Calvary Road Baptist Church

“REGENERATION”

John 1.12-13

 

This message is adapted from a sermon originally delivered by Asahel Nettleton. Please turn in your Bible to John 1.12-13 and stand with me for the reading of God’s Word:

 

12     But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13     Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

 

The important and very straightforward truth taught by these words is that those who receive Christ, who have power given them to become the sons of God, and who believe on His name, are born of God. In other words, every real Christian becomes a real Christian as a result of a special exertion of God’s supernatural and almighty power to change his heart. You see, the phrases “born of God” and “begotten of God,” which are so often used by the writers of the New Testament, are what are called figurative phrases. A parallel exists when you compare the way a person comes into this world physically and the way in which a person comes to be a Christian. As a person is born physically and has, therefore, been begotten, so the terminology is frequently used in the Bible to communicate certain truths in the spiritual realm. Believers are described in God’s Word as the sons of God, and caution must be exercised to properly understand this reality.

All of us equally receive our existence and our natural faculties from God, Who is the Creator. In this limited sense, we are all the children of God. However, when the scriptures apply the phrases “sons of God” and “children of God” to those genuinely saved, in such a way as to distinguish them from other men, it must be to point out a relationship to God which is not common to all men. This relationship is to be understood as something that is of a wholly new and spiritual nature. It is also to be understood as something that God is the sole Author of. By virtue of this relationship, Christians are said to be His sons. We are said to be born of Him, begotten of Him. Therefore, the relationship between earthly parents and their children is an allusion to this spiritual relationship between God and the Christian.

The object of John 1.12-13 is to deny that a genuine Christian’s relationship to God as His spiritual child can be produced in any way other than by God’s Own special and sovereign power. It was almost certainly written by the Apostle John for the original purpose of opposing the carnal prejudices of self-righteous Jews. You see, during John’s day, the common conviction was that everyone who could be counted as a child of Abraham was also an heir of God’s promises and entitled to eternal life. In other words, if you were a Jew you would go to heaven. This false notion was opposed by the Lord Jesus Christ and by His apostles. So, instead of dealing with the precise meaning of the phrases “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man” this evening, let me point out that there were three ways in which individuals became the reputed children of Abraham. It was thought that you could become a child of Abraham by being born of Jewish parents, by being born the illegitimate offspring of a Jewish person, or by being adopted by a Jewish couple. However it came to be, the Jewish people believed that whoever became by one of these means a child of Abraham, of course, automatically became a child of God.

The English scholar J. B. Lightfoot was of the opinion that John’s object in writing these two verses was to cut off the false hopes of the Jewish people by denying that there was any way a person could become a child of God by merely becoming a child of Abraham. Another birth is necessary. To be a child of God you must be born again, born of God. Therefore, whatever may be the particular meaning of our text, the obvious general impression from it, and the one designed to be made by the Apostle John, is that all other ways of becoming the sons of God are false. The only way to become a son of God is by being born of God. These verses were written to meet head on the prevailing prejudices of the day, and can still be used in the same way. Of all subjects, that which deals with the change from death unto life should certainly be one of the most important to us. To have a clear and definite understanding of this subject is of tremendous importance. Error on such a fundamental point as the new birth is to be avoided at all costs.

In one sense, all things are of God. He is the Creator and governor of all. All of man’s powers and faculties are from God, and all the means of grace and He ordains all the institutions of spiritual benefit to a man (such as the home and the church). However, when the scriptures speak of being born of God, they mean something more than that a man is merely influenced by home and church and the laws of the land as to how he should properly use his ordinary abilities and capacities. To make sure we all understand, let me say that regeneration is a special work of Almighty God. Those in error have never dared to directly deny that truly saved people are born of God, because this would be admitting that they do not believe the Bible. Of course, they would never be so honest as to say they did not believe the Bible. Instead, the wolves in sheep’s clothing have chosen a more subtle method of propagating their false doctrine. While they retain the language of the Bible, they have attacked and chipped away the meaning, until regeneration comes to mean to them something that results from the mere application of an external rite, or a persuasion of the mind reached in some non-miraculous way. That would mean, if you could ever get them to admit it, that the result is really just a reformation of morals rather than a real regeneration.

To expose this error serves to illustrate the truth. Let me, this evening, briefly consider some false notions respecting regeneration, and then proceed to illustrate what it is to be born of God.

