Accounts of Jesus’ conspicuously Trinitarian baptism at his reception of the Spirit in the synoptics (see Mt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Lu. 3:21f.) bear strong resemblance to Pentecost and the later experiences of the disciples (e.g. Acts 10:44-48). Thus the picture painted by the gospel writers makes it entirely reasonable for us to draw the conclusion that our Lord’s baptism is the archetype of all Christian baptism.
Historically, however, the Church has not seen it this way. Even the human agent of Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist whose baptism was with a view to repentance (Mark 1:4), reacted negatively and uncomprehendingly to Jesus’ request (Mt. 3:14) and, given the latter’s sinlessness and lack of need to repent, there is little wonder. Then the inference has sometimes been drawn that Jesus’ baptism involved proxy repentance, i.e. it signified a vicarious action of Jesus on behalf of his people. This is hardly convincing since repentance for transgression is a personal matter (Mark 1:15; Rom. 2:4). If it were true, it would have catastrophic theological and moral implications (cf. Mt. 3:9). Then again, Jesus’ endowment with the Spirit can be explained as a preparation for his ministry as Messiah, which it certainly was, but if this involves a denial that his baptism was the ideal baptism (see, e.g. Beasley-Murray’s chapter The Foundation of Christian Baptism, pp. 63ff.), it inevitably raises a variety of questions. For when too much emphasis is laid on the difference between Jesus and his disciples to the exclusion of his similarity to, even identity with, them at certain points (cf. Heb. 2:14ff.), there is a great danger of lapsing into the ancient heresy of docetism which denied Jesus’ true humanity.
So it needs first to be established that Jesus was a real man. According to John 1:14 the Word became flesh (see also Rom. 1:3). He was born of woman (Mt. 1:25; Lu. 2:7; Gal. 4:4, cf. 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 2:14), was a true son of Adam (Lu. 3:38), a genuine Jew and son of the commandment (cf. Lu. 2:41ff.) and was made like his fellows in every respect (Heb. 2:17). Yet, in spite of being tempted like all men, he did not personally sin (Heb. 2:18; 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22). Therefore, though naturally mortal, his body was not subject to death on account of sin (cf. Rom. 8:10f.).
In seeking to glorify his Father Jesus’ main task was to redeem mankind (see e.g. John 10:15; 15:13; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8, etc.). But in order to do this he had to act AS man FOR man (Heb. 2:6-10,14f.,17f.) in accordance with the original promise made to Adam (Gen. 2:17). Once he became flesh, however, he was made weak (Mt. 26:41), dependent and susceptible to temptation (Mt. 4:1-11), sin and death (2 Cor. 5:21; 13:4, cf. Rom. 8:3). As a true man there is a sense in which his divinity became an irrelevance, for, though he was truly the Son of God, he was granted no special favours or privileges (note Mt. 4:6f.; Heb. 5:7f.). As a man he had to live and act as a man, indeed, as man perfectly at harmony with the whole law of Moses, in order to receive the life originally promised to Adam (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Dt. 30:20; 32:47; Ezek. 20:11,13,21; Mt. 19:17; Mark 10:19; Luke 10:28; 18:18-20; Rom. 10:5). He was thus subject to the entire gamut of the law in all its forms. In other words, though like all human babies he was born knowing neither good nor evil (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.), he had to achieve personal righteousness under the law in the flesh (see Gen. 2:17; Dt. 6:24f., cf. Rom. 8:3), for apart from it he could not inherit life (Ezek. 18:5-9, etc.). And it was not until he had received the approval of his Father at the end of his probation under (the) law (Mt. 3:17, cf. Gal. 3:24; 4:2) that he gained life in accordance with the OT promise most clearly enunciated (though constantly repeated) in Leviticus 18:5. It was at his baptism that the Spirit was said to descend and, in contrast with the OT saints, remain on him (John 1:32f., cf. 3:34). It was then that he was openly acknowledged as the Son of God (Mt. 3:17). This permanent indwelling of the Spirit surely implied not merely that he had eternal life, that is, was born from above, but that he would persevere to the end. Thus being and action, ontology and function were seen to coincide in him who walked not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:4).
If this is so, then Jesus’ baptism would appear to be paradigmatic, setting the pattern for all Christian baptism. It may be objected, however, that John the Baptist on his own confession baptised only with water (e.g. Mark 1:8). While this may be true in general, it was certainly not so on the occasion of Jesus’ baptism when John clearly became the human instrument in a divine action.
