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3. Regeneration and Renewal


– Chapter 3 –

Regeneration and Renewal

Many Christians lack a firm spiritual foundation

What exactly do regeneration and renewal mean? In this chapter we consider these important topics because they have the greatest signifi­cance for our lives. We begin with Titus 3:3-7 in which their transforming power is described:

We also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, en­slaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by his grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

Note the words “regeneration and renewal” (ESV, HCSB). We need to study these words with precision because they deal with foundat­ional matters. It is cause for concern that the spiritual found­ation of many Christians has never been properly laid. And if the found­ation is weak, what will happen to the rest of the structure that is built upon it? Many Christians struggle over the basics of the Christian life, always unable to sort out the foundational things, much less enter into the deeper things of the spirit­ual life. We must deal with these matters to en­sure that the found­ation is properly laid.

There are times when I counsel people who in some cases became Christians 20 or 25 years ago, and they are still spiritually stagnant after all that time. During the counseling, they sometimes discover to their shock that they have not been true Christians after all, and that their so-called faith cannot pass the most elementary tests.

This is distressing. Our hearts go out to them because to a great extent the fault does not lie with them. Some people, despite having been brought up in Christian homes, have never had a proper found­ation in the basics of the Christian life. In all sincerity they spend their lives trying to build a spiritual structure on a flimsy foundation, like building a wall on soft or sandy ground — only to see it collapse. They build another wall, and it also collapses. Even though it stands for a while, when a heavy truck rolls by, the ground shakes and the whole structure comes crashing down. It takes only a small crisis to trigger a collapse. The Christian life cannot continue like that. Weak, defeated and frustrated Christians will not find this kind of life worth living. It is an exercise in futility to keep on rebuilding the same walls and repairing the same holes.

Lack of assurance

Some people, when they become Christians, bring their temper and irritability along with them. Eventually they lose the assurance of salvation and have doubts about whether they are regenerate. The Holy Spirit does not seem to be witnessing with their spirit that they are children of God. Romans 8:16 says that true assurance comes only when God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are God’s children. What defeated Christians get instead is a convict­ion of sin from the Holy Spirit (Jn.16:8), so they feel a lack of assur­ance. It is a misera­ble condition to be in.

The problem can be so acute that some people feel that they are not Christians at all, and request rebaptism. When asked why they got baptized in the first place, a variety of answers emerge: “The pastor asked me if I would like to get baptized since I had been attending church, and I felt that I might embarrass him if I refused”; or “My good friend was getting baptized and asked me to join him”; or “My boyfriend/girlfriend was a Christian, so I got baptized so that we could get married”. These are some common answers. But later, when they start to seek God, they real­ize that they were never true believers in the first place. In many such cases they request rebaptism.

Under what circumstances should one be rebaptized, if it is even necessary at all? It is a big step to take, and it puts us in the difficult position of assessing the state of a person’s heart to evaluate whe­ther rebaptism is necessary. When baptism is refused, it can leave the person in great anguish, to the ex­tent that it may have serious con­sequences for his spiritual life. For this reason we dare not summarily refuse him baptism without considering his case carefully. Yet we cannot be lax or careless in permitting baptism.

Some churches do not permit rebaptism under any circumstance, usually because of their tradition. But what is the Biblical basis for this tradition? Is not a person’s salvation, his spiritual life and growth, more important than our traditions?

I hope that the first two chapters have clari­fied what it means to die with Christ once and for all, to finish with the old life. If this matter is not settled, the Christian life will be plagued by constant doubt. One may feel fine for the time being, but what will hap­pen a year or two down the road when he runs into problems which distress and weaken him, perhaps even causing him to backslide? The same old question will come back to haunt him: Am I really saved?

The foundation must be laid properly, or else the whole structure may have to be torn down and rebuilt. Looking back at my own life, if I had been taught foundational truths such as the importance of dying with Christ and to the old self-centered life at baptism by faith, I would have been spared many dangerous detours. But God has been merci­ful, and kept me from falling. He led me on the path of truth (cf. Jn.16:13) even though I often had no one to teach me.

