Renaissance means “new birth,” and it is fundamental to becoming a Christian. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” said Jesus (John 3:3). This was his non-negotiable opening statement to Nicodemus. We aren’t told why Nicodemus came to see Jesus, although we know that he eventually became a disciple. A night approach suggests he was tentatively checking out the Galilean teacher, but not yet committed. Whatever he was going to say was immediately overtaken by Jesus’ declaration. “You must be born again.” Nicodemus, taken aback, couldn’t see beyond the literal meaning of these words. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter 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.” (John 3:4–7).
Jesus made it clear that he was talking about a spiritual, not a fleshly, rebirth and that it is a work of the Spirit. This idea was introduced in John’s prologue: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). Later in John’s account, Jesus stood up publicly at the high point of the Feast of Dedication and proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” John explains that Jesus was referring to “the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37–39).
Other New Testament writers bear witness to this rebirthing or regeneration. “Of his own will he brought us forth, by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jas 1:18). “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3). “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:4–5). “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven all our trespasses” (Col 2:13). “Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Pet 1:23).
These verses speak of a real change in the believer, as radical as being born a second time. It is a work of God, through his Spirit and the agency of his Word, enfleshed in Christ (John 1:14). We were dead in trespasses and sins but made alive, just as Christ was raised from death after dealing with our sins on the cross and bringing forgiveness. As with all aspects of salvation, regeneration is an act of grace, totally undeserved, wrought by the Father, Son and Spirit together. Justification, the declaration of right standing before God, is accompanied by a real change in the believer, an ability to apprehend spiritual things and to partake of spiritual life. Our former, fleshly birth did not enable this, for we were effectively dead. Life in the Spirit requires new birth through the Spirit. Through Christ we are made alive, and this life is a present possession in a real sense, even though its fullness is yet to come. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
Regeneration, like justification, redemption and adoption, occurs at the beginning of the Christian life. The sinner believes and repents, trusting in Christ and calling on him as Lord. Those whom God justifies are sure to be glorified; whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom 8:30). This is the Christian assurance, and everything necessary for our salvation has already been accomplished by Christ on the cross. But this is not the end of God’s work in us. Newborn babies are expected to grow, fed by the milk of the Word as the Spirit progressively sanctifies us (1 Pet 2:2). The rebirth and subsequent process of sanctification are an active work of the Spirit and cannot be achieved without the Spirit. Jesus requires us to be born again and provides the Spirit to accomplish this.
Christadelphians have traditionally struggled with an active work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and consequently also struggled with the concept of being “born again,” avoiding much reference to it. This was particularly the case in the 1970s and 80s when being “born again” was the proclamation of evangelical Christians, with whom Christadelphians found little affinity. Although the clear teaching of Scripture is now breaking through this anti-supernatural, anti-“churches” mindset in many Christadelphian circles, there is still official rejection of the necessity of a work of the Spirit in the believer as the Basis of Fellowship. Their standard interpretation of the “born again” passages is that the Spirit’s work is confined to the action of the Scriptures on the mind of the believer. This is an intellectual process, a work of human reason, not a supernatural intervention. Of course, the Spirit of God still speaks through the words he inspired to be written and Scripture is the indispensable medium for conveying the gospel, the “sword” by which the Spirit pierces our fleshly hearts to effect change (Eph 6:17; Heb 4:12; James 1:18; 1 Pet 1:23; Rom 10:14). But without the Spirit’s opening of the heart (“calling”), these words appear mere foolishness (1 Cor 1:23–24).
