The Holy Spirit Revisited: Regeneration and Illumination

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. (2Corinthians 5:17)

 Why don’t all people respond to the gospel the first time they hear it, or at all? Often people cite statistics that indicate the average convert hears the gospel 7 times before he or she is saved?  Many people understand that it’s not so much how many times you hear the gospel that matters but how and why you respond to it. All of which brings us to the odd and not so little term: regeneration.

 What is regeneration? What does regeneration have to do with salvation or how people respond to the gospel?  Regeneration is part of the work of the Holy Spirit in our salvation and is part of and a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in salvation.

 Think of regeneration as jumper cables being put on a dead battery.  Think of regeneration as the emergency room doctor putting the paddles on a stopped heart to bring life. Think of regeneration as resulting from God the Holy Spirit ‘spiritual jumper cables’ being put on the dead battery that is your spiritual heart. Using his Bible, theologian Walter Elwell explains regeneration this way:

(Regeneration is the) Inner cleansing and renewal of the human nature by the Holy Spirit.  Mankind’s spiritual condition is transformed from a disposition of sin to one of a new relationship with God (Titus 3:5). Regeneration involves both moral restoration and the reception of new life...The process of regeneration is not brought about by human righteousness but by the gracious act of God (Ephesians 2:8, 9).[1]

 Why do we need regeneration? Why did you and I need regeneration in order to receive salvation? Before salvation, before the intervention of the Holy Spirit, you and I were spiritually and morally dead, unable to understand, let alone respond to, anything spiritual or spiritual truth. We were both unable and unwilling to seek or desire a right relationship with God:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)... (Ephesians 2:1-5)

 Here the Holy Spirit speaking through the pen of Paul explains that God had to make us, those who were spiritually dead, alive in Christ in order to save us.  Why is this? Can’t we figure out our need for the Savior and respond accordingly? The Holy Spirit answers this question for us through the Apostle’s pen:

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 "For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ. (1Corinthians 2:14-16)

 We see a number of things here in our passage:

  1.  The unsaved (unregenerate) mind is unwilling to accept the things of God because he thinks they are stupid and not essential to his existence or well-being.

  2. He is not only unwilling to grasp and embrace spiritual truth, but he is also unable to do so because he does not have the spiritual capability.

 These things should provide us with clarity. These things should enlighten us, encourage us, and, to one extent or another, discourage us (all at the same time). They enlighten us because they help us to understand why our unsaved loved one is so hard-headed and seemingly ‘bullet proof’ when it comes to the gospel and the Word of God. These things should encourage us because we begin to understand that someone else’s salvation does not depend upon us and or the skill of our presentation of the gospel. In many churches we are told that if we just get the recipe right, then people will ‘get saved’ or ‘ask Jesus into their heart.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. These things can discourage us because we may come to understand that we may never live to see a loved one come to Christ or be the ones to lead that special someone to Christ. However, the discouragement shouldn’t last because the real issue is the power of God, not our persuasion, in terms of salvation.

 Only the Holy Spirit can open a person’s eyes to the truth of the gospel. Until such time as regeneration occurs the mind of the unbeliever (your unbeliever) is blinded to the truth. They cannot ‘see’ the truth because they do not want to see the truth. Why not? They do not want the truth because every intention of their heart is inclined toward evil:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)

 Also, realize that man’s heart remains the same even after the Great Flood. After all, not everyone rescued on the ark was saved. Moreover, all on board were still ‘infected’ by sin. Consequently, humanity’s heart remained inclined toward evil at the core of that heart.

 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. (Genesis 8:21)

 The fallen mind hungers for evil and not for good. The fallen conscience is bent toward evil from its earliest conscious moments through its most mature, adult state. It is engaged in a continuous pursuit of evil. Moreover, lacking the ability to understand the goodness of God there is no fear of God or desire of God in the unsaved, or unregenerate mind:

 The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God. 3 They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)

 The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God," They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice; There is no one who does good. 2 God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there is anyone who understands, Who seeks after God. 3 Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 53:1-3)

 Uninterested in its Creator, the fallen mind lives out its days without giving due consideration toward what is just, right, and good---and pleasing to the God that it seeks to ignore.

