January 21, 2020


Barry Cooper

Defibrillators are not self-operated. Neither can the spiritually dead make themselves alive to Christ. Today, Barry Cooper helps us consider our need for someone else to apply the paddles to cause our spiritual hearts to beat.


Regeneration is a word theologians use to describe how someone becomes a believer.

I became a believer in Oxford in 1992, during the spring semester. And as I look back at that time, it’s tempting to wonder, Why is it that I reached out for Christ, while it’s quite possible that the person sitting in the pew next to me did not?

Was it because I listened a bit more closely, or read the Bible more attentively? It’s embarrassing to talk like this, but was it because I was slightly more teachable, or slightly more humble? Maybe I was a bit braver or more selfless than the person sitting next to me?

I’m not talking about taking a huge amount of credit here. Some have said that a person becoming a Christian is like a drowning person reaching out for a life preserver. You wouldn’t exactly say that by doing that, the drowning person was rescuing themselves. But they do at least have to make some effort to reach out and grab it. Christ, the life preserver, is clearly doing the heavy lifting in this act of rescue, but nevertheless, you’ve got to take hold of Him in order to be saved.

Is that the biblical picture of salvation?

At the heart of the issue is the question, What does God actually do when a person comes to faith?

One writer puts the question like this: “When the Holy Spirit regenerates a sinner, does He contribute only some power, such that the sinner must add some of his own energy or power to bring about the desired effect [that’s the life preserver view of salvation], or is regeneration a unilateral work of God? To put it yet another way, does God alone change the heart of the sinner, or does the change of heart rest on the willingness of the sinner to be changed?” 

This latter view of regeneration is sometimes called synergism, meaning that you are working with God. You’re cooperating with Him when you turn from spiritual death to spiritual life.

But how can it be possible for someone who is spiritually dead to do any kind of cooperating with God? I mean, if I were already dead in the water—dead in my transgressions, as the Apostle Paul puts it in Ephesians chapter 2—then throwing me a life preserver wouldn’t be much use (not to mention being a waste of a good life preserver, and in very poor taste).

One biblical metaphor for a person coming to faith is that of being born again. And the thing about being born the first time is that you and I had no say in it. Though it would have been polite of my parents to have asked my permission, given that it was, after all, my birth, yet it was impossible for them to do so, because of course I did not (at that point) exist. You and I were only born because of the will of our parents, and that is a choice that was very much out of our hands.

So it is for us spiritually. We can’t cooperate with our heavenly Father in the act of being born again because, spiritually speaking, we don’t have life until our Father gives it to us.

This view of regeneration is called monergism, meaning that only God can give a person new life in Christ. Only God can gift me the ability and the will to take hold of Christ, and without that I’m lost.

As a friend of mine likes to say defibrillators are not self-operated. We need someone else to apply the paddles so that our spiritual hearts begin beating.

Sometimes we think of our regeneration as the moment when we first put our faith in Christ, but as Jesus himself says in John chapter 6: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

Regeneration, then, is something that must happen before we can put our trust in Christ. Before we can reach out for the life preserver, we must first be given life.