The New Birth in Paul

Though Paul does not speak in depth about the new birth as he does other doctrines what we glean from his letters is indispensable for our understanding. Sometimes his entry point into the topic is different. Sometimes he utilizes language and images that are fresh and distinct from other NT writers. Here are five texts that get at Paul’s thinking on the subject of regeneration.

1 Corinthians 4:15

For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father (ἐγέννησα) in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

It is not certain if Paul is utilizing birth language here to refer to the new birth or just the relationship that he has with those in Corinth he brought to faith. It is possible that Paul envisions his gospel ministry to be the instrument of the new birth. As we have seen the Spirit works in and through the gospel word that Paul was entrusted with. If this is an appropriate reading of this text then Paul understands himself to play an important, although secondary, role in the new birthing process. The apostle envisions his work as planting gospel seed, being there for the delivery (if possible), and fathering that new born child. Paul sees himself as playing a crucial role in the life and development of those who have received the new birth. As their father he seeks to model, instruct, and nourish them in the regenerate life.

Galatians 4:23

But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born (γεγέννηται) through promise.

Paul utilizes symbol and allegory in this text to describe the difference between those in covenant with God and those outside of that covenant. He compares and contrasts Isaac and Ishmael. Two sons born of very different means. Ishmael was born of human contrivance and effort. Isaac was born of miraculous promise. The promise was responsible for his very life and existence. Paul holds up the birth of Isaac as the paradigm for all who are brought into covenant with God. “Now you brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise” (Gal 4:28). This gets at the nature of the new birth. Our new birth is grounded in and made possible by God’s gospel promise. We do not place ourselves in God’s good graces we are placed there by his promise.

Titus 3:4-6

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration (λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας) and renewal (ἀνακαινώσεως) of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Here Paul draws on his rich understanding of God’s work of salvation. In this tightly compact text he speaks of multiple facets of that saving work. Smack dab in the middle is the work of new birth. We learn many invaluable lessons about the new birth from this text. First, we see that the new birth is rooted in the goodness, kindness, and mercy of God. Paul explicitly says it is not grounded in our good deeds or acts of righteousness. This is Paul’s way of saying what we have seen in both Peter and John. The new birth stands outside our capacity. If it happens to us it’s because God is kind. Every time God regenerates an individual he reveals his mercy, shows his goodness, and touches that person with kindness.

The second thing we learn from this text is that the new birth is one element of God’s saving activity. Notice here that salvation is by regeneration in this passage. Paul is helping us grasp the vital importance of this work of God. There is no salvation apart from regeneration. We recognize the crucial saving role of election, redemption, justification, sanctification, and glorification but do we have a diminished view of regeneration? If you remove regeneration from the mix then all the other components are made void.

The third thing to observe is the language Paul uses to describe the new birth. He calls the new birth a regeneration and a renewal. To be more specific his first phrase is the “washing of regeneration.” The word he uses is παλιγγενεσία. The idea is being twice born. It is to be birthed again. This birth has a a washing and cleansing affect. The second image is that of renewal. Both of these describe what happens in the new birth. An individual is transformed, renewed, and begins again. Regeneration is fundamentally a new beginning. It rights a persons inner man and enables him to do what he was created to do. It does not create something that was never there but restores something that was lost. The “re” prefix means again. Note some of the “re” words that describe God’s saving work in the Bible: redemption, reconciliation, regeneration, and renewal. Salvation is about restoration. Regeneration is one piece of that.

The only other New Testament occurrence of the term παλιγγενεσία, which is translated “regeneration” in this text, is found in Matthew 19:28. In that passage Jesus speaks about his return and the restoration of entire world. Jesus is speaking about the fulfilled longing of Paul’s groaning creation (Rom 8:18-22). He speaks of a time when all that has been fractured in this world will be mended. It is instructive that he uses the term “regeneration” to describe that future certainty. God’s program of restoration is quite literally cosmic in scope. The renewal of the human being is one piece, albeit a central one, of a much larger project.

The fourth thing to note in this text is the Trinitarian nature of the new birth. In every text I have looked at in the last three posts only one or two persons of the Trinity are explicitly mentioned as actors in the work of regeneration. More often than not only one person is mentioned. Here, however, we have the explicit mention of all three. God the Father sends the Spirit through the Son to accomplish the new birth. The Father authors the event, the Son’s death and resurrection grounds the event, and the Spirit executes the event. Here in this text it is clear that the Holy Spirit is playing the central role in the work. He is richly poured out upon us to work in us regeneration. The event is called the “renewal of the Holy Spirit.”