It should be noted here that the indispensable precondition of what the apostle John calls the new birth or eternal life is righteousness. This is implied in Genesis 2:17 and made evident as early as the third chapter of Genesis where Adam and Eve’s failure to keep the commandment debarred them from the tree of life (3:22-24). The point of mentioning this is to underline the fact that Jesus was acting on behalf of all men and women throughout the history of the race. But as a man himself, as well as representative man, the last Adam, he had to gain life by living sinlessly in contrast with his original human progenitor, the first Adam, in order to put himself in a position to bring life to his fellows as the pioneer and perfecter of their faith (cf. Heb. 2:9-18). In other words, he had to have power over his own flesh (Rom. 8:3) in order to give eternal life to all whom the Father had given him (cf. John 17:2). While he was a servant still under the law, he was bent on achieving personal righteousness and was in no position to act on behalf of others (cf. Luke 17:7-10). Once, however, he had gained life for himself and been openly acknowledged as God’s Son (Mt. 3:17, etc.), he was not merely in his Father’s house (John 8:35) but able to serve as its very foundation for his people (Heb. 3:6). As the one who had uniquely kept the written law (cf. Ps. 143:2), he was now in a position to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:15, cf. 19:21; Heb. 7:18f.). On the one hand, his goal was complete maturity or spiritual perfection as a man (Mt. 5:48; Heb. 5:8f., cf. Jas. 1:4; 3:2), on the other, his aim was to do his Father’s will by sacrificing himself on behalf of others (John 10:17f.; Acts 10:38) in an act of total commitment (John 4:34; 14:31) and supererogation. So, accepting by faith the sin of man imputed to him, he died on the cross and expiated the sins of all who put their trust in him. To them he freely gave a righteousness (justification by faith) that they were completely unable to provide for themselves (Ps. 143:2; Rom. 3:21ff.; 5:15f.; Phil. 3:9; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:18, etc.). And in this way, he opened the gate of heaven and gave them the eternal life originally promised to Adam on condition of his obedience (Gen. 2:17, cf. 1 John 2:25. Note also Rom. 5:17,18,21 where Paul maintains that righteousness leads to life.).
This brings us back to the new birth. Scripture makes it clear beyond equivocation (see espec. John 3:1ff. and 1 Cor. 15:42ff.) that regeneration relates primarily not to our sin, as Augustine taught, but to our earthly nature as flesh*. John 3:1-8, like 1 Corinthians 15:42-50, does not even mention sin. In verse 6 Jesus lays it down that what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit (cf. John 1:13). But what applies to Nicodemus and to the rest of mankind must have applied equally to Jesus himself since, as we saw above when insisting that he was truly man born of woman, he also was flesh (cf. Heb. 2) and as such had to achieve righteousness under the law. Had he not been born again, he could not have entered the kingdom of God himself (John 3:5) least of all been the agent of its inauguration here on earth (cf. Mt. 12:22-32) and its very means of entry for his people (John 10:7; 14:6).
The latter point is underscored by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:50 (cf. 1 Pet. 1:23). Having already indicated that with all human beings (and, on the assumption of his incarnation, including Jesus) the flesh or the natural or physical comes first (v.46), he adds that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Admittedly, Paul’s focus of attention is the body, but the idea that we can experience a spiritual change apart from a bodily one (note vv.51ff.) would torpedo his entire argument here as elsewhere (2 Cor. 4:7-5:5; 1 Thes. 4:13ff.).
