Finally Alive by John Piper
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to
various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being
justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.
Notice the word regeneration in Titus 3:5: “He [that is, God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Regeneration is another way of speaking about the new birth or the second birth or being born again.
We have discussed what the new birth is (Chapters 1–2), and why it is necessary (Chapters 3–5). Then in the previous chapter, we began to address how it happens. In this chapter, we continue that question: How does God bring about the new birth? But first, there are some very important new signals here about what it is and why we need it. Consider one of each.
A New Signal about What New Birth Is
Consider an unusual signal about what the new birth is. The word for regeneration in verse 5 (“[God] saved us…by the washing of regeneration” [palingenesias]) is used only one other
place in the entire Bible, namely, Matthew 19:28. Jesus says to the twelve apostles, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world (a very loose translation of “in the regeneration” [en te palingenesia]), when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This is a reference to the rebirth of the creation. It’s like saying “…in the new heavens and the new earth” that Isaiah spoke about in Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22.
Jesus conceives of the new birth as something that will happen to all creation, not just human beings. Humans are not the only part of reality that is fallen and defi led and disordered. The whole creation is. Why is that? The answer is that when human beings sinned at the very beginning, God made all creation a visible display of the horrors of sin. Disease, degeneration, natural disasters—these are all part of the visual, audible, touchable images of the moral outrage that sin entered the world and pervades the world.
The Material Creation Born Again
The most important passage in the Bible about this is Romans 8:20–23. And it’s important for this chapter because it confirms and clarifies what Jesus said about the creation undergoing a “new birth”—the “regeneration.”
The creation [All of it! Not just the people] was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, [namely, God, since only God can subject the creation to futility in hope] in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. [There will be a great renewal someday and it will happen so that creation joins the children of God in their glorious renewal.] For we know that the whole creation has been groaning
together in the pains of childbirth until now. [There’s the imagery of new birth, just like Jesus said.] And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
So if we put it all together, the picture seems to be something like this: God’s purpose is that the entire creation be born again. That is, the whole universe will replace its futility and corruption and disease and degeneration and disasters with a whole new order—a new heaven and a new earth. This will be the great, universal regeneration; the great, universal new birth.
When Paul uses this word (regeneration, palingenesias) in Titus 3:5, he wants us to see that our new birth is a part of that. The newness we have by virtue of our regeneration now is the first fruits—the down payment and guarantee—of the greater newness we will have when our bodies are made new as a part of the universe being made new. Paul said in Romans 8:23, “We… who have the fi rstfruits of the Spirit [because we have been
born again by the Spirit] groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
So when you think of your new birth, think of it as the first installment of what is coming. Your body and the whole world will one day take part in this regeneration. God’s final purpose is not spiritually renewed souls inhabiting decrepit bodies in a disease- and disaster-ravaged world. His purpose is a renewed world with renewed bodies and renewed souls that take all our renewed senses and make them a means of enjoying and praising God.
When you hear the word regeneration in Titus 3:5, hear it that big. “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” When he says
in verse 7 that the aim of the new birth is “that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life,” he means heirs of everything included in that eternal life—new heavens, new earth, new body, new perfected relationships, new sinless sight of all that is good and glorious, and new capacities for a kind of pleasure in God that will exceed all our dreams.
That’s the new signal in Titus 3 of what the new birth is: It’s the first installment of the fi nal, universal regeneration of the universe.
A New Signal about Why We Need the New Birth
Then there is a clear signal why we need this regeneration. It’s found in Titus 3:3: “We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” That is not a description of the material creation. That’s a description of the human heart. Those are moral evils, not physical evils. Foolish. Disobedient. Led astray. Slaves to sinful pleasures. Malice. Envy. Hating. We are all in that list somewhere.
The reason we need regeneration is that God will not welcome such hearts into his new creation. As Jesus said, unless we are born again, we will not see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). This is why all of us must be born again. We must be changed.
The Meaning of Grace: But God…
Then comes one of the most precious phrases in the Bible (v. 4): “But…God.” We were foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to sinful pleasures, malicious, envious, hated and hating. But…God… “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God appeared, he [God!] saved us.”
This is the same amazing sequence that we saw in Ephesians 2:3–5: “[We were] carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” We were dead, but God made us alive. This is
the meaning of grace. The dead can do nothing to make themselves live. But God…
That’s what we have here in Titus 3:3–5. We were slaves to desires and pleasures that were so powerful we could not taste and see that the Lord was good. So far as our ability to know and trust and love God was concerned, we were dead. But… God. Verses 4–5: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
How? By Washing and Renewal
So we turn now to the third question: How does God do it? How does the new birth happen? Just as we saw in the words of Jesus in John 3, Paul describes regeneration as a cleansing and a renewing. At the end of Titus 3:5, Paul says that God saved us “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Regeneration is a kind of washing. And regeneration is a kind of renewal.
Recall that Jesus said in John 3:5, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Notice the parallel thought in Titus 3:5: You were saved by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.
My argument in Chapter 2 concerning John 3 was that this language of water and Spirit came from Ezekiel 36:25–27 where God promises his people,
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 put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes.
Jesus was saying something like this: “The time of the New Covenant promises has arrived. Ezekiel’s promise is coming to pass by the Spirit in connection with me. The Spirit gives life (John 6:63). And I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). And when the Spirit connects you to me by faith, you experience a new birth. And there are at least two ways to look at it: cleansing from all that is past and renewal for all that is future.”
