Christian Regeneration: A Unique Phenomenon of the Holy Ghost Dispensation
Joseph D. McPherson

THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE Issue 1 Spring 2007 Volume 25 page 4-7

In Matthew 11:11, Jesus makes this startling statement: “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” In his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Mr. Wesley shares the following explanation borrowed from an ancient author:

“One perfect in the law, as John was, is inferior to one who is baptized unto the death of Christ. For this is the kingdom of heaven, even to be buried with Christ, and to be raised up together with him. John was greater than all who had been then born of women; but he was cut off before the kingdom of heaven was given.” [He seems to mean that righteousness, peace, and joy which constitute the present, inward kingdom of heaven.] “He was blameless as to that righteousness which is by the law; but he fell short of those who are perfected by the Spirit of life which is in Christ. Whosoever therefore is least in the kingdom of heaven, by Christian regeneration, is greater than any who has attained only the righteousness of the law, because the law maketh nothing perfect.”

According to the founder of Methodism this “Christian regeneration” referred to above is wrought in the heart of believers by a faith given of God. “No man,” says he, “is able to work it in himself. It is a work of omnipotence. It requires no less power thus to quicken a dead soul, than to raise a body that lies in the grave. It is a new creation; and none can create a soul anew, but he who at first created the heavens and the earth.”

The term regeneration is not an Old Testament term. We find it only in the New Testament in two places. In Matthew 19:28 our Lord uses it in reference to the resurrection state or the eschatological “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). Our particular interest is found with the Apostle Paul’s use of the term in his letter to Titus, “according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). “Undoubtedly,” writes Adam Clarke, “the apostle here means baptism, the rite by which persons were admitted into the Church, and the visible sign of the cleansing, purifying influences of the Holy Spirit, which the apostle immediately subjoins.”

Mr. Wesley sees sanctification in an initial sense expressed by the words, “washing of regeneration.” He believes also that this “washing” has reference to baptism which is an outward sign of an inward cleansing. The means by which that inward cleansing is accomplished is “the renewing of the Holy Ghost; which purifies the soul, as water cleanses the body, and renews it in the whole image of God.” Such a regeneration as this can only be understood in a post-pentecostal setting and time frame.

Quickening dead souls and raising them to life in Christ Jesus is a miraculous and unique phenomenon of this present dispensation of the Holy Spirit. A close reading of New Testament Scripture shows the Christian dispensation of the Holy Spirit to be greatly superior to the Jewish standard portrayed in the dispensation of the law. The word “better” is used more than a dozen times in the epistle to the Hebrews to emphasize the superior privileges of the new covenant over those under the former and inferior covenant of the law.

One scholar, however, has lately endeavored to convince his readers that Ezekiel 36:25-27 and John 3:1-8 not only provide evidence of God’s indwelling Spirit but also the work of regeneration in the hearts of Old Testament saints and those living prior to Pentecost [Allan Brown, “The Regenerating and Indwelling Work of the Holy Spirit Prior to Pentecost,” God’s Revivalist (Winter 2006)]. Let us review this prophetic passage of Ezekiel.

“Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.”

As we look at the context of this beautiful passage, we see that it is a promise of God to the Jewish people for future fulfillment. The words “will” and “shall” are found several times therein. Bible scholars agree that this promise was to be fulfilled with the coming of the new covenant. Writing in the Wesleyan Bible Commentary, Burt Hall assures us that “In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit empowered believers; in the New Testament age the Holy Spirit [not only empowers but] purifies believers from sins and from sin (1 John 1:9; 1 Thess. 4:3-8).”

The dialogue of Jesus with Nicodemus in John 3:1-8 concerning the necessity of his being “born again” must be viewed and understood in the light of John 7:37-39. “In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)”

Although Jesus was, in a sense glorified in His ministry, miracles, death and resurrection, His ultimate exaltation and glorification was realized after His ascension to the right hand of the Father. In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter assures his listeners that “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear.” The promise of Jesus to believers in John 7:37-39 had begun to be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost.

Dr. Brown declared that “If regeneration was not possible for Nicodemus prior to Pentecost as some argue, then Jesus must have been either mocking Nicodemus or speaking prophetically of a future possibility. There is nothing in the text of John 3 to support either view.” But Donald Bloesch concluded that “the new birth does not take place until the Son of Man is lifted up (vv. 14-15).” He found John 7:37-39 a helpful comparison and concluded, “Here we see a clear reference to Pentecost as the time when those who would follow Christ are born of water and the Spirit” [The Holy Spirit, pp. 304-305].

