First Mennonite Church
November 9, 2014
God’s Power of Regeneration
Text: Titus 3: 3-8
3 For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. 4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.
Let me begin by saying that there are many people who do good things in the world. There are many who make sacrifices to serve the needy around them or those in faraway places. There are many who are passionate about caring for the creation, or for abused animals, or about finding cure for diseases. Beside these good people there is an even greater number of people who worship God, who love to have fellowship with others, give to the church and do many other pious deeds.
In the Bible we find similar cases of people like the latter. You remember Lydia in Acts 16, verse 14. She was a Gentile who worshipped God but did not know Jesus. It is implied, however, by the biblical text, that her life was turned around and her relationship with God came to fullness when the Lord “opened her heart,” to the message of the gospel. There was also the Roman centurion Cornelius, a well-respected man, a God-fearer, generous giver of alms, and who prayed to God daily (Acts 10:1, 22). But again, it was until the light of God transformed his heart through the message of Peter that Cornelius came into a personal relation with God through Christ. There was also Paul. He was a model observer of the Law, righteous, blameless according to his Jewish religion, yet, he admitted that the turning point in his spiritual life came only after “a light from heaven flashed around him; he fell to the ground” and a voice called him by name “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” (Acts 9:3, 4). And Paul surrendered to Jesus Christ, as his Lord and Savior.
My dear brothers and sisters, although it is clear that each of these persons lived pretty good moral and religious lives, there was something each of them still needed to be right with God. God “opened the heart” of Lydia and she received the word Paul was preaching. Cornelius heard the gospel from Peter’s mouth and he and his household were filled with the Holy Spirit. They spoke in tongues worshipping God and were baptized. In the case of Paul, the zealous observer of the Law and ferocious persecutor of the church was transformed into a passionate minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So what do these examples tell to us about religious practices, upright moral life, and charitable works? They tell us that in God’s new economy in Jesus, in God’s new salvific plan, strict religious observation—of whatever kind—is not sufficient before God. They tell us that morality and uprightness is not a guarantee of God’s transforming power in the person. They tell us that the life of faith has to come from God by working in the heart of the person. Each of these cases reveal that good deeds, regardless of how generous and sacrificial they could be, cannot buy the grace of God’s salvation. Salvation begins and salvation ends with the work of God in the person. The words of the prophet Isaiah expresses this truth so clearly when he wrote:
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
Last Sunday I said that sin is not just the disobedient acts we do against God; sin is also the unredeemed and inherent rebellious nature against God that everyone without Christ has. In the New Testament this sin nature is called the “flesh” or the “old self” (Romans 6, 7; Galatians 5:19). Jesus simply calls it the “heart”: For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander (Matthew 15:19). The prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Paul says, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature—my flesh” (Romans 7:18). And again he says, “Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8).
The point here is, we cannot please God if God has not given us the gift of faith. We cannot change our state of rebelliousness against God, if God has not “opened our heart,” or transformed our heart through the washing by the regeneration and renewing of our being by the power of the Holy Spirit. To put it in the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).
My dear and beloved friends, please take no offense that after preaching to you the gospel for nine years I come to ask you these questions, which is one and the same: Has God opened your heart? Have you been born again? Have you been regenerated in your spirit by the power of God? And have you given full control of your life to Jesus? I know these questions can be offensive to many. What you mean, you might ask. Why you think I am here, you might inquire. For me, this is a question I have to respond as well. Our salvation rests on the answer we give to this question. Can we tell someone about the day God shone his light in our heart and how we surrendered to him? Can we, without a doubt say, Jesus came into my heart and took control over it? Do you remember when you pleaded with God to forgive you of your past sins and asked him to come into your heart? The former questions is not asking when you started coming to church, or when you were baptized. This question is not whether or not you followed the “four steps to salvation” that is so popular in child evangelism followed by repeating a prayer. The question we have before us today is whether or not God has made you anew in your spirit. (See my story below)
The passage for today cannot be clearer regarding this crucial spiritual matter. The Epistle to Titus was written by Paul. And even Paul admits to have been one of those foolish people: For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. Paul did not have problem to admit that he was a chief sinner. Paul did not deny his own enslavement by sin. Yet, at the same time he does not deny the fact that he also did many good things. He makes reference to the “deeds which we have done in righteousness.” But not even his deed of righteousness were enough to gain his salvation. Paul says that he was saved when “the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind was manifested and revealed.” Not by righteous works but by the mercy of God through the “washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” Paul was deeply aware that it is impossible to attain salvation by living a moral upright life or by doing good deeds. Paul was fully aware that human effort can earn God’s favor. Salvation is by God’s gracious mercy alone.
