Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). What did Jesus mean? He obviously did not mean that we all must get inside our mother’s womb and come out again. Jesus was not talking about physical rebirth, but spiritual rebirth (regeneration). We all enter this world spiritually dead as a consequence of Adam’s fall. To become a Christian one must be born again. A Christian is someone who has undergone spiritual rebirth.
This spiritual rebirth is not something a human being can accomplish on his own; he cannot simply decide to be born again and then do it. Just as a person who is physically dead is unable to raise himself physically, one who is spiritually dead is unable to raise himself spiritually. Only God can cause a person to be born again. “But God … even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive” (Ephesians 2:5). Just as Jesus came upon Paul with a bright light that struck him to the ground, blinded him, and forever changed him, so God sovereignly comes into the heart of each one He chooses to restore to spiritual life. As the gospel is preached in all the world, God sovereignly opens a person’s heart so they believe in Jesus. As Paul preached to Lydia, “the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). God and God alone causes regeneration to occur; it is His initiative.
When God reaches into the life of a sinful human being and causes regeneration to occur, the spiritual rebirth happens instantaneously. One moment a person is spiritually dead; the next moment he is born again. He may not be aware of the change that has occurred and may never be able to pinpoint the moment of his rebirth. In some cases spiritual rebirth happens in infancy, as in the case of John the Baptist (Luke 1:15). Nevertheless, regeneration is a spiritual reality that takes place internally and transforms a person from spiritual death to spiritual life.
Because it is not always possible to pinpoint the moment of spiritual rebirth, many professing Christians struggle to find assurance that regeneration has truly taken place in their lives. But assurance comes when we realize that we do not have to know when we were born again in order to know that we are born again (we don’t have to know when the sun came up in order to know that it is up). Assurance that spiritual rebirth has taken place, then, comes when we see the effects or fruits of regeneration in our life. The fruits of regeneration pointed out in God’s Word are (1) a true faith in Christ. We know we have been born again if we believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:17); (2) a childlike fear of God. We come to have a love and affection for God we did not have before. This affection is far from perfect, but it is there and it is real. Our soul begins to thirst for God (Psalm 42:1-2); (3) a godly sorrow for our sins. We begin to hate the sin we used to love; (4) a hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). Our greatest desire is to obey all of God’s commandments out of love for Christ. Christ said, “If you love Me, keeps My commandments” (John 14:15).
Spiritual rebirth, once accomplished, is permanent. God does not abort what He conceives and brings to life. Instead, He preserves those to whom He grants spiritual rebirth. “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Just as Jesus lost none of His true disciples (John 17:12), He will lose none of His true followers now.
We must also realize that regeneration is just the beginning of the Christian life. When God regenerates us, He changes us forever. But He doesn’t stop there. Just as a newly born baby has much growing to do, so newly born believers have much growing to do. Being born again does not remove all of the corruption of our heart. Great capacity for evil remains in the hearts of those who have been born again. It must be resisted and replaced by Christlikeness. This is a lifelong process known as sanctification, or growth in holiness. Whereas regeneration is a work of God alone, sanctification is a work in which we participate with God. That is why the Lord commands us to be sanctified (2 Corinthians 7:1).
The Lord gives us tools which He promises to use to cause us to grow spiritually. The Lord’s primary tool is His Word. By reading, studying, memorizing, and hearing it preached, we learn His will for our lives and experience the comfort of the Scriptures. The Lord also uses the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) to strengthen and increase our faith. He also uses prayer and worship. By taking our cares, thanks, and praises to Him, we grow in love for Him and we grow in dependence on Him. By worshiping and fellowshipping with God’s people on a regular basis we are held accountable and encouraged in our Christian walk. By making diligent use of such means, we move on from the starting point of our new birth to the ending point of our glorification in God’s eternal kingdom.