The doctrine of the new birth is central to evangelical theology. While it played a less dominant role at the time of the Reformation when it tended to be integrated with other doctrines such as repentance and renewal in general, it came into its own during the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century. Wesley (see e.g. Sermon XXXIX), Whitefield and Edwards, among others, laid great stress on it. For all that it is questionable whether it has been properly understood.
The Traditional View
Traditionally regeneration has been strongly, almost exclusively, linked with sin, original sin in particular. We have been told that the new birth is an absolute imperative arising from our lost condition since the ‘Fall’. All Adam’s posterity born of woman are said to be sinners by nature, choice and habit and in urgent need of regeneration apart from which they cannot be saved and face eternal damnation. However, the fallacy of this sort of reasoning is blatant: it must be unbiblical, for, if nature takes precedence, choice is eliminated. Its ultimate source is in fact Augustine. When referring to God’s sending Christ into the world to be our mediator, the Bishop of Hippo wrote, “God did this (i.e. send Christ as Mediator) so that those who believe in Christ might be absolved by the washing of regeneration from the guilt of all their sins – both the original sin they have inherited by birth to counter which, in particular, rebirth was instituted, and all other sins incurred by evil conduct – and might be delivered from perpetual condemnation” (Needham, p.251, cf. pp.59,121,142,206,252,286). In view of statements like this, it is legitimate to put the issue in simple terms and say that for Augustine regeneration, like baptism (cf. p.252), was the antidote of original sin. (Cf. John Wesley in the sermon referred to above, which follows that on original sin: “Hence it is, that, being born in sin, we must be ‘born again’“, p.517). However, when it is expressed thus starkly, it is bound to raise queries in the minds of all who try to read their Bibles objectively uninfluenced by tradition. Before turning to famous passages like John 3, it is useful to fill in some of the background to the received dogma.
Since Augustine‘s influence on the Western church has been so great, needless to say his views on regeneration and associated doctrines like baptism have prevailed even to our own times, not simply in Catholicism but in Protestantism too. One has only to read systematic theologies like those of Hodge, Berkhof, Grudem (pp. 494-501, who is not alone in being at pains to posit rebirth before natural birth!), and Reymond to see that regeneration is regarded as necessary to counter original or birth sin. (It should be noted that in more recent times theologians and evangelists have recognised the difference between an imperative and a necessity. Regrettably, this has not led to the theological re-assessment it requires. See further below.) Indeed, in the minds of many who, in view of the obvious hyperbole of 58:3 (cf. Job 31:18), read more into Psalm 51:5 than they should, sin goes back to conception, to the time when they were conceived by ‘carnal lust’ as Augustine termed it (see e.g. Needham, p.142; Blanchard, p.475, etc.). Since the latter is their basic premise, it is scarcely surprising that their projected order of salvation (ordo salutis) necessarily begins with regeneration (see WCF 10, cf. e.g. Reymond, pp.703-711). But, apart from noticing that it would appear to involve semantic and logical absurdity, this line of thinking has a very dubious grounding in Scripture. For a start, regeneration in the OT, at a time when the Holy Spirit had not yet been (fully) given (John 7:39), is never more than a promise (Dt. 29:4; 30:6; Jer. 24:7; 31:33; 32:39f.; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26f., etc.). Since this is so, Hebrews 11 is made up of a list of unregenerate OT believers (note 11:39f. Paul specifically refers to Abraham as “ungodly”, Rom. 4:5!). Thus, when we come to the NT, we are told in no uncertain terms that regeneration, or salvation, is founded on faith in Jesus (John 1:12; 3:16,36; 6:27,40,47,54; Acts 2:38; Rom. 1:16; 1 Pet. 1:9; 1 John 5:11f., etc., cf. Luke 1:46-55,68-79). Since Jesus as Messiah and the giver of (new) life (1 Cor. 15:45) was himself only a promise during the time of the law and the prophets, how do we account for OT faith if regeneration is its necessary precondition?
At this point the suggestion inevitably arises that original sin was not an insurmountable obstacle to faith. But we can go further. There are multitudinous reasons why we should question the Augustinian dogma of original sin. It lacks adequate exegetical support, it harbours enormous, in fact, insuperable, logical difficulties, it is clearly in conflict with other teaching of Scripture and, while denied by the Jews and the Orthodox, it has never, to my knowledge, been substantiated by any Christian theologian of any school. In light of this, it is highly appropriate to reconsider the biblical doctrine of regeneration.