My dear friends, salvations is not based on deed done in righteousness. No matter how good and for how long deeds of righteousness can be done, they will never remove the sting of death embedded in us by sin. Salvation comes when God makes you and me anew. That is what regeneration means. Salvation comes when we are born again, as Jesus said. Salvation comes when we find ourselves in the righteousness of Christ and his work on the cross. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2Corinthians 5:17). To be born again or to be regenerated by God in our spirit is not that we have been improved inwardly. When God regenerates us, He not only fixes us in the inside; He makes us new! We are “born of the Spirit” (John 3:6, 8). We are “born of God” (John 3:13).
There is something more that Paul says here. He says that God saved us according to his mercy and the renewing by the Holy Spirit. If your answer is “yes” to being regenerated by God, continued renewal by the Spirit of God is what you and I have to pursue. We should bring to mind the words of Paul to the Romans in chapter twelve. Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to [keep] present[ing] your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).
Because God has made us new and we have been born of God, there should be in us a permanent desire to have fellowship with our Father God. Just like baby August depends on Catherine and Ahrean, his parents, we should also depend on God for our growth. Just like a baby who needs to grow among family to learn how to be family, we too should seek the fellowship at all times to learn how to be God’s family. Every parent know the challenges he or she has in raising a child. Imagine what would happen if a child if left to his or her own. He or she will grow up to be socially unfit. The natural selfish and immature tendencies in the child will flourish to the destruction of the child. That is the same way with our new life in Christ. Paul was so aware of this when he said: the flesh is hostile to God (Romans 8:7). The flesh cannot submit to God. Thus, it is important that we allow the Spirit of God to shape us and to guide us. If we pamper the flesh and give into its desires, we are merely feeding the old self, the flesh, the enemy of our soul and of God. The flesh is the enemy of our soul and wages war against it. The answer to the flesh, of course, is the power of the Spirit. But we will need to feed the new man, the regenerated self in us. We need to feed and nourish the new creation in us. And we do so by feeding on the living bread—the word of God. We nurture the regenerated self with spiritual food—spiritual songs, hymns, prayer, fellowship, meditation. Doing this will guarantee us growth in the spirit and knowledge of the will of God, and in the end, the promise of eternal life in Christ. Growing in the spirit will also be manifested in our daily lives. If you are not sure whether or not you are striving to grow in your spiritual life let me just ask you the following questions: What kind of music do you listen? What kind of books do you spend more of your reading time? Whose company do you seek the most? What part of your time do you dedicate to spend with God alone? And there is one more thing: good deeds. When was the last time you extended a helping hand to someone? The passage for today ends with this verse. Verse 8 says: This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.
May the Lord bless us with his word. May the Lord open our heart to his word. Allow God to make you anew by the working of his Spirit. Amen!
I remember the night God touched my heart. I was listening to an evangelist. God not only pointed to me my sin, but more importantly opened my heart to know how much He loved me. His love is what broke my heart. His death on the cross, his resurrection and promise to come again for me and everyone who believes in Him, witnessed to how much he loved me. I wept before God repenting of my sins but my grief was changed to an indescribable peace and joy. I knew Christ came to dwell in me. I sought to know more of God.
In the month of August of 2005, that was shortly before we came here to Paso Robles, I was invited to give a series of Bible teaching to the church leaders in Bible Chapel, a non-denominational congregation in Orange Walk, Belize (the town we lived in for some years). Teaching at this church completed the full circle in my learning-teaching journey with the Bible. That was because it was in this church I had my first Bible course beyond Sunday school. I was only 17 then. In the early evening, after a long day of working in the sugar cane field, a quick meal and shower, a group of about 8 church members of my home congregation drove for an hour or so to this church on 5 consecutive evenings. I was fascinated with the Bible. I wanted to know more, not only about the text, but of God. I desired to grow in my relationship with the God of the Bible. The teacher was an excellent artist. He illustrated his teachings with art painting he made while he was teaching. One night the teacher was speaking about the text in Romans 8, verse 28. After he had done a beautiful piece of art, he drew some four lines from top down with black chalk. The piece turned awful, but then he set the scene as looking at the beautiful landscape from behind huge tree trunks, which transformed his art into a masterpiece. It was so amazing and captivating the way he presented the truth of the Word of God.
At the end of each session, he gave out the beautiful canvas to someone randomly selected. I did not get any of his artwork, unfortunately! The point I want to make by making reference to this is that when God takes hold of your life, when you invite God to come into your heart, God changes your heart and in you grows a desire to pursue a deeper relationship with God. And you do it with joy and love.