Regeneration

We have now come to the end of our discussion of the book of Revelation. And therefore we must choose another subject. This time the subject will be more doctrinal than exegetical, although, of course, all doctrine is based on the Word of God as contained in the Scriptures. And therefore, doctrine presupposes the interpretation of the Scriptures, or exegesis.

We have thought of different parts of doctrine that have to be explained. But for practical reasons I now choose the doctrine of salvation, that is, of the application of salvation to the sinner that is dead in sin and misery. In other words, we wish to discuss the way in which salvation is applied to the heart of the sinner. And, although we cannot distinguish sharply between the various elements of this way of salvation, nevertheless we must distinguish the various steps, from a logical point of view, in the way of salvation. And then we prefer the way in which salvation is applied to the heart of the sinner as follows: first, regeneration; after that the calling; thirdly, faith; in the fourth place, justification; fifthly, sanctification; then preservation, together with perseverance; and finally, glorification.

Hence, we first discuss the question of regeneration.

First of all, I will try to define the subject of regeneration. And I do this as follows. Regeneration, in the deepest and narrowest sense of the word is that saving act of the Triune God whereby He takes hold of the elect, who is in himself dead in sins and trespasses, through the Spirit of Christ, translates him in the very depth of his existence, and infuses into him the principle of the new life which is in Christ Jesus, thus translating him in principle out of death into life and placing him in abiding communion with the body of Christ. That, therefore, would be my definition of the important doctrine of regeneration. It consists in the granting and infusing of new spiritual qualities. It is the circumcision of the heart. It takes place not in the consciousness of the sinner as such, but in the very depth of his heart, in the center of his spiritual, ethical life, from which are the issues of life. We may also say that regeneration in the narrowest sense of the word is the implanting of the seed of the new life as it is not yet sprouted into the consciousness of the sinner. We may even say, on the basis of Scripture, that regeneration is a wholly new creation, through which in principle the sinner becomes a wholly new man in Christ Jesus, so that principally old things have passed away and all things have become new. The Holy Scriptures speak of regeneration in this sense when they refer to an incorruptible seed, out of which regeneration develops, through the Word of God in the consciousness of the sinner. From the point of view of this new principle of life, in regeneration the new man is principally entirely delivered from sin. He cannot sin, according to the apostle John in his first Epistle, 3:9. He cannot sin, according to the apostle in this verse, “because his seed remaineth in him.” Of this regeneration the Savior also speaks to Nicodemus in the well-known words: “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And when Nicodemus approaches the Lord with the question, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” Jesus again speaks of the new birth as follows: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” John 3:3-5. Now then, explaining the definition I just made, we can find the following elements in the grace of regeneration. 1) First of all, regeneration is exclusively a work of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, through the Spirit of Christ. Man, therefore, is in deepest principle wholly passive in the work of regeneration. In it God only acts; man does not. 2) Regeneration, in that narrowest sense of the word, takes place in the depth of man’s existence, or, if you wish, in the depth of a man’s heart. It is a new birth, a being born from the very beginning. It is a new creation, and a regenerated man is a new creature. 3) It precedes all mediate works of God in us. For without this work of regeneration, according to the words of Jesus just quoted, one cannot even see the kingdom of God. It is an immediate work of God, an act of the Spirit in our hearts, without us, in which, therefore, we are entirely inactive. 4) This new creation, however, does not mean that man through regeneration is essentially changed. In regeneration he does not receive another soul in the essential sense of the word. Regeneration has a spiritual, ethical character. Through that work of God the sinner is translated from death into life. 5) Finally, regeneration consists of an infusing, or implanting, of the seed of a new life, of the principle of the life of God as it exists first in the exalted Christ, and from Him flows through the Spirit of Christ into the church and into the heart of the sinner. It is implanted out of Christ into the heart of the sinner, into the center of his existence from a spiritual, ethical point of view.

From all this it ought to be evident that regeneration is exclusively a work of God, wherein man is strictly passive, in the sense that he does not and cannot cooperate in his own rebirth. In the deepest sense regeneration is not even as such a matter of his own experience, seeing that it does not take place within, but below the threshold of his consciousness. It is therefore independent of age, and it can take place in the smallest infant. We may even take for granted that in the sphere of the covenant of God He usually regenerates His elect children from infancy.

We now will turn to Scripture, in order to prove that our description of the rebirth, or regeneration, is based upon the Word of God.

