Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit whereby He gives true life with God through the Word to people who are spiritually dead. John 3:1-21 tells us more about this miracle.
People without God are dead. They may breathe, but they merely exist outside the grave. Basically there are two categories of dead people. Firstly, there are the reckless dead, who openly resist God and his commands. Those were the sinners, tax collectors and whores at the time when Jesus was on earth; we may also consider murderers, gamblers, prostitutes and drunkards (Eph 2:1-13). Secondly there are the respectable dead. They live decently, even with elegance, with good moral values. They were the Pharisees and Sadducees - somebody like Nicodemus - the ecclesiastical, religious dead (Math 23:27-28; Rev 3:1b).
Nicodemus was dead because he looked for identity within himself: He believed that his Jewish blood could give him access to the kingdom of God; he relied on his religious zeal; he confided in his position as member of the Jewish Council; he trusted his theological knowledge.
Dead people rely on themselves and not on God. This spiritual death, this estrangement from God, is our deepest distress. The question is not only: Is there life after death? but also: Is it possible to have life before you die?
The living Man
God knows our distress and it hurts Him deeply. Therefore He provided life instead of death. He sent his Son to replace the dead. Jesus Christ had a perfect living relationship with his Father. He suffered eternal death and conquered it. He is the life, earned life, disposes of life, and provides life. In Him the cord of life with the Father is restored.
Nicodemus recognised that Jesus Christ had a special relationship with his Father when he witnessed the miraculous signs: water being changed into wine at the wedding feast and the cleansing of the temple. He began to doubt his own recipe of life. He seriously started looking for life and the how to get it.
Jesus heard Nicodemus' cries of distress and showed him the way to life. He pointed to Himself as the Son of man, who came from heaven (the life with the Father), died, rose and returned to glorious life with the Father (3:13-14). He is the way, the truth and the life: nobody some to the Father but by Him (14:6-7). He is the Good Shepherd who gives life to his sheep (10:10). He is the bread that gives life (6:35). He is the resurrection and the life (11:25).
Life is a Person, Jesus Christ, God Himself. True life is not to be found in man - e.g. descent, religious zeal, denominational status, knowledge of the Bible – but only in Jesus Christ.
The Spirit who gives life
How do people who are naturally dead, become alive? How can somebody who is estranged from God, be reconciled with Him?
The Lord Jesus sends his Spirit to vivify, to quicken, regenerate the dead. Jesus told Nicodemus: "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (3:3).
With these words Jesus demolishes everything Nicodemus built upon. As Jew, he is not automatically born into the kingdom of God; as Pharisee he can't unlock the kingdom with his religiousness; as a man of status, he should realise that the kingdom is for the humble; as adult and learned theologian he needs to acknowledge that small children can grasp God's revelation in Christ Jesus.
To come into a living relationship with God is a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus uses two metaphors to explain this miracle. The first is the image of birth. Through birth a mother brings her baby from a prenatal existence tot a postnatal life. She gives this new mode of life to the baby. Likewise the Holy Spirit transfers a lost sinner from a position far from God to a safe place near to Him. The second image is about the wind. It blows, unseen, incomprehensible ... but it is there! In similar fashion we don't understand how the Spirit regenerates somebody, but it happens!
This miracle indeed happened to Nicodemus. He pleaded that Jesus must get a fair trial (7:50-52). He later on gave spices to prepare Jesus body for burial (19:39). He became a disciple of Christ.
Regeneration happens: with the reckless, and the pious; with adults, and children; with other people, and with mé!
In the 17th century a synod formulates what the Scriptures teaches on regeneration:
Through the mighty work of the Holy Spirit, who gives new life, God penetrates the inner parts of man, opens the closed heart, softens what is hard, and circumcises the uncircumcised. He gives the will new characteristics. He gives new life to the dead will. He makes what was dead, to live, what was bad, to be good, what was unwilling, to be willing, and what was disobedient, to be obedient. He moves and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it bears good deeds as fruit.
This is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead and the giving of life about which the Scriptures speak so wonderfully, which God works in us without us. This is a perfect, supernatural, extremely powerful and at the same time very pleasant, miraculous, mysterious and indescribable act of God. The result is that all those, in whose hearts God works in this wonderful way, are definitely, infallibly, and powerfully being born again and really believe (Canons of Dort, 3 & 4:11, 12).
Because God gives the new life in Christ freely, He expects us to accept this gift through the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:16). He that has the Son, has life (1 John 5:12, 13).
Also read: Ezek 37:1-14; Rom 8:1; 1 Peter 1:3, 23-25; James 1:18; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1.
4 May 2009