Another point of fundamental importance needs to be made in the effort to support the thesis that Jesus was the subject of regeneration: Jesus alone satisfied the demands of the OT covenant by keeping the written law to his Father’s satisfaction (Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11,13,21; Mt. 3:17; 19:17-21, cf. Gal. 3:2,5, etc.) and so made incorruptible life a reality for the first time (cf. 2 Tim. 1:10). It is part of the essence of Paul’s theology that Jesus is the second or last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45ff., cf. Rom. 5:12ff.). As the One who at his incarnation descended from heaven with the express intention of ascending there again (cf. John 3:13; 6:62; 16:28) with his (spiritual) fellows in train (Heb. 2:10-18), he had to pave their way by pioneering the regenerate life himself as their representative (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 6:20; 12:2). Thus, as the second Adam, having perfectly played out his first Adamic role in the ‘flesh’ (recapitulation) as both slave (in Egypt, Mt. 2:15) and servant under the law (Lu. 2:41ff.; cf. Gal. 4:1-4), he proceeded as the man of heaven to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:15) by living out the spirit of the law in his majority as a son (Gal. 4:5; Acts 2:22; 10:38, cf. Mt. 19:21; 2 Cor. 3:2-6). Clearly as a servant bent on justifying himself before his Father he could do no good (meritorious) works (cf. Lu. 17:7-10) and, like John the Baptist, perform no miracles. But as the acknowledged and Spirit-filled Son he not only went about doing good (Acts 10:38, cf. Eph. 2:10) but also eventually capped his regenerate life by dying for and redeeming his sheep (John 10:15; 15:13; Gal. 4:5-7; 1 Cor. 15:45b). On the other hand, denial of Jesus’ regeneration, typically the logical and normal outcome of keeping the law (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5), leaves him still under the law, in permanent minority (Gal. 4:1ff., cf. 3:23ff.), devoid of the Spirit yet nonetheless capable of fulfilling all righteousness and thereby achieving perfection. This is an impossible position to hold. So far as the author of Hebrews is concerned, it means he was never perfected (7:18f., cf. Mt. 19:21; Phil. 3:12-15) and was therefore incapable of perfecting his fellows (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:14; 12:2). Such is the fruit of the erroneous dogma of original sin and a false covenant theology which fails to see that we are all first, even apart from sin, slaves, then, if we are Jews, servants, and finally by the grace of God sons (Gal. 4:1-7).
This is all so fundamentally important that it needs to be re-iterated and re-expressed. It is more than a little difficult to see how Jesus could do good works (Acts 10:38, cf. Eph. 2:10) and redeem people under the law (Gal. 4:5) if he was still under the law himself still being tested (cf. Ex. 16:4; Dt. 8:2,16) and doing his duty (Luke 17:10). The point of his baptism was that with the outpouring of the Spirit he was now not only by nature a son, the Son, but also functionally so since he was led by the Spirit. He had kept the law which promised life and now he had gained it. His was not an adoption as ours is. Rather, he who was by nature God’s Son, born of woman (nature) and subjected to the law in all its rigour had graduated in accordance with Paul’s teaching in Galatians 4:1-7.
In the upshot, it is clear that just as Jesus’ righteousness is the basis of ours in justification, so his regeneration is the foundation of ours in life. In other words, it is impossible to be born again in this world apart from faith in Christ (John 3:16; 1 John 5:11f.). We depend on him who as a man like us became a life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45) for both righteousness and life (cf. Rom. 5:21).
Reference to Jesus’ sonship, of course, only serves to underline the fact that he underwent the new birth since the one implies the other. While the church has remained blind to the implication, the devil was all too aware of the significance of Jesus’ baptism. He thus pointedly tempted him as a regenerate son, the Son (Mt. 4:3,6), just as God had tested the Israelites, collectively his adopted son (Ex. 4:22), in the wilderness long before (Dt. 8:2).
On the assumption that the reasoning presented above is in essence correct, we can now agree with Robinson that regeneration is “the normal and ‘natural’ completion of what was begun in the first birth” (p. 327). Surely this is precisely what Paul is intimating in 1 Corinthians 15:42ff., not to mention Jesus’ own teaching in John 3. It must immediately be added, however, that for us sinners it is now only ‘natural’ because Jesus himself has made it so. Apart from his own new birth consequent on his keeping the law, all other new births would be impossible because of sin. To clarify the issue, it must be said that God’s original purpose, which involved man’s glorification (Gen. 1:26,28; Ps. 8:5f.;Rom. 2:7,10; 8:28-30; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 1:4f.; Heb. 2:9) and perfection (Mt. 5:48, cf. Rom. 8:29) but which was thwarted by sin, has now been effected in Jesus (Heb. 2:10; 5:8f.; 7:28; 1:3) and through him in his people both as community and individuals. (Cf. Westcott: “We cannot but believe that under any circumstances … there would have been a progress in the race, as well as in the individual, towards the gradual fulfilment of the idea of humanity…. In other words, the endeavour to follow out the normal development of the human race leads us to look for that which answers to the Incarnation, by which the completed body might be brought into a final unity of fellowship with God”, p.308. See also Warfield, who referred to Jesus’ human development as the only strictly normal development from birth to manhood, the world has ever seen, p.160).
