‘The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it but you cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8).
The Holy Spirit’s dealings with the soul begin with the new birth – a gracious, mysterious and sovereign work of God’s Spirit in which spiritual life and understanding are imparted to a sinful human being.
Until this occurs, a person is devoid of spiritual life – ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1). He is ‘in the flesh’ (imprisoned in his fallen human nature) and cannot please God (Romans 8:7-8). He is incapable of comprehending the things of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). Consequently he can neither see nor enter the kingdom of heaven (John 3:3,5).
Regeneration and conversion
In Reformed thinking, regeneration (the new birth) is ‘instantaneous’ – this word reflecting not so much the passage of time but the fact that a person must be either dead or alive spiritually, not somewhere in between.
But regeneration is followed by a process of conversion in which the individual becomes aware, slowly or rapidly, of the ‘things of God’ that were previously ‘foolishness to him’ (1 Corinthians 2:14). These ‘things’ include the holiness yet mercy of God, the reality of sin, the beauty, glory and presence of Christ, and the wonder of his saving work.
It could be argued that regeneration is preceded by the Spirit’s work of convicting a person of sin, but this is really a question of how we define ‘regeneration’.
If, as Scripture seems to teach, a person is spiritually dead before regeneration, it must surely follow that no spiritual impressions of a saving nature can be made upon that person until they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. I prefer, therefore, to think of a soul’s awakening to its sinful state as part of the work of regeneration.
This does not mean, however, that no religious impressions can be made on an unregenerate soul. Hebrews chapters 6 and 10 tell us clearly that some who are never born again may undergo a variety of religious experiences that mimic (for a time) the effects of regeneration, but I would not want to be dogmatic on this point. But Hebrews 6:4-9 makes it clear that such impressions do not necessarily ‘accompany salvation’.
Some find these passages in Hebrews difficult, but they teach exactly the same truths as Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:18-23). Here again, spiritual impressions are made. The word of the gospel is received with joy. There are encouraging signs of spiritual life. Yet for the ‘stony ground hearer’ the impressions soon fade and nothing remains but the dust of the field.
Such Scriptures warn us that outward signs can be misleading. Regeneration is a real, radical and durable work of the Spirit – a work that manifests itself by yielding the fruit of the Spirit in the Christian’s life, rather than by experiences and manifestations of various kinds.
As we saw earlier, regeneration is followed by a process of conversion, and it is important to distinguish between the two. For one thing, a person can be ‘converted’ to or from any religion, since the word simply indicates a change of belief or opinion arising from any cause. But even when talking about genuine conversion to Christ we must make the distinction.
Conversion embraces the person’s growing awareness and subjective experience of spiritual realities. It also involves a change of lifestyle in the one converted – for ‘if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Regeneration, on the other hand, is the sovereign and prevenient work of the Holy Spirit that makes true conversion possible. If we confuse regeneration with conversion we may fail to recognise that it is regeneration that imparts the new nature – not a person’s repentance, faith, experiences or actions (note that both repentance and faith are gifts from God imparted to the sinner in regeneration – Acts 5:31; 11:18; Ephesians 2:8-10).
The new man
Another way that Scripture expresses the radical and abiding nature of regeneration is by reference to the ‘new man’ which, says Paul, is ‘created [within the believing soul] according to God in righteousness and true holiness’ (Ephesians 3:24; Colossians 3:9-10). It is of this ‘new man’ that John writes, ‘Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for his seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God’ (1 John 3:9).
When Paul exhorts us to ‘put on the new man’ he is not saying we must acquire the new man by some effort of our own – the new man has already been created within the regenerate soul. Rather, he is calling us in our daily walk to wear the garments of salvation rather than the filthy rags of the old nature – for both are to be found in the believer’s wardrobe!
The ‘new man’ is, I believe, none other than ‘the indwelling Christ’. Paul declares, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20). Of course, Christ lives in us not in his own person but in the person of his Holy Spirit, as Romans 8:9-10 makes clear.
Unless we understand that regeneration means that the life of God has been implanted in the soul, we shall miss out on the Bible’s fundamental teaching on holiness of life – namely, that the Christian is able to fulfil God’s righteous requirements because they are written on his heart (Romans 8:3-4; Hebrews 8:10). In other words, the believer is empowered by the indwelling Spirit both to rejoice in and to obey the law of God (Ephesians 3:16).
When a person is regenerated or ‘born again’ a new and lasting relationship is established between God and themselves as the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence within them.
And since he is the Spirit of God’s Son he becomes to us also the Spirit of adoption – ‘For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father”’ (Romans 8:14-15).
Furthermore, the believer is supremely conscious of this new relationship with God, for Paul continues, ‘The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8:16). New-born believers are gloriously aware of their adoption into God’s family.
This ‘inner witness of the Spirit’ brings assurance of salvation to the believing heart. As Paul says elsewhere, ‘In [Christ] you also trusted after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance …’ (Ephesians 1:13-14).
I realise that the apostle’s teaching at this point has often been an area for debate and division among Christians, but I do not want to discuss such controversies here. I want rather to emphasise the glorious reality of adoption and encourage believers not to forfeit the enjoyment of it because some argue over such matters.
Of course, we must not rely entirely on ‘inner witness’ lest we deceive ourselves. We must allow our inner certainties to be tested by external evidence, namely by bearing the fruit of the Spirit. John’s first epistle provides a number of objective tests by which we must examine ourselves – notably, love for our believing brethren: ‘We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren’ (1 John 3:14).
But let us not cancel out one truth by another! Let us rejoice in the experiential reality that Christ lives within the believer by his Holy Spirit – constituting the ‘new man’. And that because he is indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, the believer is received by the Father as a son or daughter and adopted into the family of God.
The practical outworking of adoption is profound. God really is the heavenly Father of those who believe in Jesus Christ. Consequently they may approach him and rely upon him as a child relies upon a strong, loving and compassionate parent who (unlike human parents) always acts in the best interests of his children (Matthew 7:9-11; Hebrews 12:9-10). We frequently say ‘Our Father …’ but do we really know and love him as a Father?
Yet adoption goes beyond our present experience of the fatherhood of God. It also involves the promise and assurance of an eternal inheritance, for ‘The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified together’ (Romans 8:16-17).
We who believe can truly say, ‘Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’ (Psalm 23:6)