2.5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled to Poland. Churches are helping but the financial burden is too much.
Consider helping today!

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


Additional Links

Introductory.-A study of the NT idea of regeneration does not mean, of course, simply an examination of the passages in which that particular metaphor occurs, but a consideration of the theory which the NT writers held as to the nature of the experiences which they found in themselves and in their converts. These experiences did not take place in a vacuum, but in a world in which supernatural religion was an intensely significant interest. No movement can ever be so original that it is entirely independent of the ideas and conditions of its day. However new it may be in its spirit, it will inevitably clothe itself in the familiar forms of human speech and conduct, even though it give to them a wholly new significance. In the time of Jesus, people believed already in a Divine power which would make them fit for an immortality of bliss. They thought of the necessary transformation as a death and resurrection, as a new birth, as a purification. If the totality of the utterances of later Judaism and of the non-Christian religions be considered, it is probable that we should regard the conditions of the new life which they present as, for the most part, unethical, external, magical. But when the finest of these utterances are read with due appreciation, it must be recognized that they have a large ethical meaning. [Note: Reitzenstein’s comparison of the NT with these is, however, significant: ‘the tremendous seriousness with which guilt and atonement are preached is, so far as I can discover, lacking in Hellenism’ (Poimandres, p. 180, n. 1).] The gospel of regeneration was not a striking novelty either to the Jewish or to the pagan world, and if the condition of regeneration were simply stated as a belief that Jesus was the Messiah the Son of God, it might seem quite consonant with the common faith of the time. And this was probably so much the case that one of the great problems before the creative personalities of Christianity, who were passionately inculcating a spiritual faith, was to put ethical content into those supernatural conceptions of the new religion with which the people were all too easily satisfied. It is probable, therefore, that we shall have to look for the highest meaning of regeneration as conceived by the apostles, not so much in those miraculous aspects which have generally attracted attention, important as these are in NT thought, but rather in what was added of real ethical quality to the conceptions that otherwise might have been largely external and magical.

So far as Judaism is concerned, it has always been recognized that early Christianity formed itself against the background of the great faith that had come from the OT, and it has latterly been quite generally recognized that the background of NT theology is also that apocalyptic Messianism that had come to such elaborate development at the time. The continuity of revelation which has been thought of between the OT and the NT has made it easy for us to think of Christianity as accepting the language, the metaphors, and many of the externals of Judaism, giving to them a larger significance. But it is necessary also to realize that Christianity was able to take over the whole schema of apocalypticism by simply putting Jesus as the expected Messiah. The conditions for a doctrine of regeneration were then complete. Current Judaism made sharp distinction between the present age under the dominion of Satan and the coming age when the Messiah would be in power. Among the most glorious expectancies regarding the Messiah were the supernatural endowments that He would bestow upon His people. And there was not wanting the ethical expectation that sin would be pardoned, and a great era of righteousness would ensue. If, then, Jesus were the Messiah already manifested, crucified for sin, raised from the dead, coming again in glory, empowered to bestow an earnest of the gifts of the coming age, a supernatural new life would, of course, be possible. The believer in those redemptive facts would be translated from the Kingdom of Satan to that of Messiah. He would receive salvation, he would become a child of God, he would be miraculously re-born (a phrase already probably used of proselytes), and he would obtain the gift of the Spirit with its miraculous effects. It is evident that there is here a possibility either of the highest ethical motive or of confidence in a mere magical salvation. The whole spiritual quality of the new faith depended upon the degree in which the acceptance of Jesus became a moral power in human lives. If regeneration gave men a sure status, guaranteeing that they would be pardoned in the coming Judgment, so that they might live secure in having made comfortable provision for the future, then the whole supernaturalism would be in vain. If, on the other hand, it inspired them to be worthy to reign with Christ, it would have the highest moral quality. The great NT passages are concerned not with a definition of regeneration, but with entreaties and exhortations to live the new life which had been so Divinely bestowed.