Nobody had taught me about total commitment, yet it was part and parcel of my Christian life right from the start. That is because total commitment was necessary for the Christians in China in the situat­ion at that time. Almost everyone who came to the Lord in China at that time was aware of the high cost of becoming a disciple of Jesus. Even that did not mean that every Christian was committed. There were secret Christ­ians who kept their faith secret to avoid getting into trouble. Some became Christians to have something to hang on to in trying times, but once the difficulty was over, they no longer saw the need for God.

Salvation and transformation

Let us return to Titus 3:5:

God saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.

This statement begins with, “God saved us”. Salvation is not a human ac­complishment but something that God does. Moreover, salvation is not merely something that God does for us but some­thing that God does in us. We tend to stress only what God did for us at Calvary. That understanding is good and Scriptural, but incom­plete.

Salvation is not just about what God did for us, nor merely about believing in certain creeds. Right doctrine is only one element in salvation. Salvation is a matter of faith, which in Scripture essen­tially means commit­ment. Any faith that does not involve a relation­ship in which we give ourselves, or com­mit ourselves (as in marriage, e.g., 2Cor.11:2) to God in response to His love for us, is not Biblical faith.

In the Bible — but contrary to what we often hear today — salvat­ion is not based merely on accepting certain doctrines, though that is necessary, but on the committing of ourselves wholly to God. To use an analogy, it is like a sick person com­mitting himself or herself to the care of a physician, and not merely accepting or believing that this physician could provide the needed cure. Being born anew is not the result of merely accep­ting a set of doctrines, good though this may be, but is brought about by God’s power coming into our lives and transforming us. That is why salvation is God’s achievement, not ours.

Regeneration and renewal are not the same thing

Titus 3:5 speaks of two things: “by the washing of regeneration and renew­ing by the Holy Spirit.” There is regeneration, then there is renewal.

These two things, regeneration and renewal, are not synony­mous. We must not think that “regenera­tion” and “renewal” are two syno­nyms placed side by side, with renewal being a repetition of regen­eration. They are not the same but are in fact two successive stages of salvation. And the order cannot be reversed: The first is regeneration, the second is renewal. If we fail to distinguish the two, we will be mired in questions such as: Is salvation once for all, or is it a process? Do I die once or do I keep on dying?

Some teach that death is a gradual process in which we spend the whole Christian life dying; it is an ongoing mortification. The Christian life is viewed as a long gloomy process of death rather than the abundant life mentioned in John 10:10. If the Christian life goes from death to death rather than from life to life, we must have gotten something wrong. The failure to distin­guish between regeneration and renewal has led many Christians to a wrong concept of the Christian life.

When you become a Christian, you first experience regeneration, then you go on to renewal. Renewal is a process, as we shall see. But regeneration is not an ever-continuing process any more than physical birth is an ever-continuing process. You are not constantly being born all through your life. You are born once, then you go on living and growing. That initial one-time birth is, of course, vital because without it we cannot talk about spiritual growth.

The first stage of salvation — regeneration — is once for all; but the second stage — renewal — is a continuing process of growing in the new life. Hence the question “Is salvation once for all or is it an ongo­ing process?” cannot be answered simp­listically as some Christians do, who argue that it is one or the other. The fact is that both are true, depend­ing on which stage of salvation we are discussing. Tragically, many Christians don’t know that in Biblical teaching, there are stages in salvation, much less know about regeneration and renewal.

How is exodus (departure) or death relevant to regeneration? This is something which Nico­demus could not under­stand. In John 3:3, Jesus said to him: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again (or born from above), he cannot see the kingdom of God”let alone enter the kingdom. Nico­demus was puzzled: “How could a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (v.4). “How can these things be?” (v.9) Nicodemus could not make head or tail of all this; it was quite incompre­hensible to him. The Lord’s response was firm: “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?” (v.10).

What Nicodemus failed to understand is that there is no new birth without the termination of the old life; there is no spiritual birth from above (i.e., from God) without the cessation or death of the old earthly way of life, which is from below (i.e., purely human). It is not a matter of returning to one’s mother’s womb and repeating the old cycle of life. It is not a reincarnation of the old sin-dominated earthly life, but a completely new life given by God.

Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel, so Jesus ex­pected him to have better spiritual under­stand­ing. His expectations for church leaders will likewise be high. Since we are dealing with the same topic, that of regener­ation, we too must understand what the Lord is telling us.

Regeneration in the Greek New Testament

The “washing of regeneration” refers to bap­tism or the cleansing that comes through baptism. Here the Greek for “regeneration” is palingen­esia (παλιγγεν­εσία) composed of palin (again) and genesis (birth). The combination basically means “new birth” or “new begin­ning”.[1] It is used twice in the New Testament, in Titus 3:5 and in Matthew 19:28 where the Lord says to his disciples:

Truly I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (RSV)

You may be wondering where the word “regeneration” occurs in this state­ment. You won’t find it unless you look at the Greek text or another more literal translation. Here in RSV, “regeneration” is trans­lated “new world”. In fact the statement could be translated, “Truly I say to you, in the regeneration (the new beginning, the new creation) when the Son of Man will sit upon his glorious throne …” (NASB, also KJV and NKJV).

In his letters, Paul describes the regenerate person in terms of the new creation, whereas in John, including his letters, the regenerate person is often spoken of as one who is born of God. Titus 3:5 is the only place where Paul uses palingenesia to refer to a new beginning, whether by birth or by creation. But even here Paul may still be thinking of a new creation because that is the idea that he often stresses. Thus the New Testament shows us two important and complement­ary ways of understanding the meaning of regeneration.

Regeneration: a break with the old

A new world, a new creation, a new begin­ning, a new people collect­ively, and a new person individually — that is what regener­ation and renewal are about. But we must break with the old before the new can come. If we hold on to the old, how can we be­come new persons? These two things are incom­patible and contradict­ory, and cannot be held together in harmony.

In differentiating the old from the new, the Bible is not emphas­izing a difference of age as if the difference is a matter of being old or being young or, as in the case of a car, an old model or a new model, for which there is nothing incompatible or contradictory. There is noth­ing inherently incompatible between an old book and a new one, if age is what we are talking about, since both provide useful informat­ion for reading. There is also nothing necessarily incompati­ble be­tween a grandfather and his grandchild in spite of their age differ­ence. Indeed, they often get along wonderfully together. To think in terms of chronologi­cal age when hearing “old” and “new” is to miss the point.

This is not to deny that a chronological or age difference may also exist. The words “old” and “new” are correctly used also in this sense, as we shall see. But the fact that needs to be high­lighted here is that the difference between old and new in this context is far more than one of age. Purely in terms of age, there is no reason why old and new cannot coexist. But in the present case, the difference lies not merely in age but in the innate character of the old and the new. They are qualitatively different. This is how the apostle describes it:

The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. And just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imper­ishable. (1Cor.15:47-50)

How great is the difference between the old and the new? It is the difference between heaven and earth! Why does Paul also speak of the difference between “old” and “new” in the chrono­logical sense? Because “the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spirit­ual.” (1Cor.15:46) The natural or earthy comes first in terms of time; the spirit­ual comes later. In human history, the “first man, Adam” came well before “the last Man,” Christ (1Cor.15:45). This qualitative difference carries an echo of the Lord’s own words,

You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. (John 8:23)

He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. (John 3:31)

The qualitative incompatibility of the old and the new leads Paul to say, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1Cor.15:50). We now see why regeneration — becoming a new person — is absolute­ly essential if we hope to be saved and inherit the kingdom. We now understand the Lord’s solemn declaration,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into 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 3:5-7)

Many Christians are muddled in their under­standing of these vital matters, so they imagine that they can hold on to both the old and the new. But soon they feel themselves being torn apart, as it were, by two horses pulling in opposite directions. They are forever being pulled this way and that way. Or to change the metaphor, they find them­selves being crushed between two opposing forces.

