Theological Terminology Thursday:
The Study of Specialized Words Relating to Theology
Conversion and Regeneration
By Ron F. Hale.
He has served as Pastor, Church Planter, Strategist (NAMB), Director of Missions, Associate Executive Director of Evangelism and Church Planting for a State Convention, and now in the 4th quarter of ministry as Minister of Missions.
A Personal Application of the Words
I was born into a lost and sinful world; weren’t we all!
Sin messed up the world after the fall of Adam and Eve, and the mess has been growing like a blazing inferno. Sin’s power to destroy, distort, and devalue will never change. It is seated in the very soul of sinners. Immorality and corruption, prejudice and pride, iniquity and evil, out of which grow wars and rumors of war will continue unless the hearts of men are changed.
By the age of nineteen, I was the youngest man in my state to acquire a license to sell alcohol and was part-owner and manager of a 500-seat nightclub in my hometown. The business grew. It was sort of the happening place in our city and the largest dance club between Memphis and Nashville. I was messed up and helping people make a bigger mess of their lives.
Something happened to me that changed the course of my life, family, and the lives of others. According to John 3:3 and 2 Corinthians 5:17, I was born again by the regenerating power of God; the old was gone and the new had come! In Christ, He brought about a new spiritual, volitional, moral, and intellectual change. Thirty-five years later, God continues cleaning up the mess in my life through His life-changing power.
How did this change come about in my life? Did God zap me with a bolt and jolt of regenerating power? Did I say the right words of righteousness or do something to gain God’s favor? Was it God? Was it me? What happened?
Prior to salvation, I had been reading and studying the Word of God. I had been attending church with my wife and hearing the gospel in Sunday School and church. People were praying for me. Several people had shared the gospel with me. Most of all, the Holy Spirit was convicting me (Ps. 51:3, John 16:8-11) of my messed up life (my sin) and pointing me to Jesus Christ and His saving power. Finally, one Sunday morning everything came together in one holy moment as I called on Jesus to forgive me and save me. My life changed that day because of an encounter with the living Lord! God took the initiative; I merely responded through repentance and faith. As sinners, God’s Word summons us to repent and believe, but we are never summoned to ‘redeem’ or ‘justify’ or ‘regenerate’ or ‘adopt.’ These are things only God can do!
Salvation is God’s answer to our mess! This brings me to the two theological words in the scope of salvation: conversion and regeneration. Here we will see the relationship of the lost man to his sin and the relationship of the sinner to a saving God.
Dr. Kenneth Keathley (SEBTS) defines conversion:
It is made up of two distinguishable yet inseparable parts: repentance and faith. True repentance and true faith are like the two sides of a coin – it is impossible to have one without the other. Repentance and faith are the conditions for salvation. They occur simultaneously, and taken together they make up the act of conversion.
Keathley says of conversion, it is something we do, that is, God does not repent and believe for us. Over and over, the Bible shows God calling the sinner to repent and believe. This personal response is a “turning from” and a “turning to.” The sinner is convicted to turn from his sin (godly sorrow) and turn to a Holy God (faith). The Holy Spirit is working to bring conviction of the sinner’s sin, of the righteousness of Christ, and a coming judgment (John 16:8-11).
Jesus said that He has come to seek and to save that which was lost. At the age of twenty-three, the Lord Jesus invaded my world with His Spirit convicting me, His Word teaching me, His preacher pointing me to the gospel, His people praying for me and the Spirit of God bringing me to a point of either rejecting or receiving. Only by God’s help did I reach out to repent and receive.
Repentance and faith do not constitute two independent acts; they are merely the negative and positive views of the same experience. If it were possible to have one to the exclusion of the other, we would end up with an oxymoronic mix up of impenitent believer or penitent unbeliever. When one turns from sin, he automatically turns to God. One turning is not possible without the other.
Dr. C. E. Autrey once said,
Man in his natural world is committed to it and moves with the impulses of that world. God must come into man’s world and get his personal response. We have seen how God by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ has entered the world and offered man a new life. It now becomes man’s responsibility to accept or reject.
