The Doctrine of Regeneration a change in the Disposition by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “God the Holy Spirit.” The sermon was preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1955 and first published in 1997 and this edition in 2002.
In the last lecture, we saw that the Bible teaches that in the case of the saved there is an effectual call. That call comes in such a way that they accept it and we realised that this is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in each person; it is a supernatural work which makes the call effectual in believers, in the saved. But of course even that does not bring to an end our consideration of this question.
We must now ask: What is it that the Holy Spirit does to enable those who become believers, who are saved in this way, to believe the truth? What exactly does He do in order to make the general call effectual? And the answer is, regeneration. Now you notice the order in which we are taking these doctrines. Earlier, we spent some time in considering the order of salvation, the order in which these things should be considered, and this seems to me to be the inevitable order: the general call; yes, but effectual in the saved. What makes it effectual? The Holy Spirit regenerates.
It is interesting to notice the relationship between this effectual call and regeneration. There is a sense, of course, in which regeneration precedes the effectual call.
`Well, why didn’t you put them in that order?’ someone may ask.
It was for this reason: having started with the general call we notice that there is this division into the two groups and it is clear that it must be effectual in some and not in others. When you ask what it is that makes it effectual, the answer is, regeneration. But looked at from the eternal standpoint, they come in the other order, and what happens is that the general call is responded to by the regenerate. In other words, the call becomes effectual because they are regenerate. That is largely a technical matter and yet I think it is good for us to have these things clearly in our minds.
Here, then, is this great central and vital doctrine of regeneration. There can be no question at all but that from our standpoint this doctrine, together with the doctrine of the atonement, is incomparably the most important doctrine of all, and there is a sense in which we simply cannot understand Christian doctrine and Christian truth without being clear about the doctrine of regeneration. And yet I would suggest that this doctrine is seriously and sadly neglected amongst us. Oh, I know that lip service is paid to it and that people talk very glibly and generally about being `born again’. But to what extent do people study it? To what extent have we really looked into it and discovered what exactly it means?
No, there is undoubtedly a failure in this respect. Search the various hymnbooks and you will, I think, be struck by the paucity of good hymns on this theme of regeneration. We have seen that there is a defect in most hymnbooks with regard to strong doctrinal hymns on the Holy Spirit. The hymns we have are superficial, subjective and generally sentimental. And it seems to me that exactly the same thing can be said with regard to this great doctrine of regeneration. This is significant, I feel, because there is no doubt, as I hope to show you, that this doctrine is absolutely pivotal. Why is it that we persist in stopping with the idea of forgiveness only, and fail to realise that this other doctrine is as essential to us as the doctrine of the atonement leading to the forgiveness of our sins?
The only other general remark I would make is this: I have always been convinced, and I am now more convinced than ever, that people who are in trouble about these great doctrines of grace are generally so because they have never clearly grasped the significance and meaning of the doctrine of regeneration. If we only grasp this clearly, most of the other problems solve themselves. But of course, if we are not clear about this, if we do not realise exactly what happens to us in regeneration, then it is but natural that we should be in difficulties about the effectual call and many other subjects.
Let us, therefore, approach our subject by first of all simply looking at the various terms that the Bible itself uses with regard to this great event that the Holy Spirit produces within us. First, there is the word regeneration itself. In Titus 3:5, the apostle Paul speaks about `the washing of regeneration’. That is actually the only instance in which the word `regeneration’ is used in the New Testament to describe this great, climactic event in the history of the saved soul.
Then there is a second group of terms which mean to beget or to beget again, to bear or to give birth; and there are quite a number of these. In John 1:13, for instance, in the prologue to this Gospel, we read, `Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’ Then there are all those instances in our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus, in John 3:3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. And you have the same word in several passages in the first epistle of John: 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1. `Born of God’ is a great statement in 1 John.
Next, there is another word which rather conveys the suggestion of bringing forth or begetting. This is found in James 1:18, which reads, `Of his own will beget he us with the word of truth.’ Then there is a large group of words which carry the meaning of creating. We read in Ephesians 2:10, `For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus….’ It is also in 2 Corinthians 5:17: `If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature’—a new creation. In Galatians 6:15 we read, `For neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature,’ or a new creation; and again in Ephesians 4:24: `And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.’ Again, that is a term used to describe this amazing event in the history of the soul: it is a new creation.
