Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet 1:3)
In the various expressions of contemporary evangelicalism it is often easy to forget that the phrase “born again” is a biblical phrase, employed a verb, not an adjective.
The Apostle Peter uses it in 1 Peter 1:3 and his phrasing brings to mind the meeting Jesus had with a Pharisee by the cover of night (John 3). In John’s Gospel, we learn that a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus came to Jesus to affirm that Jesus knew that he—as a religious leader—he understood Jesus was a teacher sent by God.
Jesus responded with a statement that only could evoke a question from Nicodemus, rather than more statements. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Not yet seeing with kingdom eyes, Nicodemus asked two practical and earthly questions about this idea of a second birth: How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?
Jesus responded to explain how one can experience birth twice, but that proved enigmatic for the Pharisee, who only could reply, “How can these things be?” (Jn 3:1-9).
Yet, Peter and his readers know the good news that God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and through him we, too, can experience a new birth.[i]
The idea that God has “caused us to be born again” is summarized by the helpful theological term “regeneration.” While most commonly used to refer to the biblical doctrine related to how one is redeemed and given new life, regeneration is also a biblical word used in Titus 3:5, “[God] saved us … by the washing of regeneration.”[ii]
The confessional statement of my convention of local churches defines regeneration like this:
“Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.”[iii]
Two summary statements are in order to allow us to understand and appreciate exactly for what Peter is praising God with this phrase in 1 Peter 1:3.
1. God is the initiator and author of regeneration.
John 1:13 states that children of God “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Ephesians 2:5 reminds us that we were dead in sin, but God made us alive. For the Holy Spirit gives life (Jn 6:63; 2 Cor 3:6) and regenerates (Titus 3:5). Our birth, whether first or second, is not something we control.
2. There is mystery in how God regenerates due to our finite and fallen nature.
Throughout the Bible and in our own experience we see that people trust Christ for salvation when (1) the gospel is preached, (2) the gospel is heard, and (3) faith is expressed.
In several instances, people are commanded to believe:
- Jesus says “do this, and you will live” (Lk 10:28) and indicates that “whoever believes” will have eternal life (Jn 3:16).
- Paul explains that if you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart, “you will be saved” (Rom 10:9), and implores men to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).
- Finally, Hebrews 7:25 explains that Jesus saves those who “draw near to God through him.”
At the same time, the Bible conveys that God is at work in all of those instances. We see that God opens hearts (Ac 16:14), uses preaching (1 Pt 1:12; Rom 10), and makes one alive (Col 2:13).
In all, therefore, there is great mystery, which is why another one of Jesus’s statements to Nicodemus is fitting and helpful. He states that everyone born again by the Spirit is like the wind that “blows where it wishes … but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (Jn 3:8).
In sum, as we marvel at the goodness of God to “cause us to be born again” it is best to understand regeneration and faith working both simultaneously and instantaneously.
“Born Again” is first a verb before it is an adjective. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
[i] Peter uses the phrase “born again” in 1:23 as well. For a wonderful exploration of the gospel along the lines of this definition, see Jared C. Wilson, Gospel Deeps (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 21 and following.
[ii] For a helpful introduction see Matthew Barrett, What is Regeneration? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013).
[iii] “Article IV. Salvation,” The Baptist Faith & Message, 2000.
This article is an adaption from Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism now available from B&H Books.
Jason G. Duesing (with a foreword by Russell Moore)
B&H Books, 2018