Previous article in this series: October 1, 2016, p. 14.
Are you a born-again believer?
And if you have been regenerated (born again), how can you tell?
An Important Question
These are important questions, first of all, because of what regeneration is. Regeneration (and now we are using the term in what Reformed theologians have historically called “the narrower sense”) is the first implanting of the principle of the new life of Christ in your heart by the Holy Spirit, so that you, the formerly spiritually dead, totally depraved, elect sinner, have become spiritually alive in the depths of your being. It is a spiritual rebirth. It is what Jesus calls being born of the Spirit (). Everything you will ever become spiritually is contained in that principle of life. Regeneration is not something we do or even something we choose. Regeneration is not man’s work. Regeneration is an astonishing work of God’s sovereign grace ( ; ; ; ).
Regeneration is not something ordinary or minor, like having a driver’s license. The difference between a yes or no answer to the question “Have you been regenerated?” is incalculable; it is the difference between life and death. Are you regenerated?
Secondly, this is an important question because no one has ever consciously experienced regeneration. If I ask you, “Have you ever had a haircut?” You could say, “Yes, and not only does my short hair presently bear the evidence, but I remember sitting in my aunt’s basement last week Wednesday afternoon while she cut my hair, even nicking me just behind my right ear. Boy, did I yelp!” But no one can ever say, “Of course, I have been regenerated. I distinctly remember the sensation I felt when the Spirit first came into my heart. I was sitting in church (or I was being baptized, or I was lying in bed, or I was walking through a meadow, or I was a toddler being cuddled by my mother). One moment I was dead, but then, like the feeling of cold water moving down my throat, I could feel the Holy Spirit coming into me, pervading my inmost recesses, and going deeper and deeper into my heart. It was amazing to feel Him softening my heart and infusing new qualities into my will. Gentle tremors of heavenly ecstasy moved through my whole body.” You could sooner explain your experience of being born than being born again. That is, you could sooner explain what you consciously experienced coming through the birth canal of your mother than you could your rebirth by the Holy Spirit.
We sometimes misapply Jesus’ words to Nicodemus into refer to the Holy Spirit in His mysterious working. Although the Spirit’s working is mysterious like the movement of the wind, Jesus draws a different parallel when He states, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” Jesus does not compare the Spirit to the wind (“…so is the Spirit.”), but He compares the Spirit-born individual to the wind (“…so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”). If you have been regenerated, you are like the wind. The wind is mysterious and can only be discerned by its effects. We do not know its origin or destination. Similarly, we born-again believers do not know whence we have come. We know not our spiritual origin. We know objectively and doctrinally from God’s infallible revelation to us in Scripture that it is in regeneration, but we have never experienced that new birth. Nor do we know whither we go with this new life. Objectively and doctrinally we know we are going to heaven, for that is the goal and destination of the life of regeneration; but exactly what heaven is like and where it is, we know not. Of regeneration the Canons of Dordt III/IV, Article 13 teach, “The manner of this operation cannot be fully comprehended by believers in this life.” Part of what makes the full comprehension of our rebirth presently impossible is that we have never consciously experienced it. Then how can we know if we are born again? Are you regenerated?
Thirdly, this is an important and necessary question to put to the youth. It is not only important to ask you, the young people of the church, this question in catechism as a pedagogical method to help you understand and think through the doctrine of regeneration, but also to make you honestly consider whether you are personally regenerated. It is not good to ask a confessing believer repeatedly, Are you regenerated?, leaving the impression that no one really may be sure he is regenerated, thus casting a dark shadow of doubt over a believer’s soul. Nonetheless, it is important to ask.
Our rich understanding of the everlasting and unconditional covenant of grace that God establishes with His elect people and their elect, spiritual seed in their generations demands that we view and treat our children, not as unsaved, unconverted little demons in need of our best evangelistic efforts, but as the children of God, sanctified in Christ. God saves children. God saves and incorporates into His everlasting covenant children as children. God can regenerate unborn babies in the womb (the Reformed have often cited, , and sometimes even ). We do not find the basis for the baptizing of our infants in our presumption that all of our children are regenerated by the Spirit and sanctified in Christ. We find the basis for the baptizing of our infants in the covenant promise of God, who promises to be a God unto us and to our seed after us. Although we do not ground the baptizing of our infants on our presupposition that they are all regenerated, nonetheless, we view and treat our baptized children as regenerated and sanctified in Christ. This view and treatment brings reproach to our covenant doctrine and the accusation that we think our children are all saved and everlastingly secure, so that we never call them to repentance and faith, never call them to conversion, never expect to see the fruits of regeneration but just assume, even when they give evidence to the contrary, that they are regenerated. Over against such a charge it is important to underscore the fact that we do take seriously a godly life of faith and repentance among our covenant youth. And thus it is important to ask the question. Are you regenerated? If so, how can you tell?
The Way to Answer
We may know our rebirth by the evidences or fruits of it. We know the wind by its evidences in moving leaves, swaying branches, whipping flags, and whistles or roars. We know our physical, earthly, blood-birth of our mothers by its evidences in that we do what living people typically do in breathing, eating, sleeping, thinking, moving, feeling, and so on. Similarly, we may know our spiritual rebirth in regeneration by its evidences or fruits. If you have been regenerated, then you have the life of Christ in you and that life will come to manifestation. Even if you had a dramatic Damascus-road conversion experience (as some do), where you suddenly felt the powerful convicting work of the Holy Spirit, you were not experiencing the Spirit-birth of regeneration but the evidences of it. What are those evidences?
The evidences of regeneration are not the following: You were baptized by a minister. You can sing many of the songs of the Psalter from memory. You have been through Beginners, Juniors, Seniors, Heidelberg Catechism, and Essentials catechism classes. You have made confession of faith and partake of Holy Communion. You go to worship services twice every week. You can lead other people in devotions by reading the Bible and offering a prayer. An unregenerate, reprobate Esau could do those things. Let not the heart of the sincere believer be troubled by that fact. But it is true. While all of those activities are ordinarily essential aspects of the healthy believer’s life, they are not necessarily the evidences of regeneration, for they are external actions that do not require for their completion the Holy Spirit.
Additionally, the evidences of regeneration are not that you used to lag behind others when performing mental mathematical calculations such as “what’s 15% of this bill?” but now you are sharp and speedy. While regeneration would make your attitude toward your own mental deficiencies in mathematics pleasing to God, it would not change that particular compartment of your brain that processes numbers. Disciplined drilling and practice would improve your performance but not regeneration. The evidence of regeneration is not that you used to be shy and reserved, but now you are outgoing. The point here is that regeneration is not a change in our essential natural, physical makeup or personality as created by God, but a radical inward change in the spiritual-moral center of our being that orients us from sin to God so that we want to please Him in all we are, think, say, and do.
The evidence of regeneration is not the glory of sinless perfection. Regeneration makes us perfect in principle, but not in full. Our incredibly powerful and relentlessly militant sinful flesh cleaves to us until it is abolished on the day we die and go to heaven. Regeneration decisively breaks the dominion of sin within us, yet sin remains. Do not doubt your regeneration and salvation because you sin, and sin, and sin, and sin, and sin. This side of Eden only one man will ever walk this earth perfectly consecrated to God. You are not that man, nor am I. Jesus is.
The evidence of regeneration is that you fight. You know you are regenerated—born again from above with the life of the Lord by the Spirit of the Lord—if you fight. You know with unshakable confidence that you belong to Christ now and forever if you fight. The dead do not fight; the living fight. You fight against sin in and for the kingdom of God. You can see the kingdom by faith. You love the kingdom—the church, its gospel preaching, its holy people, and its living truth. You love God’s King, your Savior, Jesus Christ. You love and set your heart upon the treasures of the kingdom—righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit. Because you love God, you hate and want destroyed the lie of false doctrine, wicked attitudes, alluring temptations, and all that is full of the vanity of wicked man. You fight for the Bible and the truth of the Bible contained in the Reformed creeds. The evidence of regeneration is not that you no longer sin, but that your sin bothers you before God. You fight against your own sins by sorrowing over them, hating them, and fleeing from them as Joseph fled Potiphar’s house. You fight by pleading with God to forgive you, and to forgive you yet again. You manfully fight against and overcome sin, the devil, and his whole dominion. Do you do that? I trust you do. You have been born again.
No? You don’t fight? You never have? And you don’t even care? Oh, dear reader, may God be so merciful to your perishing, hell-bound soul! I pray He may do what neither you nor I can do—regenerate your heart, give you faith, and move you to plead, “Deliver my sinking soul, I pray!”
The church may not view and treat as regenerated, believing Christians her youth who come to years of discretion and never manifest the fruits of the Spirit, but who stubbornly reject gospel admonitions and persist in a rebellious life of running in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries, all the while scoffing at the responsibilities of membership in the house of God. What a dishonor to Christ our doctrine and practice would be! As if Christ were still in the grave! As if Christ were a dead head of a dead body! Rebellious youth who come of age and manifest no allegiance to the cause of Christ must be cut off from the company of the living in the church of God. They are not for Christ; they are against Christ. They are not alive; they are dead. Christ is the living Head of the living body, and when He comes to make His abode in our hearts by His Holy Spirit, there are evidences of that mysterious, supernatural, spiritual resurrection unto newness of life that we call regeneration. There is fight! And in the antithetical fight against sin, all of us must be exhorted repeatedly to faith and repentance. Believe! Repent today! Turn from your disobedience now!
Regeneration is the origin of war within us. No regeneration, no fight. Because the battle belongs to the Lord, here too—especially here—God sovereignly and graciously regenerates all whom He has predestinated unto life. We are by nature dead in Adam, allied to Satan, and thoroughly sinful, as we have already explained. To God be the glory for putting the battle within us.
Are you regenerated? You may know by answering one further question: do you fight sin? If so, you are regenerated and everlastingly secure. Show your gratitude to your sovereign King by going forth in His service and strong in His might to conquer all evil and stand for the right.
With this article we now conclude our lengthy, deliberately doctrinal—intensive, foundational chapter called “Knowing War’s Origin.”