The doctrine of the new birth is an indispensable stone in the foundational structure of biblical salvation. Though it remains popular for many people to claim to be “born again,” the doctrine itself remains largely neglected—even in evangelical churches, preaching, and counseling. This is largely due to the reduction of conversion (a word rarely used anymore) to a mere “decision for Christ,” apart from firm conviction concerning the corruption of the heart and the deadness of the unsaved soul. What is so desperately needed in our churches today is a return to the understanding of salvation as a miracle of the Holy Spirit whereby He breathes new life into dead sinners.
In order for conversion to take place, the sinner must be quickened to spiritual life by regeneration. Regeneration is the supernatural imparting of spiritual life to the sinner’s heart by the Holy Spirit alone, resulting in a spiritually dead person being brought to life in Christ (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 3:10–18; 5:6; Col. 2:13). Though this operation takes place in an instant, regeneration results from the effectual call of God in what theologians refer to as the ordo salutis, the order of salvation. Before a spiritual corpse can be active in conversion by repenting and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, the heart must first be made alive by the Spirit’s call through the hearing of the gospel—the instrumental cause of faith: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Peter wrote of this, “for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). In the same way, Jesus told Nicodemus, “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7–8). Man’s spiritual unresponsiveness requires regeneration, and the dramatic result of this work of the Spirit is the turning of an enemy of God into a disciple of Christ: “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Col. 1:21–22).
Nothing will bring spiritual sanity back to our churches like a return to the preaching of salvation as the new birth. “You must be born again,” biblically defined, must again be our message. “Come to Jesus and live” must again be our plea. Salvation passages must be preached in their entirety; the bad news of man’s unsaved condition must be preached before there will be an appreciation for the good news of Jesus Christ. Sadly, this is not the general pattern in many churches today.
Texts like Ephesians 2:1-3, which reminds us that we were spiritual corpses before being found by Christ, are neglected in favor of Ephesians 2:8-9, which rightly glories in God’s saving grace. But when Ephesians 2:8-9 is preached without the backdrop of verses 1-7 the glory of God’s mercy toward us as sinners is diminished. And, when Ephesians 2:8-9 is preached as if Ephesians 2:10 does not exist, an understanding of grace is propagated that fails to include conviction of its transforming power to change our lives from the inside out.
O, let us return to the ancient paths. Let us return to the biblical teaching of the new birth and to deep conviction as to its importance to a proper understanding of both salvation and sanctification. Without it, not one of us will see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).
(Based on Chapter 3, “The Conversion of Depraved Sinners” in Counsel One Another: A Theology of Personal Discipleship)