What is regeneration? Regeneration is the impartation of life, spiritual life, to those who are dead, spiritually dead, through their trespasses and sins (Eph. ii.1, R. V.). It is the Holy Spirit who imparts this life. It is true that the written Word is the instrument which the Holy Spirit uses in regeneration. We read in 1 Pet. i.23, "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever." We read in James i.18, "Of His own will begat He us with the Word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures." These passages make it plain that the Word is the instrument used in regeneration, but it is only as the Holy Spirit uses the instrument that the new birth results. "It is the Spirit that giveth life" (John vi.63, A. R. V.). In 2 Cor. iii.6, we are told that "the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life."(1) This is sometimes interpreted to mean that the literal interpretation of Scripture, the interpretation that takes it in its strict grammatical sense and makes it mean what it says, kills; but that some spiritual interpretation, an interpretation that "gives the spirit of the passage," by making it mean something it does not say, gives life; and those who insist upon Scripture meaning exactly what it says are called "deadly literalists." This is a favourite perversion of Scripture with those who do not like to take the Bible as meaning just what it says and who find themselves driven into a corner and are looking about for some convenient way of escape. If one will read the words in their context, he will see that this thought was utterly foreign to the mind of Paul. Indeed, one who will carefully study the epistles of Paul will find that he himself was a literalist of the literalists. If literalism is deadly, then the teachings of Paul are among the most deadly ever written. Paul will build an argument upon the turn of a word, upon a number or a tense. What does the passage mean? The way to find out what any passage means is to study in their context the words used. Paul is drawing a contrast between the Word of God outside of us, written with ink upon parchment or graven on tables of stone, and the Word of God written within us in tables that are hearts of flesh with the Spirit of the living God (v.3) and he tells us that if we merely have the Word of God outside us in a Book or on parchment or on tables of stone, that it will kill us, that it will only bring condemnation and death, but that if we have the Word of God made a living thing in our hearts, written upon our hearts by the Spirit of the living God, that it will bring us life.(2) No number of Bibles upon our tables or in our libraries will save us, but the truth of the Bible written by the Spirit of the living God in our hearts will save us.
To put the matter of regeneration in another way; regeneration is the impartation of a new nature, God's own nature to the one who is born again (2 Pet. i.4). Every human being is born into this world with a perverted nature; his whole intellectual, affectional and volitional nature perverted by sin. No matter how excellent our human ancestry, we come into this world with a mind that is blind to the truth of God. ("The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." 1 Cor. ii.14.) With affections that are alienated from God, loving the things that we ought to hate and hating the things that we ought to love. ("Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like." Gal. v.19, 20, 21.) With a will that is perverted, set upon pleasing itself, rather than pleasing God. ("Because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be." Rom. viii.7, R. V.) In the new birth a new intellectual, affectional and volitional nature is imparted to us. We receive the mind that sees as God sees, thinks God's thoughts after Him (1 Cor. ii.12-14); affections in harmony with the affections of God. ("The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law." Gal. v.22, 23); a will that is in harmony with the will of God, that delights to do the things that please Him. (Like Jesus we say, "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work." John iv.34; cf. John vi.38; Gal i.10.) It is the Holy Spirit who creates in us this new nature, or imparts this new nature to us. No amount of preaching, no matter how orthodox it may be, no amount of mere study of the Word will regenerate unless the Holy Spirit works. It is He and He alone who makes a man a new creature.
The new birth is compared in the Bible to growth from a seed. The human heart is the soil, the Word of God is the seed (Luke viii.11; cf.1 Pet. i.23; Jas. i.18; 1 Cor. iv.15), every preacher or teacher of the Word is a sower, but the Spirit of God is the One who quickens the seed that is thus sown and the Divine nature springs up as the result. There is abundant soil everywhere in which to sow the seed, in the human hearts that are around about us upon every hand. There is abundant seed to be sown, any of us can find it in the granary of God's Word; and there are to-day many sowers: but there may be soil and seed and sowers, but unless as we sow the seed, the Spirit of God quickens it and the heart of the hearer closes around it by faith, there will be no harvest. Every sower needs to see to it that he realizes his dependence upon the Holy Spirit to quicken the seed he sows and he needs to see to it also that he is in such relation to God that the Holy Spirit may work through him and quicken the seed he sows.