John 3 is the classic passage on the subject. It is noticeable here that when Jesus tells him that one must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God (v.3, ESV), Nicodemus quite naturally infers that another physical birth is what is required. After all, re-generation suggests repetition! The idea that a man who is old might re-enter his mother’s womb is clearly cause for astonishment. So Jesus corrects Nicodemus’ misapprehension by referring to spiritual birth or birth from above. And in light of verses 12 and 13 we are surely right to conclude that Jesus is differentiating between earthly and heavenly births. He goes on to tell Nicodemus not to marvel, first, because a spiritual birth is a sovereign, if invisible, act of the Spirit of God and, secondly, as a (Gk. ‘the’) teacher of Israel he should have some understanding of these things. After all, passages like Jeremiah 31:31-34 and especially Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26f. were clear OT promises pointing to the eventual reality of the new or second birth when Christ, the second Adam, came.
Augustine and Cleansing
Before taking a closer look at John 3 and 1:12f. we need to note that Augustine was doubtless influenced by passages like Titus 3:3-7 (cf. Eph. 5:25-27) where verse 5 refers to the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (cf. Needham, p.121, cf. 293). Thus we find him referring to the washing away of guilt by regeneration. But is this a tenable proposition? Does regeneration really wash away guilt? In 1 Corinthians 6:11 Paul appears to link washing with atonement as Peter does in Acts 2:38, cf. 22:16, something that Augustine himself seems to be aware of on occasion. Arguably, the washing refers to baptism as it does in John 3:5, cf. Ezek. 36:25-27; Eph. 5:26, but this involves acceptance of the death and atonement of Christ on the sinner’s behalf followed by reformation of life under the influence of the Spirit (cf. Rom. 5:8,10) who is promised when we believe. In other words, sin’s detergent is blood, not Spirit (Rom. 3:25; Eph. 1:7; Heb. 9:14; 1 Pet. 1:2,19; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5; 7:14; 22:14). Regeneration is linked directly with sanctification of which it is the first step. The new or regenerate life follows on forgiveness of sins and justification achieved through the blood of Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). Otherwise expressed, imputed righteousness is succeeded by imparted righteousness as regenerate believers are led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:13f.; Gal. 5:18).
All this suggests that in seeking to counter sins already committed with Spirit instead of blood or atonement Augustine confused flesh and spirit or Spirit (nature) with sin and grace (morality). Thus in the history of dogmatic theology the result was the virtual assimilation of justification with sanctification, which remains characteristic of the Roman Church, and apparently, though it is formally denied, of many Protestants, to this day. This brings us back to John 3 where the focus of attention is not sin, which is not mentioned, but nature, that is, flesh and Spirit (cf. John 1:12f.; 6:63, cf. 1 Cor. 15:45-50). The problem with Augustine’s understanding of this passage was that he regarded the flesh, following the Fall, as (naturally) sinful. Indeed, he went so far as to assert that even the Virgin Mary was “sinful flesh” and says, “For the flesh He (Christ) took from her, He either cleansed in order to take it, or cleansed by taking it” (Needham, p.123). This is clearly not the view of Jesus who, when a woman in the crowd suggested that the breasts he sucked and the womb that bore him were blessed, replied that those, including Mary his mother, who hear the word and keep it are blessed (Luke 11:27f., cf. Mark 3:31-35). So here again Augustine’s reasoning is flawed, for yet once more he wants to use Spirit instead of blood as the cleansing agent, since it is obvious that at his birth Jesus had still to atone for sin. (The reader should note that it is similar reasoning, not made explicit, that enables Augustinians to ride roughshod over the unavoidable deduction that Jesus as the son of Adam inherited his (original) sin.) Needless to say, Augustinians and indeed most evangelicals, not to mention Romans Catholics, view the flesh (and by implication sex, though this is somewhat inconsistently denied nowadays) as inherently sinful to this day. In the nineteenth century, stalwarts like Charles Hodge, seeking support for the dogma of original sin, could write that John 3:6 clearly (sic) meant that, “That which is born of corrupt parents is itself corrupt; and is corrupt in virtue of its descent or derivation” (ST, 2, p.242. Cf. Ryle, p.3; Litton, p.191, and, in the twentieth century, Berkhof, p.240: Murray, CW, 2, pp.184f., Romans 244f., and Blanchard, p. 475). In one sense he was right, for the flesh as deriving from the corruptible earth is naturally corruptible, but he was wrong to associate corruption with native sinfulness. For him as for Augustine all corruption stemmed from sin, but this is not what the Bible teaches.
