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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Regeneration is a miraculous and mysterious work of the Sovereign God
Text:CD 3/4 Articles 12-13 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 6

Psalm 116:1-3

Psalm 116:4-5

Hymn 1

Psalm 57:1,4,5

Scripture readings:  Ezekiel 36:22-32, Acts 9:1-22

Catechism lesson:  Canons of Dort 3/4.12-13

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Imagine for a moment that you had known the Apostle Paul when he was a young man.  Of course, back then he would have been known as Saul of Tarsus.  Tarsus was a city on the southern coast of what we today call Turkey.  Sometime in his younger years, this young Jewish man shifted to Jerusalem.  He became a student of a famous rabbi named Gamaliel.  Saul of Tarsus was not only smart, but committed.  He was wholeheartedly devoted to the Jewish religion as practiced by the Pharisees.  He was not just a super-Pharisee; he was an uber-Pharisee.  He was the best of the best.  Saul of Tarsus could not be out-Jewed. 

Shortly after Jesus ascended into heaven, his disciples went out and began preaching the gospel.  One of those was Stephen.  The Jewish religious leadership tried to stop this.  They arrested Stephen and had him brought before the Sanhedrin.  Stephen spoke at length about how God had worked through history and how his people had so often resisted him.  Getting near the end, the crowd became so angry that they spontaneously started stoning him.  To do that, they had to strip off their robes and Acts 7:58 says they laid them at the feet “of a young man named Saul.”  And 8:1 says that Saul approved of Stephen’s execution.  Not only that, but Saul went on to “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged men and women and committed them to prison.”  By that you can tell how much Saul hated the Christian faith.  He wanted to destroy Christianity. 

Then a few chapters later in Acts, we find Saul in Damascus.  Acts 9:20 says, “And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”  Then he went to Jerusalem and was preaching boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus.  It blew everyone’s minds.  One day Saul is trying to kill Christians and destroy Christianity and then suddenly he’s a Christian himself proclaiming the good news of Jesus.  How could this incredible, drastic change happen? 

One word:  regeneration.  Regeneration is what happened to Saul of Tarsus.  Regeneration changed him from a child of wrath to a child of grace.  Regeneration is what changed him from an enemy of Jesus to a disciple.  Regeneration changed him from an uber-Pharisee to an apostle of Christ.  What is regeneration?  Simply defined, it’s when God brings the dead heart of a sinner to life.  God does this so that the sinner can take hold of Jesus Christ through faith and be rescued from sin and its terrible consequences.

Regeneration happened to Saul sometime in Acts 9.  He was on his way to persecute the believers in Damascus when Jesus stopped him on the road.  Saul had no intention of becoming a Christian.  He had no interest.  But Christ grabbed hold of him and sent his Spirit into his heart.  His cold dead heart came to life and by the end of Acts 9, Saul was a Christian.   Later in chapter 13 as he begins spreading the gospel among the Gentiles, he starts going by his Roman name Paul.  If you study all these events and think about them carefully, you can’t help but be amazed.

Article 12 of chapter 3-4 of the Canons is meant to get you to the same place.  It’s meant to amaze you with what God does in the mysterious work of regeneration.  This afternoon we’re learning what the Bible teaches about regeneration with the help of the Canons of Dort.   We’ll see that regeneration is a miraculous and mysterious work of the Sovereign God.  We’ll look at the:

  1. Contours of this teaching
  2. Challenges to this teaching

Article 12 describes regeneration with the use of two biblical pictures.  The first is creation.  The Canons say that regeneration is like a new creation.  Through his Word and Spirit, God calls into existence something that is not.  Through his amazing power, God creates spiritual life where previously there was none.  The second biblical picture used is that of resurrection.  Regeneration is the “raising from the dead,” says article 12.  Prior to regeneration, a person is spiritually dead.  Spiritually speaking, they’re a cold, stiff corpse.  But regeneration is a miracle through which God brings that spiritually dead person to life.

Closely related to that picture is the one we find in Ezekiel 36.  In Ezekiel 36, we find the picture of a heart transplant.  God is the only surgeon who can perform this operation.  He removes the heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh.  With a heart of flesh, there is spiritual life.  With a heart of flesh in place filled with the Holy Spirit, people can not only believe in God and his promises, but also obey him.  None of that is possible without this heart transplant, without regeneration. 

