and faith are our turning of our backs on our old life and committing ourselves to following Jesus Christ for the rest of our lives. Faith is then not merely assent to historical facts but a recognition that truth, reality, joy and fulfillment come from listening to Jesus Christ and in following him.
A few decades ago a man had strung his cable across Niagra Falls and was amazing a large crowd with his balance and courage. Among other things he had wheeled a wheel barrow across the river. Seeing a boy in the front row, he asked him if he believed that he could make it across again with the wheel barrow. The boy was enthusiastic in his positive response. But when the man invited him into the wheel barrow for the ride, he quickly disappeared into the crowd. He had no doubts that the man could and would do it, but was totally unwilling to stake his life upon that belief. He didn’t have biblical faith, and that was a good decision. One should not trust anyone totally except God.
So faith is an unconditional assent to the entire message of the Scriptures combined with entrusting our whole lives and futures unreservedly to God. It is personal in that it is directed entirely to the triune God, and because we believe that all that he has done for salvation has been done for us also. Though there may be times of doubt, the pattern of the believer’s life is one of certitude that we belong to God and that all of his promises will be fulfilled in and for us personally.
Biblical faith is not only a turning fully to Jesus Christ as our only Savior, but it always includes a universal turning from sin and self. There is no true faith that does not at the same time include the radical repentance described above. We cannot turn to Christ and his Story without turning away from the world, sin, and our own story.
Biblical faith cannot be separated from new birth. Faith is the highest act of the spiritual life. It cannot be exercised by those who are spiritually dead. It is the gift of God. We cannot be born again apart from repentance and faith. There is no time sequence between them. New birth and faith are simultaneous. Both are the response to the effectual call of God which creates new life and faith at the same instant.
Saving faith is not a momentary “thing”. It is rather the beginning of a life which is characterized by faith at every moment. We do not believe once and then move on. We begin a whole Christian life of believing against all experience and against all appearances. We continue to be assured of our salvation, not because we remember having believed once, but because at any moment in our Christian life, we are trusting Jesus Christ totally for salvation, for victory, and for all good things.
Conversion, with its double focus of repentance and faith, is brought to completion in confession. Confession is a recognition and declaration of the truth about ourselves and about the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel. It is a recognition and declaration of our radical and objective guilt of our rebellion against the Living God. It is a recognition and declaration of our total lostness. It is a recognition and declaration of our sin and our sins without offering any excuses. It is a recognition and declaration of the beauty, goodness, and sufficiency of the gospel offered to us in Jesus Christ. It is a recognition and declaration of our need for the forgiveness, new life, and justification offered in the gospel by the loving God.
All of these aspects of confession stand or fall together. God will not accept any part of this confession without all of the others. We cannot turn from sin without a full turn to Jesus Christ. We cannot turn to Jesus Christ without turning from our sin, our sins, and our self. Our confession must reflect our conversion.
It is important that we put this two-sided confession into words. Our guilt and lostness are fuzzy and uncertain until we are able to put them into words. Our delight in the gospel and our commitment to Jesus Christ are unclear until we put them into words. We need to remind ourselves that of what we are and what we have done. We need to confess that we have absolutely no excuses for any of our sins or our innate sinfulness. We need to hear ourselves describing the wonder and sufficiency of God’s provision for our sin and for fellowship with Him.
We need to say all of this our loud before witnesses so that they may remind us of this confession when we are faltering. This confession is made publically at our baptism when we publically declare our rejection of our old life and the world while confessing our new life in Jesus Christ and in fellowship with his people. This confession is pictured in our marriage vows.
It is obvious that this confession cannot be made by someone who is “dead in trespasses and sins.” The Holy Spirit must convict us of our sins and shows us the beauty and value of the gospel and the sufficiency of Jesus Christ’s work for us. Confession, like repentance and faith, is a gift of God to those whom he effectually calls to salvation. God gives new birth and conversion as two sides of the same gift. He does not do this in violation of our choice, but he lovingly heals our whole being so that we can respond in the repentance and faith of a good confession.
Conversion and confession stand at the beginning of the Christian life, but it does not stop there. It is the heartbeat of the entire life until our glorification.