The plain truth is then that, as Paul points out, we who are Christians follow the pattern established by the two Adams. The first, though made in the image of God, is physical (natural) and earthly, the second is spiritual and heavenly (1 Cor. 15:45-49). If we reach maturity or perfection we all necessarily conform to both on our way to heaven. Since, however, God does not permit fleshly man to boast (1 Cor. 1:29; Eph. 2:9), we all, with the single exception of Jesus (it is here, of course, that his divinity is of vital importance), fall into sin (Rom. 3:19-23). Thus Jesus alone of all men that ever lived achieved life (or the new birth and blessing of the Spirit, cf. Mt. 3:16f.), on the basis of his righteousness under the law in fulfilment of his Father’s promise made under the law (Lev. 18:5, cf. Gen. 2:17; Dt. 32:46f., etc.). And having as a man, the second Adam, gained life for himself, he was thus in a position to achieve it for his fellow men (cf. Heb. 2:10-13). If Adam sinned and brought in death, Jesus remained sinless and attained to righteousness and life (Rom. 5:12-21; 6:23; 2 Tim. 1:10).
In the last analysis, all who deny that Jesus needed to be born again are failing to appreciate, first, God’s purpose for man (Eph. 1:4; 4:13; Col. 1:28; 2:2, etc.) and, secondly, what the author of Hebrews is affirming when he says: “It was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (2:10f., ESV, cf. also 3:1-6). This failure means that they fall prey to docetism and hence deny the incarnation. Little wonder that the latter was regarded as the most abysmal of heresies in NT times (1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7, etc.). This being the case, it is imperative to ask why practically the whole church especially in the West has gone astray in denying to Jesus the necessity of regeneration. The answer doubtless lies, as Robinson hints in the reference above, in its uncritical following of Augustine of Hippo.
It needs to be recognised that Augustine became a colossus in the minds of Christians in the fifth and following centuries. His towering figure dominated later theologians including the Reformers (Luther, it must be remembered, was an Augustinian monk and Calvin could quote Augustine off the cuff.) While the latter rejected to some extent his ecclesiology, they accepted his doctrine of grace and regarded him as the great enemy of pernicious Pelagianism. (Pelagius emphasised free will and righteousness by works). Despite his mother’s being a professing Christian, Augustine’s early training was pagan. But worse, he adopted Manicheism and the view that the flesh was evil. Contemporary detractors like Julian of Eclanum maintained that he remained manicheistic to the end, and with good reason (see e.g. H.Chadwick, pp. 111f.). For example, it is now acknowledged by leading scholars that he regarded sex as evil (see e.g. Rist, pp.319ff.; Cunliffe-Jones, pp.162f.). Holding this view it was inevitable, subsequent to the sin of Adam, that for him desire (or carnal lust or concupiscence) and the flesh in general were tarnished. Thus to this day the church frequently regards the flesh as evil. (See e.g. Barrett, p.148, denied by Dunn, p.391. On page 156, commenting on Romans 8:3, Barrett, cf. Barth, even goes so far as to suggest that Jesus took on our “fallen nature” but constantly overcame the proclivity to sin! This is said in defiance of logic and is clearly a profound error.) But Jesus as ‘flesh’ must have experienced the normal desires of the flesh and been unavoidably caught up in the war between flesh and spirit (cf. Gal. 5:16ff.; 1 Pet. 2:11, pace Art. 9 of the C of E) common to all mankind or he could not have been tempted (cf. James 1:12ff.). If this is not the case, we are forced to conclude (a) that he was not human; (b) that he never gained victory over temptation; and hence (c) he was disqualified from acting as our high priest (Heb. 2:17f.; 4:15). However, it is quite clear that some ‘lusts’ (Gk. epithumia) are permissible (see e.g. Dt. 12:15,20f.; 21:11f. and espec. Lu. 22:15) indicating that human beings as ‘flesh’ have desires by nature (creation) like the Spirit himself (Gal. 5:17). What is forbidden, however, is the kind of ‘lust’ referred to in the tenth commandment (cf. Mt. 5:28; 2 Pet. 2:14), but this cannot be extended to what is entirely legitimate (i.e. not forbidden by the law, cf. Gal. 5:23) and intrinsically natural, despite the views of Augustine. For example, sexual relations between husband and wife are entirely legitimate, ordained by God in fact for the propagation of the race (Gen. 1:28). By contrast, however, adultery is illegitimate and is constituted sinful by the law (cf. Rom. 7:1-3).
