Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit that brings a sinner from spiritual death into spiritual life. While Christians may disagree about such issues as the relationship between regeneration and baptism, or whether regeneration precedes faith, it is biblically faithful for a follower of Jesus to say, “I am regenerated.”
While the Greek noun palingenesia appears only twice in the New Testament (Matt. 19:28; Titus 3:5), the concept of regeneration, or new birth, is a consistent theme of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Jesus makes it clear that people must be “born again,” or “born of the Spirit,” if they are to see the kingdom of heaven (John 3:3, 5).
The work of the Holy Spirit, making an individual a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), prepares that person for the future work of Christ as He creates “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Pet. 3:13). All those the Spirit regenerates are assured a place with Christ when He refurbishes the cosmos, purging it completely of sin and its stain.
Regeneration is necessary because the Bible describes unbelievers as the walking dead. Not only are they spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1), but they are depicted as natural / without the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14); blinded in their minds (2 Cor. 4:4); bound by Satan (2 Tim. 2:26); alienated from God (Eph. 4:17-18); enemies of the Lord (Rom. 5:6-11; Col. 1:21-22); condemned in their unbelief (John 3:18); and in spiritual darkness (Acts 26:18; Eph. 5:8; Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:9).
Regeneration is a one-time, non-repeatable act by which the Holy Spirit enters the dead human spirit of a sinner and makes him or her spiritually alive. Regeneration also is permanent. That is, a person whom God foreknows, predestines, calls, justifies, and glorifies cannot lose the gift of regeneration without losing all of the associated links in God’s golden chain of redemption.
“Baptismal regeneration” is the belief that water baptism is necessary for salvation. Proponents of this view differ in their understanding of the doctrine. However, they uniformly agree that water baptism plays an essential role in obtaining everlasting life.
Supporters of this doctrine point to several passages of Scripture – for example, Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Gal. 3:27; and 1 Peter 3:21. These verses are more fully explored in What Every Christian Should Know About Salvation. Due to space limitations, we briefly provide several reasons to deny the doctrine of baptismal regeneration:
(1) The Bible is clear that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. To take away faith in Jesus as the sole requirement for salvation is universalism; to add to it is legalism.
(2) Water baptism is an important public testimony of our faith, not an essential element in our salvation. In a first-century context, for Jews embracing Jesus as Messiah, a public declaration of faith might mean banishment from family, friends, and religious leaders. Water baptism in a first-century Jewish context served as a bold and unmistakable sign of one’s faith in Jesus. It demonstrated that a person was trusting fully in the finished work of Christ on the cross.
(3) The Bible says a person is condemned for not believing (John 3:18); it doesn’t say a person is condemned for failing to be baptized.
(4) If water baptism is required for salvation, then no one could be saved without the help of another person, thus limiting who can be saved, and when.
Which comes first: faith or regeneration?
Does faith result in regeneration, or does regeneration trigger faith? This issue has divided Christians for centuries, and it’s a question with which the Reformers wrestled.
In fully Reformed theology, regeneration precedes faith, with the Holy Spirit acting alone (monergism). In contrast, moderate Calvinists and Arminians contend that the Bible places faith before regeneration as the Holy Spirit works in concert with human freedom (synergism).
A third view, the overcoming grace model, falls somewhere in between. It seeks to provide a solution to Calvinism’s problem of the “well-meant offer,” in which the non-elect who hear the gospel could have been saved if only God had not bypassed them. As Kenneth Keathley writes, “To offer salvation while withholding the necessary ability to respond seems like offering healing to any quadriplegic who can get up to receive it.”
Is there any way to reconcile these different views of regeneration? As we wrestle with the issue, it may help to consider that regeneration and faith are, in a sense, inseparable. Whether regeneration precedes faith, or faith results in regeneration, every adopted child of God experiences both.
Every saved person has heard the gospel and responded in faith; likewise, he or she has been born again. While the matter pertaining to the order of regeneration and faith is important, it should not divide Christians in our common fellowship, nor should it keep any of us from an obedient response to Christ’s command to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).