So regeneration can be understood with those three biblical pictures:  creation, resurrection, and heart transplant.  In each of those pictures, there’s the miraculous and mysterious power of the sovereign God at work.  That’s why Scripture uses them to help us understand this. 

Now let’s move on to consider several aspects of this teaching.  First of all, who becomes regenerated?  Well, since regeneration leads to salvation, and since the salvation of true believers can never be lost, we have to say that only the elect become regenerated.  Only those who have been chosen by God from before the foundation of the world either will or have experienced regeneration.  Only the elect get the new heart which brings them to true faith in Jesus.  Only the elect are raised from the dead spiritually speaking, so that they find salvation at the cross. 

Next question:  is regeneration a life-long process or more of an event taking place at a certain moment in time?  Listen carefully:  in the sense in which the Canons of Dort are speaking of regeneration, it is more of an event.  Here it is certainly not a life-long process which Christians have to constantly go through.  Here in the Canons, we’re talking about regeneration as that initial change from death to life.  It’s the initial change that God sovereignly works “in us without us,” to use the words of article 12.  It’s getting a heart transplant, so that whereas before you didn’t believe, now you do.  I’ll say more about this in a few minutes.

For now, let’s consider another important question:  when does regeneration happen?  It will vary from person to person.  Some might be regenerated quite young, others later in life.  But one thing we can say for sure:  regeneration always comes before faith.  You cannot have faith unless you have been regenerated.  This is why article 12 says, “Hence all those in whose hearts God works in this amazing way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe.”  Believing inevitably follows regeneration.  If you have been regenerated, you will have saving faith in Jesus Christ.  Faith is simply impossible unless you have been regenerated.

And how does regeneration occur?  The Holy Spirit works it through the gospel.  The Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, he sovereignly comes to a dead heart and he miraculously shocks it to life.  He does this through the Word of God, through the good news of Jesus Christ.  We confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life.  That refers to biological life.  All biological life on earth is owing to the Holy Spirit.  But it also should be understood in reference to spiritual life.  Whenever someone is alive to God, trusting in Jesus Christ, you can be sure this is because the Holy Spirit has made it happen.                     

Regeneration always has an effect.  You can tell regeneration has happened.  In John 3, Jesus said to Nicodemus that you can’t see the wind, but you know the wind is there because you can see its effects, what it does.  How you can see the miracle of regeneration?  Through its effects.  In the first place, because there’s faith.  Article 13 says that regeneration is a mysterious work of God.  We cannot fully understand it.  How exactly does the Holy Spirit make a dead heart alive?  We don’t know, other than to say that it happens somehow through the gospel.  But going much beyond that, we don’t know.  Then look at how article 13 concludes, “Meanwhile, however, it is enough for them to know and experience that by this grace of God they believe with the heart and love their Saviour.”  Regeneration is known by its effects – when you experience faith and love in your heart. 

Finally, when it comes to the contours of this doctrine, we should also think about the purpose of regeneration.  Why does the sovereign God work this miracle in people’s hearts?  In the first place, to bring them to faith so they can be saved from their deserved condemnation.  But ultimately, it’s for his glory.  Ultimately, it’s so that God will be praised for his grace towards sinners.  When you know you’ve been regenerated, you want to praise the God who miraculously did this in your heart.  That’s the greatest purpose of all for this awesome and amazing heart transplant.  God does it to bring glory to himself. 

So, let me quickly review what we’ve learned about the contours of regeneration.  Who becomes regenerated?  Only the elect.  Is it a life-long process or an event completed at a certain point?  It’s an event which has brought you from death to life.  When does regeneration occur?  Always before faith in Jesus Christ.  How does regeneration occur?  The Holy Spirit works it through the gospel.  What are the effects of regeneration?  Belief in the heart and love for the Saviour.  What’s the purpose of regeneration?  Glory for God through the salvation of sinners. 

