The Old and New Testament provide us with quite a few passages regarding the New Birth/Regeneration. In the Old Testament, we see passages describing the New Birth as a future event, while in the New Testament, we see it described as a present reality. Let’s examine some of these passages more closely.
Jeremiah 31:31-34, 32:36-41
Both of these passages in Jeremiah are talking about a future event that comes as a package deal in the New Covenant. The Lord speaks in such a way as to indicate that Israel does not presently have a heart of flesh, nor one unified heart at all, nor a desire to obey Him nor to fear Him; in short, the Law of God is not written upon their hearts unto obedience. They may know it, and some may hide it away in their hearts (as David says in Psalm 119:11) but the Law is not a part of who they are, and as a result, they are a disobedient people. This is the whole reason that God makes this covenant. As we will soon see, Hebrews 8-10 will give more light to this.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 is of particular interest because of how it is referenced in Hebrews. In Hebrews 8:8-12, the author quotes directly from Jeremiah 31:31-34, revealing to us how we should understand this passage in regards to its fulfillment in Christ. According to Hebrews 8:7-8, God found fault with the Israelites since they could not keep the Old Covenant, which necessitated an “occasion to look for a second [covenant]” (Heb 8:7). Since God found fault, He promised a New Covenant, one in which the people will have laws of God written on their minds and hearts. This New Covenant is so radical and new, that “it makes the first one obsolete.” The things found in the New Covenant are far superior to the Old Covenant, allowing the abolishment of the Old Covenant (Eph 2:11-22). This becomes clear in Hebrews 9 as the contrast between the New and Old Covenants are discussed (and the New Covenant is established as the better and complete covenant) and Hebrews 10, which says the Law is a “shadow of the good things to come” (10:1) and continues to compare the insufficiency of Mosaic sacrifices with the sufficient work of Christ.
The author of Hebrews then quotes from Jeremiah 31:33 yet again in Hebrews 10:16, saying that in this verse the “Holy Spirit also bears witness to us” (v.15) regarding the New Covenant inaugurated by the “single offering” of Christ (v.14). The author of Hebrews does not allow for the possibility of Jeremiah 31:31-34 to be fulfilled before the advent of Christ
However, in 10:14 we find an important phrase: “He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified”. This indicates that even Old Testament believers would in some way be perfected as New Testament believers will be. The author of Hebrews does not tell us how in this passage, though. All we can gather is that Jeremiah 31 is a promise to be fulfilled in the future in conjunction with Christ’s work.
Ezekiel 11:17-21, 36:24-27
The passages found in Ezekiel are similar to Jeremiah; they refer to a future event (here described as God’s future restoration of the scattered Israel to their homeland). With the future restoration comes the giving of a new heart: a “heart of flesh” to replace a “heart of stone” for the purpose of walking in obedience to God’s Law. Ezekiel 36:27 goes further than this, stating that “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” This section of verses is vital to understand and demand closer examination.
First, the future intention of this promise is made clear by the waw-correlative found at the beginning of v. 26 (וְנָתַתִּי). We find a perfect verb preceded by a waw, indicating future intent (prophecy). We find waw-correlatives in the succeeding verses, indicating that these actions will be fulfilled as a future package, beginning with the new heart of flesh promised in v. 26.
Second, God promises to “אֶתֵּ֣ן” His Spirit in His People. אֶתֵּ֣ן is the Qal imperfect form of “נתן” which means in this context to “set, put, lay.”  This indicates that it will be God alone who is doing this action. The Spirit of God is being placed “בְּקִרְבְּכֶם ;”בְּקִרְבְּכֶם consists of the בְּ preposition (“in”) and קִרְבְּכֶם , a plural possessive noun meaning “of inward part of man; a. as seat of thought and emotion.” 
Third, God’s Spirit will cause (“עָשִׂ֗יתִי”) the people to walk in His statutes; this is the Qal perfect form of עשׂה , meaning “cause something to be done.”  In other words, God’s Spirit will be causing His people to walk and act a certain way according to His Word. This also contains a waw-corellative, indicating future intent.
In looking at these passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, we see that new hearts (not circumcised hearts) and the New Covenant go together. Essentially, God promises a future time in which He will give His people new hearts (not just changed hearts, but new hearts!) and will place His Spirit in them, who will cause them to walk in obedience to Him. The future intent implies that God has not done this prior to its fulfillment, nullifying any attempt to place the indwelling or regeneration of the Spirit during the Old Testament. Based on the Hebrew of the text, an attempt to interpret these passages in a way that would indicate the present or even past realization of this in Ezekiel’s time seems untenable. By far, the best interpretation is one that points to a future reality.
Since the New Testament contains the full revelation of the New Covenant, it is natural that there are more passages regarding regeneration/the New Birth. First, we will examine the Gospel of John, the first place the New Birth is mentioned.
John 1 sets up the context for the incarnation of Christ, moving from His eternal nature and coexistence with the Father to His physical birth. It also tells us that Jesus came to a specific generation at a specific time in His humanity.
John 1:11 reveals that Christ came to His own and His own people (the ethnic nation of Israel) did not receive Him! The chronological context here is inescapable and important. Yet to those who did receive Him, believing in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.
