In God’s kind providence, it was a biblical understanding of the great doctrine of regeneration that birthed (I’m not sure if I’m intending the pun or not) the evangelical movement of the 18th century. Sadly, it is also a misunderstanding and underemphasis of this doctrine that has contributed to the unraveling of evangelicalism in the 21st century.
One story goes that an observer of George Whitefiled (1714-1770) once asked him, “Mr. Whitefield, why are you always preaching in every sermon that you must be born again?” to which Whitefield replied, “Because, good sir, you must be born again!”
Whitefield’s observer wasn’t the first one to ever be shocked by these words. One night in 1st century Jerusalem a man of the Pharisees was equally puzzled as Jesus told him, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again'” (John 3:7).
In today’s post, I want us to consider Jesus’s words and the great truth we have in them regarding the precious and glorious doctrine of regeneration.
The first thing we see about these words is the phrase “You must.” The word “you” here is plural. D.A. Carson notes, “The plural ‘you’ sets Jesus over against not just Nicodemus, but the entire human race.”* In other words, this teaching isn’t just for our friend Nick. It’s for everyone.
Then we have the word “must.” A word of necessity. If anyone is to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3), he or she must be born again. This is because our hearts are deceptive, dead, and depraved (Jer. 17:9, Eph. 2:1ff, Mt. 15:19). In and of ourselves we cannot and will not choose Jesus (John 6:44, 6:63). 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).
Therefore, if one is ever to believe, practice righteousness, or love God and others, he or she must be born again (1 John 5:1, 2:29, 4:7).
The second word we will consider is not “actually” in the text. Jesus says “You must be.” In the Greek “be born” is one word and it’s a passive aorist infinitive. But for our purposes, simply consider that Jesus isn’t telling us what we must “do” in this text, but what we must “be.” You must be born rather than something like “you must birth yourself.”
And if Jesus is wanting to illustrate monergism (and He is), there is no better illustration He could have used than “birth.” A person does not effect their first birth. That’s exactly the point Jesus is making. One doesn’t choose to be born, and one doesn’t choose to be born again (see John 3:8).
Regeneration, then, is of God’s own will (James 1:18). By His own sheer mercy and grace, God causes us to be born again (1 Peter 1:3). The new birth is not a work of God and man, but a work of God in man. It is not effected by baptism, education, or a man-made decision. It is the sheer work of God alone who makes the dead heart alive (Eph. 2:4-5).
Jesus says, “You must be born…” As the old preacher once said, “I still haven’t gotten over my first birth.” And what he meant was, our first birth massively impacts us. How much truer of the second birth?
Regeneration is a total change. I do not mean to suggest that we immediately enter a state of sinless perfection. What I mean is that our affections changed at regeneration. We go from loving sin to hating it. From hating Christ to loving Him. Our attitudes are changed. We want Christ. We want to follow Him. Our actions are changed. We come to Christ. As MacArthur writes, “Regeneration is the cause, not the consequence, of saving faith.”
We repent of sin. We seek to obey Him.
Being born has quite an effect on people. So too does being born again.
You must be born again. Perhaps a better translation of the word “again” is “from above.” The same word is used in Matthew 27:51 for the veil being torn from “top” to bottom.
So, first, just like a person who is born can never be “unborn” so too can a person who is born again never be unborn again. And secondly, this being born again is from above and cannot be undone by someone from below.
The point here is that regeneration is a permanent act of God. Regeneration leads (causally rather than temporally) to immediate faith and repentance. Through this grace alone, by faith alone, the sinner is justified before God, being imputed with the righteousness of Christ forever.
A biblical doctrine of regeneration absolutely matters practically. If regeneration is something we do on our own or in cooperation with God, this drastically changes how we should share the gospel and depend on the Lord for the salvation of our neighbors and the nations.
But, if, as I have argued, regeneration is solely an act of God, this rightly fills us with desperation, dependence, and determination. Desperation because we desperately need the sovereign God to work. We must pray to Him, plead with Him, and not only to work on sinners’ hearts but also that would be faithful to His gospel.
That’s what I mean by dependence. We are dependent on the gospel as the power of God unto salvation. It’s not gimmickry that gets people into the kingdom, but the gospel — the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ for sinners. The Holy Spirit works through the proclamation of the gospel to effect regeneration.
Finally, this doctrine gives us a resolute determination to go and preach the gospel. It’s not my charisma or the sinner’s willingness that determines regeneration. It’s God’s sovereign grace. Therefore, I can go and preach to the hardest of hearts, to the most wretched of wretches, the legalists and Pharisees, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, and people from every tribe, tongue, and nation knowing that God is going to save sinners for the glory of His great name.
Let us recover this great doctrine of regeneration, brothers and sisters, and let us see if God might not birth a new revival in our day. (Probably did intend the pun that time)
*D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 197.
 Biblical Doctrine, 585 (emphasis mine). John MacArthur goes on to say, “In his state of spiritual death (Eph. 2:1-3), man is incapable of even understanding the things of the Spirit, let alone receive them (1 Cor. 2:14). The sinner’s mind is so hostile to God that he is literally unable to submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7), and thus he cannot please God in any sense (Rom. 8:8), including the exercise of faith (Heb. 11:6). Man is blind to the value of God’ glory revealed in Christ and is hopelessly enamored with sin, despite its worthlessness. To suggest that a sinner in such a state could, apart from the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, summon from within his own deadness the saving faith that God declares to be his sovereign gift (Eph. 2:8) is to wholly underestimate the miserable nature of man’s depravity” (Biblical Doctrine, 586).”