On a late afternoon flight from Detroit to Minneapolis, my colleague slipped into the window seat and I took the seat on the aisle. But on this crowded flight we could not have the luxury of an empty seat between us. It was soon occupied by a young businessman who in the course of conversation discovered he was sandwiched between two seminary professors. “That’s interesting,” he said. “I have a young fellow working for me who is planning to enroll in seminary next year. I don’t know why he would do a thing like that; he’s one of the best engineers I’ve ever had. He really used to live a wild life, too, but there’s been a big change in him recently. I don’t understand it. Maybe getting married made the difference.” Gently I shared with him the fact that “if one is in Christ, he is a new creation.” It was a reminder to me that the doctrine of regeneration is a perplexity to the world. And it is also a doctrine that Christians should reexamine periodically.

The English word “regeneration” is a translation of a Greek word that occurs alone only once in Scripture, in Matthew 19:28, and there the concept is eschatological rather than personal-individual. (It also appears in a compound form in John 3.) But there are many other ways in which the phenomenon is indicated in the Scriptures, and our understanding of the term must include these references. The believer is spoken of as “born of God” or “by the word of God” in John 1:12, 13, in 1 John 2:29; 5:1, 4, in James 1:18, and in 1 Peter 1:3, 23. He is designated a “new creation” in Second Corinthians 5:17. The process or event is called “renewing of the mind” in Romans 12:2, “renewing of the Holy Spirit” in Titus 3:5, “resurrection from the dead” in Ephesians 2:6, “being quickened” in Ephesians 2:1, 5. The principle of these various verses is that when a person accepts Jesus Christ, God performs a supernatural work upon his life, and it changes him so sharply that the phenomenon can only be called a new birth.

This concept of new birth is difficult for us to understand, just as it was for Nicodemus long ago. Can we find a concept that is the basis and ground of new birth and thus unlocks its meaning? The doctrine of new birth appears to be inextricably linked with the concept of union with Christ in the teaching of both Jesus and Paul. If we can grasp this in terms of our day, perhaps the new birth will fall into an understandable pattern.

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Jesus not only told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7), but also insisted that he had come to give life, abundant life, and that he was the only source of this life (John 10:10). He tied this life so closely to him that he spoke of believers as eating his flesh and drinking his blood (John 6:47–59). He pictured the connection between himself and his followers to be like that of a vine and its branches (John 15): unless a man abides in Christ and Christ’s words abide in that man, he cannot bear fruit. The branch has no independent life, and neither has the Christian, so far as this type of life is concerned.

Paul, too, makes much of this concept of union with Christ. In Second Corinthians 5:17, where he speaks of being “a new creation,” he says, “If any one is in Christ.…” In the same context, “… that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21). Elsewhere he writes of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). For him, as for Jesus himself, the essential basis of this new life was to be the union between the believer and the Lord.

Many analogies to this union have been offered. Some suggest a sort of mystical oneness; others point to a moral empathy. Foreign as it appears to our contemporary way of thinking, what seems to underlie this union is the idea of blending or merging two selves into one.

An image that immediately comes to mind is that of marriage. Paul pictured the relation of Christ and believers (corporately—the Church) as like that of a husband and wife. In a marriage, individual identities and privileges are to a considerable extent subordinated to those of the partnership. Where property is held in joint tenancy, for instance, the husband or wife cannot dispose of the property without the agreement of the spouse. In a sense, the individuals have in certain respects ceased to be. Important decisions and plans are not made unilaterally. Each partner accepts the assets and liabilities of the other. The two persons have become one person.

Another contemporary model is the merger of two corporations. The assets and liabilities of both are brought together; no longer are there individual balance sheets for the two. The newly formed corporation possesses all that the two formerly had. Ideas, plans, property, are all brought together. Personnel of each organization interpenetrate what had been the structure of the other.

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Paul seems to be saying that the necessary condition for the presence of the new life is the surrender of individual autonomy into a union with Christ. Here the independent claims to righteousness, correct opinion, decision, have been abandoned. This means that the Christian no longer lives and functions as an independent individual, even in relationship to Jesus Christ. It is now “Millard Erickson and Jesus Christ, incorporated.” All my assets and liabilities (sin) have become his. His assets are jointly owned by me now.

This merger leads to the manifestation of new life in the individual. Now, in the “merger,” not only is the religious standing of the persons combined, but the feelings, thoughts, and actions of the two are brought together. Thus, as the Christian thinks, it is not his thoughts alone but Christ’s thoughts in him. As he feels, Christ’s feelings penetrate his being. As in a marriage, the emotions of one partner influence those of the other. The new life is more than just an external personality influence. Christ actually affects the springs of the believer’s feeling and thinking. Jesus is more than merely a very good friend; he directly enters the personality of the believer.