For this reason, many Christians find themselves in a miser­able condit­ion. It is a situation of their own making. The problem is that they want the new without letting go of the old, and end up in ser­ious trouble. They ignore to their cost the Scriptural teaching that the old must pass away before the new can come (2Cor.5:17). What they have is not regeneration or a new person, but an old garment on which they try to patch a new piece of cloth (Lk.5:36-39). That garment will soon tear apart.

It is like pouring new, unfermented wine into an old wineskin that has lost its elasticity. The mixing of the old and the new will lead to disaster: the old wineskin will burst. Ignoring the Lord’s warning about mixing the old and the new could lead to mental breakdown, as in some real-life cases. That is because the inner tension caused by the incom­patibility of the old and the new will eventually become unbear­able, with serious physical and mental consequences.

There are Christians who have broken down mentally after being torn apart by an inner struggle of conflicting loyalties. Why risk a breakdown? If you don’t want to become a new person in Christ, it’s better for you not to become a Christian. Go out and enjoy yourself. Ease the press­ure off your mind. Avoid a spiritual and mental break­down. What will your family and friends think about Christians and Christ­ianity if you break down? Would anyone who sees such things in Christians still want to become a Christian?

We must make up our minds whom we will serve: God or mammon, God or ourselves. Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt.6:24). You cannot cling to both the heavenly and the earthly, the new and the old.

Without forsaking the old, we will live in hypocrisy

Even worse, we become hypocrites when we compromise in trying to hold on to both the old and the new. You preserve the old in you while the new is wrapped around you like window dressing. The wolf within you is clothed in sheepskin. Such a person is a living contra­diction, for what is put on the outside conceals what is inside.

Outwardly such a person may appear to be a fine and respectable Christian just as the Pharisees appeared righteous (Mt.23:25,27). This Christian looks pious and carries a worn Bible, but he does not live or function by the Word of God. He sounds very Christian but is a clanging cymbal and a noisy gong (1Cor.13:1). The church has too many hypocrit­ical Christians. Because of such people, Christians have lost their credibil­ity; the world no longer believes what they say.

However, few people are deliberately hypocritical. It would be unfair to accuse the Pharisees as a whole of deliberate hypocrisy, as scholars of Judaism have pointed out. The frightening thing about hypocrisy is that most hypocrites do not intend to be hypocrites. This in itself is a good reason for taking careful note of the injunction to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil.2:12).

In many cases, probably most cases, Christians are unable to live the Christian life because the teaching which they had received was inadequate or even erroneous. They sincerely try to be Christians but lack the power, so they live in the bondage of hypocrisy.

The old self has never died, for these people have never been taught about dying with Christ and rising into newness of life with him. So they end up in the situation described in Romans 7:19: “I do not do the good I wish, but practice the very evil I do not wish.” In his early days under the Law, was Paul being insincere? Certainly not. He delighted in the Law with his mind (Rom.7:22,25), but when it came to living it, he could not.

It reminds us of Christians who admire the profundity of the Sermon on the Mount, but are powerless to fulfill it. Many have told me that they don’t understand the Sermon on the Mount. “I’ve heard it expounded but I still don’t understand it. It makes no sense to me. How can it be applied in everyday life?” We won’t understand it so long as the old self is still the domin­ant force in our lives.

The Sermon on the Mount talks about being slapped on the right cheek, and turning the other cheek (Mt.5:39). The old self can never tolerate the insult of a slap on the cheek. The “old man” will not turn the other cheek, but will hit back. Turning the other cheek is possible only by the transformation that comes from being born anew. Whet­her we have been born again will be tested by the realities of daily life.

Palingenesia in extra-biblical Greek

Let us examine how palingenesia (regeneration) is used in extra-biblical Greek (i.e., Greek outside the Bible) in order to establish its meaning. We must not impose our own meaning on words. Often we do need to know how a word is used outside the Bible, because even though we acknowledge that the word may ac­quire deeper meaning in the New Testa­ment, we cannot make a word mean whatever we like. For example, although the New Testa­ment may enrich the meaning of the word “love,” we cannot force it to mean “hate”. Even if you arrive at a richer meaning of “love,” the word must still convey the basic idea of love as it is understood outside the Bible.

