A Biblical and Theological Study of Regeneration
by Peter Toon
Baker Book House, 1987
Bible quotations are from the New International Version
except for citations from the King James Version marked (KJV).
Part One: The Biblical Evidence
1. Jesus and Nicodemus
2. Jesus and the Spirit
3. Born of God
4. Individual Internal Renewal
5. Cosmic Regeneration
6. Old Testament Roots
7. Complementary Doctrines
Part Two: Theological Interpretations
8. Patristic and Medieval Interpretations: By Water and the Spirit
9. The Reformation: By Word, Spirit, and Water
10. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican Teaching: Baptismal Regeneration
11. Reformed Theology: Effectual Calling
12. Puritans, Pietists, and Evangelists
13. Modern Evangelism: A Decision for Christ
14. Born from Above Bibliography Scripture and Subject Indexes omitted for web
The expression “born again” became increasingly common in North America in the 1970s-much to the amazement of us Europeans, for whom personal religion is a more private affair. We noticed articles in prestigious magazines (e.g., Time, 27 Sept. 1976) and concluded that America must be a very religious country since there are so many twice-born people in it! We realized that “born again” was taken from the old translation of John 3:3, and, rightly or wrongly, many of us tended to attribute the modern-day emphasis on the new birth to the evangelistic activity of Billy Graham. We pictured him always preaching on “Ye must be born again.”
In the late 1980s, it is still perhaps true that many in Europe think of “born again” as a peculiarly American expression pointing to some kind of conversion experience followed by religious activism. As a minister of the Church of England, I am better informed than most of my fellow Europeans as to the “born again” phenomenon because I have had the time and taken the opportunity to study the theology of the new birth. This book is the result of my study of both the sacred Scriptures and the teaching of the church throughout history.
I see the book as primarily for those who preach or who teach in colleges and seminaries. However, I hope that it is written in such a way that the person who is not schooled in theology will be able, with a little extra effort, to understand it. To help such a person and any who are slow starters in theological thinking, I begin the book with a simple chapter paraphrasing the famous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus which is recorded in John 3. This easy-to-read chapter sets the scene for the rest of Part One, a study of the biblical evidence concerning what is called personal regeneration. In Part Two I present a chronological study of the most important approaches to and explanations of regeneration. Theologians from the patristic period up to Billy Graham are represented. Finally, in the Epilogue I offer a summary of what I see as the doctrine of new birth.
My work is not definitive; rather it is explorative. Others will certainly write better books on this theme. My purpose is to stimulate interest and further study by Christian leaders, preachers and teachers.
I owe a debt to my friend Walter Elwell of Wheaton Graduate School for linking me to Baker Book House and to their kind editor Allan Fisher. I am also most grateful to the trustees of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton for making it possible for me to travel to and work in their archives and library. Other friends have given me help – of these I particularly wish to mention Steve Motyer, Albert Freundt, Joel Carpenter, and Wesley Wilkie.
The County of Suffolk, England
PART ONE: The Biblical Evidence
1 – Jesus and Nicodemus
By no means the only, but certainly the most familiar biblical source on the topic of new birth or spiritual regeneration is John 3:1–15. This is the record of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. We shall begin with a dramatized paraphrase of what passed between them. It will prepare us to study in subsequent chapters the theme of birth from above.
Narrator: In Jerusalem for the purpose of observing the Jewish Passover, Jesus has dramatically cleared the temple of those who were not treating it with due reverence. He has also performed certain notable miracles which have given him an immediate following. One of those who are attracted to Jesus is Nicodemus, a member of the supreme Jewish council and lawcourt, called the Sanhedrin. He belongs to the Pharisees, a religious sect devoted to the law of Moses, to the “tradition of the elders,” which is a strict oral interpretation of that law, and to the hope that the Messiah will liberate the Israelite people from Roman rule. The Pharisees also believe that when the Messiah eventually comes, there will be a resurrection of the dead.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, partly because rabbis tend to teach late into the night and partly because he wants to talk to Jesus alone, free from the interruptions of others.
Nicodemus: Some of my colleagues and I know that you are a teacher sent from God. We acknowledge that God is with you; else you could never perform the miracles that you have been performing in Jerusalem and in Cana of Galilee. I would like to know more of your teaching, especially how and when the kingdom of God will come.
Jesus: This is not the time for abstract discussion but for plain speaking! I tell you solemnly and truthfully that unless a man is begotten from above, he cannot in fact see the kingdom of God. To see and recognize the kingdom of heaven requires spiritual eyes, and only those who are born from above, who have a new life which originates in heaven, possess such eyes. It is necessary to be born of God in order to inherit eternal life.
Narrator: Nicodemus is startled by this direct but somewhat mysterious speech. He is obviously not familiar with this kind of religious talk, especially the idea of being born all over again.
Nicodemus: How can a man be born all over again when he is old like me? How can I shrink to enter again my mother’s womb? It is impossible for me an old man to put aside what I have become through the course of more than fifty years and begin all over again. You do not seem to be speaking of real possibilities.
Jesus: I solemnly and truthfully tell you that unless a man is born of both water and the Spirit, he is totally unable to enter the kingdom of God. The birth from above is caused by the Holy Spirit; the birth in water is the act of baptism, which is, first, an outward and visible sign of both inner washing and renewal, and, second, a commitment to God in repentance and faith. John the Baptist offered the sign of baptism and so do my disciples and I, but the begetting by God is the work of the Holy Spirit alone.
Consider the birth of a human baby. The child is begotten by the father, whose sperm causes the baby to be formed in the womb where he or she develops until born. When born the baby is of the same human nature and flesh as the parents. Consider now being begotten by God or birth from above. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, and thus what is created is new spiritual life in the soul, a nonphysical, nonfleshy reality.
In the light of this, you should not be surprised, Nicodemus, that I insist that you and your colleagues, in fact all Jews, must be begotten or born again if you are to see and to enter the kingdom of God. The wind is invisible but its effects can be seen; in a similar way, the Spirit is invisible but his effects on human lives – repentance, faith, and faithfulness – can be seen. Remember the prophecy of Ezekiel [ch. 37] concerning the valley of dry bones, how God’s breath caused them to become living people!
Narrator: Nicodemus still looks puzzled even though he appears to be grasping the drift of what Jesus is telling him.
Nicodemus: How can a person be begotten from above, born of the Spirit that comes from heaven? Where and when does such a thing happen, and what has to be done to cause it to happen?
Jesus: Surely as a professional teacher of the sacred Scriptures, which record God’s Word for us, you must have read in the Prophets of the new covenant, the new communion with God, the outpouring of the Spirit, the dwelling of the Spirit in human hearts, and the rich spiritual blessings of the new age. John the Baptist, my disciples, and I have been speaking of these promised gifts from heaven. For us the idea of being born from above is not strange but biblically based. Nicodemus, I have used simple earthly illustrations of birth and wind to communicate what I proclaim and teach from God. But you along with the Jewish people have not received my teaching in your hearts. How will you believe if I now go on to speak of further heavenly teaching? You see, I came into this world from heaven and so I do truly speak of heavenly things. I know what I am talking about, and that is why you must receive what I say. There will come a time when I shall be lifted up (just as, you will recall, the serpent on the pole was lifted up by Moses in the wilderness centuries ago). The purpose of my being lifted up will be to give people an opportunity to believe in me and, being born from above, to receive eternal life.
Narrator: Here we leave the conversation (which continues as only a monologue as Jesus explains more of his position as God’s Son and the Light of the world). Only later will Nicodemus come to realize what it means to be born of the Spirit and for Jesus to be lifted up, via the cross, to heaven in resurrection and ascension. In fact, Nicodemus will accompany Joseph of Arimathea to ask Pilate, the Roman governor, for the body of Jesus in order to give it a proper burial.
2 – Jesus and the Spirit
However we may define the new birth, it clearly occurs in the human soul through the action of the Spirit of the living God, who has been called, since the resurrection of Jesus, the “Spirit of Christ.” Further, the new birth is dependent upon the saving work of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (as John 3:14–15 shows). He was, and is, the Christ-Messiah, that is, the One anointed with the Spirit of God. Indeed, his public ministry began when he was uniquely anointed as he came up out of the river Jordan following his baptism.
With this in mind, it is appropriate that before we turn to examine what may be called personal inward regeneration, we briefly look at the relation of Jesus to the Holy Spirit. Obviously the Spirit who regenerates the individual and who creates the new people of God is the same Spirit who came upon (and remains upon) Jesus the Messiah. We shall, therefore, better appreciate the action of God in bringing new life to the human soul if we set that work against the background of the action of God the Holy Spirit in, upon, and through Jesus, who is the new Israel.1
1. A useful study of the person and work of the Spirit is Alasdair I. C. Heron, The Holy Spirit.
Ezekiel had prophesied the rebirth of Israel by the action of the breath of God the Spirit. In the well-known prophecy of the valley of dry bones the Lord says, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it” (Ezek. 37:14). Jesus as the Messiah is the new Israel: in and through him alone can the rebirth and renewal of Israel occur. (In John 2 this work of Jesus is foreshadowed by the making of water into wine and by the cleansing of the temple.) The Messiah had the double calling of causing both the whole Jewish people and each individual member to be reborn by the Spirit who was in and with him.
We shall now look briefly at the information available in the synoptic Gospels, John’s Gospel, and the Acts. This done, we shall attempt to understand the meaning of the baptism of Jesus, since it provides light by which to appreciate the meaning of the rite of baptism in the apostolic church. This task is necessary because there is in the apostolic teaching a close relation between the gift of the Spirit and baptism.
Biblical Material on the Relationship Between Jesus and the Spirit
The Synoptic Gospels
In the synoptic Gospels there is not an abundance of material on the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit because the center of attention is Jesus and his proclamation of the arrival of the kingdom of God – the age of fulfillment of the prophecies. However, that information which is provided is highly significant when it is read against the background of the prophecies concerning the Spirit’s anointing the Messiah (e.g., Isa. 11:1–5; 42:1–4; 61:1).2
2. For the Holy Spirit as presented in the Gospels see J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, and C. K. Barrett, The Holy Spirit and the Gospel Tradition.
1. The conception of Jesus is presented as occurring by the action of the Holy Spirit, the Life-Giver, in the womb of Mary the virgin (Matt. 1:18–20; Luke 1:35). With the conception and birth of Jesus, God had begun his new creation. It is important to observe how much Luke, especially, in his first two chapters emphasizes the presence and work of the Spirit in the events connected with the birth and early days of Jesus (see, e.g., 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25–27).
2. The baptism of Jesus was the occasion for the descent upon him of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22). Though sinless, Jesus identified himself with a baptism for the sinful in order to become the Savior of the sinful through his role as the Messiah anointed with the Spirit.
3. The testing of Jesus occurred immediately after his baptism when he was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1). There Jesus began his fight against Satan and demonic power. He also faced the temptations which ancient Israel had faced in the wilderness centuries before, and where they had failed he triumphed as he was empowered by the Spirit. He was steadfast in his worship of, trust in, and obedience to God and so left the wilderness as he entered it, led by the Spirit (Luke 4:14).
4. Throughout his ministry Jesus continued his conflict with demonic forces as he, in the power of the Holy Spirit, challenged and overcame the might of Satan, the fallen angel (Matt. 12:24–32; Mark 3:20–30; Luke 11:14–23). Jesus released the power of the Spirit as he proclaimed the kingdom of God, and evil spirits were forced to acknowledge his true identity and flee from his presence.
5. Jesus promised his disciples that after his departure the Holy Spirit would be with them (Matt. 10:20; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12; see also Luke 11:13; 24:49). This corroborates the basic promise made by John the Baptist that, in the new era of grace, the Messiah would baptize his people with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16). How this actually occurred is told in the Acts of the Apostles and explained in the Epistles.
The synoptic Gospels present Jesus, the Messiah, as the One who fulfills the prophecies concerning the special anointing of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit of promise rests upon him and works through his ministry in anticipation of the fullness of the kingdom of God to be realized in the age to come. Furthermore, the Synoptics present Jesus as promising that once he has completed his work on earth, he will give the same Spirit to his faithful disciples so that his own work will continue through their work.
The Gospel of John
Most of what is said in the Synoptics concerning the relationship of the Messiah and the Spirit is said in greater detail in John’s Gospel. Here Jesus calls the Spirit, whom he promises to send to his disciples when he leaves the earth, by the name of Paraclete (the One who comes alongside to serve as our Comforter, Counselor, and Friend). In fact, Jesus insists that it is necessary for him to go away so that he can come again, universalizing his presence in and through the Holy Spirit. Thus he can be with and in his disciples wherever they may be.
What is said in the Gospel of John concerning the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit can be summarized as follows:
1. The Spirit descended upon Jesus (1:32–33). While there is no specific mention of the baptism of Jesus, we are told by John that the Spirit descended like a dove and remained upon Jesus. That is to say, he came permanently.
2 The Spirit was given to Jesus not only permanently, but also without limit (3:34–35), because the Father loves the Son and willingly places everything in his hands.
3. The Spirit who remained in and upon Jesus is the same Spirit who will bring new birth and eternal life to believers (3:5–8; 6:63).
4. The Spirit will be given to the people of the new covenant after Jesus has been glorified (7:37–39). When Jesus has been raised from the dead, then, at his request, the Father will send the Spirit to his people so that they can be baptized in and by the Holy Spirit (1:33).
5. The Spirit will be the counterpart of Christ, the other Paraclete (14:16). The Spirit, inhering in and flowing from the exalted Christ, will come to the disciples in order to bring them the presence and mind of Christ (14:16–18, 25–26; 15:26; 16:12–15).
6. The Spirit will also work through the disciples upon the people of the world to bring them to faith in the Messiah (16:7–11).
7. After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus breathed on his disciples in order to impart to them the Holy Spirit (20:22). This action recalls God’s breathing life into Adam (Gen. 2:7; cf. Ezek. 37:9). It is not easy to square this account of the giving of the Spirit with that provided by Luke in Acts 2. Possibly what Jesus did on the day of resurrection was a symbolic act preparing the way for the pouring out of the Spirit fifty days later at the Feast of Pentecost. He may on the earlier occasion have been constituting his disciples as “the body of Christ,” the “temple of the Holy Spirit.”
John’s Gospel, then, emphasizes the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit, and between the Spirit and the disciples, more strongly than do the Synoptics. Further, it is very clear from John that the Spirit who comes to indwell and guide the disciples bears the name, virtues, and characteristics of Jesus, the exalted Messiah.
The Acts of the Apostles
At the end of his Gospel, Luke records the resurrected Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit: “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (24:49). From the Father in heaven the Holy Spirit will come to the apostles and disciples. We find in the second volume from Luke’s pen that Jesus again is recorded as saying, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4–5). Interestingly, though Luke mentions the Holy Spirit more than do the other two synoptic Gospels, it is John who records in greatest detail Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit (especially in John 14–16).
Acts 1 describes the ascension of Jesus into the cloud of glory. Then, in the second chapter, Luke proceeds to report the glorious arrival of the Holy Spirit at the Jewish Feast of Pentecost.3 On that occasion all the followers of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit and enabled to speak in languages which they had never learned. When a crowd gathered, Peter proclaimed to them that the day of the Lord and the pouring out of the Spirit which the prophet Joel had foretold had arrived. The prophecy could now be fulfilled because Jesus the Messiah had been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of the Father: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (2:32–33). This is an extraordinary claim from the apostle Peter. He is saying that the Spirit of the Lord has come at the direction of the exalted Jesus and with his characteristics and virtues. No longer is the Spirit “naked deity,” but he is clothed with the personality and character of Jesus. Even as Jesus has always done the Father’s will in glad obedience, from now on the Holy Spirit will be the Spirit of Christ, doing his will and representing him and his cause (as the teaching in John 14–16 makes abundantly clear).
3. For the Holy Spirit as presented in Acts see J. H. E. Hull, The Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles.
Joel had prophesied that God would pour out his Spirit on all people and that this heavenly baptism would be accompanied by great signs (Joel 2:28–32, cited in Acts 2). This prophecy began to be fulfilled when the Spirit fell upon each and every one of the Jewish apostles and disciples who were gathered in a house in Jerusalem on Pentecost. It was further fulfilled when the Spirit fell upon each and every disciple in Samaria (Acts 8:14–17) and then upon all the Gentiles who heard the gospel message in the home of Cornelius (10:44). Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles all received the heavenly Spirit in a manner that can only be described as remarkable.
Further, this Spirit who had rested upon, filled, and guided Jesus worked in a similar manner with his apostles, evangelists, prophets, and disciples. Luke delights to tell of how they were filled and led by the Spirit of Jesus. However, since Luke’s account in Acts is of a historical nature, he tells us more of what we may call the observable and identifiable external activity of God and its results than of the secret internal activity of God as the Regenerator of souls. When, we may ask, was Saul of Tarsus born from above? We know of the externals in his case. That is, we know when he saw the vision of the exalted Jesus, when he was baptized and filled with the Spirit, and when he began to preach, but Luke does not tell us of Paul’s internal regeneration. Take also the case of Lydia (16:14b): Luke reports merely that the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s presentation of the gospel.
Even after a careful reading and study of Acts, it is difficult to come to a clear judgment as to whether Luke believed that each and every believer was the recipient of, or ought to have been the recipient of, the kind of outpouring of the Spirit experienced by the first Jewish, Samaritan, and Gentile disciples. He certainly does not mention such a baptism with the Spirit in his accounts of the conversions of Lydia and the jailor in Philippi (16:31–34), to name but two examples. On the other hand, he presumes that all conversions occur because the Spirit is working both through the preacher and within the listener’s heart. In other words, Acts presumes that all who are truly converted have in some sense or another also received the Holy Spirit in their souls. Whether the promise made by Peter in 2:38–39 concerning the gift of the Spirit to all who repent and are baptized refers to (a) an extraordinary baptism with or outpouring of the Spirit or to (b) the indwelling of the Spirit (as Ezekiel [36:27; 37:14] had prophesied) is, then, a difficult question to answer. The evidence of Acts seems to be that in some, but not all cases, the Lord Jesus Christ actually pours out his Spirit in remarkable ways upon his disciples. The choice of who will receive this extraordinary gift rests in the sovereignty of Jesus as Lord and King.
The Significance of the Baptism of Jesus
There can be no doubt that the baptism of Jesus is important because of what it meant personally to Jesus and what it indicated concerning his ministry as the Messiah. For our purposes it is also important because of what it implies about the gift of the Spirit, in particular the relation of the Spirit and baptism in water, for those who believe in Jesus the Messiah.4
4. On the relationship between the baptism of Jesus and Christian baptism see W. F. Flemington, The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism, and G. W. H. Lampe, The Seal of the Spirit.
We read that “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”’ (Mark 1:9–11; cf. Matt. 3:13–17; Luke 3:21–22). Jesus deliberately identified himself with the people who were going out to the Jordan to be baptized by John as a sign of repentance and cleansing in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Though without sin, Jesus identified with sinners and was baptized as if he were a sinner repenting of his sins. This was to fulfill his calling as the Suffering Servant, who in fulfilling all righteousness (Matt. 3:15) would make many righteous (Isa. 53:11).
Jesus’ baptism in water, followed by the descent of the Spirit, recalls the association of water and the Spirit found in such prophecies as Ezekiel 36:25–27 (cf. Ezek. 47:1–12; Zech. 13:1). The actual descent of the Spirit from heaven to remain upon Jesus recalls the prophecies and foreshadowings of the unction upon the Messiah which are found in Isaiah 11:2; 61:1; 63:11–12; 1 Samuel 16:13; and Psalm 89:20–21. And the words from heaven which affirm that Jesus is uniquely the Son of the Father recall such texts as Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Thus we have the close association here of water, the gift of the Spirit, and sonship. Likewise, as we shall see, in Christian baptism there is the same triad of water, the gift of the Spirit, and adoption as children of God.
When Jesus left the Jordan, the Spirit remained upon and with him; he was conscious of his unique relationship of fellowship and love with the Father, and he knew that he was the Messiah who must fulfill the prophecies concerning the Suffering Servant of the Lord. His mission was to establish the new covenant and bring in the kingdom of God. Further, he knew that his baptism was highly symbolic, pointing to his suffering on behalf of the many and his death at Calvary. In fact, he would later use the term baptism to refer to his approaching crucifixion (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). It is also noteworthy that the Gospel of John, which has no account of the sharing in the cup of the covenant in Christ’s blood at the Last Supper, has instead the account of the washing of the feet of the disciples – a kind of real-life parable signifying the washing, the cleansing, the “baptism” associated with his atoning death. It was after the baptism of his death had been completed, after God had raised him from the dead, and after he had ascended that Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit from the Father, that is, sent and gave the Spirit to the believing community. We are reminded that it was after Jesus’ baptism and during his ascent from the water that the Spirit descended on him. On this point, it is perhaps significant that the verb used in Mark 1:10 to describe Jesus’ arising from the water is anabainō, the very verb used in John 3:13; 6:62; 20:17; and Ephesians 4:8–10 to refer to the ascension of Jesus. Thus there is probably an allusion to the ascension of Jesus in his coming up out of the river. And, of course, following this ascent there was the descent (katabainō) of the Spirit upon him.
Converts to Christianity were baptized in the name of Jesus, the Messiah and Lord; and their baptism corresponded in important respects to his. They were baptized in water, signifying that they had died and risen with him; and as he had received the Spirit, so they too were given the indwelling Spirit so that they could know God as Father and live as his adopted sons and daughters. By being baptized, the converts came to belong to Christ; and through participation in him, the Anointed One, they received a share in his anointing, the gift of the Spirit.
On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured upon the waiting disciples by their exalted Lord, Peter declared to the bewildered crowd that had gathered, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you ...”; thus far he could have been following the example of John the Baptist. But he did not stop there; he continued, “Be baptized ... in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The rite of baptism had been given new content! Jesus himself had undergone baptism in water and then baptism in death, which led to his resurrection. At the time of his baptism in the Jordan he had received the Spirit, and now, having ascended to the right hand of the Father, he bestowed the Spirit from heaven. Baptism in water into the name of the Lord Jesus is therefore the external sign and symbol of the inward baptism with the Holy Spirit of which John the Baptist spoke.
To claim that baptism in or with water is the external sign of baptism with the Holy Spirit may seem to be setting aside an occasion recorded in Acts when the Spirit is first given to believers through the laying on of hands. In 8:17 Peter and John lay hands on the Samaritan believers, who then receive the Spirit. Although these Samaritans had earlier been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (8:16), they had not received the gift of the Spirit at that time. Perhaps a clue is to be found in the ancient rivalry and division between the Jews and Samaritans. Peter and John’s coming to Samaria signified that, with the introduction of the new covenant, the division was now healed. The gift of the Spirit may have been withheld by the exalted Lord until the two apostles arrived to formally mend the rift.
3 – Born of God
The concept of birth from God or rebirth is more prominent in the Johannine literature of the New Testament than in any other biblical source. It will be our task in this chapter to look at various passages in which this image occurs. We will look first at the Gospel and then at the First Epistle of John.
The Concept of Rebirth in the Gospel of John
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. [John 1:11–13]
The first passage to be examined occurs in the prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1–18), the subject of which is the Word or Logos of God, the eternal Son of the Father, who became incarnate as a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.1 He came to that which was his own – the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem – but his own people did not, as a whole, receive him as their Messiah; instead, they rejected and crucified him. Nevertheless, there were some who did receive him as Messiah and believe in his name (the name Jesus means “salvation from God”). To such people he gave the right or authority to become the children of God, a status which means that they were begotten of God and thus placed in a special relationship with him.
1. For the material on the Gospel of John, I am indebted to C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John; and Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John. Karl Heinrich Ringwald’s article on “Birth” in Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1, pp. 176–80, is valuable.
It is important to remember that the male was looked upon as the principal agent in generation, while the female’s role was merely to be fertilized by the male and carry the embryo until birth. Thus God is here being presented as the sole cause of the origin of life, the expression “born of God” meaning “begotten of God.” Further, it is important to notice that the word used by John for “children” is tekna. This word is related to the verb tiktein, “to beget,” and thus here conveys the idea of being begotten by God himself. In contrast, the word huios, “son,” is never used by John in conjunction with the genitive form “of God” except to designate Jesus as the incarnate Son. Paul, however, who insists that believers are sons (children) of God by adoption, does use the phrase “sons [huioi] of God” for believers (e.g., Rom. 8:14), for he sees them as sons in Christ – filii in Filio. We become tekna by regeneration and huioi by adoption.
In order to make it absolutely clear that being begotten by God is the only way to become a child of God, John adds various negatives. This being begotten by God can never be equated with being begotten by, literally, bloods (the fusion of the blood of mother and father in generation), the will of the flesh (human planning or determination), or the will of an adult male (the desire of the father). John would hardly have produced these elaborate negatives if all that he wanted to say was that one cannot become a child of God through the process of human reproduction. He probably had a second meaning in mind – a comparison with the virginal conception of Jesus himself. The conception and subsequent birth of Jesus were not the result of normal procreation, human planning, or the will of the husband, but they were the creative work of God himself acting through the Holy Spirit. Thus the conception of Jesus provides a pattern of the rebirth of believers in his name (i.e., those who wholeheartedly believe that he is the Messiah and thus their Savior).
As we ponder this passage, we note certain ideas and themes which recur in later passages and which have been variously interpreted over the centuries. The first is the relationship between believing in Jesus’ name and being born of God. It is often asked, “Which of these occurs first?” C. K. Barrett asserts that “the birth is conditional upon receiving Christ and believing on his name.”1 However, William Hendriksen points out that the verbs elabon (“received”) and edōken (“gave”), both being in the aorist tense, are simultaneous. As we receive Christ, we are given the right to become children of God; that is to say, at that very moment we are also born of God.3 Now if John 1:12 is judged to refer only to the time of the itinerant earthly ministry of Jesus in Palestine, then Barrett must be right, for while many believed in the name of Jesus the Messiah, they did not actually receive the permanent presence of the Holy Spirit until after Jesus’ resurrection. However, if the text is seen as referring to the period after the outpouring of the Spirit, then Hendriksen’s point has more weight, since the work of the Spirit, as the Paraclete of Jesus, is to convince the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11), and thus bring people to belief.
1. Barrett, Gospel According to St. John, p. 137.
2. William Hendriksen, The Gospel of John, p. 81.
Another theme is being born of God and being a child of God. Already we have commented upon the words tekna and huios and the different emphases in the Johannine and Pauline material. Being born suggests entry into a family; being a child suggests having brothers and sisters all of whom have been begotten by the one heavenly Father. What is implied in having the authority to become children of God is not realized immediately, but is, as we shall see in 1 John, to be fully attained only in the life of the age to come.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” [John 3.1–8]
An extended paraphrase of John 3:1–15 has already been provided in chapter 1. We will limit our considerations here to the first eight verses, where the references to regeneration occur. We will look particularly at verses 3, 5, and 7.
Verse 3: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again [margin, born from above].” The expression “the kingdom of God” occurs only twice in this Gospel, here and once again in verse 5. The kingdom of God properly belongs to the age to come when the new creation will be totally in harmony with the will and purpose of God. However, Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand; he was referring to both his words and deeds. In and through Jesus the future kingdom has become a present reality; he, as it were, is the kingdom in microcosm, and thus vital contact with him is contact with the kingdom of God. And vital contact with the kingdom means that we as trusting servants come under the gracious, saving, and fatherly rule of God. To see the kingdom in this age it is necessary to have spiritual eyes which can discern its presence in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. Here in verse 3 Jesus insists that to see, that is, to experience and participate in, the kingdom, a person has to be born again (or from above). Since all pious Jews were looking for the arrival of the kingdom, Jesus is making a most important statement not only to Nicodemus but to all religious Jews like him.
The crucial verb in this sentence is the passive of gennan and can mean either “to be born” (of a woman) or “to be begotten” (by a man). Further, the Greek word anōthen can be rendered “again” or “from above.” Thus it is possible to have the following translations: to be born again, to be born from above, to be begotten again, and to be begotten from above. Since the word begotten is little used in modern English, there is a natural bias in favor of the verb “to be born.” And Jesus may well have been seeking to make Nicodemus think in terms of “being born again” – which at the literal level refers to physical birth but could be a veiled reference to a new kind of birth, a spiritual birth. Or he may have been seeking to make Nicodemus think in terms of “being born from above,” thereby providing a strong hint to Nicodemus that he was speaking of a special kind of birth. Nevertheless, we may presume that the exact meaning within Jesus’ own mind is best conveyed in English by the expression “begotten from above.” This assumption is based upon the fact that the ancients put the greater stress on the male’s role in generation: he begets by placing his semen within the female where it joins one of her eggs to form an embryo. God himself through the Spirit directly causes the beginning of new life in the human soul; this action is at the center of regeneration. A person in whom this creative work has occurred can then see the kingdom of God centered upon Jesus.
Verse 5: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” There is probably no basic difference in meaning between “seeing” and “entering” the kingdom of God. As far as the individual believer in Jesus is concerned, seeing or entering the kingdom occurs through new birth, and the attendant blessings will continue as one enjoys the gift of eternal life. Though, as we noted, John has only two references to the kingdom of God, he has many references to the gift of eternal life, that is, life of superabundant quality that is everlasting in nature, life that begins at the moment of new birth and will grow in intensity and quality in the age to come.
The verb “is born” is the same one which is used in verse 3, and so it also can be translated “is begotten.” That “water” and “Spirit” are governed by a single preposition suggests a close relationship between the two. Throughout the history of the church, “water” has usually been taken to refer to baptism as the outward sign and symbol of internal change in direction and in one’s relationship with God. “Water” and “Spirit,” then, are a double emphasis on the necessity of spiritual birth. Jesus could have had in mind either the baptism of John or the baptism which he himself and his disciples performed. There is, however, another possible meaning of “water.” Hugo Odeberg suggested some sixty years ago that “water” in verse 5 could refer to procreation, since rabbinic sources use “water” to refer to semen.1 If he is right, Jesus is saying, “Unless a man is begotten of man and the Spirit ...,” that is, Jesus is pointing to the necessity of both physical and spiritual birth. We should be on guard here, however, lest our horror of crude doctrines of baptismal regeneration too easily induce us to interpret “water” as something other than baptism.
1. Hugo Odeberg, The Fourth Gospel, p. 48.
Verse 7: “You must be born again.” The word you is in the plural, and so it is not only Nicodemus but all Jews who are being addressed by Jesus. A literal translation of the Greek would read: “It behooves [or, it is necessary for] you to be born again [or, from above].” The word dei, meaning “it behooves” or “it is necessary,” is used by Jesus at other points in his ministry – of the necessity of his crucifixion, for example (John 3:14; 12:34). There is no question here of Jesus’ telling people that they must go ahead and do something in their own power and by their own volition. Rather, the opposite is being stated: there is no way other than rebirth from heaven through the direct action of the Holy Spirit. That which people are commanded by God to do is to repent of their sins and to believe the Good News of the kingdom of God, which centers on Jesus, the incarnate Son. Jesus wanted the rebirth of Israel as a whole.
Having now looked at these three references to the new birth, we must face the question of whether John imported the image of rebirth and divine begetting from Hellenistic religion and placed it on the lips of Jesus. In answering we must, first of all, acknowledge that the image is found not only in Gnosticism (e.g., in tractate 13 of the Hermetic writings), but also in various writings by Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher. However, in the second place, we must point out that, since birth is a universal human experience, it is highly probable that the image naturally appealed to Jesus, who we know, from the synoptic Gospels, spoke of the need to become like children. Further, Jesus was well aware of Psalm 2:7 (repeated in Heb. 1:5; 5:5), where God is portrayed as saying to the Davidic king: “You are my Son; today I have become your Father [margin, begotten you].” This important text could have been the source of Jesus’ use of the image of being begotten or born from above. It is true that official Judaism rigidly avoided language of this kind in order to preserve the distinction between this present evil age and the future glorious age of the kingdom of God. To speak of birth from God compromised this distinction by bringing into this age what was believed to apply only to the future age. However, for Jesus as for John, there was no such obstacle since they knew that the kingdom of God of the age to come had already begun to make its presence and power known in the present age.1
1. See Barrett, Gospel According to St. John, pp. 172–73.
Recognizing that this talk of new birth is authentic teaching from Jesus himself, let us review some of the basic relationships which are implied in John 3. There is the relationship of new birth, entry into the kingdom of God, and eternal life. There is the connection between being born of water and of the Spirit, which, in church history, has been interpreted as the connection between baptism and regeneration. There is the connection between believing in Jesus and being born of the Spirit. Then, also, there is the important fact that regeneration can never be treated in isolation from other aspects of the work of God in behalf of sinners. In John 3, which speaks of regeneration, there is also teaching concerning the love of God for the whole world, the incarnation of the eternal Son, the lifting up of the incarnate Son on the cross and in exaltation to heaven, and the work of the Holy Spirit in human lives. This reminds us that there can be no personal regeneration unless the almighty God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, moves towards sinners in mercy and grace.
Related Concepts in the Gospel of John
Before leaving the Gospel of John, it will be helpful to note (1) its teachings on the work of the Holy Spirit in the world as he acts upon sinners in the name of the Lord Jesus; (2) its teachings on the gift of eternal life which comes as a result of being begotten by God and born of his Spirit; and (3) other images which point to momentous change.
The Work of the Spirit
In his address to the disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit’s role in the world, that is, in the sphere where God is not worshiped, trusted, and obeyed:
But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor [Paraclete] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. [John 16:7–11]
Jesus is looking forward to his ascension into heaven from where he will send the Holy Spirit to the community of disciples to be their Paraclete, that is, to be alongside them as a trusted friend to assist and guide them as their Counselor, Comforter, and Advocate. In John 14–16 Jesus has much to say about the ministry of the Holy Spirit to and within the disciples themselves, but in this passage he speaks of how the Spirit will help them in their evangelism by his work upon the hearts and minds of those who actually hear the evangel, the Good News of the risen Lord Jesus.
What will the Holy Spirit do as the evangel is proclaimed? First, he will convince people that their judgment of Jesus is wrong. It is not true that Jesus was crucified because he was a sinner; rather, he died in place of sinners. Further, it is not true that human achievement, however righteous it may appear to be, will satisfy God and merit eternal life; rather, only the righteousness of the exalted Jesus will satisfy God. And it is not true that Jesus was judged by God at the cross; rather, Satan was judged and defeated in the crucial battle of the cross. In the second place, the Spirit will convince those who hear the gospel that the sin of all sins is to reject Jesus as God’s Messiah, that their only hope is to be included within the righteousness of the Messiah through faith in him, and that at the final day of reckoning the judgment which occurred at the cross will be fully executed as God then judges Satan and those who serve him.
Obviously Jesus’ words here have reference to the future apostolic preaching to those who are Jews or proselytes from the Gentile world. The principles set forth do, however, apply to the work of the Spirit in connection with all genuine evangelism. The Spirit secretly works in the human mind, heart, and will to help sinners recognize their sin and see in Jesus the Savior of the world and their own Savior. The creation of sincere faith and real repentance happens only through the ministry of the Spirit. Note, however, that the precise point at which the divine begetting and new birth occur is not specified.
In the prologue John tells his readers, “In [the Word] was life, and that life was the light of men” (1:4). The Son possesses life (zōē) and serves as the Light (phōs) of men by revealing deity to them. The Son is the Life (11:25; 14:6), the Bread of Life (6:35, 48), the Light of Life (8:12), and he alone gives the water of life (4:10–14; 7:37–38). Thus his words are spirit and life (6:68); they are, in fact, words of eternal life (6:68).
When we receive the incarnate Son and believe in him, God bestows on us revelation and eternal life. It is not without significance that eternal life is first mentioned in this Gospel (3:15–16) immediately after the sole references to the kingdom of God (3:3, 5). Thus the gift of eternal life, received now in anticipation of its fullness in the age to come, is identified with, or at least related to (as in the synoptic Gospels), entry into the kingdom of God.
The function of the adjective eternal (aiōnios, which literally means “pertaining to an age”) is to give what we might call a quantitative dimension to the qualitative life received from God in the new birth. Eternal life begins at the birth of the new age of the kingdom of God (the age to come after the last judgment); it is life of quality and without end and is the gift of God through his Son. The Father has life in himself (5:26) and he has granted the same life to the Son (5:26); and, by divine grace, those who are born from above are brought into and given this life in this age in anticipation of what shall be in the age to come. Those who are born from above and possess the gift are those who know God, that is, they have spiritual communion and fellowship with God as Father and with Jesus Christ as Lord (John 17). They participate in the love which is of God as they grow deeper in their union with the exalted Lord through the Spirit.
We have just noted that by revealing deity to humans Jesus serves as the Light of the World. Therefore, the experience of those who, illuminated by the light which he shines upon them via the gospel, receive and believe in him, is well described as passing from darkness to light. It is a movement from a state where the soul is filled with darkness to a state where it is filled with living knowledge of God. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12; see also 12:35, 46). The light of life begins, from the human side, with the new birth.
In the darkness of the world there is spiritual death – no communion and fellowship with the living God. The divine begetting causes new life. What happens to the believer is an inner resurrection in anticipation of the bodily resurrection that will occur at the parousia. It is a passing from death to life. Jesus said, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (5:24; see also 8:51). That this new life is from God through the work of the Son and the Spirit is made clear in John 5:21 and 6:63, where the apostle uses the verb zōopoiein, which means “to give life” or “to make alive.”
In the world and in the human heart are falsehood and ignorance; the divine begetting begins the process of the victory of God’s living Truth (the incarnate Son) over falsehood and ignorance. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:31–32; see also 17:19 [KJV], “sanctified through the truth”). To be free is to be free from the bondage of sin in order to enter into God’s salvation and serve him.
Finally, not only is there the victory of truth, there is also the victory of love, the love of God revealed in the Son and imparted to the believer in and by the Holy Spirit. The divine begetting imparts the love of God to the believer (14:21). Thus Jesus can command that his disciples love one another even as the Father loves him and he loves them (13:34; 14:15; 15:9–10; 17:23).
We have seen that the new birth is portrayed in the Gospel of John as birth into light, life, truth, and love. It is the beginning of a new order of existence whose quality is guaranteed by the character of God himself. Further, the life that is placed in the soul by the indwelling Spirit is like a fountain vigorously leaping up and abounding in energy (4:14; 7:38). It is ever seeking to beget new and abundant life in others (10:10).
The Concept of Rebirth in the First Letter of John
We shall look at six passages from the First Epistle of John which make mention of the new birth. Though we recognize that this letter was written partly to combat false views and doctrines, we shall emphasize its positive teaching. The reader who wishes to fill in the background should consult a commentary.1
1. E.g., John R. W. Stott, The Epistles of John; Kenneth Grayston, The Johannine Epistles; and Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John.
And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we maybe confident and unashamed before him at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him. [1 John 2:28–29]
John addresses the church members affectionately as teknia, “little children,” because he writes as both an old man and faithful pastor. He looks forward to the second coming of Jesus and desires that the readers be ready to meet their Lord, Savior, and Judge in confidence and without any shame. They certainly know that the God and Father of the Lord Jesus is righteous, and thus they also know that everyone who practices a similar righteousness has been begotten by God and born of the Holy Spirit. The evidence that church members have been truly begotten of God is their practice of righteousness, which shows that they have a proper relationship with God and with fellow human beings. The new birth results in a family trait: being righteous and doing righteousness. Those who show this trait will joyfully welcome the Lord Jesus in his parousia.
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. [1 John 3:2–3]
This time John affectionately addresses the church members as agapētoi, “beloved friends,” before speaking of their common privilege as the tekna, “children,” of God. Tekna is related to the verb tiktein, “to beget”; thus, to be a child of God means to have been begotten by God. This spiritual birth is but the beginning since the children of God look forward to an enlargement of their experience of being members of God’s family. In the life of the age to come, when the second coming of Christ occurs, believers will be clothed in immortal resurrection bodies for their new life of seeing God as he is and serving in his kingdom. Those who have this expectation will make use of all the help God provides to purify themselves so that they will be without the stain of sin when he appears. Those who are born of God seek to be pure, even as the God who begot them is pure.
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; neither is anyone who does not love his brother. [1 John 3:7–10]
Again John affectionately addresses the church members as teknia, “little children,” as he warns them of false teachers eager to persuade them to leave the narrow way of Christ which leads to eternal life. From a theological perspective human beings can be divided into two types – those who do what is right in terms of God’s commands and those who do what is sinful. The latter belong to the family of Satan, the fallen angel who is in eternal rebellion against God, his Creator. In fact, all human beings belong through natural birth and the presence of sin in the human race to the family of the devil and have to be rescued from it in order to be in the family of God. The reason for the incarnation of the Son of God was that he might be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). The devil’s work is destroyed by the sacrificial atonement of the Son and through the new birth wrought by the Spirit.
A sinner becomes a child of God through the power of the Word of God, which is the gospel message, and by the agency of the Holy Spirit. The Good News is the divine seed which in the power of the Holy Spirit creates new life; from this new life arise new motives and inclinations towards God and his righteousness. No one who is begotten by God, no one in whom God’s Spirit dwells, commits sin habitually. Considered as a child of God with a new nature, the believer does not sin; however, considered as a being in this world and still having the old body, mind, and heart, the believer fails to love and serve God perfectly. Thus those who are born of God but are still in their sinful bodies always need to confess their sins and receive the forgiveness of God (1:9). John is not saying that those born of God possess sinless perfection, but that in principle those who are born of God ought not to commit sin.
A tree is recognized by the kind of fruit which appears on its branches. Those who are begotten by God ought to be recognizable by their doing what is right in God’s eyes and by their genuinely loving their fellow Christians. It is this practical detail which distinguishes them from the children of the devil. (Since John was combating heretical teaching about rebirth and its effects, he speaks in absolutes to emphasize the profound change that being begotten by God entails. He is not saying that unregenerate people cannot do real good in terms of improving the day-to-day life in this world.)
Dear friends, let us love one another for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.... No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. [1 John 4.7–9, 12–13]
This time John addresses the church members as “beloved” (agapētoi) in order to give a solid foundation to his exhortation that they practice genuine Christian love one for the other. The great manifestation and example of love, real love, is the sacrificial death of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God; and Christians are to love one another as Jesus has loved and continues to love them. But such love is not natural; it is supernatural and can be exercised only by those who are begotten of God and in whom God through his Spirit dwells. Because God lives in them and they are members of his family, being his begotten children, they have in their hearts the love of God ready to be released in caring word and deed. Those who have experienced new birth will personify the love of God for others.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. [1 John 5:1–4]
Here we need to note that “believes” is in the present tense, while the Greek word translated “is born [of God]” is in the perfect tense (literally, “has been born”). This indicates that the continuing exercise of faith is the result of having been begotten by God, who is presented as the heavenly Father. Those who have been born of God and who now believe also love God and therefore ought to love all those who are begotten by God and are his tekna, “children.” Love for God includes the emotions but is basically moral obedience, being and doing what God commands. And what he commands is not irksome because those in whom the Spirit dwells possess a new heart which delights in the will of God and thereby is prepared to overcome the presence and power of Satan in the world. Further, whoever is begotten of God has the faith to triumph over the trials and troubles which arise when one seeks to do what is right in a sinful world.
We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. [ 1 John 5:18]
The perfect participle “having been begotten” is here rendered “born”; it points to something which has happened and which has abiding results. Anyone who has been begotten of God is a child of God and has the obligation not to continue to commit sin. Being a child of God and habitual sinning do not belong together; new birth brings and requires new behavior, that of doing right. However, Christians do not actually stop sinning; rather, they do not sin continually.
The Christian is begotten of God; but Jesus, the incarnate Son, is eternally begotten of the Father. It is he to whom John refers in the words “the one who was born of God.” By the guidance and with the help of Jesus Christ, the believer is kept from being led astray or destroyed by Satan. The Lord Jesus is in heaven, watching over the children of his eternal Father. When they are assaulted and tempted by the devil, the Spirit is sent in Jesus’ name to help them.
What is very obvious in 1 John is that being born from above is not merely an inward spiritual experience. There is a divinely ordained relation between God’s invisible action in begetting children and his requirement that these children visibly reflect their heavenly parentage in the quality of their lives. While the Gospel of John affirms the necessity of the divine begetting, the First Epistle of John goes on to affirm that there are obvious and necessary implications arising from the new birth. Being begotten by God obliges us, as we have seen, to be righteous and do what is right (2:28–29), to seek to be pure (3:2–3), to avoid committing sin against God and habitually do what is right (3:7–10; 5:18), to love God and all the children of God (4:7–9, 12–13), to believe and trust in Christ (5:1–4), and to overcome the world and the devil (5:1–4). Thus, while we cannot generate our own birth from above, we must, once we have experienced it from God, live in a way which reflects our new life.
4 – Individual Internal Renewal
Having looked at the Johannine material, we must now decide how to proceed with our investigation of personal regeneration. If we restrict ourselves to the image of begetting and birth, the texts to examine are few. However, if we include dynamic equivalents or very similar images, the list is much greater and selection is necessary. We have chosen (1) to examine other texts in the New Testament where the image of begetting and birth is used to symbolize individual internal renewal, and (2) to notice some dynamic equivalents within the Pauline letters. First, however, we shall make a brief comment on how the theme of begetting and birth is related to the theme of the kingdom of God in the synoptic Gospels.1
1. For comments on the Gospel of Mark, I am indebted to C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, and William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark. Studies on the kingdom of God which have been consulted include Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom; John Gray, The Biblical Doctrine of the Reign of God; and A. M. Hunter, Christ and the Kingdom.
The New Birth and the Kingdom of God
Mark tells us that “after John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”’ (Mark 1:14–15). John’s role as preparer of the way having come to an abrupt end, Jesus stepped onto the scene to announce the drawing near of the kingdom of God, as if it were a mighty army waiting to enter the gates of a city. His announcement of the divine initiative and action (long predicted by the prophets of Israel), and his call for decisive human response, are the two sides of one coin.
The expression “the kingdom of God is near” is to be understood in terms of both space and time. It is near in terms of space because Jesus, who embodies and communicates the gracious reign of God, is now beginning his ministry of confronting Satan, sin, death, and disease, and bringing them into submission to the power of the sovereign rule of God. This rule in its fullness is yet to arrive, but with and in Jesus it has come near. And with its approach in the person and ministry of Jesus, the Spirit will soon be going forth from him (i.e., once he has ascended) to cause new birth in the souls of those who respond to the Good News of God’s gracious coming towards them.
And the kingdom is near in terms of time, for the last unmistakable period of time before the arrival of the age of the fullness of the kingdom has dawned with the ministry of the Messiah. Therefore he calls with a new urgency for people to repent and believe the Good News of God’s gracious intervention and action. The nearness in time is depicted in the parable of the fig tree: “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near” (Mark 13:28). In this period of grace it behooves all to respond to the preaching of the gospel and be born from above. Did not Jesus say to Nicodemus, “You [plural] must be born from above”?
The relationship between the kingdom of God and new birth is made clear in the episode recorded in Mark 10:13–16:
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Here Jesus uses the basic nature and characteristics of little children to illustrate important features of the way that the sovereign and gracious rule of God enters human lives. The kingdom belongs to those who, like little children, are ready to receive the salvation of God as his gift, donated wholly by grace. For the kingdom of God alone gives and we humbly and gratefully receive. The pride in one’s achievements which arises within the sinful heart is the opposite of the attitude God requires. Thus, as the kingdom draws near in the person and ministry of Jesus the Messiah, and as God is ready to work in human hearts through the Spirit, those who hear the Good News are to become like children, openly and confidently believing it and receiving the gift of eternal life that it brings. The action of Jesus in taking the little children and blessing them is a real-life parable signifying that the blessings of the kingdom are freely given by God to those who place a total childlike trust in his Messiah.
It is not necessary for us to pursue this two-sided emphasis of Jesus (God’s gift of the kingdom and the call for childlike response) within the synoptic Gospels. Suffice it to say that the gift of the kingdom to each individual believer is a dynamic equivalent of the Johannine teaching on divine begetting, just as the call to repent and believe the Good News is the Synoptics’ equivalent of the call in John’s writings to believe in the name of the Lord Jesus.
The Concept of Rebirth in Non-Johannine Epistles
We will now look at one text in the Pauline letters, one in the Epistle of James, and three in the First Letter of Peter which contain images of the new birth which are reminiscent of the Johannine material.2
2. Sources here include, for Titus, Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, and J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles; for James, James B. Adamson, The Epistle of James, and Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James; and for 1 Peter, J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude, and Ernest Best, ed., I Peter.
When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. [Titus 3:4–7]
Here we have the great Pauline emphasis that salvation is wholly by the mercy and grace of God. There is no earning of salvation by personal achievement – “not because of righteous things we had done.” It is God alone who saves his people, and he does so dia loutrou palingenesias, “through the washing of rebirth.” Loutron refers to the act of washing or cleansing. Palingenesia is a compound noun from palin (“again”) and genesis (“birth, origin”); it means “rebirth” or “regeneration.” The washing of rebirth means the end of the old and the origin of new life. This, of course, is what baptism symbolizes (see Acts 2:38; Eph. 5:26). Rebirth is accompanied by anakainōsis pneumatos hagiou, “renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Anakainōsis is the act or process by which something is made new; in this case it is achieved through the inner presence and work of the Holy Spirit (pneumatos hagiou). Renewal by the Holy Spirit means renovation of character and personality in preparation for life in the perfection of the kingdom of God. In fact, in Romans 12:2 Paul speaks of transformation of character through the renewal of the mind. We might say that rebirth points to the act of divine begetting while renewal points to the process of growth which occurs after birth.
It is noteworthy that the salvation described here not only brings internal renovation but also brings a new relationship with God. Justification is that work of God whereby he places sinners in a right relationship with himself so that they may have true communion and fellowship with him. And those who are regenerate and justified are also heirs of eternal life. They live in hope of the fullness of joy to be realized in the age of the perfection of the kingdom of God.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. [James 1:17–18]
The new birth is here presented as a good and perfect gift sent from heaven to the believing community. The verb “to give us birth” is not gennan, “to beget,” but apokuein, which was normally used only of the female’s giving birth and not of the male’s begetting. The reason apokuein is used in verse 18 is probably that it has already been used in verse 15 (“sin ... gives birth to death”). Further, female imagery is applied to God in the Old Testament (e.g., Isa. 66:13) for God was viewed as sexless. James is teaching what John taught: God takes the initiative and causes new life to begin in the soul.
It is by the sovereign will of the Father of the heavenly lights, the God who created the sun, moon, and stars, that new birth occurs as a result of the preaching of the word of truth, which is the gospel concerning the Lord Jesus. Even as God created the physical world, so also he is now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, bringing into being a new creation centered on Christ. The first disciples and converts are the “firstfruits” of this new creation. Firstfruits in the old covenant pointed to (1) God’s promise that there would be a larger harvest to come, and (2) God’s right to the first part of the harvest, since he had given the seed and the growth. Thus James is here reminding his readers that, as the earliest converts, they belong uniquely to God and that he will eventually bring many others into his kingdom (Jewish teaching often likened the arrival of the kingdom to a harvest).
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. [1 Peter 1:3–5]
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. [1 Peter 1:23]
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. [1 Peter 2:2–3]
Peter celebrates the mercy and grace of God the Father, who has caused the risen life of the exalted Lord Jesus to enter the souls of believers and give them new birth, new hope, and a new inheritance. Through the preaching of the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, divine seed has sprouted in their souls and they share in the heavenly life of the Lord Jesus. What life will be like in the age to come they do not yet know; but in this world and age they are to live in hope and faith, trusting in God’s gracious power to protect them from all evil.
The verb anagennan, “to beget again,” occurs in participial form in the Greek of 1:3 (“he has given new birth”) and 1:23 (“you have been born again”). Christians have been born into a new life which is characterized by a vigorous hope that cannot fail, for that to which it points is a sure future guaranteed by the promises of the living God himself. That future involves both the completion of salvation and inheritance of heavenly life (i.e., the fellowship and communion of the kingdom of God, and life with Christ).
The reference in 2:2 to “newborn babies” should not be taken as a reference to new converts alone. Rather, as Jesus had commended childlikeness (Mark 10:15) as a permanent characteristic of the true disciple, so Peter here insists that believers like newborns are to grow up in the new life by partaking of what he calls “pure spiritual milk” and a tasting of the Lord. Peter is referring to communion and fellowship with the Lord Jesus and spiritually feeding on him through faith. We are reminded that milk is a food that will be abundant in the time of the kingdom (Isa. 60:16; Joel 3:18). With this image in view Peter sees Christ as the provider of the pure spiritual milk by which alone believers can grow in faith, hope, and love.
To sum up: Peter presents the new birth as the marvelous beginning of a new life which has tremendous prospects, prospects to be totally grasped and appreciated only in the fullness of the life of the age to come.
(For the sake of completeness we must look at three verses which indirectly point to new birth through the Spirit and actually use the verb gennan. In 1 Corinthians 4:15 and Philemon 11 Paul speaks of his having begotten converts. There is nothing remarkable about this, for when Paul refers to the origin of new life in the believer through the Spirit, he uses the image of birth rather than begetting [Titus 3:5]. Moreover, the image of begetting was used in ancient times in reference to the role of a rabbi in teaching Judaism – “When a man teaches the son of another man the Torah, the Scriptures treat him as if he had begotten him” (Sanhedrin 19b). Further, in Galatians 4:19 Paul uses the dramatic image of birth pangs to describe his care for his converts, and in other places he calls a convert his son [e.g., 1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 2:1].
In Galatians 4:29, which occurs in an allegory concerning Hagar, Sarah, and their sons, Isaac is called “the son born by the power of the Spirit.” He is said to have been born of the Spirit in that he was conceived after Sarah had passed the age of childbearing. Accordingly, his physical conception and birth are often regarded as a type or figure of the spiritual second birth of believers.)
We have seen that the images of new birth which occur in Paul, James, and Peter are in full agreement with what we found in the Johannine writings. There is great emphasis on the divine initiative, mercy, and grace, as well as on the action of the Spirit and Word of God. There is also agreement that rebirth leads to a new life which is characterized by faith, hope, love, and spiritual growth towards full salvation and membership in the future kingdom of God.
Pauline Equivalents of the Concept of Rebirth
It is now our task to see how Paul uses a variety of complementary images to highlight the divine initiative in human salvation. The selection here is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather a basic list of the more obvious parallels to the image of new birth.3
3. Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, has been most helpful.
God’s Call Through the Gospel and the Spirit
Paul makes many references to the divine call to sinners. He is thinking of a call that is effective. That is to say, he does not have in mind a call that some will hear and others will not, but rather a call that is heard by all those to whom God directs it. He then takes decisive action in them. Thus Paul’s conception of God’s call is more restricted than the conception in the Matthean text, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14, KJV).
Those whom God has elected to salvation in Christ he calls (kalein) so that he may justify and sanctify them (Rom. 8:29–30). This call (Eph. 4:1) results in new life and new existence (Rom. 4:17), for it is a call into fellowship with Christ (1 Cor. 1:9), into the kingdom of God (1 Thess. 2:12), and into the church of God, which is the unified body of the faithful (Col. 3:15). Baptism is the outward sign of this internal call. Thus those who have been baptized and are now participating in the life and witness of the local church may be designated as the klētoi, the “called ones” (Rom. 1:6; 8:28; 1 Cor. 1:24), and even as klētoi hagioi, people “called to be saints [holy]” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). This call does not change the external social status of the believer (see 1 Cor. 7:17–24), for it is an internal call into the kingdom of God, the church of God, and fellowship with God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s references to the divine call point to the action of God within the hearts of those who hear and receive his Word, the gospel of the resurrection. Through the working of his Word and Spirit, God grants believers new life and existence in his kingdom and church.
Being Made Alive
Paul uses the verb zōopoiein, “to make alive,” in Romans 4:17; 8:11; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 36, 45; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Galatians 3:21; and 1 Timothy 6:13. He also uses the verb suzōopoiein, “to make alive together with,” in Ephesians 2:5 and Colossians 2:13. Though zōopoiein usually refers to the new life in the resurrection body of the future kingdom, there is an implied reference to the beginning of that new life within the old body in this age (see especially Rom. 4:17 and 2 Cor. 3:6 [”the Spirit gives life” – the life of the kingdom of God]). The compound verb suzōopoiein is used to declare that those who are united to Christ share in his resurrection from the dead into newness of life. Thus it refers to the action of God in this age in giving new life and existence to those who believe – they are made alive in and with Christ (Eph. 2:5).
Incorporation into the Death and Resurrection of Christ
In Romans 6:1–11 Paul portrays the community of believers as having died, been buried, and been raised with Christ into new life. Participating in the resurrection and sharing in the new life are the same thought as being made alive together with Christ. The picture of death and burial reinforces the idea that the old life has gone and a new beginning has been made. Baptism in water is the outward, visible sign of incorporation into Christ and membership in his body. There can be no new birth from above without union with the Christ who died and has risen, for the Spirit who regenerates comes from the resurrected and exalted Lord Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul makes the amazing statement, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Paul is teaching that when one becomes a Christian and is united to the Lord Jesus Christ, an act of creation by God has occurred. Ktisis, “creation,” refers not to the believer as such, but to the making of a new creation which centers on Christ and of which the believer becomes a part. In Galatians 6:14–15 Paul speaks of “a new creation” through the cross of Christ.
As God created light before he formed the universe and made mankind (Gen. 1:3–5), so “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6) is given in the gospel and by the Holy Spirit before and as the act of new creation occurs in the souls of believers (2 Cor. 5:17). Thus “new creation” points to the regenerating work of God within the believer and also (like the word regeneration itself) to the whole work of God in bringing into being a totally new cosmos centered upon Christ – the future kingdom of God.
Alongside the teaching on new creation, Paul also writes of Christ as the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). Since the first man was made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26–27) and since Christ is the second Adam, the head of a new humanity, it is not surprising that Paul also speaks of believers as being changed to bear the image and likeness of God that Christ himself perfectly bears and reflects (1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21; Col. 3:10). Then, in writing to the Ephesian church, the apostle speaks of God’s creating a new kind of man and nature (2:15; 4:17–32). The change or renewal which is essential if we are to bear the true image of God and to be a part of humanity as God intended it to be is the same divine act we refer to as regeneration.
Washing with Water Through the Word
Paul told the church in Ephesus that Christ loved the universal church and gave himself for her in order to make her holy, “cleansing her by the washing with water through the word” (5:26). “The word” is the message of the gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, who prepares the heart to receive that message and thus brings new life. This divine activity and the human response are portrayed in the rite of baptism – “the washing with water.” This text recalls both John 3:5 (“born of water and the Spirit”) and Ezekiel 36:25–26 (“I will sprinkle clean water on you ... and put a new spirit in you”).
Baptism in the Spirit
Reference to baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs seven times in the New Testament. Six of these occurrences draw a comparison between John the Baptist’s baptism with water and the baptism he promised the Messiah would bring (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16). Paul used the expression once: “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13). Here the Spirit’s action of placing believing sinners within the body of Christ, the community of the new covenant, is in view. This action necessarily includes regeneration, the Spirit’s coming to indwell the heart.
Paul assumes that the internal work of the Spirit accompanies the external act of baptism. In referring to this internal work the Greek uses the preposition en (en heni pneumati) rather than hupo (i.e., “in” rather than “by one Spirit”) because baptism as such is not performed by the Holy Spirit; rather, as believers are washed by water, they receive the gift of the indwelling Spirit. Further, Paul declares that all the members of the body of Christ were given the one Spirit to drink. The verb is in the aorist tense, pointing to a decisive moment of drinking the Spirit, that is, the moment of water baptism. The image of drinking suggests the establishment of a close and intimate communion.
The Pouring of the Love of God into the Heart
“God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rom. 5:5). This statement powerfully suggests both the divine act of begetting and the result of that begetting: internal renovation wrought by the presence of the love of God (not our love for God, but God’s love for us).
Reception of the Spirit of Adoption
“For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Rom. 8:15). The gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the soul constitutes believers adopted children of God. As a result, they are able to have an intimate communion with their heavenly Father, just as a child might address his or her earthly father by a familiar term like the Aramaic Abba or the English Daddy.
Being Sealed by the Holy Spirit
The verb sphragizein, “to seal,” is used of the special endowment with the Spirit enjoyed by Jesus (John 6:27; cf. Acts 10:38 – “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit”). It is used also by Paul to describe the unction of the Spirit bestowed upon those who receive the gospel (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30). In the earliest period of patristic literature the image of sealing was applied to the Spirit’s coming during baptism to dwell in the believer’s heart (see 2 Clement 7:6; 8:6).
The Pauline View of the Relationship Between the Spirit and Baptism
Now that we have examined some of the equivalents of the concept of rebirth which appear in the writings of Paul, it will be useful to comment briefly on his view of the connection between the gift of the Holy Spirit and baptism. The apostle was wholly convinced that if we are to experience new life in union with the exalted Lord Jesus and to live within his body in faith, hope, and love, the Holy Spirit must work within the human soul. For individuals who do not have the indwelling Spirit do not belong to Christ (Rom. 8:9) and cannot receive and appropriate all those truths, gifts, and graces which the Spirit brings from the exalted Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 2:10b–16).
For Paul there was an intimate relation between the gift of the indwelling Spirit and the act of baptism. Paul lived at the beginning of the period of evangelization when the Holy Spirit confirmed the preached word with visible signs and wonders. Baptism was the public rite by which God (acting through the minister who performed the washing) brought believers into his kingdom, his church, and the local congregation (itself a microcosm of the whole church). The act of baptism did not have some special power to bring down the Spirit at that time; rather, it was the divinely appointed sign and symbol of incorporation into Jesus Christ and thus into his body, the church of God. It was performed once and only once and was modeled upon the baptism of Jesus himself in the river Jordan (see pp. 22–23 [i.e., near end of Chapter 2]).
Paul’s view of the significance of baptism has been elegantly summarized by G. W H. Lampe:
The Pauline doctrine treated Baptism as the efficacious sign of a dying with Christ and a rising and ascending with him to a new quality of life, an earnest of the eschatological hope of the total redemption which is to be expected at the Parousia. Of this hope the guarantee is the inward seal set upon the believer’s soul by that possession of the Holy Spirit which is the necessary concomitant of the union with Christ which has been brought about through the response of faith to grace. Baptism is a sacramental rite which looks back to the Messiah-Servant Baptism of Jesus and to the saving and atoning death and resurrection of which His Baptism was a foreshadowing and prefiguring. It represented that Baptism and it was the external symbol through which the atoning work of Christ was applied to the believer and made available for him to share; the convert was figuratively buried and raised with Christ in the baptismal water; and in the union with Christ effected by faith in response to the diving act (whose visible expression was the sacrament itself) he found the realisation of the promise of the remission of sins. At the same time it was a rite which looked forward to the future hope and guaranteed its fulfilment. It pointed not only to the victory of Christ incarnate but to the culmination of that victory at the Parousia. Through being made a partaker of Christ and sharing in his Messianic-Servant character, entering with Him into newness of life, the believer received the assurance of the Holy Spirit, the seal of the covenant of promise, the stamp which marked him as God’s own possession awaiting the day of redemption.4
4. G. W. H. Lampe, The Seal of the Spirit, p. 149.
It is important for us to be aware of how the intimate connection between baptism and the gift of the indwelling Spirit was understood in the apostolic age. Much was to be made of this understanding in the theology of baptism throughout the following centuries.
(It is possible – and those who are involved in the Pentecostal or charismatic movements would say it is preferable – to interpret the New Testament material on new birth and baptism with the Holy Spirit in a different manner. The essence of this different interpretation is the making of a clear and rigid distinction between birth from above, in which the Holy Spirit comes to indwell the human heart, and a subsequent baptism in the Spirit by the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. The first is a secret act of the Spirit himself, the second is an act of the exalted Christ and is accompanied by some external phenomenon. This interpretation usually includes the following ideas:
1. In the Old Testament there are two distinct promises concerning the Holy Spirit and the people of the new covenant. The first is that they will be indwelt by the Spirit [Ezek. 36:27]; the second is that they will be baptized with the Spirit [Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28–29].
2. The prophecy of John the Baptist that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit relates to the second of the Old Testament promises; it is not concerned with regeneration.
3. Jesus was already filled with the Spirit and sanctified when he presented himself for baptism, which issued in his being baptized with the Spirit. Thus the life of the Master himself illustrates both experiences.
4. Jesus’ promise concerning the gift of the Spirit [Luke 11:13] relates to baptism with the Spirit, not regeneration.
5. When the resurrected Jesus breathed on the disciples (John 20:22), he gave them the indwelling Spirit and constituted them the body of Christ, people of the new covenant.
6. The outpouring of or baptism with the Spirit which is described in Acts 2 was only the first such act of the exalted Christ. The experience is open to all regenerate Christians.
7. The promise in Acts 2:38b–39 [”you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”] refers to baptism with the Spirit, not regeneration. So also the special outpourings of the Spirit on the Samaritans [Acts 8:15–17], Saul [Acts 9:17], those assembled in Cornelius’s house [Acts 10:44; 11:15–16], and the disciples at Ephesus [Acts 19:6] were baptisms with the Spirit.
8. Paul’s teaching on the seal of the Spirit [2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13] and on the witness of the Spirit [Rom. 8:16] points to the experience of baptism with the Spirit, as does John’s teaching on anointing [1 John 2:20, 27].
From these various considerations it is generally argued that the New Testament [especially the Book of Acts] represents the norm to be a secret act of regeneration and then at least one subsequent identifiable experience of baptism with [or outpouring of] the Spirit from the exalted Lord Jesus in heaven.)
5 – Cosmic Regeneration
What happens to the individual in terms of new birth and eventually an immortal resurrection body is one important aspect of what God will bring into being when this age and world cease and the new age and world begin. In fact the individual can receive the full inheritance promised in Christ only when there exist a new age and world in which that inheritance can be given to all the saints. The hope of the individual believer is not merely for personal immortality, but it is for a new cosmos, a new human race, and a new fellowship with God; the individual believer longs for the time when heaven will be an integral part of human existence.
While Paul, as we have seen (p. 39 [i.e. early Chapter 4]), used the noun palingenesia of personal, individual regeneration (Titus 3:5), Jesus used it of cosmic regeneration. We shall examine Jesus’ teaching on cosmic renewal; then we shall look at what Peter says in the Acts and his Epistles, at what Paul writes in Romans 8, and finally at the visionary insights of John in the Revelation. Examination of these texts will make it very clear that personal regeneration is part of a cosmic activity by God which involves the whole created order and provides the Christian community with wonderful promises in which to rest – especially in these days of talk of nuclear holocaust.
The Teaching of Jesus
At the end of the conversation between the rich young man and Jesus (Matt. 19:16–30) the disciples became involved because they were horrified at what Jesus had to say about the difficulty faced by rich people who attempt to enter the kingdom of God. Wondering about the apostolic band of disciples and their prospects, Peter reminded Jesus that they had left everything in order to follow him. “What,” Peter asked, “will there be for us?” Jesus replied:
I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. [Matt. 19:28–29; cf. Luke 22:28–30]
Here the Greek phrase en tēi palingenesiai, which literally means “in the regeneration,” is translated “at the renewal of all things.” Palingenesia was used by the Stoics to refer to a future universal restoration after the destruction of the world by fire; thus the idea of universal renewal, restoration, regeneration, or renovation is rightly seen here.1 Moreover, the way in which Jesus speaks is at least in part conditioned by the apocalypticism which was common in Judaism in the time of our Lord. Jewish apocalyptic literature made a great distinction between this age and the coming age and expected the judgment of the nations and resurrection of all the dead at the end of the present age. Setting these ideas within his own understanding of God’s future plans as presented in the Old Testament, Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” (see Dan. 7:13) and declares himself to be the One who will both judge and rule. Thus he interprets Old Testament prophecy and Jewish expectations as references to himself, presenting himself as determinative, acting in the place of and on behalf of God.
1. Sources utilized in this section include David Hill, ed., The Gospel of Matthew; J. C. Fenton, The Gospel of St. Matthew; Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew; and, for New Testament theology, the volumes of that name by Donald Guthrie, Leonhard Goppelt, and Joachim Jeremias.
By the phrase en tēi palingenesiai, recorded by Matthew alone, Jesus is probably referring to what will happen immediately after the judgment of the nations has concluded (see Matt. 25:31–46). The picture is of the vindicated Messiah, assisted by his apostles, governing the new people of God (described as the twelve tribes) in the new order of the kingdom of God. In this order there is a full inheritance for all those who have been his faithful followers in the old order; they will receive the reward of eternal life and all the blessings of the new relationship with God, with the saints, and with the new order of reality.
Although Matthew 19:28 is the only place where palingenesia is used of the new order, the expectation of such an order was conveyed by Jesus in a variety of other ways. For example, he borrowed the Old Testament and apocalyptic metaphor of the new age as a great feast at which the guests enjoy the food, drink, and fellowship, and are wholly pleased with the host (see, e.g., Matt. 8:11; 22:1–14; Luke 13:29; cf. 14:16–24). Then, also, he made use of the later prophetic and apocalyptic concept that salvation will conclude with the arrival of a new age and new order of creation.
There are three strands to the prophetic expectation that salvation will issue in a new creation. The oldest is the renewal of the natural order, a restoration of the original paradisal state (Isa. 9:2–7; 11:1–9). Secondly, there is the idea of the provision of a new political order wherein all nations bring their gifts to Jerusalem and Israel functions as their light (Isa. 49:5–13). Finally, there is the vision of the new cosmic order of new heavens and new earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22). In addition to the theme that redemption leads to new creation, Jesus was well aware of the teaching of the resurrection of the dead. Thus he thought of the new order of creation as populated by believers who had been given new resurrection bodies. In his ministry he made people whole in mind and body; this is to be seen as the beginning of the work of salvation and new creation. Thus it is not surprising that Paul, as we have seen, referred to the renewing work of the Spirit as the “new creation” and that, as we shall see, both Peter and John spoke of the new order of the new heavens and earth which would arrive at the end of this present age.
The Teaching of Peter
For Peter’s statements on cosmic regeneration we shall look first at Acts and then at 2 Peter.2 After the healing of the crippled beggar, an amazed crowd quickly gathered around Peter and John. Peter told them of Jesus Christ, in whose power the healing had been performed. And after declaring the gospel of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus he exhorted:
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you – even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. [Acts 3:19–21]
2. For comments on Acts, I am indebted to F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts; William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles; and I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles. Sources for 2 Peter include Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, and Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the General Epistle of Jude.
The phrase “times of refreshing” translates kairoi anapsyxeōs; it points to the age of salvation which is promised to the people of Israel if they repent. This time of salvation, the age of the kingdom of God, is centered upon Jesus as Messiah; and so he must be received as Messiah in order for the people to participate in the kingdom he will inaugurate. He is the exalted Messiah in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, and there he will remain until the time for his parousia, his arrival on earth as Judge to close the old age and bring in the new one.
“The time ... to restore everything” translates chronōn apokatastaseōs pantōn (literally, “the times of restitution of all things”); it points to the fulfillment of all that God had promised through his prophets concerning the future age of peace and righteousness and the new created order. The word apokatastasis seems to have a meaning virtually identical to that of palingenesia in Matthew 19:28.3 Further, the verb apokathistēmi, meaning “to reestablish or to restore,” is used in the Septuagint to express the promise that the land of Israel will be restored to its former glory with the advent of the Messiah at the end of the age.
3. Apokatastasis became a technical term for universalism. See Peter Toon, Heaven and Hell, ch. 10.
While Peter refers to the imperishable inheritance of the new community in his First Letter (1:4), he specifically speaks in the Second Letter of the new order and creation which will follow the day of the Lord:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. [2 Peter 3:10–13]
Jesus had spoken in similar terms of the end of the present age and order (Matt. 24:29, 35; Luke 21:25). Peter is saying that the solar system and the great galaxies will all be destroyed to make way for the new cosmos, which he describes, echoing Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22, in terms of new heavens and new earth. And he qualifies the latter by insisting that this new cosmos and order will be the permanent home of righteousness – right relationships between God and believers and between believers themselves. Here is genuine cosmic regeneration.
The Teaching of Paul
We noted in the last chapter (p. 44 [i.e. “New Creation”]) that while “new creation” refers to the work of God within the individual believer, it also points to the fuller reality of which the work within the individual is but one small part. The new creation will be a new cosmos with a new humanity. Paul looks forward in hope to the new cosmic order as well as to the resurrection of the bodies of the individual faithful:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. [Rom. 8:19–24]
Paul is looking at the created order in which he lives.4 As a Christian who has received the gospel, he sees the present order in relation to God’s stated purpose of bringing into being a new creation (Isa. 65:17–25). He pictures the created order as a man or animal eagerly straining forward to see something important. This eager expectation reflects creation’s recognition that while it has not fulfilled God’s original purpose for it, there is a greater purpose yet to be fulfilled – to be the sphere in which God’s kingdom exists wholly and perfectly.
4. Sources for the comments on Romans 8 include C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans; F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans; Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans; and Matthew Black, Romans.
In fact, Paul continues, as the created order painfully but eagerly expects the arrival of the new order, it may be likened to a woman who is giving birth. As a part of this created order, believers, possessing the gift of the Holy Spirit and the seed of eternal life, also inwardly groan as they wait for the putting on of their immortal resurrection bodies (2 Cor. 5:4–5 has a similar thought: “while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we ... wish ... to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling”). Believers long and hope to be in name and in reality the children of God, to dwell in new bodies in a new cosmos and in a permanently new relationship with the Father through the Son.
There is a link between Romans 8:19–24 and 5:12–21, where Paul deals with the renewal of humanity. Christ, the Son of man, is the new Adam, the forerunner of a whole new humanity. In his resurrection we are made new. Then, in the light of Romans 9–11, we can also think of Christians as the new Israel. Therefore, the new Israel, the new humanity, and the new creation are closely related concepts. Obviously the individual regeneration leading to full experience of new life in the future kingdom cannot be divorced from the universal regeneration by which the new order of the kingdom of God is brought into being. Each is a necessary part of God’s total activity.
The Teaching of John from Patmos
We cannot be certain about the identity of the author of the Apocalypse; we do know that his name was John and that he described himself when writing to the seven churches as “your brother and companion in the suffering” (1:9).5 He was moved by the Holy Spirit and received a message from the risen, exalted Lord Jesus concerning that which would precede the arrival of the new order of the kingdom of God. The climax of the book is reached in the next to the last chapter:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” [Rev. 21:1–4]
5. George R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation, has been most helpful.
John’s vision is of an entirely new cosmos for, significantly, there is no longer any sea. The most important feature of the new order is the Holy City, which is the only part of the new creation that John is allowed to see. This new and heavenly Jerusalem is not a city rebuilt in the land of Palestine, but a direct creation of God which is designed to fulfill abundantly for the redeemed the role which the prophets saw earthly Jerusalem as fulfilling for Israel and the Gentile nations (Isa. 2:1–5; 49:14–26; ch. 54). There will be such loving fellowship between God and his people that they will actually see him and live!
It is reasonable to assume that Revelation 21:9–22:5 is an extended comment on the basic vision of 21:1–4. Here it is made clear that in the new order the Lamb of God, the Son of God who became incarnate, suffered, died, and was resurrected to heavenly life, will continue to be the Mediator between God and redeemed humanity. This new order will truly be the kingdom of God and the genuine fulfillment of the prophecies and the hope of the pilgrim people of God – the very people who individually have experienced new birth and are described as “a kingdom and priests to serve his [Jesus Christ’s] God and Father” (1:6).
6 – Old Testament Roots
We learn from the first two chapters of Genesis that human beings were created by God to have a special relationship to him and to his creation – “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27); and “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (2:7).1 However, we also read in the third chapter that instead of developing in their relationship and communion of love with God and watching over creation for him, human beings chose to defy him and thereby break their unique relationship. Sin entered into the experience of the human race and prevented fellowship with God.
1. See further Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, pp. 159–65.
Though there is no specific statement to the effect, it is surely correct to hold that as created by God, Adam and Eve not only had physical perfection, but also were indwelt by the Holy Spirit. If this is so, then it is also the case that when they chose to disobey God (and thereby experienced spiritual death), they lost the presence of the Spirit from their souls. His presence had made possible and guaranteed their loving communion with their Creator; his absence meant that the human race was now in need of redemption and salvation. Henceforth in the history of the human race, fellowship with God was possible only when God took the initiative, through his Word and Spirit, of restoring the possibilities for such communion.
In the New Testament, Jesus the Christ (i.e., the One anointed by and filled with the Spirit) is presented as the One who truly bears and reflects the image of God; and, therefore, those who are united to him in faith for salvation can be said to be in the process of renewal towards bearing the image of God as God originally intended (Col. 1:15; 3:10; see also 2 Cor. 4:1–6). And, of course, those who are united to Christ in faith for salvation are those in whom the Spirit dwells. One purpose of personal inward regeneration by the Spirit is, therefore, to restore the image of God in believing sinners.
Old Testament Intimations of New Birth
We come now to the Old Testament roots of the New Testament teaching on personal inward regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Jesus apparently did not tell his disciples exactly how he came to choose the image of birth for describing the initial saving work of the Holy Spirit in the human soul. Of course, it is a very basic image; indeed, the rabbis used it to describe the conversion of Gentiles to Judaism. Further, as has already been suggested (p. 29 [i.e. mid–Chapter 3]), Jesus meditated upon the idea of the begetting of the King-Messiah as it is set forth in Psalm 2:7 and applied it to himself, as its quotation in Acts 13:33 and Hebrews 1:5 strongly intimates. In addition, the image of new birth wrought in the individual by the Spirit has obvious parallels with the effects which the Old Testament prophets promised the new covenant to be inaugurated in the age of the Messiah would have on individuals. The prophets declared that in this new covenant individuals would have an intimate fellowship with God. Certainly the pious members of old Israel longed for such a fellowship, as the words of the psalmist make clear: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). It is now our task to comment on some of the prophetic promises which parallel the New Testament image of new birth.2
2. Sources for the comments on Jeremiah include John Bright, Jeremiah, and J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah; see also Bernhard W. Anderson, “The New Covenant and the Old,” in The Old Testament and Christian Faith, pp. 225–42. Sources for the comments on Ezekiel include A. B. Davidson, The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, and Walther Zimmerli, Ezekiel; Roy A. Harrisville, The Concept of Newness in the New Testament, is useful.
“The time is coming, “ declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the LORD.
“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time,” declares the LORD.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the LORD.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.” [Jer. 31:31–34]
Like the old covenant, the new covenant will create a right relationship between God and his people, center around the law (God’s will), and include all the people of God. However, unlike the old covenant, the new belongs specifically to the last days (“the time is coming”); further, it involves creating new people through special divine action. God will directly implant his will in the hearts of his people through the Holy Spirit’s presence there; and thereby they will come to enjoy a full communion with God, know what he requires of them, and experience the sense of being forgiven their sins.
From the New Testament we know that this prophecy pointed to Christ’s work on the cross, where the new covenant was inaugurated, and also to the Spirit’s work of bringing the effects of Christ’s saving work into human souls. Personal inward regeneration is, then, a part of the benefits of the new covenant. (See 2 Cor. 3:7–18 for a comparison of the glories of the old and new covenants.)
I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul. [Jer. 32:37–41]
These verses are not merely a repeat of Jeremiah 31:31–34, for here God promises to create a singleness of heart and action within his people of the new covenant. They will be a people of one heart and one way. Further, the new covenant is described as an everlasting covenant, and it is set in the context of the restoration of the land. Thus God’s promise here relates to his work in individual hearts (personal regeneration) in a new community and place (cosmic regeneration).
I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. [Ezek. 11:19–20]
God makes a promise to the exiles in Babylonia as they look forward to their restoration to the homeland (Ezek.11:14–21). He will so work in their hearts as to make them a people of undivided loyalty who faithfully worship and serve him. By divine energy their inner lives will be renewed so that they gladly and freely follow God and walk in his ways, and thereby enjoy full communion and fellowship with him. Here the action of God on his people is emphasized, but his action in each individual (the dynamic equivalent of regeneration) is necessarily included.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you, I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws [Ezek 36:25–27]
Once again God promises to renew the people of Israel. This is part of a larger promise which includes restoration and renewal of the land itself (Ezek. 36:22–32) and so fits into what we have called cosmic regeneration. In verse 27 the prophet specifically states that God will place his Spirit within the souls of his people and thereby directly influence their wills to follow in his ways and obey his will. This points to the new birth from above.
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin, I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone, we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD Says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.”’ [Ezek. 37:1–14]
We have already referred to the vision of dry bones several times (see, e.g., pp. 15, 16 [i.e. end Chapter 1]). Suffice it to say here that it was obviously on Jesus’ mind when he spoke to Nicodemus (see especially John 3:5–8). And just as Ezekiel had revitalization of the whole house of Israel in view, so was Jesus pointing to the possibility of new birth for all Israel through the work of the Spirit. This in fact is the force of the plural you in “You must be born again” (John 3:7) and “You people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (vv. 11–12).
The Question of Regeneration Under the Old Covenant
Before leaving the Old Testament we must face a question which is often asked and on which there has been controversy within the church: Were the faithful believers within old Israel regenerate? Here one might think of Abraham or Moses, David or Hezekiah, Elijah or Elisha, Jeremiah or Ezekiel, and Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. The reason why the question is asked is that the new birth, while presented as a necessity by Jesus, is also seen as the work of the Spirit, who came in fullness only after the exaltation of Jesus into heaven. Perhaps the best way to come up with an answer is to reflect upon the differences between the old and new covenants.
The provisions of the old and new covenants are not identical for they belong to two different periods of history. God chose two different ways to be in partnership and communion with his people. The truly essential point is that God’s people must keep their side of the agreement, whatever that might be.
The Mosaic or old covenant was inaugurated by God and came wholly from his initiative at Mount Sinai. He called the descendants of Abraham into this agreement and relationship, and thus each child born within the community of Israel was born into the covenant and could rightly look to God as his or her God. The requirements for continuing in fellowship and communion with God were carefully set out in the law of Moses. The Israelites were to keep the law both in letter and in spirit, with the emphasis upon the latter. They were to trust and obey the Lord and do whatever he commanded them; as they complied, he would pardon their offenses and protect, bless, and guide them. The Spirit’s presence with the faithful was more in the nature of always being available rather than permanently living within. The important point is that true communion and fellowship with God were enjoyed by all those who did what God told them to do.
The new covenant was also inaugurated by God. It came wholly from his initiative in offering his Son, Jesus Christ, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world at Calvary, and in raising him, triumphant over Satan, sin, and death, into heaven as the exalted Messiah. The new covenant is therefore made in Christ with all those who positively respond to the proclamation of the gospel. This proclamation is a continuing duty of the church; thus the new covenant is always open for the entry of new members gained through evangelistic effort.
The big difference between the old and new covenants is that God in the new comes much nearer to his people and offers greater possibilities of fellowship and communion with him. The possibilities are greater because he now relates to his people in and through his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ he gives the Spirit to be a permanent presence and helper within the souls of the faithful. All that God has to give to his people is there, as it were, in potential.
The requirements of the new covenant, unlike those of the old, center upon Christ; they relate to believing in him, following him, and looking for his second advent. Enjoyment of the privileges of the new covenant is open only to those who fulfill the conditions of faith, hope, and love. Thus we may say that a faithful believer under the old covenant had a better relationship with God than a halfhearted believer under the new covenant experiences.
We now see why Jesus told Nicodemus that he, and all Jews for that matter, had to be born anew (or from above) through the Spirit. The old covenant was becoming obsolete; the new covenant was about to be inaugurated by Christ’s being lifted up on the cross. The Jews had to allow God to transfer them from the old into the new covenant; and for him to effect this transfer, they had to receive the Messiah and believe on his name. In doing so, they would receive the permanent gift of the Holy Spirit to enable them truly to know, worship, love, and serve the Lord.
The answer to our question as to whether the faithful believers of old Israel were regenerate is, then, both yes and no. If by “regenerate” is meant that they had a right relationship with God and enjoyed communion with him, then certainly they were regenerate. They were assisted by the Holy Spirit in their relationship with the covenant God. However, if by “regenerate” is meant that the Holy Spirit was permanently present in their souls, then the answer is that they were not regenerate, for they could not have enjoyed the benefits of the new covenant before it had been inaugurated.
At the beginning of this chapter we noted that Jesus Christ alone is truly the image and likeness of God, for he was permanently filled with the Holy Spirit, and all power and authority in heaven and on earth were given to him. Now in addition to creating fellowship between the Creator-Savior and humans, the Holy Spirit in his work of regeneration under the new covenant also begins to renew humans so that they come to reflect the divine image and likeness, which were perfectly reflected in the person of Jesus. So regeneration leads to a new creation, which, because it is rooted in Christ, is permanent. The new covenant produces a dynamic permanence of fellowship, communion, and service.
Finally, we must add that in the old covenant God occasionally did in fact pour out his Spirit upon selected individuals so that they could perform a mighty work in his name (see, e.g., Judg. 3:9–10; 6:34; 11:29; cf.16:20). According to the prophecy of Joel (2:28–29) and the evidence of Acts, however, it is God’s will within the new covenant that Christ as the Lord should pour out the Spirit upon all flesh, that is, upon all believers.
7 – Complementary Doctrines
If we are to appreciate the major ways in which the doctrine of individual regeneration has been developed, expressed, confessed, and defended throughout church history, we must attempt to set the teaching on internal revolution, rebirth, and new creation in some kind of biblical context. To do this properly would mean providing a full-scale biblical theology, which is far beyond the scope of this volume. What we can and must do in the brief compass of one chapter is to offer a general overview of the New Testament teaching on salvation. Our method of procedure will take the form of a series of observations on doctrines which complement the doctrine of regeneration. It is freely admitted that these observations are in large measure based on the way in which the doctrine of regeneration has itself been expressed over the centuries of theological exploration!
Repentance and Conversion
New birth leading to a new life is a gift from God; it cannot be earned. Accordingly, God never commands people to be born again through their own efforts. He does require, however, that they repent of their sins, believe the gospel concerning his kingdom and the resurrection of Jesus, and live as faithful and obedient disciples who look for the age to come. This requirement is found in the preaching of Jesus in the Gospels, in the speeches of the apostles and evangelists in the Book of Acts, and in the exhortations in the Epistles.1
1. On conversion, repentance, and faith see Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1, pp. 353–62, 587–606.
The question whether new birth or repentance comes first cannot be definitively answered. There is here a paradox of grace that while we are to continue to work out our salvation reverentially and soberly, we are to remember that it is always God who takes the initiative and supplies the grace (Phil. 2:13). And, as Paul told the church in Ephesus, though we are commanded to believe the gospel and have faith in God and his promises, faith itself is impossible without divine assistance (Eph. 2:8–9). Where the Spirit is present, blessings will follow, including the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23) and the various gifts of the Spirit (Rom. 12:6–8).
Conversion, repentance, and faith are closely associated concepts. Repentance (metanoia) and faith (pistis) go together since repentance is primarily a turning from sin and faith is primarily a turning to God in trust and commitment. Conversion is a wider concept than either repentance or faith, for it assumes a turning from sin in order to emphasize a turning to God in faith and faithfulness. Thus the concept of conversion (epistrophē) usually stands alone (Acts 9:35; 15:3), though it occasionally appears in tandem with faith (Acts 11:21).
A person who has been converted is one who has turned from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, and who has received forgiveness of sins and been placed within the new people of God, set apart for God’s service (Acts 26:18). Conversion is not a synonym for new birth; however, there can be no conversion without God’s granting new life to the soul. New birth, then, is a major part of God’s personal involvement in the conversion of sinners into saints.
Forgiveness and Justification
Forgiveness (aphesis) is the action of God in restoring sinners to a right relationship with himself; it is the pardoning, canceling, and passing over the guilt of sin, which is guilt before God the Judge.2 Jesus declared the forgiveness of sins (Mark 2:5–12); indeed, one basic purpose of his sacrificial death was to make it possible for repentant sinners to be forgiven (Matt. 26:28; Mark 10:45). Jesus also insisted (in the Lord’s Prayer, for example) that those whom God forgives ought in turn to forgive their fellow human beings. From this insistence it is obvious that Jesus believed that the internal power of the Spirit (i.e., new birth) is given to those whom God forgives – how else could they freely forgive others? Thus, while forgiveness, in the strictest sense of the word, has to do with the external relationship between God and the repenting sinner, it never exists in isolation. It always occurs in combination with the other aspects of salvation; it is one of the vital parts of the arrival of the kingdom in word and in power.
2. On forgiveness and justification see Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1, pp. 697–703, and vol. 3, pp. 352–77; see also Peter Toon, Justification and Sanctification.
Justification (dikaiōsis), as it is expounded in the Letters of Paul, is a larger concept than forgiveness. While forgiveness is primarily concerned with cancellation of guilt, justification is primarily concerned with an external change in one’s personal standing before God, a right relationship with him under the new covenant of grace. A term from the law court, justification connotes being placed in the right and judged to be in the right by God the Judge. The doctrine of justification by grace and through faith, as Paul expounds it in Galatians and Romans, is about sinners’ believing in the Lord Jesus and being clothed in his righteousness (his perfect obedience and his sacrificial offering) so as to be perfectly acceptable to God as Judge. So justification is not really acquittal; it is being judged and found to be in the right because of being in and with Christ, who is the righteous (i.e., the right) One.
The concept of justification, like forgiveness, never stands alone; it is one of the many aspects of salvation. For example, into those who are justified God also pours his Spirit (hence new birth) and the love of Christ (Rom. 5:5; 8:1–17). Further, what God declares believers to be as he views them in Christ is also what he intends they shall truly be; thus justification leads to their actually being made righteous through the inner renewal of the Spirit (Rom. 6).
The Kingdom of God
We noticed in looking at John 3 that to see and to enter the kingdom of God a person must be born again and from above.3 The kingdom of God is the fatherly, gracious reign of God in human lives, his rule over his redeemed people. The doctrine of the kingdom includes the ideas of a new Israel, a people of the new covenant, citizenship in the age to come. Personal regeneration does not issue into an individualistic relationship with God the Father through the Son and by the Spirit; rather, it issues into membership amongst a new people, each one of whom has a personal relationship with God. The call of God is a call into his kingdom and into the society of his people, the ekklēsia, the church, to become a member of his household of faith, a soldier in his army, and a disciple in the school of Christ. Birth from above is birth into a family whose home is in heaven where Christ is exalted at the right hand of the Father. Growth in new life is growth into Christ within his body, the church; to fellowship one with another within this body is an important aspect of personal growth. It is always salutary to remember that the “You must be born again” of John 3:7 is not in the singular but in the plural. Jesus states that all religious people – adherents of the faith of old Israel and of the newly established Christianity – have of necessity to be born again and together in Christ to become the new people of God.
3. On the church and the kingdom of God see Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1, pp. 291–307, and vol. 2, pp. 376–77, 381–89.
Baptism in Water
When Gentiles converted to Judaism, they were baptized in a bath of water as an external sign that their impurity was being washed away as they entered the community of Israel.4 Males were also circumcised and an appropriate sacrifice offered. The rabbis referred to baptized converts as newborn children. John the Baptist also called for baptism as a sign of both a break with the past and a new beginning of loyalty to God and his Messiah.
4. On baptism see Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1, pp. 143–54, and vol. 3, pp. 1208–10; see also Michael Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, pp. 123–47.
A survey of the New Testament references to baptism in water leaves us with certain general impressions. First, the rite was seen as intimately related to the work of God within the believer in terms of forgiveness and justification. Converts never baptized themselves! Baptism was administered to them, thereby portraying that God alone is the author and giver of salvation. Second, baptism was a once-for-all rite of entry into God’s people; it was not to be repeated at a future date. Thereby the once-for-all nature of the work of Christ for sinners was symbolized. Third, baptism signified and symbolized incorporation into Christ and into his body (Rom. 6:1–14; Gal. 3:26–27). To be baptized was therefore a synonym for being a Christian, a justified sinner, a born-again believer, and a child of God.
This general picture leaves open certain issues which have been hotly contended in the history of the church. Regrettably, there is no clear scriptural teaching on whether or not children and infants were baptized. Were there children in the whole households that were baptized when the head of the family accepted the faith? If the procedure used for converts to Judaism was followed by the young churches, the answer is yes, but we cannot be sure that the churches did in fact adopt the Judaic practice. What we are sure about is that from an early date the baptism of infants born into Christian homes was very widely practiced. Then, also, we do not learn from the New Testament the chronological relationship of baptism to new birth, saving faith, and justification by God. We may think that baptism normally occurs soon after the believer has been justified and born anew; but in the case of infants from Christian homes, where the faith is that of the parents and sponsors, the issue becomes complicated.
It is important that we recognize that sanctification is portrayed by the writers of the New Testament as much more than a process of being made or becoming holy.5 Take Paul’s teaching, for example. The concept of sanctification begins with the idea that believers are in Jesus Christ, who is their holiness: “You are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). In Christ they were chosen by God out of all peoples, placed on his side, and thereby dedicated to his service. In Christ believers have both a right relationship with God (justification) and a place on God’s side over against the profane world (sanctification). The church is made up of those who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2; cf. 6:11). Already made holy in Christ, they are also called to be holy in daily living, for in them the Holy Spirit dwells (1 Thess. 4:3–5). Holiness or sanctification, the state of belonging to God and being dedicated to him, issues in a life of service through the power of the Spirit.
5. On sanctification see Peter Toon, Justification and Sanctification.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ is presented as the Sanctifier of his people: “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). Here the perfect tense of the verb conveys the idea of something done once for all. In 10:14 two tenses are used to convey the two-sided nature of sanctification: “By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Sanctification is completed in Christ, but in daily service the people of God are being made holy so that they become in practice what they already are in Christ (saints).
The image of sanctification is drawn from the cultus of the temple of Jerusalem where the men and utensils that had a part in the worship of God were set aside and specially consecrated to the service of the Deity. Jesus sanctified himself in that he consecrated himself wholly to God’s service and cause. To be in him is to be placed on God’s side forever, and to be in him is to possess his Spirit and to be involved in becoming holy. Personal regeneration is particularly related to that aspect of the concept of sanctification in which the believer becomes holy through the internal dwelling and ministration of the Spirit. Accordingly, the beginning of this process of becoming holy in soul, heart, mind, and will is usually called regeneration. This said, it must also be said that within the New Testament the concept of sanctification is so broad that it encompasses that which is specially highlighted by the image of new birth through the Spirit. It is unfortunate, then, that much Christian theology has rather simplistically taken regeneration as the beginning and sanctification as the continuation of the process of becoming holy.
Fillings with the Spirit
In the Book of Acts there are six occasions when people are said to be filled with the Spirit. The first was on the day of Pentecost (2:4); that filling was followed by speaking in tongues, praising the Lord, and preaching the gospel of the resurrection. The second involves the apostle Peter, who was filled with the Spirit before he addressed the Sanhedrin (4:8), while the third involves a group of disciples who, having engaged in corporate prayer, were then similarly enabled to speak the word of God with boldness (4:31). Paul provides the fourth example: after Christ had encountered him on the road to Damascus and Ananias had laid hands on him, he too was filled with the Spirit (9:17–19). And Paul knew what it was to be filled with the Spirit during his apostolic ministry, as his experience in confronting Elymas the sorcerer reveals (13:9). Finally, there is the description of the disciples of Jesus who “were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52). To these references we must add the exhortation of Paul in Ephesians 5:18: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” The tense of the verb and the context suggest that Paul is telling his readers that they are to “go on being filled with the Spirit” throughout their Christian life and service. Unlike the new birth, then, which is a one-time occurrence when the Holy Spirit begins to indwell the soul, there can be many fillings with the Spirit.
Since we have already studied the theme of cosmic regeneration in chapter 5, we need only restate it here in order to complete our picture of doctrines which complement the doctrine of individual regeneration. God’s purpose for believers is not individualistic salvation but personal salvation in a cosmic and societal setting.
The grace of God is rich and varied and is experienced at different times and in diverse ways. Thus it is not surprising that there is a wealth of images within the New Testament by which each aspect of the gracious work of God is described and emphasized. It is impossible to use all of the images at one time; a choice has to be made. At different times in the history of the church, groups of theologians have decided to make one image prominent and to subsume the others under it. Those that are brought under the chosen “umbrella concept” naturally lose some of their own particularized meaning, for they are trimmed to fit the chosen image. This process is perhaps necessary and inevitable, but historians of doctrine must be aware of how a number of biblical images and concepts have undergone a change in their meaning as a result. That is why the study of the development of doctrine is important.6
6. See Peter Toon, The Development of Doctrine in the Church.
Before looking at the ways in which personal inward regeneration has been described and understood in the life of the church, it is appropriate to summarize the main points of what we have thus far discovered concerning this act of God. First of all, we have noted that personal regeneration is a part of the action of God in bringing into reality the new covenant of grace; in particular, it is the action of the Holy Spirit bringing the benefit of the saving work of Jesus (on the cross and in his exaltation to heaven) to the individual, who thus becomes a member of the new people of God. That there is need for such an inward work of divine grace reflects the sinfulness of the human heart, a truth we have presupposed but not elaborated.
In the second place, we have noted that the Spirit’s inward work of grace is presented in images of birth, rebirth, re-creation (or new creation), and resurrection. These images show that it is the beginning of a new life which will reach its fruition in a new body in the new age of the kingdom of God.
Finally, we have seen that inward regeneration is a decisive act of God which he does only once in each individual believer. Its one-time nature is brought out by the use of the aorist tense in John 1:13, and 3:3, 5, 7. Then, also, that this decisive act has important permanent consequences is brought out by the use of the perfect tense in 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; and 5:1, 4, 18. Inward new birth leads to a new life of faith and faithfulness, righteousness and love, which anticipates the fullness of life in the age to come after the regeneration of the universe.
PART TWO: Theological Interpretations
8 – Patristic and Medieval Interpretations By Water and the Spirit
We turn now to examine the major ways in which the church and her theologians have through the centuries interpreted the doctrine of regeneration. In this chapter we shall look first at early patristic understandings. Then we shall turn to the rite of baptism in the Greek East and in the Coptic church of Egypt. We then move to the Latin West. Having described its rite of baptism, we shall summarize the positions of Augustine, the Council of Orange, and Thomas Aquinas. Finally, we shall take note of a baptismal service in use in Germany on the eve of the Reformation. Against this background we shall be better able to judge the teaching of the Protestant churches, as well as of the Church of Rome, from the sixteenth century to the present day.
Early Patristic Interpretations
In examining how the doctrine of inward regeneration was interpreted in the period from the second to the fifteenth centuries, we must be mentally prepared to encounter an approach and context very different from contemporary Western Protestantism. In particular, we have to be prepared for the fact that virtually all discussion of the new birth is in the context of the rite of baptism. It was taken for granted throughout these centuries that being “born of water and the Spirit” refers to the outward act of baptism (whether of adults or infants) and the inward act of regeneration. This intimate connection between water baptism and spiritual birth is clearly seen in Justin Martyr’s First Apology, written about 155, as he explains baptism to non-Christians:
As many as are persuaded and believe that the things are true which are taught by us [Christian teachers] ... are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their past sins, and we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us to where there is water, and are born again in like manner in which we ourselves were born again. For in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing of water.1
Justin then quotes from John 3 and Isaiah 1:16–20, which contains the exhortation, “Wash and make yourselves clean.” He further explains that the new birth illumines spiritual truth. After baptism there followed participation in the Eucharist and full membership in the congregation.
1. In E. C. Whitaker, ed., Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy, p. 2.
From the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus we learn of the preparation for baptism in Rome around 200. Converts to Christ and Christianity who expressed a desire to enter the church were rigorously tested, instructed in the faith, tested again, and then baptized. The full catechumenate had four stages lasting three years. First the candidates were given private instruction. Second, they became “hearers,” that is, they were allowed into part of the Sunday service to hear the ministry of the Word. Third, they became “kneelers,” that is, they were allowed to remain for the ministry of the Word and the prayers. The fourth stage involved examination by the bishop and specific preparation for baptism, a ceremony so rich that the candidates were hardly likely to forget it. For it was as if they had been newly conceived in the womb and had been growing in faith, hope, and love, waiting for their birth in the rite of holy baptism.
Before there were specially built churches with baptistries, baptisms took place in the running water of a stream or river. Candidates took off all their clothing before entering the water. Coming up out of the water after baptism in the triune name, they were garbed in a clean white robe, a symbol of purity (cleansing from sin). The bishop laid his hands upon their heads and anointed them with oil. Then followed participation in the Eucharist, which could include, on this occasion, not only the sacramental bread and wine, but also milk and honey, symbols of entrance into the Promised Land of the new covenant and family of God.
Of course, the church insisted that the grace of God given before, in, and after baptism came to human beings through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. One favorite way of explaining the nature of this grace and its effect was that the Spirit was restoring the divine image within the human soul. This action was necessary since by their sin Adam and Eve had caused a distortion and defilement of this image. Here is how the great Athanasius explained it in his De incarnatione, written about 318:
13. So the Word of God came in his own person, in order that, as he is the image of the Father, he might be able to restore man who is in the image.... So he was justified in taking a mortal body, in order that in it death could be destroyed and men might again be renewed in the image. For this, then, none other than the image of the Father was required.
14. For as when a figure which has been painted on wood is spoilt by dirt, it is necessary for him whose portrait it is to come again so that the picture can be renewed in the same material – for because of his portrait the material on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the portrait is redone on it – even so the all-holy Son of the Father, who is the image of the Father, came to our realms to renew man who had been made in his likeness, and, as one lost, to find him through the forgiveness of sins; just as he said in the Gospels: “I have come to find and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Therefore he also said to the Jews: “Unless a man is born again,” not referring to the birth from women as they supposed, but indicating the soul which is born again and restored in being in the image.
Thus, for Athanasius, the purpose of the incarnation and saving work of the eternal Son was to bring to humankind renewal of the image of God in their souls together with the forgiveness of their sins. Cleansing and renewal are themes often found in patristic divinity.
The Greek East
By the sixth century the Greek Orthodox rite of holy baptism had reached the form it has retained to the present day.2 Originally designed for adult converts schooled in the catechumenate, it has been used in modern times more for infants than for adults. In the Eastern churches, baptism has remained unified with what has in the West come to be called confirmation. Thus the Eastern equivalent of confirmation is administered to all who are baptized, adults and infants.
2. Ibid., pp.60–82.
The service falls into two halves – the formal introduction of a catechumen into the church and the order of holy baptism. In the first are a prayer for the admission of the catechumen, the priest’s exorcism of the devil and his influence from the candidate, and the candidate’s renunciation of the devil and confession of the true God. The second half begins with the consecration of the baptismal water in order that it might be the means of spiritual birth. After breathing upon the water three times and making the sign of the cross over it three times, the priest prays to God:
O Maker of all things, declare this water to be a water of rest, water of redemption, water of sanctification, a cleansing of the pollution of the body and soul, a loosening of chains, forgiveness of sins, enlightenment of souls, washing of rebirth, grace of adoption, raiment of immortality, renewal of spirit, fount of life. For you, Lord, have said, Wash you and make you clean [Isa.1:16]. Take away the wickedness from our souls. You have given us the new birth from above by water and Spirit. Be present, O Lord, in this water and grant that those who are baptized therein may be refashioned, so that they may put off the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts [Eph. 4:22], and put on the new man, which is restored after the image of him that created him: that being planted together in the likeness of the death [Rom. 6:5] of your Only-Begotten Son, through baptism, they may share also in his resurrection: and guarding the gift of your Holy Spirit, and increasing the store of grace, they may receive the prize of the high calling [Phil. 3:14] and be numbered among the first-born who are written in heaven [Heb. 12:23] in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Having prayed for the hallowing of the water of baptism, the priest then prays that the holy oil to be used in the chrism (an anointing with the sign of the cross) will be “a chrism of incorruption, a shield of righteousness, a renewal of soul and body, turning away every work of the devil, unto deliverance from all evil for those that are anointed in faith and partake of it.”
Using this holy oil, the priest makes the sign of the cross upon the forehead, breast, and back of the candidate. Following further anointing by the deacon, the priest baptizes the candidate by immersion in the threefold name. After the baptism the singer joyfully sings, “Blessed are they whose iniquities have been forgiven” (Ps. 32:1), as the baptized are robed in white clothing. Then the priest offers another prayer:
Blessed are you, O Lord God, ... who even at this moment have been pleased to give new birth to these your servants newly enlightened, by water and Spirit, and have bestowed upon them forgiveness of their sins, both willingly and unwillingly committed: ... give to them also the seal of the gift of your holy and all-powerful and worshipful Spirit, and the communion of the holy body and precious blood of your Christ. Guard them in your sanctification: strengthen them in the right faith: deliver them from the evil one and from all his ways, and by your saving fear keep their souls in holiness and righteousness: that being well-pleasing to you in every work and word, they may become sons and inheritors of your heavenly kingdom.
The priest then recites Galatians 3:27, “As many as are baptized in Christ have put on Christ,” and proceeds to anoint each newly baptized person. He makes the sign of the cross on the forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, and both ears and proclaims it “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” As he retires, he recites Psalm 32:1. Then follows the Eucharist in which the baptized receive the sacramental body and blood of Christ. Thereafter, whether adults or children, they are viewed as members of the body of Christ, children of God, inheritors of the kingdom of Christ.
In this Byzantine rite, the Holy Spirit is seen as being specially present in, through, and with the consecrated water so that, as the candidates are immersed in it, he acts upon and in them to bring them into spiritual union with Christ and into the benefits of his saving death and resurrection. Likewise the Holy Spirit is specially present in, through, and with the oil of chrism so that he begins to indwell the soul when the postbaptismal anointing takes place.
Additional information on how the baptismal liturgy was understood in the early period can be found in the explanations which Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–386), John Chrysostom (c. 345–407), and Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350–428) offered to catechumens being prepared for baptism at the Easter festival.3 We learn from Cyril that the sacrament was efficacious only when the candidates were sincere in intention:
If you pretend, men will indeed baptize you, but the Spirit will not baptize you; but if you approach with faith, men will minister to you visibly but the Holy Spirit will bestow upon you what is not visible. ... It rests with God to bestow grace, but with you to accept and cherish it. Do not despise the grace because it is freely given, but rather cherish it with reverence once you have received it.4
He proceeds to explain how each and every part of the rite exhibits at least one of the aspects of the manifold grace of God.
3. These explanations of baptism are described in Raymond Furnish, The Meaning of Baptism.
4. Cyril of Jerusalem, in The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, trans. Anthony A. Stephenson and Leo P. McCauley, vol. 1, p. 93.
Chrysostom tells of the spiritual effects of baptism in the consecrated water:
The cleansing is called the bath of regeneration. [God] saves us, says St Paul, through the bath of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. It is also called enlightenment, and again it is St Paul who calls it this. ... It is also called baptism. For all you have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. It is called a burial, for you were buried, says St Paul, with him by means of baptism into death. It is called circumcision. In him, too, you have been circumcised with a circumcision not wrought by hand but through putting off the body of flesh. It is called a cross. For our old self has been crucified with him, in order that the old body of sin may be destroyed.
He explains in more detail why baptism was called a bath of regeneration:
And why, someone will say, if the bath takes away all our sins, is it not called the bath of the remission of sins, or the bath of cleansing, rather than the bath of regeneration? The reason is that it does not simply remit our sins, nor does it simply cleanse us of our faults, but it does this just as if we were born anew. For it does create us anew and it fashions us again, not moulding us from earth, but creating us from a different element, the nature of water.5
Thus baptism is the bath of cleansing and new life by the power of the Spirit.
5. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, ed. and trans. P. W. Harkins, p. 138.
With help from the illustration of a smelting furnace, Chrysostom gives us further insight into what he believes that God achieves in and through holy baptism:
This bath does not merely cleanse the vessel but melts the whole thing down again. Even if a vessel has been wiped off and carefully cleansed, it still has the marks of what it is and still bears the traces of the stain. But when it is thrown into the smelting furnace and is renewed by the flames, it puts aside all dross and, when it comes from the furnace, it gives forth the same sheen as newly-moulded vessels. When a man takes and melts down a gold statue which has become filthy with the filth of years of smoke and dirt and rust, he returns it to us all clean and shining. So, too, God takes this nature of ours when it is rusted with the rust of sin, when our faults have covered it with abundant soot, and when it has destroyed the beauty he put on it in the beginning, and he smelts it anew. He plunges it into the waters as into the smelting furnace and lets the grace of the Spirit fall on it instead of the flames. He then brings us forth from the furnace, renewed like newly-moulded vessels, to rival the rays of the sun with our brightness. He has broken the old man to pieces but has produced a new man who shines brighter than the old.6
So it is that if any man is in Christ he is a new creation.
6. Ibid., p. 139.
Theodore made a special effort to convey the thought that baptism looks forward to the resurrection of the body and the life of the age to come:
The power of holy baptism consists in this: it implants in you the hope of future benefits, enables you to participate in the things which we expect, and, by means of symbols and signs of the future good things, it informs you with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the firstfruits of whom you receive when you are baptized.7
He saw the baptistry as a womb preparing the candidates for sacramental birth, and he described the water as “the water of second birth,” the fluid surrounding the unborn child in the womb.
7. Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary of Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, ed. A. Mingana, pp. 53–54.
It is clear from the teaching of these three Fathers of the early Greek church that they took extremely seriously Jesus’ dictum that the new birth is by water and the Spirit. As God made water, so also is he able to use that water as the bath of spiritual regeneration. “Great is the baptism that lies before you: a ransom to captives; a remission of offences; a death to sin; a new birth of the soul; a garment of light; a holy indissoluble seal; a chariot to heaven; the delight of Paradise; a welcome into the kingdom; the gift of adoption.”8
8. Cyril of Jerusalem, Works, vol. 1, p. 82.
The Coptic Church of Egypt
Claiming an origin through the missionary labors of Mark, the Coptic church went into near isolation after the late fifth century. It has often suffered persecution, but it still exists today, preserving rites and ceremonies that have remained virtually unchanged for more than a millennium.9
9. Whitaker, ed., Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy, pp. 83–98.
The baptismal rite is similar to that of other Eastern churches in that it assumes that the candidates have been catechumens, exorcises the devil’s claim and influence upon them, and requires them to make a profession of the Christian faith. Three times oil is used in the service – the oil of exorcism (when the priest drives the devil away), the oil of thanksgiving (when the priest anoints the breast, arms, and hands with the “oil of gladness” and then later pours wine into the baptismal waters to sanctify them), and the oil of chrism (when the priest prays for the descent of the Spirit into the soul of the baptized).
After the candidates (or, in the case of infants, their sponsors) have professed the faith, the priest addresses the Lord Jesus Christ in prayer:
We pray and beseech you to search the chambers of their souls and enlighten the eyes of their understanding with the light of knowledge. All magic, all sorcery, all workings of Satan chase from them; all traces of idolatry and unbelief cast out of their heart. Prepare their souls for the reception of your Holy Spirit. And let them be worthy of the new birth of the laver, and of remission of sins. Prepar[e] them to be a temple of your Holy Spirit, according to the will of your good Father and the Holy Spirit.
As the candidates come out of the water of baptism and are anointed with the chrism, the priest prays to God to bestow the Holy Spirit upon them so that his presence may be “a living seal and confirmation” to them. Then after they have been clothed in a white “garment of eternal and immortal life,” signed with the cross, and breathed upon by the priest, he prays for them, thanking God for their new birth through baptism and their reception of the remission of their sins, and asking that he send down upon them “the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete,” and make them “partakers of life eternal and immortality.” Then, “being born again by water and Spirit, they may be able to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” After further ceremonies the baptized receive the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. They are now full members of the church, whether they be infants or adults.
Again, as with the Byzantine rite, there is the conviction that the Holy Spirit is specially present in, through, and with both the water and oil so that those who are washed in water and anointed with oil actually receive within their souls the Holy Spirit and the grace he brings.
The Latin West
In the Western, Latin-speaking part of the Roman Empire, baptism was normally administered at the feast of the resurrection and occasionally also at Pentecost (Whitsuntide). Candidates were prepared for their baptism by their period in the catechumenate and by suitable fasting in the week before the day of the baptism. At the service the bishop blessed the font by pouring into it a drop of consecrated oil. Then he prayed for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the water so that those immersed in it would be washed not only physically but also inwardly and spiritually:
Almighty God ... breathe kindly upon these waters mixed with the oil of sanctification, bless them with your power, and from your throne pour upon them the grace of holiness: that whoever shall go down into this tide upon which the most exalted Name of the Trinity is called may be loosed from mans ancient offense and pardoned by your everlasting blessing, that being cleansed from all their sins and strengthened with spiritual gifts they may be written in the pages of heaven.10
10. Ibid., p. 120. The prayer is from the Libeг ordinum of Spain.
Having prepared the water of regeneration, the bishop next had to prepare the candidates for new birth. He exorcised them of the devil and his influence, invited them to renounce Satan and all his ways, and asked them to confess their faith in the Triune God.
Baptism was by immersion and in the threefold name. Coming out of the water the baptized were covered with a white garment and anointed on the head with oil to signify their incorporation into the kingly and priestly body of Christ. Then a declaration was made by a presbyter:
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has regenerated you by water and the Holy Spirit, and who has given you remission of all your sins, himself anoints you with the chrism of salvation, in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life.
Next the bishop laid his hands upon the candidates’ heads and prayed:
Almighty God ... who have made your servants to be regenerated of water and the Holy Spirit ... pour upon them your Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, and give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and godliness, and fill them with the fear of the Lord in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.11
Then the bishop made the sign of the cross on the candidates’ foreheads with the oil of chrism. Their initiation into Christ and his church was now complete, except for their first holy communion (and in some cases the symbolic milk and honey).
11. Ibid., p. 178. The prayer is from the Gelasian Sacramentary.
For many who were baptized the experience was the center or the climax of a remarkable conversion from sinful living to loving service of God in Christ. Here is the testimony of Cyprian of Carthage, an important bishop and theologian in the Latin church of the third century:
I was myself so entangled and constrained by the very many errors of my former life that I could not believe it possible for me to escape from them, so much was I subservient to the faults which clung to me; and in despair of improvement I cherished these evils of mine as if they had been my dearest possessions. But when the stain of my earlier life had been washed away by the help of the water of birth, and light from above had poured down upon my heart, now cleansed and purified; when I had drunk the Spirit from heaven, and the second birth had restored me so as to make me a new man; then straightway in a marvelous manner doubts began to be resolved, closed doors to open, dark places to grow light; what before had seemed difficult was now easy, what I had thought impossible was now capable of accomplishment; so that I could now see that what had been born after the flesh and lived at the mercy of sin belonged to the earth, while that which the Holy Spirit was enlivening had begun to belong to God.12
In this piece of personal testimony, which comes from Ad Donatum, the spiritual certainty attained in baptism after a long search is given powerful expression.
12. I have used the translation given in Thomas Weinandy, ed., Receiving the Promise, pp. 94–95. There is a translation of all the epistles of Cyprian in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 5.
From the time of Cyprian, and especially after the reign of Constantine the Great, there was an increasing number of infants being baptized. So the custom arose in the Western church – but it was by no means universal at first – of delaying the last part of the rite of baptism. Thus what came to be called the rite of confirmation and in the medieval period was taken to be a separate sacrament began to evolve. And as it did, from the fifth century on there also began to develop a theology to justify and undergird it.
One explanation distinguished between the grace given at baptism (which is sufficient to ensure that an infant who dies goes to heaven) and the grace given at confirmation (which is sufficient to enable the growing child to fight on the Christian side in the battle of life):
Because those who are to live in this world all their days have to walk among invisible foes and perils, in baptism we are reborn to life, after baptism we are strengthened, and, if the benefits of regeneration suffice for those who immediately after birth pass from this life, nevertheless for those who are to live on in this world the graces of confirmation are necessary. Regeneration by itself saves those who are to be received into the peace of the age of bliss, whereas confirmation arms and equips those who are to be kept for the struggles and battles of this world.13
13. The writer was probably Bishop Faustus of Riez at the end of the fifth century. However, for a long time it was thought that the material came from Pope Melchiades of the fourth century. Thus it was given a greater prominence than its origins warranted. See further J. D. C. Fisher, Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West, pp. 125–26.
This general approach was developed by some of the great theologians of the medieval church. Alexander of Hales argued that “there is the fullness of sufficiency and the fullness of abundance: the first is given in baptism, the second in confirmation. Or there is the fullness in essence and fullness in strength.”14 Thomas Aquinas stated that “man receives spiritual life through baptism, which is spiritual regeneration; but in confirmation man receives a kind of perfect age of the spiritual life.”15
14. Cited by Fisher, Medieval West, p. 129, from Glossa in quattuor libros sententiarum.
15. Cited by Fisher, Medieval West, p. 129, from Summa theologiae, part 3, question 72, article 1.
The most influential theologian of Western Christianity was Augustine, who was bishop of the north African town of Hippo from 395 until his death in 430.16 At the center of all his concerns was the grace of God, whose original manifestation he saw in divine predestination, and whose greatest manifestation he found in the incarnation of the eternal Son, his sacrificial, atoning death, and his glorious resurrection and exaltation. This grace is brought by the Holy Spirit into the church of God, which is the body of Christ. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring the elect of God to the forgiveness of sins and internal regeneration via the dominical sacrament of baptism and then to lead them in the life of sanctification within the body of Christ until, having persevered to the end, they enter their inheritance in the kingdom of heaven. As much as Augustine emphasized sovereign grace, he also emphasized that this divine grace is operative only within the catholic church and her ministries and sacraments. Thus baptism is necessary for salvation, and regeneration occurs in connection with the baptism of both infants and adults.
16. The best study of Augustine’s life is Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo.
The association of baptism and regeneration is found throughout the writings of Augustine. For example, in a sermon he preached to catechumens who were waiting for their baptism on Easter morning he asked, “Would you know the Holy Spirit that he is God? Be baptized and you will be his temple.” And he proceeded to tell them that “for the sake of all sins was Baptism provided,” and thus “once for all we have washing in Baptism” since “God does not remit sins but to the baptized.”17 Further, in his “Enchiridion” Augustine explained that in baptism we die to sin and rise to new life. But what is the sin to which infants die? Here Augustine gave an answer which became a common doctrine in the West: infants are forgiven the sin of Adam, otherwise known as original sin. Adults at baptism are forgiven two forms of sin by “the grace of regeneration,” since “all their past sins are there and then pardoned, and the guilt which they contracted in their (physical) birth is removed in their new birth” (sections 43, 52, 119).18 However, since not everyone who is baptized is included in the divine decree of election unto salvation, the grace of regeneration is given only to the elect, whose identity is known only unto God (sections 98–104).
17. Augustine, “St. Augustine on the Creed: A Sermon to the Catechumens,” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 3, pp. 370–71.
18. Augustine, “Enchiridion,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 3, pp. 237–76.
Though Augustine insisted that the gift of the Holy Spirit with the forgiveness of sins actually occurs in connection with the act of baptism, he also was much aware of the prevenient grace of God operative in his chosen people before their baptism. This is clear in the Confessions, where Augustine reflects upon the way in which God brought him to new life in Christ.19 God has a way, and it is different in each particular case, of bringing his elect to conversion and regeneration. By his sovereign gracious power God turns his people toward him.
19. There are various translations of the Confessions, including one by E. M. Blaiklock.
Augustine insisted on this point often in his controversy with Pelagius and his supporters.20 Not only did they deny the doctrine of original sin (i.e., that all human beings were in Adam when he sinned and therefore are guilty of that sin), but they also denied predestination and reduced grace to the general help God offers to make it possible to do what he commands. They viewed the baptism of infants as the means whereby children enter the kingdom of heaven and are set apart for the service of the Lord Jesus; in their case no forgiveness of sin occurs. In the baptism of adults there is forgiveness of the sins for which they alone are personally responsible. In addition, the Pelagians understood regeneration to be nothing more than physical entry into the visible church and into discipleship of Jesus; there is no supernatural work upon the soul.
20. For this controversy see J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 4th ed., ch. 13.
Augustine insisted, to the contrary, that in baptism God bestows the gift of the indwelling Spirit and cancels the debt of sin – all sin. Augustine himself was what we would call “converted” before he came to baptism. However, as he makes clear in book 9 of his Confessions, he believed that it was in his baptism that he received assurance of forgiveness of all his past sins along with the gift of the indwelling Spirit. Further, he recognized the need of infants to be converted at a later age even if they have been baptized: “In baptized infants the sacrament of regeneration comes first; and if they hold fast to Christian piety, conversion in the heart will follow, following as the sacramental sign of it in the body. This all shows that the sacrament of baptism is one thing, the conversion of the heart is another; but the salvation of man is effected by these two.”21 And in another treatise he wrote, “We all know that if one baptized in infancy does not believe when he comes to years of discretion, and does not keep from himself lawless desires, then he will have no profit from the gift he received as a baby.”22 Thus Augustine held that there is no salvation without both baptism (regeneration) and conversion.
21. Augustine, “On Baptism, Against the Donatists,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 4, p. 462.
22. Augustine, “A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 5, p. 43.
The Council of Orange
The position taken by Augustine in the controversy with the Pelagians was not in its totality adopted by the Western church. However, Augustine’s doctrine of the grace of God in baptism, regeneration, and conversion was accepted and promulgated by the Council of Orange in 529. This doctrine was set forth in twenty-five canons.
The canons adopted by the Council of Orange insist that Adam’s sin affected the whole human race, bringing not only the death of every human being, but also the death of each soul (i.e., deprivation of spiritual communion with God and of ability to do his will). Only by the internal working of the Holy Spirit and his implanting and infusing grace within the soul can there be a genuine desire for salvation and holy baptism, a true and lively faith, and a ready will to do what the Lord requires of his people. In fact, as canon 13 asserts, “the freedom of the will that was destroyed in the first man can be restored only by the grace of baptism, for what is lost can be returned only by the one who was able to give it.” Thus salvation is from beginning to end the work of God: we are called to salvation by divine grace and installed in it by holy baptism.
The conclusion to the canons is especially noteworthy:
According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul. ... We also believe and confess to our benefit that in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism and after baptism be able by his help to do what is pleasing to him.23
What is interesting from our twentieth-century viewpoint is that, in the case of adults (of which these canons primarily speak), the grace of regeneration is unhesitatingly and without embarrassment tied to the sacrament of baptism. There is recognition that the Holy Spirit works in the soul before and after baptism, but it is in baptism that the high point (as it were) of his saving activity occurs.
23. I have used the translation in John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, rev. ed., pp. 37–45.
In the Middle Ages, including the century in which Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) wrote his great works of philosophy and theology, the activity of the God of all grace in the salvation of sinners was very carefully analyzed.24 The scholastic approach described the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in such categories as actual grace (illumination of the mind and strengthening of the will), efficacious grace (grace which achieves its divinely intended effect), gratuitous grace (a power given so that one may benefit others; e.g., the power given to a priest in ordination), habitual grace (a supernatural gift which works sanctification in the soul), justifying grace (the bringing of a sinner into a right relationship with God through Christ), “sanating” grace (a healing of the ravages of sin in the soul), sanctifying grace (grace infused into the soul to make it holy), and sufficient grace (an adequate amount of help for a particular task or act). Several of these categories could be and were used to explain the biblical idea of regeneration.
24. A helpful introduction to Thomas is F. C. Copleston, Aquinas.
Aquinas understood sacraments as symbolic actions given to the church by its head, Jesus Christ. Through them God communicated to his people all that they could possibly need to attain salvation in the world to come. The sacraments were instrumental causes of grace, for through them God acted directly. Baptism, confirmation, holy communion, penance, and extreme unction were the means by which a sinner entered the church, received salvation, and prepared to meet God. The other two sacraments, holy orders and matrimony, ensured that there would be both people to receive and priests to administer the other five sacraments.
With a rare exception here and there, baptisms in thirteenth-century Europe were of newborn infants. Our summation of the theology of Aquinas is offered against this background. Baptism is the first sacrament: it unites a person to Christ and his church. It is the divine instrument (an efficient cause whose action produces a real change) bringing (1) forgiveness, (2) regeneration, and (3) justification to the soul. Where the rite is correctly administered, the grace of the sacrament is effectually imparted to the recipient.25
25. For his teaching see Summa theologiae in the Blackfriars edition, vol. 30, 1a2ae. 106–14; and vol. 57, 3a. 66–72.
(1) Forgiveness is cancellation of the guilt of the sin of Adam. (2) Regeneration is the Holy Spirit’s imprinting on the human soul the image of God in Christ; through baptismal regeneration a supernatural character is stamped on infants, giving them the potentiality in later life to think, will, and feel in the pattern of Christ himself. In other words, there is the potentiality for true faith, hope, and love. Though the initial infusion of grace occurs without the cooperation of the recipient, the development of the potentiality of that grace requires definite cooperation on the part of the baptized individual. The initial character imprinted in baptism becomes Christian virtues only through the active commitment of the recipient. (3) Justification is the process of being made righteous so that at the final judgment God will be able to pronounce one righteous. It begins at baptism when grace is infused into the soul (regeneration) and the sinner is placed in the right with God through forgiveness. It proceeds through the cooperation of the human will with the divine will; and as the two cooperate, grace upon grace is freely given.
Against the background of Aristotelian metaphysics, Aquinas’s doctrine of baptismal regeneration, which is a sophisticated way of explaining the operation of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit, is perfectly intelligible. However, when popularized at the parish level, it seemed like magic – if the rite is done properly, the grace is given.
At the Council of Florence (1438–1445) a clear summary of the teaching of Aquinas concerning the seven sacraments was accepted and promulgated as the teaching of the Western church: “Through baptism we are spiritually reborn; through confirmation we grow in grace and are strengthened in faith. Having been regenerated and strengthened, we are sustained by the divine food of the Eucharist. But if we become sick in soul through sin, we are healed spiritually through penance, and healed spiritually as well as physically, in proportion as it benefits the soul, through extreme unction.” Further, the church is governed and grows spiritually through the sacrament of ordination, while it grows physically through the sacrament of marriage.26
26. In Leith, ed., Creeds, pp. 60–61.
This is the teaching against which the Reformers were to react in the sixteenth century. It is also the teaching that was to be reaffirmed by the Roman Catholic Church after the division of Western Christendom into Catholicism and Protestantism.
The Magdeburg Rite of 1497
It will be helpful to note the liturgy of a baptismal service used in Germany on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. We have chosen the Magdeburg rite of 1497, for this was the service that Luther was to reform and simplify between 1523 and 1526.27
27. J. D. C. Fisher, Christian Initiation: The Reformation Period, pp. 9–16.
With the male infants on the right and the females on the left at the front of the church, the priest breathed upon each one and called on the unclean spirit to depart. Making the sign of the cross on the forehead, the priest addressed each child concerning the Christian life and then prayed for “this your servant ... who, seeking the gift of your baptism, desires to obtain eternal grace by spiritual regeneration.” He asked that each one, “having obtained the eternal blessing of the heavenly washing, may receive the promised kingdom of your bounty.”
Then, after placing salt in the mouth of each child (an action recalling Matt. 5:13 and Col. 4:6), the priest again prayed for the “washing of new regeneration.” Offering further prayers, he made the sign of the cross on each child’s forehead and in the name of the Lord Jesus drove away all evil powers. Finally, the priest addressed Satan himself:
Be not deceived, Satan, punishment threatens you: torments await you. ... Come out and depart from this servant of God [here the name of the child was said] ... so that he may become his temple through the water of regeneration unto the remission of all his sins.
Following the renunciation of Satan and the recital of the creed, each infant was anointed on the breast with oil before baptism by immersion. As the godparents held the infant by the feet as he or she stood in the water, the priest declaimed:
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has regenerated you by water and the Holy Spirit, and who has given you the remission of all your sins [here the priest anointed the head of each infant with chrism], himself anoints you with the chrism of salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.
Uttering appropriate words, the priest then placed a clean white band over the forehead of each child and also gave each one a candle.
The rubrics for this service indicate that it could occur at any time of the year, that it was not followed by the Eucharist, and that at some later date the children would be confirmed by the bishop. There was no blessing of the font because that particular ceremony was specially performed twice a year – at Easter and Whitsuntide.
The Enchiridion of Cologne
For some additional information on what the medieval rite of baptism meant to traditional Catholics and, in particular, on what the devout and serious among them understood the work of the Spirit in baptism and confirmation to be, we turn to a document produced in Cologne in 1538 by the opponents of the reforming movement associated with the name of Martin Luther. The Enchiridion Christianae Institutionis, which was produced by John Gropper (1503–1559), shows how traditional Catholics viewed the grace of God operative in the two sacraments.28 In baptism there is the gift of the remission of all sin, original and actual, the making of a new creature in Christ Jesus, and the weakening of the old nature so that it cannot in the future cause any harm unless its “owner” actually assents to commit sin. Baptism brings innocence and the seed of new life; thus anyone who dies immediately afterwards has a title to heaven. However, those who continue to live in the world after being baptized find that they are involved in a struggle; they have crossed the Red Sea to enter the vast desert of this world, and before they come to the land of promise they have to contend with the world, the flesh, and the devil. They need, therefore, the help of the guarding and protecting Spirit.
28. Ibid., pp. 45–53, 187–93.
In baptism we are reborn as sons of God, and we receive the promise of the heavenly inheritance, but in order that we may keep it, the pupils need a tutor. Hence Christ did not think it sufficient that in baptism should be imparted to us the renewing Spirit without also there being conferred upon us through the sacrament of confirmation the protecting and defending Spirit, who, however, is not another Spirit, but is the same Spirit as was given in baptism, each according to the various bestowals of graces and spiritual gifts. For in that he is given in confirmation, he is the Comforter, who to the regenerate in Christ is guardian and consoler and tutor. Therefore the Holy Spirit who comes upon the waters of baptism in a saving descent in the font gives beauty to innocence. In confirmation he provides an increase to grace, because those who are to live to a full age in this world have to walk among invisible foes and perils, wherefore the Spirit has appeared in more than one form....
So in baptism we are regenerated to life; after baptism we are confirmed for battle. In baptism we are washed; after baptism we are strengthened. In baptism we are received as soldiers of Christ and signed. In confirmation we who are to be kept for the struggles and battles of this world are equipped with suitable weapons in order to fight.
Here we encounter belief that the Holy Spirit is given in baptism and again in confirmation. But his arrival on each occasion is for a different purpose – to renew and then to strengthen. We also meet in the Enchiridion of Cologne the important late medieval Catholic belief in the objectivity of the sacraments; that is, the view that they are God’s appointed means of conveying his grace and that they will always do so when rightly administered. This view, that the sacraments confer grace ex opere operato, Luther and the other Reformers rejected.
9 – The Reformation By Word, Spirit, and Water
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Latin church of the West, looking to the one vicar of Christ in Rome, was still undivided, even if it had its share of problems and tensions. Christendom was a unity because of its common loyalty to the pope. At the end of the same century, however, Christendom was divided; certain parts of the church in the West no longer looked to the vicar of Christ in Rome. A complex series of events which we call the Protestant Reformation had led to the formation of a number of national or territorial churches (in Scandinavia, Britain, Germany, and Switzerland).1 There were also small groups of people who wanted radical and far-reaching reformation; they are often referred to as the Radical Reformers, Anabaptists, sectarians, or separatists.2
1. There are many books on the Reformation of the sixteenth century. See, for example, Owen Chadwick, The Reformation, and Emile G. Leonard, A History of Protestantism.
2. See George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation.
The Protestant national churches claimed to have been reformed by principles which they found in the sacred Scriptures, the written Word of God, and interpreted in the light of the teaching and practice of the church of the early centuries (the patristic period). Adopting such an approach meant that the Protestant churches did not agree amongst themselves on all matters, especially on how much of the received tradition, liturgy, and practice to retain and how much to set aside. Thus while there is a great deal of common ground between Lutheran (Evangelical) and Calvinist (Reformed) teaching and practice, there are also differences. However, in comparison with the Radicals, what the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans (Church of England) taught and practiced was very conservative. This is especially so with regard to the baptism of infants and the view of the relation of regeneration to baptism.
In this chapter we shall examine the Protestant mind concerning baptism and regeneration by noting (1) the Protestant criticisms of the medieval rites of baptism and confirmation, (2) the liturgy of the new Protestant rites of baptism, (3) the teaching of the Protestant confessions of faith on baptism and regeneration, (4) the specific teaching of Luther and Calvin, and finally (5) the position of the Anabaptists. As we look at these areas, we must always bear in mind that the religious situation then was far different from what it is now both in America and in Europe. All the population was nominally Christian, and it was expected that every baby would be baptized as soon as possible after birth. Another difference is that there could be no reform in the church without the consent of the civil authorities. Further, any renewal of the church was not through evangelization but rather through persuading as many people as possible to take seriously the implications of their baptismal commitment to live as servants and soldiers of Christ. The great watchword of this approach to renewal was “faith” – accepting, laying hold of, and acting on the promises of God made in the sacred Scriptures. All the leading Reformers had a personal experience of discovering the power of this kind of faith – a faith which they saw as the gift of God and a corollary of the fact that in baptism they had already been made children of God the Father and disciples of Jesus the Lord. They had a vision of the whole church reformed and renewed by this faith, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God.
Protestant Criticism of the Medieval Rites
Martin Luther (1483–1546), the passionate German Reformer and exponent of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, published in 1523 a baptismal service in German (Taufbüchlein).3 It was a very conservative revision of the Magdeburg rite which was described in the last chapter (pp. 86–87 [i.e. near the end]). In the epilogue Luther allowed himself the privilege of making a few comments on the service. First, he expressed his hope that by hearing the service in German instead of Latin, the sponsors and bystanders would now understand what was happening and would be moved to faith and reverence. Second, he insisted that the least importance attaches to the external ceremonies. In particular he mentioned breathing under the eyes of the candidates, signing with the cross, placing salt in the mouth, putting spittle and clay on the ears and nose, anointing the breast and shoulders with oil, signing the forehead with chrism, vesting the candidates in the christening robe, and giving them a lighted candle. So as not to disturb people, however, he retained these externals in his service of 1523. Third, he insisted that the service should be conducted by sober and godly ministers and that the sponsors should be people of genuine faith.
3. Luther’s two baptismal services are printed in J. D. C. Fisher, Christian Initiation: The Reformation Period, pp. 6–16, 23–25, and in Luther’s Works, vol. 53, pp. 96–109.
In the epilogue to the order of baptism published in 1523 Luther also offered a definition of the “holy sacrament” of baptism: “God himself calls it a new birth, whereby we are freed from all the tyranny of the devil, delivered from sin, death and hell, and become children of life and heirs of all God’s good things and his own children and brothers of Christ.” Thus it is not surprising that in his radically revised baptismal liturgy of 1526, which has few ceremonies, Luther retains the clear teaching that baptism is the sacrament of regeneration. While the godparents hold the child in a standing position in the font after the baptism, the minister puts a robe on the child and says, “The almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has regenerated you by water and the Holy Spirit, and has forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with his grace to eternal life. Amen.”
We turn now to Martin Bucer (1491–1551), who after important reforming work in south Germany and Switzerland went to England at the invitation of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Here Bucer was asked to critique the new Protestant liturgy being developed for the Church of England. His evaluation of the English Prayer Book of 1549 is known as the Censura.4 Here we are interested only in his comments on the services of holy baptism and confirmation – liturgy which represented a conservative reform of the inherited medieval services. From these comments we can gather his attitude toward the traditional rite of baptism with its many ceremonies. He wanted to retain only a few of the latter, including the sign of the cross, and to hold to the principle that “the utmost simplicity and truth are appropriate in these mysteries.” Such things as blessing of the water, exorcism, exsufflation, chrism, and vesting the candidate in a white robe were no longer beneficial:
4. Part of the Censura is printed in Fisher, Reformation Period, pp. 96–105.
The old saints were ablaze with the utmost reverence for God and gratitude for his benefits: the people used to be present at baptism with great devotion: so for them these signs were able to promote reverence towards God and to arouse and sustain more devotion towards so great a mystery.
But for some time we have seen the effect produced by the Romish Antichrists and by the impiety innate in all men, by which they continually turn sacred ceremonies for the worship of God into various wicked shows, so that today those signs among the great majority of people serve more for the maintenance and increase of superstition and show than of piety and religion. Now the occasions for these abuses are to be cut out, not retained.
Bucer did not believe that an attempt to teach the symbolic meaning of the varied ceremonial elements would really help. The mystery of baptism is best kept in a simple and dignified rite so that it is truly the sacrament of regeneration. Like Luther he was quite clear that God gives and works regeneration in the sacrament of baptism. This new birth in a child will eventually be revealed in faith, good works, and a hearty confession of faith. Accordingly, Bucer did not want to see children confirmed by the bishop until they showed these signs of new life.
John Calvin (1509–1564), the French Reformer of Geneva and great biblical exegete, was much in sympathy with Luther and Bucer concerning their criticisms of the Latin rite and likewise felt the need to simplify the baptismal service in order the better to exhibit the nature of the sacrament as a symbol and seal of God’s grace through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Calvin also had some biting criticisms to offer concerning the medieval rite of confirmation. It detracted from the gospel sacrament of baptism and had become a deadly wile of Satan:
I hasten to declare that I am certainly not of the number of those who think that confirmation, as observed under the Roman papacy, is an idle ceremony, inasmuch as I regard it as one of the deadly wiles of Satan. Let us remember that this pretended sacrament is nowhere recommended in Scripture, either under this name or with this ritual, or this signification.5
He was not, however, against the reformed rites of confirmation which came to be written for the Church of England and the Lutheran churches, for they did not claim to be sacramental rites. Rather they were opportunities for a public confession of faith by those baptized in infancy as well as for a prayer, with the laying on of hands, that they might continue in the Christian life through the strength of the Holy Spirit.
5. John Calvin, Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote, p. 183; see also Fisher, Reformation Period, pp. 254–60.
What the Reformers were trying to do was to peel away from the received medieval rites all unnecessary ceremonies in order to make the encounter with the living Christ in the sacrament more direct and powerful.
The New Protestant Rites
Luther’s second baptismal liturgy, which as we have noted was much simpler than his first, came to be widely used in Germany. It began with a brief command to the unclean spirit to come out of the infant and the making of the sign of the cross on the forehead and breast. There followed a prayer of petition that God grant the gift of his eternal grace and spiritual regeneration. Then the minister offered a second prayer, often called the “flood prayer” because it recalled both the flood that destroyed the world in Noah’s day and the flood (of the Red Sea) that destroyed the Egyptians. In this prayer was the request:
We pray that through your infinite mercy you will graciously look upon this child and bless him with a right faith in the spirit, so that through this saving flood all that was born in him from Adam and all which he himself has added thereto may be drowned and submerged: and that he may be separated from the unfaithful, and preserved in the holy ark of Christendom dry and safe, and ever fervent in spirit and joyful in hope serve your name, so that he with all the faithful may be worthy to inherit your promise of eternal life, through Christ our Lord.6
6. Fisher, Reformation Period, p. 11. For references to the flood and the Red Sea in baptismal liturgy see Jean Daniélou, Bible et liturgie, pp. 104–44.
Next there is the exorcism, by the power of the name of the Triune God, of the unclean spirit. This is followed by a reading from Mark 10:13–16, which tells how Jesus received little children. Then come a recital of the Lord’s Prayer, a renunciation of the devil, and a confession of the faith by the godparents before the actual immersion in the threefold name. Finally, as the godparents hold the child up in the font, the minister puts a white robe on the child and says, “The almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has regenerated you by water and the Holy Spirit, and has forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with his grace to eternal life. Amen.”
Luther composed no order of confirmation in German (the Lutheran rites of confirmation do not derive from Luther but came later). His view was that children ought to be baptized in infancy, brought up in a Christian home, taught the faith, and admitted to holy communion as soon as they know the essentials of their faith and consciously adopt the life of virtue to which they have been committed by their baptism.
Like Luther, Calvin prepared a simplified service for the public baptism of children.7 This rite is introduced by a lengthy explanation of why baptism is needed and what by the grace of God it achieves. Calvin explains that since we are born with a corrupt nature, we need to be born again. God promises
to regenerate us by his Holy Spirit into a new life. ... This regeneration consists in two parts: namely, that we renounce ourselves not following our own reason, our pleasure and own will, but, subjugating and enslaving our desire and our heart to the wisdom and righteousness of God, we mortify all that is of us and of our flesh: and secondly that we follow the light of God to comply with and obey his good pleasure, as he shows it to us by his word, and leads us and directs us to it by his Spirit.
Regeneration has these two parts because in Christ we have both died to sin and been made to share in new life. We die to sin and are forgiven, and we rise to newness of life through the power of the Spirit.
7. Fisher, Reformation Period, pp. 112–17, has Calvin’s service in English.
But where does baptism come in? Calvin replies:
All these graces are conferred on us, when it pleases [God] to incorporate us in his church by baptism. ... He has appointed the sign of water, to signify to us that, as by this element the bodily defilements are cleansed, so he wishes to wash and purify our souls, so that no more may there appear any stain in them. Again, he there represents to us our renewal, which consists, as has already been said, in the mortification of our flesh and the spiritual life which it engenders and excites in us.
And how does the baptismal representation of regeneration apply to infants? Here Calvin appeals to his covenant theology: the children of Christian believers are heirs to the life which God has promised to his people. As boys in Israel were circumcised on the eighth day, so the infants, male and female, born into the new covenant are to be given the covenant sign, seal, and symbol of baptism in water. The prayer composed by Calvin to be offered shortly before the baptism of an infant reflects this covenant theology:
Lord God, Father eternal and almighty, since it has pleased you by your infinite mercy to promise us that you will be our God and the God of our children, we pray that it may please you to confirm this grace in this present infant, born of a father and mother whom you have called into your church, and, as he is offered and consecrated to you by us, that you would receive him into your holy protection, declaring yourself to be his God and Saviour, remitting to him the original sin of which the whole lineage of Adam is guilty, and then afterwards sanctifying him by your Spirit, so that when he comes to the age of understanding, he may know and adore you as his only God, glorifying you through his life, so as to obtain evermore from you remission of his sins. And so that he can obtain such graces, may it please you to incorporate him in the fellowship of our Lord Jesus to be a partaker of all his benefits, as one of the members of his body. Grant us, Father of mercy, that the baptism which we minister to him according to your ordinance may bring forth its fruit and virtue, such as has been declared to us by your gospel.
The people then say the Lord’s Prayer, the parents promise to bring the child up in the Christian faith, and the baptism takes place in the threefold name.
The Book of Common Prayer which appeared in 1552 was basically the work of Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury. It was a revision of the earlier book of 1549; the new forms owed something to the critique of Martin Bucer, to which reference has been made. The 1552 edition contains an order for public baptism administered by a priest and an order for confirmation administered by a bishop.8
8. Both the 1549 and 1552 books are printed in the Everyman edition.
The baptismal rite was to take place within either the morning or evening service on a Sunday. It began with a short explanatory introduction stating the need of everyone to be born of water and of the Spirit, and continued with a prayer by the priest asking that “these infants ... may receive remission of sins by spiritual regeneration” at their baptism. Following the reading of Mark 10:13–16 and an explanation of its relation to infant baptism, the priest asked the heavenly Father “to give the Holy Spirit to these infants that they may be born again, and be made heirs of everlasting salvation.” After the parents and godparents had renounced the devil and his ways and confessed the true faith, the priest again prayed, asking that the children to be baptized would truly die to sin and live unto righteousness, receive the fullness of heavenly grace, and so ever remain in the number of God’s faithful and elect children.
Baptism by immersion and signing of the forehead with the cross then followed, the priest observing that since “these children be regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s congregation,” the witnesses ought to give thanks and pray for them “that they may lead the rest of their life according to this beginning.” After the Lord’s Prayer, the priest thanked God for having been pleased “to regenerate this infant with your Holy Spirit, to receive him for your own child by adoption, and to incorporate him into your holy congregation.” Thanksgiving led to petition that the children might truly live in the strength and light of their baptism.
The children who had been baptized were to be confirmed by the bishop as soon as they were able to recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. This rite was seen as affording an opportunity both for the children to commit themselves personally to the promises which had already been made for them by their godparents, and for the bishop to lay hands upon them and pray that the Holy Spirit might strengthen them for service of the Lord in the world. The Church of England made no claim that confirmation was a sacrament; although it may traditionally have been called a sacrament, it was not considered an independent sacrament but the completion of infant baptism.
What is impressive in the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican services of baptism is that the Reformers have not removed the concept that baptism and regeneration are closely related. Their own study of the New Testament led them to believe that the two, by the command and grace of Christ, are intimately related, and so they would not prize them apart. This is not to say, however, that they understood the intimate relation in the same way as did Thomas Aquinas or later Roman Catholic theologians, whose views we shall examine in the following chapter.
The Teaching of the Protestant Confessions of Faith
Our study of what the Protestant confessions have to say on the subject of baptism and regeneration begins with the Augsburg Confession of 1530, written by Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) and approved by Luther.9 Article 2, “Original Sin,” reveals how indebted the Protestants were to the theology of Augustine of Hippo:
9. Theodore G. Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, includes translations of both the German and Latin editions of the Augsburg Confession since the two are not strictly identical.
It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclination from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit. Rejected in this connection are the Pelagians and others who deny that original sin is sin, for they hold that natural man is made righteous by his own powers, thus disparaging the sufferings and merit of Christ.
Here we find the concept of an intimate relation between baptism and one of the effects of regeneration – cancellation of the guilt of original sin. Article 9, “Baptism,” declares:
It is taught among us that Baptism is necessary and that grace is offered through it. Children, too, should be baptized, for in Baptism they are committed to God and become acceptable to him. On this account the Anabaptists who teach that infant Baptism is not right are rejected.
This translation is from the German text; the Latin text of the confession is more explicit in regard to the effects of baptism on children: “Our churches condemn the Anabaptists who reject the Baptism of children and declare that children are saved without Baptism.” The Protestant leaders in Germany insisted that every infant be presented for baptism, for the Word of God declares that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:15).
