How is a Christian a new creation? What does 2 Corinthians 5:17 mean?
God is a Creator. He created the heavens and the earth and everything in them out of nothing (Genesis 1:1-31). "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" (v. 3). In a similar way, God creates spiritual life and light in the hearts of men, and actually changes the human heart so that it can receive Him (Ezekiel 36:26). This is called regeneration, and occurs by the Spirit of God (John 3:5-8). The regenerated person believes and is "in Christ" at which point he has become a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). He is a new entity, the same way that a newborn baby is a new person. The old man has gone away, and a new man has arrived.
What does this mean, in practical terms? How is this experienced? What does it feel like to become "a new creation"? Is it scary, or like an out-of-body experience? Are we brainwashed by God? What does it mean to be regenerated, and be given a "heart of flesh" as the prophet says? Becoming a new creation is not like brainwashing; there is nothing frightening about it. It is more like being restored to health. When Adam and Eve sinned, human beings lost their close connection to God. Regeneration restores that connection, making it possible for God's Spirit to indwell us and flow through us as it was meant to.
However, there are challenges also to becoming a new creation. The flesh, or the physical body and mind, is influenced by Satan, and by the world, and by its own habits built over a lifetime. This flesh fights the "new man" that is created. It was friends with the old self, but the new self is aligned with God's Spirit, and the flesh can no longer be in control. This creates conflict within (Romans 7:14-23) that the unregenerated person does not experience. Thankfully, God delivers us over time from this "body of death" and does not condemn us when we lose the fight with the flesh (Romans 7:24-8:1). Instead, He continually works on those He has regenerated. We are in a constant state of re-creation (Hebrews 10:14) until we reach heaven and we are glorified, no longer to struggle with sin (Romans 8:30).
As we are re-created over the course of our lives, God replaces the old "program" with a new one, and we begin to love and crave the things of the Spirit, and to reject the things that He also rejects. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22–23). The newborn soul wants the things of God. Everything seems new. Believers will testify to this change, and the joy it brings. We still sin and fail, but the result of sin is different. Instead of satisfaction, the new creation feels disappointment after indulging in sin. It has taken us further from God—from the One we now love more than anything sin has to offer. And in the end, we will be part of a brand new creation: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8:18-23).
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