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God’s ultimate purpose is to honour his Son, Jesus Christ, by making him the ‘firstborn of many brothers’ (Rom. 8:29). He intends to make us children of God. But, how does he accomplish this?
Even to put the question in this form is to deny a commonly held opinion: namely, that we are all, naturally, God’s children. But, did not Jesus teach his disciples to call God ‘Father’? Did not Paul agree that we are all God’s ‘offspring’ (Acts 17:28)?
In the sense that God is the Creator of all things, it is true that the Bible sometimes speaks of his Fatherhood. He is the ‘Father of the heavenly lights’ (Jas. 1:17) and the One who brought the universe to birth. But that is not the most common usage of the idea of God’s Fatherhood in Scripture. Normally it is limited to the special Father — Son relationship that exists between God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, and also between God the Father and those who know and trust him. Indeed, since the idea of God’s Fatherhood implies our sonship and fellowship with him, it is rather obvious that not all men and women are his children or call him Father.
This is a basic assumption of the Christian gospel: we are not, by nature, children of God. We need to become his children. By nature we are alienated from God. Such is the burden of Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-3:20. Not one of us possesses, by nature, the characteristics of a child of God. Instead, we show all the signs of rebelling against him and turning away from his Fatherly rule over our lives. We do not know what it means to be at peace with him (Rom. 3:17); we do not know what it is to have a filial fear of him (Rom. 3:18). This is why the gospel is so necessary for us.
In fact, by nature, we are children of wrath, not children of God (Eph. 2:3, where the NIV word ‘objects’ is, literally, ‘children’, tekna). Rather than seeing us as amiable mischiefs, God sees us as we really are in his sight — unfaithful sinners worthy only of his judgment, ‘prodigal sons’ who are both ‘lost’ and ‘dead’ (Lk. 15:31). There could be no more serious delusion for us to suffer from, therefore, than that we are naturally his children. Rather, we need to become children of God.
All this is assumed in the Prologue to John’s Gospel when he says: ‘To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God’ (Jn. 1:12-13). He could not be more unequivocal; we need to become God’s children. Moreover, we can become his children only by the decision of God’s will. The new birth of which John speaks here and elsewhere is not ours by nature, nor is it within our natural powers to accomplish! Not only is this devastating to human pride, but it also underlines the spiritual peril of our natural condition.
The Prologue to John’s Gospel serves the same function as the overture does in a symphony. It suggests the various motifs which are to be more fully worked out in what follows. John explains and illustrates what he means by this birth from God when, later, in Chapter 3, he describes the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was ‘Israel’s teacher’, and yet he did not seem able to understand our Lord’s teaching on the necessity of the new birth for all those who would become children of God (Jn. 3:10). Here was a man with every possible natural advantage: a Jew, with the promises and word of God at his fingertips; a Pharisee, living scrupulously close to the law of God; a student of theology — more, the leading professor of theology among his peers. Nicodemus was a religious devotee, if ever there was one. Yet he did not understand that he needed to be born again in order to become a child of God and enter his kingdom.
Nicodemus illustrates all that it is possible to be without being a member of the family of God. When Jesus told him that no one can either see or enter God’s kingdom without being born again, Nicodemus illustrated the very failure to see the kingdom of which Jesus spoke. ‘How can this be?’ (Jn. 3:9) he asked. Only later would he understand the difference between belonging to the family of God and being a member of the family of the devil (cf. Jn. 8:42-47; 19:39, I Jn. 3:10).
What, then, is this new birth of which Jesus spoke, which lies at the heart of belonging to God’s family? It has often been understood to be a special, personal, conversion experience. In recent years it almost became fashionable to be ‘born again’; it was described by the media as a sociological ‘movement’. But very often the phrase denoted little more than having a religious experience of the vaguest kind. The New Testament means something much more specific.
Here it is important to enter a word of caution. ‘Born again’ and ‘regeneration’ can very easily become ‘buzz words’. But using biblical language does not mean we have had genuine biblical experience. A little knowledge of the New Testament’s background would help us to understand that. The idea of regeneration or new birth was not limited to the Christian faith in the first century AD. On the contrary, it was commonplace among the mystery religions of the ancient world. (That may be the reason why Paul generally avoids this terminology.) Hence the New Testament places considerable stress on explaining what it means when it speaks of being ‘born again’. In a nutshell, it means to come to share in the risen life and power of Jesus Christ, and to enter into vital fellowship with him.
Jesus prophesied that a final ‘new birth’ or ‘regeneration’ would take place at the end of time (Matt. 19:28). His resurrection from the dead was actually the firstfruits of that great event (1 Cor. 15:20). By it he became ‘the firstborn of many brothers’. God’s ultimate purpose is to conform us to the image of his Son in the same way, through our resurrection (Phil. 3:21).