Christadelphians have traditionally equated the new birth with the act of baptism. “A believing, repentant person receives forgiveness of sins by being baptized . . . The incorruptible seed of the Word of God… brings forth the new man through baptism by bringing the believer into Christ… Our former fleshly birth… is superseded by this new spiritual birth by which we become sons of God” (Harry Tennant, The Christadelphians, What they Believe and Preach. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1998,208–9). Romans 5 and 6, so often read at Christadelphian baptisms, are too easily robbed of their emphasis on the free gifts of justification, reconciliation, propitiation, access to God, and rebirth to newness of life. Rather than seeing the new life as one of enabling, by the Spirit, to crucify self and live for Christ, it can becomes one of imperative to works. Not, “You don’t have to live for sin any more because you have been set free,” but “Now you are Christ’s make sure you don’t live for sin any more.” John Marshall’s The New Life (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1971) which equates the new birth with baptism, is basically a handbook of things one should and shouldn’t do. It may seem a subtle difference, but reflects a deeper misunderstanding of salvation by grace.
Without doubt, baptism is something which Christ’s disciples are expected to do (Matt 28:19; Acts 8:35–36; 16:30–33) and it is a powerful symbol of the washing of sins, unity with Christ’s death and resurrection and of the greater baptism with the Spirit, and a public declaration of allegiance to him (Mark 1:8; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom 6:3–5; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27; Col 2:12; 1 Pet 3:21). But it is not the means of nor even the locus of salvation of the believer (Luke 7:49–50; Acts 2:21; 11:14–16; Rom 10:9–10, 13; Eph 2:8–9; Titus 3:5). The Scriptural verses which speak of new birth do not specifically mention baptism. Jesus told Nicodemus that the new birth is a work of the Spirit, not of flesh/water like a natural birth, and marvelled that he, a teacher of Israel, didn’t understand this. Neither, it seems, do Christadelphian writers. The classic work by Fred Pearce, God’s Spirit in Work and Word (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1989) doesn’t even discuss being born again or born of the Spirit, nor mention the Nicodemus discourse, except to say, “Thus is accomplished the work of the Holy Spirit in the minds and hearts of believers; not by a miraculous or independently direct influence, but by the searching, cleansing and sanctifying power of His Word to beget sons and daughters in His own spiritual image with their willing cooperation” (p 49).
The Christadelphian reticence to acknowledge any direct, supernatural working of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and sanctification, stems from their hypercessationist view. So concerned have they been to deny that any supernatural or “miraculous” gifts of the Spirit are apparent today that they have traditionally gone too far and cut off God’s Spirit from any influence at all, apart from the effect of Bible reading on the mind. They narrowly and erroneously equate the idea of “baptism with the Spirit,” a gift promised to believers by Jesus himself (John 7:39) with ecstatic experiences such as speaking in tongues, and so reject it. But this is to throw the reborn babe in Christ out with the Pentecostal bathwater. Unless one is born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the Kingdom (John 3:5–6). We cannot be regenerated apart from an act of God; without revivification we are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:4–5). True worshippers worship in Spirit and in truth; he pervades our lives and worship (John 4:23–24; 6:63; Rom 8:4–16, 26–27; 14:17; Eph 6:18; Phil 3:3; 2 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 1:14). The Spirit sanctifies us, opposes our fleshly inclinations and enables us to bear fruit (Gal 5:17–25). Ephesians 1:13–14 tells us that when we hear the gospel and believe, we are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.” Without acknowledging the guarantee of the Holy Spirit, where is assurance of our inheritance? Without the Spirit, where is our justification and sanctification? “But,” reminds Paul, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1Co 6:11).
“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1Co 12:13 ). Furthermore, “it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor 1:21–22). Without the indwelling Spirit, where is our adoption into God’s family? “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6 ).
Salvation is an act of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, through and through. We are saved by his grace, not any works we do (including water baptism!) An inadequate view of the Holy Spirit, just as with an inadequate perspective of the Son, produces an inadequate comprehension of his saving work. Conversely, as we begin to grasp the enormity of his gracious work, by the Spirit, we attain a better appreciation of the God who is, himself, relational love (1 John 4:8).
“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 and renewal 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” (Titus 3:4–7). Dear friends, do not ignore the Holy Spirit; you must be born again. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2Co 13:14).