There is a remarkable statement in Paul’s brief letter to a brand new congregation. He said that he knew they were God’s chosen ones. How could he make such a statement? He did so because of how they responded when he preached the gospel. When he was with them the gospel came alive. The Gospel came not only in word, “but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:4, 5). Possibly the three things he mentioned—power, the Holy Spirit, deep conviction—are not altogether different, but three ways to describe the Spirit taking the gospel and burning it deep into the hearts of the Thessalonian hearers so that they were profoundly transformed. They “turned from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven” (1:9, 10).
Paul understood clearly how the gospel “works,” and I use this one citation to reminds us that Gospel-centered discipleship will only “work” by the mysterious and sovereign power of the Holy Spirit bringing the gospel to life. In fact apart from the supernatural call and transforming power of the Spirit, the gospel is considered foolishness and a stumbling block (I Cor. 1:23), but with the call that same gospel message reveals Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God (1:24, 25).
The theological term for the Holy Spirit initiating new life in the dead, deaf, blind sinner is regeneration. In more common language, we speak of the term introduced by Jesus, “born again” (John 3:1-8). The familiar phrase, “You must be born again” (v. 7) is not a command from Jesus, it is a statement of what must happen if one is to enter the kingdom of God. But the passage is quite clear that being born again (regenerated) is an act of the Holy Spirit. Because of this powerful, supernatural act of the Holy Spirit our spirits come alive, our ears open, our blind eyes see and we welcome the good news of Christ crucified for our salvation and spiritual walk. That is to say, regeneration, God’s work in us, lays the foundation for the gospel to be received and believed.
I have just articulated an expression of the Reformed understanding of regeneration and its relationship to conversion and spiritual growth. I doubt that too many readers will take exception to this statement theologically. The question is, does this understanding affect your approach to making disciples practically? It should. It is striking that good solid works on discipleship so often make only passing references to the Holy Spirit. In fact, the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is the foundation on which we attempt to “make disciples of the nations.”
4 Ways to Include Regeneration in Discipling:
Acquaint yourself, or reacquaint yourself with the core doctrines of regeneration and effectual calling. Sinclair Ferguson makes the statement that clear views of regeneration “pave the way for all the other doctrines of the Christian life.”[i] That is a challenge to avoid sloppy teaching in this vital area. In addition to Ferguson’s work, check Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology,[ii] and John Piper’s Finally Alive”[iii] These writers not only explain the doctrine, but they will stimulate your thinking about what they mean pastorally.
2. Learn to help those you disciple to understand the work of the Spirit in bringing them to initial faith in Christ. Too often, discipling begins by saying, “now that you are a Christian…” and on we go to what is now expected of a Christian. However, notice how often in his epistles the Apostle Paul begins by reminding his readers of their “calling in Christ” (Romans 1:6; I Cor. 1:2-9) or taking them back to the point where God began his marvelous work of grace (Titus 3:3-8). I have witnessed real change in young believers as they are helped to stop and reflect back on their experience of conviction of sin and becoming aware of the gospel.[iv]
3. Your discipling needs to build on the foundation of Jesus’ resurrection as well as his crucifixion. We all agree that Jesus’ resurrection is at the core of the gospel. But how does it affect our gospel discipling? The gospel applied to our lives and the lives of others means that we not only stand forgiven and counted as righteous because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice (our justification), but we are actually new people in Christ, we are alive through the same power that raised Christ from the dead (our regeneration; Ephesians 1:19, 20; 2:4-10). I have observed that overlooking the importance of regeneration leads to appeals for Christian living that are rooted in what we ought to be doing out of thankfulness for what God has done for us (certainly a worthy motive, but no source of power) rather than the Pauline focus of letting the new walk (sanctification) rise up out of the new life giveWhatn us by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25).
4. Let the truth of regeneration remind you of what you can do, but also what you can’t do. The true agent of transformation is the Holy Spirit. You and I are not the Holy Spirit (or as a friend said to me once after another futile attempt to change someone, “God doesn’t need a fourth person in the Trinity.”) On the other hand, we have been given the tool that the Spirit uses to transform people—the gospel of Jesus Christ. So let us move ahead to become effective in applying the gospel to those coming to faith and those growing in the faith. But let us do so humbly and prayerfully, working as instruments of the Holy Spirit.
[i] P. 47, The Christian Life (Banner of Truth Trust, 1981).
[ii] Ch. 33-35, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994).
[iii] Christian Focus, 2009.
[iv] My own experience in teaching/discipling in this way is explained in my book Spiritual Birthline-Understanding How We Experience the New Birth (Crossway, 2006). I use the paradigm of physical birth to explain the process of spiritual birth and how we can serve as “midwives” in the process.
Stephen Smallman is a retired pastor of the PCA currently serving as an interim pastor at liberti Fairmount Church, an Acts 29 (and PCA) congregation in Philadelphia. He has given particular attention to the Holy Spirit and conversion experience. His written works include, Spiritual Birthline-Understanding How We Experience the New Birth (Crossway, 2006) and The Walk-Steps for New and Renewed Followers of Jesus (P&R Publishers, 2009). His website is www.birthlineministries.com.