That this is true follows already from the condition in which man is by nature. For, according to the Word of God, “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually.” Gen. 6:5. And again, “The imagination of a man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Gen. 8:21. As he is by nature, therefore, he does not have any place in the kingdom of God. He does not even have a remote conception of the things of that kingdom. His heart does not go out to those things. On the contrary, with all his heart and mind and will, all his soul and strength, he lives in the very sphere of another kingdom, the kingdom of the devil, the prince of darkness. David confesses: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Ps. 51:5. In virtue of his first birth, therefore, he cannot possibly have a place in the kingdom of heaven. That kingdom is spiritual, ethical, and heavenly in essence and nature. That kingdom is not of the world, but it is of the Father. That kingdom is not from below, but it is from above. For that reason, anyone that is born according to the flesh cannot see the kingdom of heaven. For all that is born of the flesh is flesh, and never minds anything else than the things of the flesh, which are death. John 3:6. As a man is born of blood or of the will of the flesh, he can have no power at all to become a son: of God. John 1:12, 13. They that are from below seek the glory of man, but they despise the glory of God. Therefore they can never believe in Him, nor enter into the kingdom. John 8:23John 15:19John 5:44. They are of their father the devil, and desire to do the lusts of their father, who did not abide in the truth. And no truth is ever in him. When he speaks of himself, he speaks the lie. For he is a liar, and the father of the lie. Cf. John 8:43, 44. They are, according to the apostle Paul, dead through trespasses and sin, in which they walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience, and fulfilled the desires of the flesh and of the mind, so that they are by nature children of wrath. Cf. Eph. 2:2, 3. Thus we come into the world by nature, in virtue of our first birth. No one of men is righteous; no, not one. No one understandeth. No one seeketh after God. All are gone out of the way. They are altogether become unprofitable. There is no one that doeth any good, no, not one. Our throat is an open sepulcher. With our tongues we have used deceit. The poison of asps is under our lips, and our mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Destruction and misery are in our way, and the way of peace we have not known. There is no fear of God before our eyes. Cf. Rom. 3:10-18. Such is the judgment of Scripture upon the natural man. Hence, it is the emphasis of Scripture that in order to enter into the kingdom of God man must be born again. He must be born of water and of the Spirit.

This must be confessed first of all, if we would understand and believe the true doctrine of Scripture concerning regeneration.

This also implies that the rebirth; or regeneration cannot by any means be established as the work of man. This impossibility is already implied in the term “rebirth” or “regeneration.” No more than any man can be the efficient cause of his own natural birth out of the flesh, no more can he be the efficient cause of his own spiritual birth and spiritual conception. This too is implied in his natural condition. When he loves the darkness rather than the light, he certainly will not make any attempt to come to the light. He will rather avoid it. He despises and hates the light. He loves darkness rather than the light. When by nature he is in such a condition that he cannot hear the speech of Christ, he certainly is by his very deafness excluded from all influences from without that could induce him to enter into the kingdom of God. When the minding of the flesh, of which he is born by nature, is always enmity against God, so that he is not subject to the law of God, and cannot be subject to that law, it is plain that his very heart is closed against the influences of the love of God in Christ Jesus. For the natural man there is no hope of improvement or reformation in the way of education or in the way of a better example or in the way of exercising himself in the discipline of external virtue. In that way he will never enter into the kingdom of God.

But God, Who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sin, hath quickened us together with Christ, and hath raised us up together and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. Eph. 2:4-6. What is impossible with man is possible with God. He is able to create in man a clean heart and to renew in him a right spirit. Cf. Ps. 51:10. He is able to circumcise the heart of His people and their seed, in order that they should love the Lord their God with all their existence and life. Cf. Deut. 30:6. He is capable and willing to give them a heart to know the Lord; and then they will be His people, and He will be their God; and they will turn to Him with their whole heart. Cf. Jeremiah 24:7. He is willing to give them one heart and put a new spirit within them, and is willing to take the stony heart out of their flesh and will give them a heart of flesh, in order that they may walk in His statutes and keep His ordinances, to do them. And so they will be His people; and He will be their God. Cf. Ezek. 11:19, 20. He will sprinkle upon them clean water, so that they shall be clean from all their filthiness and from all their corruption. He will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; and He will take away the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh. And thus they shall walk in His statutes, and keep His judgments, to do them. Cf. Ezek. 26:25-27.

