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Regeneration - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

The Tract Series

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind.

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A look at how the Spirit changes the heart and soul.

The Salvation of man’s corrupted and fallen being throughout the Bible is a God-centered act, not a man-centered action. Unfortunately, to its own demise, the church has shifted from a God-centered view of salvation to a man-centered view over the past 250 years. Man-centered philosophical ideas, mixed with erroneous Arminian theology have brought about this change in the church. And it is imperative that we traverse back to a God-centered theology if the church desires to see any real revival at all. It is true that God’s usual means of working in the hearts of men is through regular preaching and teaching of the Word. But extraordinary revivals, such as those sporadically strewn through the history of the church have only been seen during times of doctrinal integrity, not man-centered theology.

One of the most explicit passages concerning the Sovereign power of God in salvation is John chapter 3. This chapter, in my estimation, is also the most widely abused section of Scripture since there is a common plea to John 3:16 as a watershed verse for Arminian theology; but this is only a proof-text. Most of Christendom today believes that Jesus is teaching that John 3:16 applies to every person for all time – all people are the “whosoever” of the verse. They believe the verse teaches that God has given salvation for “whosoever” and that “whosoever” may obtain it by their own “free-will.” This interpretation is only possible when the first 10 verses of the chapter are disregarded, and then, many illogically presupposed ideas are read into verse 16. To vindicate this passage, scrutiny must be utilized in studying the first 10 verses of this chapter, and Jesus’ greater context with Nicodemas.

John 3:1-10 reads as follows, “There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night, and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered, “how can these things be?!” Jesus answered and said to Him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?”

We should note at the outset that the Pharisee, Nicodemus, a ruler (or teacher) of the Jews, approaches Jesus “by night…” It would not be profitable for the Pharisee to be seen with Jesus during the day since the other Pharisees were hostile to Christ. Visiting Christ by day would have brought Nicodemas a reproach among his sect. Nicodemus was risking his own reputation by being seen with Christ, thus, he comes under the cover of night.

Secondly, Nicodemus compliments Jesus to gain His favor and show a “humble” sign of respect. Jesus must be a teacher come from God because “no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him.” Jesus heals the sick, causes lame people to walk again, cures the blind, deaf and dumb, and more. “Surely” he is from God! But Christ wastes no time with Nicodemus and does not readily acknowledge his “compliment.” Rather, Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” The force behind “most assuredly” is as if Jesus was saying, “This is the way it is and you need to listen!” It is an emphatic attention exclamation mark. He then says, “Unless…” The word “unless” means, “something must absolutely happen before something else happens.” Unless what? “Unless a man…” The word “man” in this context refers to “a person.” “Unless a person…” The masculine words “man” or “men” are used to refer to mankind as a whole throughout Scripture. Jesus is referring to the mass of people, of all mankind, and these people must do something, unless… We do not know what needs to be accomplished. All Jesus says is that something must happen to a person, before something else must happen. But what? “Unless a man is born again…” The words “born again” are literally translated “born from above.” We see Jesus’ use of the words have a spiritual application instead of a physical. He means to say that unless people are spiritually renewed…then something follows. “Unless a man is born again he cannot ….” There is a prerequisite for doing something here. The man must be born again or he “cannot” do something. “Cannot ” is literally “he has no power.” The person has no power to do this thing Jesus is describing unless he is born again; this means he is spiritually renewed, or as commonly stated, “saved.” Let us finish the whole sentence, “Unless a man is born again he cannot see the kingdom of heaven.” Many people mistranslate this verse to mean, “Unless a man is saved, then he cannot enter into heaven when he dies.” But this is a misinterpretation, and a reading into the text. The word “see” is not the Greek word “Bleppow,” which could have yielded the mistranslation just given. “Bleppow” means to see with the eyes. If this was the word, then the translation may be “Unless a man is born again he cannot see with his eyes the kingdom of heaven,” which then may refer to entering into heaven. But this is not what the test is saying at all at this point. Jesus does not use the word “bleppow” but rather a derivative of “oraow,” which is “ieadien,” meaning “to see.” But the seeing here is different than physical sight. It is not seeing with the eyes, but rather, it literally means, “to perceive, or spiritually understand something.” It is as if someone said to you, “O, I see what you are saying.” So the verse would be translated accurately this way: Unless a person is saved, he cannot spiritually understand anything about the Kingdom of God. When Jesus says this, Nicodemus does not understand his words. This demonstrates the case in point – since Nicodemus is not saved, he cannot understand Jesus words. Here Nicodemus thinks Christ is referring to physical birth and asks how a man can be born again physically, a second time. Jesus clarifies the question and says, “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The “water” is physical birth. (Some feel it may be baptism that is associated with salvation, but that stretches the text and disregards Nicodemus’ last statement. It does not consider the context at all.) Jesus is now saying, “Unless a man is born physically, (Jesus acquiesces to Nicodemus here), and is born spiritually from above by the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Man, unless is he saved by the Spirit of God, (big “S” for “Spirit” in the verse) will not spiritually perceive the Kingdom, nor will he enter the kingdom.