And finally there is the word to quicken. Now the example of this is in Ephesians 2:5, where we read, `Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved).’ You may be surprised that I do not say Ephesians 2:1 which reads, `And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins’, but the expression about quickening is not there in the original, but has simply been supplied by the translators for the sake of understanding, and rightly so. And then there is just one other example of that word, and it is in Colossians 2:13, `And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.’ It is the parallel, of course, to the statement in Ephesians 2:5, something that we constantly find with these two epistles.
Those, then, are the actual terms which are used in the Scriptures to denote and to convey the teaching concerning this great climactic change. So, what do we mean by regeneration? Now if you read the history of the use of this term in the history of doctrine or of the Church, you will findgreat confusion, because it is a term that has been used loosely and even individual writers are not consistent in their use of it. Sometimes it has been used in a very restricted sense, but sometimes in a wide sense to include almost everything that happens to the believer—justification and sanctification as well as regeneration—and this is the practice, for instance, in Roman Catholic writers.
So as we consider what we mean by regeneration, the one important thing, it seems to me, is that we must differentiate it from conversion. And yet how frequently they are confused. But regeneration is not conversion and for this reason: conversion is something that we do whereas regeneration, as I shall show you, is something that is done to us by God. Conversion means a turning away from one thing to another in practice, but that is not the meaning of regeneration. We can put it like this: when people convert themselves or turn, they are giving proof of the fact that they are regenerate. Conversion is something that follows upon regeneration. The change takes place in the outward life and living of men and women because this great change has first of all taken place within them.
You can look at it like this: there is all the difference between planting the seed and the result of the planting of that seed. Now regeneration means the planting of the seed of life and obviously that must be differentiated from what results or eventuates from that. There is a difference between generation and birth. Generation takes place a long time before the birth takes place. Generation is one act. It leads subsequently, after certain processes have been going on, to the actual process of birth. So it is good to hold the two things separately in our minds, and remember that when we are talking about regeneration, we are talking about generation, not the actual bringing forth, the birth.
Now the effectual call comes in, in the actual birth, and that is what gives a proof of the fact that men and women are alive. The call is effectual: they believe. Yes, but that means that the process of generation, the implanting of the seed of life, must have already taken place. I find it helpful to draw that kind of distinction because it will help us to differentiate not only between regeneration and conversion, but between regeneration and adoption. For again, people often confuse adoption into sonship with regeneration, and yet, clearly and patently, they are two different things, as we shall see.
So then, we define regeneration as the implanting of new life in the soul. That is it in its essence. If you like a definition which is a little more amplified, consider this: it is the act of God by which a principle of new life is implanted in a man or woman with the result that the governing disposition of the soul is made holy. And then the actual birth is that which gives evidence of the first exercise of this disposition.
Having put that to you as a precise definition, let us go on to consider the essential nature of what takes place when we are regenerated. This is obviously of very great importance and therefore we must start with certain negatives so that we may be quite clear as to what regeneration does not mean and what it does not represent.
The first thing we must say, negatively, is that regeneration does not mean that a change takes place in the substance of human nature, and the important word there is substance. The doctrine of regeneration does not teach that the substance, or the raw material, of what constitutes human nature, whatever it may be, is changed.
Or we can put it like this: we must not think that some actual, substantial physical seed or germ of life is introduced. Regeneration is not a kind of injection or infusion of actual physical substance into us. It is not anything physical, it is a spiritual change.
Thirdly, we must not think that it means that there is a complete change of the whole of human nature. The regenerate person does not become something entirely different. It does not mean that (and we shall see as we go on with these doctrines why all these negatives are important). In the same way, it does not mean that man becomes divine or that he becomes God.
‘Ah, but,’ says someone, `are we not partakers of the divine nature?’
Yes, but not in the sense that we suddenly become divine. We do not become like the Lord Jesus Christ with two natures—human and divine. We must be very careful to exclude that.
Another negative is that regeneration does not mean addition to or subtraction from the faculties or the essence of the soul. Now some people have thought that—and every one of these negatives is put in to safeguard against things that have been thought and said from time to time about regeneration. The five faculties of the soul are mind, memory, affection, the will and conscience and some people seem to think that what happens in regeneration is that an additional faculty is put in or that, somehow or another, one or more of the other faculties is taken out or is changed. But that is not the biblical doctrine of regeneration.
And my last negative is that regeneration does not just mean moral reformation. Again, some people have thought that. They have thought that all that happens in regeneration is that people’s wills are changed and that, because of this, they reform themselves and live a better life. But that is nothing but moral reformation; it is not regeneration.
