So when I say that regeneration entails a foundational change in our nature, what do I mean? What is our nature?
What we need to remember going into such a discussion is that we are not trying veer off from biblical categories into philosophical ones, but rather wanting to preserve our right to speak as the Bible does, using the illustrations and metaphors that the Bible uses.
The images of Scripture encourage us to think in terms of the final cash out, the bottom line. There are two and only two destinations for human beings — Heaven and Hell — and everything else pales when that final destiny is taken into account. We do not speak the words that will be spoken at the end of history in the middle of history (how could we?), but we should speak our words now in light of the fact that such words will in fact be spoken. We do not foolishly pronounce the judgment itself simply by remembering in faith that there will be such a judgment.
“And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left” (Matt. 25:32-33).
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:21-23).
This judgment, when it falls, will be binary. There will be sheep and there will be goats. There will be the “good and faithful servants” and there will be the “I never knew you” group, and there will be no remainder.
Moreover, the Bible teaches that all of are by nature objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3), which means that all of us are goats to begin with. In order to get any sheep at all, there has to be a miracle of some sort, changing some from the nature of a goat to the nature of a sheep. You can’t get a sheep out of a goat otherwise. This is what I am referring to when I speak of a change in nature.
I have occasionally used the word ontological in describing this kind of change of our nature, and this might mislead some. But by ontological I do not mean that some kind of ontos chip is embedded deep in our souls, and in regeneration God swaps it out. Ontos is simply the Greek participle for being, and being a goat is different than being a sheep.
These illustrations all come from within nature. A sheep is a natural animal, as is a goat. When a man is regenerated, he is not transformed into some kind of angelic demi-god from another realm. No, he is changed into a man, and the material out of which God performed this miracle was the remains of a man, the ruins of a man. This is not a change from nature into grace; it is a change from broken nature to restored nature, and the change is accomplished by grace.
When Jesus changed the water into wine, it was natural water and the result was natural wine. The miracle was in the verb, not in the resultant noun. Jesus didn’t turn water into ambrosia. So it is important to note that I am not at all urging any attempted escape from nature — I am saying that God’s grace is necessary to get us fully back into nature. There is an attempted escape from nature going on, and the tunnel is sin, which will at some point empty out into the outer darkness.
I recall many years ago picking up a Christian book which had a schematic diagram of a human being’s innards — soul, will, body, etc, all within an easily understood circle. My thought at the time was to wonder how anyone could presume to be that specfic about how we are put together. The spirit of man is mysterious. “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly” (Prov. 20:27). We can learn a great deal about ourselves, but not in trite and superficial ways.
And so I am not attempting anything so tidy here. The nature of a man does go down to mysteriouis depths, but it also extends out to the border of his skin. His nature includes the fact that he is male, that he is Asian, that he has black hair, and so on. It also includes his visible actions, actions which reveal the nature of his heart. A bunch of it is mysterious, but a lot of it isn’t.
Our generation places a lot more faith in genetic determinism than they ought to, and so we ought to lean heavily against the idea that a human being’s genetic code is the suitcase of his nature, and all that happens in the course of his life is the unpacking of that suitcase. I reject that idea with shouts of loud scorn.
And this means that I am not saying that when a man is regenerated, that what is happening is that God is magically altering the contents of the suitcase, and that’s all. Our beings, our selves, our lives, contain a “hard atom” of what and who we are to begin with, but the rest of our story is shaped and defined by our relationship to others, particularly in relationship to God.
When we begin our (goatish) journey, the devil is our father. We start off in that relation, which cannot end well. When we are converted, when we are turned around, God becomes our Father. In order for that relationship to be established, we must be born again. Otherwise, the devil is still our father.
So, then, to conclude, when we are changed, the Bible encourages us (requires us) to use language that in any other circumstance would be describing a change of nature (we are former goats, vipers, pigs, dogs, etc.) Our nature is changed, and the way it happens is mysterious. But one thing is certain — the change is not limited to something outside us. The changes do not skim along the surface.
It is entirely a supernatural work, as Dort puts it. It is “most powerful and most pleasing, a marvelous, hidden, and inexpressible work, which is not lesser than or inferior in power to that of creation or of raising the dead.” It is not a natural work in the sense of continuing our old natures. Neither is it a supernatural work in the sense that it takes and removes us from the created order. We are still men and women. But, as Bavinck says, it “penetrates their inmost being and re-creates them, in principle, according to the image of God. It is therefore in a class of its own, simultaneously ethical and natural (supernatural), powerful and most pleasing.”
And amen to that.