From Boston with Love: 70 Truths about the Doctrine of Regeneration

jon-tyson-OX67A7bfMzE-unsplashBlessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, . . . 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.
— 1 Peter 1:3, 23 —

In his book Human Nature In Its Fourfold State, Thomas Boston (1676–1732) spends 50 pages on the biblical doctrine of regeneration. And across these Scripture-saturated reflections, he makes over seventy propositions about the new birth. In what follows, I have taken the lead sentence from each proposition and listed them. The enumerated points, except where bracketed, are his words. I have organized his sections under six headings, and I have kept Boston’s multi-layered organization of his argument, adding some commentary for clarification and citing a few specific quotations.

In general, if you are looking for a fulsome outline of the doctrine of regeneration, you will find it in the following propositions. Even more, you will be well repaid if you read Boston’s entire chapter (or book). He spares no expense in declaring what Scripture says about the glorious biblical doctrine which teaches us that God in his grace raises the dead to life. At the end, I’ve included Boston’s final pastoral plea. Instead of leaving the doctrine of regeneration in the hands of professors, he calls those outside of Christ to come hear God’s Word and find life in it. Indeed, while eternal is not something man can take from God; it is something sinners can seek by means of God’s Word. As 1 Peter 1:3, 23 teaches us, the new life found that God grants freely, is found in the Word of God.

So, seek God and his Word. And may what follows be a guide along the path to life.

What Regeneration Is Not

There are many ways regeneration is misunderstood. So Boston begins by clearing the deck and showing what regeneration is not.

  1. Many call the church their mother, whom God will not own to be His children. (204)
  2. Good education is not regeneration. (205)
  3. A turning from open profanity, to civility and sobriety, falls short of this saving change. (205)
  4. One may engage in all the outward duties of religion, and yet not be born again. (205)
  5. Men may advance to a great deal of strictness in their own way of religion, and yet be strangers to the new birth. (205)
  6. A person may have sharp soul-exercises and pangs, and yet die in the birth. (206)

What Regeneration Is

With his hand on the text of Scripture, Boston defines what regeneration is, showing that it is the total change of a human nature from dead in flesh to alive in Christ.

  1. A change of qualities or dispositions: it is not a change of the substance, but of the qualities of the soul. (207)
  2. It is a supernatural change; he that is born again, is born of the Spirit (John 3:5). (208)
  3. It is a change into the likeness of God (2 Cor. 3:18). (208)
  4. It is a universal change; ‘all things become new’ (2 Cor. 5:17). (208)
  5. Yet it is an imperfect change. (209)
  6. Nevertheless, it is a lasting change, which never goes off. The seed is corruptible says the text [1 Peter 1:23; 1 John 3:9]; and so is the creature that is formed of it. (209)

How Regeneration Impacts the Person 

Boston lists seven ways that the regeneration changes a person. In his comprehensive survey, he shows that no part of the person is left untouched by God’s enlivening grace.

  1. The mind is savingly enlightened. (209)
    1. In the knowledge of God. (210)
    2. In the knowledge of sin. (210)
    3. In the knowledge of himself. (210)
    4. In the knowledge of Jesus Christ. (211)
    5. In the knowledge of the vanity of the world. (212)
    6. In the knowledge of spiritual things. (213)
  2. The will is renewed. (213)
    1. The will is cured of its utter inability to will what is good. (214)
    2. The will [receives] a fixed aversion to evil. (214)
    3. The will is endowed with an inclination, bent, and propensity to good. (215)
      1. The soul is reconciled to the covenant of peace. (216)
      2. The will is disposed to receive Christ Jesus the Lord. (216)
  3. The affections are both rectified and regulated. (217)
    1. [Regeneration] rectifies the affections, placing them on suitable objects. (217)
    2. [Regeneration] regulates the affections placed on suitable objects. (218)[1]
    3. Regenerating grace sets the affections so firmly on God, that the man is disposed, at God’s command, to quite his hold of every thing else, in order to keep his hold of Christ; to hate father and mother, in comparison with Christ (Luke 14:26). (219)
  4. The conscience is renewed. (220)[2]
  5. The memory is also betted by regenerating grace. (221)[3]
  6. There is change made on the body, and the members thereof [e.g., eyes, ears, tongues, etc.], in respect to their use; they are consecrated to the Lord.
  7. This gracious change shines forth in the conversation. (222)
      1. In the change of his company. (223)
      2. In his relative capacity, he will be a new man. (223)[4]
      3. In the way of his following his worldly business there is a great change. (223)
      4. Such have a special concern for the advancement of the kingdom of Christ in the world. (224)[5]
      5. In their use of lawful comforts there is a great change. (224)
      6. This change shines forth in man’s performance of religious duties. (225)

How (Spiritual) Regeneration is Like Physical Generation

Boston compares regeneration to the generation of life that comes when a child is conceived, born, and grows. In this comparison, he helps us understand the nature, growth, and process of the new birth.

