Caused by God to be Born Again
In the previous post we ended by noting that Peter points to four things that account for his explosive praise of God.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).
We’ll look only at the first three and take up the fourth in a later post. Here they are:
(1) In accordance with his great mercy God has caused you and me to be born again!
(2) This new birth, this new life results in the precious gift of a hope that is alive and powerful and fruitful!
(3) This hope is the confident assurance that we have an inheritance in heaven that is not subject to the corrupting and corrosive influence of things on this earth!
(4) This God of great mercy who caused us to be born again so that we might always have hope is also committed to keeping us safe and secure through faith until we finally enter into the consummate experience and enjoyment of this salvation that we have in Christ!
Wow! What can one possibly say to all this? “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”
(1) In accordance with his great mercy God has caused us to be born again!
In vv. 1-2 it was God’s foreknowledge, his love and affection that he shed upon us in eternity past, that accounted for our election. Now we see yet another characteristic of God: his great mercy!
I often have feelings of pity rise up in my heart. I often feel sorry for people and certain situations. I experience deep, often wrenching, emotional anguish and grief in my heart. I feel merciful towards those in need and pain. But most times there is very little I can do about it. I watch on TV as children in Darfur starve on a daily basis and I’m moved to deep emotional pain. I hear of those who’ve lost every dollar in the world because of the economic collapse and I’m heartbroken. But I often lack either the power, opportunity, or resources to do anything about it. I can’t reverse or overcome their circumstances.
Thank God that is not the case with God!
Is there a distinction between “grace” and “mercy”? Yes. Grace contemplates sinners as guilty while mercy contemplates them as miserable. Mercy is the response of the divine heart to us when the results of our sin and corruption are seen: we are pitiable, pathetic, helpless to extricate ourselves from the condition into which sin has plunged us.
I can’t think of a single word in the Christian’s dictionary that is more horribly misunderstood and abused than that of being “born-again”! There is so much that could be said about being born again, so let me restrict myself to just a few observations.
First, we need to fully grasp the need for the new birth or regeneration. Problem: we live in a world where the vast majority of people have no grasp of the fact that they are spiritually dead. Why, then, would they have any need for spiritual birth? They perceive themselves as very much alive and as fundamentally good. Perhaps the greatest obstacle in evangelism isn’t getting people saved; it’s getting them lost!
If people don’t perceive themselves as spiritually dead they will misunderstand and casually dismiss the need for spiritual re-birth. At first glance it strikes people as odd that Paul, in Ephesians 2:1-2, would describe people as “dead”, for
“lots of people who make no Christian profession whatever, who even openly repudiate Jesus Christ, appear to be very much alive. One has the vigorous body of an athlete, another the lively mind of a scholar, a third the vivacious personality of a film star. Are we to say that such people, if Christ has not saved them, are dead? Yes, indeed, we must and do say this very thing. For in the sphere which matters supremely (which is neither the body, nor the mind, nor the personality, but the soul) they have no life. And you can tell it. They are blind to the glory of Jesus Christ, and deaf to the voice of the Holy Spirit. They have no love for God, no sensitive awareness of his personal reality, no leaping of their spirit towards him in the cry, ‘Abba, Father’, no longing for fellowship with his people. They are as unresponsive to him as a corpse. So we should not hesitate to affirm that a life without God (however physically fit and mentally alert the person may be) is a living death, and that those who live it are dead even while they are living” (John Stott, 72).
There’s no escaping the fact that the NT tells me that I was dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1ff.), utterly lifeless. I was blind to spiritual truth, insensitive to the realities of the spiritual realm, hardened and calloused against the claims of Christ. I wallowed in spiritual darkness, insanely thinking that the insights of my intellect and the achievements of my education were the same as spiritual enlightenment. I had no sense of my sin and thus no repentance in my heart. I saw no value in Christ and thus had no faith in my heart.
Then God took sovereign, saving initiative, and caused me to experience new birth. Although I was spiritually lifeless, according to Ephesians 2:4, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” Although I was spiritually blind, according to 2 Corinthians 4:6, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
It was not by my will or choice or decision that I was born again or that you were. As John wrote in his gospel record, God adopted into his spiritual family those “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).
Yes, I repented and believed in Jesus Christ. So too did you. But that was because God sovereignly bestowed on us the gift of repentance and faith and drew us to himself.
No one takes credit for being physically born. It is not something you do but something that is done to you. You did not cause it. You did not choose it. So also with the second, spiritual birth.
Who or what is the cause of this radical spiritual transformation that the Bible refers to as "regeneration" or being "born again"? Some understand regeneration to be nothing more than reformation, a mere exchange of one set of habits for another set (achieved, of course, by a free act of will). Being “born again” in our society has tragically come to mean little more than you stopped smoking or you lost 50 pounds or you’re spending more time with your kids.