 It’s as if the fallen mind is crazy. It is! The blindness of the fallen mind produces an imbalance causing our malfunctioning moral faculties border on insanity. Therefore, we need divine intervention prior to regeneration and salvation. Apart from Divine intervention (regeneration) this is a chronic and terminal spiritual condition. It is indeed like we are insane:

3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. (Ecclesiastes 9:3)

 Theirs is a moral compass and conscience that is unable to properly function. Theirs is a moral compass that is unable and unwilling to do rightly as it lacks the moral ability and desire to do so in its fallen (unregenerate) state: “23 "Can the Ethiopian change his skin Or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good Who are accustomed to doing evil (Jeremiah 13:23).” The moral compass of a fallen mind, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, is untrustworthy: “9 "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it (Jeremiah 17:9)?” Jesus describes this unwillingness and inability in John’s gospel: “Unwilling to come 39 "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life (John 5:39-40).” We refer to ‘unwillingness’ and ‘inability’ yet we do not wish to imply that this is the result of any ignorance:

21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 1:21-25)

Because they know God exists, the morally and spiritually blinded mind incites God to wrath. Its stubbornness yearns for the rod and its perverted lusts provoke, deserve and receive punishment. This morally crippled God is unwilling and unable to please God:


 Apart from divine intervention, humanity has no appetite or desire for God. Our minds are set on something else.

6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:6-8)

 The unregenerate mind has truly aggravated its moral disability. After all, it will not submit to God’s will, found in God’s Word. It hates and resents God. Therefore, it can’t please God or satisfy God on its own.

 The fallen, human mind needs regeneration because it lacks sense. The blinded mind is not unlike an unthinking, self-destroying brute-beast that is driven by impulses. It lacks restraint or sense. Such a mind and heart, apart from regeneration, is calloused through repetitive sinning, with an appetite to sin still more.  It fights a losing battle against God like a terrorist who refuses to lay down his weapons and surrender.

 So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. (Ephesians 4:17-24)

 The sin-blinded mind is at actively at war with God. It can only be restored to Him through the regeneration of the Spirit. Until then it is hostile to God. The problem is a scarred, or seared conscience, that requires nothing short of the miracle of divine intervention through the Spirit’s regeneration to bring it into the light; otherwise, things go from bad to worse over time:

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. (1Timothy 4:1-3)

 The blinded mind is a depraved mind and is deprived of truth and desires nothing good or godly:

15 To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed. (Titus 1:15-16)

 Apart from a new heart and a new mind brought on by God the Holy Spirit through regeneration, men are incapable (worthless) for any good deed. Their deeds may seem outwardly good but inwardly they are unacceptable to God (see Matthew 7:21-23). They can be religious but not related to God.

 No matter how dire the circumstance, the unregenerate mind is unwilling to repent. It is unwilling to repent on its own. Apart from God’s giving them a new heart, even faced with the reality of God and His judgment and their need for salvation, they shake their fists at the Almighty. They would rather sin than repent and experience the grace of God. We see this with frightening clarity in the book of Revelation:

9 Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory.10 Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became darkened; and they gnawed their tongues because of pain, 11 and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds. (Revelation 16:9-11)

21 And huge hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, came down from heaven upon men; and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, because its plague was extremely severe. (Revelation 16:21)

 Don’t miss how their minds are set on something else rather than God. They understand He is there, bringing things about but they simply will not come to Him! Their foolish hearts and darkened and hostile to God, refusing to repent and find forgiveness and help. That’s why the following statement is true: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (Romans 9:16).“

Salvation Depends Upon Regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Situations or circumstances---miracles do not produce belief, or conversion. We see this above in the book of Revelation. We also see this in two striking places. We see this during the Exodus where miracle after miracle does not bring trust in God. But we also see this in the ministry of Jesus Christ and its lack of impact on Judas Iscariot. Judas saw the miracles, heard the teaching, and watch Jesus (and others) live out their faith in matchless, uncommon ways. This went on for three years. Think of all that Judas saw and heard! We often think of the devil entering Judas in John 13:27 during the Last Supper. Certainly, this was among the final straws. However, Judas, despite all he had seen, witnessed, heard, and experienced sought an opportunity to betray Jesus:

14 Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests15 and said, "What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?" And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him (Matthew 26:14-16).

