Article 13: The Incomprehensible Way of Regeneration
In this life believers cannot fully understand the way this work occurs; meanwhile, they rest content with knowing and experiencing that by this grace of God they do believe with the heart and love their Savior.
Article Thirteen reminds us of the fact that God does not fully explain the mechanics of the way in which he gives new life (regeneration) to people who are dead in sin. Scripture simply speaks of the fact that God does so, and ties this to the work of the Holy Spirit through divinely appointed means (the preaching of the gospel).
At this point the Canons echo what our Lord told Nicodemus as recounted in John 3:7-8, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
If regeneration is an act of God which occurs at the the level of the subconscious, and in which the believer is strictly passive, then we may not “experience” the new birth at all, even though we may have received the new birth, and cannot enter heaven without it! If we are looking to Jesus Christ alone to deliver us from the guilt of our sin, we are assured of the fact that we are justified by his death and resurrection and that we will spend eternity in heaven. Jesus' merits are sufficient to save even the vilest of sinners, even if we have no remarkable "experience" of the new birth. What is important is not that someone had a "conversion experience," but that they presently trust in Jesus alone for their salvation. It is not the "experience" of the new birth which matters, but the fact of the matter.
This is why it is so problematic to speak of regeneration as a “born again” experience, as do many of our contemporaries. There will be many people in heaven who do not know the date and hour of their regeneration, but who nevertheless trust the Savior's promise to save them from their sins. Likewise, there will be many folk in hell who have had all kinds of religious experiences (including some who have had what they claim as a "born again" experience), but who know not Jesus Christ, nor trust in his saving work.
Looking to Christ for deliverance will never disappoint us! As Horatius Bonar puts it in the hymn, Not What My Hands Have Done, “not what I feel or do, can give me peace with God.” This why the Canons exhort us not to look within, seeking an experience of something about which we may never be aware. Instead, the Canons exhort us to look to the finished work of Christ, where we will never be disappointed.