But not only in Judaism was there a background for the doctrine of regeneration. The researches of recent years compel us to recognize that there were widespread hopes and expectancies of new life among the people who had felt the influence of the great mystery-religions. [Note: See art. Mystery, Mysteries.] And these were not national and racial, as were those of the Jews, but personal. The individual could be saved through a purification, this sometimes seeming to be ethical, perhaps more often ceremonial. There was intense interest in personal immortality, and a belief that the way to this salvation and immortality was that of initiation into the mysteries, involving mystic communion with the god. The very metaphor of the new birth was in all probability employed, indicating the attainment of a new status and the possibility of miraculous charismata. Indeed, it is not without significance that the word ‘regeneration’ is not used in the great NT passages. Its only occurrence as applied to the individual is Titus 3:5, a passage of very doubtful Pauline authenticity, where the most obvious interpretation is that salvation is effected by baptism. Is it possible that the word had so sacramental a significance that it was better avoided by those who were insisting upon an actual ethical renewal? With the triumph of sacramentalism in the Church the word attained its technical value. [Note: For a careful study of the word παλινγενεσία see art. ‘Regeneration’ in HDB, by J. Vernon Bartlet, and for its use in the mystery-religions see Reitzenstein, Poimandres, and Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen, s.v. παλιγγενεσία in Index.] Of course the documents that present these ideas so fully belong for the most part to a period not earlier than the end of the 2nd cent. a.d., and it is possible to maintain that they have been coloured by Christianity. But the essential doctrines of the mystery-religions could not have been so soon completely metamorphosed. Clemen (Primitive Christianity and its Non-Jewish Sources, p. 231), in a very careful examination of the material, recognizes the priority in the mystery-religions of many of the redemptive doctrines, and these not without ethical character. So far as regeneration is concerned, he believes that even the γεννηθῆναι ἂνωθεν (John 3:7) might be so derived. He thinks also that the mention in the Naassenic sermon of a πνευματική, ἐπουράνιος, ἄνω γένεσις, in which the reference is to the Eleusinian mysteries, may well indicate a general influence, at least upon the Christian phraseology. This is not to say that Christianity borrowed its ideas from paganism at the same time that it felt the most intense revulsion against the idolatries, but only that certain common religious thought-forms concerning miraculous purifications and transformations were current, and Christianity inevitably expressed its own new-born faith in the language of the day. If, then, in the non-Jewish world Jesus was proclaimed as the Son of God, who had become incarnate, had died the sacrificial death, had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, was coming again to give immortality to His followers, it would be quite in accord with the religious ideas of the time to believe that an acceptance of these redemptive facts would constitute one a child of God, and would avail to secure the gifts of the Spirit, which would be the attestation of having passed from death unto life. And, again, as among the Jews, it would be possible to accept such a doctrine in a wholly external way, making the salvation process merely miraculous. There was, of course, the other glorious possibility that those who believed themselves saved from sin and translated into eternal life by the loving acceptance of the grace of God in Jesus Christ would be actually impelled by new ethical motive, and would manifest the moral, as well as the miraculous, fruits of the Spirit. This was the experience of the NT writers themselves, and it is to this new life of love and moral endeavour that they exhort their readers.

The basis for a doctrine of regeneration is therefore to be found in the sacramentalism of both Judaism and the mystery-cults. And the NT writers believe in a miraculous change of status brought about at the moment of faith. But they always insist that this has no meaning unless a new moral life, governed by new motives, has actually resulted. And this is a practical nullification of the sacramental conception. It is further a nullification of the artificial distinction which later theology elaborated between regeneration and sanctification. In the effort to make a self-consistent theology all the passages which referred to the miraculous change or status were used for a doctrine of regeneration, and those which referred to the ethical agency of the Spirit for one of sanctification. There was thus developed the idea that regeneration produced a complete change of nature, an idea which neither common human experience nor scientific psychology supports. The NT writers, far more concerned with the facts of experience than with the formulation of a self-consistent theology, developed no such theory. To them regeneration was always a moral fact. Hence the idea of the regeneration of infants, very easily held by those who believe in the possibility of a supernatural change of nature, does not appear in the NT. The reason for this will be noted in the discussion of 1 John.