The Holy Spirit does regenerate men. He has power to raise the dead. He has power to impart life to those who are morally both dead and putrefying. He has power to impart an entirely new nature to those whose nature now is so corrupt that to men they appear to be beyond hope. How often I have seen it proven. How often I have seen men and women utterly lost and ruined and vile come into a meeting scarcely knowing why they came, and as they have sat there the Word was spoken, the Spirit of God has quickened the Word thus sown in their hearts and in a moment that man or woman, by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, has become a new creation. I know a man who seemed as completely abandoned and hopeless as men ever become. He was about forty-five years of age. He had gone off in evil courses in early boyhood. He had run away from home, had joined the navy and afterwards the army, and learned all the vices of both. He had been dishonourably discharged from the army because of his extreme dissipation and disorderliness. He had found his companionships among the lowest of the low and the vilest of the vile. When he would go up the street of a Western town at night, and merchants would hear his yell, they would close their doors in fear. But this man went one night into a revival meeting in a country church out of curiosity. He made sport of the meeting that night with a boon companion who sat by his side, but he went again the next night. The Spirit of God touched his heart. He went forward and bowed at the altar. He arose a new creation. He was transformed into one of the noblest, truest, purest, most unselfish, most gentle and most Christlike men I have ever known. I am sometimes asked, "Do you believe in sudden conversion?" I believe in something far more wonderful than sudden conversion. I believe in sudden regeneration. Conversion is merely an outward thing, the turning around. Regeneration goes down to the deepest depths of the inmost soul, transforming thoughts, affections, will, the whole inward man. I believe in sudden regeneration because the Bible teaches it and because I have seen it times without number. I believe in sudden regeneration because I have experienced it. We are sometimes told that "the religion of the future will not teach sudden miraculous conversion." If the religion of the future does not teach sudden miraculous conversion, if it does not teach something far more meaningful, sudden, miraculous regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit, then the religion of the future will not be in conformity with the facts of experience and so will not be scientific. It will miss one of the most certain and most glorious of all truths. Man-devised religions in the past have often missed the truth and man-devised religions in the future will doubtless do the same. But the religion God has revealed in His Word and the religion that God confirms in experience teaches sudden regeneration by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit. If I did not believe in regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit, I would quit preaching. What would be the use in facing great audiences in which there were multitudes of men and women hardened and seared, caring for nothing but the things of the world and the flesh, with no high and holy aspirations, with no outlook beyond money and fame and power and pleasure, if it were not for the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit? But with the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, there is every use; for the preacher can never tell where the Spirit of God is going to strike and do His mighty work. There sits before you a man who is a gambler, or a drunkard, or a libertine. There does not seem to be much use in preaching to him, but you can never tell but that very night, the Spirit of God will touch that man's heart and transform him into one of the holiest and most useful of men. It has often occurred in the past and will doubtless often occur in the future. There sits before you a woman, who is a mere butterfly of fashion. She seems to have no thought above society and pleasure and adulation. Why preach to her? Without the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, it would be foolishness and a waste of time; but you can never tell, perhaps this very night the Spirit of God will shine in that darkened heart and open the eyes of that woman to see the beauty of Jesus Christ and she may receive Him and then and there the life of God be imparted by the power of the Holy Spirit to that trifling soul.
The doctrine of the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit is a glorious doctrine. It sweeps away false hopes. It comes to the one who is trusting in education and culture and says, "Education and culture are not enough. You must be born again." It comes to the one who is trusting in mere external morality, and says, "External morality is not enough, you must be born again." It comes to the one who is trusting in the externalities of religion, in going to church, reading the Bible, saying prayers, being confirmed, being baptized, partaking of the Lord's supper, and says, "The mere externalities of religion are not enough, you must be born again." It comes to the one who is trusting in turning over a new leaf, in outward reform, in quitting his meanness; it says, "Outward reform, quitting your meanness is not enough. You must be born again." But in place of the vague and shallow hopes that it sweeps away, it brings in a new hope, a good hope, a blessed hope, a glorious hope. It says, "You may be born again." It comes to the one who has no desire higher than the desire for things animal or selfish or worldly and says, "You may become a partaker of the Divine nature, and love the things that God loves and hate the things that God hates. You may become like Jesus Christ. You may be born again."