Was regeneration possible before the birth of the church? The other day I received an email from a friend we’ll call Steve who believes that the answer is no. He gave four lines of evidence. I will present and respond to each of his points and then give some closing reasons why I’m convinced regeneration started in the Garden and not at Pentecost.
Regeneration Is a New Covenant Distinctive
Steve pointed out that the only post-cross reference to the word regeneration (palingenesia) is in Titus 3:5, “He saved us…by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” Steve then said that this new birth is a new covenant distinctive that “does not seem to have taken place before the New Covenant was instituted.”
In both the Old and New Testaments regeneration was often spoken of using other words besides the precise word regeneration. 1 Jesus spoke of the new birth (John 3:3, 5), which is surely a reference to regeneration. And He indicated that Nicodemus should have known about the new birth (John 3:11), evidently from the teachings of the Old Testament (OT). This proves that the concept of regeneration clearly does occur before the cross and that contradicts this argument.
Born-again is another such word. It occurs in John 3:3, 5 and 1 Pet 1:23 and Jas 1:18. In the OT we find reference to people who were given “a new heart” by God (1 Sam 10:9).
Another expression associated with the new birth and regeneration is eternal life. Remember that long before the cross Jesus said, “He who believes in Me has [present tense] everlasting life” (John 6:47). Since there were people alive at that time who believed in Jesus, we know they had eternal life before the cross. The apostles, Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and all other believers had everlasting life before the cross. So did all OT believers who believed in the coming Messiah for everlasting life. That no one could have eternal life without being born spiritually is obvious.
There is nothing in the Old or New Testament which says that regeneration is “a new covenant distinctive.”
The Indwelling and Baptizing Ministries of the Holy Spirit
The second argument is a dispensational one. Steve went on to suggest that once a person is regenerated, he is baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ and he is permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13; Eph 1:13-14). Yet OT believers were not baptized into the Body of Christ by the Spirit, since the church didn’t exist yet. And while some were indwelt, the Spirit could leave OT saints as He did King Saul (see Ps 51:11).
This is a problem of association. Four major ministries of the Holy Spirit occur today at the moment one believes in Christ. I remember it with the acronym RIBS: regeneration, indwelling, baptizing, and sealing.
However, even a casual reading of Acts shows that this wasn’t always so even in the church age. In Samaria Philip the Evangelist led many people to faith in Christ (Acts 8). These people were born again and sealed by the Holy Spirit at the moment of faith. But they were neither indwelt by the Spirit nor baptized into the Body of Christ until Peter and John came and laid hands on them. During the transition period, the reception of the Spirit (hence indwelling) and baptism by the Spirit sometimes occurred after regeneration.
So, too, in the OT only regeneration and sealing occurred at the moment of faith. Some experienced temporary indwelling. None experienced baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The same sort of thing will happen after the Rapture. The church will leave and so the baptizing ministry of the Holy Spirit will cease. Will all believers in the Tribulation be indwelt by the Holy Spirit? I imagine so, but the Scriptures don’t state this explicitly. Surely the two witnesses will be indwelt. So will the 144,000 evangelists. But neither the two witnesses nor the 144,000 evangelists will be baptized into the Body of Christ by the Spirit. Yet all believers in the tribulation will be regenerated.
Old Testament Believers “Awaken” to Everlasting Life
Daniel 12:2 indicates that when the resurrection of believers occurs, some will awake to everlasting life. Steve suggests that this shows that OT believers will be regenerated when they are resurrected and not before.
A careful reading of Dan 12:2 suggests otherwise. “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Note that “many” will awake. Why doesn’t it say “all”? The reason is that Daniel is thinking of the resurrection of the righteous before the Millennium. Unbelievers will be resurrected after the Millennium (Rev 20:13).
Thus Daniel is speaking of two types of resurrections that OT believers will experience. Some will be resurrected to “everlasting life,” which is a reference to abundant eternal life. We find the same concept in Matt 19:29, Gal 6:8, and Heb 11:36. Whenever eternal life is spoken of as a possible future experience, the reward of abundant eternal life is in view. Even in the OT.
But some believers will experience shame when resurrected. Of course this is a New Testament teaching as well: “Little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 John 2:28). See also Mark 8:38.
Now admittedly Daniel does speak of “everlasting contempt” which is literally “everlasting abhorrence.” But this is parallel to shame. It simply means that forever this person will live with the consequences of their unwise life. “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament…forever and ever” (Dan 12:3). The implication is that those who are unwise shall not “shine” forever in their service for Christ.
So Dan 12:2 in no way shows that OT believers were spiritually dead, which, by the way, is what unregenerated means as we shall discuss in a moment.
Regeneration Couldn’t Occur Until Jesus Actually Died
One final argument is that prior to Jesus’ death on the cross there was nothing to take away the sins of people (Heb 10:1-4). This suggests, Steve argues, that OT believers were not regenerated, and presumably were still dead in their trespasses and sins.
In Romans, Paul tells us that God “passed over the sins previously committed” (Rom 3:25). That means that God applied the death of Christ to people before Jesus even died! While it is true that it was at Calvary that Jesus took away the sins of the world (John 1:29), it is incorrect to say that OT people were unable to be born again because the death was yet future. God could and did apply the blood of Christ to people long before He actually died.
There are many compelling proofs that OT believers were regenerated. In addition to the points I make above, let me supply a few more.
David was a man after God’s own heart and Abraham was a friend of God. No one can please God without being regenerated (Rom 8:8-11).
How could an unregenerate person be an author of Scripture? Surely if Moses and David and the prophets were unregenerated, then there would not have been any Scripture prior to the cross. Nor would there have been any men giving true prophecies. All revelation from God would have come from angels or directly from God—not through men.
Anna and Simeon clearly represent OT saints when they rejoiced to see the baby Jesus in the temple. There can be no doubt that they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God. Yet according to John 6:47; 11:25-27; and 20:31, all who believe that have eternal life. Anna and Simeon and all OT believers believed in the coming Messiah for eternal life and hence they were born again.
Finally, the biggest problem with this view is that it makes OT believers unbelievers. Oh, they believed something. But they are not seen as believing in the Messiah for everlasting life. They are not seen as being sure that they are eternally secure by faith in the coming Messiah. As a result, two or more saving messages occur. If prior to Jesus’ baptism people were born again by believing something less than the truth that the Messiah guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him, what is it they believed? And why, then, would Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 use Abraham as an example of one who believed the same saving proposition we believe? If Abraham was born again simply because he believed God exists, then how could he be a model for how people are born-again today?
Old Testament believers were not spiritually dead. They were spiritually alive. True, they were not part of the church. True, only some were indwelt by the Holy Spirit and that indwelling was not permanent. But all OT believers were regenerated and all were sealed. To believe otherwise is to reduce OT believers to people who were not children of God, were not spiritually alive, had no ability to please God, and who had no current relationship with God.
The reason I address this issue is because it is now a fairly common view in theological education today. It is, in my opinion, a dangerous trend. For if this is so, then it disturbs our understanding of eternal rewards, the unchanging nature of the good news, the fate of those who’ve never heard of Jesus, and ultimately of the value of the OT.
Today, RIBS. Prior to Pentecost, RS. After the Rapture, RIS. But one thing has been true and will be true in every dispensation: all who believe that the Messiah guarantees everlasting life to all who simply believe in Him are regenerate people. Regeneration bridges every dispensation.
1 The precise word regeneration occurs only twice in the New Testament, and the other reference is in Matt 19:28. There regeneration is used as a synonym for resurrection: “In the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory…”