The examination of the NT documents may well begin with Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptics, then proceed to the Book of Acts as presenting the external manifestations of the early Christian experience with the interpretations that were current in the Church, and then to the writings that more clearly express the personal contributions of the great spiritual leaders.

1. The Synoptics.-The idea of regeneration, strictly so called, does not appear in the words of Jesus in the Synoptic tradition. This is significant at once of the faithfulness of the tradition and of Jesus’ own extraordinary originality. The παλινγενεσία of Matthew 19:28 is, of course, the Messianic consummation. But neither here, nor in any other passage that refers to the Kingdom of God in apocalyptic fashion, is there any statement of a miraculous change of status, of the individual. The saying of John the Baptist that the Coming One shall baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16) implies the supernaturalism of the charismata, but Jesus’ own words have to do with the simplicity of a religious experience within the reach of all who fulfil the ethical conditions of thorough-going repentance (Matthew 18:3) and heroic, sacrificial choice of the higher values (Matthew 10:39, Matthew 11:25 ff., Matthew 16:24 ff., Matthew 18:8 f.). Of course God Himself reveals truth to the obedient soul (Matthew 16:17), but there is no natural incapacity for righteousness. Men can become sons of their Father if they will (Matthew 5:45). The striking figure used of the Prodigal, who was alive after being morally dead, is only a strong expression of the happy result when the foolish sinner ‘came to himself.’

2. The Book of Acts.-That the specific metaphor of regeneration had not been theologized in the primitive Church is evident from the entire absence of the figure from this book. The only reference to men as the children of God is the quotation from the Greek pcet (Acts 17:28). However, there is here the essentially similar idea, as throughout the NT, that the saved man is one who has received the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is Divinely possessed. He may be so carried out of himself by the supernatural enthusiasm that he appears to onlookers as drunk (Acts 2:13); more generally he has the miraculous power of uttering ecstatic sounds (speaking with tongues, Acts 2:4, Acts 10:46, Acts 19:6), and declaring his faith in exuberant public speech (prophesying, Acts 11:28, Acts 19:6, Acts 21:9-10); while those especially endowed may work miracles (Acts 2:43, Acts 4:30, Acts 5:12, Acts 8:13, Acts 14:3). This gift of the Holy Spirit, with its wonderful manifestations, is the distinguishing mark of the Christian (Acts 2:33; Acts 2:38, Acts 5:32, Acts 8:17, Acts 10:44, Acts 15:8, Acts 19:6). The schema of the new religion is clearly set forth; Jesus is the Messiah (Acts 2:36, Acts 5:42), predicted in the Scriptures (Acts 7:52, Acts 8:35, Acts 13:47), attested by the Resurrection (Acts 2:32, Acts 10:41, Acts 13:33, Acts 26:23); acceptance of Him as such is the basis of salvation (Acts 4:12, Acts 10:43, Acts 13:39); but there must be also a very definite repentance, not merely for having crucified the Messiah (Acts 2:38), but a turning from iniquities (Acts 3:26), and from darkness to light (Acts 26:18), and this is to be followed by works worthy of repentance (Acts 26:20); baptism follows on repentance and seems to have a sacramental efficacy (βαπτισθήτωεἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν, Acts 2:38; βάπτισαι καὶ ἀπόλουσαι τὰς ἁμαρτίας σου, Acts 22:16). As regards baptism, it is noteworthy that Cornelius and his company are accepted of God and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit before they are baptized (Acts 10:44; Acts 10:47), though in every other case the gift of the Spirit is subsequent to baptism. Finally, those who are thus saved and endowed are ordained unto eternal life (Acts 13:46; Acts 13:48), the blessed inheritance of the future (Acts 26:18). While it is evident that much of this programme would be entirely familiar to the world of the mystery-religions, the peculiar power of primitive Christianity was manifest in its fine moral glow and its gracious charities, as well as in its religious enthusiasm. And this story of the early Church reveals, on the one hand, an utter absence of those coarser elements, from which the mystery-cults, whatever may have been their philosophical refinements, never freed themselves, and, on the other hand, a positive moral power resulting from glad allegiance to the Historical Founder of Christianity, such as was never accorded to the mythical founders of the other religions of the time.

