Some years ago I spent many hours with a Nepalese friend explaining the message of Christ as best I could. We studied the Bible together and I tried to answer his many questions about God, Jesus, sin and salvation. I believed the Holy Spirit was working in his life and I longed to see him make an open profession of faith. But then the questions arose, how should I know when he is a true disciple of Christ?
To put it another way, what should we make of the claims of an organisation which claims that thousands of souls have been converted in their recent campaign? What are the biblical principles for evaluating where other people stand in a relationship to Jesus Christ?
The key lies in the Bible’s teaching about ‘regeneration’ – the new (spiritual) birth. Here are some biblical propositions, partly applied to a missionary context.
Regeneration is essential for salvation
In his interview with the Pharisee Nicodemus, the Lord Jesus states categorically that ‘no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again’ (John 3:3). There is no hope for a religious man like Nicodemus unless he is regenerated.
He cannot plead his great learning or high moral standards. Without the new birth he is outside the kingdom of God. Being a member of a church, or being born into a God-fearing family, does not qualify anyone to enter God’s kingdom. Only a personal experience of the new birth does.
Regeneration is a sovereign act of God
God’s sovereignty in salvation is clear from many passages of Scripture. ‘No one can come to me,’ Jesus said, ‘unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44).
The new birth is an act in which God gives new life to those whom he chooses (John 17:2). When Paul and his companions spoke to some women who gathered for prayer in Philippi, ‘The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message’ (Acts 16:14). She could not have responded if the Lord had not opened her heart.
New birth, therefore, is not something we can make happen when we want. I can no more give myself spiritual birth than I gave myself physical birth. ‘Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit’ (John 3:6).
This implies that when we preach the gospel we rely on God himself to do the work of regeneration. This humbles us. We must pray for the unsaved in utter dependence on him.
Regeneration is a mysterious and unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit
We must never trivialise the mystery of regeneration. We tend to think that if we get the conditions just right the Holy Spirit is bound to act – but that is not how the New Testament portrays his work.
‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8).
We must not think that leading someone through a formula, or getting them to a meeting, will bring them to faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit must work in his own way and in his own time. He may choose not to work at all. It is his prerogative. He will not be manipulated.
We repudiate, then, the approach of a short-term missionary I once met who told her contact that she would have to become a Christian quickly because she (the missionary) was going home in two days! The Holy Spirit will not perform at our beck and call. Furthermore, because the work of regeneration is an inward operation we cannot, from our human perspective, declare with final certainty that a person is regenerate or not.
Regeneration is an event not a process
Regeneration is a work in which God saves a person and changes his life. The analogy with physical birth indicates that this is a once-for-all event, not something that happens over a period of time. This is borne out in the language Paul uses:
‘At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared … he saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:4-5; see also Ephesians 2:4-6).
Regeneration comes through hearing the Word of God
God has ordained that the preaching (telling, reading etc.) of his Word is the means by which a person is regenerated. ‘He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all he created’ (James 1:18).
Though the Holy Spirit is sovereign in regeneration, this does not mean we have nothing to do. The sovereignty of God does not preclude the use of ‘means’. For example, Paul clarifies the role of the evangelist in bringing people to faith in Christ:
‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ (Romans 10:14).
Paul emphasises this again in 1 Corinthians: ‘For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe’ (1: 21).
Regeneration results in purification
Rebirth results in the ‘washing’ of sin from the sinner – ‘God saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:5). Jesus tells Nicodemus that, ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5).
Don Carson comments: ‘Birth “of water and Spirit” refers [not to baptism but] to the dual work of the Spirit, who simultaneously purifies and imparts God’s nature to man’. Baptism does not purify a person – it is just a physical expression of a spiritual reality.
Can there be any toleration for the practice in many South Asian churches of baptising new ‘converts’ merely to ensure that a church member marries a ‘Christian’?
Regeneration produces repentance and faith
It is often assumed that regeneration is the fruit of repentance and faith – that when a man turns from his sin and puts his trust in Christ he is, as a result, regenerated.
But if this were so, regeneration would be contingent on an act of man. The Holy Spirit is no longer sovereign. Furthermore, if new birth results from repentance and faith, then we turn these human acts into works meriting salvation.
But salvation is by grace, not works – ‘by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Faith is not a work we do to get salvation. It is the response of the regenerate heart to the grace of God.
Regeneration produces Christlikeness
When the Holy Spirit changes someone’s heart he also changes their behaviour. The New Testament paints in sharp contrast the character of a man before and after his rebirth (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Titus 3:3-5).
The Lord Jesus spoke of a tree bearing fruit according to its nature. ‘A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit’ (Matthew 7:18).
Positive change in the life of the regenerate is as inevitable as fruit on a tree. Nowhere should this be more apparent than in the regenerate man’s devotion to (and imitation of) his Saviour.
A professing believer who does not bear the fruit of the Spirit in his life demonstrates that his profession of faith is meaningless.
Spiritual ‘experiences’ do not necessarily signify regeneration
The Lord warns: ‘Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”‘ (Matthew 7:21).
During the Great Awakening in eighteenth-century America, Jonathan Edwards saw many thousands of people experience the grace of God in their lives through his ministry.
At the same time, however, he was painfully aware that lively emotional experiences (‘affections’), unusual effects on the body, a desire to praise God, love for believers, etc. were not proofs of regeneration.
Many in the revival had deep religious experiences whose profession of faith later proved empty. It was not, argued Edwards, that they became Christians only to lose their salvation later. They were never true believers in the first place, but had simply copied the actions of those who were.
In Nepal, over the past couple of decades, we have witnessed a great turning to Christ. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit has regenerated many thousands of men and women. Equally, I believe many have come into the churches without truly understanding what Christ has done for sinners.
It is precisely because of this that Edwards reads like an astute twenty-first-century observer of the church in Nepal. We would all benefit immensely from a careful examination of his analysis.