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03. Regeneration and Renewal

Chapter 3

Regeneration and Renewal

Many Christians Lack a Firm Spiritual Foundation

What exactly do regeneration and renewal mean? In this chapter we consider these important topics, because they have the greatest significance for our lives. We begin with Titus 3.3-7 in which their transforming effect is described:

We also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by his grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3.3-7)

Note the words “regeneration and renewal” (ESV, HCSB). We need to study these words as precisely as possible because they deal with found­ational matters. It is cause for serious concern that the spiritual foundation of many Christians has never been properly laid. And if the found­ation is weak, what will happen to the rest of the structure that is built upon it? Many Christians are struggling over the basic matters of the Christian life, always unable to sort out the foundational things, much less enter into the deeper levels of the spirit­ual life. We must deal with these fundamental matters so as to en­sure that the found­ation is properly laid.

There are times when I have to counsel people who became Christians, in some cases, as long as fifteen, twenty, or more years ago, and they are still spiritually stagnant after all that time. During the counseling, they may discover to their shock that they have not been true Christians after all, and that their so-called faith cannot pass the most elementary tests.

This is distressing. Our hearts go out to them because to a great extent the fault does not lie with them. Some people, despite being brought up in Christian homes, have never had a proper foundation in the basics of the Christian life. In all sincerity they spend their lives trying to build a spiritual structure on a flimsy foundation, like building a wall on soft or sandy ground—only to see it collapse. They build another wall, and it also collapses. Even though it stands for a while, when a heavy truck rolls by, the ground shakes and the whole structure comes crashing down again. It takes only a small crisis to cause a collapse. The Christian life cannot continue like that. Weak, defeated and frustrated Christians will not find this kind of Christian life worth living. It is an exercise in futility to keep on rebuilding the same walls and repairing the same holes.

Lack of Assurance

Some people, when they become Christians, bring their temper along with them. They often become irritable and lose their temper. Eventually they lose the assurance of salvation and have serious doubts as to whether they are regenerate, whether they are children of God. The Holy Spirit does not seem to be witnessing with their spirit that they are children of God. As Romans 8.16 tells us, true assurance comes only when God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are God’s children. Instead, what they get is a convict­ion of sin from the Holy Spirit (Jo.16.8), so they feel a lack of assur­ance. It is a miserable condition to be in.

The problem can be so acute that some people feel that they are not really Christians at all, and they request re-baptism. When asked why they got baptized in the first place, a variety of answers emerge: “The pastor asked me whether I would like to get baptized since I had been attending church, and I felt that I might embarrass him if I refused”; or “My good friend was getting baptized and asked me to join him”; or “My boy/girl friend was a Christian, so I got baptized so that we could get married”. These are some of the most common answers. But later, when they start seeking God, they realize they were never true believers. In many such cases they request re-baptism because they now see their baptism as meaningless.

Under what circumstances should one be re-baptized, if it is necessary at all? It is a big step to take, and it puts us in the difficult position of assessing the state of a person’s heart to evaluate whe­ther re-baptism is necessary. When baptism is refused, it can leave the person in great anguish, to the extent that it may have serious consequences for his spiritual life. For this reason we dare not summarily refuse him baptism without considering his case very carefully. We must never be lax or careless in permitting baptism.

There are some churches which do not permit re-baptism under any circumstances. It is the tradition of these churches not to permit it. But what exactly is the basis in Scripture for this tradition? Moreover, is not a person’s salvation, his spiritual life and growth, more important than our traditions?

I hope that the first two chapters have clari­fied what it means to die with Christ once and for all, and to finish with the old life. If this matter is not settled, the Christian life will be plagued by constant doubt. A person may feel “all right” for the time being, but what will happen a year or two down the road when he runs into problems which distress and weaken him, and which may even cause him to backslide? The same old question will come back to haunt him: Am I really saved?

The foundation must be properly laid; otherwise the whole structure may have to be torn down and rebuilt. Looking back at my own life, if I had been taught such foundational truths as the importance of dying with Christ to our old self-centered life when, at baptism, by faith we were first united with Christ, I would have been spared many dangerous detours. But God has been exceedingly merci­ful, and He kept me from falling. He led me on the path of truth (cf.Jo.16.13) even though I often had no one to teach me. For example, although nobody had taught me about total commitment, it was always part and parcel of my Christian life right from the start.