If man is not constitutionally depraved, that is, depraved by nature, being at worst the innocent victim of bad examples and other circumstances beyond his control, he does not need re-creation, only redirection.
Others believe that regeneration is brought to pass by the divine will and human will working in conjunction with one another. Or if they say that God alone regenerates, he does so only when and because the individual believes by a free act of will, or does not resist the overtures of grace.
But I believe that the sole cause of regeneration or being born again is the will of God. God first sovereignly and efficaciously regenerates, and only in consequence of that do we act. Therefore, the individual is passive in regeneration, neither preparing himself nor making himself receptive to what God will do. Regeneration is a change wrought in us by God, not an autonomous act performed by us for ourselves.
Man's status in regard to regeneration is that of a recipient, not a contributor. Man is spiritually, in relation to regeneration, what Lazarus was physically, in relation to resurrection: dead, passive, unable to do anything at all, wholly subject to the will of him who gives life and breath to whomever he desires.
Here, then, is my point. In the doctrine of regeneration we are asserting that beneath and before all positive human response to the gospel, whether faith, repentance, love, or conversion, there is a supernatural, efficacious, and altogether mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. This work of the Spirit is both prior to and the effectual cause of all activity on the part of man. To sum up, the Holy Spirit regenerates a person in order that a person may convert to God.
We must keep in mind Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:6 ("that which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit"). The point is that all human and earthly effort can do nothing but produce that which is human and earthly. It cannot generate spiritual life.
The point of describing salvation in terms of "divine begetting" is to highlight the initiative of God in making alive or giving birth to that which was either dead or nonexistent. To suggest that man can act spiritually before he exists spiritually, that he can behave before he is born, is not only ridiculous but also undermines the force of the analogy between physical begetting and spiritual begetting.
The illustration our Lord employs in John 3:8 is especially instructive. Like the wind, the work of the Holy Spirit is invisible and mysterious (“you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”). Like the wind, the work of the Holy Spirit is efficacious and sovereign (it "blows where it wishes") and cannot be pinned down by human contrivance. And like the wind, the work of the Holy Spirit reaps observable fruit ("you hear its sound").
In sum, regeneration is God's work, not man's. Do you know what it means to be a Christian? Do you stand amazed and speechless that you are a Christian? Do you look back with wonder and awe at the miracle of your new birth? Or do you take so much credit for it yourself that it doesn't occur to you to fall on your face and thank God that you are a Christian?
Perhaps the best way to drive home this point is with an illustration. It comes from the pen of that great British evangelist of the eighteenth century, George Whitefield:
“Come, ye dead, Christless, unconverted sinners, come and see the place where they laid the body of the deceased Lazarus; behold him laid out, bound hand and foot with grave-cloaths, locked up and stinking in a dark cave, with a great stone placed on the top of it. View him again and again; go nearer to him; be not afraid; smell him. Ah! How he stinketh. Stop there now, pause a while; and whilst thou art gazing upon the corpse of Lazarus, give me leave to tell thee with great plainness, but greater love, that this dead, bound entombed, stinking carcase, is but a faith representation of thy poor soul in its natural state: for, whether thou believest or not, thy spirit which thou bearest about with thee, sepulchred in flesh and blood, is as literally dead to God, and as truly dead in trespasses and sins, as the body of Lazarus was in the cave. Was he bound hand and foot with grave-cloaths? So art thou bound hand and foot with thy corruptions: and as a stone was laid on the sepulchre, so is there a stone of unbelief upon thy stupid heart. Perhaps thou hast lain in this state, not only four days, but many years, stinking in God’s nostrils. And, what is still more effecting thou art as unable to raise thyself out of this loathsome, dead state, to a life of righteousness and true holiness, as ever Lazarus was to raise himself from the cave in which he lay so long. Thou mayest try the power of thy own boasted free-will, and the force and energy of moral persuasion and rational arguments (which, without all doubt, have their proper place in religion); but all thy efforts, exerted with never so much vigour, will prove quite fruitless and abortive, till that same Jesus, who said ‘Take away the stone’; and cried, ‘Lazarus, come forth’ also quicken you” (quoted in John Gerstner, Predestination, 20).
Think on it! "If you have any truly spiritual desire for God, it is owing to the work of God in regeneration. If you have any love for holiness, it is owing to the work of God in regeneration. If you have any hatred for sin, it is owing to the work of God in regeneration. If you have a mustard seed of faith in Christ, it is owing to the work of God in regeneration. To God be the glory for our conversion to Christ! Consider and be astounded, all you who by nature are children of wrath, that you believe in Christ and are new children of the Almighty. Regeneration is a glorious work of God, not man” (Piper).
That’s enough for now. We’ll look at the second and third reasons for our praise in the next article.