This is a perfect example of what has been historically termed the doctrine of appropriation. This doctrine “insists that the work of the Trinity are a unity; every person of the Trinity is involved in every outward action of the Godhead. Thus, Father, Son, and Spirit are all involved in the work of creation, which is not to be viewed as the work of the Father alone…Yet it is appropriate to think of creation as the work of the Father. Despite the fact that all three persons of the Trinity are implicated in creation, it is properly seen as the distinctive action of the Father. Similarly, the entire Trinity is involved in the work of redemption. It is, however, appropriate to speak of redemption as being the distinctive work of the Son” (McGrath, Historical Theology). So it is with regeneration. All three persons are intimately involved in the work but it is appropriate to distinguish the Spirit as the main player.

The way I remember this doctrine is by envisioning three fighter pilots on a mission. These three pilots have each been given a distinct role to play. The mission they are on requires that they each execute their role with perfection. I envision them flying in formation one taking the lead while the others play a supporting role. As they go about their mission the formation shifts and moves according to the task before them. All three play a vital role in the mission but there is always one point man leading the charge. In creation and election the Father takes the point. In redemption and reconciliation the Son leads the way. In the work of regeneration and progressive sanctification the Spirit is out in front. We should not miss the fact that all three persons are always present in every work. At the same time we should recognize the person who plays the central role in the work.

The fifth thing to pull out of this text is the relationship of regeneration, justification, and sonship. The work of regeneration is not an end in itself as we have seen in other places. The gift of the Spirit brings about our regeneration so that we might receive justification leading to sonship. Faith, the necessary mechanism that unites us to Christ, is the fruit of regeneration. Regeneration is a vital piece of the saving work of God for what it does in renewing us and for ushering us into union with Jesus that we might be clothed with his righteousness. Apart from regeneration we would never know the grace of justification. The gift of justification leads us into a right relationship with God the Father. We become his sons and thus his heirs. God’s rescue mission drives toward this point. Being clean, forgiven, declared righteous, and redeemed are wonderful gifts but they are not the destination. The destination is God himself. We are heirs of and with God. Life eternal is sharing in the life of the Triune God. Could there be anything greater!

1 Corinthians 6:11

And such were some of you. But you were washed (ἀπελούσασθε), you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 

In the previous verses Paul gives a litany of sinful lifestyles and patterns, all of which exclude an individual from the kingdom of God. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they once lived that way and were outside of God’s grace. However, God’s saving intervention brought a drastic change to all of that. Paul reminds them that they were washed. It is possible and maybe even likely that this is a reference to the washing of regeneration. If so then we see once again the importance of this event alongside the other saving elements of God’s plan. We also learn that the washing comes in the name of Jesus and by the Spirit.

Ephesians 5:25-27

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word (τῷ λουτρῷ τοῦ ὕδατος ἐν ῥήματι), so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

This is a debated text of Scripture. There tend to be three interpretations of the washing language. 1) Baptism; 2) Regeneration; 3) Cleansing or Forgiveness. I am not certain of the best option. If the text were talking about regeneration and renewal, which could include within it cleansing, then we would have another confirmation of the Word of God as instrument for the event.

Summary

The new birth is the work of the Triune God. Paul provides the fullest Trinitarian framework for grasping this saving event.  We learn that regeneration is from the Father through the Son and by the Spirit. This new birth is as necessary for our salvation as is any other saving element in God’s plan. This work of new birth is fundamentally about restoration. Through the new birth the human being is reoriented and enabled to be what he was created to be. It also includes renewal, cleansing, and transformation. It is also a crucial doctrine in the way it relates to other doctrines. Regeneration leads to faith, justification, and sonship. If you take regeneration out of the equation we remain enemies of God rather than sons. Paul understood that his apostolic ministry was connected to this saving action of God. As he preached the gospel of promise God the Spirit would bring about the new birth. He saw himself as sowing the gospel seed, delivering the twice born individual, and helping the new born grow to maturity. Paul identified himself as the spiritual father of spiritual children. From this we learn that Paul’s confidence in ministry was in the sufficiency of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit. He preached the gospel that saves and trusted the Spirit to bring it about.

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