Does Spiritual Regeneration Actually Happen? [Questions That Haunt]

Does Spiritual Regeneration Actually Happen? [Questions That Haunt] October 15, 2013

This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity comes from Gary, a Lutheran pastor:

The official teaching of my church is that we believe, teach and confess baptismal regeneration. I read a number of blogs (and more than my fair share of FB threads), and this is obviously a point of contention between Christians. Baptists, for instance, insist on the necessity of baptism, but then deny that regeneration occurs through it. My question involves the nature of regeneration itself, however.

To me it seems that before one can discuss whether or not baptism effects regeneration, one should be able to say what regeneration (spiritual) means. I mean, if were going to break fellowship over it, shouldn’t we be able to say what regeneration is and specifically what part of a human being is regenerated? Or should we talk about regeneration, rebirth, and being made alive in Christ as purely metaphorical language?

I’d love to hear anybody explain this concept in a way that holds water for more than 5 minutes. We can hold off discussing baptism until we can agree whether anything real (even if it’s metaphysical) is actually made alive by becoming a Christian.

You respond in the comments. I’ll respond on Friday. See all of the past questions and answers here, or buy the ebook by clicking below:

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  • Craig

    Quite a lot might be said about the ordinary attitudinal implications of committing oneself (publicly) to the idea/ideals of Christ. These implications are real, and they could sensibly be taken to comprise a kind of “spiritual” regeneration.

    Must/should we suppose that rebirth or regeneration involves anything more?

    • Gary in FL

      Craig, I don’t necessarily say regeneration language has to involve anything more, but I do want to raise the question. I think Catholics and Lutherans are in agreement that some aspect of the believer’s humanity is made new–it either comes alive (having come into this earthly life already dead) or else begins to evidence new capacities. The curious thing is, nothing’s ever really made clear. What part of a human being (if any) is literally regenerated (like a starfish regenerates a severed arm)? Or if it’s all symbolic and metaphorical, what are we ultimately taking about?

    • Andrew Dowling

      Exactly . . .I’m a little confused by the question. People can have sudden realizations (called “Road to Damascus” moments) or make significant life changes due to a decision to change priorities, focuses etc. These have definite “spiritual outcomes.” I don’t really see what the contention is beyond that . . .certainly baptism or any other religious rite is as powerful as the believer is is willing to make it; it confers no altering power in and of itself.

      • Andrew, that’s almost exactly what I’d say. I think most Christians have taken a few Pauline statements (or from the Gospel of John) and assumed some kind of ontological or “in the spiritual realms” transformation at some moment in time. (This is sometimes called “positional truth”.) But “real life” experience doesn’t seem to validate that when we realize that how you describe “turn around” moments or junctures of new commitment, etc., accounts well for what is theologically called “regeneration” as supposedly an action of God. Such situations/results in many people involve no religious aspect, no new faith in God, awakening to Jesus as Savior, etc. Or they DO but it may be to the God-concept of Mormons, Muslims, etc., as well as to Jesus and the “God of the Bible”.

        So, bottom line, I don’t find any consistent biblical or other reason to believe “regeneration” happens that is not potentially reversible nor is it ontologically “real”. When a “new birth” kind of experience or commitment does hold, as it often does, it doesn’t necessarily indicate any kind of “salvation” in an eternal sense has taken place. My theology around this kind of thing has greatly simplified since I stopped trying to do “systematic” theology based on assumptions of divine “special” revelation in the Bible.

  • Matt Orth

    “What does spiritual regeneration mean, John? Does your soul go through labor and delivery again even though you don’t remember the first time? Or is this spirit-soul thing dead and then it is raised to life? Or is it a ghost and then it gets some substance? Blind eyes of the soul given sight? Calloused hearts made soft? Or perhaps it’s like a tree stump, and now it’s a tree! Or maybe regeneration is
    like a lizard’s tail that grows back, you know? Like you were missing it—but is
    it all of a sudden, like a spontaneous regeneration? Or is it a gradual
    regeneration? I wonder about such things.” Taken from “Questions of a Curious Nature”, an interview with John the “Baptist”

    • Craig

      Whether spiritual or no, I know not. What I do know is that, whereas I once had none, now I have a great long lizard’s tail swinging out of my arse.

  • The problem with a lot of spiritual regeneration talk is it’s too often reduced to a formula. We’re regenerated once we’re baptized, or once we’ve said the sinner’s prayer, or something like that. It’s depicted as an instantaneous thing. It’s not.

    I take as my cue the bit where Jesus says he came so we’d have more abundant life. Spiritual regeneration is the lifelong process of becoming more like Christ.

    It starts at baptism, or whenever it is we first begin to actively follow Christ. Confessions of faith, or sinner’s prayers, are fine and all, but that’s just lip service until we see the works which are meant to follow from faith. Inactive faith, or not-yet-active faith, is still dead. Alive in Christ, living faith, means spiritual activity, not spiritual passivity.