No, Jesus was not mocking Nicodemus any more than He was mocking those who heard Him on that last and “great day of the feast,” when with uplifted voice, He promised the Holy Ghost to spiritually thirsty and believing Jews. Jesus, throughout His ministry, was engaged in preparing His followers for the timely coming of the Spirit’s dispensation and a glorious fulfillment of new covenant promises. Commenting on John 7:39, Adam Clarke writes:

Certain measures of the Holy Spirit had been vouchsafed from the beginning of the world to believers and unbelievers: but that abundant effusion of his graces spoken of by Joel, (Joel 2:28), which peculiarly characterized the Gospel times, was not granted till after the ascension of Christ: 1. Because this Spirit in its plenitude was to come in consequence of his atonement; and therefore could not come till after his crucifixion. 2. It was to supply the place of Christ to his disciples and to all true believers; and therefore it was not necessary till after the removal of his bodily presence from among them.

The Rev. John Fletcher provides a similar emphasis in the following statements:

The volume of truth informs us, that the Creator foretold the coming of a Redeemer, and that the Redeemer, during his outward manifestation, proclaimed the near approach of “another Comforter,” John 14:16, 17. It is undoubtedly true, that some earnests of redeeming grace, together with the first fruits of the spirit, were experienced even by the most ancient inhabitants of the earth. It is true, also that by means of those earnests and first fruits, many myriads of mankind have been saved in every age of the world. But it is no less true, that the plenitude of these sacred gifts was reserved to a very distant period of time; since, after the first promise of a Redeemer was given, near four thousand years elapsed before he made his public appearance; and while he continued upon earth it is expressly said, that “the Holy Ghost was not yet given, [in its full measure,] because that Jesus was not yet glorified,” John 7:39.

Jesus’ disciples were saved prior to Pentecost according to their inferior dispensation as were all Old Testament saints. Saving faith in this present dispensation, however, differs, “from that faith which the Apostles themselves had while our Lord was on earth, [in] that it acknowledges,” says Mr. Wesley, “the necessity and merit of his death, and the power of his resurrection” [“Salvation by Faith,” 1.5]. Furthermore, regeneration or the new birth requires an effusion of the Spirit unknown prior to the inauguration of Christ’s Kingdom displayed with power from on high.

It is a great mistake, therefore, to equate regeneration with the experience of Christ’s disciples prior to Pentecost. Such a view sinks the standard of New Testament Christianity dreadfully low, making conversion or the new birth far less the miraculous heart transformation that the New Testament describes it to be. While with Christ in the flesh, the disciples lived in a time of transition between the old and new covenants; between the dispensation of the law and that of the Holy Spirit.

Since the article under review concedes that W. B. Pope held a different view from that of the author, it would be well to consider what the prince of Wesleyan theologians actually said. In 1880 he cried out against the modern tendency to teach “a new dispensation of the Spirit, or a Pentecostal visitation superadded to the state of conversion.” He warned that those who teach Acts 19:2 as an experience after regeneration diminish the value of regeneration [Compendium, 3:44, 64].

To those who would “contend that the experience of the original disciples provides a model or pattern today,” Dr. Robert Lyon would answer that “Two observations make this impossible: (1) the model is not followed elsewhere in Acts or the early Church; (2) it fails to consider the [salvation history] significance of Pentecost as the once-for-all inaugurative event which establishes the Church.”

Since Pentecost was the inauguration of Christ’s Kingdom, it is to be viewed as a watershed in salvation history. According to the Apostle Paul, this inward kingdom, consisted of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom 14:17). It was then and not before that this Kingdom of Christ began to be established in the hearts of believers. Paul assures us as he did all the believers in the Corinthian church that “by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body … and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). He shows here the way of entrance into the mystical body of Christ. By such a Spirit baptism all believers enter the true Church and begin to experience the transforming power of regeneration through the inward possession of the Spirit. Three thousand Jews who heard Peter’s sermon and followed his directives received the Spirit. In other words they were baptized in the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, for Luke establishes no difference of meaning between “received” and “baptized.” So changed were these newly converted Jews that they gave up personal possessions to relieve the poor around them, possessing “gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God.”