It is also to Augustine that we owe the dogma of original sin which simply bristles with insoluble problems. (One of its fruits is the clearly erroneous view of Barrett referred to above. If it is true, we must assume that Jesus was a sinner like the rest of us, or, again, that he was not truly man.) In order to combat this patently unbiblical dogma Augustine was forced to call in the idea of infant and baptismal regeneration still so characteristic of the Roman Church (cf. Needham, pp.32-34,45,252). But Protestants need to be aware that federal and covenant theologies had their beginnings in the same dogma. Thus even the children of the Reformation make the capital error of presenting regeneration (a unilateral act of God) as the remedy of sin, especially original or birth sin (also a unilateral act of God and hence outside man’s control and responsibility). As we have seen, however, in a brief examination of John 3:1-8, Jesus pits Spirit or new birth not against sin but against nature, i.e. ‘flesh’. As the whole of the OT sacrificial system, not to mention specific NT teaching about the death of Christ, indicates the remedy for sin is blood not Spirit, atonement not regeneration (cf. 1 John 1:7; Heb. 1:3). The latter, however, is pre-eminent in sanctification.
What needs to be recognised, however, in the immortal words of Charles Wesley, is that the Spirit or the new birth breaks the power of CANCELLED sin (1 Cor. 6:11; Tit. 3:3-7). Indeed, unless sin is covered and righteousness attained (through justification by faith, cf. 1 Cor. 6:9), the new birth, which is synonymous with eternal life and the reception of the Spirit (Gal. 3:2,5), simply cannot take place (Lev. 18:5). If this is denied, we inevitably end up with unrepentant, unforgiven and unjustified sinners being granted eternal life and a place in the kingdom – a state of affairs which is directly contrary to the very essence of biblical teaching about salvation. The truth is that atonement and justification by faith MUST precede the granting of new life by the Spirit (Rom. 5:6,10,17,18,21), unless, as in Jesus’ own case, we have kept the law to perfection and have earned our Father’s ‘well done’ in our own strength (Mt. 3:17; 25:21,23). If regeneration occurred first, then sinners would be eternally cemented in their sin – a state of affairs against which God took measures at the start of history (Gen. 3:22).
Historically, the church has confused sin and grace with flesh and spirit and continues to do so to this day, and until it sorts out this muddle, doctrinal mayhem will remain a permanent feature of the church scene. So it needs to be stressed yet once more that, according to Scripture, the indispensable precondition of life (sonship) is righteousness by law-keeping as in Jesus’ case, or justification by faith in Christ in our own case (cf. Rom. 10:5f.). This being so, the pattern that believers must follow is that established by Jesus who blazed our trail and pioneered out salvation (or regenerate life: Heb. 2:10; 5:8f.; 6:20; 12:2). Whereas once, led by the devil and our fleshly passions (Eph. 2:2f., etc.), we followed the first Adam in his sin, now, having been justified by faith and led by the Spirit, we follow the second Adam in his righteousness and progressive sanctification (Rom. 6:13,16,19,22).
So, in conclusion it must be urged that if Jesus was ever ‘flesh’ (i.e. truly incarnate), as the last Adam he had necessarily to experience the new birth to fit him for heaven (cf. John 3:6; 1 Cor. 15:50). (This, of course, implies that his baptism and reception of the Spirit, like his acknowledged Sonship, Mark 1:11, anointing, John 1:41, sealing, John 6:27, overcoming, John 16:33, and so forth, were paradigmatic, see 1 John 2:27; Eph. 1:13; Gal. 4:6f.; Rom. 8:31ff., etc.) As one born of woman and knowing neither good nor evil (Isa. 7:15f.), he doubtless learned to accept the ‘no’ of his parents (cf. e.g. Ps. 78:5-8) and to be obedient in a way that the first Adam was not (cf. Heb. 5:7f.). Then as a son of the commandment (Lu. 2:41ff.), he faithfully served his apprenticeship in violent contrast with rebellious Israel whom he represented (cf. Gal. 4:5; Heb. 9:15). For this he was granted life in accordance with his Father’s promise and openly acknowledged as his Son at his baptism. Even for him eternal life was not an inalienable right. As man’s representative, the second Adam, it had to be attained by meticulous submission to the divine will (John 8:29,46; 15:10; Heb. 5:8f. 1 Pet. 2:22, etc.). In other words, as we saw above, ontology had to be matched with action or function. Otherwise, failure under the law meant banishment from access to the tree of life as it had for the first Adam (Gen. 3:22-24).