  1. Natural generation is a mysterious thing: and so is spiritual generation (John 3:8). (225)
  2. In both, the creature comes to a being it had not before. (226)
  3. As the child is passive in generation, so is the child of God in regeneration. (226)
  4. There is a wonderful contexture of parts in both births. (227) – All that is needed for life and growth is given to the baby and the babe in Christ (cf. Ps. 139:14)
  5. All this, in both cases, has its rise from that which is in itself very small and inconsiderable [a seed, sperma]. (227)
  6. Natural generation is carried on by degrees [i.e., growth in stages]. (228)
  7. In both there are new relations [i.e., a new family]. (228)
  8. There is a likeness between the parent and the child. (228)
  9. As there is no birth without pain, both to the mother and to the child, so there is great pain in bringing forth the new creature. (229)[6]

Why the New Birth is Necessary

Boston outlines eight cases where the doctrine of the new birth is applied and explained to various individuals and concerns (229–43). Then, he explains why the new birth is necessary.

  1. Regeneration is absolutely necessary to qualify you to do any thing realy good and acceptable to God. (243)
    1. That without regeneration there is no faith, and ‘without faith it is impossible to please God’ (Heb. 11:6). (243)
    2. Without regeneration a man’s works are dead works. (243)
      1. All your reformation is naught in the sight of God. (244)
      2. Your prayers are an ‘abomination to the Lord’ (Prov. 15:8). (244)
      3. All you have done for God, and His cause in the world, though it may be followed with temporal rewards, yet it is lost as to divine acceptance. (244)
      4. All your struggles against sin in your own heart and life, are naught. (245)
  2. Without regeneration there is no communion with God. (246)
  3. Regeneration is absolutely necessary to qualify you for heaven. (246)
    1. Heaven is the renewed man’s native country: his Father is in heaven; his mother is Jerusalem, which is above (Gal. 4:26). (247)
    2. [Therefore] There is nothing in heaven that [the unregenerate] delight in, [nothing is] agreeable to their [dead] heart. (247)
    3. Every corner there is filled with that which of all things they have the least liking for; and that is holiness, true holiness, perfect holiness. (247)
    4. Were they carried [to heaven], they would not only change their place, which would be a great heart-break, but they would change their company too. (247)
    5. They would never like the employment of heaven, they care so little for it now. (248)
    6. They would find this fault with it, that the whole is of everlasting continuance. (248)
  4. [He repeats the same phrase again]: Regeneration is absolutely necessary to your being admitted into heaven. (248)
    1. There is a bill of exclusion against you in the court of heaven, and against all of your sort. (248)
    2. There is no holiness without regeneration, [and without holiness no one will see the Lord]. (248)
    3. All the unregenerate are without Christ, and therefore have no hope while in that case. (249)
    4. There is an infallible connexion between a finally unregenerate state and damnation, arising from the nature of things themselves, and from the decree of heaven which is fixed and immovable as mountains of brass. (249)
      1. The heart of stone within you is a sinking weight, [and will drag the sinner to hell]. (249)
      2. Your unfruitfulness under the means of grace, fits you for the axe of God’s judgment. (249)
      3. The hellish dispositions of mind, which discover themselves in profanity of life, fit the guilty for the regions of horror. (249–50)
      4. Your being dead in sin makes you meet [i.e., qualifies you] to be wrapped in flames of brimstone as a winding-sheet; and to be buried in the bottomless pit, as in a grave. (250)
      5. The darkness of you minds presages eternal darkness. (250)

What Do We Do With This Truth?

After ingesting the fulness of this doctrine, one may ask, indeed one should ask: How can I be born again?

The answer is found above. But that answer, which depends wholly on the sovereign mercies of God, does not satisfy the existential crisis that this truth creates. Often that existential crisis, when uncoupled from the biblical data presented by Boston throughout his chapter, leads people to downplay the doctrine of God’s sovereign election and monergistic regeneration. Yes, God is sovereign, but surely man must play some role in salvation. How else can man be saved?

Indeed, the disciples asked this question in a related form. After watching Jesus dismiss the rich, young ruler. They ask despairingly, “Who then can be saved?” If this rule-keeping and blessed son of Israel cannot be saved, who can? (Mark 10:26). The answer Jesus gives is simple: No one can be saved in themselves. As Jesus puts it, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (v. 27). Indeed, the possibility of salvation comes from the fact that God delights to bestow his mercies on undeserving sinners. And when he does, the chain reaction of blessing described above begins.

Yet, God’s direct saving action is not all that Scripture says about his mercy in salvation or the way that regeneration occurs. In 1 Peter 1:3, regeneration is assigned to the sovereign power of God in Christ’s resurrection. Yet, in 1 Peter 1:23, God’s Word also says that regeneration comes by means of God’s Word. The Word is the seed by which God generates and grows his children. And considering this truth, Boston wisely concludes with this pastoral admonition to seek the Word of God.