That is because total commitment was necessary for Christians in China, given the situation at that time. Almost everyone who came to the Lord in China at that time was aware of the high cost of becoming a disciple of Jesus. Even so, that did not mean that every Christian was committed. There were, for example, secret Christ­ians who kept their faith secret in order to avoid getting into trouble. Some became Christians in order to have something to hang on to in troublous times, but who no longer saw the need for God once they were out of trouble.

1. Salvation and Transformation

Let us return to Titus 3.5: “God saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.”

This statement begins with, “God saved us”. Salvation is not a human accomplishment but something that God does. Moreover, salvation is not merely something that God does for us, but some­thing that God does in us. The common tendency is to stress only what God did for us at Calvary. That understanding is good and Scriptural but incom­plete.

Salvation is not merely about what God did for us, nor merely about believing in certain creeds. Correct doctrine is only one element in salvation. Salvation is a matter of faith, which in Scripture essent­ially means commitment. Any faith that does not involve a relation­ship in which we give, or commit, ourselves (similar to what we would do in marriage, cf., e.g., 2Cor.11.2) to God, in response to His love for us, is not Biblical faith.

According to the Bible—but contrary to what we often hear today—salvation is not based simply on accepting certain doctrines, though that is necessary, but on a committing of ourselves wholly to God. To use an analogy, it is much like a sick person com­mitting himself or herself to the care of a physician, and not merely accepting or believing that this physician could provide the needed cure. Being born anew is not the result of merely accepting a set of doctrines, good though this may be, but is brought about by God’s power coming into our lives and transforming us. That is why salvation is God’s achievement, not ours.

2. Regeneration and Renewal are not the Same

Titus 3.5 speaks of two things by which God saved us: “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” Firstly, there is regeneration. Secondly, there is renewal.

These two things, regeneration and renewal, are not synony­mous; so we must not mistakenly suppose that “regenera­tion” and “renewal” are two synonyms placed side by side, with renewal being a repetition of regen­eration. That is not the case. These are two successive stages of salvation. Moreover, the order cannot be reversed: The first is regeneration, the second is renewal. If we fail to distinguish the two, we will be mired in questions such as: Is salvation once for all, or is it a process? To become a new creature in Christ, do I die once or do I keep on dying?

There are those who teach that death is a gradual process in which we spend the whole Christian life dying; it is an ongoing mortification. The Christian life is viewed as a long gloomy process of death rather than the abundant life mentioned in John 10.10. If the Christian life goes from death to death rather than from life to life, we must have gotten something wrong. The failure to distin­guish between regeneration and renewal has led many Christians to a wrong concept of the Christian life.

When you become a Christian, you first experience regeneration, then you go on to renewal. Renewal is a process, as we shall see. But regeneration is not an ever-continuing process any more than physical birth is an ever-continuing process. You are not constantly being born all through your life. You are born once, and then you go on living and growing. That initial one-time birth is, of course, vital because without it we cannot talk about growth or about exper­iencing grace upon grace (Jo.1.16).

So the first stage of salvation—regeneration—is once for all; but the second stage, renewal, is a continuing process—a process of growing in the new life. Hence the question: “Is salvation once for all or is it an on-going process?” cannot be correctly answered in the simp­listic way that some Christians do, who argue that it is one or the other. The fact is that both are true, depending on which stage of salvation we are discussing. Tragically, many Christians don’t even know that there are stages in the Scriptural teaching on salvation. Many know next to nothing about such extremely important mat­ters as regeneration and renewal. This failure to under­stand the Biblical teaching has led to a lot of unnecessary conflict.

Concerning regen­eration, how is exodus (departure) or death relevant to it? This is something which Nico­demus could not under­stand. In John 3.3, Jesus said to him: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again (or born from above), he cannot see the kingdom of God”—let alone enter the kingdom. Nico­demus was puzzled: “How could a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (v.4). “How can these things be?” (v.9). Nicodemus was admitting that he could not make head or tail of all this; it was all quite incompre­hensible to him. The Lord’s response was firm: “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?” (v.10).

What Nicodemus failed to understand is that there cannot be a new birth without the termination of the old life; there cannot be a spiritual birth from above (i.e. from God) without the cessation or death of the old earthly way of life, which is from below (i.e. that which is purely human). It is definitely not a matter of returning to one’s mother’s womb and starting the whole old cycle of life all over again. It is not a reincarnation of the old sin-dominated earthly life, but a completely new life given by God.

