In the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Born Again: God’s Sovereign Grace in the Miracle of Regeneration,” we were pleased to have Tom Ascol write a column entitled, “What Does Regeneration Have to do with Evangelism?” Ascol is Executive Director of Founders Ministries and is Editor of The Founders Journal. He is also the senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida.

Here is what Ascol had to say to that question:

The biblical idea of salvation includes a whole complex of spiritual operations. There are many aspects of God’s saving work that go into making a Christian. Justification, sanctification, glorification, forgiveness, regeneration, as well as repenting and believing and being converted are all spiritual realities that fit under the heading of “salvation.”

The very first reality that a person experiences when he becomes a Christian is the work of regeneration. Thus Paul writes, “He saved us, through the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). The new birth, or regeneration, is the initiatory event that ushers a person into the experience of salvation.

Jesus graphically illustrates this in his conversation with Nicodemus, a religious leader who came to him with a question (John 3:1-8). Before he could get the question out of his mouth Jesus went to the heart of the matter and said to him, “You must be born again. You must be born of the Spirit.” Jesus uses the analogy of physical birth, in essence saying, “What must happen to you spiritually, Nicodemus, is tantamount to what happened to you physically when you came into this world. You must be born spiritually if you’re going to enter into the kingdom of God.” In an analogous way, spiritual birth is that initiatory experience that brings an individual into a state of salvation. It is that which enables him, for the first time, to see Christ with faith, to repent of sin and to begin trusting and following the Lord.

Paul underscores this point by using the equally graphic analogy of “quickening,” or “making alive” in Ephesians 2. He reminds his readers that prior to being saved they were dead in trespasses and sins, separated from God and under divine wrath. When they did not know God, he “quickened” them and made them spiritually alive. Such “quickening” (regeneration) is the initial experience which comes to a person and ushers him into the whole realm of salvation.

This initial, life-giving work is necessary because of mankind’s sinful depravity. Sin has morally and spiritually devastated the human race, resulting in (among other things) the bondage of the human will. Sin has left us without the spiritual ability to turn from sin and to trust Christ. Jesus teaches this when he says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44, 65). Similarly Paul says that the mind that is set on the flesh “cannot” submit to God’s law and “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8).

Regeneration changes the sinner’s nature, empowering his will to repent and believe the gospel. Without this work, no one would ever “see” or “enter” the kingdom of God (John 3:3,5). That is, no one would ever be saved.

So how does this theological reality inform our evangelism? Followers of Jesus are commissioned to make disciples by calling on people to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30; 16:31). Everyone who hears the gospel is obligated to believe it, to trust Christ savingly. Yet, because of their sinful depravity, they do not have the power in themselves to do so. Knowing this, what is the evangelist to do?

First, we must remember what the Bible teaches regarding how God regenerates people. Paul says that God does it through the renewing work “of the Spirit” (Titus 3:5), while Peter teaches that a person is born again “through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). By holding these together we recognize that regeneration comes by the ministry of the Word and Spirit.

Next, we must allow this truth of how regeneration works to inform our evangelistic practice. Specifically, we must commit ourselves to proclaiming the Word of God as we pray for the Spirit of God. The Spirit uses the Word to grant new life.

That is the “subtext” of Ezekiel’s experience in the valley of dry bones. Those bones came to life only after the prophet both preached the Word and prayed for the “breath” (Spirit) to come (Ezek. 37:1- 10). Likewise, the only way any sinner is ever converted is by the Spirit taking the Word that has been proclaimed and granting life to spiritually dry bones.

Luke tells us that this is exactly what happened when Paul spoke God’s Word to a ladies’ prayer meeting outside of Philippi. As Lydia listened, “the Lord opened her heart” (Acts 16:14). She was obligated to repent and believe but she could not until the Spirit used the Word to grant her spiritual birth.

By understanding the priority of regeneration and the means whereby God grants it in the work of salvation we are encouraged to evangelize boldly, humbly and dependently. We proclaim Christ and call everyone to him as Lord and we plead with the Spirit to use the message preached to grant spiritual life.

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Born Again: God’s Sovereign Grace in the Miracle of Regeneration

While doctrines such as election, justification, and sanctification typically receive all of the attention in theological conversations, the doctrine of regeneration is often forgotten. Yet, it is this doctrine that undergirds the entire order of salvation. It is the initiatory change in regeneration that results in everything else, from faith and repentance to justification, sanctification, and perseverance. All of these other doctrines owe their existence to that first moment when God breaths new spiritual life into the sinner’s dead corpse.

Regeneration, or the new birth, was certainly important to Jesus. In John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he is born again he cannot enter the kingdom of God! Jesus goes on to highlight the sovereignty of the Spirit in the new birth as well, comparing him to the wind which blows wherever it pleases. This reminds us that since Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus there has been a long history of debate over exactly what it means to be “born again,” a debate that has preoccupied the best theological minds, including Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Synod of Dort, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and many, many others. The key questions in this controversial matter are these: Does God work alone (monergism) to create new spiritual life in depraved sinners, or does God and man cooperate with one another (synergism), man having the final say in whether God’s grace will be accepted or rejected? Also, does regeneration precede and cause conversion (faith and repentance), or is the Spirit’s supernatural work in regeneration conditioned upon man’s will to believe? We believe Scripture overwhelmingly supports the former. Anything else would compromise the sovereignty of God and rob him of his glory in salvation.

Join us in this issue as we explore the doctrine of regeneration, a doctrine so important that Jesus himself felt it was the first thing he needed to address on that dark night when Nicodemus approached him with the most piercing of spiritual questions.

Contributors include Matthew Barrett, Thomas Nettles, Jonathan Leeman, Douglas Sweeney, Leonardo De Chirico, Andy Naselli, and Tom Ascol.

Matthew Barrett, Executive Editor