For just because man cannot in his lifeless state regenerate himself, he can give himself to the means by which God has ordained life to come. By giving himself to the Word, he puts his cup up the fountain of life. And as Boston notes, God loves to honor his Word. And in his Word God has promised life to those who look to him in his Word. Therefore, instead of leaving his readers to a place of despair Boston, with the highest vision of God’s sovereignty in salvation, leads us to action—to seek God in his Word. And thus, I conclude this post with Boston’s practical admonitions (in bold) to those who desire the new birth.

The text tells you, that the Word is the seed, whereof the new creature is formed: therefore take heed to it, and entertain it, as it is your life. Apply yourself to the reading of the Scripture. You that cannot read, get others to read it to you. Wait diligently on the preaching of the Word, as by divine appointment the special means of conversion; for — it pleased God, by the foolishness of preaching, to save them that believe’ (1 Cor 1.21). Wherefore cast not yourselves out of Christ’s way; reject not the means of grace, lest you be found to judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life. Attend carefully to the Word preached. Hear every sermon, as if you were hearing for eternity; take heed that the fowls of the air pick not up this seed from you, as it is sown. ‘Give thyself wholly to it’ (1 Tim 4.15). ‘Receive it not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God’ (1 Thess 2.13). Hear it with application, looking on it as a message sent from heaven to you in particular; though not to you only (Rev 3.22). ‘He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.’ Lay it up in your hearts; meditate upon it; and be not as the unclean beasts, that chew not the cud. But by earnest prayer, beg that the dew of Heaven may fall on your heart, that the seed may spring up there. More particularly,

  1. Receive the testimony of the Word of God concerning the misery of an unregenerate state, the sinfulness thereof, and the absolute necessity of regeneration.
  2. Receive its testimony concerning God, what a holy and just One He is.
  3. Examine your ways by it; namely, the thoughts of your heart, the expressions of your lips, and the tenor of your life. Look back through the several periods of your life; see your sins from the precepts of the Word, and learn, from its threatening, why you are liable to on account of these sins.
  4. By the help of the same Word of God, view the corruption of your nature, as in a glass which manifests our ugly face in a clear manner. Were these things deeply rooted in the heart, they might be the seed of that fear and sorrow, on account of your soul’s state, which are necessary to prepare and stir you up to look after a Saviour.
  5. Fix your thoughts upon Him offered to you in the Gospel, as fully suited to your case; having, by His obedience unto death, perfectly satisfied the justice of God, and brought in everlasting righteousness. This may prove the seed of humiliation, desire, hope and faith; and move you to stretch out the withered hand unto Him, at His own command.

Let these things sink deeply into your hearts, and improve them diligently. Remember, whatever you are, you must be born again; else it had been better for you that you had never been born. Wherefore, if any of you shall live and die in an unregenerate state, you will be inexcusable, having been fairly warned of your danger. (251–52)

May we take heed to these words. And may God grant us grace to be born again or to continue in the life he has given us through Christ’s resurrection.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

_____________________

[1] More fully, Boston writes, “Our affections, when placed on the creature , are naturally exorbitant; when we joy in it, we are apt to overjoy, and when we sorrow, we are ready to sorrow overmuch: but grace bridles these affections, clips their wings, and keeps them within bounds, that they overflow not all their banks.” (218)

[2] “As a new light is set up in the soul in regeneration, conscience is enlightened, instructed and informed.” (220)

[3] “Grace sanctifies the memory. . . . It is a sacred storehouse, from whence a Christian is furnished in his way to Zion, for faith and hope are often supplied out of it, in a dark hour. . . . The Word of God laid up in a sanctified memory, serves a man to resist temptations, puts the sword in his hand against his spiritual enemies, and is a light to direct his steps in the way of religion and righteousness.” (221)

[4] “Grace makes men gracious in their several relations, . . . It does not only make good men and good women, but makes good subjects, good husbands, good wives, children, servants, and, in a word, good relatives in the church, commonwealth, and family. (223)

[5] “However privately they live [think: introverts], grace gives them a public spirit, which will concern itself in the ark and work of God, in the Gospel of God, and in the people of God, even in those of them whom they never saw.” (224)

[6] This is an important observation for pastoral “labors” and church ministry. The cause of life is God the Father, but the church, as the bride of Christ, who is the spiritual mother. She will suffer the pains of seeing his groom’s children born. As Boston writes about Mother Zion, “The mother is pained; ‘Zion travails’ (Isa. 66:8). She sighs, groans, cries, and has hard labor, in her ministers, and members to bring forth children to he Lord.” (229)

5 thoughts on “From Boston with Love: 70 Truths about the Doctrine of Regeneration

  1. Okay – confession.

    I read your title and I immediately asked myself “What Boston song works with regeneration???”

    Yep, Im a 70s kid.

  2. Pingback: The New Birth: The Source of Our Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3–5) | Via Emmaus

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