Born of Water and Spirit (4)

 This is the fourth post in a series on the doctrine of regeneration.

Regeneration in Biblical theology

Turning to Scripture, the idea of regeneration owes its significance to Jesus himself. In his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1–10) he famously declared “you must be born again/from above” (3:7). This text suffers from being detached from its biblical–theological context. Jesus is explicitly engaging Nicodemus on the question of Israel: “you” here is plural, making Nicodemus, as Dumbrell puts it, “Israel’s representative”. Most importantly, Jesus’ reference to being “born of water and Spirit” (3:8) is a clear allusion to Ezekiel 36:25–27 and Isaiah 44:1–5. These prophecies speak of Israel’s hope in terms of a dramatic new work of the Lord to recreate his people. They connect the idea of regeneration to God’s promise of a new covenant in which he would give his people a new heart and put his Spirit within them (cf. Jeremiah 31:31–34). Jesus’ words to Nicodemus thus take us right back to the hope of Deuteronomy for a circumcision not just of the body, but of the heart (30:6).

That regeneration is about more than individual salvation is why Matthew speaks of the “regeneration (palligenesia) of all things” at the last day (19:28; cf. Rev 21:5). Yet in the rest of the New Testament, the idea of regeneration does become particularly used to speak of what has happened to people who have become Christians (Titus 3:5; Jas 1:18). Most significant is the treatment in 1 Peter 1. This chapter contains two references to rebirth (anagennaô). The first (1:3) says it has happened “through (dia) the resurrection of Jesus”; the second, that it has happened “through (dia) the word of the Gospel (1:23-25). This combination of ideas is extremely significant. We see here both objective and subjective aspects of regeneration. On the one hand regeneration is something that objectively takes place in Christ. In his resurrection, the renewal of the whole creation has begun, and to be “born again” is to be included in that. On the other hand, regeneration is something that engages people as subjects. The Spirit works through the word to give new life. Peter clearly intends these to be complementary assertions.

Next, I’ll explore what implications we can draw from this for a systematic understanding of regeneration. I think there are some significant things to say.

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One thought on “Born of Water and Spirit (4)

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I’m a bit late on this series, but just read it through – found it very helpful … nothing to do with the fact that I’m teaching the ordo salutis at the moment :)

    The one bit I have doubts about is your statement that “Jesus is explicitly engaging Nicodemus on the question of Israel”, and NOT (implicitly) on the question of the salvation of the individual. I agree with your subjective + objective aspects, I agree with a corporate element, and I agree with the OT links and the importance of “the question of Israel”. But you’ve been a bit selective with your “you (plural)” in v.7, haven’t you? It is … but the “someone” in vv. 3 & 5 is singular. It seems to me that Jesus starts with the individual here.

    I haven’t read Dumbrell’s argument, but I’d need more convincing that we’re supposed to understand Nicodemus as “Israel’s representative” here – I certainly can’t see it in the text. Feels to me like a way to make the passage ONLY about “the question of Israel” and not the individual.

    (Oh, and I can’t see that any of this has serious implications for your systematic and pastoral reflections. Hey, I’m an exegete.)

    Thoughts?

    Cheers,
    Stephen.

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