Do you remember the words of Nicodemus? “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” [John 3:4]. This was his response to what Jesus had just declared to him regarding who it is that can see the Kingdom of God. In John 3, Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter. This conversation recorded for us in John 3 is the central issue in the life of each and every one of us. If you are to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born again. In the words of the Lord Jesus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God” [John 3:3]. The word we use to describe this event of being born again is regeneration. Sadly, we don’t hear much today about this biblical concept of regeneration. Generally speaking, we have replaced this concept with encouragements to make a decision to follow Jesus or asking Jesus into your heart. However, the biblical way for us to think about and to discuss the salvation of mankind is in terms of regeneration.
The word used in Scripture to speak to the heart is the Greek word καρδία (kar-dee’-ah). According to an online Bible study resource, Helps Words-Studies, “καρδία is mentioned over 800 times in Scripture, but never referring to the literal physical pump that drives the blood. That is, “heart” is only used figuratively (both in the Old Testament and the New Testament).” A key point that we need to understand is that the heart of man is definitional in terms of his identity and is responsible for churning out desires that then move us to make certain decisions as we pursue those desires. When you ask yourself the question, “What do I truly desire?“, it is the heart that supplies the answer.
To consider the identity of your own heart, there are only two options to consider. You either have a heart of stone or a heart of flesh. All of humanity can be broken down into these two groups. These two hearts are mutually exclusive. This is the way the prophet Ezekiel speaks to this as he is prophesying the Word of God regarding the New Covenant to the house of Israel: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” [Ezekiel 36:25-26]. There is a change in identity that takes place, here. The old stone heart is removed and the new heart is put within.
The Heart of Stone
The difference between these two hearts is in regard to desiring the things that belong to the light or desiring that which belongs to the darkness. Due to the sin of our father, Adam, all human beings are born into this world with the stone heart. This is the fallen nature of man that all human beings have in common. Paul describes the fallen nature of man in this way, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” [Ephesians 2:1-2]. We could also read Romans 3:9-20 to further do away with any notion that the stone heart desires to do good. This stone heart is dead to the things of Light. It does not [indeed, it cannot] desire Light, but rather desires the darkness. The Bible does not speak in a confusing way regarding the stone heart and the desires produced from it. It is the confusion of man that has attempted to present these things in a confusing way. Simply put, the stone heart has no regard for the God of truth. The stone heart defines our identity of being rebels against God and all that He has called holy. The stone heart regards the holiness of God as an insignificant thing as if we can make equally good choices pursuing the desires of this cold, dead heart.
For the sake of clarity, the stone heart doesn’t necessarily loathe or have an overt disdain for deity. To have a stone heart doesn’t mean that the person is an ardent atheist who grinds their teeth at the mention of God. What we see in the world around us is that a great many people will say they love “God” and they are convinced that they are loved by Him on the basis of some standard they’ve determined. Yet, they live their lives without regard for the truth of the Word of God or desiring to walk in the Light of what He has called good. In their minds, they have divorced the holiness of God from His nature. These folks are likely to be in attendance at church on Sunday mornings. However, it is similar to what we see in Matthew 15:8-9, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men“.
People have been doing this all throughout time. Why? It’s just what the stone heart does. In the absence of Life (regeneration), the stone heart will attempt to soothe the self however it can that all is well and that they are, indeed, prepared to step out into eternity on the basis of their self-righteous deeds. The desires of the stone heart are centered exclusively on self. The manifestation of this can vary a good bit, but the category is the same: selfish pride. This is the fuel of the stone heart that is dead to God. Pridefulness. Whether I am devoted to money, pleasure, power, influence, my platform, my material possessions, my family, or my anything else, the end result is to build my own kingdom during my time on the earth so that people (both present and future) will think more of me. The stone heart is self-exalting and can do nothing else.
This is why Jesus answered Nicodemus in the way He did. We must be born again-literally, born from above. The self-exaltation of the stone heart cannot save anyone and offers no help at all. No one will see the Kingdom of God if all they have to point to is the kingdom they’ve built with bricks of selfish pride. The stone heart will never lead one to desire the holy things of God-His truth, His holiness, righteousness, His wisdom, etc. We must be born again. Without regeneration, the best the stone heart can do in regard to righteousness before God is self-righteousness. The prophet Isaiah writes about this in Isaiah 64:6, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted (utterly defiled) garment.” No one will be able to go to God and offer to Him defiled rags for a resume, but this is the plan of the overwhelming majority of humanity. Matthew 7:21-23 speaks to this. There will be those who will say to Him on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” In other words, look at everything I have done and accept me on the basis of my self-exalting works. The answer to them will be, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Where Scripture is abundantly clear, man has muddied the issue by trying to create alternate routes to God which all lead straight to hell. There is, of course, only one way to God and that is through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.