3. The Pauline writings.-The central passage for St. Paul’s thought on the experience of regeneration is Romans 6-8. It is evidently autobiographical in fact as well as in rhetorical form, and is a wonderful piece of self-revelation. It is a classic of religious experience, and yields in a most interesting way to clear psychological interpretation. The passage exhibits what the experience of regeneration really is in the case of such persons as are conscious of what has been called ‘the divided self.’ It is the case, familiar enough in some form to most of us, where all one’s ethical ideals reinforced by education lead in one direction, while the strength of many habits and even of primitive instinct (if ἐπιθυμία in Romans 7:7 is to be understood as ‘lust’) impel one in another direction. When attention is concentrated upon duty, a man acts according to his sense of higher values; when impulse determines his conduct, he is false to his better knowledge. And so, in spite of longings and endeavours after moral victory, defeat is the constant result. To the earnest Pharisee the terrible impasse is reached, that he wants to be righteous but he cannot (Romans 7:21-24): he must actually do what he hates (Romans 7:15). Some new idea with very high emotional quality is essential to secure the concentration of attention on the nobler course of conduct. This comes to St. Paul in his conversion experience. He feels himself thereupon released from the thrall of the lower self and empowered to live in the higher self. The new idea has the emotive power necessary to make his ethical ideals actually attainable, and so he comes into the experience of the peace of the unified self (Romans 7:24-25; cf. Romans 5:1). An element of this new idea that has strong emotional value is the belief that there awaits the victor in the conflict an eternity of splendid peace in the full enjoyment of all those experiences for which now he must contend so hardly (Romans 8:15-17). This creates a condition distinctly favourable for pursuing lines of conduct conducive to the desired end. The transformation has thus taken place, that ethical ideals are no longer merely intellectually conceived, but have gained an emotional quality that renders the inhibition of contrary tendencies easy and natural (Romans 8:2). Of course under strong provocation the old impulses to wrong conduct would revive, and sometimes so strongly as to overcome the new inhibitions and pass over into action. But the experience of victory and unity would be so vivid that this re-emergence of the divided self would be painful, the new desirable lines of conduct would renew their hold upon the attention, the inhibitions would regain their sway, and peace would again ensue. (This involves an interpretation of Romans 7:7-25 as a continuous experience, and not merely a post-conversion memory.)

St. Paul’s own interpretation of this regeneration experience is based on the antagonism between the σάρξ and the πνεῦμα. Whether his psychology involves an actual anthropological dualism it is perhaps not necessary to decide. He was probably not conscious of attempting a philosophical explanation, but was using the currently conceived antagonism between flesh and spirit to express the fact of his own experience and observation. The resolution of the antagonism is to St. Paul a Divine miracle of grace (Romans 7:25). The flesh is gaining the victory, but the Divine Spirit comes to the reinforcement of the human spirit and overcomes the flesh. St. Paul conceives the πνεῦμα θεοῦ as an actual external power coming to the aid of the believer, as a donation to be received (Romans 8:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 1:13; Ephesians 4:30). It is difficult here to follow him exactly because we are not sure of his psychology, but it is not at all difficult to arrive at his practical purpose. He is not so much concerned to explain the religious experience of the Christian, except to ascribe it to the power of God, as he is to insist that it must be a moral experience, involving necessarily the active moral endeavour of the believer. The passage is primarily hortatory, only incidentally doctrinal. St. Paul knows that eternal vigilance has been the condition of his own moral victory, God-given though he believes it to be, and he is anxious for his readers not to fail of victory by any easy acceptance of an external salvation.

