If we hear a word enough, we think we know what it means. We live in a Christ sub-culture that has strongly emphasized the need to be “born again.” Without denying this need for regeneration at all, we still have to place the reality in a biblical context, lest we turn it into something entirely unbiblical—which we are in great danger of doing.
“Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence . . .” (Col. 1:12-22).
This is a particularly rich text, but in order to see it rightly we first have to put away an unbiblical set of assumptions. Whenever we hear the word regeneration, we think of individuals getting saved, or not. This is necessarily entailed by the biblical concept of regeneration, but if we begin and end here, we will have a gross distortion of the Bible’s teaching.
The common assumption is that God drops a rope from heaven, and then the theological debates begin. Pelagians want to shinny up the rope, Arminians want to hang on while God pulls, Calvinists say that God ties the rope to us with one of His knots, and some of our more severe brethren think He ties it around our necks. Within the constraints of this particular debate, the Calvinists are quite right. But note that something is still wrong with the entire picture. The illustration itself limits us in ways the Bible does not.
We need to see something of the massive glory of regneration. Regeneration refers to rebirth after death. With this in mind, what do we learn about regeneration?
First, Jesus was born again—in our text above, we learn that Jesus was the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18). Our father Adam plunged us into a condition of death. Jesus entered into that death, and was born again from that death. Paul quotes the 2nd Psalm (“Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee”) and he applies it to the resurrection (Acts 13:33). Because Jesus was born again from the dead, everything else, whether in heaven and on earth, can be born again from the dead. And this is what we see.
Next, the Scriptures teach that the cosmos was born again—our text again says that Jesus was the firstborn of every creature. This principle of new life was placed at the heart of the cosmic order, and began to work its way out into all things, like leaven working through the loaf. “And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). The entire creation longs for the culmination of this glorious process (Rom. 8:22).
In the third place, Israel was born again—in his famous conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus pressed this point. You (all) must be born again (John 3:7). You are a teacher of Israel, and you don’t know this? This is what Ezekiel so wonderfully predicted for Israel (Ez. 36:25-28; 37:11). The valley of dead bones was wonderfully quickened. Israel was born again, and was opened up to include the Gentiles, so that we all are now members of the new Israel, the Christian church.
And of course, John Smith was born again last year—but we must place this in its right context. Jesus said “a man” must be born again if he is to see the kingdom of heaven (John 3: 3, 5). Our passage in Colossians descends from the cosmic heights to tell the Colossian Christians how it was applied to them in particular. After Christ accomplished the cosmic new birth (v. 20), He brings this new life to those who had been alienated through sin (v. 21).
What difference does it make? Compare it to getting wet. What difference does it make how you get wet? Just so long as you do? The problem here has to do with autonomous man’s desire to control this thing. But Christ has remade the world, and we cannot control what He is doing. It makes a difference whether you got wet because someone spritzed a little moisture in your face (out of his “How to Be Born Again” bottle) or you got wet because the God’s tsunami hit the beach.
The issue is always one of control. This is always the issue, really. One of the central features of Christ’s teaching on regeneration is ignored or twisted by us, because we cannot handle the fact that God has never been domesticated by man. The wind blows where it wants, Jesus taught us (John 3:8). Some people try to bottle the wind—and tell others how to be born again. Others ignore this by pretending that Jesus must be talking about gentle zephyrs, playing quietly among the flowers. But perhaps He wanted us to think about a typhoon.
If our thinking about regeneration begins with the individual, we will drastically misunderstand God’s work. But of course, if it never gets to the individual, the confusion is just as bad.