from Robert H. Kirven, "A Concise Overview of  Swedenborg's Theology, (Appleseed & Co. MA 2003)

Table of  Contents


Chapter 4

Regeneration: Process, Stage and Goal

THE DOCTRINE OF REGENERATION is one of the great unifying concepts in Swedenborg's theological system. It builds directly on the entire content of the first three chapters and will be relevant to almost all that follow, especially Chapter 10, where the Lord's glorification will be seen as a parallel and prototype to the regenerative process that is experienced to some extent in every human life.

One explanation, relevant both to this presentation and the reading assignments, involves the three related meanings that Swedenborg gives to the word "regeneration." First, it is the name of a life-long process of spiritual growth. That process is marked by cycles, recurring throughout the course of life cycles that he describes in terms of three or seven stages. When he speaks of three stages, as he often does, they are called repentance, reformation, and regeneration. So, secondly, "regeneration" is a recurring stage in the overall process of regeneration. Thirdly, the cycles move in a general direction (as a bicycle pedal goes around and around, while going forward along the road at the same time), and the destination or goal of that total direction and process is called regeneration.

Swedenborg does not always give a signal, other than the context in which the word appears, as to which of these three senses is intended when he uses the word "regeneration;" but the meaning seldom is unclear, if you are aware of the possibilities. Regeneration is a commonplace Latin (and English) word, with an ordinary dictionary meaning, which differs from Swedenborg's special usage only in that Swedenborg means something that is both more specific, and more far reaching, than the lexicon definition of "rebirth," applying most commonly, perhaps, to biological processes of renewal, but occurring in sociological and theological contexts as well.

Swedenborg is more specific, first of all, because he refers exclusively to a spiritual process (and stage) leading toward a spiritual goal. His use of the word is more far-reaching, because his first and third usages of the term denote the total course and spiritual achievement of every human life.

Human beings are born without any knowledge of what is good or what is evil, what is right or wrong (true or false). Without this knowledge, they cannot discriminate what is good and what is true from among the many choices they are free to make, and without this discernment, they cannot intend to do good; therefore they cannot live the kind of life that conjoins them to heaven and then become angels. Forming a heaven of angels from the human race was the point of creation in the first place.

Consequently, the stage in which people are born has to be changed, which means that their inherent nature must be changed, or born again, i.e., regenerated.

Swedenborg refers to regeneration as a process or a goal in many contexts, but two classic passages describe the process in great detail. Different passages in the assignments and suggested readings for this chapter describe the same process but use different "models," or systematic structures. The differences are conspicuous enough to create a few difficulties in correlating the two descriptions at first reading; they are complementary differences rather than conflicting ones, and together they form a complete and fascinating picture with many applications to daily living.

Perhaps the simplest statement of the teaching is the three-stage process described in Chapters IX and X of True Christianity, suggested as further reading. That description is clear enough to need no recapitulation here, but a parallel to less momentous processes may shed light on your reading.

When you are learning any skill—playing the piano, for example—"doing it right" is a parallel to "good" in the moral terms of Swedenborg's description, and "doing it wrong" can be used as an example for "evil." Before any process of development begins, you are unaware that your fingering, touch, or phrasing of a particular piano passage is not all right the way you're playing it. (This is the "waste and void" stage.)

The first stage of development (usually instigated by your piano teacher, but also, perhaps, by your hearing a fine musician play it as the composer intended) is a realization that there is a better way, and that is how you want to do it. This is the stage that Swedenborg calls repentance.

The second stage is one in which you use the fingering that your teacher tells you to (taking an example from an early stage of music chapters). This is a stage that requires great concentration, because the finger stretches and crossovers that you are supposed to use feel unnatural and awkward. You must "tell" your fingers every time you practice the passage. This is a good parallel to the stage of regeneration that Swedenborg calls "reformation."

After a period of practice, in which you continually remind yourself of what you need to do and act out that reminder as if it felt natural (even though it doesn't), something happens. Sometimes it happens suddenly, but more often it is so gradual that you are not conscious of it until you look back; at some point the fmgering that your teacher told you to use begins to feel natural and easy. Soon it becomes as hard to play the passage any other way as it was to play it right when you started. This is the stage that, speaking of the moral life, Swedenborg calls "regeneration." It is "natural" to play it the right way, because a "new nature" has been "born" in your piano skills.

The regeneration stage is different from the first two in several ways. Most importantly, the repentant stage is characterized by your determination, and the reforming stage is characterized by your persistence; you have a feeling of accomplishment in those stages. But the regenerative stage is not something that you accomplish or achieve (except by going through the first two stages). It feels, when it comes, like a gift. It is. Regeneration is a gift from the Lord, one that you can depend on, when you persevere in repentance and reformation.


Read the following passages from Swedenborg.