The four rich metaphors of this passage, of which regeneration is not one, are all employed with this hortatory aim. (1) Death and resurrection.-Under the symbol of baptism, the believer is pictured as dead and risen again, in order to enforce the obligation of living in newness of life (Romans 6:3-11). (2) Change of masters.-The figure of the bondservant is used to press the alternative that we belong either to sin or to righteousness. Our conduct determines which is master (Romans 6:16-23). (3) Remarriage of a widow.-Just as a widow assumes a new loyalty when she marries a new husband, so are we free from the old sense of moral obligations and under the highest necessity of being true to the new (Romans 7:1-6). (4) Legal adoption of children.-The most significant figure of adoption is employed to indicate a new relationship to God attested by the presence of the Divine Spirit, enabling the believer to call God his Father. But this is all dependent upon actual life in the Spirit (or in the spirit, conceived as the higher human nature) (Romans 8:12-17). The Apostle is peculiarly careful that these metaphors shall not be pushed to an unethical conclusion. He sees the danger in his own day, which was fully realized in the history of the doctrine of regeneration. If any reader assumes that, having been baptized, he is therefore dead to the old life, St. Paul is not afraid to present to him the paradox, that the man who has died to the flesh and is thus released from its bondage (Romans 6:6-7, Romans 8:10) is still to go on putting to death the doings of the body (Romans 8:13). In close juxtaposition he speaks of a definite bestowal of the Spirit (aorist ἐλάβετε, Romans 8:15), with a constitution of the status of adoption, and of a relationship to God contingent on an ever-present obedience (ὄσοι ἄγονται, Romans 8:14). So the new life of the Christian is at the same time an ethical achievement and a supernatural gift. St. Paul does not carefully distinguish between these. They are merged in any vital religious experience, so that the regenerate man is the one who is in the actual experience of living the new life of moral victory (Romans 8:9).

Entirely in keeping with Romans 6-8 are all St. Paul’s references to the new spiritual life. He assumes that it has had a miraculous beginning (note his use of the past tense: δικαιωθέντες, ἐλευθερωθέντες, κληθέντες, ἡγιασμένοι), but he lays the emphasis upon the ethical endeavour, which alone can make the potential actual. Thus in Romans 12:2, using the word ἀνακαίνωσις, very near akin to the idea of regeneration, he calls upon his readers to make a complete change for the better. Sanday-Headlam (International Critical Commentary , ‘Romans’5, 1902) paraphrase, ‘do not adopt the external and fleeting fashion of this world, but be ye transformed in your inmost nature.’ Denney (Expositor’s Greek Testament , ‘Romans,’ 1900) says that the process would in modern language be rather sanctification than regeneration but that the latter is assumed. Would it not be nearer to the Apostle’s thought, as to his experience, to say that he regards the process of spiritual renewal as one bestowed by God through faith, but rendered significant and vital only by continued faithfulness? To the Colossians he affirms in repeated metaphors a definite change that has been effected by Divine agency: a translation from the kingdom of evil to the Kingdom of Christ (Colossians 1:13), a reconciliation from alien enmity (Colossians 1:21-22), a death and resurrection with Christ (Colossians 2:20, Colossians 3:1; Colossians 3:3), an unclothing and reclothing (Colossians 3:9-10). But the reconciliation is dependent on continuance in the faith (Colossians 1:23); the members of the dead man are to be put to death (Colossians 3:5); and the new man is to be renewed (Colossians 3:10). In the last passage the equivalent word for regeneration (ἀνακαινούμενον) is clearly used in the sense of process as in 2 Corinthians 4:18, where the contrast is between the loosening hold upon physical life and the growing sense of spiritual reality. To the Ephesians St. Paul writes in the most absolute terms of a fore-ordained adoption as sons (Ephesians 1:5) and of salvation as a free gift (Ephesians 2:8), and the metaphor of the new life is a resurrection (Ephesians 2:1; Ephesians 2:5-6), not as in Romans a dying and rising with Christ, which is merely a bold use of the symbol of baptism, but a resurrection to new life of a nature so corrupt as to be regarded as morally dead. And yet the splendid description of Divinely given salvation is only an argument for a realization of an actual moral renewal, progressively to take place: putting away the old man, putting on the new, being renewed (ἀνανεοῦσθαι) in the spirit of their minds (Ephesians 4:22-25). The same paradox, though with a change of metaphor, appears in Ephesians 5:8.

