As we pull apart and trace these threads of salvation, Sinclair Ferguson cautions us that “the traditional ordo salutis runs the danger of displacing Christ from the central place in soteriology” (The Holy Spirit, 99). Each aspect of saving grace was not only secured by Christ, but comes to us only in living relationship with him. Each grace is first true of the God-man, and then communicated to us in union with him by faith.
The curious man came at night, under the cloak of darkness.
By and large, the masses may have been missing the significance of Jesus’s miracles, but Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “ruler of the Jews,” was catching on. “No one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him,” he recognized. He was beginning to understand. These visible signs Jesus performed were designed to open ears to the words he spoke. “You are a teacher come from God” (John 3:2).
Now, the great teacher stunned him with a doctrine the learned Pharisee could have known from his own Hebrew Scriptures: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Regeneration or new birth, we call it. Physical, human birth, “of water,” is not enough to see Jesus’s kingdom. You need spiritual birth, to be “born of the Spirit”:
unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Long before born-again became a popular adjective, Jesus called for new birth in this famous late-night encounter. Not many of us today will be as stumped as Nicodemus was that night, but we may still scratch our heads, especially those of us who call ourselves “Reformed” and (rightly) take so many of our theological cues from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Romans and the Reformed Road
In broad strokes, Romans moves from human depravity (1:18–3:20), to the wonder of justification by faith alone (3:21–5:21), to the everyday experience of the Christian life and the lifelong process of sanctification by the Spirit (6:1–8:39). The famous “golden chain” of Romans 8:29–30 lays out the marvelous, unbroken sequence of God’s care for his chosen people from eternity past to eternity future:
those whom he foreknew he also predestined….And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Foreknowledge, predestination, effectual calling, justification, and glorification—and we may pause to ask about sanctification. But in Nicodemus-like fashion, might we forget to even ask about regeneration?
As J.I. Packer wrote in 2009, “Regeneration, or new birth, meaning simply the new you through, with, in, and under Christ, is a largely neglected theme today.” That neglect, says D.A. Carson, may have been “owing in part to several decades of dispute over justification and how a person is set right with God.” Carson continues,
We have tended to neglect another component of conversion no less important. Conversion under the terms of the new covenant is more than a matter of position and status in Christ, though never less: it includes miraculous Spirit-given transformation, something immeasurably beyond mere human resolution. It is new birth; it makes us new creatures; it demonstrates that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. All the creedal orthodoxy in the world cannot replace it.
How then does regeneration relate to our often-rehearsed “order of salvation” (Latin ordo salutis), which lays out the precious array of saving graces that are ours in Christ? How do we who love the Reformed emphasis on justification (and sanctification) think about the essential grace of the new birth, with the balance and health it brings to the whole of our theology?
New Life in the Soul
First of all, we don’t blame Paul if regeneration occupies too small a place in our thinking. After all, we clearly find the concept of new, God-given spiritual life elsewhere in his letters.
In his greatly celebrated lines to the Ephesians, he moves from human depravity (2:1–3) to God himself taking the initiative to “ma[k]e us alive together with Christ” (2:4–5), which then issues in the faith (2:8) through which Christ’s people are saved. And memorably in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul exclaims, literally, “If anyone is in Christ—new creation!” Paul also rehearses this new creation in us in Galatians 6:15 and in “the washing of regeneration” in Titus 3:5.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, James draws on new-birth imagery in saying of believers that God, of his own will, “brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). Peter too, echoing the accent on divine initiative, praises God the Father as the one who “has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). Like James, Peter also mentions the eye-opening word, the gospel, through which God works: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).