    From there, it progresses until the spiritual reality of resurrection.

  • My understanding of baptismal regeneration is somewhat different. I was under the impression that baptismal regeneration means that there is something in the water or the act itself that saves. My background is church of Christ and we have often been accused of believing in baptismal regeneration.

    My belief is it is a faith response to God’s offer of redemption. It is the prayer that is offered for salvation–(1 Peter 3:21, “the appeal of a good conscience”–actually the prayer or petition of a good conscience). There has been the American pragmatic tendency to have a simple one, two, three step process that guarantees a result (do these three things and your marriage will be saved, these five steps and your kids will be faithful, etc.). This becomes a thinly (or not so thinly) veiled legalism.

    • DanLambert

      Darryl, I went to a Restoration Movement seminary, and they teach that salvation (and true, real, spiritual regeneration) happens literally BY faith IN Christ AT baptism (full immersion in water). They deny this is baptismal regeneration, but that water immersion is the vehicle God chooses to use to confer salvation on believers. There were many discussions & arguments on campus & in classes about what happens to a truly repentant person who dies before they are immersed. There was not agreement on this issue, even among the professors. Some actually believed that God would condemn a person who had confessed Christ verbally but hadn’t been immersed before death. Or that baptism didn’t count if a person wasn’t totally immersed (e.g., if a portion of the forehead or an arm didn’t go under water completely). Yeah. Fun times.

      • Actually I’ve been a minister in Churches of Christ for over 30 years. And you are correct, there is a wide divergence of view. Of course, you would know that in the early years of Campbell, Stone, and middle years of Lipscomb such debates were not so much an issue–even though they saw the importance of adult immersion.

        Campbell certainly had some interesting observations.

        My take is that baptism is the normative way one accepts the message of Christ. Jesus doesn’t want just a mental experience–he wants us to understand that following him is mind & body experience (or body, soul, and spirit experience). It serves as a metaphor of the gospel event. This is how one goes about responding to the message.

        Which makes a great deal of sense to me.

  • CurtisMSP

    Well, there are Lutherans, and then there are Lutherans.

    • CurtisMSP

      The ELCA does not tend to view Baptism as an isolated event. Rather, the ELCA teaches that the Holy Spirit continually regenerates us through the Word and the sacraments of Baptism and Communion.

      • CurtisMSP

        Question: What does baptizing with water signify?

        Answer: The old person in us should, through daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and a new person daily come forth and arise; who shall live before
        God in righteousness and purity forever.

        (Luther’s Small Catechism, Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Part Four, emphasis added)

        • Gary in FL

          And, Curtis, I’m certainly not unaware. I’ve taught Luther’s SC more than a few times. But when Luther writes the old person in us should daily be drowned and die, he doesn’t exactly say whether he means something literal or figurative by that, does he? In what sense does an old person die? In what sense does a brand new person arise and live? I have my own thoughts, but I’m first of all curious why no one ever tries to think this language through, or clarify what is meant by it explicitly.

          “the ELCA teaches that the Holy Spirit continually regenerates us through the Word and the sacraments of Baptism and Communion.”

          Very good. I can resonate with that. But getting back to my question, in what I’ve quoted from your comment, what does it _mean_ to say “the Holy Spirit continually regenerates us”? I hear the word “regeneration,” and I think of new life or restored life. I just want to know what people think is being regenerated, and are they meaning it literally or figuratively.

          • NateW

            The “old person” is the part of me that is concerned with securing comfort, peace, prosperity, happiness, and love for myself over and above others.

            The man is the part of me that carries his cross, with Christ, setting aside the satisfaction of my own desires and the pursuit of my own peace, rest, and comfort in order to give all of my self to another in self-sacrificial love.

            • Gary in FL

              Thanks, Nate, that’s somewhat similar to my own ideas.

          • CurtisMSP

            Pretty much the same question as Tony’s previous one, about whether or not there is a physical resurrection.

        • NateW


          “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
          Bob Dylan

  • NateW

    I have come to think of regeneration not as something that has happened to a Christian at one specific point in the past, but as that which is happening in every present moment that a person is walking in union with Christ. I have not BEEN regenerated, I am BEING regenerated within every moment in which I am crucified with Christ. As I put my old/natural self to death, I am regenerated into the likeness of Christ—taking into myself the form of self-emptying Love.

    In short, regeneration is what happens in every moment that we act in faith that the life rises only from the ashes of love’s death.

    Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will find life. Active faith that this is true is the essence of regeneration.

  • Phil Miller

    I think it’s always going to be an inherently controversial question simply it’s such a subjective issue. I have met plenty of people who have had dramatic conversion experiences – they were drug addicts or alcoholics, for instance, and after responding to an altar call they never touched the stuff again. I know a lot of people will dismiss such things, but I guess I’ve seen and heard too many experiences like that to simply write them off. I actually do think these people are having real experiences. It’s hard to explain how someone could be a genuine addict and then walk away with no withdrawal symptoms, but I have seen it happen.

