One of the most curious things we read in the Bible is how much religious people hated Jesus. They killed God, wrongly thinking that they were worshipping God in doing so. They worshipped power, control, money, and their religious traditions instead of Jesus. The opposite of religion is regeneration. Religion is what people create. Regeneration is what God does to make us a new creation. To worship God, we don’t need religion, we need regeneration.
In John 3, a man named Nicodemus came to meet with Jesus. Nicodemus was a devoutly religious man. As a Pharisee, he was among the holiest of men. Jesus said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This confused Nicodemus, so Jesus explained that there are two births. The first birth is our physical birth where we are physically alive but spiritually dead. The second birth is our spiritual birth whereby God the Holy Spirit causes us to be born again so that we are both physically and spiritually alive. Nicodemus considered himself spiritually alive by virtue of his religion, spirituality, theology, and morality. But he was likely astounded when Jesus told him plainly, “You must be born again.” [FOOTNOTE: John 3:7]
Nicodemus was much like people today who know some theological truth, have been baptized, attend religious meetings, live a moral life, believe in God, devote time to serving others, and even give some of their income to spiritual causes and organizations, but who need to be born again. Why? Because they are living out of their old nature solely by their will and effort rather than out of a new nature by the power of the Holy Spirit. John Piper says:
What Nicodemus needs, and what you and I need, is not religion but life. The point of referring to new birth is that birth brings a new life into the world. In one sense, of course, Nicodemus is alive. He is breathing, thinking, feeling, acting. He is a human created in God’s image. But evidently, Jesus thinks he’s dead. There is no spiritual life in Nicodemus. Spiritually, he is unborn. He needs life, not more religious activities or more religious zeal. He has plenty of that. [ENDNOTE #1]
Being born again is theologically summarized as the doctrine of regeneration, which is the biblical teaching that salvation includes both God’s work for us at the cross of Jesus and in us by the Holy Spirit which leads to God’s work through us in a life of fruitful living. To say it another way, regeneration is not a separate work of the Holy Spirit added to the saving work of Jesus; rather, it is the subjective actualization of Jesus’ work.
While the word regeneration appears only twice in the Bible [FOOTNOTE: Matthew 19:28; Titus 3:5], it is described in both the Old and New Testaments by a constellation of images. Each signifies a permanent, unalterable change in someone at his or her deepest level.
The Old Testament frequently speaks of regeneration in terms of deep work in the heart, our total inner self, so that a new life flows from a new heart empowered by the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus explained to Nicodemus. [FOOTNOTE: Deut. 30:6; Jer. 24:7; 31:31–33; 32:39–40; Ezek. 11:19–20; 36:26–27.]
Like the Old Testament, the New Testament speaks on many occasions of being born again. [FOOTNOTE: 1 John 1:13; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23; 1 John 5:1.] Other images include “partakers of the divine nature,” “new creation,” “new man,” “alive together with Christ,” and “created in Christ Jesus.” [FOOTNOTE: 2 Pet. 1:4; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:15; 4:24; Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13; Eph. 2:10.]
Three very important truths summarize regeneration in the New Testament. First, regeneration is done to ill-deserving, not just undeserving, sinners. [FOOTNOTE: Eph. 2:1-5] Regeneration is a gift of grace, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” [FOOTNOTE: Titus 3:5] Second, regeneration is something God the Holy Spirit does for us. [FOOTNOTE: John 3:5-8] Therefore, unless God accomplishes regeneration in people, it is impossible for them to live as worshipers of God. Third, without regeneration there is no possibility of eternal life in God’s kingdom. [FOOTNOTE: John 3:3, 5; cf. 1 Cor. 2:6–16.]
Accompanying the new birth are 10 soul-transforming, life-changing, and eternity-altering occurrences.
- Regenerated people have their Creator as their new Lord, thereby displacing all other false and functional lords who had previously ruled over them. [FOOTNOTE: 1 Cor. 12:3b; 1 John 5:18]
- Regenerated people are new creations transformed at the deepest levels of their existence to begin living a new life. People being renamed upon conversion, so that Saul becomes Paul and Simon becomes Peter, illustrates the new birth. [FOOTNOTE: 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15]
- Regenerated people have a new identity from which to live their new life because their old identity no longer defines them. [FOOTNOTE: Ephesians 4:22-24]
- Regenerated people have a new mind that enables them to enjoy Scripture and thus to begin to think God’s truthful thoughts after him. [FOOTNOTE: Rom. 7:22; 1 Cor. 2:14–16; 1 Pet. 2:2]
- Regenerated people have new emotions so that they love God, fellow Christians, strangers, and even their enemies. [FOOTNOTE: 1 John 4:7]
- Regenerated people have new desires for holiness, and no longer is their deepest appetite for sin and folly. [FOOTNOTE: Ps. 37:4; Rom. 7:4-6; Gal. 5:16–17]
- Regenerated people enjoy a new community with other Christians. [FOOTNOTE: 1 John 1:3]
- Regenerated people live by a new power to follow God by the Holy Spirit’s [FOOTNOTE: Rom. 8:4–13]
- Regenerated people enjoy a new freedom to no longer tolerate, manage, excuse, or accept their sin but rather to put it to death and live free from habitually besetting sin. [FOOTNOTE: Rom. 6:6; 7:6]
- Regenerated people live a new life that is not perfect but is increasingly becoming more godly. [FOOTNOTE: Gal. 5:19–23]
In some ways our new birth is like our physical birth. At birth, babies cry, move, hunger, trust their parent to protect and provide for them, enjoy human comfort, and begin to grow. Similarly, newly born-again people cry out to God in prayer, move out in new life, hunger for the Scriptures, trust God as Father, enjoy God’s family the church, and begin to grow spiritually, maturing in their imaging of God. One theologian explains regeneration in terms of how Christians become restored into the image of God:
“It is in Christ that people, formerly conformed to the world’s image (Rom. 1:18–32), begin to be transformed into God’s image (Rom. 8:28–30; 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4)…This process of transformation into the divine image will be completed at the end of history, when Christians will be resurrected and fully reflect God’s image in Christ (1 Cor. 15:45–54; Phil. 3:20–21). They will be resurrected by the Spirit-imparting power of the risen Christ. Since it was the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 1:4), so the Spirit of Christ will raise Christians from the dead at the end of the age…The Spirit’s work in people will enable them to be restored and revere the Lord and resemble his image, so that God will be glorified in and through them.” [ENDNOTE #2]
Only through the regenerating and ongoing empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit can we worship, until one day in our glorified resurrected state we will image God perfectly as unceasing worshipers. This is exactly what Jesus meant when He said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” [FOOTNOTE: John 4:24]
Commenting on this verse, a theologian says,
“The terms ‘spirit’ and ‘truth’ are joined later in the expression ‘Spirit of truth,’ referring to the Holy Spirit (see 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; cf. 1 John 4:6; 5:6; see also 2 Thess. 2:13…the present reference therefore seems to point John’s readers ultimately to worship in the Holy Spirit. Thus, true worship is not a matter of geographical location (worship in a church building), physical posture (kneeling or standing), or following a particular liturgy or external rituals (cf. Matt. 6:5–13); it is a matter of the heart and of the Spirit…As Stibbe…puts it, ‘True worship is paternal in focus (the Father), personal in origin (the Son), and pneumatic in character (the Spirit).’” [ENDNOTE #3]
For a born-again person with the Spirit, worshipping God is what they want to do at the deepest level of their new nature. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Practically, this means that as we enjoy and delight in who God is, what He has done, and what He will do for us, our regenerated hearts share in the same desires of God. Subsequently, unlike religion, which is based on fear that forces people to do what they do not want to do, regeneration is based on love and new lives of worship, which is exactly what the new heart wants to do at the deepest level. The result is ever-growing, never-ending, ever-worshiping, passionate joy! For the Christian, worshipping God in all of life is not something we have to do but something we get to do and something we want to do! Indeed, sinful temptations do come, and the way we overcome those lesser and weaker desires is by feeding our greater and stronger desires for God and godliness in our new nature by the Spirit’s power.
- John Piper, Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2009), 29.
- K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 282.
- K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 82.