This does not mean that union with Christ obliterates the individual personality of the believer. In marriage, the personalities of the two parties are not lost but enhanced. The strengths of each are combined, and the influence of each brings out qualities latent in the personality of the other. Together the two can do what neither could have done separately. Love finds and evokes the best in the other.

Rather than restricting, the very act of giving up complete independence produces desirable results. The self-giving and self-restraint that marriage requires produce qualities such as unselfishness that might not develop in isolation. The interaction, the give-and-take between two different personalities, develops or rounds out each.

Jesus said that the person who saves or keeps his life actually loses it, and that he who gives up his life for Christ finds it (Luke 9:24). As his strength becomes ours we are enabled to do and to become that of which we were not capable independently. “The real you” is not submerged in this experience; it most fully appears here and only here.

The change that results from union with Christ is incomprehensible to unregenerate man. Jesus found this in his conversation with Nicodemus. “How can a man be born when he is old?” asked Nicodemus. “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus really did not attempt to explain this fact to the teacher of Israel. He compared it to the blowing of the wind. One hears the sound, knows that the wind exists, yet does not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with the new birth of the Holy Spirit: its reality is discerned through its effects. Rather little is said theoretically about the how of the phenomenon; much, however, is said about its results.

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How is this doctrine related to other concepts of our day? Is it “relevant”—does it speak to the ideas and experience of modern men?

The idea of new birth is first a denial of the optimism that characterizes the thinking of some moderns. The belief that man is basically good or perfectible underlies many social schemes. While evil and imperfection are acknowledged to exist, they are generally attributed to various influences in society. If these influences could be eliminated or negated, man would emerge in his natural state—desiring, willing, and doing what is good. Sometimes the alteration of these influences involves modifying the economic pattern, sometimes the political organization, sometimes the social structures. Some people advocate gradual modification; others insist upon revolutionary overthrow of the authoritarian powers. The common ground is the belief that man’s problem is not internal but external. He is capable of making himself what he ought to be.

The idea of new birth stands squarely opposed to this ideal view of man. New birth is needed, because the efforts of man are not sufficient to meet the requirements of God. The change is not something that can be effected by human willing or human effort (John 1:13). It must be accomplished by the Spirit of God. Man needs to place his confidence in God, not in man.

Here too is a denial of an opposite idea: the pessimism resulting from a belief in mechanism and determinism. Some persons despair of altering human nature. All is irrevocably determined and will surely come to pass. Man does what he does because of forces that have permanently shaped his personality—his ways of feeling, thinking, acting. Nothing can break through these fixed patterns of causation. The only way to change man’s behavior is to modify these causes or to introduce other forces. The message of the new birth is that the natural is not the whole of reality, that there is a supernatural realm more powerful than the natural.

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Further, there is a rejection of any type of non-rational fatalism. In some circles today, the most significant question to ask a person is, “What is your sign?” Astrology is a belief that the events and fortunes of one’s life are determined by factors that cannot be plotted by the usual “scientific” methods. Other varieties of belief maintain that “fate,” some vague indistinguishable force, controls the happenings of life, both internal and external to the person. Other forms of belief in the occult abound. The new birth, however, is an emphatic reminder not only that the beginning of this new quality of life is a result of the plan of an intelligent benevolent being, but also that there is a continuation of this intelligent plan. Irrationality, which breeds pessimism, is not the norm.

Finally, there is the affirmation here that good ultimately is superior to evil. Man is conscious of the power of evil in the world, so much so that the problem of evil is perhaps the most severe intellectual challenge to Christianity. This sweeping problem is seen in smaller scale as the force of sin in the life of the individual. Even when he desires to do good, there is a drag on his efforts. The cruelty of man to his fellow man is poignant evidence that something has gone wrong with God’s creation. And man’s efforts to overcome this evil, both within himself and society, appear doomed to failure.

Regeneration means that this evil in man is not invulnerable. Man can be changed, made alive, given new energy and direction. There is cause for optimism and hope, for there is an all-powerful God who is at work not only in the world but in the individual lives of believers.

The well-known text “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26) was spoken by Jesus not about God’s ability to construct or to lift infinitely large rocks but about his ability to change human hearts. As much as the world has changed since this doctrine was first declared, the truth of the doctrine is undiminished, and it gives us confidence for our tasks as Christian witnesses to the grace of God. We can still say with Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

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If I were the Truth, wouldn’t I

gather the errant quickly

by hook or by crook?

Use a snapping bait,

a staff with a switch-blade,

a little threat?

Enough of everyone’s hedging, holding

back, trifling with his Maker.

I would not hear of Will;

Fierce Talon God, I’d

drop them roughly into Life

on their sweet

soul’s pomposity;

kidnap them into The Kingdom, War


O but who

in the hot sun quietly

as though still on vacation

is rippling a pool with his rod,

relentlessly climbing through tangled briers

for one caught, bleating sheep? What


of shepherd or fisherman? What

sort of

suitor or dove.


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