Apart from the intervention of the Spirit no act of nature, no miracle of God, will change the mind of the sinner. Pause and think for a moment. Linger over this thought. Can miracles produce belief without regeneration? Do/can miracles alone produce saving faith? What do the books of Exodus and Numbers tell us? Ask yourself, “Can being with just the right teacher produce repentance?” Can being among followers of Christ living out their faith, 24/7 produce in a person’s heart a desire to follow God? The short answer is no.

 Salvation (faith, repentance, and acceptance) requires the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Neither methods nor men can lead a person to Christ. Salvation is a supernatural event. We see this from Old Testament to New Testament. We’ve covered a number of New Testament passages (and more than a few Old Testament ones). However, the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophet Ezekiel provides us an interesting picture of the act of regeneration (spiritual cardiac paddles) or a new heart (a spiritual heart transplant) and its results:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.  (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

 God, not men, does the work (Romans 9:16; Ezekiel 36:26-27). Men are merely the harvesters. God gives us a new heart, putting His Spirit within us, and then we respond. From then on out we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). We now understand the things of God, our spiritual estate, and our need for a Savior because our minds are no longer darkened but enlightened:

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 "For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ (1Corinthians 2:14-16).

 We receive the mind of Christ when God makes us alive in Christ (regeneration): “5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved-- Ephesians 2:5 ESV).” You see this also in Colossians 2:13.

 What’s this got to do with people getting saved? No one comes to Christ without the Spirit’s regenerating.  This regeneration is like putting jumper cables (or cardiac paddles) on a person’s heart. Salvation begins with the Spirit’s intervention. He regenerates our hearts and we see our condition and we recognize we need a Savior and we finally really, really want THE Savior and we surrender. If we had to sequence this in human terms it would sequence something like this:

1)    Regeneration: God brings the heart to life;

2)    Conversion: Saving faith expressed through a repentant heart that turns from sin to trust/faith in God.[2]

3)    Salvation: God forgives our sin and justifies us, declaring us forgiven once and for all).

4)    Sanctification: God works changes in our lives as we read His Word and respond to His commands, aided and abetted by the Holy Spirit.

5)    Glorification: At the end of our life, we are taken out of this world into heaven where we receive a new body and a new home in heaven, a place where there is no sin, sickness, sadness, temptation, or suffering.

This sequence can happen in seconds, in minutes, or in hours---in some cases years. However, it always results in salvation. A regenerated person cannot not become saved. Regeneration happens before salvation. Illumination occurs after salvation.

 Speaking of the Spirit’s work in the believer’s life, we turn to illumination. What’s illumination? After salvation, the Spirit indwells us and helps us to understand God’s will and God’s ways as we read the Bible. As Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth by both brining to mind what Christ has taught us and enabling us to understand, embrace, and apply His teachings. It’s like the light going on. We get it!

16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened... (Ephesians 1:16-18 )

 Illumination is not revelation. Illumination is God providing us a clear understanding of something we may not have clearly understood before. Revelation is revealing new truth. Christian writer Tim Challies suucintly and effectively describes it this way:

Illumination refers to God’s work in the lives of believers to make us able to believe and understand the words of the Bible. This does not mean the Spirit gives us new revelation – rather He applies to our lives the truths contained in His existing revelation. While illumination depends on prior revelation, it must be differentiated from it. You and I cannot expect God’s direct special revelation in our lives. Instead we have the privilege of looking to his full and final revelation in the Scripture and having assurance that the Spirit will illumine those words for us. Many Christians confuse these. When they suddenly come to understand a deep truth in Scripture, they may believe that God has spoken to them, seemingly indicating a type of revelation. What has happened, though, is that God has illumined their hearts to understand a truth from His word.[3]

 God’s revelation to us, that is His Word, becomes clearer to us. We accept it more readily because we understand it. Therefore, we trust it. This is illumination, the Holy Spirit giving us an ‘aha type of moment’ so that we more clearly can understand and apply the Word of God, His special revelation.