However, it has to be acknowledged that many modern commentators betray a change in attitude. They seem to recognise what ought to be obvious to eyes not blinded by Augustinian dogma that when Jesus refers to the flesh he is talking about human nature as created by God, our physical and naturally mortal nature which stems from a naturally corruptible and, by definition, non-eternal earth (Ps. 102:25-27; Isa. 40:6-8, etc.). Thus H. Ridderbos, having referred to John 1:13, states that flesh “denotes a person in his or her natural existence as begotten by a father and given birth to by a mother” (p.128. See also Morris, Carson, Lindars, etc., ad loc.). In other words, the necessity of the new birth arises from human need to complete its God-ordained pilgrimage or odyssey to the (spiritual) kingdom of heaven for which the flesh is entirely unfitted. As Paul puts it so graphically and emphatically in 1 Corinthians 15:50, where again sin is not on the horizon, (physical) flesh and blood by its very nature cannot inherit the (spiritual) kingdom of God nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable (cf. 1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Pet. 1:23-25; Gal. 6:8).
The Role of Sin
It might well be countered at this point that I am ignoring the role of sin. Not at all! The original promise to man, Adam, who stemmed from a naturally temporal earth, was one of (eternal) life on the condition that he kept the commandment (Gen. 2:17; WCF 7.2). (The idea that Adam was created immortal is Greek and Augustinian, see Needham, p.47, not Jewish or Christian. In any case, since he died, it involves logical absurdity.) The divine intention was that man, who as created from the earth was naturally corruptible (Rom. 1:23), should seek spiritual incorruptibility (Rom. 2:7) by keeping the commandments which promised life. In the event Adam failed as we all do (Rom. 3:9,23) because we all break the law (1 K. 8:46; Rom. 5:12; John 8:34). There was one exception (John 8:46; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22, etc.), however: he was the stronger or last Adam specifically sent by God to win the battle against the world, the flesh and the devil (Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8) everyone else had lost (Rom. 3:19-31; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16) and to effect a marvellous rescue (cf. John 3:16).
It must not pass without notice that having become incarnate, that is, flesh, Jesus had of necessity to keep the law and to be born again in accordance with the implication of Leviticus 18:5 (Dt. 30:20; 32:46f.; Ezek. 20:11,13,21; Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:13; 10:5 , etc.) and his own dictum (John 3:6) like, though prior to, all the rest of his brethren (cf. Heb. 2:10f.). As Berkhof maintains without appreciating the significance of his comment, “This statement (i.e. John 3:3, cf.5-7) of the Saviour is absolute and leaves no room for exceptions” (p.472). And that is precisely what is implied in Matthew 3:13-17 (cf. Mk. 1:9-11; Luke 3:21f.; Acts 10:37f.). Denial of this is logically denial of the incarnation, which leads to docetism. The Augustinian “gospel”, however, in its obsession with sin, especially original sin, has for centuries hidden this from our eyes. (Carson, p.197, seems somewhat at odds with himself. Though he notes the natural or metaphysical “distance between human beings and God and the axiom that like produces like”, he goes on to maintain that “The plural ‘you’ sets Jesus over against not just Nicodemus, but the entire human race.” In saying this he is apparently indicating in true Augustinian fashion that since Jesus did not sin he did not need to be born again. If this is so, however, he is implicitly contradicting himself. For if the difference between us and God that is being entertained at this point is the difference between flesh and Spirit and is natural not ethical, then, since Jesus himself is flesh, it necessarily applies to him as much as it does to Nicodemus and the rest of us. Why then the ‘you’?, it may be asked. The simple answer is that Jesus was already born again and the very first to be so, since he alone had inherited the promise of life by keeping the law, as we have already seen. Cf. Mt. 3:17; 19:21.) The essential point being made by the NT writers is that Jesus alone of all mankind achieved his victory over the world in the weakness of the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2), something that Paul, like the rest of us, failed lamentably to do (cf. e.g. Rom.7). So if righteousness, which can only be gained by keeping the law (Dt. 6:25; Ezek. 18:5-9; Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7), is the indispensable precondition of regeneration, as the Scripture surely teaches (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.), Jesus alone achieved it (1 Pet. 3:18), and of this John the Baptist was painfully aware (Mt. 3:13-17).
(It is perhaps somewhat misleading to think of Jesus attaining to righteousness and life exclusively by keeping the law and remaining sinless. For him, as a true son of Abraham, Gal. 3:16, and the true Israel, faith and obedience (law-keeping) went together, Rom. 3:31, cf. Gen. 17:1; 18:19; 22:18; 26:5; Jas. 2:18-26. In his case there was no either/or but a both/and, cf. Gal. 3:2,5.)