    On the other hand, I know people who have converted and haven’t had this sort of experience. It seems that even though they badly want to, they just don’t. I don’t know why some do and some don’t.

    But the fact is there’s nothing anyone can say that will convince the people who have had a certain experience that what they experienced wasn’t a real or ontological change… There will always be that conflict, I think.

    • Andrew Dowling

      But the problem is you see those sorts of reversals across religious traditions. You see particularly dramatic changes among prison inmates who convert to the Black Muslims, for instance. So if these are true ontological changes we’re talking about, then the evidence points to God being a universalist.

  • Ric Shewell

    Welp, since I think that I’m only one thing, I can’t imagine any regeneration that doesn’t involve the whole person. I don’t think that I have a damaged ethereal spirit that need repairing before it vacates these bones. I do think that I am a sinner that stands in need of grace in order to think better, act better, feel better, speak better, etc, etc. I do think that opening myself up to the grace of God allows God to renew me, making me healthier in all aspects of life. I agree with other here that this is a process, and we won’t experience full health/regeneration/recreation until the eschaton.

  • What is regeneration?
    Normally that term is equated to a work of the Spirit in a person in which they are “born again”, “made alive”, and become a “new creation”. All of the apostles (Peter, John, Paul) refer to this as being a reality for Christians.

    Why is it important?
    Jesus told us: unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. So if we want to inherit/enter/see the kingdom of God we should recognize a need for it.

    How do we become regenerated?
    According to John, everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.

    Can we define exactly what changes in a person?
    No. Since even if we set aside theology explaining what a person’s heart, will, or inner drive is exactly would be a challenge and certainly open to debate.

    That said most would describe new birth as a change of heart, a freedom from the slavery of sin, a freedom to live for God, and/or a reversal of the effects of the Fall on our nature.

    Can we evaluate whether some one has been reborn?
    Not with certainty. But John gives us examples of what regenerated people look like – they are confessing Jesus is the Christ, look forward to His return, have love for others, and a lack of love for the world. And as most can attest the new birth does not make people sinless but they should be marked by decreasing sin in their lives.

    Not sure if this will “hold water” or what more you are looking for.

  • My apologies I jumped into baptism instead of following your request! It was just I had defined baptismal regeneration differently…which demonstrates how much I need to learn.

    What happens at regeneration?

    My understanding is we become citizens, we receive adoption, and we are given new life. Now what pragmatically happens? I think the question itself represents a Western mindset and presupposition.

    When a child is adopted (and he is adopted as in entirety: body, soul, and spirit–yes?) he might feel relief or elation but nothing supernatural– the same with becoming a citizen. Behavior may (or may not) change because she has been given a new identity. E.g., you’re now a Willis, so now you live as a Willis (or as a citizen of your new country). Does God provide supernatural assistance in living this way? Perhaps, but is generally not the way in which most people think.

  • It all begins with submission to God’s will–which is another way of saying “obedience”. I think this is part of Pau’s argument in Ephesians: you were chosen to live for the praise of his glory, you were adopted as children (Eph 1)…now live in a way appropriate to your calling (Eph 4).

    If there were amazing supernatural assistance of the kind Western evangelicals normally think of, why does Paul have to work so hard in training Christians to live appropriately? Why the call to obedience and submission?

  • CG

    Mister Jones I have a few question for you and well I suppose for most who
    would sway towards the label of progressive Christianity. So I suppose I’ll get around to asking this of all the bloggers on this site.

    Before I ask I want to say I consider myself a Christian, far form the best but I
    consider myself a Christian nonetheless, Though I may not at the moment
    agree with all facets of progressive Christianity I am leaning towards
    this worldview because in my humble opinion Christianity has the
    foundation to be an evolving belief system. It doesn’t necessarily need to remain rigid through the ages (I am not saying saying though evangelicals or other are wrong)

    I may use the analogy of human DNA or DNA in general, I believe Christianity has the genetic makeup inside it to adapt and evolve and grow stronger far beyond what current “skeptics” may want to believe.

    So while some think the Church or Christian spirituality may be degenerating perhaps a more viable pov is that it’s actually evolving for the better.

    I do believe this at the moment, but sometimes I wonder if perhaps a
    bias of modernity is creeping in. I wonder if you have considered this yourself?

    Are we actually looking at a big picture Christianity (Christianity past,
    present, future) or are we simply compromising it to suit our worldview
    by looking at it through the eyes of our times.

    Christianity imo should be timeless.

    Now I am not advocating things such as literal reading of the Bible (For one
    thing many of the early great Christian thinkers did not take it
    literal) but Christianity as a whole that is encompassing I can see some valid arguments on different things from a Evangelical spectrum, a Catholic Spectrum and a Progressive Spectrum.

    But I want to get to a place where maybe its not just a case of being right or simply saving my soul but to honestly feel like I am not misrepresenting Christianity to the world. How did you get to this point/mindset if you’re there are all?