Since Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel, Jesus evidently ex­pected him to have better spiritual insight and under­stand­ing. Jesus’ expectation of church leaders will likewise be high. Here we are dealing with the very same subject—regener­ation—so we too must carefully understand what he is saying to us.

3. “Regeneration” in the Greek New Testament

The “washing of regeneration” refers to bap­tism or the cleansing that comes through baptism. Here the Greek for “regeneration” is palingenesia (παλιγγενεσία) composed of “palin” (again) and “genesis” (birth). The combination basically means “new birth” or “new beginning”.[12] It is used twice in the New Testament, in Titus 3.5 and also in Matthew 19.28 where the Lord says to his disciples:

Truly I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (RSV)

You may be wondering where the word “regeneration” occurs in this state­ment. You won’t find it unless you look into the Greek text or an­other, more literal, translation. Here “regeneration” is translated as “new world”. In fact the statement could be translated, “Truly I say to you, in the regeneration (or new beginning, or new creation) when the Son of Man will sit upon his glorious throne…” (NASB, also KJV and NKJV).

The regenerate person is described in Paul’s letters in terms of being God’s new creation, whereas in John, including his epistles, the regenerate person is constantly spoken of as one who is born of God. Titus 3.5 is the only instance where Paul uses palingenesia which, as we have seen, certainly refers to a new beginning, whether by birth or by creation. And even here Paul may still be thinking of a new creation, because that is the idea that he often stresses. Thus the New Testament shows us two important and complement­ary ways to understand the significance of regeneration.

4. Regeneration: A Break with the Old

A new world, a new creation, a new begin­ning, a new people collectively, and a new person individually—that is what regener­ation and renewal are all about. But we must break with the old before the new can come. If we hold on to the old, how can we be­come new persons? When two things are incompatible and, indeed, contradictory in character, they obviously cannot be held together in harmony.

In this context, when stressing the difference between “old” and “new,” the Bible is not emphasizing a difference of age as though the difference is a matter of being old or being young or, in the case of a car, whether it is an old model or a new model. There is nothing essentially incompatible, much less contradictory, in this sense of old or new. There is nothing inherently incompatible about an old book and a new one, if age is what we are talking about, since both can provide useful information or make for interesting reading. There is also nothing necessarily incompatible between a grandfather and his grandchild in spite of their great difference in age. Indeed, they can often get on wonderfully together. Therefore to think in terms of chronological age when hearing the terms “old” and “new” in relation to regeneration or the new creation is to miss the point.

This is not to deny that a chronological (or age) difference does also exist. The words “old” and “new” are correctly used also in this sense, as we shall see. But, rather, the fact which needs to be high­lighted here is that the difference between old and new in this context is far more than one of age. Purely in terms of age, there is no reason why old and new cannot co-exist. But here the difference lies not merely in age but in the innate character of the old and the new. They are qualitatively different.

What then is the qualitative difference between them? This is how the apostle describes it:

The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. And just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imper­ishable. (1Co.15.47-50)

How great is the difference between the old and the new? It is the difference between heaven and earth!

Why also speak of the difference between “old” and “new” in the chronological sense? Because “the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual.” (1Cor.15.46)

The “natural” or “earthy” comes first in terms of time; the “spirit­ual” comes later. In human history, the “first man, Adam” came long before “the last Man,” Christ (1Cor.15.45).

Regarding the qualitative difference, Paul’s words carry an echo of the Lord’s own words,

You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world (Jo.8.23).

He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. (Jo.3.31)

The qualitative incompatibility of the old and the new is such that, as Paul says in the passage quoted, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1Cor.15.50). Now we see why regeneration, or becoming a new person, is absolutely essential, if we hope to be saved and inherit the kingdom. We should now be able to understand clearly, and not be puzzled by, or “marvel” at, the Lord’s solemn declaration,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” (Jo.3.5-7)

Many Christians are muddled in their under­standing of these extremely important matters. As a result, they imagine that they can hold on to both the old and the new. But soon they feel themselves being torn apart, as it were, by two strong horses pulling in opposite directions. They are forever being pulled this way or that way. Or to change the metaphor, they find them­selves being squeezed and indeed crushed between two opposing forces.

