Category Archives: Bible Study

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


Understanding Dispensationalism

Tom_Nelson_Dispensationalism Video is available here:

The sermon above is by Tommy Nelson of Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas. First let me say that Tommy Nelson is an excellent preacher who is knowledgeable and passionate about God’s Word. His study on Song of Solomon is worth the price and his sermon on Romans 9 is par excellence. However, for as much respect as I have for Pastor Nelson’s preaching, in this particular message on dispensationalism I must disagree.

As a hermeneutic (system or “science” of interpretation), dispensationalism has migrated quite a bit from its inception by Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and the reference Bible of C.I. Scofield (1843 – 1921). From the work of these early dispensationalists or what might best be called Classic Dispensationalism the system moved to something called Revised Dispensationalism and really began to grow under the influence of Lewis Sperry Chafer, who founded Dallas Theological Seminary. This revised system (which was a gradual shift) is what most people, at least in this country, have been exposed to. So it’s likely that you are familiar with the interpretation of the Bible from the dispensational perspective, but are simply unfamiliar (as I was) with its major tenets and general view of Scripture.

Using the overwhelming popularity of the Scofield Reference Bible, the volumes of systematic theology published by Chafer, and the development of pastors from Dallas Theological Seminary, dispensationalism flourished in the 1900’s and rightly so. It offered a corrective to the liberalism that was taking over the seminary at Princeton, which eventually led to a split and the formation of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. More current works, such as those by Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, Dwight Pentecost, and perhaps the most well-known modern dispensationalist (though self-described as a “leaky” dispensationalist), John MacArthur[1], have led to the continuation of these beliefs. Today however, another shift has been taking place from this revised dispensationalism to what is called Progressive Dispensationalism. It’s a lot to digest, but I think Church history is extremely important in understanding doctrinal development. It’s also important to be able to understand and recognize what you may hear or read and be able to understand how it fits the larger scope of biblical interpretation.

Below are some key distinctives[2] for dispensationalism:

  1. A distinction between Israel and the Church. As you will hear Pastor Nelson say, this is the sine qua non of dispensationalism. This is probably their most recognizable distinction, but also where I probably have the most disagreement. Some classic dispensationalists went so far as to declare 2 ways of salvation, one for Jew and one for Gentile (a belief that has been alive and well in every Bible study I’ve ever taught). Revised dispy’s moved off of this position, but still maintained a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church in the plan of God. It often necessarily followed that the Church would be removed or “raptured” from the earth while the Jews would remain, allowing for Christ to establish His earthly kingdom and take His rightful place on the Davidic throne. Note how this division necessarily forces a premillennial view of the end times.
  2. A literal interpretation of Scripture. If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a thousand times (and you’ll hear it also in Pastor Nelson’s sermon), only dispensationalist take the Bible literally, at face value for what it is saying. All others spiritualize or allegorize or flatten their interpretation. This is the nailing Jello to the wall argument. This has been the consistent view from classic to progressive dispensationalism (though the latter has backed away some and now rightly prefers the phrase grammatical-historical interpretation)[3]. The problem is that I don’t know anyone who truly desires to be faithful to Scripture who doesn’t take the Bible literally. The difference is that hard-line dispensationalists say the Bible says what it means and means what it says and therefore must be taken at its plain, face-value meaning or what has been termed “literal”. The non-dispy agrees with the sentiments that the Bible means what it says and is the literal Word of God, but understands that the Bible uses genre, figures of speech, types, and shadows and therefore must be understood narrowly in context and broadly in God’s plan of redemption as revealed in the entire Bible not forced into external guidelines. Does Revelation 12:3 refer to a literal “enormous red dragon with seven heads ten horns and seven crowns” or is the Apostle John using a figure of speech to represent an idea. Does God own the “cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10), while someone else owns the cattle on hill #1001? Or is this a figure of speech used to convey a significantly large number of hills, i.e. all of them? Using the phrase literal or plain meaning is not helpful. As Vern Poythress has pointed out, the term is vague and “is a useful watchword…precisely because it can become a vehicle for sliding into a flat interpretation or plain interpretation when it is convenient to do so”.[4]
  3. The glory of God as the primary goal of history. Similar to the literal interpretation statement, this one seems to imply that dispy’s are the only one’s seeking the glory of God, though I’m quite sure that Soli Deo Gloria was around centuries before the development of dispensationalism. As a non-dispensationalist, I see the glory of God as a primary goal of history as well and that doesn’t align me with dispy, it aligns me with the Bible. This really isn’t a good distinction for dispy’s to claim and though I do not want to speculate on motive, one has to wonder if it was expressed with the hopes of creating a (false) paradigm that dispy’s hold to the glory of God and non-dispy’s do not.
  4. Interpreting the NT in light of the OT. Up to this point, the distinctives mentioned are those outlined by Charles Ryrie in his book Dispensationalism (see footnote 2). But there is a fourth distinction that I must include, because as will be shown in the review of Herman Hoyt’s dispensational premillennialism, it, perhaps more than any above, is the chief difference between dispy and non-dispy. If we were to examine the 3 characteristics listed above, #1 would be a matter of trading Bible verses on both sides, #2 would be a matter of clarifying terms, and there would be virtually no disagreement on #3, so dispensationalism would really have no cause to rethink their position, nor would the non-dispy be given any real reason to change their own. However, if it is a matter of hermeneutics, the basics behind all biblical interpretation, then it will either have to be an “agree to disagree” or a very real challenge to the interpretation of either side. The black and white distinctions would be drawn more clearly.