Dr. Kenneth Collins, a recognized Wesley scholar, once stated that “Pentecost was the birth of the Church, not its perfection.” It is significant to observe that nowhere in the New Testament do we find believers exhorted to seek a baptism in the Spirit. Having already been baptized in the Spirit through regeneration they are rather exhorted to “go on to perfection” (Heb 6:1).

In his comments on Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus in John 3:12, Adam Clarke refers to the Jewish custom of baptizing proselytes. They were considered “as being born of baptism.” This, he says was “practiced every day in the initiation of proselytes.” He then shows how Jesus was endeavoring to make Nicodemus “understand such heavenly things as the initiation of [His own] disciples by the baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire from heaven.”

The Rev. John Fletcher, among early Methodist leaders, is often singled out as one using the terminology of Spirit baptism in reference to entire sanctification or Christian perfection. The impression is often made that he used this terminology in reference to the second work of grace only. Such, however, is not the case. Believing that a great effusion of the Spirit was required to complete both the new birth and Christian perfection in a believer’s heart he, unlike Wesley, used the language of “baptism with the Holy Spirit” in a holistic sense. The honest reader will find use of “baptism with the Spirit” numerous times in his writings while discussing justification and regeneration. For instance, he may be found encouraging earnest seekers for the new birth, by exclaiming, “Yes, you shall be baptized by the Holy Ghost for the remission of sins, and justified freely by faith.”

John Wesley, John Fletcher, Adam Clarke, Richard Watson and W. B. Pope all make reference to the “baptism in the Spirit” as God’s powerful means of bringing penitents to a state of regeneration and the new birth. It is by the work of the same Holy Spirit now residing within their hearts that faithful believers are subsequently brought to a state of Christian perfection.

It is popular in today’s holiness movement to speak of the disciples as being entirely sanctified on the day of Pentecost. The Word of God, however, does not tell us this. Such is an example of dangerously adding to that which is written. It is true that, according to Peter, their hearts were purified on that day by faith (Acts 15:9). In their attempts to exalt the second work of grace of entire sanctification, the modern holiness movement has consistently reduced the significance of regeneration. They need to be apprised of the fact that Peter had yet more to say about purifying the heart than what is recorded in Acts 15:9. For instance, in 1 Peter 1:22-23 we see where “having purified your souls” (22) is explained in the following verse as “being born again.” Here Peter refers to believers who have purified their souls by “being born again.” There is definitely a purifying of the soul accomplished in the new birth or regeneration. Such purification includes no less than a cleansing away of guilt together with a cleansing of acquired defilement caused by sins of the past.

Early Methodist leaders, closely abiding by scriptural teaching, taught the baptism in the Spirit to be an initiatory event resulting in the regeneration or new birth of sincere penitents. Water baptism was considered the outward symbol of that inward work of Spirit baptism. What has too often been overlooked is that while identifying Spirit baptism with regeneration, early Methodists were in keeping not only with the views of the Reformers before them but also with the Apostolic Fathers of the first and second centuries together with all the Ante-Nicene Fathers. One will not find the baptism of the Holy Ghost identified with a second work of grace in all the writings of the Fathers. That means that out of more than two thousand years of Church history, only within the last 150 years or so has the view arisen which endeavors to identify baptism in the Holy Spirit solely with entire sanctification. Writing a consensus of Christian belief from the first five centuries of the Church, Thomas Oden concluded that “though indwelling is not precisely the same as baptism, sealing, and filling of the Spirit, none of these is detachable from the new birth through the Spirit and baptism of the Spirit. . . . The New Testament understands baptism of and by the Spirit as the privilege of all who have faith, all Christians, all who belong to the body of Christ” [Life in the Spirit, 3:178; 182].

We conclude by stating that the experience of regeneration through the baptism of the Holy Spirit is marvelous and wonderful. They who are thus blessed are saved both from the guilt and power of sin. “They have not received again the spirit of bondage, but the Spirit of adoption, whereby they cry Abba Father: The Spirit itself also bearing witness with their spirit, that they are the children of God … Thus have they peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. They rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And the love of God is shed abroad in their hearts, through the Holy Ghost which is given unto them” [John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith”].

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