The Spirit's Role: Regeneration

Have you ever wanted a fresh start? Perhaps you fumbled in some area – a marriage, a parent-child relationship, a job – and you longed to reset. Or something happened to you that made you wish for a complete change of identity. The witness protection program no longer sounded inconvenient, but full of promise. Whether you have desired complete change, or simply recognized that there are things in you that need renovation – like those majestic cathedrals obscured by scaffolding – the Bible presents a doctrine of “regeneration.” Louis Berkhof writes, “Regeneration is that act of God by which the principle of the new life is implanted in man, and the governing disposition of the soul is made holy.”[1] Simply put, it is “that work of the Holy Spirit by which we experience a change of heart.”[2]

The word translated “regeneration” appears just twice in the Bible. First, it is translated “the new world” (Mt 19:28)[3] – the future, final condition of things renewed under Christ’s sovereign rule, the “new heavens and new earth”, foreseen, for example, in Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22. This notion is different from how we typically use the word “regeneration”, but not unrelated. The Apostle Paul states that Christians already begin to experience this future existence when they first believe in Christ. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Co 5:17)

Second, “regeneration” appears in Titus 3:4-5, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Here “regeneration” is closer to how we commonly use it, and it is connected to the Holy Spirit’s work.

There are two parts to the word “regeneration”, the first meaning “again” and the second “to be, become, or take place”. Re-generation then means “again-becoming”. A stranger once approached me and asked, “Have you been born again?” Perhaps you’ve heard that on TV or asked someone yourself. Jesus confronted Nicodemus, a theologian who came to him under cover of darkness to inquire about his teaching, with this image. “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” (Jn 3:3) A few verses later: “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” (Jn 3:5) The element of water is mentioned alongside the Divine Person, the Spirit, in both Titus 3:5 and John 3:5, because the Spirit’s work of renewing hearts is portrayed in Ezekiel 36:25 as “sprinkling clean water on you.” When you observe a Christian baptism, this is portrayed: the believer washed clean, a fresh start.

If we are changed by God’s Spirit, then is there nothing to do but sit back and wait for the Spirit to work? No! The Spirit ordinarily regenerates people by the preaching of God’s Word. The Apostle Peter uses another picture for new life, drawn this time not from animal but plant life: “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Pe 1:23) This change cannot be repeated, because it is permanent. It is imperishable, always new, and only growing newer. It is more than starting over. You could do that over and over and never get it right once for all. But the Spirit of God regenerates, and so it is everlasting. The Spirit plants an imperishable seed in our hearts by the imperishable Word, and it grows by being nourished. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” (1 Pe 2:2) If you want to be born anew, get under sound preaching at a local church, and live what you hear. The Lord and Giver of Life will not disappoint you.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Walton, NY, a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA, and a Th.M. student in Reformation and Post-Reformation Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI. He lives with his wife and three children in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York.

[1] Berkhof, L., Systematic theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 469.

[2] M’Clintock, J., and Strong, “Regeneration”, in Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. 8 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894), 1016.

[3] Scripture quotations from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016).


Steven McCarthy