Jesus then explains exactly what he means. He says, “That which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of Spirit is spirit.” Flesh only gives birth to flesh. Flesh does not give birth to spirit. Only the Holy Spirit, big “S,” gives birth to man’s spirit, little “s”. Flesh, or human nature, does not have the capacity to give birth to spiritual things (cf. Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10ff; 1 Cor. 2:1ff) Only the Holy Spirit of God can “born someone again.”

Jesus then states, “Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus demonstrates by analogy to Nicodemus that the Spirit of God is sovereign over the salvation of those He saves. He is like the wind, which blows “where it wishes.” So the Spirit blows upon whom he wishes to save, and then “borns them again.” This reality is emphasized when Christ says, “So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus cannot believe such a thing is true. He says, “how can these things be?” His disbelief shows his inability to perceive spiritual things, as Jesus has been saying all along.

Jesus answered and said to Him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?” Jesus rebukes him as such and tells him that people who are spiritual teachers and rulers of God’s chosen nation should know basic concepts concerning the welfare of the people before a righteous God. Nicodemas should be intimately aware of concepts as simple as salvation if he is a true teacher of Israel; but Nicodemus did not.

There is a theological word which is given to the sovereign power of the Spirit over the initial aspect of changing a persons heart during salvation; it is called “regeneration.” Paul uses this word in Titus 3:5. It is a Bible word. It is a theologically-packed word which means, “The Spirit sovereignly blows on those whom He chooses to save, changes their heart to work righteousness in them, applies the blood of Christ upon them and gives them the new ability to perceive those spiritual things they could not see before.” This concept and word are essential in understanding salvation.

How does regeneration work? Man is sinful, and cannot believe or perceive anything about the kingdom of God. The Spirit arrests his heart and blows on him and changes his heart giving birth to “spirit.” The person is then able to believe and perceive the kingdom, and does so because of the work of the Spirit. And we know, since there is a hell, that the Spirit does not regenerate all people. He chooses some and passes by others. He blows as the wind; where He blows and when is a mystery to us. Practically regeneration may be seen as the time when the Spirit of God, upon an unsaved person, removes the heart of stone he had been born with and replaces it with a heart of flesh in order that he may respond positively to the Gospel which he could not understand before. Thus we see that according to Jesus Christ, regeneration precedes faith.

The church today has salvation backwards. How is this so? Allow me to use an example. Christendom believes that a person attends church, hears the evangelistic message, thinks about it, and then decides whether or not to believe it and follow Jesus. He hears first, decides second, and then is born again, third. But this is not what Jesus says in the passage we have just worked through. Jesus asserts that a man must first be born again before he can perceive anything about the Kingdom. He comes to church hears the message and understands or perceives nothing about it because he is spiritually dead. Spiritually dead does not mean he is “sorta spiritually alive.” He is alive physically, but he is a spiritual corpse. There is not spiritual life in him at all. The Spirit must quicken his heart and mind by giving birth to his spirit and renewing his heart. God takes out the heart of stone and puts in a heart of flesh. Unless the Spirit of God arrests him and “borns him again,” he will not understand the Kingdom of God, nor will he enter into it no matter how many times he hears the Gospel. The Spirit must work belief in him and regenerate his heart. The dead heart is removed and a living heart, one born of God, is put in its place.

In the basics of salvation the church has reversed the order of salvation. Most of Christendom believes that it depends on man rather than on the sovereign act of the Spirit of God who applies the blood to those whom He chooses to blow upon. Why do they do this? Because of a misunderstanding of John 3:16. People desire a God who is just “love” without wrath, justice or holiness. They fancy a God who is beckoning and waiting for man to make the first move. A “god” who says “whosoever will…” This would infer that everyone, even Judas and Pharaoh, has a chance to be saved, and everyone has the power to “will” themselves towards that end. But again, that is a misunderstanding of the text, for the literal translation of John 3:16 is rendered in this way: “For God loved the world so much, that He sent His one and only Son, that everyone who believes shall not perish but have life everlasting.” There is no “whosoever.” The verse is saying, “everyone who believes on Jesus goes to heaven.” We then must ask, “How do they believe?” Here the faithful exegete of the Bible retraces his steps to the first verses of chapter 3, John 3:1-10. Here Jesus teaches that the Spirit must first cause a man’s heart to be transformed, to be born again, and then the spirit of a man comes willingly to God, seeing, spiritually, his need of a Savior. To place faith before regeneration is to disregard the plain meaning of the test here. And if we change the text to fit our theological stance, then we believe in a different “god” and a different way of salvation than Jesus Christ, the righteous One, has taught us. This new fabricated “god” is so powerless that he cannot even open a human heart to save someone! That “god” is weak, impotent and servile. It is not the God of the Bible, but of man’s imaginations. It is unfortunate that Jesus Christ, through His Word, is still saying to the Church at large, you are teachers…and you do not understand such things? Let us hear Christ’s words and believe Him at His Word, remembering that we can only take his Words to heart if the Spirit has blown on us and regenerated it in the first place.

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