For this reason, many Christians find themselves in a miser­able condition. It is a situation of their own making. The problem is that they want the new without letting go of the old, and end up in serious trouble. They ignore, to their cost, the Scriptural teaching that the old must pass away before the new can come (2Cor.5.17). What they have is not regeneration or a new person, but an old garment on which they try to patch a new piece of cloth (Lk.5.36-39). That garment will soon tear apart.

Similarly, it is like pouring new, unfermented wine into an old wineskin that has lost its elasticity. The mixing of the old and the new will lead to disaster—the old wineskin will burst. To ignore the Lord’s warning and to mix the old with the new could tragically lead to mental breakdown. That is because the inner tension caused by the incom­patibility of old and new will eventually become unbearable, resulting in serious physical and mental consequences.

There are Christians who have broken down mentally after being torn apart by an inner struggle of conflicting loyalties. Why risk a breakdown? If you don’t want to become a whole new person in Christ, then it’s better for you not to become a Christian. Go out and “enjoy” yourself. Ease the pressure off your mind. Avoid a spiritual and mental breakdown. Moreover, what will your family and friends think about Christians and Christ­ianity if you break down? Would anyone who sees such things in Christians still want to become a Christian?

We must make up our minds whom we choose to serve: God or mammon, God or ourselves. Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt.6.24). You cannot cling to both the heavenly and the earthly, the new and the old.

5. Without Forsaking the Old, We Will Live in Hypocrisy

Even worse, we become hypocrites when we compromise in trying to hold on to both old and new. In so doing, you will retain the old within you while the new is wrapped around you like window-dressing. (By contrast, if you are inwardly new, you wouldn’t want to retain the old as an outward covering.) But now the wolf within you is clothed in sheepskin. Such a person is a living contradiction, for what is put on the outside conceals what is inside.

Outwardly such a person may appear to be a fine Christian just as the Pharisees outwardly appeared righteous (Mt.23.25,27). Out­wardly this Christian looks pious and respectable. He carries a much-used Bible. But he does not live or function according to the Word of God. He sounds very Christian but is a clanging cymbal and a noisy gong (1Cor.13.1). The church has too many hypocrit­ical Christians. Because of these people, Christians have lost their credibil­ity; the world no longer believes what they say.

We do, however, believe that few people are deliberately hypocritical. It would be unfair to accuse the Pharisees as a whole of deliberate hypocrisy, as scholars of Judaism have pointed out. The frightening thing about hypocrisy is that most hypocrites do not intend to be hypocrites. This in itself is a good reason for taking careful note of the injunction to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil.2.12). God cannot tolerate hypocrisy.

In many cases, probably in most cases, Christians are unable to live the Christian life because the teaching which they received was inadequate, if not seriously deficient or even erroneous. They genuinely try to be Christians but lack the power. As a result, they find themselves living in the bondage of hypocrisy.

The problem is that the old self has never died, for these people have never been taught about dying with Christ and rising into newness of life with him, so they end up in the situation described in Romans 7.19: “I do not do the good that I wish, but practice the very evil that I do not wish.” In his early days under the Law, was Paul being insincere? Certainly not. He even delighted in the Law with his mind (Ro.7.22,25). But when it came to living it, he could not.

It reminds us of Christians who admire the profundity of the Sermon on the Mount, but are powerless to fulfill it. Many people have told me that they don’t understand the Sermon on the Mount. “I’ve heard it expounded before but I still don’t understand it. It makes no sense to me. How can it be applied in everyday life?” We won’t understand it so long as the old self is the dominant force within us.

For example, the Sermon on the Mount talks about being slapped on the right cheek, and turning the other cheek to the assailant (Mt.5.39). The old self can never tolerate the insult of a slap on the cheek; never will the “old man” turn the other cheek. It reacts, rather, with a counterattack. Turning the other check is impossible without the transformation that comes from being “born anew”. Whether we have been born again will be tested by the events of daily life. The way we respond to the challenges of life will reveal our true spiritual condition.

6. Palingenesia in Extra-Biblical Greek

Let us examine briefly how the word palingenesia (regeneration) is used in extra-biblical Greek (i.e. Greek outside the Bible) in order to establish its meaning. We must not impose our own meaning on words. Often we do need to know how a word is used outside the Bible, because even though we acknowledge that the word may acquire deeper meaning in the New Testament, we cannot make a word mean whatever we like. For example, although the New Testa­ment may enrich the meaning of the word “love,” we cannot force it to mean “hate”. Even if you arrive at a richer meaning of “love,” the word must still convey the basic idea of love as understood outside the Bible.