In extra-biblical Greek, palingenesia is used, for example, of the renovation or the renewing of the world after the flood. The flood destroyed the ancient world, and then the world was “reborn”. This was the way Philo, a Jewish scholar of the first century, used palingen­esia to describe the regeneration of the world — the re-creation or renewal of the world — after the flood had wiped out mankind except Noah and his family. This shows again that the new comes forth after the old has been removed.

The word palingenesia was also used by the Stoics, followers of the Greek philosophical system of Stoicism, which taught the resurrect­ion of the material world out of fire. They believed that fire will one day des­troy this material world, a belief which is in general agree­ment with Scripture (2Pet.3:7,10,12). God will bring forth a newly regen­erated and purified world out of the flames of this holocaust (Rev.21:1; Isa.65:17; 66:22). Total des­truction is followed by palingenesia, regen­eration. Something new emerges from the old that has been destroyed.

The word palingen­esia is also used of resurrection, which is essent­ially a re-creation or a new beginning of the body after death. Some of the early church fathers understood palingenesia (regener­ation) as being equiva­lent to anastasis (resurrection). Some take Matthew 19:28 as a reference to the resurrection, as though Jesus had said, “Truly, I say to you, in the resurrection, when the Son of Man shall sit upon his throne …” This interpretation may be inadequate, but neither is it in­correct because the new world will indeed come with the resurrection.

This new world sums up the restitution and restoration of all things. Acts 3:21 talks about a future “restoration of all things” at which time death, the last enemy, will be destroyed. 2 Peter 3:10-13 says that new heavens and a new earth will emerge after the fire of God’s judgment destroys the existing world order. Verse 10 says:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the hea­vens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.

The old decaying world, where sin once reigned with its corrupt­ing effect, will be utterly destroyed to make way for the new. The old must be removed so that the new can come to replace it. Therefore verse 13 says, “But according to His promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

This is regeneration on the cosmic scale (Mt.19:28) in contrast to regenera­tion on the individual level (Titus 3:5). The whole world — indeed all things — will be renewed in Christ. God’s vision goes beyond the scope of the individual. We tend to limit regenera­tion to the individual whereas the Bible has in view regeneration, redem­ption and salvation for the universe as a whole. We need to let God broad­en our vision to see things as He sees them.

Regeneration: The passing of the old and the coming of the new

At the individual level, 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.” Notice that “the old has passed away.” We cannot have the new with­out letting go of the old. We cannot be a new creation unless the old loses its grip on our lives.

If we don’t grasp this truth, we will end up in the wretched situat­ion that we men­tioned earlier: caught in a bind between the old and the new, or crushed in the tension between them. The two are en­gaged in irreconcilable conflict. Anyone who tries to hang on to both will become their battle­ground.

That is not the Christian life. The old must go once for all, and the new must be established within us. Only when God is seated on His throne in the new creation established in our lives will we know His righteous government. Only then will we have a foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth in our lives now, and then on the universal scale in the age to come.

Why do we settle for a wretched Christian life when God wants to give us the very best? It is because we are unwilling to let go of the old. “No one after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good’” (Lk.5:39). The old is good because you feel at home with the old life and the old ways. It is hard to give up something you are familiar with. Not until life becomes a total misery and on the verge of breakdown will some people let go. But others are unwilling to let go even when breakdown is imminent.

Let us have some regard for the reputation of the Church and the name of the Lord whom we profess to love. What kind of Chris­tian witness will we give people if they see nothing spirit­ually worth­while in our lives? Or see the same old person they have known all along?

We will experience the washing of regen­eration only when we are willing, once and for all, to finish with our old self, our old man, our old life, and our old way of thinking. Baptism comes in at this point, not before. No one should contemplate baptism if he wants to hang on to the world, to money, to the old self. For your own sake and the sake of the church, please don’t consider baptism until you are willing to let go of every­thing. That is what dying means.

When I became a Christian I knew that every­thing I had must come under God’s lordship. Whatever God says must be done, will be done. My cherished ambitions had to go. I struggled for six months to let go of my dreams and ambitions, forsaking a way of thinking I had been cultivating over the years.