The Heart of Flesh
The stone heart knows only the prideful exaltation of self. Self above others. Self above God. This is what it is to be fallen in Adam. Humility of heart is required, yet the stone heart is utterly devoid of humility. What is the only answer? You must be born again. You must have your fallen and useless heart of stone taken away and replaced by the heart of flesh that God gives. This new heart of the new creation in Christ is altogether different. This new heart yields a new creation with a new identity. Rather than being in Adam (fallen in sin), the new creation is now in Christ (justified and counted as righteous in the Son). This new heart, given by God, is alive to the things of God where the stone heart was dead. True humility defines this new heart which leads us into sanctification by which we learn how we are to love God and one another. The new heart is settled on the fact that God is the only authority and standard of truth. We don’t immediately know what the whole truth of God is, but we know that He is the source and the embodiment of it. If we are to pursue the Light and the Life that we now desire, we will find it in the truth of God alone.
In the same way that a newborn baby instinctively knows to desire the milk of his mother, the born again Christian knows to crave the spiritual sustenance of the Word of God. Rather than craving the lies of the world, the new creation in Christ longs for the truth of Jesus Christ. You wouldn’t know this, however, by looking at the vast majority of what calls itself Christianity, today. It is commonly accepted wisdom in the world that the Christian is a Christian by profession alone. If you say you are, then you are. If you say you asked Jesus into your heart or that you have decided to follow Jesus, then you’re a Christian. However, this isn’t what the Bible says. The clearly taught truth of the Word of God says that the one who is truly born again is the one bearing the fruit of Life in Christ. They are the ones who are pursuing Christ. They are the ones who love the truth. They are the ones who are being sanctified to put sin to death and to walk in the light as He is in the light. The new creation is the one who is on a new mission be conformed to the Life of Christ and to be making disciples.
I know that, in their pride, many will want to take issue here, but what I’m telling you is what the Bible says. The new heart that we receive at regeneration turns the light on in you where there was only blackness before. Now there is light. It may be a somewhat dim light as it is shielded by the unredeemed and defiled flesh, but it is light all the same. It is the nature of the new heart to crave the light of truth, to be conformed to the image of the Son and to labor in the mission in fellowship with God and the saints. It isn’t as though some Christians do this and some don’t. According to the inspired truth, those who show no fruit of this manifested in their lives are deceived if they think they are born again. The book of 1 John speaks directly to these qualities of Life in Christ that all born again Christians ought to recognize in themselves. The new creation with the new, living, heart loves righteousness and hates sin (as defined by the truth of the Word of God), they have an affection and devotion for the Light of God rather than the things of the world and they are drawn to and value the truth of the word of God and hold to it as the standard of what is true. If one is not settled on these things and doesn’t see the fruit of these things in their life, they shouldn’t conclude that they are the type of born again believer who doesn’t demonstrate these things. They should instead conclude that they are deceived and they must repent and believe the truth by faith if they are to see the Kingdom of God. They are still dead in trespasses and sin and they must be born again. They must cry out to God for His mercy and grace.
This post has dealt primarily with the subject of regeneration, as the one-time event spoken of by Jesus in John 3. You must be born again. Of course, this one-time event has ongoing positive results, but those are subjects of future consideration. For this post we have considered the new birth of those born again into Christ and how this new birth redefines the believer in terms of identity and the pursuit of one’s life. At the heart of regeneration is the new heart of flesh. This sanctified heart of flesh is alive to God and desirous of the light, truth, obedience, service, etc. that is found in the Word of God. This new heart of the new creation in Christ is the same for all believers, which is why biblical writers can speak to the defining qualities of this new identity in Christ that are present and growing in prominence in the lives of those who are children of God in Christ.
Life begets life. Life pursues life. This is what we must understand about the regeneration of man. It is an altogether new existence (a new identity) which pursues the Light of God. This new identity defines our being and moves us according to our new holy desires to be like Christ and to fellowship with Him in the work of glorifying God. Regeneration is that moment when the stone heart is removed and is completely replaced with the heart of flesh. Let there be light. This is a matter of identity. No longer a child of the darkness, the born again believer is now a child of light. This new heart craves the truth of God where the old heart loved falsehood. When the light of the new heart is put in you, this sets you on the path of sanctification where these holy attributes of Christ that you crave begin to be manifested as a great light in the world which glorifies the Father. The new heart desires holiness and, in conjunction with the Holy Spirit, moves you from within to pursue it where it can be found. It can do nothing else.