In extra-biblical Greek, the word palingenesia is used, for example, of the renovation or renewing of the world after the flood. The flood destroyed the ancient world, and then the world was “reborn”. This was the way Philo, a Jewish scholar of the first century, used the word palingenesia to describe the regeneration of the world—the re-creation or renewal of the world—after the flood had wiped out everyone except Noah and his family. This shows again that the new comes forth after the old has been removed.

The word palingenesia was also used by the Stoics, followers of the Greek philosophical system of Stoicism, which taught the renewal or the resurrection of the material world out of fire. They believed that fire will one day destroy this material world, a belief which is in general agree­ment with Scripture (2Pt.3.7,10,12). God will bring forth a newly regenerated and purified world out of the flames of this holocaust (Re.21.1; Isa.65.17; 66.22). Total destruction is followed by palingen­esia—regeneration. Something new emerges from the old that has been destroyed.

The word palingen­esia is also used of resurrection, which is essentially a re-creation, a new beginning, of the body after death. In fact some of the early church fathers understood palingenesia (regeneration) as being equivalent to anastasis (resurrection). Some take Matthew 19.28 as a reference to the resurrection, as though Jesus had said, “Truly, I say to you, in the resurrection, when the Son of Man shall sit upon his throne …” This may be an inadequate interpreta­tion, but neither is it wrong because the new world will indeed come with the resurrection.

This “new world” sums up the restitution and restoration of all things. Acts 3.21 talks about a future “restoration of all things” at which time death, the last enemy, will be destroyed. 2 Peter 3.10-13 says that new heavens and a new earth will emerge after the fire of God’s judgment destroys the existing world order. Verse 10 says, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the hea­vens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” The old decaying world, where sin once reigned with its corrupting effect, will be utterly destroyed to make way for the new. The old must be removed so that the new can come to replace it. Therefore verse 13 says, “But according to His promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

This is regeneration on the cosmic scale (Mt.19.28) in contrast to regenera­tion on the individual level (Titus 3.5). The whole world—indeed all things—will be renewed in Christ. God’s vision goes beyond the scope of the individual. We tend to limit regenera­tion to the individual whereas the Bible has in view regeneration, redem­ption and salvation as affecting the universe as a whole. We need to let God widen our vision to see things as He sees them.

7. Regeneration: The Passing of the Old and the Coming of the New

At the individual level, 2 Corinthians 5.17 says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.” Notice that “the old has passed away.” We cannot have the new without letting go of the old. We cannot be a new creation unless the old has lost its grip on our lives.

If we don’t grasp this truth and experience it, we will end up in the wretched situation that we men­tioned earlier: caught in a bind between the old and the new, or crushed in the tension between them. The two are engaged in irreconcilable conflict, and the one who tries to hang on to both will inevitably become their battle­ground.

That is not the Christian life. The old must go once and for all, and the new must be established within us. Only when God is seated on His throne in the new creation established in our lives will we know His righteous government. Only then will we have a foretaste of the new heaven and new earth in our lives now, and then on the universal scale in the age to come.

Why do we settle for a wretched Christian life when the Lord wants to give us the very best? It is because we are unwilling to let go of the old. Jesus says, “No one after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good’” (Lk.5.39). The old is good because you feel at home with the old life and the old ways. It is hard to give up something you are familiar with. Not until life becomes a total misery and on the verge of breakdown will some people let go. But others are unwilling to let go even when breakdown is imminent. This is an absolutely tragic situation to be in.

Let us have some regard for the reputation of the Church and for the name of the Lord whom we profess to love. What kind of Chris­tian witness will we give people if they see nothing spirit­ually worthwhile in our lives? Or if what they see is not the new creation, but the same old person they have known all along?

We will experience the washing of regen­eration only when we are willing, once and for all, to finish with our old self, our old man, our old life, and our old way of thinking. Baptism comes in at this point, not before. No one should contemplate baptism if he wants to hang on to the world, to money, to the old self. For your own sake and the sake of the church, please don’t consider baptism until you are willing to let go of every­thing. That is what dying means.