Now I want to focus on some of the challenges to this biblical teaching.  First of all, there’s obviously Arminianism.  Modern Arminianism teaches that first a human being cooperates with God through free will, then comes faith, and then after faith, you’re born again.  So in Arminianism, regeneration comes after faith instead of before.   In fact, this is a sure-fire way you can detect Arminianism.  Oftentimes Christian churches and organizations will have a Statement of Faith.  It’s kind of like a little creed or confession and oftentimes they follow more or less the Apostles’ Creed.  Consider this from a Statement of Faith of an organization called Samaritan’s Purse:  “We believe that, for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit…”  Did you hear that?  “Repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration…”  That’s Arminianism.  That’s contrary to what the Bible teaches.  The Bible teaches you can’t repent from your sins and believe in Jesus Christ unless you have been regenerated.  Without regeneration, Ephesians 2:1 is you:  “dead in trespasses and sins.”  Dead people can’t repent and believe.  They need regeneration first.  Regeneration has to come before faith.

Another challenge comes from the confusion about regeneration you sometimes find in our churches.  How many of us haven’t heard a minister or teacher say something like “You have to be born again every day.  It’s not just a one-time thing.  You have to be regenerated through your whole life.”  They’re saying it’s a process.  Then we encounter what we read in the Canons of Dort about regeneration as an event and we get really confused.  From what I can tell, there is still some confusion about this.  Let me try and clear it up for you.

What’s happening is that people are using the same words for different things.  They’re confusing regeneration as found in articles 12 and 13 with sanctification.  In articles 12 and 13, regeneration is understood as an event taking place before faith.  Once you are regenerated, then you can repent from your sins and believe in Jesus Christ.  Sanctification is something different.  Sanctification is the ongoing process of growing in holiness.  Sanctification is something that has to take place every day.  And QA 88 of our Catechism speaks of sanctification in terms of conversion, and that’s what throws some people off.  But when the Catechism speaks of conversion in QA 88, that’s not speaking of this shift from death to life that we find here in the Canons of Dort.  The Catechism is talking about sanctification.  The Canons are speaking of regeneration as the initial change worked by the Holy Spirit so someone believes.  There’s a big difference between these two and we need to distinguish between them.  We have to distinguish between regeneration and sanctification.    

You see, when Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3 that he had to be born again, Jesus wasn’t telling Nicodemus that he needed to work on his daily conversion.  He wasn’t saying to Nicodemus that he was lacking in sanctification.  Jesus wasn’t saying that Nicodemus had to work at the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new nature.  Nicodemus didn’t have a new nature!  No, he was telling Nicodemus that he was dead in his sins.  Jesus wasn’t saying Nicodemus needed more holiness, to be born again every day.  He wasn’t telling him to be a better Pharisee, a more holy man.  He was saying Nicodemus needed to be brought from death to life.  Nicodemus needed a heart transplant.  Nicodemus needed new birth.  Then he could believe in Jesus and be saved.

And in 1 Peter 1, Peter was writing to Christians who had experienced that new birth spoken of by Jesus.  Please look with me at 1 Peter 1:22-23 [read].  Notice verse 23, “since you have been born again…”  That means the being born again is something that’s happened.  It’s a completed event that has effects into the present.  It doesn’t say, “Since you are being born again every day,” but “since you have been born again.”  Every person who is a Christian, who has true faith in Jesus Christ, every believer has been born again as a completed, finished act.  This is what Scripture says here in 1 Peter 1:23. 

Loved ones, it’s not helpful to tell people they have to be born again or regenerated every day.  It’s confusing and even dangerous.  It can make people think that regeneration as described in the Canons is an ongoing process.  And because we’re referring to sanctification, it causes even more problems because in the Bible sanctification is something in which we’re active.  We contribute to our sanctification.  If you look at Lord’s Day 33 where it speaks about daily repentance and conversion, we’re to grieve our sin, we’re to hate our sin, we’re to flee from our sin, we’re to love and delight to do good works.  We’re busy in Lord’s Day 33.  But what do we do for our regeneration as described in article 12 of the chapter 3-4 of the Canons?  Nothing.  We can do nothing in or for our regeneration.  Nothing.  Regeneration is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit.  We do nothing.  But when you tell people they have to be regenerated every day, you confuse matters. 

For that reason, it’s better to save the terms regeneration and being born again for what’s described in articles 12 and 13.  It’s better to speak only of regeneration as what the Holy Spirit does to bring a dead heart to life at the start.  And if you want to talk about a daily process, then say, “sanctification is a daily process,” or “repentance is a daily process.”  But don’t confuse regeneration with sanctification, because confusing them isn’t helpful and can even be dangerous.