4. The Epistle to the Hebrews.-The figure of regeneration is not used in this document. Christians are called sons of God and brethren of Christ, but are not said to have been made so. When they are called the sons whom Jesus brings unto glory (Hebrews 2:10) the antithesis is not between sons of God and the unregenerate, but between the mortal humanity of the sons whose likeness Jesus took and the immortal glory of His own proper estate which they shall share. And in the consciousness of son-ship that is gained through suffering (Hebrews 12:8) the antithesis is between uncared-for children who receive no correction and those beloved who are the objects of paternal discipline. However, the initial Christian experience as a definite change of attitude and relationship is very clearly expressed. It is an enlightenment (Hebrews 10:32), a tasting of the heavenly gift (of forgiveness), a reception of the Holy Spirit, a tasting of the good word of God, and of the powers of the age to come (i.e. a foretaste of the blessed experiences that the expected Messianic Age would bring) (Hebrews 6:4-5). This experience is elaborated in many passages of the Epistle and is represented as produced by Divine power. The blood of Christ cleanses the conscience from sin, and makes it possible for the man of faith to serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14, Hebrews 10:22). The blood of the covenant is that which sanctifies (sanctification being here equivalent to regeneration) (Hebrews 10:29). Baptism symbolizes (or perhaps effects) the cleansing (Hebrews 10:23), The Holy Spirit is bestowed as a gift (Hebrews 2:4). Indeed, salvation would seem to be altogether miraculous when it is said that by one offering God hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified (Hebrews 10:14). And yet the purpose of the Epistle is to warn against apostasy, and to insist that all the blessedness of the new life is only a potentiality to be realized by faithfulness. The great passage (Hebrews 6:4-6) which enumerates all that has been done for the believer is written for the sake of the conclusion that if apostasy follows such blessedness there is no further hope. If we hold fast, we belong to Christ (Hebrews 3:6), and are partakers of Christ (Hebrews 3:14). We shall not escape if we turn away (Hebrews 12:25), and if we sin wilfully after being enlightened there is no further means of salvation (Hebrews 10:26). Thus, although the new religious experience is Divinely bestowed and sustained (Hebrews 12:2) and perfected (Hebrews 13:20-21), it is not magical and sacramental, but dependent upon ethical striving and continued faithfulness.

5. The Catholic Epistles.-In the Epistle of James the idea of regeneration is connected with the coming Messianic Age: believers are Divinely brought forth (ἀπεκύησεν) as firstfruits of the new order (James 1:18). In another figure the dualism between this world and the Divine order is indicated, when God’s people are represented as joined to Him by a marriage vow so that ‘the friendship of the world is an adultery’ (James 4:4). Yet, while this Epistle recognizes miraculous salvation, it distinctly affirms that religion can be defined only in ethical terms (James 1:26-27), and lays careful emphasis on justification by works (James 2:14-26).

1 Peter is full of the exultant expression of a rich religious experience. The metaphor of regeneration appears several times. It is used to express the utterly new life which belongs to the person who has attained a hope of resurrection and heavenly glory (ἀναγεννήσας, 1 Peter 1:3). Again, Christians are said to be begotten again (ἀναγεγεννημένοι) to a new life of brotherly love, the moral quality of the regeneration being very marked (1 Peter 1:22-23). And, with expansion of the figure, the new-born babe is urged to desire the fitting nourishment for producing the maturity of salvation (1 Peter 2:2). St. Paul’s great figure of death and resurrection is employed to indicate that union with Christ means a death to sins and a life unto righteousness (1 Peter 2:24).

