If you’ve ever played paintball, you’re probably familiar with the idea of regeneration.1 After a player has “died,” he must make his way to the “dead zone.” After a set time has passed, he is regenerated and may re-enter the field of play.

Spiritual zombies

In order to understand why regeneration is necessary, you have to understand that man is born dead. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said to Nicodemus “you must be born again.”2 Why the need to be born a second time? Because the first time, we were born physically alive, but spiritually dead. This spiritual death is imputed to us because of our sin in Adam. “Many died through one man’s trespass”3 because “in Adam all die.”4

This means that every person is born dead. We are dead men walking. Spiritually, we are zombies. There is a living body, but spiritually, there is nothing there. We do not seek for God.5 We do not love God.6 We do not want the truth.7 This is the pathetic state in which fallen man finds himself.

But God…

Man’s hopeless state is poignantly described in Ephesians 2.

1And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2in 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 3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Children of wrath… That’s a damning assessment. Think about that for a moment and then look at the very next words: But God… God… made us alive together with Christ! In Adam we are all dead. In Christ, God has made us alive! We are brought to life! Regenerated!

Why did God do this? Because he is rich in mercy. Because of the great love with which he loved us. Even when we were dead in our trespasses, he made us alive.

I once was blind

When I was spiritually dead, I could not see the spiritual realities of the gospel. I was blind. But now I can see!8 When I was spiritually dead, I was condemned to a life of self-righteous effort and defeat. Now, I have the life of Christ empowering me to obey! When I was spiritually dead, I had no hope and wanted no rescuer. Now, my eyes have been opened to see my desperate need of a rescuer, and I have found one!

No work of mine

Note that this was not my work. I was dead. I was blind to the truth. “But God…” It was not something I did that intervened to regenerate me. There was nothing I could do. This is how it is with dead men. “But God…” When hope was gone, God stepped in. He brought me to life. And that changed everything.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening9 ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee!10

Grace to you.

1 This is sometimes called “reincarnation” instead (a term that has no theological parallels to regeneration).
2 John 3:7.
3 Romans 5:15.
4 1 Corinthians 15:22.
5 Romans 3:11.
6 John 3:19.
7 John 3:20.
8 See 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 for a reference to the blindness of the unregenerate mind.
9 “Quicken” is an Early Modern English term for “bring to life.” When the King James Version uses the word “quicken,” it is generally referring to regeneration.
10 Taken from the text “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” by Charles Wesley, 1738.

this is part 6 of 6 in the series
Great theological themes of the Gospel

share this article

About Jason Harris

Dr Jason Harris is a writer, pastor, and academic. He has authored multiple books, articles, and papers including his book Theological Meditations on the Gospel. Jason has a PhD from James Cook University as well as degrees in theology, music, accounting, and research. Jason has lived in Cairns, Australia since 2007 and serves as pastor at CrossPoint Church. You can contact Jason at jason@jasonharris.com.au.


  1. PJ 6 December, 2011 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    Thanks Jason another great post in this series.

    I’ve had lots of discussions with people about regeneration over the years. I think an unsaved person’s spirit isn’t dead in the sense that it’s “inactive” like a dead body, because it seems to me that an unsaved person can have a very active spiritual life with evil spirits! An unbeliever’s spirit is ‘dead to God’ but not dead of itself. What do you think?

    I’ve also heard it said that we get a ‘new’ spirit at regeneration. I don’t believe this, but what do you think?

  2. Jason Harris 6 December, 2011 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the comment PJ. It’s an interesting question and helpful to clarify exactly what regeneration is.

    The picture of birth in John 3 implies that the spiritual life has not yet begun for the unregenerate person…

    Paul’s handling in 1 Corinthians and Romans addresses imputation of Adam’s “death” to us, so in whatever sense Adam “surely died” at the fall, I would think that is the sense in which we are dead.

    Ephesians 2 just sort of sums this up as “dead in sin.”

    So I guess my understanding at this time would be that this deadness is not something inherent in the human body/soul/[spirit] (this raises questions about the dichotomous vs. trichotomous being of man…), but is rather about one’s spiritual life in relation to God.

    In other words, all people are in the image of God, and therefore, all people have an immaterial part (i.e. soul, spirit, etc.) which is sensitive to the spiritual realm. But all people are also under the curse and are therefore insensitive to the Spirit of God and his word and his truth. Adam’s sin resulted in a tainting of our mind, heart, will, etc. so that we do not see, value, love, or know God. This is what I think Scripture means when it says we are “dead in sin.” In that sense, I suppose this deadness is a metaphor for human depravity at its root.

    As you’ll understand from the length and inclarity of this comment, you’ve pushed me to think more deeply about this than I have before. Thanks.

  3. Steve 6 December, 2011 at 3:30 pm - Reply

    A tripartite view of man necessitates that he is born with a spiritually dead spirit, not with the absence of spirit.

    Yet, I think using evil spirit’s interaction with the unsaved to prove that is not a strong argument, since Satan can only make a twisted copy of the spiritual connection that God and man were meant to have, and so the two kinds of spiritual interactions are totally different. For example demon possesion is a mockery of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

    So, whether regeneration means the replacing of the dead spirit with a living spirit in man, or a quickening of the dead spirit is debateable.

  4. Jason Harris 6 December, 2011 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    I think there is weakness in assuming that spiritual deadness is necessarily parallel to a particular part of man’s being (i.e. his spirit). I think this holds even if one holds to a tripartite view of man.

    Spiritual deadness refers, I think, rather to the whole person’s deadness to that which is of God’s Spirit. The text does not say “your spirit was dead” but “you were dead.” Not “your spirit must be born again” but “you must be born again.”

  5. Steve 6 December, 2011 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    I was unclear Jason, I was referring to what you wrote in the 3rd paragraph, “There is a living body, but spiritually, there is nothing there.” I (mis?)understood you to mean that spiritual death is the absence of spirit in man in the unregenerate state.
    The tripartite view of man seems more biblical to me, especially as it is explicitly stated in 1 Thess 5:23. Therefore man must have some kind of spirit at birth. 1 Cor 2:11 mentions this spirit, “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.”

    So regeneration must be the quickening or replacement of the dead spirit that we are born with. While the spirit is not mentioned in the verses you quoted, it is understood that born again does not refer to the body of man, or the soul of man, but the spirit of man, as separate from the other parts, which are perfectly alive in the unregenerate.

    Good discussion, it is helping me think about these things more clearly.

  6. Jason Harris 6 December, 2011 at 10:28 pm - Reply

    Ah, thanks for clarifying Steve.

    I see how my comment “nothing there” is vague. To clarify, I did not intend to convey that there was no spirit there, but rather that there was no spiritual life there.

    By “no spiritual life,” I do not suggest that man is insensible to spiritual things altogether, but rather that he is unable to see spiritual things rightly. I believe most religious people are unregenerate, and thus while very aware of spiritual things, they cannot see the simple truth amongst it all. “Seeing, they do not see and hearing, they do not hear.”

    My understanding of man is that he has two parts, the material and the immaterial (including mind, soul, spirit, will, heart, etc.). This is another discussion for another time I suppose. But I would agree that it is the immaterial part of man which is deadened to the truth.

    So to sum up my understanding at this stage, there are three states…
    1) Man is born spiritually dead.
    2) At regeneration, he becomes alive to spiritual truth and begins the process of learning it and obeying it.
    3) At glorification, that work is complete and the life that began at regeneration is complete (including the redemption of his body). The curse is reversed.

    There’s clearly much to be thought through here. Thanks for challenging my thinking.

Leave A Comment