Let us, then, come to the positive. What is regeneration? It is, let me repeat, the implanting of a principle of new spiritual life and a radical change in the governing disposition of the soul. Let me explain what I mean by that. The important thing to grasp is the whole idea of disposition. In addition to the faculties of our souls, there is something at the back of them which governs them all and that is what we refer to as our disposition. Take two men. They have the same faculties, as regards their abilities there may be nothing to choose between them, but one lives a good life, one lives a bad life. What makes the difference? The answer is that the good man has a good disposition and this good disposition, this thing which is behind the faculties and governs them and uses them, urges him to use his faculties in the direction of goodness. The other man has an evil disposition, so he urges the same faculties in an entirely different direction. That is what one means by disposition.
When you come to think of it, and when you analyse yourself, your life and your whole conduct and behaviour, and that of other people, you will see at once that these dispositions are, of course, of tremendous importance. They are that condition, if you like, which determines what we do and what we are. Let me give you some other illustrations. Take people who have different interests and abilities. Take two people who are more or less opposite; one who is artistic and another who is scientific. What is the difference between them? Well, you cannot say that it is merely a difference in intellectual power, nor is it a difference in the faculties of their souls. No, but there is in every person a disposition which seems to determine the kind of person he or she is. It is this that directs the faculties and the abilities so that one person is artistic and the other scientific, and so on. Now I am making this point to show that what happens in regeneration is that God so operates upon us in the Holy Spirit that this fundamental disposition of ours is changed. He put a holy principle, a seed of new spiritual life, into this disposition that determines what I am and how I behave and how I use and employ my faculties.
Let me give you one great illustration to show what I mean. Take the case of the apostle Paul. Look at him as Saul of Tarsus. There is no question about his ability, nor about his understanding, nor about his will power. There is no question about his memory. His faculties are there and are clear and outstanding; he has always been a remarkable man. But there he is, persecuting the Church, regarding the Son of God as a blasphemer, and he goes down to Damascus, `breathing out threatenings and slaughter’, using all his powers to exterminate the Christian Church. But look at him later, preaching the gospel as it has never been preached before or since, with the same powers, the same abilities, the same personality, the same everything, but moving in exactly the opposite direction. What has changed? It is not the faculties of Paul’s soul—they are still the same: the same vehemence, the same logic, the same thoroughness, the same readiness to risk all, out and out, he is the same man, obviously. And yet the whole direction, the whole bent, the whole outlook has changed. He is a different man. What has happened to him? He has a new disposition.
Now, I am emphasising this for this good reason: it is only by understanding this that we are able to understand the difference between regeneration and a psychological change and process. You see, when men and women are regenerated, they do not become all the same, like postage stamps. But when they become the victims of a psychological movement they tend to become identical—a very important distinction. When people are regenerated, the particular gifts which make them the men and women they are always remain. Paul, as I reminded you, was essentially the same man when he preached the gospel as he was when he denounced and persecuted it. I mean by that that he was the same individual and did things in the same way. We are not all meant to be identical as Christians. We are not all meant to speak and to preach and to pray in the same way. The gospel does not make that kind of change, and if you think of regeneration as doing that, then you have a false doctrine of regeneration. What it does is to deal with and to change this disposition that is at the back of everything; this fundamental something that determines direction and way and manner. It is vital that we realise that the change in regeneration takes place in the disposition.
Then, secondly, because of the power of the disposition in us, it therefore follows of necessity that this change is going to affect the whole person. Does anybody think that I am contradicting one of my negatives? I have maintained that the whole person is not entirely changed—am I now saying the opposite? I hold to my negative, but I do say that, in principle, because of the change in the disposition, the whole person is affected. The way I use my mind will be affected, the operation of my emotions will be affected, and so will my will, because, by definition, the disposition is at the back of all those and gives direction to them. So when this disposition of mine is changed, then I am like a person with a new mind. Before, I was not interested in the gospel; now I am very interested in it. Before, I could not understand it; now I do.
But the change in my disposition does not mean that I have a greater intellect now than I had before! No, I have exactly the same intellect, the same mind. But, because the disposition governing it is changed, my mind is operating in a different realm and in a different way and it seems to be a new mind. And it is exactly the same with the feelings. A man who used to hate the gospel, now loves it. A woman who hated the Lord Jesus Christ, now loves Him. And likewise with the will: the will resisted, it was obstinate and rebellious; but now it desires, it is anxious, it is concerned about the gospel.
The next thing we say is that it is a change which is instantaneous. Now you see the importance of differentiating between generation and coming to birth? Generation, by definition, is always an instantaneous act. There is a moment, a flash, in which the germ of life enters, impregnates; that is one instantaneous action. In other words, there are no intermediate stages in regeneration. Life is either implanted or it is not; it cannot be partly implanted. It is not gradual. Now, again, I do want to emphasise this point. When I say that it is instantaneous, I am not referring to our consciousness of it, but to the thing itself, as it is done by God. The consciousness, of course, comes into the realm of time, whereas this act of germination is timeless, and that is why it is immediate.