One day I knelt before God and said, “Lord, I surrender all to you.” Then I got up as a man who had nothing, not even a clue as to what I will be doing from there on. Gone forever was the direction of life that I had been pursuing. I stood there newborn, having nothing and not knowing where to go. Naked I came into the world, naked I will leave it (cf. Job 1:21).

When you are born again, like a newborn babe you own nothing. Your bank account, big or small, is yours no longer. Everything, including you yourself, is God’s from now on. “You are not your own” (1Cor.6:19), but belong to God. Yet to the spiritually-minded person, this is precisely the beauty of it all: we now belong to God and to Jesus Christ, Son of God! To him who loved us and gave himself for us! To him who is Lord of all! But the carnal person wants to belong to no one but himself, and to live his life in his own self-centered way.

If anyone finds the Biblical teaching too difficult to accept, that is understandable. But in this case, he must at least have the honesty to admit, “I can’t become a Christian.” At least we are talking hon­estly without beating around the bush, without evading the real issues. It is all or nothing. Either you are born anew, or you immerse yourself to the full in this world. “Eat, drink, and be merry.” You will face the consequences in the future, but at least you are doing something that you find enjoyable now. I have repeated this almost ad nauseam. But no matter how often I say it, the message doesn’t seem to get across.

Renewal: an ongoing process

The second thing that Paul talks about is “renewal” which in Biblical teach­ing, as we said earlier, is not to be confused with “regeneration”. The Greek word for “renewal” is anakainōsis (ἀνακαίνωσις). Ana means again, and kainōsis means renewal. The combination carries the sense of “renew again,” and oc­curs twice in the New Testament, in Titus 3:5 and Romans 12:2 (“be transformed by the renewal of your mind”).

In the latter verse, “be transformed” is in the present tense, indi­cating that renewal is an ongoing process. The process begins only after the “wash­ing of regeneration” has taken place. Regenera­tion is some­thing that happens once and for all — you are born — and what follows is the renewing process in which you grow into the fullness of Christ’s stature (Eph.4:13-15).

We cannot have renewal without regen­era­tion, but neither can we have regeneration without finishing with the old life. When we are born again, we come naked into the spiritual world, and we live solely by God’s grace and mercy. Moment by moment we live by His grace and mercy, contrary to the teaching that says we are saved by a once-for-all act of grace which, if true, would mean that we don’t need God’s grace any more after regeneration.

Do we really think that although regeneration is by grace, we don’t need God’s grace in the continuing process of renewal? This is patently false. Paul asks pointedly, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now per­fected by the flesh?” (Gal.3:3) Salvation in all its stages (regeneration, renewal, and the final attainment of the fullness of Christ’s stature) are all of grace by the Spirit.

As having nothing

Let’s put this into practical details. If I am a student, my whole outlook changes when I become a Christian. My studies are now wholly at God’s disposal. I have no certificates, diplomas or degrees I could call my own; these belong to God because I now belong to Him. As Paul says, “You are not your own. For you have been bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body” (1Cor.6:19,20). Henceforth I cannot speak of anything as mine. Everything I have is God’s, because I am His.

But we must be clear about this: God looks for an inward change, not an external act of giving up something. Total com­mitment is not just the giving up of a job, but a whole new way of thinking. As Paul points out, “even if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1Cor.13:3). Without love — without a real inner change — all this would be external, meaningless, and empty of value. More­over this can lead to the dangerous notion of buying our salvation by giving up our jobs and possessions. It is dangerously close to salvation by works in which we buy salvation by sacrificing our own profession and poss­essions.

God doesn’t want our job or money. He wants our heart. Many people may be interested in our money, but God wants our heart. If we have not given Him our whole heart, He wouldn’t want a penny from us, let alone our car or house. First things first. Only when the heart is right with God can we talk about secondary things such as jobs and possess­ions.

If we are truly regenerate, we would consider nothing our own, just like the first Christians, of whom it is recorded that “not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own” (Acts 4:32). We likewise no longer leave God out of our plans, and say, “I am going to do this and that. I will do graduate studies, and get a job.” We now live under the lordship of Christ, in total obedience to our God our Father.

