Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.
As we begin our consideration of the Holy Spirit’s work in our salvation, we look first at the wonder of regeneration, otherwise known as spiritual rebirth, being born again.
The very concept of being born again sets before us an urgent necessity. You must be born again! Those were the words of Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3. That necessity is set before us in Scripture by use of a contrast between natural life and spiritual life.
Every man is born into what is generally called life. That birth, natural birth, is profoundly mysterious and wonderful. But the life into which we are born by natural conception and birth is a life that has severe limitations, is very brief, does not last for any man, and ends in death.
In contrast to that stands the new life. It is a life that not every man receives. But it is a life into which every elect child of God is born. And that birth is even more mysterious and more wonderful than the natural conception and birth. For this birth is one which gives us life everlasting, life which will flourish forever.
These two lives, the natural and the spiritual, are not in every respect opposite. For a time the same person may possess both. When a man is born again by the Spirit, he is not by that rebirth stripped of the life which belongs to the flesh. He becomes a stranger in the earth. He lives in the flesh, yet, as one who has also a life from above, reaching in hope for that which is to come. Though he possesses both for a time, the first or natural life will soon depart, just as the grass withers and the flower fades; but the new or spiritual life will endure forever. From that very contrast we see the urgency of regeneration. To that truth and its workings I call your attention in this and a following article.
While the light of Scripture reveals this glorious truth in both Old and New Testaments, there is one passage where the wonder of regeneration is carefully unfolded before us. We read in I Peter 1:23-25: “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.”
Regeneration is a wonder work of God the Holy Spirit. To be born again is to be brought under the very power of God Himself. And that power of God is a life-giving power.
Let it not be forgotten, apart from this new birth, every man (and I use that term generically, including not only women but also children)—every man is dead in trespasses and sins. As Jesus said to Nicodemus inJohn 3:6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” And that which is flesh is that which is corruptible and indeed corruption itself.
That is a hard truth, no question about it. But that is the clear teaching of Scripture. When we speak of the truth of regeneration, we must begin with the truth that man is totally depraved, spiritually dead, unable to do any good and flat on his back in his rotting death.
If you can’t bow before Scripture in its teaching of that truth, you will never understand the truth of regeneration. Many cannot, or will not. They may even admit that sin is very bad, an abominable thing; but they insist that there is surely some remnant of good in man. That neighbor, who is so good in outward appearance, even though he’s not a church-goer, who is always helping the other neighbors, who doesn’t curse and is no drunkard—surely that amiable man cannot be dead in trespasses and sins! Those robbers and murderers who are behind the bars of the prison, they may be dead in their sins; but really, that can’t apply to our nice neighbors, to their lovely girls and honorable sons and pleasant children! They are not prone to hate God and their neighbors, but show some signs rather of love.
I understand why the truth of Scripture is not easy to receive. After all, we also are sinners. And by nature we surely don’t want to paint sin as something so serious.
But when we stand before the perfectly holy and righteous God and examine His authoritative and inspired Scriptures, we have no choice but to bow before Him and to humble ourselves. He tells us who have been born again,Ephesians 2:1, “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.”
The judgment of the Almighty Judge is clearly revealed inRomans 3:10ff. and in many, many other places throughout the Bible: “There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10-12).
That is the point even in the context of I Peter 1:23-25. We are exhorted in verse 22: “See that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently.” Verse 23 stands connected as a subordinate clause—”Being born again.” Except you are born again, you cannot possibly love these Christian strangers.
When a man dies, he no longer loves. You may yet love that man or woman whose body lies in the casket, and that love may cause you to grieve deeply; but there is no reciprocating love in that corpse. And a corpse is what fallen man is.
For that reason Jesus said inJohn 3:3, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We confess with Scripture that every work of saving grace must be preceded by a new birth, by a giving of life to the sinner, by an opening of the blind eyes and the deaf ears.
That giving of life is the regeneration, the being born again, to which our text refers. We read in Proverbs 20:12: “The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them.”
Regeneration is the work of God alone, wrought in its beginning even without our knowledge. To liken it again to something from natural life, consider this, that before there can be conception and birth, the egg has to come down the fallopian tube of the woman who will become a mother. That woman has nothing consciously to do with that egg. The very fact that an egg comes down the fallopian tube must be viewed as the work of God alone. The woman has no knowledge of when that egg is formed or sent. God alone works that wonder. The same is true with regeneration.
The apostle Peter speaks of that rebirth coming, not out of corruptible seed, but out of incorruptible. The human seed is corruptible. The seed that is inseminated at the time of physical conception is a seed subject to corruption. We are conceived and born in sin (Ps. 51:5). In distinction from that, the seed of the second birth is incorruptible, from heaven. It is the heavenly life of Christ implanted in the hearts of His people.
How does God work that wonder of His grace?
The answer to that question is developed by the inspired apostle Peter. According to I Peter 1:23-25 regeneration can be viewed from three perspectives. In the first place, regeneration is the implanting of the incorruptible seed in the heart of God’s elect. Secondly, regeneration is the quickening of that seed by the power of the living and abiding Word of God. And finally, the text speaks of that aspect of regeneration which is the seed of the new birth coming to consciousness. That is worked by means of the preaching as the means of grace.
We consider now the first aspect, namely, the implanting of the incorruptible seed.
The planting of the incorruptible seed into the heart of an elect child of God takes place without any knowledge of the person. God works that sovereignly and alone, through the Holy Spirit. It is an irresistible work of God’s grace, an act of God’s almighty power. This wonder of regeneration is beautifully described in our Canons of Dordt, Heads III and IV, Article 12, where we read:
And this is the regeneration so highly celebrated in Scripture, and denominated (named, SRK) a new creation: a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation that after God has performed His part it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable (or inexpressible, SRK); not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated and do actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.
So the authors at that Synod of Dordrecht described the work of regeneration set before us in I Peter, chapter 1.
Out of that incorruptible seed, mysteriously planted by the work of the Spirit, grows the whole life of regeneration. In that seed our whole life was already present, all the blessings of which we presently partake consciously.
Just as the child is already present in the seed of conception (as is clearly revealed to faith in Psalm 139), so the whole new man is present in that seed of regeneration. All the gifts of salvation were given us in that moment when God planted the incorruptible seed in our corruptible hearts.
That incorruptible seed is similar to the acorn, in which is the whole oak tree and out of which that whole oak tree develops and grows.
Notice the practical importance of that seed being described for us as incorruptible. That seed, once planted in your heart, can never die. It is a seed immortal, that shall endure in Christ for eternity. Though we may fall into serious sins, and even lose consciousness of the love and presence of God for a time, yet God in mercy does not desert us, nor allow us to plunge ourselves into damnation.
So we read in the Fifth Head of the Canons of Dordt, Article 7:
For, in the first place, in these falls He preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing, or being totally lost; and again, by his Word and Spirit, certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforth more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.
The seed of regeneration is incorruptible. That it is planted by the Holy Spirit even without our consciousness, and even apart from any preaching, is evident also from John 5:24. There Jesus says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is (literally, has been) passed from death unto life.” Without that implanted seed of regeneration, man has no spiritual understanding whatsoever of spiritual things.