So when Paul says here in Titus 3:5 that God “saved us…by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” he means roughly the same thing as Jesus did: The promises of the New Covenant have arrived. The beginning of the kingdom of God is here. The final universal “regeneration” has begun. And your new birth is a cleansing from all the sin that you have ever committed. It is also the creation of a new nature by the Holy Spirit. You are still you after the new birth. But there are two changes: You are clean, and you are new. That is what it means to be born again, regenerated.
How did God bring that about? What Paul wants to emphasize here is that it is owing to the way God is, not owing to what we have done—even done in righteousness. Verses 4–5 give three descriptions of the way God is and put this in contrast to anything we might try to do to be born again. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
Salvation is the big overarching idea in this text (“he saved us,” v. 5). But the specifi c way he does it is regeneration. And Paul traces both of them back to God’s “goodness,” his “loving kindness” (v. 4), and his “mercy” (v. 5). This is Paul’s ultimate answer to how God regenerates sinners. God is good. God is loving. God is merciful.
By the Kindness of God
If you are born again—if you were wakened from spiritual death, and given eyes to see, and ears to hear, and a spiritual sense to taste that Jesus is supremely satisfying, and a heart to trust him—it is owing to the kindness of God. The key first word in verse 4 (chrestotes) means kindness or goodness. Paul uses it in Ephesians 2:7: “[God made us alive] so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
God loves to lavish kindness on us. The bigger your conception of God, the more amazing this is. God is the creator of the universe. He holds the galaxies in being. He governs everything that happens in the world, down to the fall of a bird and the number of your hairs (Matt. 10:29–30). He is infinitely strong and wise and holy and just. And amazingly, he is kind. “When the kindness of God appeared…” (Titus 3:4). And because of this kindness, we were born again. Let your very existence as a Christian tell you every hour of every day: God is kind to you.
By the Philanthropy of God
The second way Paul describes God’s nature which gives rise to his regenerating us is translated in the ESV “loving kindness.” The Greek word is philanthropia, from which we get our word
philanthropy: love of humanity. This is not a common word in the Bible for God’s love. In fact, it occurs only here in the New Testament. Paul says that God’s heart inclines to do humanity good. He is in the highest sense a philanthropist. So Paul is saying, if you are born again, it happened because of God’s inclination to bless humanity.
Then he says something absolutely essential and Christ-exalting. He says in verse 4 that this kindness and this humanity-blessing inclination “appeared.” “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…through the washing of regeneration.” What does that mean? The kindness and love of God appeared. It means that if they simply stay there in the being of God and don’t come down and take human form among us, they would save nobody.
How did they appear? How did the kindness and love of God appear? The answer is found in noticing the fact that God is called “our Savior” in verse 4 (“the kindness of God our Savior appeared”). And Jesus is called “our Savior” in verse 6: “Whom [that is, the Spirit] he [God] poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” In other words, God “our Savior” appeared in the person of Christ “our Savior.” Jesus himself is the appearing of the goodness and love of God.
This means that our regeneration is owing to the historical work of Christ. We have seen this repeatedly in this book. New birth is not a vague spiritual change disconnected from history. It is an objective historical act of the Spirit of God connecting us by faith to the historical, incarnate—the appearing—Lord Jesus, so that the life he now has as the crucified and risen Savior has become our life because we are united to him. New birth happens because Jesus came into the world as the kindness and love of God and died for sins and rose again.
By the Mercy of God, Not Our Deeds
The third aspect of God’s nature that explains our new birth is his mercy. Paul mentions it in a way to make clear that we should contrast God’s mercy with our own deeds as the basis for how regeneration happens. Verse 5: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration.”
If you are born again, you owe it to the mercy of God. God is merciful. We didn’t deserve to be born again. We were hard and resistant and spiritually dead. God would have been righteous to pass us by. “But God, being rich in mercy…even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4–5). We owe our new life—our new birth—to mercy.
Not Our Best Works and Best Motives
God is kind. God is loving toward humanity. God is merciful. That is how we were born again. God did it. Paul could have left it like that. Only positive statements. But he didn’t. He was burdened to negate something. He said in verse 5, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness.” He knows our tendencies. We tend to think that if something good happens to us, it must be because we did something good. Paul knows this about us. And he warns us against it.
When it comes to salvation through the new birth, don’t think that way. Notice carefully, he does not say: This salvation was not owing to works done in legalism. He says: This salvation— this new birth—is not owing to works done in righteousness. Not only your worst works and worst motives, but even your best works and best motives are excluded. They didn’t make you regenerate; they don’t cause you to stay regenerate. It’s the other way around. Staying regenerate causes them.
This is one reason why I do not think the “washing of regeneration” in verse 5 refers to baptism. Whether circumcision in the Old Covenant or baptism in the New Covenant—it is not good things we do, not even sacraments, that cause us to be born again. The kindness of God. The love of God. The absolutely free mercy of God. These explain our new birth. Not circumcision. Not baptism. Not any works done by us in righteousness. New birth comes and brings righteous deeds with it—not the other way around.
May God give you eyes to see that nothing could make you humbler and nothing could make you happier than the truth that you have been born again, not because of anything you did, but because of the mercy of God. Submit to that, and be glad.