Free Chapter from A Change of Heart: Understanding Regeneration and Why it Matters

I am so excited to be working with Free Grace Press again to publish my third book (2nd with FGP), entitled A Change of Heart: Understanding Regeneration and Why it Matters. We still have some work to do but, Lord willing, we are looking at Summer 2023 (perhaps sooner) as a publication date.

In order to generate a little interest in the book, I thought I’d publish a chapter here. I hope you enjoy and would love any feedback you may have…

Chapter 5:

The Necessity of Regeneration – Part 2

My wife and I have five children. I can say that with each child’s arrival, I never got over the wonder of birth. This tiny human enters the world experiencing things like she never has before. Birth is an amazing and beautiful gift of God.

Jesus uses the analogy of our physical birth in His dialogue with Nicodemus for a reason. A person could never do anything without first being born. The same holds true of the necessity of our second birth. This is why Jesus says, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” and “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again,’” (John 3:3,7).

In the last chapter, we sought to increase our understanding of the depth of sin and its effects on mankind. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached, “It is true of man not only that is he in the dark, but that the darkness is also in him.”[1] There is no neutrality when it comes to Jesus. No one can sit on the fence on this issue. You either belong to Jesus or you don’t.

Experientially, this may be hard for us to fathom because we run into people all the time who profess to love Jesus. And maybe even in their minds, they think they do. Or if they do not love Him, at least, they don’t hate Him.

But this isn’t the biblical teaching. Roman 8:7-8 says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” John 3:20 says, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” And in John 7:7, Jesus says the world hates Him.

There is no neutrality when it comes to Jesus. If neutrality was possible, then perhaps we could talk about those neutral people not needing to be born again. However, it is not possible. In reality, all are hostile to God, and all need to be born again. Because this is such a hard truth for so many to swallow, we are going to spend another chapter discussing the absolute necessity of being born again.

The Natural Person

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:14 that, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

The natural person. This is like when Jesus says that which is flesh is flesh. The flesh produces flesh. Natural people produce natural people. The natural person is the person not born again. That person does not accept the things of God. They are folly to him.

Take a moment and read 1 Corinthians 1:18-27. This word for folly is used six-times in that passage to demonstrate that for the natural man, the unregenerate man, the things of Christ are foolishness. In some cases, the natural man may appear to cling to Christ and even tell others he is clinging to Christ, but in his heart of hearts, the things of God are silly. He does not like them and, if he were honest, would tell you they seem absurd to him. All this stuff about propitiation, atonement, the gospel–it’s all ultimately foolishness to the natural man.

He is unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. This is the same word for ability used in John 6:44, 65. Paul says the sinner does not have the ability to understand the cross in his own power.

With this in mind, let’s back up to see the surrounding context of 1 Corinthians 2:14, 1 Corinthians 2:12-15:

12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.

We see here that Paul is contrasting the natural man and the spiritual man. The natural man does not care about the things of Christ. They are folly to him. He doesn’t understand them. Again, it is not as though the natural man desires Christ, but God won’t let him come. Rather, it is all foolishness to him.

Charles Hodge notes, “[M]an in the highest development of his nature, can neither discover ‘the things of the Spirit,’ nor receive them when revealed. It is of God, and not because of their superior culture or refinement, that men are in Christ.”[2]

In contrast to the natural man, the spiritual person, then, loves Christ. What is the difference? The Spirit of God has efficaciously influenced him, and he has been given “a divine supernatural knowledge.”[3] The other is hardened by his own sin and moved by the spirit of the world. That brings me to my next passage.

The Veiled Gospel

In his second epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes,

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For 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. (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

Not only is the sinner unable and unwilling to come to Christ. Not only are the things of Christ folly to him. But also, here, we see that Satan blinds unbelievers from seeing the glory of Christ.

Satan keeps them from seeing truth. But it’s not as though they’re looking for it. Rather, their own unwillingness gives way to Satan blinding them to leave the unregenerate sinner in a very precarious and hopeless scenario, if he is depending upon his own power and good works to earn salvation.