If my contention that in John 3:6 Jesus is making a distinction between nature (flesh) as created ‘by hand’ and nature (spirit) as created ‘not by hand’ (cf. Heb. 9:11,24), or, in other words, between our present earthly and our future heavenly constitution (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-50; 2 Cor. 4:16-5:5)*, then we are given a different perspective on various matters that have in the past been governed by Augustine’s faulty ideas. For a start, we can distinguish between our natural bodies of flesh that die and see corruption because of sin (Rom. 8:10) and hence need redemption (Rom. 8:23), and our heavenly or glorified bodies which will be like that of the exalted Christ whose body did not see corruption because he did not sin (Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:2). Here it is not a question of receiving ‘immortal flesh’, surely a blatant contradiction in terms, but a radical transformation (1 Cor. 15:35-57) involving the culmination of the perfecting process which God had in mind from the start (2 Cor. 5:5). In other words, if it has always been the plan of God to present us blameless, that is perfected in spirit (cf. Heb. 10:1,14; 12:23; 1 Pet. 4:6), before him in Christ (Eph. 1:4), it has also been his purpose to perfect us corporeally too (Mt. 13:43; 2 Cor. 4:17; 5:1-5; 1 John 3:2, cf. John 17:24). (It needs to be remembered that we are perfected in the flesh, which cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven, in this world. The seed of Adam becomes the mature physical man just as the acorn becomes the mature oak, cf. 1 Pet. 1:23. Needless to add, both experience death and corruption like the naturally corruptible earth from which they are taken.)
The Material Creation
Next, it is possible at this point to argue that if the body needs redemption on account of sin, then so does the material creation, the earth in particular, which, according to Augustinian orthodoxy, has been under a universal curse because of Adam’s sin. The problem here is that Jesus implicitly denies this in John 3:6 precisely. On the assumption that what I have already said above is correct and that sin is not on the horizon, the earth, like the flesh which derives from it, is incapable of redemption and regeneration since it lacks permanency by nature (Heb. 1:10-12, cf. 7:3; 9:11,24). It too lacks the ability to, so to speak, “enter a second time into (its) mother’s womb”, that is, begin again. In other words, recreation, restoration or repristination for the earth, as for the flesh, though definitely not the body, is out of the question. God is not going to return to the beginning and repeat a botched plan of salvation (cf. Heb. 10:1,11). He is simply going to perfect what he had in mind from the start even in spite of sin (cf. Ex. 32:11-14). Paul puts the issue in a nutshell when he says that the perishable (or naturally corruptible) cannot inherit the imperishable (the naturally incorruptible, 1 Cor. 15:50, cf. 2 Cor. 4:18). Since the earth had a beginning it must have an end (cf. Heb. 7:3,8,16,24f.): it is, in other words, naturally and purposely, that is, by divine intention, temporal and its end, like that of the physical body is destruction. This is exactly what Scripture constantly emphasises (Gen. 8:22; Isa. 51:6,8; Heb. 1:10-12; 12:26-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12, etc.). Like the flesh, which derives from it and gains its character from it, the earth is by the very fact of its creation impermanent and corruptible. It was never intended to last forever; it is intrinsically temporal and not eternal. Its provisional and obsolescent character is as clearly taught as that of the law whose use terminates at death (Mt. 5:18 contrast 24:35; Rom. 7:1-6; 2 Cor. 3:11; Heb. 1:11; 8:13). So on the basis of the evidence at our disposal we are forced to conclude that it is not sin that is the primary problem but nature. Sin simply prevents the nature of man made in the image of God from being perfected, as is implied as early as Genesis 2:17. On the other hand, since Jesus did not sin, his nature as representative man, unlike Adam’s, was perfected (Heb. 2:10; 5:9, etc.). He alone became the Perfect Man (Eph. 4:13, cf. 2:15; Gal. 3:28) and so achieved the likeness of God (Mt. 5:48; Heb. 1:3), and this fitted him for glory. On the impermanent earth? By no means (cf. Heb. 7:26), but in the eternal heaven which was his goal from the start. His intention, as John and the author of Hebrews in particular make abundantly clear, was always to return to his Father’s side as perfected man (John 3:13; 6:62; 14:28; 17:5; Luke 13:32; Heb. 1:3; 4:14; 6:19f.; 7:26; 9:24, etc.) with his people in train (Heb. 2:9-13; 1 Pet. 3:18; Rev. 3:21). And thus, in accordance with his desire, we shall be glorified with him there (John 6:37-51; 10:27-29; 12:26; 14:6; 17:24; Rom. 5:2; 8:29f.; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; 11:2; Eph. 1:10; 2:18; Col. 1:5,12f., 22,27; 1 Thes. 4:14-17, etc.). Truly have we, whose personal perfection has been frustrated by sin, been redeemed (Cor. 6:20; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:9), rescued and perfected in Christ (Heb. 10:14). Despite undeniable personal inadequacy (cf. Gal. 2:16, etc.), in Christ we become more than conquerors (Rom. 8:28ff.).