During the greater part of the history of the Church, regeneration has been tied so closely to baptism. In the early church, it was viewed as occurring at the moment of the good confession at baptism. With the advent of infant baptism, it became the wiping out of “original sin” so that the baptized one could begin life without the weight of Adam’s sin. Luther viewed it in this way. Calvin viewed it as the entire transformation of our lives, another way of saying sanctification. Only with the great awakenings was new birth separated from baptism and tied to an adult decision of repentance and faith. Like all of the other words which describe our salvation, the awakenings narrowed regeneration to a transforming moment in the life of an individual.
Peter Toon describes the British response to the evangelistic use of “born again” in North America.
“The expression ‘born again’ became increasingly common in North America in the 1970s—much to the amazement of us Europeans, for whom personal religion is a more private affair. We notices articles in prestigious magazines (e.g. Time, 27 Sept. 1976) and concluded that America must be a very religious country since there are so many twice-born people in it! We realized that “born again” was taken from the old translation of John 3:3, and, rightly or wrongly, many of us tended to attribute the modern-day emphasis on the new birth to the evangelistic activity of Billy Graham. We pictured him always preaching on ‘Ye must be born again.’
“In the late 1980s, it is still perhaps true that many in Europe think of ‘born again’ as a peculiarly American expression pointing to some kind of conversion experience followed by religious activism….” 18
It is our responsibility to learn all that we can from this history of the church’s understanding of regeneration. We must also be aware of the particular and unique understanding of the doctrine in our North American context. But we must go beyond that to do a search of the entire Bible so that we might be able to evaluate this history. But it must be more than a word study or a search for proof texts. We must do this from the perspective of the biblical metanarrative.
Some Definitions Of Regeneration
Justin Martyr wrote:
“I will also explain the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we were made new through Christ, since if we left this our in our exposition we would seem to falsify something. As many as are persuaded and believe that the things we teach and say are true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and ask God with fasting for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are born again in the same manner of rebirth by which we ourselves were born again, for they then receive washing in water in the name of God the Father and Master of al, and of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ also said, ‘Except you are born again, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven….” 19
John Calvin made a significant step forward by distinguishing regeneration from baptism.
“I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God that had been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam’s transgression…. Accordingly, we are restored by this regeneration through the benefit of Christ into the righteousness of God…. This restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances God wipes out in his elect the corruptions of the flesh, cleanses them of guilt, consecrates them to himself as temples renewing all their minds to true purity that they may practice repentance throughout their lives and know that this warfare will end only at death.” 20
David Dickson gives a Puritan definition of Regeneration.
“There are two kinds of regeneration: (a) that of infants and (b) that of the outwardly called. This latter, being one with effectual calling, is the work of God’s invincible power and mere grace, wherein, by His Spirit accompanying His Word, He quickens a redeemed person, lying dead in his sins, and renews him in his mind, will, and all the powers of his soul; convincing him savingly of sin, righteousness, and judgment and making him heartily to consecrate himself to the service of God all the days of his life.” 21
Charles Hodge wrote the three volumes of his Systematic Theology in the latter part of the 19th century and has made an immense impact on systematic theology in America. He wrote:
“By a consent almost universal the word regeneration is now used to designate, not the whole work of sanctification, nor the first stages of that work comprehended in conversion, much less justification, or any merely external change of state, but the instantaneous change from spiritual death to spiritual life. Regeneration, therefore, is a spiritual resurrection; the beginning of a new life. Sometimes the word expresses the act of God. God regenerates. Sometimes it designates the subjective effect of his act. The sinner is regenerated. He becomes a new creature. He is born again…. The nature of regeneration is not explained in the Bible further than the account therein given of its author, God, in the exercise of the exceeding greatness of his power; its subject, the whole soul; and its effects, spiritual life and all consequent holy acts and states. Its metaphysical nature is left a mystery.” 22
John Murray defined regeneration:
“It [regeneration] is the Holy Spirit working directly, efficaciously, and irresistibly upon man’s heart and mind, making the man over again, and creating him anew after the image of Christ in holiness and righteousness of the truth. A revolution, a reconstruction takes place at the centre of man’s moral and spiritual being; sin and pollution are dethroned in the citadel of man’s being, and righteousness takes its place… This deep-sealed transformation must express itself in all the relations of life. The governing disposition, the character, the mind and will are renewed and so the person is now able to respond to the call of the gospel and enters into the privileges and blessings of the divine vocation…. It must be that regeneration is used in two distinct senses in the New Testament (1) in the restricted sense of recreative action on the part of God in which there is no intrusion in contribution of agency on our part; (2) in a more inclusive sense, that is to say, a sense broad enough to include the saving response and activity of our consciousness…. Regeneration takes place in connection with the effectual call; it pushes itself into the consciousness in the responses of faith and repentance. It has no relevance except as it is concomitant with these other aspects of the ordo salutis.” 23
James Packer wrote:
“Regeneration or new birth is an inner creating of fallen human nature by the gracious action of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8). The Bible conceives salvation as the redemptive renewal of man on the basis of a restored relationship with God in Christ and presents is as involving a radical and complete transformation wrought in the soul (Romans 12:2, Eph. 4:23) by God the Holy Spirit (Titus #;5, Eph. 4:24), by virtue of which we become new men (Eph 4:24, Col. 3:10), no longer conformed to the world (Rom. 12:2, Eph. 4:22, Col. 3:9), but in knowledge and holiness of the truth…. Regeneration is the birth in which this work of new creation is begun as sanctification if the growth by which it continues.” 24
Miley gives us an Arminian view of regeneration.
“While regeneration is closely related to justification, there are real points of difference between them…. The necessity for justification lies in the fact of guilt, while the necessity for regeneration lies in the depravity of our nature…. It is the office of justification to cancel our guilt, while it is the office of regeneration to renew or purify our moral nature.” 25
Bromiley’s article in ISBE revised is worth quoting because he places regeneration in its larger, eschatological context:
“[Matthew 19:28] Regeneration, in this sense, denotes the final state
of development of all creation, when God’s purposes are fully realized and “all things are put in subjection under him [I Cor. 15:27]. This is a regeneration in the proper meaning of the word, for it signifies a renovation of all visible things; the old has passed away, and heaven and earth have become new (Rev. 21:1)…. The full biblical conception of eschatological regeneration undoubtedly includes a spiritual sense, for it is unthinkable that the eschatological regeneration can exist without a spiritual regeneration of humanity or the individual…. Four points are necessary to a satisfactory understanding and statement of the biblical doctrine. First, regeneration is to be seen as indeed the work of the Holy Spirit who is sovereign in His operation and whose initiative need not wait on human response. Second, the Holy Spirit does indeed use the means of grace in His operation, yet not in such a way that an automatic efficacy o the one side or a naturalistic explanation on the other my be assumed. Third, regeneration is not necessarily the same as repentance, faith, and practical conversion, although these are its inseparable manifestations in those who are capable of them. Fourth, regeneration as a birth is obviously initiation to the new life in Christ, but also supremely positive, carrying with it the implication of the whole.” 26
Key Passages In The Scriptures
“The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
“The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers…. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord’ because they will all know me from the least to the greatest, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
“I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them.”
“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them. I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)
“I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
“Jesus said to them; ‘I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28).
“Yet to all who received him to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent nor of human decision, nor of a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13).
“In reply, Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’ ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at may saying, ‘You must be born again’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3-8. See also John 10:10 and 28).
“If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him…. No one who is born of God will continue to sin because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who are the children of the Devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” (I John 2:29 and 3:9-10).
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (4:7)….
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God and everyone who loves the Father loves his child as well (5:1)…. For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith”…. We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.” (I John 5:18).
“Lydia…who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” (Acts 16:14).
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.” (II Corinthians 5:17).
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…. For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:4-6 and 10. See Colossians 2:13).
“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs, having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)
“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of he heavenly lights, who does not change like the shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” James 1:16-18).
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” (I Peter 1:3-5).
“For you have been born again, not of perishable see, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (I Peter 1:23).