Notice in 2 Corinthians 4:5-6 that Paul is once more contrasting the unbeliever and the believer. The difference is, yet again, the Holy Spirit. The affections of the lost man are turned inwardly on sin and self. And the affections cannot be altered from within. Something must happen from without. God must say, “Let there be light” in the hearts of His people. We must be born again. Regeneration is necessary for any person to become a Christian.

Spinach and Buzzards

I want you to think about spinach and a child, for example. Take a 7-year-old and put spinach in front of them. And then tell them: “Hey, just love this, okay? Just make yourself love this spinach.” That won’t happen. That can’t happen. That little girl simply cannot will herself to love something she hates.  

So, too, with the religious affections. A person cannot merely say, “Okay, now I’m going to love Christ and the things of Christ.” It won’t happen. The things of Christ are folly to him, and the god of this world has blinded his eyes.

Let’s take another example. Capture a wild buzzard and put rancid meat in front of him and a fresh salad. And say, “hey don’t choose the squashed possum. Choose the Caesar salad. Don’t love the rancid meat! Love the salad!” (Never mind that you are now talking to buzzards.)

What will he do? He’s a buzzard. He will act in accordance with his nature. He will choose the roadkill. That roadkill smells heavenly to him. That’s who he is. Who unbelievers are, apart from Christ, are dead in trespasses and sins, according to Ephesians 2:1. They suppress the truth in unrighteousness, according to Romans 1:18. They do not seek after God or understand, according to Romans 3:11.

For unbelievers to come to Christ, they need their minds changed. They need their hearts changed. Their wills changed. Their affections changed.

Yet, this is how too many people present Christianity: You must do the things you hate to do and not do the things you really want to do all in an effort to make it to heaven.[4] But biblical Christianity is that we need to be born again. We need new life. We need God to remove our heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. It is only from that supernatural act that we look to Christ in faith, repent of our sins, trust Christ, rest in Christ, love Christ, and desire to walk after Christ. Without a new sense, new eyes, and new ears we will never run to Christ in saving faith. [5]  

In a way, those who are perishing have a problem they don’t even recognize. They love the world. They love their carnal appetite. They love fleeting pleasure. They love sin. And on top of all that, Paul says the god of this world blinds them. They hate the idea of Christ ruling over them. They want nothing to do with Jesus or true religion.

Religious Motions ≠ Religious Affections

The sinner may go through the motions of religion. We think of Judas, for example. Or even, what about Esau? “For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears,” (Hebrews 12:17). Though Esau is in the Old Testament, he is an example of trying to outwardly conform to rules without a true change of heart.

It is true, then, that lost people sometimes merely go through the motions of religion. This is one reason Jonathan Edwards wrote his most famous book on The Religious Affections. During the Great Awakening there were some people who seemed to be converted, but later it turned out they were not.

By the way, this is why we must exercise caution when we hear that 500 people came forward at church camp or at the end of a revival service, or whatever. It wouldn’t be helping them or the Church, for us to simply declare, “They’re all saved!” Instead, cautiously and prayerfully, we should counsel them well as we observe their lives. If their salvation is genuine, their lives will show their change of heart.

Edwards warned that people may start talking a lot about religious things. Or they may start coming to church every week. There may even be an appearance of love for God and His people in a person. But none of these outward behaviors guarantees that a person is truly a Christian.

Edwards writes, “He who has no religious affection, is in a state of spiritual death, and is wholly destitute of the powerful, quickening, saving influences of the Spirit of God upon his heart.”[6] See, the sinner will go to great lengths, even deceiving himself, so as not to truly bow the knee to Christ and enjoy Him for who He is.

Will You Walk Away?

The concept of human inability runs directly against human pride. Jesus contrasted these in John 6 and was met with a great departure of so-called disciples. I imagine if any of his disciples were church-growth

 gurus, they had to be frustrated with his tactics.[7] Consider the event from the end of John 6.

Jesus said, “‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all…This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’ After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:63a, 65-66).