When I became a Christian I knew that every­thing I had must come under God’s lordship. Whatever God says must be done, will be done. My cherished ambitions had to go. I struggled for six months to let go of my dreams and ambitions, forsaking a way of thinking I had been cultivating over the years.

One day I knelt before God and said, “Lord, I surrender all to you.” Then I got up as a man who had nothing, not even a clue as to what I will be doing from there on. Gone forever was the direction of life that I had been pursuing. I stood there newborn, having nothing and not knowing where to go. Naked I came into the world, naked I will leave it (cf. Job 1.21).

When you are born again, like a newborn babe you own nothing. Your bank account, big or small, is yours no longer. Everything, including you yourself, is God’s from now on. “You are not your own” (1Cor.6.19), you belong to Him. Yet to the spiritually-minded person, this is precisely the beauty of it all: we now belong to God and to Jesus Christ, the Son of God! To him who loved us and gave himself for us! To him who is Lord of all! But the carnally minded person wants to belong to no one but himself, and to live his life in his own self-centered way. The last thing he wants to do is to die to his old way of life.

If anyone finds the Biblical teaching too difficult to accept, that is understandable. But in this case, he must at least have the honesty to admit, “I can’t become a Christian.” At least we are talking hon­estly without beating around the bush, without evading the real issues. It is all or nothing. Either you are born anew, or you immerse yourself to the full in this world. “Eat, drink and be merry.” You will face the consequences in the future, but at least you are doing something which to you is enjoyable now. I have repeated this almost ad nauseam. But no matter how often I say it, the message doesn’t seem to get across to many people.

8. Renewal: An Ongoing Process

The second thing that Paul talks about is “renewal” which in Biblical teaching, as we noted earlier, is not to be confused with “regeneration”. The Greek word for “renewal” is anakainōsis (ἀνακαίνωσις). “Ana” means again, and “kainōsis” means renewal. The combination carries the sense of “renew again”. This noun oc­curs twice in the New Testament, in Titus 3.5 and Romans 12.2 (“be transformed by the renewal of your mind”).

In the latter verse, “be transformed” is in the present tense, indi­cating that renewal is an ongoing process. That process begins only after the “washing of regeneration” has taken place. Regenera­tion is something that happens once and for all—you are born—and what follows is the renewing process in which you grow into the fullness of Christ’s stature (Eph.4.13-15).

We cannot have renewal without regen­era­tion, but neither can we have regeneration without finishing with the old life. When we are born again, we come naked into the spiritual world, and we live solely by God’s grace and mercy. Moment by moment we live by His grace and mercy, contrary to the teaching that says we are saved by a once-for-all act of grace which, if true, would mean that we don’t need God’s grace any more after regeneration.

Are we to think that whereas regeneration is by grace, we don’t need God’s grace in the continuing process of renewal? This is patently false. Paul asks pointedly, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now perfected by the flesh?” (Gal.3.3). Salvation in all its stages (regeneration, renewal, and the final attaining of the fullness of Christ’s stature) are all of grace through the Spirit. We proceed from grace to grace. And it is also by grace that we need to be careful not to fall away from grace (Gal. 5.4).

“As Having Nothing”

Let’s put all this into practical details. If I am a student, my whole outlook changes when I become a Christian. My studies are now totally at the God’s disposal. I have no certificates, diplomas or degrees I could call my own; these belong to God, because I now belong to God. As the apostle Paul puts it, “You are not your own. For you have been bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body” (1Cor.6.19,20). Henceforth I cannot speak of anything as mine. Everything I have is God’s, because I am His.

But we must be clear about this: God looks for an inward change, not an external act of giving up something. Total com­mitment is not just the giving up of a job; it is a whole new way of thinking. As Paul points out, even “if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1Cor.13.3). Without love—that is, without real inner change—all this would be meaningless and with­out value. It is all external. Moreover this can lead to the dangerous notion of buying our salvation by giving up our jobs and possessions. It is dangerously close to salvation by works where­by salvation is “bought” by sacrificing one’s own profession and poss­essions.

God doesn’t want our job or our money. He wants our heart. Many people may be interested in our money, but God wants our heart. If we have not given Him our whole heart, He wouldn’t want a penny from us, let alone our car or our house. First things first. Only when the heart is right with God can we talk about secondary things such as jobs and possess­ions.