Barth and Brunner
To reason in this way leads us inevitably to the dispute between Barth and Brunner regarding natural theology. Such was his (Augustinian) antipathy to nature that Barth, as is well known, maintained that regenerating grace replaced it. In my view, however, Brunner was correct to maintain that grace does not so much abolish nature as perfect it, gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit (cf. Brown, p.85). What is destroyed is the body of flesh (2 Cor. 5:1, cf. the material and the spiritual temples, Mark 14:58; Rev. 21:22), not the body as such which is subject to redemption (Rom. 8:23, cf. 1 Cor. 15:44,46). With regard to Jesus, who did not sin and who rose physically from the grave (Luke 24:39, cf. John 20:17), we can safely draw the conclusion that his body of flesh was not so much destroyed, i.e. did not see corruption (Acts 2:31; 13:34), but, in light of 1 Corinthians 15:50ff., was transformed at his ascension (Acts 1:9; 2 Cor. 4:18) in accordance with the original promise implicit in Genesis 2:17. (I must add here that in view of the evidence I am completely mystified by the widespread notion that Christ’s body after his physical resurrection was his spiritual glorified body. As John 10:17f. indicate, Jesus’ resurrection was as physical as that of Lazarus who later died again, Luke 24:39; John 20:27, and denial of this seems to me to betray fundamental misunderstanding and illegitimate indulgence in spiritualisation. It must be insisted with equal vigour that Grudem’s belief, p.859, that Jesus is incarnate in heaven is a basic error. If, as Paul clearly indicates in 1 Corinthians 15:35ff., we need transformation, then so did the incarnate Jesus. The only alternative to this is denial of the incarnation.)
So while the new birth by the Spirit is preparation for and guarantee (2 Cor. 1:22, cf. Eph. 1:13) of the heavenly life to come, it is also the means by which the moral transformation of our earthly lives takes place (Tit. 3:3-7). As was asserted above, acceptance of Christ as Saviour leads to justification by faith alone (Rom. 5:1f.,9f.). But the faith alone by which we are justified does not remain alone: it is always followed by our being led by the Spirit of God with a view to personal sanctification (Rom. 8:14-17). And we are solemnly warned that without holiness we shall not see God (Heb.12:10,14). This being so, it is imperative that we put to death what is EARTHLY in us (Col. 3:5, cf. Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24; 6:14) and strive with might and main to avoid making provision for the flesh in order to gratify its desires (Rom. 13:14; 1 Pet. 2:11). It should be noted, however, that the giving of the Spirit arises from our acceptance of Christ’s death on our behalf, forgiveness of sins and justification. Clearly, if life is promised only to the righteous (cf. Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11, etc.) and righteousness is imputed by faith, then the conclusion that sanctification follows on justification is unavoidable. Historically speaking then, the traditional order of salvation (ordo salutis), which has given priority to regeneration, has resulted in dogmatic disaster and turned theology on its head: it has confused the beginning with the end. Apart from the doctrines of repentance and baptism, for example, it has in certain circles placed an inordinate weight on election, which has been seen not simply as a unilateral act of God (which it is: Rom. 9:6-13; 11:1-6), but as the implicit abolition of all human activity in response to the gospel. In other words, in the NT, while human beings under a Spirit-induced conviction of sin are urged to repent and believe even before (Mark 1:4f.,15) as well as after the outpouring of the Spirit following the ascension of Christ (Acts 2:38), traditionalists, like the contemporaries of William Carey, have gone so far as to deny the legitimacy of evangelism. Even today devotees of Reformed theology have to defend the free offer of the gospel and not always with conviction or ready acceptance. But such is the result of a doctrine of regeneration based on erroneous dogmas like original sin.