So the next thing—and this again is most important—is that generation, the implanting of this seed of life and the change of the disposition, happens in the subconscious, or, if you prefer it, in the unconscious. Our Lord explained that fully to Nicodemus (John 3). It is a secret, an inscrutable operation, that cannot be directly perceived by us; indeed, we cannot even fully understand it. The first thing we know about it is that it has happened, because we are conscious of something different, but that means that we do not understand it and that we really cannot arrive at its secret.
Now, let me give you the authority for this. Nicodemus, like all of us, was trying to understand it. Our Lord said to him, `Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3). `My dear Nicodemus,’ He said in effect, `you are trying to understand the difference between yourself and Me and what I am doing. Stop at once! It is not a question of changing, or of understanding, this or that particular thing, it is the governing disposition of your life that must be changed; you must be born again. It is something at the back of all these faculties that you are trying to use.’
`But,’ Nicodemus said, `How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?’ (John 3:4). He wanted to understand, and our Lord kept on giving the same reply, and Nicodemus continued to argue.
Eventually our Lord put it to him like this: `The wind bloweth where it listeth . . .’ There is something sovereign about it. You do not know when it is going to come and go, it decides its own time. You do not know where it starts and where it ends. `The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof’—you are aware that it is happening—`but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth’ (John 3:8). You do not see it; you can hear it, you can see things waving in the breeze, but you do not understand it. There is a mystery about the wind, something inscrutable. You cannot fathom it or grasp it with your understanding, but you see the results. `So’—like that—`is every one that is born of the Spirit’ (v. 8).
Now there are some people who completely miss this because they would translate the wind in verse 8 as `the Spirit bloweth’—the Holy Spirit. But patently it does not mean that, it cannot mean that, because our Lord is using an illustration. He is talking about the wind, the gale, if you like, not the Holy Spirit, nor any other spirit. `[It] bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof’—you cannot see it, but you see the effects and the results—`so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.’ There is the essential nature of this great change.
My fourth point is that regeneration is obviously, therefore, something which is done by God. It is a creative act of God in which men and women are entirely passive and contribute nothing, nothing whatsoever. We read in John 1:13, `Which were born’—you do not give birth to yourself—`not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man but of God’—entirely. God implants this principle, this seed of spiritual life. And again, of course, there are the words our Lord spoke to Nicodemus, `Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh’—and it cannot do anything about it—`and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (John 3:5-6). In other words, the terms are that we are born again. It is something that happens to us; we are begotten, we do not beget ourselves, we cannot generate ourselves. It is entirely the work of God in us and upon us.
We have not yet finished our consideration of this great and pivotal and central doctrine, but I do trust that, at this point, the great thought is clear in our minds and in our understanding, that it is there, in the disposition, that God operates, and it is God through the Holy Spirit who does it. We are born of the Spirit.
Now I hesitate to use the illustration, but you remember that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary but He was conceived of the Holy Ghost. Something comparable, similar to that—not the same thing, let me be clear about that—seems to happen here. This principle of spiritual life, this change, therefore, in the disposition, is something that is done by the Holy Spirit of God. Human nature is not entirely changed by it but because the disposition is changed the whole man or woman is like a new creation. In every respect they are different people because this fundamental thing that governs all else has been changed in them.
The faculties, however, remain as before. Never try to be somebody else, be yourself. God wants you to be yourself. He has made you as He has made you, and you can best glorify Him by being yourself. Beware always of Christian people who always talk in the same way and are the same in most respects, that is more likely to be psychological than spiritual. The man or woman, each individual, remains what he or she was, and thus you have the glorious variety in the apostles and in the Christian Church throughout the centuries. All together testify to the same Saviour and the same grace, the same regeneration, the same change in the disposition, but revealed according to the gifts and faculties, the propensities and powers that God has given to each person.
What a wonderful salvation, what a glorious way of redemption! Oh, I like a word which is used by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews in the second chapter. It describes and defines perfectly what I am trying to say. Talking about this great salvation, the author says of God, `For it becamehim’—it was like Him, it was His way of doing it—`. . . in bring many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through suffering (Hebrew 2:10)—it became Him! And I trust that we all, having looked thus briefly and inadequately at this great doctrine, would say the same thing; it is a way of salvation that becomes Him, the almighty God. (74-84)