“Believe in Jesus and you will be born again!” That popular statement has been uttered throughout the Christian community for centuries. But is it true?
I am not asking whether or not people who believe in Jesus are born again. They are. The debate about whether regeneration happens before or after faith, however, has been going on for quite some time. Regeneration, in simplistic terms, is the work of God by which he gives us a new nature. It is the work of God to make us born again. To my knowledge, there is no debate on who does the regenerating. Everyone is in agreement that is God who makes us new. It is God who takes out our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh. It God who makes us alive in Christ.
The question in regards to regeneration has always been: What is the order? Do we believe and then are regenerated, or does God regenerate us in order for us to believe? The implications are obvious. If we believe in order to be regenerated, then God reacts to our faith and makes us new. If we are regenerated in order to believe, then God, de facto, chooses who is saved. So, this is an obviously controversial question.
Let me take a few moments and lay out, not a personal opinion, but what the Bible says. I’ll start with the New Testament and then move to the Old.
- John 3:3, “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.'” Jesus uses a negative term in order to display a clear sequence: first you must be born again, then you can see the kingdom of God. What does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”? It means to have eyes of faith. It means to believe in Jesus. Being born again precedes faith.
- John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” In this passage, Jesus first uses a universal statement: no one. There is no exception. Then he goes on to say, “can come.” Jesus is not using the word “can” as permissive, like “Can I go to the bathroom? He is using it as an term for ability, such as, “I can not lift that car.” So in this verse, Jesus is clearly saying, “No one has the ability to come to me unless the Father first does something: namely, draws the person to him.” This is confirmed about twenty verses later when Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless it has been granted him by the Father.”
- Acts 16:14, in the case of Lydia, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” Could Lydia have paid attention to Paul prior to God opening her heart? Luke makes the case that God had to open it for her to be receptive to the message. This is backed up by the word, “to.” The Lord opened up her heart in order to hear the message and receive it.
- Eph. 2:4-5, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” More context from verse 1-3 might be helpful here, but these verses tell us that while we were dead in our trespasses God regenerated us. That is, while we were in the flesh. Jesus said that the flesh is of no help (John 6:63). Paul said the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God (Rom. 8:7). 1 Cor. 2:14 tells us that the natural man cannot accept the things that come from the Spirit. Therefore, it is not possible to believe, or choose Christ, while in the flesh and prior to regeneration.
- Col. 2:13, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.” This is similar to the above statement, but again, Paul puts the emphasis that when we were sinners, God had to make us alive to him. This points to an inability to respond to the gospel without God’s help.
- 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ, has been born of God.” Granted, you could say that this is ambiguous. But not in the original Greek. “Everyone who believes” is written in a form that is a current and on-going state of being. It is talking about those who, right now, are believing and will continue to believe. “Has been born of God,” is in a way that shows a definite action in the past, is done and results in the action that is currently happening. In other words, the Greek is clear that “has been born of God” precedes “Everyone who believes.”
The evidence pointing toward divine initiative in faith through regeneration prior to faith is stacked. The immediate question, though, is whether or not this is a new concept in the New Testament, or whether it has roots in the Old Testament. Here are three verses to show that the New Testament is only the outworking of what God intended to do in the Old Testament.
- Deut 29:4, “But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” This comes on the heels of Moses just telling the people that they saw all the miracles that God did and yet they have hard hearts. And it precedes Moses telling them that they are continuing to experience miracles every day. They have hard hearts because God had not yet given it to them.
- Deut. 30:6, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your soul, that you may live.” Again, notice the pattern: God will circumcise (make new) the heart, so that one may love the Lord.
- Ezek. 36:26-27, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” Notice all the things God will do: he will give a new heart, he will put in a new spirit, he will put in his Spirit. What will that result in? People walking in his statutes, being careful to observe his ordinance.
What do these three verse teach us? That it is not possible to love God, walk in his ways, or observe his rules, without him doing something in us first.
Going back to our original question, then, is the statement, “Believe in Jesus and you will be born again” true? It seems that, according to the biblical data, being born again precedes faith. Therefore, I do not believe the statement to be accurate. Though one may want to believe that we have faith in order to be made new, it doesn’t make sense to continue adhering to that idea. A more correct term would be “Believe in Jesus and that is the proof you’ve been born again.” But that’s a long and confusing statement for unbelievers. Perhaps a new cliche is in order.