I have already referred to the fact that in the OT regeneration (or life or the granting of the Spirit, cf. Gal. 3:2-5) is a promise implied first in Genesis 2:17 and made explicit in Leviticus 18:5 and numerous other texts throughout the Bible. This surely suggests that, contrary to Augustine, man was not created perfect. Rather perfection, both moral flawlessness under the commandment and maturity or completeness, was his goal. In other words, as modern scholars seem to recognise in part, salvation history was in evidence from the start. Man was not created static and required to maintain a flat uniformity; rather he was made in the dynamic image of God and thus required to gain his likeness (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18). He was hence subject to development by nature. Far from being perfect or mature, Adam was spiritually, if not physically, a baby as a comparison between Genesis 2 and 3 and Deuteronomy 1:39 and Numbers 14:29-35, for example, make plain. Not only did Adam not have the law at his creation but he had to be given it when he arrived at understanding. And it was the commandment or law that put him on probation and tested his heart like that of Israel at a later stage (e.g. Dt. 8:2,16). Once he did receive it, he, again like Israel, failed to keep it. And instead of bringing him the life it promised it brought him death just as it did to Israel (Dt. 30:17f.) and to Paul in his day (Rom. 7:9f.). On the other hand, had he kept the commandment, he would have gained life. How do we know? Because the second Adam did keep it, the whole law of Moses in fact, and he certainly gained life by so doing (Mt. 3:17). In fact, he went on to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:15), achieve perfection (Mt. 19:21, cf. 5:48) and was thus fitted to sit at the right hand of his heavenly Father (Heb. 1:3; Rev. 3:21).
No one to my knowledge has outlined the development that characterised the life of Jesus better than B.B.Warfield (pp.158ff., cf. pp.223ff.). Yet even he with his Presbyterian and Reformed background and strong emphasis on Augustinianism failed to appreciate its significance and theological importance (cf. J.Orr, p.70). H.W.Robinson, however, refused to be stampeded by the Augustinian view and drew the conclusion that “we must regard regeneration as the normal and ‘natural’ completion of what was begun in the first birth” (p.327). B.F.Westcott also recognised that development or progress was intrinsic to man apart from the Fall (The Epistles of John, p.308) and asserted both that “man was made in God’s image to gain His likeness (p.306) and that there is “a ‘making perfect’ which is correlative with ‘salvation’” (p.313). If this is true, then it is undeniable that Jesus himself, in accordance with his own dictum as God incarnate (John 3:6), had to undergo, or rather attain, the new birth (cf. Mt. 3:13-17). In other words, during his life in the flesh he necessarily experienced the testing and perfecting process ordained by his Father, as Hebrews especially makes clear. And in light of the markers or institutions of Jewish life to which he was subjected in his circumcision (Luke 2:21) and his bar mitzvah (Luke 2:41ff.), his regeneration was also an essential part of his spiritual development or, perhaps better, his punctuated progress towards the kingdom of heaven (cf. Gal. 4:4f.). Not without reason does the author of Hebrews refer to Jesus as the pioneer of our salvation (2:10; 5:9; 6:20; 12:2) who himself passed the test, conquered and achieved his predestined goal (1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 3:21, cf. 5:5; Heb. 9:24; 1 Pet. 3:18). (Predestination is not mechanical. Just as some are fitted by their evil works for destruction (Rom. 9:22; 1 Cor. 6:9f, etc.), so some are fitted by sanctification for life (Rom. 6:22; Eph. 2:10). Divine sovereignty does not negate human responsibility.)
If it is true then that human life begins in the flesh with a view to its completion in the spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 15:46; 1 Pet. 4:6), then recognition of our inherent development both as individual and community is paramount. Scripture makes it clear that though believers are ultimately heirs of God (Rom. 8:17) and potential owners of all the estate, we begin as slaves (Gentiles, cf. Lev. 25:39ff.; Neh. 9:36), become servants (if we are Jews, though even Gentiles nowadays go to school to learn the ‘law’) and eventually sons (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 3:19-4:7).
