Overwhelmed By His Grace: Chapter 5 Regenerating Grace
By Brian Anderson
We come now to the work of the Holy Spirit in our salvation. Just as the Father elected us to salvation, and Christ secured our salvation, so too the Holy Spirit applied Christ's purchased salvation to our lives. We call His initial work in this regard regeneration. To understand regeneration we need look no further than our own experience with dead batteries. We all understand that to regenerate a battery is simply to make it come alive again. In the word regeneration the prefix "re" refers to doing something again, while the word "generate" means to make alive. To regenerate, then, means to make alive again. We were once alive in Adam, our representative. However, when Adam fell, he died, and all of us died in him. But if we are Christians, the Holy Spirit has regenerated us. He has made us alive again in Christ. Let us take a close look at a passage which teaches this thrilling truth.
"But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)" (Ephesians 2:4-5)
The "What" Of Regeneration
What exactly did God do when He regenerated us? The Bible teaches that He gave us His life, gave us a new heart, drew us to Christ, and called us to Christ.
He Gave Us His Life
Our text declares to us that God "made us alive together with Christ." Now, it must be admitted that this is exactly what we needed. It exactly suits our case, because Ephesians 2:1-3 tell us that we were dead in trespasses and sins. We were dead to God, cut off from His life, and alienated from His Person. As such, we were under His wrath and unable to do anything about it. A corpse cannot bring itself to life, being in a state of complete helplessness and total inability. Similarly, our great need was life and that was exactly God's answer.
What does it mean to be made alive together with Christ? It means that we have experienced a spiritual resurrection. That is what being born again is all about. Jesus spoke about this spiritual resurrection in John 5:24-25 when He said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live."
A person who has experienced the new birth has been brought into a whole new world. A newborn baby sees and hears things he has never experienced before. Everything has become new. Likewise, "if any man is in Christ he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Cor. 5:17). The Christian is now able to see, hear and understand Christ for the first time in his life. He can now please Christ and receive Him. Regeneration can be aptly compared to a blind man receiving sight or a deaf man having his ears unstopped. When this great change takes place, God implants His very life in the soul of the elect sinner. This is what the Bible means by the gift of eternal life. Eternal life is not just life that goes on forever; it is the very life of God which is eternal in its very essence. Because God has no beginning nor will have any end, His life has no beginning or end as well. The Bible states clearly that "He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life" (1 John 5:12). When the Holy Spirit regenerates a sinner, He unites Him to Christ in all of His resurrection life. Imagine what it entails to be indwelt by the very life of almighty God! That is exactly what takes place when a person is born again. He is made alive together with Christ.
He Gave Us A New Heart
This new spiritual life that an individual receives at conversion is also described as the receiving of a new heart. This astounding truth is most clearly described in Ezekiel 36:26 where God emphatically states, "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." God affirms in this text that something akin to a spiritual heart transplant takes place in regeneration. God removes the heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh. In fact, this heart of flesh is so radically different from our old heart, that He calls it a "new" heart. This text is depicting the glorious change that takes place in an individual's affections when he is born again. He receives a new nature with new desires and values. He now hates what he once loved, and loves what he once hated. The Christian now takes delight in reading the Bible, fellowshipping with other believers, praying and worshipping God. Similarly, he now hates sin and is grieved when he commits it. God becomes the supreme affection of his new heart.
He Drew Us To Christ
The Bible refers to our new birth in other language as well. Sometimes it refers to this saving change as God "drawing" us. In the words of our blessed Lord, "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise Him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'and they shall all be taught of God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me" (John 6:44-45). The first thing that must be noted about this assertion is that Jesus uses a universal negative. He says "no one" can come to Him unless the Father draws him. These words allow for no exceptions. Jesus is stating in the most dogmatic language that it is absolutely impossible for anyone to come to Him unless He is drawn by God. It should be noted, further, that Jesus said, "no one can come to Me," not "no one may come to Me." The word "can" is a word denoting ability, whereas the word "may" denotes permission. All men are invited to come to Christ for salvation, but the sobering truth is that of themselves, none can. Coming to Christ speaks of exercising saving faith in Him as Savior, and feasting on Him as the Bread of Life come down from heaven (John 6:35). The unregenerate man cannot do this, because his unrenewed heart will not allow him to. His heart loves sin more than Christ. His greatest desire is to seek his own will and glory rather than the will and glory of Christ. Before he can flee to Christ in saving faith, God must change his heart and affections. This God does in regeneration as He draws him to the Savior.
It is commonly taught today that when God draws the sinner He merely beckons and woos him to Christ, but the sinner must exercise his own free will in order to come and be saved. Further, it is affirmed that the sinner can resist this drawing of God and be eternally lost.
