Category Archives: Bible Study

Regeneration and the Necessity of Faith and Repentance

In the last post, we looked at several New Covenant promises as detailed in 2 Old Testament passages, Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31.  Summarizing some key aspects of the New Covenant promises we focused on the gift of a new heart, i.e. regeneration, and the gift of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.  Additionally, we observed that Ezekiel 36 was the likely background for Jesus’ statement to Nicodemas in John 3 that “you must be born again to see the kingdom of God.”  The conclusion was that regeneration is necessary to entering heaven.  Now with that in mind, we turn in this post to the necessary evidences of regeneration: faith and repentance.

In the Gospel of Mark, we find a fascinating account of Jesus unlike the other Gospels.  Much like the headlines of a newspaper, Mark is concerned with focusing on the details of our Lord’s ministry and rapidly advances his narrative with the phrase “immediately” (used at least 9 times in Chapter 1).  Whereas Matthew and Luke provide the genealogy of Christ along with details of His birth and childhood, Mark’s approach is to commence with the 3 year earthly ministry of Christ.  For this reason, we read Jesus inaugurating His ministry with the words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15 So much could be said about this, but we’ll look briefly at the first two phrases before resting on the imperative statement of Jesus to “repent and believe in the gospel.”

“The time is fulfilled” – It’s not a mere coincidence that Jesus’ ministry begins just as John the Baptist’s is ending.  In fact, we learn that John the Baptist has just been imprisoned in the verse prior to this one.  John is the last of the Old Testament prophets.  He’s the one whom the prophets of old have foretold, “one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord.” (Mark 1:3 quoting Isaiah 40:3) In the sense of fulfilled here, all that the Old Testament, both the Law and the Prophets, has foretold reaches its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ.  Similarly, the time that God had planned to bring forth His son has come as well.  (See Galatians 4:4).  The time of waiting is over, the King has arrived.

“The kingdom of God is at hand” – Up to this point, John has functioned much like a herald for a king, “Hear ye, Hear ye, now comes the King!”  In Medieval times, a herald was one who preceded the king’s entrance to make the announcement of his arrival.  A working definition is “an official formerly charged with making royal proclamations and bearing messages of state between sovereigns.”  This is precisely the way in which John the Baptist performs his ministry, especially as seen in Mark 1:2, 3, 7.  Now that King Jesus is on the scene, He can officially state that the kingdom of God is at hand, or perhaps more literally in your midst.  Jesus’ use of kingdom of God here is significant in that it provides continuity with the Old Testament idea of kingdom.  William Lane points out that kingdom, “links his [Jesus’] proclamation to the self-revelation of God in the OT and stresses the continuity between the new and older revelation.”   It’s likely that Daniel 2:44 can be seen in the background here with the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom, “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever”

“Repent and believe in the Gospel” – We usually hear that the Gospel is “Jesus died on the cross for our sins” but here we see Jesus command belief in the gospel at least 3 years prior to His death, burial, and resurrection.  Is He demanding a future looking faith?  Is He calling people to believe that He will die on the cross?  Or is He properly defining the term Gospel for us?  It would seem to be more of the latter.  The Gospel here is an announcement, that the “good news” has arrived.  This gospel, or good news, is none other than Christ Himself.  Jesus is commanding repentance and belief in Him.  Repentance is more than simply turning from sin.  There must be a hatred of it, a rejection of past ways.  But repentance must be connected with faith, for to turn from sin without setting one’s gaze on Christ is pointless.  Repentance and faith can only be commanded in conjunction with the Gospel.  The Gospel must be announced, it must be preached (Romans 10:14).  Jesus is commanding repentance and belief in His Gospel, i.e. the very person that He is as the Son of God.

Some have tried to separate the necessity of faith from repentance resulting in easy believism.  Others have so over emphasized repentance that it would appear faith takes a backseat.  On some level, a logical order might seem to apply to these demands, i.e. faith first and then repentance.  But no such distinction is necessary because they are two sides of the same coin and to separate one from the other violates both.  Instead, a far more sane approach to understanding how repentance and faith are ordered is to view it as believing repentance and repentant faith.  Spurgeon comments:

“The repentance which is here commanded is the result of faith; it is born at the same time with faith—they are twins, and to say which is the elder-born passes my knowledge. It is a great mystery; faith is before repentance in some of its acts, and repentance before faith in another view of it; the fact being that they come into the soul together.”

As we’ve seen, a new heart is necessary, but so is repentance and faith in the gospel.  It follows then that the new heart given by God is the soil, the Gospel is the seed, and repentance and faith are the first fruits.

Regeneration: A New Covenant Promise

regeneration-a-new-heartIn my last post, we briefly examined Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemas as recorded in John 3.  It’s likely that the background for this passage, in which Jesus explicitly states to Nicodemas that everyone “must be born again” to enter the kingdom of God, comes from Ezekiel 36:25-27 

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

Most commentators write, and I agree with them, that Jesus is expecting Nicodemas, who is a Jewish leader, to know his Old Testament and be familiar with the concept of rebirth or regeneration as described in Ezekiel’s passage above.  To the contrary, Nicodemas’ confusion is evident, whether it is of a genuine or sarcastic nature it is clear that he does not understand how a man can be born again (John 3:4).

The passage from Ezekiel defines much of what is called the New Covenant.  A simplistic, though not comprehensive, way to think of the Bible’s covenantal structure is Old Covenant (Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic) = Old Testament, operating largely in types and shadows pointing toward the reality of the coming Messiah and the New Covenant = New Testament, legally inaugurated with the shed blood of Christ on the cross.  This does not mean that New Covenant benefits were absent during the Old Testament, just as shown above with the New Covenant language in Ezekiel.  There is even more explicit language of the New Covenant found in Jeremiah 31:31-34:

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Here we see similar language conveyed as that in Ezekiel, only this time we see the term “New Covenant” explicitly used.  While the background for regeneration in John 3 most likely comes from Ezekiel (due to some similar themes carried forward by John) we can really examine both of these Old Testament New Covenant passages together to see what the component promises of this covenant are.  It may help to know that the context for Ezekiel and Jeremiah are really similar.  Jeremiah is writing from Jerusalem to those who remained in the city after the various stages of exile (605 B.C., 597 B.C., 586 B.C.) implemented under the direction of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.  Ezekiel, a contemporary of Jeremiah, is among the exiles in Babylon (597 B.C. ).  As a side note, During the first siege on Jerusalem (605 B.C.), Daniel was among those taken from Jerusalem and brought to the palace at Babylon.  

Combining the passages from these 2 major prophets, we can see various aspects of the New Covenant (at minimum the following):

  1. Contrast with the Old Covenant (Jer. 31:31-32)
  2. Cleansing from uncleanness and idolatry (Ezek. 36:25)
  3. A new heart (Ezek. 36:26)
  4. Law written on the heart (Jer. 31:33)
  5. The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:26-27)
  6. Causal Obedience (Ezek. 36:27)
  7. A people of God (Jer. 31:33)
  8. Universal knowledge of God (Jer. 31:34)
  9. Forgiveness of sin (Jer. 31:34) 

Jeremiah states explicitly that this new covenant will not be like the old.  This covenant will not have laws written on stone tablets, but will have the law written on the heart, i.e. the new heart of flesh.  Accompanying this new heart will be the indwelling Holy Spirit that will “cause” those who have been born again to “walk in [God’s] statutes and be careful to obey [His] rules.” From this, we can see that the promise of a new heart, i.e. regeneration or rebirth that is a central tenet of the New Covenant.   This promised new heart, and corresponding removal of the heart of stone, is accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit and is the resultant to the imperative statement given by Jesus to Nicodemas in John 3, “You must be born again.”  Pushing this conclusion further, we see that the promise of a new heart in the New Covenant ultimately results in entrance into the Kingdom of God.