In 2 Peter the new life is separated from the old by a καθαρισμός (2 Peter 1:9). It is described as an escape from the corruptions of the world (2 Peter 1:4, 2 Peter 2:20). Christians thus become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). This is effected through knowledge (ἐπίγνωσις) of God (2 Peter 1:2; 2 Peter 1:8) and of Christ (2 Peter 1:2; 2 Peter 1:8, 2 Peter 2:20, 2 Peter 3:18). But if, in spite of this redemptive knowledge, there should be a return to the defilements of the world, salvation is lost and ‘the last state is become worse with them than the first’ (2 Peter 2:20). The Epistle is throughout strongly ethical.

6. The Johannine literature.-The purpose of the Gospel of John is definitely stated in the conclusion (John 20:31) to be a demonstration that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, in order that men might believe and have life in His name. Life is the key-word of the Gospel. This is more than a hope of immortality, which of course it includes (John 6:40, John 14:19), It seems to imply a certain rich and exuberant experience as a result of the indwelling of the Spirit. One becomes, as it were, a perennial spring of spiritual vitality (John 4:14, John 7:38 f.). It is an experience of spiritual apprehension (John 8:47), of walking in light and not in darkness (John 8:12). The object of salvation is that one shall live to the full, abundantly (John 10:10). It may be doubted whether our modern social interpretations of the abundant life were in the mind of the writer, but he evidently referred to an exultant sense of the glorious worthfulness of being a child of God, superior to worldly circumstance, possessed of the Spirit, with miraculous powers, and certain of a glorious future. This new life is so different from ordinary mundane life that very naturally the metaphor of regeneration is used to explain it. As our human begetting by the will of man bestows upon us common life, so the Divine begetting gives us life eternal (John 1:13). The antithesis is clear: one is either regenerate or not (John 3:6). The conversation with Nicodemus affords the opportunity for presenting the doctrine. The Kingdom of God comes not by natural heritage even to a Jewish Rabbi, but by supernatural bestowment. It is mysterious as the incalculable winds, but is inevitable and essential (John 3:8). The condition of this regeneration is a belief that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God; for what is definitely stated in the prologue (John 1:12-13) is implied in the believing unto eternal life (John 3:15). Regeneration as thus presented might seem to be the mere change of status with miraculous charismata in consequence of an external act of homage, which the pagan heart would so well understand. But faith is not an external act in this Gospel. He that dceth the truth cometh to the light (John 3:21); he that is willing to do the will of God gains experiential evidence of the truth of the gospel (John 7:17). And the great central teaching of the last discourse of Jesus is fundamentally ethical. The figure changes from regeneration to that of the branch in the vine. The question is not whether the branch is in the vine, but whether it bears fruit, failing which it is cast forth and burned (John 15:5). And the fruit is love (John 15:12). So the test of regeneration is the actual experience of love of the brethren, the actual fulfilment of the commandment of Christ. Belief, then, through which comes regeneration, is not an intellectual assent, but a passionate loyalty, rich in ethical impulse, and a continuous experience.