Ideas Associated with Original Sin
If what has been written above is basically correct, then at this point it is worth spending a moment examining various ideas associated with the traditional or Augustinian view. For a start, it is constantly claimed in evangelical popular literature that the reason why we sin is that we are born sinners and on that account need to be born again (e.g. Roberts, p.47). There is in the event apparent Scriptural support for this view – the proverb of 1 Sam 24:13, for example. Jeremiah 13:23, John 8:34, Romans 6:16 and 2 Peter 2:19 would appear to endorse this. However, all these texts refer to sins personally committed: they do not explain why we sin in the first place. The usual explanation, contrary to explicit biblical teaching (Dt. 24:16, etc.), is that Adam’s sin was either transmitted or imputed to us; but there is a mass of evidence pointing elsewhere. We have only to ask why Adam and Eve themselves sinned, for they certainly had no alien sin imputed to them. The deception of the devil apart, the answer is clear: it is first intimated in Genesis 3:6 and finally highlighted in Romans 7, especially verse 14. The plain truth is that whenever the flesh (i.e. our Adamic nature) collides with law, it capitulates. In other words, first Eve’s then Adam’s sin (cf. 1 Tim. 2:14) is repeated by all of us (cf. Rom. 3:23; 5:12). Since the commandment, like the law is transgenerational, we all succumb at least to some degree to fleshly temptation (cf. Jas. 1:14f.). In contrast, Jesus alone of all men and women subjected like our first parents to probation (Gen. 2:17) triumphed over temptation to the end (cf. Mt. 4:1-11, cf. Rom. 8:3). For the rest of us the point is this: once we sin, even if only in one area (Jas. 2:10), we forfeit the life promised to us by the commandment (cf. John 8:34). From that point on, as Adam and Eve discovered, the way to the tree of life is barred (Gen. 3:22-24) and cannot be recovered except in Christ (John 14:6; Heb. 10:19f.; Rev. 22:14). In him alone was the promise of life fulfilled and in him alone can it be fulfilled for the rest of us (cf. Heb. 2:14f.). For in him we are through faith justified, regenerated, sanctified and finally raised (2 Cor. 4:14, etc.). As God intended, Jesus is absolutely indispensable for salvation (Isa. 45:22f.; Phil. 2:9-11).
The War between Flesh and Spirit
As I noted above, it has long been held in the church that the flesh as such is evil. A recent popular writer informs us “that man’s ‘flesh’ (his innate human nature) is sinful. He is born that way.” This, however, cannot be true since, first, the flesh is created by God out of the earth and, second, it became the earthly tent of Christ himself. However, it is still held that the war between flesh and spirit referred to by Paul (Gal. 5:17, cf. Eph. 4:22), Peter (1:2:11, cf. 2:1:4) and James 4:1 arises out of the fact that the flesh is sinful and hence makes the new birth an unavoidable necessity (cf. Art. 9 of the C. of E.). The problem here is that the same war occurred principially in innocent Adam and Eve and even in sinless Jesus. If it is true that God cannot be tempted (Jas. 1:13), then the indisputable fact that Jesus was tempted must be a direct consequence of his incarnation. As flesh he was as susceptible to temptation as the rest of us, and in his case the war between flesh and spirit, exacerbated by the fiery darts of the devil, was titanic and terrible. For all that he triumphed (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2); so if he needed to be born again, that is, inherit life, it was certainly not because of his sin. Again we are drawn inexorably to the conclusion that the new birth is a ‘natural’ requirement, though admittedly one that can be and is in the case of all but Jesus thwarted by sin, stemming from our creation as flesh which cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven (John 3:6; 1 Cor. 15:50, cf. 1 Pet. 1:23).
If it is true that nature, and not original sin or the so-called Fall in Adam, prompts this war, then what is its origin? To answer this question we must go back to Genesis 1. There in verses 26-28 we read that man is made in the (spiritual) image of God to exercise dominion over the physical creation. The relevance of this appears in 2:7 which teaches us that physically man is made from the earth and is therefore clay (Job 10:9), earth or dust (1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 4:7). To pinpoint the issue which seems to have been universally missed by writers on theological themes, since man is made up of two components, flesh and spirit **, the former is meant to be ruled by the latter. It is not just our physical environment that requires cultivation and dominion, but our own bodies (cf. James 3:2). Our uncontrolled or undisciplined ‘lawless’ flesh reverts as readily to wilderness or chaos as untilled land does (Prov. 24:30ff.; Isa. 6:11; Ezek. 36:33-36, etc.), and when the spirit is completely absent, as in death (Jas. 2:26), then it gives way to total corruption (Gen. 3:19; Job 34:14f., cf. Rom. 8:19-25) and is fit only to be burned (cf. Heb. 6:7f.).