It is important to note that ἔλαβον (v.12) is an aorist indicative, which is “the tense in which a verb in ordinary narrative is put,”  and John’s prologue certainly counts as that. Given that this is the case, we must rely on context rather than grammar to determine whether there is any specific chronological implication.
It is clear that this coming (v.11), believing, and receiving (v.12) is contingent upon the incarnation of Christ. John isolates his timeframe in. v.10-13 to the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, the effects of which (found in v.12-13) continue to this day. What exactly are those effects?
To those who believed and received Christ, He gave “the right to become children of God” through a birth that is “not of blood, nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (v.12). The question is this: Was that right given to those who lived before Christ came during their lives upon the earth?
The answer can only be no.
First, this right to be born again as children of God (as stated above) is contingent upon the incarnation. For those who lived prior to the incarnation, how could they receive Christ in the literal and physical sense John implies? How could they believe in Jesus’s name if He had not yet been named “Jesus” by Joseph at the instruction of an angel? It is impossible for those who died prior to Christ to fulfill these conditions and receive the right to be born again by these conditions.
Second, looking ahead to v.17-18, we see the comparison between Moses (who brought the Law) and Jesus Christ (who brings grace and truth). Not only that, but Jesus Christ has made the only God known. All of this shows that with the entrance of Christ into the world comes new revelation, new truth previously unknown before.
Yet, if this right was not given to those who were born before Christ’s time, does that mean that nobody was saved prior to the New Testament? The short answer is no, it does not mean that. However, that will be covered at a later point.
This passage states emphatically that one must be born again by the Spirit’s work and will alone (as does John 1:12-13). NOTE: This already distinguishes the New Birth from circumcision of the heart since circumcision of the heart is synergistic while the New Birth is monergistic. Though Jesus says “No one will enter the Kingdom of God unless He is born again,” he does not speak in such a way as to exclude those before Him. In other words, while this is a revealed reality in conjunction with the New Covenant, it should not be interpreted to mean that those who existed prior to the New Covenant’s inauguration did not enter the Kingdom of Heaven since they were not born again on the earth. (Personally, I think that Old Testament saints were indeed glorified upon their deaths and have certainly entered the Kingdom of Heaven.)
Not only that, but God has always spoken through progressive revelation. For example, Noah was not punished for not being circumcised; this covenant came after he lived, as did the Mosaic Law. In the same way, Christ is ushering in the New Covenant through His death, a covenant that is different that the prior covenants and entails different conditions.
2 Corinthians 3:1-11
In defending himself as an apostle, Paul discusses the ministry of the Spirit. He makes a sharp contrast between the ministry of Moses and the ministry of the Spirit, beginning in v.4. Paul, in speaking of the his ministry, says that he is a minister “of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (v. 6). This “covenant of the letter”, referred to in v. 7 as the “ministry of death, carved in letters on stone”, is the Mosaic covenant, the Law given to Israel on Sinai. According to Paul, this ministry was being “brought to an end” (v. 7), to be surpassed by the “ministry of the Spirit”, which has “even more glory” (v.7). There can be no doubt that the life giving ministry of the Spirit refers to regeneration, since its glory is greater, its ministry produces righteousness, and it is permanent (v. 9-10). All of these aspects are tied up in the Ministry of the Spirit, which is a direct result of the New Covenant, of which Paul is a minister.
This seems to indicate that the ministry of the Spirit was not active during the time of Moses like it is on this side of the Cross, specifically regarding the work of the Spirit on the heart. This work is thus a new work tied with the New Covenant that did not occur before the initiation of the New Covenant.
In this immensely important passage that echoes Ephesians 2:1-10, Paul connects regeneration specifically and exclusively to a work of the Spirit independent of human will or work (consistent with John 1 and 3). However, the whole concept here is not one of alteration (like circumcision) but one of transformation, of new birth, of being a completely new and renewed spiritual person. The idea here is much deeper than that of a circumcised heart.
1 John makes it clear in many different passages that the new birth results in a great transformation of a person. They no longer love the things of the world, nor practice sin, nor hate their brethren, but instead love one another, obey the commandments of God, and overcome the world; otherwise known as progressive sanctification as a result of regeneration. There is a total inward change of nature when one is born of God.
The picture of regeneration in Scripture is a different one than circumcision of the heart.
Regeneration is the monergistic and transformative work of the Spirit by which a person is born again as a Child of God, filled with the Spirit of God, and made into a completely new creation.
Circumcision of the heart results in a person having a love for God and a desire or inclination to obey Him, but it is a work that requires some human effort, while regeneration does not. One is a marking of the heart, one is the replacement of the heart. They are different in their operations and their results. The Old Testament does not even contain the concept of becoming a completely new creation; this idea is found in the New Testament alone.
However, Jesus Himself actually provides the best argument for the newness of Regeneration in the Upper Room Discourse, which we will examine in our next post.
- Holladay, W. L., & Köhler, L. (2000). A concise Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (pp. 249–250). Leiden: Brill.
- Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 899). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Holladay, W. L., & Köhler, L. (2000). A concise Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (p. 285). Leiden: Brill
- Robertson, A. T. (2006). A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (pp. 835–836). Logos Bible Software.