 

First, FALSE NOTIONS OF REGENERATION

 

I do not need to spend time convincing you people that baptism is not regeneration. Nothing is plainer to thinking people than the truth that an external rite like baptism, or some other religious observation, cannot change the heart. Baptism is a sign or token of the saving influences of the Holy Spirit, and is not itself the work of the Holy Spirit. Baptism cannot be the token of regeneration and be regeneration itself at the same time. Both the scriptures and experience show that not all who are baptized are regenerated, for in their lives and conduct many who have been baptized differ not at all from the most wicked and obviously Hell-bound of sinners. Therefore, except where there is virtually no spiritual insight, it is unlikely that such things as baptism, or last rites, or communion, or church membership, or prayer, or any such thing as that, will seriously be considered by anyone to be real regeneration. So, there are those false notions of regeneration that are obvious.

However, what about a false notion of regeneration which is not obvious to most people? In the 4th century, a British Roman Catholic theologian named Pelagius first invented and advocated a false view of regeneration that has appeared again and again down through the centuries, and is running rampant in 21st century Christianity as I speak. Over the centuries, there have been a few modifications. There are some differences in terminology. Sometimes a little is added or a little is taken away from what Pelagius taught. Invariably, when an error related to regeneration rears its ugly head, when a departure from Biblical orthodoxy with regard to regeneration surfaces, it is that old heresy known as Pelagianism. Various so-called “Christian” writers have appeared at different times, in various countries, which have brought forward their version of this unscriptural view of the new birth. Many preachers who are not widely read, and who are unaware of the theological errors of the past, have been sucked into believing what Pelagius taught so many centuries ago. Sadly, being taken in, they have not realized that what they believed to be true was only the latest version of the heresy of Pelagius, a heresy universally condemned by ancient Christians. The fundamental truths of the Pelagian heresy and the Arminian error, (for they are in their logical conclusion the same thing) are these:

 

#1     They believe that God treats all men the same in proclaiming to them His offer of grace and salvation, and that the Holy Spirit is equally and sufficiently distributed to all men to insure their salvation, provided they choose to properly respond to the benefits God has bestowed upon them.

#2     They believe that the promises of the gospel are not only good and desirable in themselves, but that they are so suited to the natural reason and interests of sinful men that those sinful men will be naturally inclined to respond to the gospel, unless they are overpowered by some prejudice or habitual sin problem.

#3     They believe that when a sinner considers the warnings and the promises of God through the gospel, that, all by itself, is sufficient to remove his prejudices and bring him to respond to the gospel.

#4     They believe that sinners who seriously reflect on their lives and who make a commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ have the promise of the Holy Spirit and are entitled to the benefits being God’s.

 

If you think about these things for a bit, they may seem at first glance to be a fair representation of the gospel and of God’s dealings with sinners. However, careful thought and study shows that if these principles are believed then the very life and soul of the gospel is removed. You see, if Pelagius is to be believed, then all men are treated identically by God. Does God treat all men identically? Since every man supposedly has an equal measure of the Spirit, the difference between one man and another has only to do with that man and the personal decisions he has made concerning himself. This essentially means that regeneration, as understood by those of this persuasion, is really no more than a reformation of life that is brought about by somehow being persuaded. Either that, or regeneration occurs as a result of a sinner’s understanding being enlightened and his affections being moved by divine truth alone, which is just another way of saying that a guy gets saved solely because he “sees the light.” If you ask, “How is a sinner saved by grace on this plan,” the answer they would give is that “God gives to all men the capacity to decide and then waits to see what’s going to happen.” That is what grace is to Pelagius and those like him. Their whole idea is simply this: God gives men the ability to decide, and once everyone has the ability to decide each person works out his own salvation as he is persuaded to respond by the promises and threatenings of the gospel. The problem with this, of course, is that while it seems plausible enough to be true to those who are uninformed, it is shot through with many dangerous errors.

This scheme of Pelagius bears no resemblance to Biblical reality. There can be no doubt that the Holy Spirit makes use of the Word and many other means at His disposal to bring sinners to Christ. However, are men naturally inclined to approve of and obey the gospel unless they are somehow prevented by prejudice or peculiar affect of sin? No. Such an idea contradicts the whole tenor of the gospel, in which it is a fundamental principle that by nature we are children of wrath, that by nature we are at enmity with God, that by nature we are blinded to the light of His truth, and that by nature we are dead in trespasses and sins. The erroneous belief that somehow the Holy Spirit is given to all sinners in a sufficient manner to save them entirely overthrows the idea of regeneration being the result of a special act of grace, and essentially makes one man as much born of God as another, saved or not! However, our text says that as many as received Christ and believed on His name, were born of God. If that is true, then those who did not believe on His name, who did not receive Him, were not born of God. I know that it distresses many people to think that God would not treat everyone in the same way. It seems to them unfair somehow. To remove this perceived unfairness Pelagius, and multitudes ever since him, have maintained that all men receive the same gifts from God and that each person is able to decide on his own to be saved. Therefore, in a sense, folks who believe this way have adopted a form of spiritual socialism where equal treatment by God is mandated. What they do not realize, because they themselves are unregenerate, is that this effectively destroys the new birth, and turns it into something that is common to every man.

Think about the implications of such a thing. If this error were true, then Judas had as much grace as Paul, who only used his more. If this error were true, then wicked Ahab who sold himself to work wickedness had just as much grace as David, a man after God’s own heart, but David just chose to use his more. In other words, none of the differences between these men is to be explained by God. No. We are supposed to think that individual men are responsible for the differences, owing to the different ways each of them made use of their privileges. What does that mean in the end? It means that it is not God Who is glorified for a life such as Paul’s, or Hudson Taylor’s, or Adoniram Judson’s, or Charles Spurgeon’s. If Pelagius and those who believe each person decides for himself whether he is to be saved or not are right, then it is Paul who should be glorified for the life of Paul, and Spurgeon who should be glorified for the life of Spurgeon. Because, after all, the difference is not in God but in Paul and Spurgeon. My friends, this is the false view of regeneration that has given rise to the decisionism that is responsible for the type of Christianity we see today. For if Pelagius was right, then all you have to do to get lost folks saved is be a good enough salesman to convince them to buy into your “plan of salvation.” This is certainly what much of so-called Christianity these days is.

 

Now, BIBLICAL NOTIONS OF REGENERATION

 

I know that such beliefs as I have just described are quite agreeable to the corrupt nature of sinful man. The ease with which these false notions about regeneration have been received, ever since they were first preached, proves how agreeable this kind of error is to carnal reasoning. However, neither the scriptures nor experience gives us any reason to believe the things I have described to you.

Let us never doubt that the Spirit of God strives with all sinners, until they reach their personal point of no return. There is no doubt about that. Let us also recognize that the promises and the threats of the gospel (come to Christ and He will save you, refuse Christ and He will judge you) would be sufficient to persuade sinners to turn to Christ, if our understanding was not darkened and our affections were not depraved. Even so, it cannot be that something given to all men makes only some men the sons of God. It simply is not true that sinners are persuaded to be Christians without a special supernatural act of God. All men do not receive the same measure of the Spirit. Let me describe for you what does happen to bring about the regeneration of a sinner.

After all preparatory means (such as parental discipline, catechism, and family devotions), after all the promises and threats of the gospel (gospel preaching and preaching against sin), after all the operations of common grace (growing up in a godly home or growing up in a country where people have access to Bibles and such), and after all exertions of unregenerate sinners (striving to enter in at the strait gate), a sinner must still be born of God to become His child. There must be a new creation, Second Corinthians 5.17: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” There must be a work accomplished by Almighty power, a sovereign special supernatural act, like making a world, or raising the dead. That kind of power has to be exerted. Without such an act as this, no one can ever see the kingdom of heaven. Persuasion is not sufficient to make men new creatures. If the Spirit of God operates on the minds of men only by setting persuasive arguments or motives in front of them, no matter how motivational or well adapted to the purpose the persuasion may be, then when all is said and done it would depend on the will of man whether he is to be regenerated or not. Folks, if this were true then the glory of the new birth would belong to Christians and not to God. Additionally, if God operated in this manner there could be no certainty that anyone would be saved, since it would always depend upon whether or not a sinner would decide to trust Christ. This contradicts scripture. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life,” John 10.27-28. God does not limit His operations to just trying to motivate men by persuasion. Psalm 110.3 declares, “thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.” There is more than persuasion operating here.

Being persuaded to make some decision to live a better life confers upon a person no new real, supernatural strength to the soul that may enable it to then have life. No new taste, no new spiritual discernment springs from being persuaded. If regeneration came in that way, then a man begets himself, he is born of himself, he makes himself to differ from other men. According to this plan the Spirit of God has no more to do with real regeneration than the Apostle Paul or Apollos. Besides, this is not what we pray for. We do not pray that for great motives to be set before us so that we may regenerate ourselves. Our prayer is that God would change sinners and create them anew. The ancient churches urged this prayer upon the heretics, who denied a supernatural work in regeneration, and they felt themselves sorely pressed without. There is then only one way left for a creature that is dead in trespasses and sins to rise to life. This is by the power of God that quickens him and creates him anew. Observe the language inspired writers of the New Testament chose to communicate their ideas on this subject: “born of God”; “begotten of God”; “quickened,” or “made alive from the dead”; “created anew.”

If someone points out that this is figurative language, that person would be correct. However, if there is any descriptive accuracy in these words and phrases at all, then the work of regeneration must be understood to be the beginning of a new spiritual existence. Any other interpretation of these words and phrases of scripture would make the Bible impossible to understand. Suppose you have somehow been prepared. Say there is knowledge, there is motive, and there is even the striving to enter into the strait gate that Jesus urged lost people to do. After all this, there must still be the new creation. The person dead in trespasses and sins must still be quickened. The believer must still be born of God, and the same energy that brought Christ from the dead, the exceedingly great power of the living God, must perform this work. This is what John is saying. “That we may know what is the exceeding greatness of his power toward usward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead,” Ephesians 1.19-20. Where else can you look for the origin of such a change as makes believers pass from death to life but the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit of God? Is it your understanding that accomplishes this change? However, your understanding is darkened. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit, neither can he know them.” Is it your will? However, Job says that you are “prone to evil as the sparks fly upward.” So, your will is perverse and rebellious. Is it your strength? Christ died for the ungodly who are without strength. We are not sufficient of ourselves to think a good thought. Is it our merits? We merit nothing but utter rejection. Is it the ministers of God who persuade us? Paul may plant and Apollos water, but God gives the increase. Men, have made every ingenious effort by obvious schemes and by plausible ones, to take from God the glory for this work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Every attempt has been made to claim the credit for ourselves, or at least to share in getting some of the honor for it. However, when all is said and done, the origin of regeneration can be traced only to the free and sovereign grace and Almighty power of God. The work is all His, and the glory must and will forever belong exclusively to Him. It is a Bible doctrine that regeneration is a creative act. This means that when a person is regenerated there is an actual new creation, just like when the universe was created. As a result of this regeneration, this new creation, there now exists a new spiritual taste or discernment, and a new principle is implanted by a sovereign creative act. Therefore, regeneration is more than just a new direction given to a sinner’s old abilities.

 

My friends, I am fully aware of the difficulties related to this truth concerning regeneration that we have dealt with today. I know full well how the sinful heart and mind opposes what the Bible teaches about regeneration. However, if the Bible supports something, that should be enough. When the Bible speaks, then carnal reason must bow and proud hearts must submit. Look at God’s Word and read. There it stands. “. . . which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

To be born of God is the only kind of birth that can prepare a man for heaven, for “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” You can pursue whatever type of Christianity you want to pursue. You can get involved in churches with high-powered big days and promotions that are designed to be so persuasive with their heads bowed and eyes closed and no one looking around mentality. Or you can attend a mega-church that employs the latest Church Growth Movement techniques for big crowd manipulation. Or you can even go for the glitz and glitter of the Charismatic movement with all its Hollywood style production values and entertainment style performers who pose as ministers of the gospel.

Just understand this: Those frills and approaches to ministry are the result of adopting Pelagian sentiments on the subject of regeneration. You can argue with me all you want, but what is really needed is a complete dependence on the grace of God by our church, and a determination to settle for nothing less than sinners being regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God when they come to Jesus Christ by faith.

Unless we are committed to the truth that only those who are truly born of God are fit for heaven, then we will only succeed in making sinners better prepared for Hell.



Would you like to contact Dr. Waldrip about this sermon? Please contact him by clicking on the link below. Please do not change the subject within your email message. Thank you.

pastor@calvaryroadbaptist.org