This is what the apostles preached when they went with the gospel of the kingdom into a world of darkness. They emphasized the necessity of this radical change through which a man is translated first in the very depth of his inward existence, and then also in’ his entire conscious life and public walk in the midst of the world. Sometimes they call this radical change in man rebirth, or regeneration. Thus we read in James 1:18: “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” And in I Peter 1:3 we read: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” This rebirth, or regeneration, therefore, is the work of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He accomplishes this work according to His great mercy, a mercy which delivers His people out of the misery of sin and death, and which is called “great” because it does not simply deliver them from that misery in order to cause them to return to their original state and condition, but exalts them far above that state, the state and condition in which Adam stood before he fell, to make them participants of a new and heavenly glory and life. Hence, that regeneration is mediated through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. For not only is that resurrection of Christ the juridical ground for regeneration and for the certainty of their salvation, but it is also the principle of the regeneration of all believers. Even as Christ in His resurrection certainly did not return to the earth, but was clothed with a higher, with a heavenly life, so the children of God receive in their rebirth the beginning of a new life, the same life with which Christ appeared from the grave. And for the same reason this regeneration is also the principle of a living hope, and centers itself in hope upon the future realization and revelation of complete salvation. The reborn elect have become strangers on the earth, for they have received the principle of a heavenly life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In virtue of that principle, they seek not the things that are below, but the things that are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. Cf. Col. 3:1, 2.

The same apostle in the same chapter speaks once more about regeneration as the fount and cause of that purifying of the soul of believers whereby they obey the truth and are able and called to love one another with unfeigned love. So he writes in verse 23: “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” Those who emphasize the doctrine of mediate regeneration, that is, of regeneration through the means of the Word and the calling of the gospel, appeal to this word of the apostle Peter for a ground of their view. Yet that appeal is not justified. They emphasize that the apostle here clearly teaches that regeneration takes place through the everlasting and abiding Word of God, while in vs. 25 he adds that this is the same Word that is being proclaimed and preached among them. For this interpretation of I Peter 1:23 there is no ground in the text itself. It is true, of course, that the apostle here presents regeneration as taking place through the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever, and also that he adds that this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto the church. However, this does not imply at all that the apostle maintains that regeneration occurs through the preaching of that living Word of God. The living and abiding Word of God and the proclamation of that Word are two different things. And when the apostle teaches here that regeneration takes place through the living Word itself, that is, through Christ, it certainly is not proper to replace this living Word simply by the preaching of the gospel. It is true that the preaching of the Word stands in inseparable connection with regeneration in its broadest sense. For without the proclamation of the gospel it is impossible that regeneration will ever become conscious in the people of God. And that the apostle here also speaks of this regeneration in the broadest sense of the word, as it concerns our conscious life, is clear from the context. But this does not remove the fact that even in this latter sense of the word regeneration does not take place through the preaching of the Word, but through the living and abiding Word of God itself. In the second place, however, it is evident that the apostle in the same verse also speaks of regeneration in the narrower sense, in its very first beginning, when he says, namely, that we are born again not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible. Those that favor mediate regeneration have tried to avoid this difficulty by contending that in both expressions, “out of incorruptible seed” and “through the word,” the same truth is meant, and that the apostle in the first expression uses a figure, while in the second he speaks literally. But, in the first place, this wou1.d avail nothing in order to defend the view of a mediate regeneration, since, as we said, the Word and the proclamation of the Word may not be identified. But, in the second place, there is no ground in the text for the interpretation according to which the seed of regeneration is identified with the living and abiding Word of God. The contrary is true. The apostle makes a very careful distinction here. This is especially plain from the use of different prepositions. The apostle writes: “Being born again, not of, or out of, corruptible seed, but of, or out of, incorruptible, and by, that is,through the means of, the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” Hence, it is evident that by these distinctions the apostle means to describe rather carefully the mode of regeneration. The seed of regeneration, that is, the principle of the new life, is implanted by the Holy Spirit in the heart. And from that seed, or principle, sprouts forth the life of regeneration. However, this sprouting of the seed of regeneration is not realized except through the working of the living and abiding Word of God, through which He calls the quickened sinner efficaciously and gives him ears to hear and eyes to see. This, therefore, is the efficacious calling, through the Word of God, to which we will call attention in the future. Although, therefore, we will not deny that in a certain sense regeneration may be presented as taking place mediately, through the Word, nevertheless we maintain that the appeal to I Peter 1:23 has no ground.

—H.H.