In the event, Jesus finished his work by overcoming the world (John 16:33; 17:4f., cf. Gen. 1:26,28; Ps. 8:5f.; Heb. 2:7-9; Jas. 3:2). Assuming that the ‘world’ cannot refer simply to the organised opposition of worldly men as various writers aver, he had to triumph also over the transitory forces of the created world (Rom. 8:3,39 cf. 1 John 2:8,16f.; 1 Cor. 7:31; Gal. 1:4). In order to do this completely, however, he needed, as we, his followers, in our turn need (cf. 1 John 5:5; Rev. 3:20f.), to be born of God (1 John 5:4). If we deny this, then we imply either that he overcame as a servant under the law and not as a son, the Son (cf. Heb. 3:1-6; Gal. 4:1-6) on whom the Spirit had been poured out without measure (Luke 4:18; John 3:34) or that the law can give life (contrast Gal. 3:21; Heb. 7:18f.).
On the assumption that what is argued above is in fact a true reflection of the biblical position, it is now possible to see how we owe everything to God in Christ. For in Jesus’ own case, the flesh was weak (2 Cor. 13:4, cf. Rom. 8:3; Mt. 26:41) and even he owed his ‘salvation’ to God (cf. Heb. 5:7ff.) in accordance with OT teaching (Isa. 43:3,11; 45:21f.; 48:11). Truly can it be said that no flesh will boast in God’s presence (Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29). As Paul further intimates, God has consigned all men (and women) to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all (Rom. 11:32; Gal. 3:22). And that mercy is exercised in Christ, the heavenly Man, who achieved what the purely earthly man or first Adam proved intrinsically incapable of doing (cf. Rom. 7:7ff.).
So much for the argument which, reduced to its bare simplicity, is that if Jesus was incarnate, he had of necessity to be subject to regeneration in accordance with his own dictum (John 3:6) which was absolute and permitted no exceptions.
A Simple Syllogism
Major premise: All who are born of the flesh need to be born again (John 3:3,5,6).
Minor premise: Jesus was born of the flesh (Luke 1:42; Gal. 4:4).
Conclusion: Therefore Jesus was born again.
There is yet a final question to pose: Does the NT ever indicate directly that Jesus was born again? Apart from its implication in Matthew 3:13-17, John 3:3,6 (2*) and 3:8, as far as I am aware the only texts which possibly enable us to answer this in the affirmative are 1 John 5:18 and Hebrews 2:11. (Further reflection has led me to infer its implication in 1 John 4:4. After all, in John 16:33 we read that Jesus overcame the world. So since 1 John 4:4 tells us that whatever is born again overcomes the world, we are compelled to conclude that Jesus, having kept the law overcame the world as the regenerate Son of God. He thereby enabled believers to do the same through faith in him, cf. Rev. 3:21.) Regarding the former, the expression “he that was born of God” is unique or “peculiar” (Westcott), though it might be taken to refer to the fact that Christ was “born from God historically” (De Young, p.1186, cf. Westcott on John 3:6, p.50). Stott, having stated that our begetting and sonship are different from his since the latter’s are unique and eternal, adds that they are sufficiently similar to make it possible for John to use almost identical expressions to cover both born of God and begotten of God (p. 192). This is hardly persuasive: the problem is that ‘almost identical expressions’ would normally imply similarity not difference (cf. John’s use of the word ‘begotten’ (aorist) in John 1:13. In contrast, Westcott makes two points: first, that the expression “he that was born of God” (3*) emphasises the connection of the Son with those whom he is not ashamed to call his brethren (Heb. 2:11), second, that it highlights the difference in sonship that is marked in John 5:26, for we, though possessing eternal life, do not have life in ourselves. Again, Kruse, having noted the connection between being born of God and doing right (p.114), says correctly, though despite its obvious implication (cf. Mt. 3:15; John 8:29; 15:10), that Jesus is never said to be born of God (p.171, n.195, cf. p.195, n.235). He admits, however, that 1 John 5:18 may be an exception. Later (p.195) he suggests that there is a close parallel between John 17:12-15 and 1 John 5:18. (John 17:14,16, it should be noted, are somewhat similar to Hebrews 2:11.) What is surely clear is that the text cannot refer to a parallel between the physical or incarnational birth of Jesus (note John 1:18 where the ‘one and only’ is used) and the spiritual or new birth of those who exercise faith in Christ. No such parallel exists and can only be entertained by Augustinians who believe that we, as opposed to Jesus, are born sinners. According to the Bible, the new birth is re-generation subsequent to and different in kind from natural or physical birth as John 1:13 and 3:6 make clear. (With regard to 1:13 commentators generally deny any reference to the virgin birth. See e.g. Lindars, Marsh, Ridderbos, ad loc. While Carson, p.126, points out that John differentiates between Jesus as a ‘son’ and a believer as a ‘child’ of God, Morris, p.100, says that he does not speak elsewhere about the virgin birth but has a good deal to say about regeneration alluding to chapter 3 and 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1,4,18.)