It is extremely interesting, however, to note how the New Testament uses the Greek word translated as "draw." The word is used of Peter drawing his sword out of his scabbard (John 18:10) and hauling a net containing 153 fish to land (John 21:11), of Paul and Silas dragged into the market place before the authorities (Acts 16:19), and of the rich dragging the poor into court (James 2:6). True, there is resistance in every case, but there is not a single example in the New Testament's use of this word, where the resistance is successful. In every case the drawing power is triumphant. The sword is withdrawn, the fish get to shore, Paul and Silas are dragged before the magistrate, and the poor are brought before the court. In fact the word could just as easily be translated "drags" as "draws" in John 6:44, as it is in the majority of its occurrences in the Bible. The word carries the meaning, "to compel by irresistible superiority."
By saying that this drawing of God is irresistible, I do not want to be misunderstood to be affirming that sinners do not resist the outward call of God in the gospel. Not only do they resist, they must by their very natures resist God's call. In fact, they will continue to resist God's summons to their dying breath unless God's drawing power exerts greater influence upon them than their own sinful nature. The drawing of God must be more powerful than the sinner's resistance or he is eternally doomed. This drawing proves to be irresistible simply because it destroys the disposition in the sinner to resist, by changing his heart and affections.
Notice also from our text in John 6:44-45 how God draws men. If it is true, as Jesus says it is, that no one can come to Him except those who are drawn by the Father, and that everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Him, then it becomes apparent that the way God draws the elect is by opening their ears to hear His voice and teaching them. By nature all men are spiritually deaf to God's voice, but God in drawing the elect, graciously enables them to hear His voice. As their ears are opened to His voice, He personally teaches them. Just as Jesus could say to Peter, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 16:17), so it is true of all God's children. God Himself personally gives them a life-changing revelation of Jesus Christ. After laying bare our rebellious hearts to see the ugliness of our sin and wretchedness before the all holy God, the Holy Spirit shows us the beauty and glory of Christ, so that we come to Him as empty handed beggars to receive salvation.
He Called Us To Christ
Another word used to describe this wondrous work God does in our lives is "calling." It must be admitted that on a few occasions the Bible uses the word "calling" to refer to a call of God which is not answered. This is the gospel call. Whenever the gospel is preached, this call to repentance and faith goes out. Sometimes it is answered in faith; most of the time it is refused. We see this call in Matthew 22:14 where Jesus says, "Many are called, but few are chosen." This call is insufficient to save, but sufficient to leave men without excuse. It is a gracious invitation or offer of salvation which can be, and often is, refused.
However, the great majority of the time the New Testament authors refer to God's call, they are speaking of something far different. They are describing the effectual calling of God. This call is an inward call spoken directly to the heart, whereas the general call is an outward call spoken to the ear. This effectual call is the irresistible summons of the Holy Spirit. We can observe this call in Acts 16:14 where we are told that "a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul." In this case, Paul spoke to a group of women. He was only able to reach Lydia's ears, but God was able to open her heart. When we speak of an "effectual" calling we are describing the call of God which comes with such power that it actually produces God's desired effect -- the individual's conversion. Note the following texts carefully in order to see the Biblical teaching on God's effectual call:
Romans 8:30: ". . .and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified." In this text, Paul describes God's unbreakable chain of salvation. This chain begins in God predestining a people to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. The chain ends in every one of these same people being glorified together with Christ in heaven, having been perfectly conformed to His image. But how does this transformation of a sinner take place? Paul informs us that every one of those who were predestined are also called. Likewise, every one of those who are called are also justified. Moreover, every one of those justified are also glorified. Every person who begins in God's predestined purpose arrives in glory conformed to Christ's image. No one is lost along the way; likewise, no one is added along the way. That is the meaning of "whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified. . ." Therefore, this call cannot be merely an offer of salvation or invitation to Christ, because most people who receive a gospel invitation are never justified. This text informs us that all who are called are also justified. This call must refer to God's effectual call which actually brings an individual into a state of salvation.
1 Corinthians 1:9: "God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." Calling in this passage refers to that work of God whereby we are actually brought into a living and vital relationship with Jesus Christ. It cannot be understood as simply a gospel offer. This call does not merely offer us fellowship with Christ, it brings us into fellowship with Christ.
1 Corinthians 1:22-24: "For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." Notice that in this text calling cannot be equated with the mere preaching of the gospel, for the gospel is preached to many who view Christ merely as a stumbling block or foolishness, while those who are called savingly experience Him as the power and wisdom of God. While the larger mass of Jews and Gentiles reject Christ, a smaller group consisting of "the called" respond in faith to Him. The only reasonable explanation for the difference in response in these two groups is that God effectually calls His elect, while the others are left in their sin and unbelief.