In this sense, we can rightly speak about Jesus’ resurrection as his ‘new birth’. He was dead because of sin (ours, not his). But God raised him into new life (Rom. 6:9-10). He was transformed and marked out as the Son of God with power through the resurrection (Rom. 1:3-4), and thus entered into a new dimension of humanity altogether, in which ‘death no longer has mastery over him’ (Rom. 6:9).
Consequently, Paul could speak of the resurrection of Jesus as the day on which he was ‘born’ into the new family of God:
Paul saw that the ‘today’ of Psalm 2 was pointing to the resurrection of Jesus. That did not mean that Jesus ‘became’ God’s Son at the resurrection. It meant that as the God-man, the ‘man for others’, he took the first steps of man on the ground of the world to come. In a far more profound sense than Neil Armstrong’s words, when he took the very first step made by man on the Moon, the morning of the resurrection of Jesus was ‘a giant leap for mankind’. For what took place in the Elder Brother will one day take place in the lives of all the children. Not only so, but already, through fellowship with him in our regeneration, through ‘new birth’, we experience the first rays of that glorious morning. The light of the world to come has already crept over the horizon of our lives and is shining into the death-darkened days in which we live (Rom. 13:11-12).
This birth of a new brotherhood sheds light on the otherwise enigmatic words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene on the morning of the resurrection. As she clung to him, Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”” (Jn. 20:17).
These words are usually understood to draw a distinction between Jesus’ relationship to the Father and that which his disciples were to enjoy. In fact their purpose is to teach almost the reverse! Jesus is saying: ‘Just as in the resurrection, God has brought me to new birth, so by your spiritual resurrection you have come to share with me in fellowship with him. He is my Father, but since you are my brothers he is also your Father, in the family of God.’
Paul makes essentially the same point when he describes God’s work of grace in Christ as a ‘new creation’ (2 Cor. 5:17). God brought creation into being for his glory, and to be the sphere of man’s life as God’s son. He made man (that is, man and woman) as his image (Gen. 1:26-27). In the world of the Old Testament, as we have already seen, the idea of bearing someone’s ‘image’ is related to family-likeness (cf. Gen. 5:3).
At creation man was made as the image of God, or as the son of God. But he has fallen from that status. The glory for which he was made has been profoundly marred and its reality distorted. The whole creation has been tragically affected — so much so that Paul says that ‘the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time’ (Rom. 8:22). But what birth is creation expecting? Paul has already explained: ‘The creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:20-21).
Scripture looks forward to a day when all that was originally meant to be will come to pass. The fall of man, with its accompanying frustration and decay in the natural order, will be rectified. There will be a new creation in which the entire universe will participate. This is what Paul means when he speaks of the new creation. Then, all that God intended men and women to be as his image, as his sons and daughters, will be fulfilled. This is what Jesus described as ‘the regeneration’ (Matt. 19:28, A.V.). It will be a new creation.
But this is not simply some ‘far off divine event to which the whole creation moves’ (Tennyson). From the New Testament’s point of view, there are signs that it has already begun. Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of this new creation. He is the first sign of God’s springtime, and the guarantee of the final harvest. The ‘regeneration’ has already begun with him. It continues with each of us when we are united to him by God’s grace, and share in the new family of which he is the ‘firstborn’ (Col. 1:18, Heb. 12:23). To become a child of God, to be ‘born again’, therefore, involves nothing less than sharing in the risen life and brotherhood of Jesus!
In our present time we need to learn to appreciate the magnitude of our relationship with Jesus, for several reasons.
One is that we have a tendency to think of being ‘born again’ as an inexplicable, private, mystical ‘experience’. For the New Testament, however, being born again meant entering into fellowship and brotherhood with Jesus Christ. (This is why the teaching on new birth in John 3 is set in the context of instruction about trusting in and believing on Jesus as Saviour, Jn. 3:16).
A second reason for emphasising our new brotherhood with Jesus is that it helps us to see what a glorious thing the new birth is. We tend to have a very superficial appreciation of what God has done for us. When it dawns on us that we have entered into brotherhood with the risen Lord Jesus Christ, that we now participate in the power of his resurrection, that the glory of God’s image is being restored in our lives — then everyone who has been born again will rejoice in the grandeur of the change that God has accomplished in us through his Spirit! We will not (as some mistakenly do) wish we had a more spectacular ‘experience of conversion’, because we will realise that the grace of God is just as wonderful in our lives as in the lives of those whose conversions make headline news in the Christian media. It is no easier for God to give you a new birth than it is for him to give it to the worst man who ever lived!
