If we hear a word enough, we think we know what it means. We live in a Christian 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 of this in a biblical context, lest we turn it into something entirely unbiblical—which we have been 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 entailed by the biblical concept of regeneration, and required by it, but if we begin and end here, we will have a gross distortion of the Bible’s teaching. The gospel is not limited to the salvation of atomistic individuals.
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 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. Within those constraints, the Calvinists are correct, but there is more going on outside those constraints.
We need to recover an understanding of the glory of the regeneration, and we begin by looking at what the word means, and then at how the Bible applies it. Regeneration refers to rebirth after death. With this in mind, what do we learn from Scripture 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 Adamic death, and was born again from that death. The apostle Paul quotes the 2nd Psalm (“Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee”) and applies it to the resurrection (Acts 13:33). Because Jesus was born again from the dead, everything else can be born again from the dead. And this is what we see. Unless Jesus was born again from the dead, no one else could be born again from the dead. Unless Jesus was raised from the dead, we are all still in our sins, which is the same thing as still being in our death.
Second, the entire 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. “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 creation longs for the culmination of this glorious process (Rom. 8:22). The regeneration referred to here is the regeneration of heaven and earth, which would not have been possible apart from the resurrection — the engine of this cosmic regeneration.
And third, Israel was born again. In his famous conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus pressed this particular 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). Israel was born again, and so we are now members of the new Israel, the Christian church. The valley of dry bones came to life, and all Israel stood to its feet.
And finally, John Smith was born again. 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. After Christ accomplished the cosmic new birth (v. 20), He brings this new life to those who had been alienated through sin (v. 21). It is the same here. Without the resurrection, without the transformation of the heavens and earth, without the reconstitution of the new Israel, there is no such thing as individual regeneration. We do not say that corporate regeneration makes individual regeneration superfluous, but rather we say that corporate and cosmic regeneration makes individual regeneration both possible and mandatory. The world has been reconciled to God through Christ. Therefore, Paul presses the point. Be therefore reconciled.
Compare this 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 and manage 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 or you got wet because the tsunami hit the beach. The issue of control 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 and ends with the individual, we will drastically misunderstand the nature of God’s work in the world. If it never gets down to the individual level, the confusion is just as bad. When a man is summoned by an evangelist to the new birth, he is not being summoned into a private chamber, where mysterious things happen to him as an individual. Rather, the evangelist declares that Jesus has been born again from the dead. Because Jesus has been born again from the dead, He is the Lord over all creation, and all creation, the heavens and the earth, rejoice in having been made new. God has also raised Israel from the dead so that a new Israel might be God’s nation in this new creation. The unregenerate individual is told that everything around him has been transformed, and that he might as well come along quietly. Behold, the Lord Jesus, the Savior of the world.