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The Christian Understanding of Regeneration

VII. Regeneration

We believe that man was created by God in His own image; that the first man, Adam, sinned and thereby brought physical, spiritual and eternal death, which is separation from God, to all of his descendants; that as a consequence, all human beings are born with a sinful nature and sin by choice and are therefore under condemnation. We believe that those who repent and forsake sin and trust Jesus Christ as Savior have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and have become new creatures, and so are delivered from condemnation and receive eternal life.

This seventh paragraph of our Congregational Confession of Faith lays out the Christian understanding of the human problem of sin and its consequences. Yet there is so much more in this paragraph than simply an explanation of humanity’s bent toward rebellion and evil. It lays out some key truths about the very nature of man as God has created him, and the means by which God saves sinners from the just condemnation they deserve.

First, “we believe that man was created by God in His own image.” This statement underlines the inherent value and worth of human beings. Man being in the image of God is not unlike the image of a ruler struck on a coin, as on Canadian currency—the image resembles the monarch so that it recognizably (though in a somewhat different way) corresponds to the original, but also carries the monarch’s likeness as an expression of royal authority guaranteeing the worth of the coin. The reference to “man” here encompasses and includes all humanity, both male and female; not only men are made in the image of God, but, equally and fully, women are as well. God has no gender, and so men and women each in distinct and complementary ways reflect distinct attributes and elements of God’s nature and character. Genesis 1:26-27 makes this beautifully clear:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….
God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

This passage conveys both God’s unity (“his own image,” “he created him”) and his plural nature as a Trinity (“Let us make man,” “our image,” “our likeness”). Similarly, man is described both as a unity (“created him,” “man”) and as a plurality (“male and female”). The inclusion of the reference to gender in parallel with statements of “image” and “likeness” makes clear women are as much made in the image of God as men, and are thus equally valuable, possessing the same worth. The value and worth of man derives not from anything in ourselves but in our bearing the image of God. The very reason why the death sentence was later prescribed for murder in the Bible was precisely because murder is an assault on God’s image (Gen. 9:6), again underlining and guaranteeing the fundamental equality of all human beings in the sight of God.

The statement then stresses that it is the sin of the first man, Adam, which brings spiritual and physical death to all his descendants. The reference to Adam is explicit in this statement because it is our conviction that to deny the literal existence of Adam as the first human being, as is increasingly popular today, does great damage to the Christian faith, and so belief in a literal Adam is something we require for membership. Note especially the distinct role and responsibility Adam has as husband; the equality of women to men does not deny the existence of distinct roles for men and women, any more than headship and submission in the Trinity diminishes the full Godhood of the Son and Spirit, or an employee submitting to his employer implies that the employee is less of a human being than those in authority over him. It is Adam’s sin that brings death to his descendants, not Eve’s—even though Eve ate the fruit first—because the Bible later parallels Adam’s failure with the faithfulness of the “second Adam,” Jesus Christ (Romans 5:12-21). Adam, not Eve, had the final responsibility; when both sinned, it was Adam who God addressed first (Gen. 3:9-12), and Paul points out that while Eve had been deceived, Adam sinned knowingly (1 Tim. 2:14) implicitly showing he abdicated his responsibility to protect his wife.

Adam is our representative. Every human being (save one) is born “in Adam,” represented by him, and his sin affects them all. His actions, like the actions of our elected representatives in Ottawa or Washington or London, are done on our behalf and the consequences apply to us all. As a perfect and sinless man, what better representative could have been chosen to stand for us? Yet he failed. And so the sin of Adam is passed to us all, as each human being is born with a “sinful nature”—that is, an inherent inclination to rebel against God and seek to assert ourselves instead. Consequently, we all “sin by choice.” Our choices reflect our nature, after all, and only increase and compound our guilt. Therefore, left to ourselves, we are guilty of high treason against our King, condemned by our own actions, and face a sentence of eternal suffering in hell by a righteously angry God.

This poses a big problem. If we are all born sinful, if we are rebels by nature, if our most deep-seated desires and inclinations are to reject God and all righteousness and goodness, then how could anyone obey God, turning from their sins, and putting their faith in him? It’s impossible. Like the camel trying to squeeze through the eye of the needle, “with man this is impossible. But all things are possible with God” (Matt. 19:26).

If our problem is our nature, we need a new nature. If we are born with evil, stony hearts, we need a spiritual heart transplant. Hence, the doctrine of “regeneration” or the “new birth.” This is what Christians refer to when they say “born-again.” Indeed, the term “born-again Christian” is kind of inaccurate; it’s redundant. The only way anyone can be a Christian at all is if he’s “born-again” in the first place. You can’t have a Christian who is not “born-again.” So when a person is confronted by the truth of their sinfulness, the inevitability of judgment, and the good news of what Jesus has done, and they “repent and forsake sin and trust Jesus Christ as savior,” this is evidence that they already “have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit.”

Born again, each and every Christian is a “new creation,” destined to enjoy the personal fellowship of God for eternity. As new creations, then, we are expected to look and live differently from the world, and so the doctrine of regeneration is the basis for the expectation of a changed life mentioned later in articles VIII and X.