1 John has the same theme as the Gospel, but the treatment is more homiletic. The conditions are peculiarly favourable to the definition of a doctrine of regeneration, for the letter is evidently written to a Christian community or communities, in which many must, belong to the second or third generation of believers, and therefore would not have experienced the decided change involved in a conversion from heathenism. The silence of the NT upon the matter of the regeneration of children is interesting in view of the large place which it has held in subsequent theological discussion. In the NT, however, regeneration is always dependent upon faith. The children would, of course, receive such instruction as would enable them to believe. Both the Jewish and the Greek world were thoroughly familiar with the idea of a coming of age at puberty, and the children probably received the baptism which was the seal of their faith at that time. The figure of regeneration had not been so thoroughly theologized that the question whether or not children were regenerate would arise. The silence of the NT is an assumption that the children of believers were candidates for salvation. But a religion dependent on instruction might easily become merely formal. And it is such a situation that this Epistle presupposes. It is addressed to the Christian community (1 John 5:13), to fathers who have long known the truth, to young men who are conquering evil (1 John 2:13-14), all of whom have received the gift of the Spirit, which is an abiding enlightenment (1 John 2:27). The writer identifies them with himself in the absoluteness of salvation-‘we are of God, and the whole world lieth in the evil one’ (1 John 5:19). And yet the distinctive emphasis of the Epistle is upon regeneration as a moral experience rather than as a religious status. When the author says, ‘whosoever believeth is begotten of God’ (1 John 5:1), he is stating the fact which any primitive Christian would have understood. But with equal emphasis he insists that ‘everyone that dceth righteousness is begotten of him’ (1 John 2:29), and against that ‘everyone that loveth is begotten of God’ (1 John 4:7). He does not say that we know that we have passed from death unto life because we have been baptized, but because we have the Spirit (1 John 4:13), and the evidence of this is love of the brethren (1 John 4:12, 1 John 3:14). The ethical quality of regeneration is still more emphatically stated-‘whatsoever is begotten of God dceth no sin’ (1 John 3:9, 1 John 5:18). Thus mankind is divided into children of God and children of the devil, each living according to the paternal nature that is in them (1 John 3:9-10). Of course this is stated in absolute terms, and the correction is at hand: ‘if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves,’ etc. (1 John 1:8; 1 John 1:10). It is St. Paul’s fine paradox again: we are children of God by supernatural creation; the Divine seed is in us; what is Divine cannot sin; therefore the believer does not sin in his own proper nature, and if he does sin he seeks and finds forgiveness. And the paradox is true to the real religious experience. But sacramentalism is avoided, and the whole conception of regeneration is ethicized by the warning against confidence in a formal regeneration which does not manifest itself in new life. The regenerate life is an exultant and abiding love to God and the brethren (1 John 4:12-13; 1 John 4:18), and if this is absent there is no regeneration at all (1 John 1:6, 1 John 2:9).

Literature.-Article ‘Regeneration’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) by J. V. Bartlet, in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels by J. Denney, and literature there cited; works on NT Theology, especially B. Weiss (Eng. translation , 1882-83), W. Beyschlag (Eng. translation , 1895), H. J. Holtzmann (1896-97). G. B. Stevens (1899); also special works: T. D. Bernard, The Progress of Doctrine in the NT, 1864, 51900; G. B. Stevens, Johannine Theology, 1894, The Pauline Theology, 1892; O. Pfleiderer, Paulinismus2, 1890 (Eng. translation , 1891); A. B. Bruce, St. Paul’s Conception of Christianity, 1894; P. Gennrich, Die Lehre von der Wiedergeburt, 1907. For the historical background: R. Reitzenstein, Die hellenist, Mysterienreligionen. 1910, Poimandres, 1904; J. G. Frazer, GB [Note: B Golden Bough (J. G. Frazer).] 3, pt. iv., Adonis Attis Osiris, 1914; F. Cumont, The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, Eng. translation , 1911; M. Brückner, Der sterbende und auferstehende Gottheiland, 1908; A. Loisy, ‘The Christian Mystery,’ In J. Hibbert Journal x. [1911] 45 ff.; C. Clemen, Primitive Christianity and its Non-Jewish Sources, Eng. translation , 1912; T. G. Soares, ‘Some Psychological Aspects of Regeneration in BW [Note: W Biblical World.] xxxvii. [1911] 78 ff.; E. D. Burton, ‘Spirit, Soul and Flesh,’ in AJTh [Note: JTh American Journal of Theology.] xvii, [1913] 563 ff., xviii. [1914] 59 ff., 395 ff., 571 ff.

Theodore Gerald Soares.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Regeneration'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry