The Doctrine of Regeneration and How It Comforts Believers
I’m not a very successful gardener, but I love spring. I’ve discovered that there are beauties to be found within the several-block radius my Basset Hound and I plod along daily. I love spotting Siberian squill, crocus, daffodil, forsythia, and magnolia trees in these mercurial late-March days of wind, timid sunshine, and the odd snow flurry.
Signs of spring aren’t hard to spot. And there’s a reason that seeing a tiny flower shooting up from the thawed earth is a joyful thing—it’s life proceeding as it should. As believers, we rightly see this as evidence of our Creator at work, superintending His world: one of those things like “herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years” that “come, not by chance, but by His fatherly hand,” as the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 10) puts it. It’s easy for us to recognize and rejoice at such signs, and we should.
Through difficult seasons, I’ve learned to draw great comfort from signs of God’s work in small, hidden places of His world. But until recently, it hadn’t occurred to me to connect God’s work as Creator with His work creating life in my own soul.
The beginning of the spiritual life can be likened to the beginning (or resurrection) of the physical life: all of it God’s prerogative. God forms Adam from the earth. He calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Only God can create from nothing; only He can summon life from death. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Indeed, every believer in Christ receives new life from God. The doctrine of regeneration shows us this. God’s breath animated the first human being; in the same way, God’s Spirit animates every believer’s soul. Just as only God can create physical life where there was none before, only God can bring a dead sinner to life. Ephesians 2:4-5 leaves no ambiguity about His role: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him[.]” The saving mercy of God in salvation is inseparably tied to God’s creative work. We were dead, helpless; because of His love, and because Christ has been raised from the dead, he has made us alive too—spiritual newborns.
It’s clear that only God can do this marvelous work. But an anxious soul might wonder: How do we know if we’re among His new creations?
We might as well ask how we know that we were born in the first place. We know it because we’re alive right now. Not because we remember anything about our birth, much less had a hand in bringing about our own existence. Similarly, we don’t have to point to the instant of regeneration to assure ourselves that we’re spiritually alive. Certainly we might know when it took place, and that can be a beautiful testimony. But all believers, whether we can speak precisely of that moment or not, can and should look to God’s work as the basis for assurance, not to our own perceptions or memories.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter X) puts it this way:
All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased in His appointed and accepted time effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, […] and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ[.]
The Confession alludes to Ezekiel 36:26, where the prophet speaks of God giving the sinner a new heart and spirit: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” I think it’s helpful to think about what the “heart” means here. The “heart” doesn’t simply refer to the emotions, as we tend to think of it today, but to the mind and will also; everything that makes up the deepest core, consciousness, and motivations of a human being.
Notice how Ezekiel describes the old heart—it’s inanimate. A stony heart doesn’t beat. It does nothing to sustain life. This tells us much about the condition of a sinner’s heart before God. An unregenerate heart is insensible. It isn’t capable of hearing, much less responding to Him with faith. But when God regenerates a sinner, he replaces that dead, unresponsive heart with one that can hear and heed His truth. This isn’t a subtle change: a sinner who showed no interest in the things of God now seeks him and desires to please Him. Her mind is enlightened, and her will is renewed. She is spiritually alive now. She can exercise faith, repenting of sin and believing in Christ. The totality of the change from death to life reminds us that the transformation is all of God’s grace. A sinner can generate life in her soul no more than she can enable herself to be born, as Jesus discussed with Nicodemus in John 3.
I think, then, there’s a special way that the doctrine of regeneration can comfort believers, and that we can comfort one another with it. Rather than causing us to become morbidly preoccupied with our souls’ health, a never-satisfying distraction, the doctrine of regeneration very practically points to the Holy Trinity instead. That’s the only place we can find lasting assurance, after all. We will always find reason to question the reality or sincerity of what’s happening in our souls; but what God does is never doubtful, halfhearted, or incomplete.
And understanding what it means to get a “new heart” is key. If a believer is aware of a longing to know the Lord more deeply, or even struggles with lingering doubt about their salvation, then I would suggest that, given what Ezekiel 36 tells us, these things are themselves encouraging signs of God’s regenerative work in the soul—signs that a heart of flesh is there, not a heart of stone. A person who remains spiritually dead simply doesn’t desire Christ, does not find Him beautiful or want to obey Him. And so the spiritually quickened person plays a cruel trick on herself by allowing herself to dwell on doubts about the strength of her own faith. A loving Father doesn’t ask this of His beloved children. He asks us to believe that He is the resurrection and the life. He doesn’t give us a stone when we ask for bread (Matthew 7:9), and He doesn’t break a bruised reed (Isaiah 42:3).
This is even true—or especially true—when our emotions don’t align with the truth we sincerely profess. Again, he has given us a new heart, not simply new feelings. Even if we struggle with melancholy or can’t seem to muster feelings of assurance at a given moment, this isn’t cause for despair. If our overall desire and drive in life is to know the Lord—no matter how much our subjective apprehension of His presence might fluctuate day to day—then we can trust that God has stirred that desire in us. After all, we couldn’t create it in ourselves. It’s there because He made it from nothing and planted it in our formerly lifeless hearts.
And this is better than the renewed life marking the arrival of spring. Even as I delight in evidences of His love and glory around my neighborhood, I have to remind myself that they are mere momentary flashes that will pass away; they point to a more astonishing work that will last forever. The Father calls us forth from death and, by His Spirit, makes us alive together with Christ, through the redemption He has won for us. And there is much greater beauty to come.
Sarah White is a writer and editor living in western Pennsylvania with her husband and Basset Hound.
 Thanks to the editors of the Reformation Heritage Study Bible for getting my thoughts on this track with the little article titled “Regeneration” (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014, p. 1774).