A Theological Description Of Regeneration – The Contemporary Setting
The early church lost something important when they identified new birth with baptism. Almost everything else was lost when adult baptism was changed to infant baptism. Calvin’s distinction between the two was a large step forward. The evangelists of the 18th century gave even more clarity to regeneration.
But we have also lost something that the early church emphasized: (1) the connection between the radical decision of renunciation of the entire past life and the total commitment to follow Jesus, (2) The new relationship to Jesus Christ and to all other believers that was pictured in the act of adult baptism, and (3) the symbolism of washing and cleansing that is pictured in baptism.
The decision of repentance and faith is an essential part of new birth, not that we do that in our own strength in order to be born again, nor that we are born again and then repent and believe, but that both new birth and conversion are responses to the grace of the effectual call of God. Both are very difficult to understand because the Holy Spirit works through our activity in ways that we cannot feel nor understand.
The new life is an individual transformation at the very core of our being and personhood, but, at the same time, it is much more than individual. We do not have a new “thing” in us because of new birth. Rather, we are brought into new relationships. God breaks down the barriers between us and himself, and we are invited into a whole series of intimate relationships with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are placed “in Christ Jesus” with all of the intimacy and blessings described in the section on our “Union with Christ.” At the same time we are baptized into the body of Christ and a whole new and intimate set of relationships with all of the other members of the church.
Regeneration is often combined with word for washing and cleansing in the Bible. Baptism pictures that cleansing from the corruption of our past sins and the preparation that it gives for fellowship with the holy God (see the book of Leviticus).
When we have added to our present word all that was lost in the first seventeen centuries of the church, we have a foundation for a more biblical understanding of regeneration. We have something much more complex and real than the easy and often empty contemporary use for anyone who has made a mental decision for some kind of Christianity. We will no longer use it in all of the copycat ways of the eighties.
The Metanarrative — The Reversal Of The Fall
Regeneration is the reversal of all that occurred when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They died that day and their death is described in the following passage.
“But you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die…. She also gave some of it to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden…. I heard you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked, and so I hid. And he said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from? The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.” (Genesis 2:17, and 3:6b-12)
When Adam ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he and Eve died as Yahweh God had promised. The death is pictured in their realization of their nakedness, their hiding from God, and his blaming Eve for his sin. All of these picture one or another of the characteristics of the death that enveloped them on that day. Out of fellowship with God, they hid from God. Out of fellowship with each other, Adam blamed Eve for being the occasion of his sin. All alone, they were naked and vulnerable—and dead.
God gave them a promise of the coming seed who would reverse their sin and defeat their tempter. They believed God and they were born again. They did not understand new birth, but their repentance and faith was the other side of that new birth and evidences of its reality in their lives.
Now, God has revealed this new birth as the reversal of their sin, their broken relationships with God and with each other and their nakedness. New birth is not the creation of something new, but the restoration of relationships and wholeness that had been lost by disobedience. We are whole and clothed when we can walk in fellowship with God and be in good relationships with each other.
Faith, hope, and love are central in this new set of relationships. The fall flowed out of an acceptance of Satan’s suggestions that God’s was not altogether trustworthy and that Eve ought to be suspicious of his motives. The new birth is a birth of faith and trust. It is of the very nature of our new life that we trust in God and resist all suggestions to doubt his wisdom, power, goodness, or intentions.
The fall was a breaking of relationships with God and each other. The new life is characterized by love. Jesus summarized the new life by quoting the Old Testament.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39).
John added a implication of the second commandment in his first letter.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (I John 4:7-8).
We cannot understand the new birth apart from this reversal from self-centeredness to love for God, our neighbor, and our brother.
The fall brought death and hopelessness. The new birth brings life and hope. It is characterized by the knowledge of the promises of God and the certitude that our future is certain because of God’s trustworthiness. We hope with an eager anticipation for all of the promises of God because we know that he promises better things than all of our fantasies.
The New Covenant
The promises of the new covenant are centered around new birth. When we compare the old and the new covenants we note a great number of similarities: they both promise that God will be our God and that we will be his people. They both promise himself and all good things to those who obey him. The difference though is immense. The success of the old covenant depends upon the obedience of an unbelieving nation, and they fail totally. In the new covenant, God gives his covenant partners the Spirit of God, new hearts, and the law is written on their hearts. (See the promises on pages 126-127). God makes the new covenant with new-born people. He transforms them so that they will love and obey him in His own power and grace.