In light of the evidence it would seem reasonable to infer that the apostle is underlining the spiritual nature of both the above-mentioned expressions. If all things have been given to the Son (3:35, cf. 6:37,39) because the Father loves him (cf. Mt. 3:17; 17:5), the suggestion is that this arises out of his achievement in the flesh (John 8:29, cf. Acts 5:31 on which see Marshall, p.120, and John 3:35 on which see Morris, pp.247f.). Sovereignty of life and authority to judge relate to the true humanity of the Son of Man (cf. Westcott on John 5:26, and note Acts 17:30f.). Thus, it may truly be said that he was both the ‘founder and perfecter’ (ESV) of the salvation of all his brethren (12:2, cf. Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 6:20 and note 10:14; Acts 3:14f.; 5:31). Just as he was born again, sealed with the Spirit (John 6:27, cf. 1:32f.), resurrected from the dead and glorified, so in consequence were his followers (Eph. 1:13; 2 Cor. 4:14; Rom. 8:29f.). In other words, both of Westcott’s points are valid and interconnected. Precisely because Jesus attained to regeneration, that is, was granted life by keeping the law to perfection (Lev. 18:5, etc.), he paved the way for it to occur in all other cases through faith in him (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45b, John 5:26, cf. 1 John 5:11f.). This, surely, is the wonder and heart of the gospel.
Regarding John 5:26, it seems to me that there is a danger of over-emphasising the ontology of the Word (cf. 1:4) to the exclusion of his function as Son (i.e. man).
So far as Hebrews 2:11 is concerned, the reference to the common divine origin (cf. Bruce, Lane, NIV, NRSV, etc.), of those who are brethren, points, in the light of verses like John 1:13 (cf. Heb. 2:13), to a common regeneration. (Lane strongly stresses the solidarity Jesus enjoyed with his people and maintains: “That solidarity is affirmed in the statement that the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family”, p.67, cf. pp.60,64) This conclusion is strengthened when we consider other references like Matthew 28:10, John 20:17, Romans 8:14-17,29 (on the latter see especially Dunn) and Galatians 4:6f., which surely rule out a common humanity, mere flesh and blood referred to in any case in verse 14 (contrast “the descendants of Abraham”, Heb. 2:16f.).
Though there is doubtless more to be said, I rest my case.
1* For Augustine the need to be born again arises from the fact that we are born sinful: ”So children derive guilt from their natural birth and cannot be liberated from this sickness unless they are born again” (Needham, p. 59, cf. pp. 251,286). The old notion that the word ‘flesh’ in John 3:6 meant ‘sinful flesh’ is now largely and rightly discarded. See e.g Morris, p.219 and notes.
2* Berkhof says of John 3:3 that the statement is absolute and leaves no room for exceptions (p.472). The same must be said of 3:6.
3* The difference between the aorist, referring to Jesus, and the perfect, relating to his people, is presumably significant. The aorist referring simply to an event in the past would suggest that Jesus’ rebirth was a ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ occurrence, uninterrupted by sin, in his progress towards perfection as the true Son of God; the perfect, referring to an event having continuing effects in the present, implies genuineness on the one hand (contrast 2:19) and, especially in the light of 1 John 1:8 and 3:9, constant guarding on the other (cf. John 10:28; 13:1).
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