Jesus Alone Victorious
In contrast to his sinful fellows Jesus fulfils the divine purpose of subjecting everything, including his own body of flesh, under his feet and, having achieved perfection (James 3:2), is as a consequence crowned with glory and honour. The reference to his death (Heb. 2:9) makes it clear that Jesus’ victory is on behalf of his fellow man and ensures their salvation too. This is the glory of the gospel. What is more, it makes it clear beyond cavil that only Jesus, who alone lived life in the flesh without sin, can act as the Saviour of mankind. And for pluralists to argue that the exclusivity of Christianity is based on a few texts like John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 is radically to misconceive the nature of the situation. The truth is that the entire Bible militates against the idea. Briefly, Jesus is a man apart – unique, matchless, incomparable and peerless. As the Word made flesh he was sent by the one true God to accomplish the divine salvation that was promised in the OT (Isa. 45:22f.; Rom. 14:11; Phil. 2:9-11). And the notion that the flesh or the natural man will ever boast before God is scouted absolutely by the NT (cf. Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16, etc.). All born of woman, Jesus apart, crumble before (the) law, as even Job and his companion appeared to realise (4:17; 15:14; 25:4).
The Weakness of the Flesh
If it is true that fleshly man through weakness lacks the capacity to keep the law (Rom. 7:14; 8:3) which leads to life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.) and that God’s intention was always that no flesh should boast in his presence (Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16), the traditional dogmas of Adam’s covenant headship of the race and the imputation of his sin are rendered redundant. If this is not so, then the reason why God should compromise his holiness by imputing Adam’s sin to his innocent posterity, when they are made in his fleshly image and hence by nature characterised by his inability to keep the commandment, must ever remain an insoluble mystery. In the event, it is far better to recognise that regeneration is not an imperative, a matter of our personal responsibility like repentance consequent on sin, but a natural necessity arising out of our earthly constitution. However, since sin to which we are all prone (Rom. 3:23; 5:12) prevents nature from achieving its intended goal, the way is opened up for God to manifest the riches of his grace in Christ (Rom. 11:32; Gal. 3:22). Here lies the essence of the gospel, which points the way to life in gratitude to God and refusal to boast in personal achievement. All the glory goes to God alone – Gloria soli Deo (Rev. 4:11).
Conversion Precedes Regeneration
If all this is true, then my contention that faith precedes regeneration answers some of the conundrums that loom so large on the traditional view. For why is conversion, that is, repentance and faith (cf. Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38), presented in Scripture as the indispensable requirement of salvation or regeneration if the latter precedes it? Simply to ask the question is to reveal the absurdity on which it is based. (It is paralleled by the equally absurd notion fundamental to Augustinianism that man, i.e. Adam, began life perfect!) For how can we be responsible moral agents under an obligation to repent if repentance is based on what is intrinsically an impossible rebirth? Such thinking undermines totally all ideas of human responsibility and reduces salvation to raw election and God himself to naked sovereignty like the god of Islam.
Next, it is extremely hard not to infer that if regeneration is applied to us before its preconditions like repentance, faith and justification are accomplished, they are rendered redundant and the door is opened to antinomianism with a vengeance. After all, why strive for what you have already got? (It might be countered at this point that I am suggesting that regeneration is a human accomplishment rather than a gift of grace, but this would be to miss my point. While it is true that Christ’s work precedes our faith (cf. Rom. 5:6,8), faith is the means by which it is applied to us personally. And while faith itself is a gift, it is nonetheless exercised by responsible human subjects.) In contrast, they become an absolute requirement if they are shown to be the essential instrumental means of eternal life, the very portals of heaven.
There is another point: Scripture not only puts repentance and faith first but constantly emphasises their imperative nature. (Regeneration scarcely appears in Paul, though adoption does.) The author of Hebrews seems to sum up the situation when he says that without faith it is impossible to please God (11:6). Why is this so? On the traditional view it is regeneration that to all intents and purposes is stressed as an imperative, not faith. The answer of course lies in the fact that faith is the instrument by which we gain a righteousness which we as sinners cannot produce ourselves but which is the indispensable prerequisite of eternal life in the presence of an all-holy God (cf. Isa. 33:14). Needless to add, it is the righteous who are justified and the righteous alone who will live (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11, cf. Rev. 22:14).
My conclusion then is that, according to the Bible, regeneration is a universal human necessity arising out of our naturally temporal earthly nature (which therefore includes the incarnate Jesus) and not a moral imperative like repentance and faith stemming from our sin.
* B.F.Westcott wrote : “The words (flesh, spirit) describe the characteristic principles of two orders. They are not related to one another as evil and good; but as the two spheres of being with which man is connected. By the ’spirit’ our complex nature is united to heaven, by the ‘flesh’ to earth” (John, p.50).
** Expressed thus bleakly, this is a point of anthropology which lack of space forbids spelling out. See e.g. Guthrie, New Testament Theology, Leicester, 1981, pp.176f.
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