Paul summarizes this newness of the new covenant:
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Chrsit Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1-4).
He gives us an exposition of the “circumcising of hearts”, the “writing of the law on our hearts”, the “new heart of flesh”. It is all built upon Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. On the foundation of his work, the Holy Spirit comes into our lives to give us new birth by applying to us all that Jesus did for us, and by making the law of God an internal delight rather than an external judgment against us.
At Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples and the rest of the believing remnant in fulfillment of the promises of the new covenant. Now he does for all of God’s people what he had promised through Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Regeneration is the essence of everything that is new in the new covenant.
This does not mean that no one was born again before Pentecost, A.D. 30. David certainly shows the law written on his heart in Psalm 19. He, or whoever wrote Psalm 119 demonstrated the same new birth there. God made the old covenant with the whole nation—the great majority of whom were unregenerate. But he did regenerate believers before that time and give them many of the blessings of the new covenant before that great Pentecost.
Paul often describes the new birth as a new life or the “new man” See a fine description of this aspect of Paul’s concept of regeneration in Carl Hoch’s book. 27 Paul uses terms like: “Made us alive with Christ”, “The washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”, and “Citizenship in Heaven” (See page 128). He does not treat regeneration as merely a past event, but rather as a birth that happened in the past and that newness of life that continues to characterize us now and forever.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke record Jesus’ synonym for the new birth as entrance into the Kingdom of God (Heaven). The Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus’ shorthand for everything new that he proclaims.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus sometimes uses the term “eternal life” as a synonym for the Kingdom of God. Again, the emphasis is upon both the entrance into this new life and the radical newness of the living of that life. John gives us a clear statement about Jesus’ description of new birth (John 1:12-13; 3:3-8, 10:10, 28; I John 2:29-3:10; 5:1-18 (see pp. 127-128). Certainly the initiative is from God and just as certainly, Jesus demanded faith as the entrance into this new life.
Baptism Into The Body Of Jesus Christ
New birth is first of all a new set of loving relationships with the triune God. It is secondly a new set of relationships with other believers. Since Pentecost, every new believer is immediately baptized into the body of Christ.
“So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (I Corinthians 12:12c-13).
New birth is the total opposite of individualism. Individualism is the loneliness and alienation of sin and lostness. Regeneration breaks the chains of our loneliness and replaces our alienation with fellowship with Jesus Christ and with all other new born people. Now we can take off all of our masks and pretense and be ourselves with others who are being themselves
The church and the Lord’s Supper are pictures of this new set of relationships. We do not need to discuss them again here. We need only make the reference to fill out the biblical doctrine of regeneration. See the treatment of the church above for a fuller treatment.
Separating regeneration from baptism reminds us that new birth does not come by the sacrament, but comes only as the gift of the Holy Spirit. But the separation does tend to make us forget that new birth is inseparable from conversion—repentance and faith, which is pictured in the good confession made at baptism. Conversion and new birth are two sides of exactly the same act; both gifts of God and the whole act our responsibility.
Regeneration is not a creation of something new in us, but the breaking of the old separation from God and others by establishing new relationships of love and fellowship with God and other believers. It is the cleansing of the pollution caused by our death in sin and our participation in Satan’s kingdom. It is a deliverance from Satan’s kingdom and a giving of citizenship in heaven.
New birth does not occur in isolation from the rest of the ordo salutis. Everyone who is chosen and effectually called is given new life. This new life is inseparable from repentance and faith. It is also inseparable from the whole Christian life. Sanctification and the Christian life are not something different from new birth. Holiness is continuation of the life of the regenerated person.
In the biblical metanarrative, God’s whole work of redemption is often described as a part of his work newness: “He who was seated on the throne said,
‘I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5). The first step of newness is the New Man, Jesus Christ. The second step is the new people; the born again ones, the people of the kingdom. The third step is the Messianic Kingdom. The fourth step is the new heaven and the new earth. Our new birth must be understood in its place in this context.