We now understand what Paul means when he says, “As having nothing yet possessing all things” (2Cor.6:10). Possessing all things?! Though we claim nothing as our own, yet in Christ we find that all the things we need, whether spiritual or material, are provided for by our Father. Do we think we have done God a great favor in giv­ing up what little we have? Then consider this astonishing statement, “For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas (Peter) or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God” (1Cor. 3:21-23)!

Verbs anakainizō and anakainoō

Only when we are truly regenerate can we talk about the next stage: renewal. Renewal too must be internal, not merely exter­nal. When the Bible speaks of the renewal of the mind it refers to our whole way of thinking, not merely employing our minds in religious activity.

Related to “renewal” (e.g., Romans 12:2, “renewal of the mind”) are two other verbs which together occur three times in the New Testament. These three occurrences give us a clear picture of what Scripture means by renewal, so we don’t have to resort to guess­work.

The verb anakainizō (ἀνακαινίζω), “to renew,” occurs in Hebrews 6:6. Let us read this well-known but frightening verse, starting from verse 4:

For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again cru­cify to themselves the Son of God, and put him to open shame. (Hebrews 6:4-6)

This passage is about apostasy. The word parapiptō trans­lated in this passage as “fallen away” is defined as “to fail to follow through on a com­mitment, fall away, commit apostasy” in the stand­ard BDAG Greek-English lexicon. Apos­tasy is not simply the committing of a serious sin, but a deliberate turning away from God after having made a commitment to Him. If a person apostatizes, it is impossible to re­new him. There is no second chance. Nothing more can be done for him.

If you claim to be committed to God, bear in mind that it is dangerous to profess total commitment at baptism if in fact you are not truly com­mitted, for the living God will require total commit­ment from you, for out of your mouth you will be judged (Mt.12:37; Lk. 19:22). If you claim to be totally committed, God will say, “I take you at your word and will require it of you.”

A related verb, anakainoō (ἀνακαινόω), is used twice in the New Testa­ment. It occurs in 2Cor.4:16 in the context of per­secution: “Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.”

Paul here speaks of being renewed daily. This reflects the fact that renewal is a process whereas being born again is once for all. After the new birth comes the continuing pro­cess of renewal. If we try to skip regeneration and jump straight to renewal, we will be caught in the battle between the old and the new. Some people skip regener­ation and think that their efforts in renewing them­selves are the evidence of their new birth.

If we try to renew ourselves by our own efforts even with sincere prayer, we are trying to change our­selves and our think­ing without being regenerate. This will lead to problems. Many teachers and preachers have themselves never been properly taught about regener­ation and renewal in the word of God. Some became Christians with­out being truly regenerate, so they cannot grow in the Christian life. Becoming a new person in Christ is not a matter of religious beliefs and moral reform, but of spiritual transformation by the power of God’s Spirit.

We may try to be nice, read the Bible, put money in the offering box, do good deeds, and even seek God’s guidance for our future — all this can be done without being regenerate. Many Christians confuse these Christian activities with the new life in Christ, and think that they are regenerate. This is a trap that many Christians have fallen into unintentionally.

Without regeneration we cannot discern God’s will

You might say to yourself, “I’m seeking God’s will for my life. Should I mar­ry this nice, handsome guy or not? You see, I did ask the Lord. My decision is admittedly in favor of marriage (he is so attract­ive), but at least I did ask God if I could marry this person.”

But did you get an answer? You didn’t hear the Lord say no, so you concluded that He gave you an okay. The problem is that with­out regeneration, you cannot know God’s mind. It’s all guesswork. In the end you will be so desperate for direction in the Christian life that you flip open the Bible and point your finger to a random passage that you hope will lead you to God’s will.