If we are truly regenerate, we would consider nothing our own, just like the first Christians, of whom it is recorded that “not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own” (Acts 4.32). Likewise we will no longer leave God out of our plans and say, “I am going to be doing this and that. I am going to do graduate studies and then get a job.” Now we live under the lordship of Christ, and in total obedience to our God our Father.

We now understand what Paul means when he says, “As having nothing yet possessing all things” (2Cor.6.10). Possessing all things! Though we claim nothing as our own, yet in Christ we find that all the things that we need, whether spiritual or material, are provided for by our Father. Do we think we have given up a lot for God in giving up what little we have? Then consider this astonishing statement, “For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos (a great evangelist and preacher) or Cephas (Apostle Peter’s other name) or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God” (1Cor.3.21-23)!

9. Verbs Anakainizō and Anakainoō

Only when we are truly regenerate can we begin to talk about the next stage: renewal. Renewal too must be internal, not merely ex­ternal. When the Bible speaks of the renewal of the mind it refers to our whole way of thinking, not merely employing our minds in religious activity.

Related to “renewal” (e.g. “renewal of the mind,” Romans 12.2) are two other verbs which together occur three times in the New Testament. These three occurrences give us a clear picture of what Scripture means by renewal, so we don’t have to resort to guess­work.

The verb anakainizō (ἀνακαινίζω), “to renew,” occurs in Hebrews 6.6. Let us read this well-known but frightening verse, starting from verse 4:

For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again cru­cify to themselves the Son of God, and put him to open shame.

This passage talks about apostasy. The Greek word parapiptō translated in this passage as “fallen away” is defined as “to fail to follow through on a commitment, fall away, commit apostasy” in the standard Greek-English Dictionary of Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich. Apos­tasy is not simply the committing of a serious sin, but is a deliberate turning away from God after having made a commitment to Him. If a person apostatizes, it is impossible to re­new him. There is no second chance. Nothing more can be done for him.

If you claim to be committed to God, bear in mind that it is dangerous to profess total commitment at baptism if in fact you aren’t really committed, because the living God will require total commitment from you, for out of your mouth you will be judged (Mt.12.37; Lk.19.22). If you claim to be totally committed, God will say, “I take you at your word and will require it of you.”

A related verb, anakainoō (ἀνακαινόω), is used twice in the New Testament. It occurs in 2 Corinthians 4.16 in the context of per­secution: “Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.”

Here Paul speaks of being renewed daily. It is important to see that renewal is a process whereas being born again is once for all. After the new birth comes the continuing pro­cess of renewal. If we try to skip regeneration and jump straight to renewal, we will be caught in the battle between the old and the new. Some people skip over regeneration and mistakenly suppose that their efforts at renewing them­selves are the evidence that they have become new persons.

If we try to renew ourselves by our own efforts (even with genuine intentions and prayer), we are attempting to change our­selves and our own thinking without being regenerate. This will lead to trouble. Sadly, many preachers and teachers have themselves never been properly taught about regeneration and renewal in the word of God; as a result, some people became Christians without being truly regenerate and conse­quently could not grow in the Christian life. Becoming a new person in Christ is not merely a matter of religious beliefs and moral reform, but a matter of spiritual transformation by the power of God’s Spirit.

We may try to be nice, read the Bible, put money in the offering box, do good deeds, and even seek God’s guidance for our future—but all this can be done without being regenerate. Many Christians confuse these Christian activities with the new life in Christ, and conclude that they are regenerate. This is a trap that so many Christians have unintentionally fallen into.

10. Without Regeneration We Cannot Discern God’s Will

You may say to yourself, “I’m seeking God’s will for my life. So should I marry this nice, handsome guy or not? You see, I did ask the Lord. My decision is admittedly in favor of marriage (oh, he is so attractive!), but at least I did ask God if I could marry this person.”

But did you get an answer? You didn’t hear the Lord say “no,” so you concluded that He gave you an okay. You see, the problem is that without regeneration, you cannot know God’s mind. It’s all guesswork. In the end you will be so desperate for direction in the Christian life that you will flip open the Bible and point your finger to a random passage, hoping that you can thereby discover God’s will.

The word of God is indeed crucial for divine guidance, but we won’t find His leading in it if we skip the first step, regeneration. Can God speak to us when our ears are blocked by sin and selfishness? Or while we are still trying to sew a new piece of cloth onto our old garment (our old way of life)? Or trying to pour new wine (the new life in Christ) into the old wineskin of our empty self-centered life? The wineskin will burst when the wine expands. In man’s desperation (and cleverness?) he comes up with a solution: fill the wineskin only half full in order to give the wine enough room to expand! Caught in the tension between old and new, man still tries to escape from total commitment to God by way of compromise.