2 Timothy 1:9: ". . .who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity. . ." Notice in this text, that God's saving and calling are co-extensive. Those that He calls are those that He saves. Thus, the "calling" referred to in this passage is not simply the wooing of the Holy Spirit which may be resisted. Rather it is a work of God which brings sinners into a state of salvation. Further, the text indicates that both our salvation and our calling were gifts granted us, not because of our works, but because of God's eternal purpose and grace.
1 Peter 2:9: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. . ." In this passage we are informed that our calling was from something and to something. We were called out of the kingdom of darkness where Satan ruled (Acts 26:18), into the kingdom of light where Christ is king (Col. 1:13). Thus, this call is not merely a gospel offer; rather, it is a divine summons which brings a sinner out of Satan's kingdom where he was a slave of sin, and brings him into Christ's kingdom where he is a servant of righteousness. This calling actually effects a kingdom transfer. Furthermore this call comes to God's "chosen people" who are "a people for His own possession." Clearly then, this call is not merely an invitation which can be successfully refused.
This wondrous, omnipotent call of God is described beautifully in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds, spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from any thing at all foreseen in man; who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. (Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 3, Baker, p.624-625.)
Thomas Watson, one of my favorite Puritan authors, describes the effectual call in this way:
There is an inward call, when God with the offer of grace works grace. By this call the heart is renewed, and the will is effectually drawn to embrace Christ. The outward call brings men to a profession of Christ, the inward to a possession of Christ. . . God puts forth infinite power in calling home a sinner to Himself; He not only puts forth His voice but His arm. The apostle speaks of the exceeding greatness of His power, which He exercises towards them that believe. Eph.1:19. God rides forth conquering in the chariot of His gospel; He conquers the pride of the heart, and makes the will, which stood out as a fort-royal, to yield and stoop to His grace; He makes the stony heart bleed. Oh, it is a mighty call! The effectual call is mighty and powerful. God puts forth a divine energy, nay, a kind of omnipotence; it is such a powerful call, that the will of man has no power effectually to resist. (A Body Of Divinity, Banner of Truth, p.222-223.)
The "When" Of Regeneration
Our text informs us that God did this "when we were dead in our transgressions." A very interesting question arises at this point. Was my regeneration something that I did, something that God did, or a little bit of both? Another way to ask the same question is, "Does the sinner choose to be born again?" Does his faith precede and cause God to regenerate him, or does regeneration precede and cause the sinner to believe?
Let us analyze the situation for a moment. The Bible tells us that when we were dead in our transgressions, God made us alive. Faith is a spiritual activity. Someone spiritually dead cannot perform a spiritual activity. He must be given spiritual life before he can perform a spiritual function. Obviously God's life could not have been produced by our faith, for we had no faith. We were dead. When a car has a dead battery the horn cannot sound, the lights cannot shine, and the radio cannot play. In these circumstances a person does not say, "If I can just get my lights to come on, then my battery will be recharged." No, he says, "If I can get my battery recharged, then my lights will come on." When someone who had no interest in Jesus Christ comes to believe in Him with all their heart, we know the battery of his soul has been recharged. Somebody has been fooling around under the hood! What has happened? God has given him a new heart. He has caused his soul to live.
The clear implication from all of this is that a sinner does not choose to be born again. His faith does not cause God to regenerate him. Rather, God chooses to regenerate the sinner, causing him to repent and believe. Can this be established in any other passages of Scripture? It most definitely can.
John 1:12-13: "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." Here John goes out of his way to assure us that our new birth had nothing to do with us, but everything to do with God's sovereign will.
John 3:8: "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 is here comparing the work of the Holy Spirit to the wind. He declares to us that the wind (the same Greek word translated here as "wind" can also be translated as "Spirit") blows where it wishes. We cannot control where the wind will blow. Neither can we control where the Holy Spirit will blow. He regenerates whom He will.
John 5:21: "For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes." Just as a dead man cannot cooperate in his own physical resurrection, so we could not assist in our spiritual resurrection. According to Christ in this text, He and His Father give life to the dead. Further, Christ does so to whom He wishes. Jesus Christ is absolutely sovereign in bestowing spiritual life to those dead in sin. Thus, our choice could not have produced our regeneration, for the text clearly says that the Father and the Son give life to the dead, and then only to those they choose to.
Romans 9:16: "So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy." In this chapter the apostle Paul is exalting the sovereign grace of God by showing how He has bestowed saving love and mercy on some while hardening others. He shows how God chose Isaac, rather than Ishmael to be the one through whom Messiah would come. Further, Paul shows that God set His saving love on Jacob, rather than Esau, and did so before either were born and had done anything good or bad. God did this, so that His own purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls. He next reveals that God had spoken to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." Thus, Paul has amply shown that it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs. Our regeneration did not initiate with us. God did not respond to our willing or running. On the contrary, our new birth depends wholly and entirely on God who has mercy.