There’s one last challenge I’ll address here this afternoon.  That’s insisting that every Christian must have the same experience of regeneration.  There have been and are those who maintain that you have to be able to identify the exact moment of your regeneration.  You should expect that that experience was something noteworthy and dramatic, a clear change that you consciously sensed.  If you can’t say when you were regenerated and what it was like, then you should doubt whether you have been regenerated and I’ll doubt it too.  Well, we have to approach this from a biblical perspective.

We can look in Scripture at Acts 9 and see the dramatic experience of Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road.  That was an incredible change in a short period of time and no doubt the apostle Paul would look back on that and say that this was around the time he was regenerated.  Maybe he could even identify the exact moment when the light bulb went on for him and he came to life spiritually speaking.  Other Christians have had similar dramatic experiences in their conversion.  Some believers can look back and clearly identify the day, if not the exact moment, of their regeneration.  But is that type of dramatic experience meant to be normative for all believers?  Is Paul’s experience meant to be something we all go through in the same way?  I see no indication from Scripture telling us that. 

Take someone like Timothy.  Timothy was brought up by his Christian mother and grandmother.  They discipled him in the Christian faith.  He was taught to be a Christian through his upbringing.  Is there any indication in Scripture that he had a dramatic moment of conversion like Paul did?  No.  But is there any indication in Scripture that he was regenerated?  Absolutely.  Second Timothy 3:14, “But as for you continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed…”  Timothy had faith.  Therefore he must have been regenerated at some point, whether it was dramatic or not, whether he could recall the moment or not.  The point is:  experiences of regeneration can and do vary.  There is no cookie-cutter model for experiencing regeneration.  Paul’s experience is not a rigid template for everyone. 

The heart of the matter is not that you can identify the moment or time.  The heart of the matter is whether or not you have been regenerated.  That you can know.  That you can know from the effects, as we learned earlier.  If you have true faith in Jesus Christ, you were obviously regenerated at some point, whether you can identify the time or not.  If you have love in your heart for the Saviour, you have been born again, whether you can point out the day or hour or not.  What matters is not the when, but the whether.  What matters is not when you were regenerated, but whether you have been regenerated.

If you don’t know whether you’ve been regenerated, you can and should pray for God to give you confidence about that.  Ask him and keep on asking him.  If you have a loved one where you’re unsure about their regeneration, pray for the Holy Spirit to work it in their hearts so that they repent and believe in Christ.  Parents, the most important thing you can pray for in regard to your children is for their regeneration.  Nothing is more important than that the Holy Spirit would come and give your beloved children a heart of flesh so they believe the gospel promises.  I encourage you to pray for that for your children every single day.  Pray for their regeneration – it’s vital, without it they will never come to faith and be saved.

Loved ones, we can be thankful for the clear, biblical teaching of the Canons of Dort on regeneration.  Here our confession reminds us that we don’t get the credit for the massive change in our lives.  We don’t get the credit for our faith.  We don’t any credit for our salvation.  Instead, all the credit and all the praise goes to our God.  Let’s see that and let this motivate us to continue living for his glory each day.  AMEN.


Sovereign God,

We praise you and you alone for the work of regeneration.  What you have done in our hearts is amazing and awe-inspiring.  It is not inferior to creation or the raising of the dead.  Through your Spirit, you have given us a heart-transplant so we can take hold of the Saviour and be saved.  Thank you for your mercy and sovereign grace, O God.  It’s not us, it’s totally you and so you deserve all the credit, all the worship and exaltation.  We pray again for those among us who have not yet experienced regeneration and been brought to faith.  Please work that in their hearts with your mighty Holy Spirit.  We pray for friends and loved ones who still have hearts of stone, who are still in unbelief.  Please show them your mercy and come to them with your Spirit to bring them to life.  We pray for all our children in this church.  We love our children.  We don’t want a single one of them to be missing in heaven.  So, Father, please give them all the gifts of regeneration and faith.  Work in the hearts of our children so that they too are born again and believe.  We pray these things for your glory shown in the gracious salvation of your beloved creatures.   

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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