“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” was Christ’s clarion call to his closest companions—those who had walked with him for over three years, and those who would sow the seeds of joy in Christ throughout the early days of his Church. Likewise, this banner is rightly taken up by any modern church that seeks to follow Christ’s call. But in our modern culture, an emphasis on process often leads to false pretext. In other words, the “how to” of discipleship often precedes the “why” of discipleship. C.S. Lewis explains the futility in this, asking, “What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all?” But this phenomenon cannot only be attributed to a cultural emphasis on process. Rather, it stems from a lack of understanding around the nature of new life in Christ, or the doctrine of regeneration. Often, Christian churches struggle to connect doctrine with practice, but such a connection is imperative in the area of discipleship. And if this is true, regeneration—the birth of a disciple—bears tremendous weight on the outworking of discipleship. There are four major considerations around the doctrine of regeneration which should be woven into the fabric of any philosophy of discipleship.
Regeneration is the creation of a new affection.
One of the most fascinating things about regeneration is that God creates within the newborn disciple a new taste, or perhaps a more refined taste, for glory. Here’s what I mean. Everyone gets some satisfaction from the glory that comes from temporal things: family, food, drink, success, popularity, etc. Surely you understand this when your child brings home a report card with all A’s, or when your sports franchise wins a championship, or when you’ve just earned the promotion you’ve been working toward for years.
But here’s the interesting thing about glory: it always leaves you wanting more. So, when you seek the glory that comes from these temporal things, you will never be satisfied. Your kid will end up resenting you for all the academic pressure, your sports team will begin a new season, and the novelty of your new job will wear off, leaving you thirsty for more.
Graciously, when God regenerates you, what he is actually doing is introducing you to the only true fountain for the satisfaction of your glory-thirsty soul. He is killing your old taste for temporal glory and creating within you a taste for the glory to be found in the fountain of Jesus Christ alone.
So, a disciple is most fundamentally someone who has been re-created, as the Apostle Paul iterates in 2 Corinthians 5:17. Prior to such a work (which is wholly of God), no one has the capacity, nor frankly the desire, to accept Christ’s call to “take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). But, the Bible says that at the moment of regeneration, God grants a beating, fleshly heart, a heart that can feel (Ez. 36:25-27). This heart, created by God and guided by his Spirit, has a real sense of desire for attributing glory to God. It not only recognizes God’s worth at an intellectual level; it delights in ascribing to him ultimate worth at the level of the affections.
Now, we have come to the true and underlying motivation for discipleship: genuine affection for Christ, freely granted by God at regeneration through the work of the Spirit.
Regeneration means a change in identity.
The doctrines of justification and adoption are rightly heralded as chief tenets of the Christian faith. As we probe these doctrines, we understand that they are gracious gifts from a loving Father, wrapped up in regeneration. In other words, they are freely given to a newborn disciple.
A disciple of Christ must recognize, with Paul, that God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). This means that, because of Jesus, God does not compromise one ounce of his justice when he forgives our sins. His justice was executed on the cross, as Christ bore the penalty for all our sins at once. But very often, we feel that we need to be both just and the justifier on our own. When we sin, we run from God, owing our flight to the need to clean ourselves up before coming back to God. We carry around a medieval notion of penance for individual sins, thinking that we are more devout in doing so. But the kind of repentance that Jesus secured for those he regenerates is much bigger than penance for individual sins. It is a lifelong posture toward God which glories in his grace for sending Christ to the cross to make payment for all of our sins at once.
And while our need for justification is the most pressing legal matter prior to regeneration, our need for adoption is certainly the most relational.
Why is the doctrine of Christian adoption so life-giving? Because it gives us a new identity. At the moment of regeneration, God fundamentally changes who we are. In fact, Paul tells us that the transformation is as stark as “slave to son” (see Galatians 4:7).
The transformation from “slave” to “son” means a complete change in identity. It doesn’t affect one or two aspects of how we live or think; it literally changes everything. It offers a change in perspective. It gives us new lenses through which to see the world.
These two gifts are wrapped up with regeneration because there is absolutely nothing a newborn disciple has done to earn them. Like a baby that is birthed into a loving family, they are simply part of the new reality into which a disciple is born. Now, the task is to continually teach this newborn disciple about his new identity and how it affects all of life.
Remembering regeneration is a means of grace by which disciples are matured.
One of the most practical avenues God employs in the hearts of regenerate believers for stirring our affections for him is simply the remembrance of the gospel. In remembering this, our hearts’ affections are stirred to ascribe worship to God for the life-giving work he has done in us.
This is why observance of the sacraments is an important practice in the Christian life. When a church body observes baptism, are they not rejoicing in new birth? Regeneration is brought to the forefront of the hearts of the regenerate as we celebrate that act in the lives of our new brothers and sisters.
The observance of communion is also themed around celebration and remembrance. We commemorate the life and death of Jesus as we partake of the bread and the cup. All of this serves to bring us back to the humble realization that Christ’s sacrifice procured our regeneration.
Regeneration levels the playing field for mission.
Since all this is true, we understand that regeneration is 100% God’s work. The Father grants that the work of the Son be imputed to men and women, and the faith to rest in this work is wrought by the Holy Spirit. When God turns on the light, when he shines in the hearts of men to reveal the glory of Christ, a new disciple is born. An explosion of grace has birthed excitement, affection, and deep joy in the heart of a previously dead man or woman.
What are the missional implications here? Since regeneration is 100% God’s work, based on no merit of the individual, this brings to light the glorious truth that no one is too far gone. Christ’s call to make disciples of all nations was a call toward radical inclusion. It was a call to go into the dark places and proclaim the light, trusting God to shine in the hearts of men. It was a call to celebrate God’s good purpose of redemption for people from all walks of life.
You see, everyone is born spiritually dead. And, one way or another, we all try to make ourselves alive. But think back to your regeneration–the moment God illuminated the gospel in your heart and caused you to behold the glory of Christ. Were you not acutely aware that you had nothing to do with this change? After all, dead is dead. Christ is life. God is the one who regenerates, matures, and multiplies his disciples. And when He calls us to “go and make disciples,” He’s giving us front-row tickets to the greatest show on earth.
The experience of living the Christian life is tied up in a proper understanding of the nature of regeneration. How can one know how to live unless he understands how he has been made alive? Thus, the maturation of a disciple is driven by a daily reorientation around gospel regeneration. In light of all this, don’t stifle the experience of your new life by attempting to run back to the same streams you used to drink from. Drink from the stream of living water in Christ, for in this you shall find both deeper desires and deeper fulfillment. You will bank all you have, all you know, and all you ever hope to be on one thing: once dead, I have now been made alive in Christ. And He is enough. If this is you, never cease to praise God for the gospel regeneration He has caused in your life.
— Alex Dean is a pastor in Lakeland, Florida. Holding an undergraduate degree from Dallas Baptist University, Alex is currently completing his graduate work at Reformed Theological Seminary. His book, Gospel Regeneration: A story of death, life, and sleeping in a van, will be released in the summer of 2014. Follow his blog at gospelregeneration.com or follow him on Twitter @alexmartindean.
(Editor’s Note: This is adapted from Gospel Regeneration by Alex Dean available on Lucid Books. It appears here with the permission of the author.)