So when the sinner acknowledges his or her guilt before a Holy God and looks to Jesus like a drowning man accepting a lifeline, or a poor man allowing a generous benefactor to pay his debt – the sinner is converted! In conversion, we see the synergistic work of God drawing, wooing, and convicting with the sinner freely responding by “turning from” and “turning to.” Regeneration is the other side, and it is all (100%) God’s doing.
Regeneration is the act of God whereby the Holy Spirit imparts eternal life to the believer. The Dictionary of Everyday Theology and Culture says of “regeneration,”
When humans are born, they possess bios, or biological life. But believers in Jesus who are born of the Holy Spirit possess z?e, or new spiritual life. This explains why, in the same conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). Unlike conversion, humans don’t have a part in regeneration; it’s a supernatural work of God alone.
While conversion is a graciously enabled action, it still is a decision made by the hearer of the gospel. Only by the grace of God is a person truly converted. In contrast, regeneration is entirely a work of God. Conversion is something we do; regeneration is a work accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit. Just as we did not birth ourselves, we do not enact our new birth either. We convert; God regenerates.
Jesus seeks to teach a very smart man named Nicodemus that the natural man cannot be a part of God’s Kingdom without a complete spiritual change (John 3:3). The Greek word an?then could also be translated “from above” thereby showing the source of this rebirth or regeneration.
Regeneration a radical change – resulting in a new beginning of character. This is not talking about our old lives being reformed, reconditioned, or reinvigorated. The new Child of God is no longer focused on self and sin but in Christ (John 3:9).
Regeneration is essential to salvation – Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again (John 3:7). Only the person experiencing the “new birth” can enter into the Kingdom of God. No amount of good deeds or religious acts can help us acquire salvation.
Regeneration is a work of God – wrought by the Holy Spirit! “3 Jesus replied, ‘I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ . . . 6 ‘Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit’” (John 3:3, 6). The Holy Spirit is the direct and personal agent effecting this regeneration.
Regeneration is not the result of water baptism – the New Testament points to baptism as a testimony or sign of the new birth (Rom. 6:3-5). Christian baptism takes for granted that the new birth has already happened.
Regeneration should not be joined to infant baptism – Keathley shares how certain Reformed and Presbyterian churches teach that regeneration precedes conversion chronologically and a number of covenant theologians connect regeneration with infant baptism. He shows that W. G. T. Shedd in his Dogmatic Theology (vol. 2) believes that New Testament baptism equates with the Old Testament rite of circumcision, that both are signs that one has been born into the covenant, and that just as the male children of a Hebrew family were circumcised as infants, so today the children of believers also should be baptized. Shedd says, “The infant of the believer receives the Holy Spirit as a regenerating Spirit, by virtue of the covenant between God and his people.”
Regeneration does not precede conversion – Keathley gives three arguments for this. First, the Bible gives many appeals calling sinners to respond to the gospel, thereby, implying that conversion results in regeneration. The Scriptures are presented as the seed the Spirit of God uses to bring about new life (1 Peter 1:23, James 1:18, 21; and 1 John 3:9). Secondly, the Bible presents conversion as the condition to salvation, not the result of being saved. The apostles repeatedly promise their hearers that if they will repent and believe, then they will be saved (Acts 2:38, 16:30-31). Faith is presented as the condition to becoming a child of God (John 1:12-13). Third, Norm Geisler (Systematic Theology, 475-77) makes the point that if regeneration is prior to conversion, then salvation is no longer by faith. If one is already regenerated before he believes, then faith is not a condition to salvation but the evidence of having been saved. Reformed writers James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken would not agree, as they say, “People only believe because God has quickened them. If they fail to believe, it is because God has withheld that special, efficacious grace that he was under no obligation to bestow. In other words, new life comes before saving faith; it is never the other way around.” I would kindly disagree.
In closing, I was saved as God’s Spirit powerfully worked in my life. I became a child of God through His regenerating power as I repented and called on Jesus (Romans 10:13). God’s Spirit assured me of His salvation after a short struggle with doubt and confusion brought by other well meaning Christians who felt their church was the one true church on the planet. God kindly assured me that salvation was “in Christ,” and no amount of water, worry, or works can save.