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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Real Transformation: Regeneration

Wouldn't you like to know where genuine life-change comes from? If you knew, you could be more intentional about it and therefore more able to change. Do you ever wonder at what point someone experiences a deeply spiritual and personal conversion -- laying down an old life and starting a new one? Maybe something is eating away at you on the inside? Or, perhaps you've got the God bug recently? Yesterday I asked a stranger at Starbucks this question, "There are a lot of people who are interested in God right now. Do you ever think about faith or God?" He said, "I think about it all the time!" That comment told me something big was about to happen to that guy!

I'm going to explain how real spiritual transformation happens ... are you ready?

Jesus said in John 3:3 "... no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." This means that you cannot be set free from the slavery of self-centredness unless you completely start over. That's right, you need to die, and be re-born. There is no yin and yang here, no makeover, its a radical death and resurrection event! Jesus is tough but clear about it.

There is some confusion over the process of salvation. Some think that people can initiate their own spiritual transformation through their efforts of repentance, works or even meditation. Such verses as Romans 10:13, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved", seem to suggest that our response causes the change. However, the scriptures are clear that the re-birth of the soul, being born again, is something that we play no part in. Our part is repentance which comes as a result of regeneration. God initiates spiritual change in us and we respond. 

Titus 3:5 refers to this change as "regeneration" which is "palingenesia" in the Greek -- literally meaning "again birth" (palin again, genesis birth). We know that God starts this process because Ezekiel 36:26 says "I will give you a new heart." The word "I" in that verse is critical. God does it. Actually, regeneration is a work of both the Father and the Holy Spirit as indicated in 1 Peter 1:3 "In his [The Father's] great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope." and in John 3:8 "born of the Spirit."

What is the significance of this? It shows that being a Christian (the best life you can have) cannot come about by being good, going to church, being born into a Christian family or a certain country, but only through the divine intervention and initiation of God. The regeneration of the soul comes before we confess our wrong doing and before we verbalise a commitment to Jesus. This is illustrated by Jesus calling Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Jesus told him I'm coming into your life today before Zacchaeus repented and resolved to undo the fruit of selfishness in his life.

The Evangelical Free Church of America unfortunately has this the wrong way around in their statement of faith. It reads "We believe that the true Church is composed of such persons who through saving faith in Jesus Christ have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit ..." Regeneration actually precedes faith in Christ, not the other way around. Regeneration is not an external sign like repentance. Regeneration is a mysteriously inward event where by God gives someone a new heart and it starts to manifest itself in the way they live their life -- there is a radical transformation. 

As a follower of Jesus this gives me great confidence in the work He is doing in peoples lives. The guy at Starbucks yesterday could have said I'm not interested, leave me alone! But he didn't due to the work of God bringing about a change. It is this activity of God that leads a person to place their faith in Christ. The Bible says in Romans 3:11 "no one seeks for God." So, a person saying I've been thinking about God recently, displays evidence of the work of God. No one knows the point of regeneration other than God. But, I think it's better to assume that God is at work. This increases our faith in sharing the gospel. Not everyone who shows interest in God is regenerated, at least not yet, but they are sure getting close! Why not expect that God is doing something in the people around us?

A personal conversion to Jesus is not the end of true transformation -- it's the beginning. Genuine regeneration must bring about results in life. 1 John 3:9 says "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God." This does not mean perfection, but it means an inward desire to do the right thing and to stop indulging in sin. I have seen this happen to people many times. They have a hunger to read the Bible, which they did not have before. They have a hunger to connect with other Christians, which they did not have before. 

The story of Zacchaeus helpfully illustrates that a change of heart, a regeneration of the soul, is different to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Zacchaeus had a radical turn around yet he was not filled with the Holy Spirit like we see in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit initiated a change of heart in Zacchaeus but did not clothe him with power gifts for ministry. I make this distinction because while someone can be born again by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, and therefore have the Spirit in their life, convicting them of sin, they may not have received The Baptism of the Holy Spirit with power gifts for ministry and mission. 

Regeneration is therefore an act of God where he imparts new spiritual life to us which results in an outward repentance and transformation. This is the first stage in salvation. My sins are forgiven because Jesus came into my life and changed me, not because of the depth of my repentance. I have a desire for God now because my sinful nature has been crucified with Christ. We cannot claim this result in regards to something we have done. It is solely the initiation of again-genesis (re-birth) in our hearts by God. If you want genuine life transformation then be assured that God is at work in your life, otherwise you just wouldn't want it.


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