It is common for Christians to equate the new birth, or regeneration, with the new life in Christ that God provides to all who believe. Because of the way the Gospel is taught in many churches, it is easy to think that regeneration is something that happens when we first confess Jesus as our Savior. We are accustomed to making the moment at which we are born again and the moment at which we repent and believe one and the same.
However, while we cannot usually distinguish the point at which the Holy Spirit changes our hearts from the point at which we come to Christ, it must be noted that regeneration always takes place before we exercise faith. Our new life — our love for and trust of the Savior — flows from the new birth, not vice versa. This is clearly taught in John 3:3 where Jesus tells us we cannot even see the kingdom of God unless we are first born again. If we cannot see the kingdom, we certainly cannot enter it; thus, regeneration precedes faith. In regenerating our hearts, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes, making us able to obey in faith.
The truth that regeneration is the beginning of the Christian life is also taught in today’s passage. As Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:4–5, all of us were dead in our sins before we knew Jesus. Dead people cannot bring themselves back to life, someone else must rescue us. We will have no desire for the things of God without the Spirit’s work; He must take the initiative. He brings us to life and sets us on our spiritual pilgrimage, which is not complete until we are resurrected.
Remembering that regeneration is the beginning of the Christian life is important for our sanctification. The new life that comes when the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts does not eradicate sin’s presence from our lives. Even regenerate people still have great capacity for evil after their hearts have been redirected towards the Savior. The power of sin to compel us to do evil is broken, but our ability to sin remains (Rom. 7:4–25). Therefore, we must do all that we can to put to death the lusts of the flesh. If we remember that regeneration is only the beginning of our walk, we will be less surprised at our struggles with temptation and more vigilant in mortifying the flesh.
As we mature in Christ we will find ourselves more sensitive to the presence of sin in our lives, noticing “minor” transgressions that were once easily overlooked. This in turn should make us more vigilant to do what is necessary to prevent bitterness and other invisible sins from welling up within us. Let not your growing awareness of your own sinfulness discourage you. Instead, arm yourself to fight your flesh more effectively with such knowledge.
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