New Heart/Regeneration/Rebirth/Born Again = Entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven/God

This however brings us to an important question, the people.  Or stated more directly, “To whom do these new covenant benefits belong?”  Note in Ezekiel the direct object of the New Covenant benefits is “you” (plural) and in Jeremiah it is introduced as a covenant with the “house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  Who comprises these two houses?  It would seem, at least on the surface that they will be the beneficiaries of the New Covenant.  Without taking the space in this post to answer that difficult and disputed question fully, there is one final note I’d like to add.  In the passages above, what benefit is being explicitly discussed with respect to the New Covenant?  Ezekiel and Jeremiah state clearly that the new heart (regeneration) and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit are guaranteed promises of the New Covenant.  So the short answer to the question of, to whom do these new covenant benefits belong is: The Regenerate.

Finally, we see that tied directly to the people will be forgiveness of sins and a universal knowledge of God.  Lord willing, in a future post we’ll answer more fully the question of, “To whom do these new covenant benefits belong?” with a look at what the New Testament has to say about the New Covenant, particularly in it’s quotation of the Jeremiah 31 passage in Hebrews 8:8-12

 

 

 

 

The Necessity of Regeneration

“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[1] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3

john-3-3In the familiar passage above, the words recorded from Jesus are in direct reply to Nicodemas, a Jewish leader (see John 3:10), who approached Jesus by cover of night to make inquiry of Him. Nicodemas began the conversation by affirming that Jesus certainly must be a teacher who comes from God because of the many signs and wonders He has performed, but Jesus neither replies, nor offers related comment. Instead He proceeds directly with the statement made above. What are we to make of this?

The first thing to note here is the statement, “unless one is born again” or literally born from above. Nicodemas seems to have trouble with this statement because he follows up with the expression of his confusion by asking how being born again was even possible, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” John 3:4 Note here how Nicodemas assumes that being born again has to do with a physical birth, associated with a physical conception, from a physical mother. Why is his distinction important? Because for the Jew, all assumed benefits, blessings, and statuses as the “chosen people of God” were thought to be directly linked to one’s physical, ethnic relationship to Abraham. But Jesus is describing something much different. The very opening verses of John’s Gospel describe this very same distinction, “But to all who did receive [Him], who believed in [His] name, [He] gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:12-13 Notice here, just as in John 3, that a clear distinction is made between one’s physical lineage and the necessity of being born again. John 1 literally says those who believe have been given the right to become children of God. It goes on to contrast this right of progeny with 1. Ethnicity 2. Physical birth 3. Decisionism. An exclamation point is added to this passage with the statement that becoming a child of God is from neither of these options through which man can contribute, but from God alone, leaving one to conclude that the very faith necessary to believe in Christ is likewise from God. The implication of rebirth here is explicitly restated in Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemas just 2 chapters later.

This brings up two related questions. Who then can claim to be children of God and to whom has the right been given? Can physical Jews, because of their ethnic relationship to Abraham claim to be children of God? Can every person simply because of their birth claim God as father? Or better stated, is God a generic father to us all? Or can someone simply choose to join God’s family? Based on these passages, the answer to each of these must explicitly be no. Being a true child of God is not automatically conveyed to a person because of ethnicity or nationality, this includes unbelieving Jews who were convinced that their ethnic claim to Abraham granted them privileged access into the family of God (see John 8 and Romans 2). It also is a corrective to those who claim worldwide inclusiveness to God’s family, though certainly He has a claim to everyone as their Creator. Likewise, this dismisses the notion that anyone, by way of outward steps (raise of hand, walking an isle, praying a prayer or signing a card) can become a child of God.

Jesus takes care to describe this rebirth in John 3:5-8 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Dandelion Wind There is much that could be said here (for more on this passage see here: Regeneration and Conversion, In Christ, The Wind blows where it wishes), but the focus must be that rebirth, theologically known as regeneration, is the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in the heart and it is necessary to enter/see the kingdom of God.  It has been said that repentance and faith in Christ are the first-fruits of regeneration.  There is simply no other way, “You must be born again.”

 


[1] Or from above