I don’t think Jesus’s teaching on human inability is necessarily everything that caused these disciples to leave, but it is a significant contributor. In other words, lost persons do not want to hear about the sinner’s inability. And they haven’t been wanting to hear it for a very long time – even in the days of Jesus, from the mouth of Jesus Himself.

There is a greater problem out there than global warming, worldwide pandemics, or inequality, and that is sin. Unless we are born again, we will not see the kingdom of God. Society has such an idolatrous love of human autonomy that we don’t want to admit our need or inability.

This is how serious our pride problem is: These people were listening to Jesus in the flesh. They were in the physical presence of the King. They had seen his miracles. They had not long before partaken of the bread and fish! They had heard his teaching. But then Jesus attacked their pride and sense of self-autonomy. And they walked away. “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”

Men are so prideful and so in love with the thought of their own self-sufficiency that even if Jesus Himself stands in front of them and tells them of their inability, they won’t listen. They will walk away.

This is the power of our affections. It is our affections that move our wills so to speak. It’s one thing for the soul to understand something, but it’s quite another for the soul to be inclined toward something or will to do something.

Marriage is a good illustration. Your wife doesn’t just want you to help pick up the house. She wants you to want to help clean up the house. She doesn’t want you to take her out on a date because you feel obligated to do so. She wants you to want to take her out.

Many people understand the gospel. Many people could pass a seminary exam on justification by faith alone. Many people walk through the doors of a church building every Sunday. But it’s one thing to understand what the Bible says. It’s quite another to genuinely desire to live accordingly with holy aspirations.

How to Attend the Things of Christ

I’ve observed three wrong ways for people to attend to the things of Christ—things like prayer, and Bible intake, sharing Christ, coming to church, and pursuing holiness. Without a heart that has been changed by the Holy Spirit, this is what their service looks like:

  1. Drudgery – I know I should be doing these religious things but I don’t really want to. But, I guess I’d better because I want to go to heaven.
  2. Pharisee – I’m doing these things so God loves me more and more.  I’m not perfect but I’m better than that guy and I deserve some blessings because of all the good I do.
  3. Apathy – I don’t care. I’ve been saved and the preacher told me to write it in my Bible so I’m good. I don’t care about attending to the things of Christ

People in all three of these scenarios understand what they are supposed to do. But they don’t want to attend to the things of Christ for the glory of God and the true blessedness of their souls. Their foolish hearts are still darkened. Mere lip service doesn’t please Almighty God.

Christians live for Christ because we’ve been born again, not in order to be born again. Going through the motions of Christianity without any genuine religious affection for Christ, for the people of Christ, for the glory of Christ indicates a  person who is blinded, deceived, hardened, and dead in his trespasses and sins, (Jer. 17:9, Eph. 2:1ff, Mt. 15:19).

In and of ourselves we cannot and will not choose Jesus, (John 6:44, 63). The natural man does not love God, fear God, understand God, or have anything to do with following God, (1 Cor. 2:14, Rom. 3:10-18). This is why regeneration is necessary. This is why we must be born again!

We have taken two chapters to explore the sinner’s inability and the absolute necessity of being born again. The question we now come to is, if the sinner can’t do it, who can? In other words, if our wills are inclined away from Christ and our affections are corrupted and centered on self, how does that change? Is there any hope for the lost soul?

Unquestionably, the answer is yes. What is impossible with men is possible with God (Luke 18:27). Being born again is grace upon grace. We needed to understand our inability so that we can understand God’s grace in regeneration.

In our next chapter, we will explore God’s sovereignty in regeneration. Just as we saw God stoop down to the first lifeless man in Eden and breath into Him the breath of life, so too does the Holy Spirit, of His own sovereign initiative, come upon spiritually lifeless sinners and cause them to live.

[1] Lloyd-Jones, Born of God, 26.

[2] Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857), 42.

[3] Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 4 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 161.

[4] I first heard this example in a Paul Washer sermon.

[5] Religious Affections, 71.

[6] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 243.

[7] I remember hearing this point in 2008 from a David Platt sermon.

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