As you listen to Tommy Nelson’s sermon, pay special attention to those 4 characteristics above and do not fail to be Berean-like and test the things he’s saying with Scripture.

I’ll close with a quote from Ernest Reisinger in the Founders Journal:

“This is a Southern Baptist journal, therefore, I must say something about Dispensationalism in Southern Baptist churches. Historically, the Southern Baptist churches were not Dispensational in theology. None of our leading seminaries or colleges ever taught Dispensationalism and to the present day they do not teach Dispensationalism.

I believe I am safe in saying that Dr. Wally Amos Criswell has been the most influential and articulate Southern Baptist Dispensationalists. Dr. Criswell is one of the great, esteemed and respected leaders of our denomination and every Southern Baptist is deeply indebted to him as a defender of the Bible and conservative Christianity. Where and how this great leader got his Dispensationalism I do not know. I do know that he did not get it at Baylor in his college days. He did not get it at Southern in his seminary days, and he did not get it from his great predecessor, George W. Truett, who pastored the First Baptist Church in Dallas, for 47 years before Dr. Criswell. George W. Truett was a postmillennialist.

There are other good men in the Southern Baptist Convention who have Dispensational views, but they did not get these views in our schools or seminaries. They did not get them from our Baptist fathers or from our Baptist historical roots.

We cannot overlook the accomplishments of Dispensationalism. It has given rise to Bible colleges and independent churches all over the land. It has spawned numerous independent missions, independent preachers and missionaries.

The issue before us is not a few minor differences or disagreements between those who hold basically the same position. It is not just a difference in eschatology. It is the whole system of theology that touches every major doctrine of Christianity. What is at stake is the saving gospel of Jesus Christ and the sinner’s assurance that he is living according to God’s plan for history.”

For additional resources on the history of dispensationalism see:


[1] This is not to say that we all cannot read and learn from these men. Personally I have learned much from the ministry of Pastor MacArthur, both through his sermons and writings, including his study Bible.

[2] The first 3 distinctives are outlined by Charles Ryrie in his book Dispensationalism. You can see them summarized here:

[3] A consideration of the language as used by a text under investigation in its original, historical context. Grammatical-historical interpretation concentrates on the words, phrases, clauses, sentences, pericopes, book, genre, and historical context – author, recipients, place of writing and circumstances, destination, etc.