 Illumination is found in both the Old and New Testaments. David prayed for this kind of understanding in the Psalms: Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law (Psalm 119:18).” We already have the revelation made more sure, once and for all handed down to the saints. God in His grace, answers the prayer or desire, “open the eyes of my heart Lord.” He grants us a spirit of wisdom to understand His revelation in His written Word. He may do this to convict us of sin, to reassure us of His love as we read and reflect upon His inspired Word; He may do this to grant us understanding so that we can intelligently love and live for Him. He may bring something to remembrance we read years or weeks or days ago. He may bring to mind how we may apply what we’ve read. It involves the Spirit leading us into all truth… bringing to mind all Christ commands.

 Illumination and revelation must not be confused. We implied this earlier. As mentioned in the quote above, we may comprehend in new ways and with new depth and feel like God has spoken to us new revelation. However, what He has done is made clear to us something we have not understood before when we face a situation that requires His wisdom (James 1:5): “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him (James 1:5).” As indicated above, without revelation that comes from God’s Word, written for the common good of all God’s people, there cannot be illumination. But what is illumined is something we already read and studied. By God’s causing ‘the light to go on,’ we see the matter in a new and clearer light (i.e. illumination). We see illumination demonstrated by the Spirit’s granting the Apostle Peter wisdom for the selection of a new Apostle, Matthias, in the book of Acts:

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16 "Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry." 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 "For it is written in the Book of Psalms, "'May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it'; and "'Let another take his office  (Acts 1:15-20).’

 Peter did not receive new revelation. Peter received illumination. He grasped more fully the revelation of the Messiah and His betrayal through the Scriptures. He relied upon the Scriptures and the Spirit of God enlightened the eyes of His heart, illumining his mind, so that in godly wisdom the Apostles could replace Judas. This is an example of illumination. God brought to mind with new clarity something they already knew. Now, by the illumination of the Spirit, they understood it and applied it in a newer, more complete, and fuller way.


 Regeneration is the work of the Spirit where He sparks spiritual life into the dead heart of the unbeliever so that he can see, hear, and comprehend the gospel. Regeneration ends in salvation. Illumination comes after salvation (regeneration before it). Illumination is where God the Holy Spirit causes “the light to go on” in the mind of the believer enabling him to grasp more fully the things of God. Both regeneration and illumination are key elements in the primary mission of the Holy Spirit where He convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment and guides God’s people into truth as He brings to mind what they have read from the Word of God.

Application: What Do We Do With Regeneration and Illumination?

 Thank God that regeneration (and salvation) depends upon Him and not us. Nevertheless, out of love for Him and the lost, by all means evangelize like it depends on you and sleep at night like it depends on Him. We always want to give God our best (1 Corinthians 10:31). But rejoice in the fact that no one’s salvation depend on you, me, the mood we create, the techniques we employ, or the things we do. Therefore, abide in Christ, keep His Word, and let Him (and the Holy Spirit) do the heavy lifting.

 Rest in the knowledge that regeneration and salvation is a work of God, not of you. It’s a work of the Spirit, not the work of you or me. Therefore, never lose heart. Do not be discouraged. Just share the gospel the best you can. Don’t be afraid. One plants; one waters; another harvests; God provides and yields the increase. Simply strive to be faithful.

 Understand what you are up against: dead people don’t respond to lifeguards. You can present the gospel all day long, calling people to repentance. However, unless the Spirit is regenerating their heart, they will not respond. The natural (unsaved; unchurched) man cannot understand the things of God as they are follow to him.

 Pray for illumination. Don’t “ask for a word from God.” Ask God to help you to understand His complete revelation of Himself to mankind (the Bible). God has given you all you need. You have His Spirit, His Word, and His Church. Pray for illumination.


[1] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1830.

[2] Saving faith (trust) includes knowledge and understanding of the content of the gospel, approval and acceptance of the gospel and a real, true, and lasting personal trust in God in Christ. Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 709.


Keith Crosby