There are many ways to fool ourselves but we cannot fool God, for God is not mocked (Gal.6.7). We will reap what we sow. If we sow to the flesh we will reap corruption from the flesh. This is an ineluct­able, ines­capable law of life, whether physical or spiritual.

Let us not imagine that because the second stage—renewal—is a process, the first is somehow included in it. These are two different things. So, do not skip the first step—regeneration—and think that our attempt at renewal implies that we have been regenerated. Let’s not make this serious mistake, for we will pay a high price for it in terms of unhappiness, distress, hypocrisy, and finally the judg­ment.

There are also those who, for example, have had the experience of speaking in tongues and as a result believe that this proves that they are regenerate, born again. The truth is that a person who has been born again could indeed be granted the experience or the gift of speaking in tongues. But the reverse is not necessarily true, that is, not all who speak in tongues are born again. It is vital, especially in these last days, that we be aware of the fact that not all tongues-speaking is from God. Failure to understand this important fact has, sadly, resulted in many being deceived or falling into self-deception.

Have we truly been born again? Has God’s transforming power come into our lives? Unless a man says goodbye to all that he has, he cannot be the Lord’s disciple (Lk.14.33). This does not mean that Jesus doesn’t want us to be his disciples. The fact is that, in this case, we are unable to (“cannot”) be his disciples. He may want to accept us but he cannot because we won’t survive as his disciples if we refuse to let go of our old life, our old way of thinking, our old self.

11. Renewal in Colossians and Ephesians

The other place where anakainoō (renew) occurs is Colossians 3.10. Here again we see the passing of the old and the coming of the new. Reading from verse 9: “You laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him”. Let us note that it is the “new self”—the new person in Christ—that is “being renewed”. The old self cannot be renewed, it is “laid aside”. In the Greek, “being renewed” is a present participle, implying a continuous process that begins from regeneration.

A related word, ananeoō, occurs only once in the New Testament: “Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Eph.4.22-23). Here again “renewed” is in the present tense (a continuing process), whereas “put off” is in the aorist (a decisive once-for-all action). In the process of renewal, God causes us to grow into the likeness of His image.

12. Are You Truly Regenerate?

To recapitulate, it is most important for the sake of your eternal life in Christ, that you find out whether you are regenerate or not. If your Christian life is marked by unceasing internal conflict, constant spiritual defeat, and repeated yielding to the flesh rather than going from strength to strength (cf. “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” 1Cor.15.57), you probably have not been regenerated or become a new person in Christ.

You skipped regeneration and jumped to renewal. You patched an old garment with a new piece of cloth, only to discover that the garment is being torn apart as the new cloth shrinks. We need to evaluate our own spiritual state if we wish to experience the Christian life that goes from strength to strength. Renewal is not a gloomy experience but a joyful process of growing in the strength of the Lord.

In my youth, I gloried in my physical prowess. Growing up does have its difficulties, but I was feeling great. As our physical skills improve and our strength increases, we find ourselves able to engage in a great variety of activities, gaining great satis­faction. That is what the Christian life ought to be like. Wouldn’t we like to see a church full of people who find the Christian life delightful? Have we exper­ienced what the Lord calls the “abundant life”?

If the abundant life is not real to us, we will make ourselves and others miserable. Are we a burden to others or are we an inspir­ation? Some Christians are burdensome, others are inspiring. With some Christians, just the mere thought of them makes you feel better already. Some refresh you by their very presence. But aren’t some people a burden for others to bear? May God save us from being one of these.

It should now be evident that the unregenerate person has self as the center of his life, whereas the truly born again person is God-centered. It means that we can tell whether we are regen­erate or not by observing what, or who, is the center of all our thoughts and actions. If our hearts and minds are focused on God and on Christ and not on ourselves, then we will know that we have received the new life in Christ and have become a new person in him.

May God grant to each one of us that, by His abundant grace, we may fully experience in our lives His reality and power in the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.



[12] See A Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell and Scott, Oxford, 1973, Re. genesis (γένεσις):“origin, source, beginning,… manner of birth…” (emphasis mine).

 

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church