Article 13, “The Use of the Sacraments,” states:
It is taught among us that the sacraments were instituted not only to be signs by which people might be identified outwardly as Christians, but that they are signs and testimonies of God’s will towards us for the purpose of awakening and strengthening our faith. For this reason they require faith, and they are rightly used when they are received in faith and for the purpose of strengthening faith.
In the Latin text there is an addition which reads, “Our churches therefore condemn those who teach that the sacraments justify by the outward act [ex opere operato], and who do not teach that faith which believes that sins are forgiven is required in the use of the sacraments.” (We shall note on p. 102 [i.e. several paragraphs below] Luther’s explanation of how it is that infants can actually exercise faith when they are baptized.)
In the Consensus Tigurinus (the Zurich Agreement) written by John Calvin to unite French- and German-speaking Swiss Protestants on the doctrine of the sacraments, there is clear teaching on the relation of baptism and regeneration.10 This document, which was published in 1551, is brief, having only twenty-six articles. In article 3 we are told that adoption as God’s children
takes place when we, ingrafted through faith into the body of Christ, and this by the power of the Spirit, are first justified by the gratuitous imputation of righteousness, and then regenerated into a new life, that, new-created in the image of the heavenly Father, we may put off the old man.
Here “regeneration” seems to be used of the process that later divines called sanctification – the re-creation of a person through putting off the old life and putting on the new. Calvin in fact used “regeneration” both of the Spirit’s total work in re-creating the image of God within us (as here) and of his initial entry into the soul.
10. The Latin text of the Consensus Tigurinus is found in Collectio Confessionum in Ecclesiis Reformatis Publicatarum, ed. H. A. Niemeyer, pp. 191–217. There is a translation in the appendix of A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology.
The sacraments fit into the Spirit’s work of regeneration (understood as sanctification) for they are the means by which “God attests, presents anew, and seals to us his grace” (article 7). The grace received in the sacraments is from God alone, working in and by the Spirit. “In using the instrumentality of the sacraments, God thereby neither infuses into them his own power, nor abates in the least the efficiency of his Spirit; but in accordance with the capacity of our ignorance [ruditas] he uses them as instruments in such a way that the whole efficiency [facultas agendi] remains solely with himself.” This statement effectively denies the Roman Catholic doctrine of ex opere operato.
Though grace is offered to all in the sacraments, it is only elect believers who receive it. In article 20 we learn that this grace may not be received immediately:
The benefit which we derive from the sacraments should by no means be restricted to the time in which they are administered to us; just as if the visible sign, when brought forward into view, did at the same moment with itself bring God’s grace. For those who are baptized in early infancy, God regenerates in boyhood, in budding youth and sometimes even in old age. So the benefit of baptism lies open to the whole course of life; for the promise which it contains is perpetually valid.
Here “regeneration” appears to point to the beginning of “the process of mortifying sin and living unto God in Christ.”
The Scots Confession of 1560 owes much to the teaching of Calvin and presents a vibrant summation of the Reformed faith.11 After stating its doctrine of God the Creator, who made humankind in his own image, it explains original sin (article 3):
By this transgression [of Adam], generally known as original sin, the image of God was utterly defaced in man, and he and his children became by nature hostile to God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin. And thus everlasting death has had, and shall have, dominion over all who have not been, are not, or shall not be reborn from above. This rebirth is wrought by the power of the Holy Spirit creating in the hearts of God’s chosen ones an assured faith in the promise of God revealed to us in his word; by this faith we grasp Christ Jesus with the graces and blessings promised in him.
11. The Scots Confession is printed in Arthur C. Cochrane, ed., Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, pp. 159–62.
In article 12 it is again confessed that the Holy Spirit quickens that which is dead, removes the darkness from our minds, and makes our stubborn hearts obedient to God’s will. In short, the Holy Spirit regenerates and sanctifies the elect.
In article 21 the view that sacraments are merely “naked and bare signs” is condemned. “We assuredly believe that by Baptism we are engrafted into Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his righteousness, by which our sins are covered and remitted.” And this is as true of the children of believers as it is of adult believers who are being baptized.
In the Scots Confession, then, rebirth is connected with both the cancellation of original sin and spiritual union with Jesus Christ through justifying faith and a life of holiness. The sacrament of baptism is the sign, seal, and symbol that these promises of the gospel have begun to take effect in the heart.
We turn next to the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 and particularly to questions 69 through 74, which concern baptism.12
12. In Cochrane, ed., Reformed Confessions, pp. 305–31.
Q. 69. How does holy Baptism remind and assure you that the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross avails for you?
A. In this way: Christ has instituted this external washing with water and by it has promised that I am as certainly washed with his blood and Spirit from the uncleanness of my soul and from all my sins, as I am washed externally with water which is used to remove the dirt from my body.
Q. 70. What does it mean to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?
A. It means to have the forgiveness of sins from God, through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood which he shed for us in his sacrifice on the cross, and also to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified as members of Christ, so that we may more and more die unto sin and live in a consecrated and blameless way.
In the answer to question 71, Mark 16:16 (“He who believes and is baptized shall be saved”) and Titus 3:5 (“the washing of regeneration and renewal”) are cited as evidence that we are as certainly washed with the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit as with water in the sacrament of baptism. The answer to question 72 insists that the washing with water does not wash away sins.
Q. 73. Then why does the Holy Spirit call Baptism the water of rebirth and the washing away of sins?
A. God does not speak in this way except for a strong reason. Not only does he teach us by Baptism that just as the dirt of the body is taken away by water, so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Christ; but more important still, by the divine pledge and sign he wishes to assure us that we are just as truly washed from our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water.
Question 74 concerns the right of infants within the covenant to receive holy baptism.
According to the Heidelberg Catechism, then, baptism is to be seen as the divine pledge and sign of (1) the washing away of sin (forgiveness, remission) because of the saving death of Jesus, and (2) new. life (renewal, rebirth) because of the presence of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.
Finally, we turn to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1563).13 Regeneration is first mentioned in article 9, which deals with original sin. It is claimed that the infection and corruption of human nature remain even in the regenerate and will do so as long as they have mortal bodies. This is in agreement with Luther and Calvin, who both held that, while the guilt of original sin is forgiven, the actual corruption of human nature is not removed; rather, in regeneration a new nature is created.
13. The Articles are printed in most copies of the Book of Common Prayer (1662); see also John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, pp. 266–81.
Article 27 speaks of baptism and regeneration:
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sins, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Spirit, are visibly signed and sealed; faith is confirmed, and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.
The Baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.
Here a qualification is placed on the relation of baptism and regeneration. Baptism has to be rightly received in order for the sacrament to be effectual.
The Teaching of Luther and Calvin
As we return to Luther’s teaching, we must remind ourselves once more that he lived in an age when virtually everyone had been baptized as an infant. Luther carefully examined the practice of infant baptism and, despite the vigorous criticisms of the Anabaptists, affirmed that it is scriptural. Further, he wrote a baptismal liturgy which clearly teaches that in normal circumstances regeneration occurs at the time of baptism.
Now Luther is famous for his eloquent and powerful exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith alone; that is, the teaching that we are justified not by works but solely by a faith that arises in us through the power of the gospel. Since our primary concern is inward regeneration, we must ask, What is the relation of justification and regeneration in Luther’s teaching? And when this is answered, we must also ask, What is the relation between the regeneration of infants in baptism and justification by faith alone?14
14. I have relied to a great extent upon Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, especially pp. 234–42 and 353–74.
For Luther, justifying faith and being born from above are inseparable, for where there is justifying faith, there are also the beginnings of a new creation in the heart. On account of Christ a believing sinner is forgiven, accepted, and declared to be righteous by the Father; at the same time the Holy Spirit enters the soul to bring Christ and to create new life. Thus Christ, whom faith brings into the heart, is not only our righteousness in heaven – an “alien righteousness” – acceptable to the Father, he is also, and at the same time, an effective living power within our hearts, drawing us into communion with and love of God. The very faith that looks only and solely to Christ and his righteousness, which is outside ourselves, becomes also the presence and the power of Christ within us. In Luther’s thinking, justification consists of both the declaration of acceptance in heaven and the inner transformation leading to new obedience. Righteousness is therefore first imputed and then imparted; the two belong together for they come from one and the same Christ, who is present in heaven by virtue of his deity and present in our hearts by virtue of the faith we exercise through the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness and regeneration are inseparable within the one reality of justification.
The fact that Christ is in us and we are regenerate and a part of God’s new creation does not mean that we are free from our fallen human nature. Our flesh remains with us until our physical death. Justification by faith means that the Christian is simultaneously just and sinful (simul iustus et peccator). Believers are totally righteous through faith, yet in themselves they always remain sinners. With reference to Christ they are righteous; in terms of their fallen nature they are sinful. This means that there is a constant struggle as faith draws Christ into the heart to wage war against the old nature (graphically described, Luther believed, in Rom. 7). The new nature is to grow but the old nature disappears only at death. In this sense, justification is not finished in this life, for though the external aspect (Christ for us) remains constant, the internal aspect (Christ in us) is ever in the process of becoming what God wills it to be.
We turn now to the subject of baptism. Luther held that to be baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity is to be baptized by God himself, even though human hands are used. In connection with baptism God promises salvation (Mark 16:16) and regeneration (Titus 3:5). Thus God’s baptism does not give merely this or that particular grace, but rather it gives the whole Christ and the entire Holy Spirit with all his gifts. The Spirit, who is the Spirit of Christ, truly enters the soul at baptism.
But what of infant baptism and the doctrine that justification (and hence regeneration) is by faith alone? Can an infant exercise faith? Luther held that through the intercession of the church, the godparents, and parents the infant receives the gift of faith. This seemed a peculiar claim to many of his contemporaries, but Luther firmly held to it. In his mature thinking on the issue, he suggested that the following statement be made as the infant is presented: “We bring this child to be baptized because we think and hope that it will believe, and we pray God will give it faith; we do not baptize it because of this, however, but only because God has commanded it.”
It is the duty of everyone who has been baptized, Luther insisted, daily to die to sin and rise to new life. This was his way of dealing with a society in which almost everyone had been baptized: he did not call upon people to be baptized, but to repeat their baptism each day, as it were, by committing themselves to the overthrow of sin in their lives and to purity and holiness. Luther’s use of the image of dying and rising differs from Paul’s in Romans 6:1–14 and Colossians 2:12–13. For the apostle the image describes what has already taken place in Christ, while, for the German Reformer, it describes the daily duty and experience of Christians who take their baptism seriously as God’s gift and claim upon them. Luther understood regeneration to take place at baptism even though, if the recipient is an infant, the effects and fruit are not immediately visible. Thus he happily baptized infants and insisted that baptism is necessary for salvation. All this is well summarized in his Small Catechism (1529), where he describes the gifts and benefits that baptism bestows: “It effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe, as the Word and the promise of God declare.”
Though Luther continued to use expressions that could suggest an ex opere operato efficacy (as in the baptismal service), he did break decisively with the medieval doctrine that the sacrament when rightly administered has a necessary effect. First of all, he insisted that the work of God in the sacrament is a work of faith and promise, not of sight. The work of the Spirit and its effect are invisible. Second, he claimed that faith is indispensable to the sacrament. Faith in Christ is a prerequisite to effectual baptism. It is also its fulfillment, the response of the soul showing that the sacrament is having its intended effect. Therefore, regeneration and forgiveness are not part of a mechanical or magical process, but occur within a personal relationship with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. Finally, for Luther the power of baptism is not in the element of water, but in the gracious promise of God’s gospel. It is the word of promise which gives to the sign its power and validity.
Thus, while Luther seemed to retain much that belonged to the medieval past, he also gave a dynamic new meaning to the theology of baptism and regeneration. It is to Luther’s credit that he restored regeneration to its rightful place of being regarded as the chief grace of baptism. This is not to say that he did not insist that baptism is a sign of forgiveness of sin; rather, it is to say that he taught that God’s chief work within his elect is regeneration, re-creating them in his own image by the Holy Spirit through the indwelling of Christ by faith. Late medieval theology had obscured this point by insisting that baptism is primarily the remission of sin and purification of the soul.
Like Luther, Calvin thought of regeneration not only as the result of the saving and redeeming work of Christ for us and in us, but also in the context of original sin and the fall.15 He was quite clear that a sinner needs a new nature in order to recover the image of God lost in the fall. There must be a work of divine grace within the soul so that we can return to be that which God intends us to be. Regeneration is an instant act of God placing his Spirit within the heart and thereby creating a new nature and reestablishing his own image in the human soul. Regeneration may also be viewed as a process whereby sin is mortified and new life permeates the whole of the heart, will, mind, personality, and character. The initial act of the entry of the Spirit into the heart cannot be separated from the continuing work of the Spirit in the soul (which leads to mortification and vivification). Calvin used the word repentance to refer to putting to death the sinful nature and living according to the new nature. Thus repentance is the result of initial justification and the outward accompaniment of the inner formation of the image of God in the soul, heart, mind, and will.
15. The following exposition is based chiefly upon the Institutes of the Christian Religion, especially 1.15.4; 2.2.7–11, 19–21; 2.3.6–7; and book 3. See further François Wendel, Calvin, pp. 234–55.
Before regeneration takes place in the adult, there will have been a period of preparation in which the Holy Spirit has caused a sense of conviction of and sorrow for sin and the desire for a right relationship with God. As a result of this secret work of the Spirit, a person receives the gift of saving faith and trusts God concerning Christ and salvation. In being united to Christ by faith through the Holy Spirit, the individual is both justified (forgiven and placed in a right relationship with God) and regenerated (given the indwelling Spirit and made a new creation in the image of God after the likeness of Christ).
Like Luther, Calvin had to make sense of the seeming paradox between infant baptism and his claim that this sacrament is a symbol and sign of internal regeneration. He did not claim that infants are given faith, but rather put all his emphasis upon the promise of God concerning the place of children within the covenant (Acts 2:39) and upon the grace of God (salvation, regeneration) given and connected with baptism. Calvin held that God gives to the elect infant his indwelling Spirit, and through his presence, as the child is brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, there will in later years be the signs and fruit of new life. One person may reveal that new life gradually, while another may have a crisis experience; but as long as the child baptized is included in the divine decree of election, the life of repentance, mortification, and vivification will begin sooner or later.
Calvin did not claim that baptism is absolutely essential to salvation. He held, for instance, that a child dying in infancy before a public baptism can take place will go to be with the Lord in heaven. And because he was addressing a public who had for the most part been baptized, Calvin emphasized not that they had to be baptized, but that they were to live lives of repentance, turning away from sin and turning towards Christ and holiness. He used the word conversion to describe the turning of the human will by God from selfishness and self-justification towards doing the will of the Lord daily and joyfully.16
16. Institutes 2.3.6–7; 3.3.5, 15.
In contrast to medieval theologians, Calvin preferred to speak of the benefits rather than the effects of baptism. Further, he emphasized that baptism is a means of grace, not a gift or work of grace; and because it is a means, it is subordinate to the One who makes use of it to bestow grace. Thus the great need is to concentrate not upon the instrument, which is baptism, but upon the true source of forgiveness and new life – the death and resurrection of Jesus together with the work of the Holy Spirit as Paraclete. That baptism is not an empty sign is precisely because to the elect it is the seal of the promises of God and the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier.
Perhaps the true root of the differences between Calvin and the medieval schoolmen is their contrasting conceptions of grace. To the latter, grace is a supernatural spiritual substance and energy, while for Calvin it is spiritual union with the living Christ and the fruit of that union.
For Calvin, baptismal grace was not a spiritual medicine, but the divine favour and promise as we have it in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The office of the sacrament was the same as that of the word: to declare Jesus Christ. In the one no less than the other, Jesus Christ was offered indiscriminately to all. The unbelieving certainly received the sign, and various external benefits. But they missed the true grace of baptism, and the sign itself testified to their unbelief. With the believing the case was different. As they received the sign they perceived Christ himself and therefore they enjoyed the grace. In the normal course, it was the specific function of the sacrament to confirm the faith in Christ already evoked by the word, but in the case of infants baptism could be a powerful adjunct to the word even in the evocation of the faith by which its benefits were subsequently received and enjoyed.17
So Calvin was able to hold a definite doctrine of sacramental efficacy without slipping into a static conception of an automatic efficacy with a practical denial of the sovereignty of God the Holy Spirit in his work of grace.
17. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Baptism and the Anglican Reformers, p. 189.
It is important to bear in mind that the sixteenth-century Reformers were not engaged in evangelism to win converts, but in a quest to renew the church by the gospel and the Word of God. They treated the people in much the same way as the prophets of Israel had treated the covenant people of their day. They called upon the people to live in the light of the grace of God promised, offered, and given to them within the covenant. Thus conversion was not to Christianity as such, but to that to which they were already committed by reason of their baptism.
The Position of the Anabaptists
It is well known that the Anabaptists rejected infant baptism and thus those who had been baptized as infants were all rebaptized as believers; hence their name (the prefix ana means “again”). To illustrate their doctrine of regeneration (which admits of variety) we shall notice the teaching of Obbe Philips, an Anabaptist minister who rejected the revolutionary approach of the Münster episode of 1534–1535. Then we shall look at the Mennonite Confession of 1591.
In his Confession (1560) Obbe Philips looks back to the years 1533 to 1536.18 In a section on “Spiritual Rebirth,” he explains what Jesus meant when he told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3):
This rebirth does not take place outwardly, but in the understanding, mind, and heart of man. It is in the understanding and the mind that man learns to know the eternal love and gracious God in Christ Jesus who is the eternal image of the Father (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15) and the brightness of the divine being (Heb. 1:3). It is thus in the heart that man loves this same almighty and living God, fears, honors, and believes in him, trusts in his promise, which cannot take place without the power of the Holy Spirit, who must inflame the heart with divine power which must also give faith, fear with love, hope, and all good virtues of God.
Philips explained regeneration in terms of a re-creation of the image of God in the human soul. Baptism was for “the penitent, believing, reborn children of God.” In being baptized they were called by God to live in ways worthy of their new status as the reborn children of God.
18. See George Huntston Williams, ed., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, pp. 233–37; Dietrich Philip, “Of Regeneration and the New Creature,” in his Enchiridion, trans. A. B. Kolb, pp. 293–321.
In the Mennonite Confession (“A Brief Confession of the Principal Articles of the Christian Faith”), prepared by John de Rys and Lubbert Gerrits in the Dutch language, there is clear teaching on both regeneration and baptism: 19
19. This Mennonite Confession is printed in full in William Joseph McGlothlin, ed., Baptist Confessions of Faith, pp. 24–48.
22. Regeneration is a certain divine quality in the mind of a man truly come to himself, an erection of the image of God in man (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:9–10), a renovation of the mind or soul (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23), a true illumination of the mind with the knowledge of the truth (John 8:32), bringing with it a change of will and of carnal desires and lusts, a sincere mortification of internal wickedness (Eph. 4:22–24; Col. 3:9–10) and of the old man delighting himself in lust, wickedness and sin. It is, moreover, a vivification which manifests itself in an honest life according to God, in true goodness, justice and holiness. It is a removal of the stony heart (Ezek. 36:26), full of vanity, stolidity (Eph. 4:17–18), blindness, ignorance, sin and perverse pleasures, and, on the contrary, is the gracious gift of the promised heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26), replete with the law of God (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10), light, sight, wisdom, understanding, virtue and holy desires. This regeneration has its rise from God (John 8:47; 1 John 4:1–2, 6–7) through Christ (1 Peter 1:3, 23; James 1:18). The medium or instrument through which it is generated in us is the Holy Spirit (John 3:5–6) with all his fiery virtues, apart from any co-operation of any creature. Here concerning the regenerate we affirm that they are born not out of anything whatsoever which the creature does, but from God (John 1:13; 1 John 3:9); and by it we become children of God (John 1:12), divine, heavenly and spiritually minded, just and holy. We believe and teach that this regeneration is necessary to salvation according to the words of Christ: “Verily, verily, I say to you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”; and “Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5)...
32. The whole action of external, visible baptism places before our eyes, testifies and signifies that Jesus Christ baptizes internally (Matt. 3:11; John 1:33), in a laver of regeneration (Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5) and renewing of the Holy Spirit, the penitent and believing man: washing away, through the virtue and merits of his poured-out blood, all the spots and sins of the soul (1 John 1:7), and through the virtue and operation of the Holy Spirit, which is a true, heavenly (Isa. 44:3; Ezek. 36:27; Joel 2:28; John 7:38–39), spiritual and living water, [washing away] the internal wickedness of the soul (1 Cor. 6:11; Titus 3:5–7), and render[ing] it heavenly (Phil. 3:20), spiritual (Rom. 8:9) and living (Eph. 2:4–5) in true righteousness and goodness. Moreover, baptism directs us to Christ and his holy office by which in glory he performs that which he places before our eyes, and testifies concerning its consummation in the hearts of believers and admonishes us that we should not cleave to external things, but by holy prayers ascend into heaven and ask from Christ the good indicated through it [baptism]: a good which the Lord Jesus graciously concedes and increases in the hearts of those who by true faith become partakers of the sacraments.
Here certainly is a high doctrine of regeneration and baptism!
Next Section Toon Home