The word of God is indeed crucial for divine guidance, but we won’t find His leading in the Bible if we skip the first step, regenerat­ion. Can God speak to us if our ears are blocked by sin and selfish­ness? Or if we are trying to sew a new piece of cloth onto an old garment (our old way of life)? Or trying to pour new wine (the new life in Christ) into the old wineskin of our self-centered life? The wineskin will burst when the wine expands. In man’s des­peration and cleverness, he arrives at a solution: fill the wineskin half full to give the wine enough room to expand! Caught in the tension between old and new, he still tries to evade committing totally to God by way of compromise.

There are many ways to fool ourselves but we cannot fool God, for God is not mocked (Gal.6:7). We will reap what we sow. If we sow to the flesh we will reap corruption from the flesh. This is an ines­capable law of life, whether in the physical or spiritual realm.

Let us not imagine that because the second stage — renewal — is a process, it includes the first. These are two different things. Do not skip the first step — regeneration — and think that our attempt at renewal means that we have been regenerated. If we make this basic mistake, for we will pay a high price for it in terms of unhappiness, hypocrisy, and finally the judg­ment.

Some have had the experience of speak­ing in tongues, so they think that this proves they are regenerate, born again. A person who has been born again could indeed be granted the experience or the gift of speaking in tongues, but the converse is not necessarily true, that is, not all who speak in tongues are born again. It is vital, especially in these last days, that we are aware that not all tongues-speaking is from God.

Have we truly been born again? Has God’s transforming power come into our lives? Unless a man says goodbye to all that he has, he cannot be the Lord’s disciple (Lk.14:33). It doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t want us to be his disciples, but that we are unable to (“cannot”) be his disciples if we refuse to let go of our old life, our old way of thinking, our old self.

Renewal in Colossians and Ephesians

The other place where anakainoō (renew) occurs is Colossians 3:10. Here again we see the passing of the old and the coming of the new. Reading from verse 9:

You laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.

Notice that it is “the new self (in Christ) who is being renewed”. It is not the old self but the new self that is being renewed. The old self is “laid aside”. In the Greek, “being renewed” is a present participle, indicating a continuous process that begins from regenerat­ion.

A related word, ananeoō, occurs only once in the New Testament: “Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Eph.4:22-23). Here again “renewed” is in the present tense (a continuing process), whereas “put off” is in the aorist (a once-for-all action). In the process of renewal, God causes us to grow into the likeness of His image.

Are you truly regenerate?

To recapitulate, it is important for the sake of your eternal life in Christ that you know whether you are regenerate or not. If your Christian life is marked by internal conflict, constant spiritual defeat, and repeated yielding to the flesh rather than going from strength to strength (cf. “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” 1Cor.15:57), then you probably have not been regenerated or become a new person in Christ.

You skipped regeneration and jumped to renewal. You patched an old garment with a new piece of cloth, only for the garment to be torn apart as the new cloth shrinks. We need to evaluate our own spiritual state if we wish to experience the Christian life that goes from strength to strength. Renewal is not a gloomy experience but a joyful process of growing in the strength of the Lord.

In my youth, I gloried in my physical prowess. Growing up does have its difficulties, but I was feeling great. As our physical skills improve and our strength increases, we will find ourselves engaging in a great variety of act­ivities, gaining great satis­faction. That is what the Christian life ought to be like. Wouldn’t we like to see a church full of people who find the Christian life delightful? Have we exper­ienced what the Lord calls the “abundant life”?

If the abundant life is not real to us, we will make ourselves and others miserable. Are we a burden to others or are we an inspir­ation? Some Christians are burdensome, others are inspiring. With some Christians, just the mere thought of them makes you feel better already. Some refresh you by their very presence, others are a burden.

It should now be clear that the unregenerate person has the self as the center of his life, whereas the one who is truly born again is God-centered. It means that we can tell whether we are regen­erate or not by observing what, or who, is the center of our thoughts and actions. If our hearts and minds are focused on God and on Christ, and not on ourselves, we will know that we have received the new life in Christ and have become a new person in him.

May God, by His abundant grace, grant us to experience in our lives His reality and power in the washing of regenerat­ion and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

[1] A Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell and Scott, Oxford, 1973, Re. genesis (γένεσις): “origin, source, beginning … manner of birth …” (bold mine).


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