When we say that someone is a “born again Christian”, it is like talking about a round circle or a four-cornered square. Shouldn’t a Christian be born again in order to be one? And why the emphasis on being born-again (not that it is unimportant) and not regeneration? Have we made being born-again more important than being regenerated? Where does rebirth end and regeneration begin?
This article aims to give some perspective to the whole process of rebirth and regeneration, and the place to begin would be at Conversion.
In modern evangelical circles, the verb conversion is usually used in the passive voice (“I was converted”). But in the New Testament, the verb is usually in the active voice (“convert your brother”) and in the middle voice (“convert yourself”). The verb always has a human subject, never a divine.
In the New Testament Greek, the word ‘convert’ is a very ordinary word which means “to turn around”. It is therefore a most appropriate description to use when a sinner turns away from his sins and towards God. It describes his own actions, not God’s. In 1 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul recalls how the believers there “turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God”. They did the turning, not God.
This turning around can either be done in one big movement or in a series of smaller ones. Christians tend to look for dramatic turnarounds since they are, as I have said, dramatic. From my observation of what is described in the Bible, I see that this spiritual turn around consists of four stages: belief, repentance, baptism, and receive. In a sense, the word ‘conversion’ may be used for this whole process since all of them are needed for a complete turnaround.
However, conversion can be repeated. The same word is used in the New Testament of a brother who ‘converts’ back to sin (Gal 4:9; Tit 3:11). He would need to be converted back to God again (Luke 22:32).
So, in giving testimonies, rather than speaking about how we were converted, we should speak about the sins we repented from.
Regeneration is the moment when the sinner receives a new nature. But when it occurs is a point of contention. Reformed theology places regeneration even before the whole process of initiation since they believe that fallen human nature is utterly incapable of repenting from sin, let alone receiving the Holy Spirit. Most evangelicals and Pentecostals seem to work on the assumption that regeneration takes place after repentance and faith but before water baptism. Catholics have chosen a more sacramental approach by identifying regeneration with water baptism. If the three views are deeply divided in their conclusions, they are united in the underlying premise that regeneration is virtually instantaneous. But is this assumption borne out of Scripture?
The word ‘regeneration’, like ‘conversion’, is an ordinary word, descriptive rather than definitive. From the verb ‘to be’, a simple prefix produces a verb meaning ‘to come to be’ or ‘to become’; yet another prefix changes it to ‘to become again’.
The verb ‘to become’ is used over two hundred times in the New Testament, with many shades of meaning. From an ordinary narrative, like “John the baptizer came to be in the wilderness” (Mark 1:4), to describing the process of how a mustard seed ‘becomes’ a large tree (Luke 13:19).
In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses this verb to describe how one must ‘become again’ in order to inherit eternal life. Interestingly (and deliberately), Jesus uses the analogy of a natural birth to explain the spiritual process of rebirth and regeneration indicating that there is a degree of similarity between the two. Physical birth is certainly a process made up of a series of events. From the contractions of the uterus, through the emergence of the newly born baby and the cutting of the umbilical cord, to the first breath and cry, the whole sequence has brought a new life into being. To call any one of these stages the ‘birth’ is exceedingly difficult. The whole process might have been delightfully quick or relatively slow. What matters is that a new life has began and that everything that is needed for a healthy life to follow has been done. Birth has little significance in and of itself; it is the prelude to life and the quality of that life is the important thing. In other words, it is how you have lived that matters more than how you were born.
Earlier I said that there are four activities in conversion: believe, repent, be baptized, and receive. The same can be said of regeneration. In conversion, man is the active agent, while God is the one doing most of the work in regeneration. He grants repentance (Acts 5:31; 11:18), bestows the gifts of faith (Eph 2:8), raises from the grave of baptism (Col 2:12), and pours out His spirit (Tit 3:5).
So while the whole process may be regarded as both ‘conversion’ and ‘regeneration’, the latter word is particularly applicable to the second half of the process. Receiving the Spirit, the fourth and final stage of the new birth carries a significance absent from the other three. It is the completion of the process of regeneration, marking the beginning of the new life as well as the end of the new birth. But it is also the confirmation of regeneration, the proof that new life has began, since this new life is “life in the Spirit”.
Just as Adam received the breath of life through his nostrils and he became a living soul, a new believer receives the Holy Spirit and overflows with a cry, “Abba, Father”. This is how we know we live in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit (1 John 4:13). No wonder the apostles were deeply concerned when such evidence was lacking; this was a touchstone of being a “Christian”.