In Chapter Four we will notice some of the effects of regeneration in the life of the Christian. But at this juncture we should underline an important statement from Paul’s teaching. Speaking of what is involved in regeneration as it is symbolised by baptism, Paul says that believers have been ‘united with him [Christ] in his death’ and ‘we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection’ (Rom. 6:5).
The expression ‘united with’ is a very interesting word in Paul’s vocabulary. It may be derived either from the verb ‘to plant together with’, or ‘to grow together with’. Scholars are not in agreement. But in either case it provides a vivid picture of becoming a Christian through rebirth. It means to be planted with Jesus in the soil of his death to sin, or, to be united with Jesus in such a way that our Christian lives grow in union with him in his death to sin (Rom. 6:10: ‘The death he died, he died to sin’). Paul further emphasises this sense when he writes that we are (literally) the kind of people who ‘died to sin’ (Rom. 6:2).
What does this dying to sin mean? From the moment of rebirth we enter into a changed relationship with the sin that once held us captive. We ‘died’ to it. It is no longer our master, and we are no longer its slave. Formerly, it reigned over us, ruled us like a general would direct the artillery at his disposal, and, as our employer, paid us wages (see Rom. 6:14,17,23, for these word-pictures).
Paul does not mean that we are totally free from the presence or influence of sin. Sin still indwells the children of God (Rom. 7:17, 20), but they no longer have the same relationship to it. They belong to a new family in which sin is not ‘the order of the day’. Instead, righteousness, peace, and joy mark the family life of God’s people (Rom. 14:17). We are ‘the kind of people’ who have begun to taste that deliverance from the reign of sin, which will be consummated at the regeneration of all things.
How helpful this teaching should be to us in an age when so many people have lost their sense of identity, and search either for roots in the past, or somewhere they can belong in the present. Our roots are in Jesus Christ; we belong to him and his family. We have a new strength and security built into our way of life because of regeneration.
How, then, does regeneration take place? Like natural birth, it is not something we ourselves instigate. By nature we are dead in transgressions and sins (Eph. 2:1). God alone is able to bring us to new birth, through the Spirit. He does so through the power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead (1 Pet. 1:3). Just as Christ stood at the tomb of Lazarus and called his name, and the dead man came to life and emerged from the tomb (Jn. 11:43-44), so Jesus Christ speaks into the death of our hearts, calls us by name, and we respond (Jn. 5:25; 10:3). As at the first creation, so in the new creation God breathes on us with his Spirit, and we are brought into new life. Regeneration is a sovereign act of God.
But like natural birth, in which we are unconscious of the precise moment of our conception, yet active in coming from our mother’s womb and giving our first cry of life, so it is in regeneration. Given new life by God, we too cry out. But our cry, Paul tells us — significantly in his great chapter on sonship — is ‘Abba, Father’ (Rom. 8:15). This, perhaps more than anything else, is the sign that we have been ‘born again’. We have come to know God as our Father. This is the beginning of a new life which will develop more and more in the disciplines, service, privileges, and joys of the family of God.
With such a life in prospect, who would remain content until he had been born into such a family?
M.A., University of Aberdeen, 1968; B.D., 1971; Ph.D., 1979; Pastoral ministry, Scotland, 1971-1982; Associate Editor, Banner of Truth Trust, 1976-; Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Texas campus, 1982-.
Author: Taking the Christian Life Seriously; Man Overboard; Know your Christian Life; Grow in Grace; Discovering God’s Will; Handle with Care; A Heart for God; Kingdom Life in a Fallen World; Children of the Living God; John Owen on the Christian Life; Undaunted Spirit; Daniel (Communicator’s Commentary); Understanding the Gospel; Healthy Christian Growth; Read Any Good Books?; Deserted By God?; If I Should Die Before I Wake (co-author); The Pundit’s Folly; The Holy Spirit; The Big Book of Questions and Answers; Let’s Study Philippians; Let’s Study Mark; The Big Book of Questions and Answers About Jesus.
Contributor: Worship Now; The Westminster Confession Today; The Preacher and Preaching; New Dictionary of Theology (editor); Inside the Sermon; Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate; Theonomy: A Reformed Critique; Christian Spirituality; Geneva Study Bible; Handbook of Evangelical Theologians; If I Had Only One Sermon to Preach; Dictionary of Scottish Church History & Theology; Blackwell’s Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730-1860; The New Bible Commentary; Sola Scriptura; Doubt and Assurance; Here We Stand; The Glory of the Atonement.
Representative Articles: “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” The Christian Graduate, June 1982; “For Jesus’ Sake,” Discipleship, July 1984; “John Owen on the Spirit in the Life of Christ,” Banner of Truth, February, March, 1988; “The Whole Counsel of God: Fifty Years of Theological Studies,” Westminster Theological Journal, Fall 1988; “The Fear of the Lord: Seeing God As He Is,” Discipleship, July-August, 1989.
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