James 1:18: "In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures." James has been teaching in this chapter that God does not tempt anyone, nor can He be tempted by evil. Rather, our temptations arise from our own lusts. We cannot blame God for our sin. On the contrary, God constantly gives good gifts (1:17). Then, as an example of these good gifts, James mentions our spiritual birth, the first and greatest blessing we receive from God. The expression "brought us forth" in this text refers to giving birth, and is a reference to our being born again. This passage states that the word of truth (the gospel) is the instrument of our regeneration, while God Himself is the agent of regeneration. Kenneth Wuest, in his Expanded Translation, renders the verse, "In accordance with His deliberate purpose He brought us into being by means of the word of truth, resulting in our being a kind of first fruits of His creatures." (The New Testament: An Expanded Translation, Eerdmans, 540.) Because God deliberately purposed our salvation by electing us before the foundation of the world, He brought us forth (regenerated) us through the gospel. Clearly it was in the exercise of His will, not ours, that we were brought forth to new life.
1 John 5:1: "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God; and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him." A more literal translation of this verse reads, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ, out from God has been born..." (Kenneth Wuest, An Expanded Translation, Eerdmans, p.573.) The tenses of the verbs indicates that whoever is presently believing that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God in the past. The words "is born of God" are in the perfect tense which speaks of a past completed action with continuing results. Thus, everyone who presently believes does so because he has been born of God in the past and continues in that state all the days of his life.
Thus, we have seen that this great change we call regeneration is due to the sovereign will of God alone. It is not a response to our repentance and faith, but is that which causes us to repent and believe. It is a work of God alone. We played no part at all in our regeneration in the same way that Lazarus played no part at all in his resurrection and that individuals play no part at all in their physical birth. Lazarus did not choose to be raised from the dead, nor did we choose to be born. These acts were outside of our control.
Another question arises at this point. Can this work of regeneration be resisted? In other words, can a person whom the Holy Spirit is trying to regenerate successfully resist His work and be lost? Probably the best way to answer that question is to reply that the Holy Spirit is not "trying" to regenerate people. He is actually regenerating all His elect. Once He has regenerated them, all desire to resist Him has been removed. By changing their hearts, He has successfully destroyed their disposition to resist Him (Ezek. 36:25-27). Could Lazarus resist Jesus Christ when He raised him from the dead? Could we resist being born when our mother's time had come? No, "all that the Father has given Me shall come to Me" (John 6:37).
The "Why" Of Regeneration
Our text in Ephesians 2:4 tells us "But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us. . . by grace you have been saved." The apostle Paul is teaching us in this text that the reason the Holy Spirit regenerated us was because of God's love, mercy, and grace. This great love is the same love mentioned in Ephesians 1:4 where Paul writes, "In love, He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself." The love Paul is mentioning in this place is His everlasting, unchanging, sovereign, infinite, and invincible love. By nature, God is love, but when He relates to sinners, His love becomes grace and mercy. Our text tells us that God is rich in mercy. That is, He does not give us what we deserve. Mercy is God's love directed to sinners in their wretchedness. In His mercy, God takes away the negative consequences of sin. Our text also tells us "by grace you have been saved." Just as God's mercy does not allow us to experience what we do deserve, so His grace gives us what we do not deserve. Grace is His love directed toward sinners in their guilt. Grace gives us the positive blessings we have not earned. While mercy pities, grace pardons.
The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in applying our salvation reveals more of the amazing grace of God. Not only was our salvation decreed from all eternity, and secured for us by the particular redeeming death of Jesus Christ, but it was sovereignly applied by the Holy Spirit when He regenerated us. In fact, the work of Christ at the cross without the work of the Spirit within would not have been enough to save us. A.W. Pink in his classic book, The Sovereignty Of God, states:
Had God done nothing more than given Christ to die for sinners and then sent forth His servants to proclaim salvation through Christ, leaving sinners entirely to themselves to accept or reject as they pleased, then every sinner would have rejected, because at heart every man hates God and is at enmity with Him (Rom.8:7). Therefore the work of the Holy Spirit is needed to bring the sinner to Christ, to overcome his innate opposition, and bring him to accept the provision God has made. (Pink, The Sovereignty of God, Banner of Truth, p.72-73.)
This wondrous work of God's Spirit is due exclusively to His sovereign grace. If we have trusted in Jesus Christ to the saving of our souls, it is not because we came up with a good idea one day. Neither is it because we were smarter or had a softer heart than others. It is because we were appointed to eternal life from before the foundation of the world (Acts 13:48), redeemed by the precious blood of Christ (1Pet.1:18), and given God's very life by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Eph.2:4-5). These blessed truths ought to move us to worship God afresh for His incredible grace.
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