True Christianity Chapters IX and X

Secrets of Heaven Chapter 1

The outline that follows, correlating the two readings and some other parallels, will not mean much until after you have read the assigned and further reading, but most students have found it helpful then. The "three stages" represent "Repentance, Reformation and Regeneration" in True Christianity. The "seven days" are the days of creation in Secrets of Heaven. "Stage 0" occurs in the creation story but not in the three stages treated in True Christianity.


A parallel with Skill Development

Stage 0     Void, Emptiness


No conflict.


Doing "it" (any skill) badly, not even realizing there is a better way to do it.


                    Recognition of sin (or any fault) in discernment, intention, and/or action




Firmament divides the waters


Land/water; plants, herbs, trees



Inner Knowing


Intentionality separated from discernment


Awareness of fault


Acting in freedom and rationality (= self-compulsion)


Sun/moon, day/night


Serpents, birds, sea-monsters





Intentionality (will) is ruled by discernment between false/true, evil/good


Doing it the right way because you know you should (even though you don't want to because it feels awkward)


Birth of new will (intentionality) and understanding (discernment)


Animals, humans







Doing it right without thinking about it because any other way feels awkward.

(This schema was first suggested in speech and preaching classes by Dr. Coleman Bender of Emerson College and the Swedenborg School of Religion.)



SH 6

The "six days" or periods of time [in the creation story, Genesis 1:1-31] describe the six consecutive stages in our regeneration. In general, they are as follows:

SH 7

The first state is the one which precedes regeneration; it extends from earliest childhood up to the beginning of regeneration. It is called "a void, emptiness, and thick darkness." The first movement, which is the Lord's mercy, is "the spirit of God hovering over the faces of the waters."

SH 8

The second state occurs when a distinction is made between things which belong to the Lord and the things which are our own. In the Bible, the Lord's things in us are called "remnants." They include things we have learned and accepted into our selves, especially things learned [subconsciously from angels] in our infancy. Everything we learn in this way is stored up, but do not become conscious until we come into a condition in which we need them. In the present time, such conditions rarely occur except when temptation, misfortune, sorrow, or the like quiets our bodily and worldly concerns (normal human concerns) so much that they seem to be dead. At such times our internal concerns are separated from superficial ones. The remnants (stored up inside us by the Lord for this purpose) are in our inner self.

SH 9

The third state is one of repentance. This is the state in which our more inward aspects lead us to talk dutifully and with commitment and do good things such as loving actions (which nevertheless have no life because we still imagine they originate in us). These inner aspects are called a "tender plant." Later they are called a "fruit-bearing tree."

SH 10

The fourth state is when we are moved by love and enlightened by faith. Before coming into this state we did indeed use a religious vocabulary and accomplish things that were good for others, but we were motivated by our temptation and anguish, not by faith and compassion. These latter are now aroused in our inside aspects and are called the "two great lights."

SH 11

The fifth state is when faith motivates our speech and what we say solidifies our true ideas and good intentions. At this point, our accomplishments have life and are called "fish of the sea and birds of the air."

SH 12

The sixth state is when our faith (which is also to say, our love) motivates us to say true things and do good things. Our accomplishments at this point are called "living creatures" and "beasts." Since at this point our actions are motivated by faith and also simultaneously by love, we become spiritual persons, who are also called an "image [of God]." Now, our spiritual life takes delight in—and is sustained by—things which are associated with knowing because we believe; and with compassionate actions, which are called "our food." Our natural life takes delight in—and is sustained by—things which are bodily and sensual. The latter give rise to conflict until love rules and we become heavenly persons.

SH 14

Not all people who are being regenerated reach this condition. Some—indeed, the majority at this time—reach only the first. Some reach merely the second, others the third, fourth, or fifth. Seldom do any reach the sixth, and hardly anybody at all reaches the seventh.

SH 16

Verse 1: In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. The earliest times of all are called "the beginning," and throughout the Prophets they are referred to as "days of antiquity" and also "days of eternity." "The beginning" also embodies within it that first period when we are being regenerated, for at that time we are being born anew and receiving life. This is why regeneration itself is called our new creation. Almost everywhere in the prophetic writings, "to create," "to form," and "to make" mean to regenerate.. . . [In the Prophets,] "heaven" means our inside and "earth" means our outside.

SH 17

Verse 2: And the earth was a void and an emptiness, and there was thick darkness over the faces of the deep; and the Spirit of God was hovering over the faces of the waters. We are called an "empty earth" and "a void" while we are yet to be regenerated. We also are called "ground" in which nothing at all that is good and true has been sown—"void" where there is nothing good, and "empty" where there is nothing true. Consequently, there is "thick darkness" or stupidity about anything that has to do with faith in the Lord, and thus anything that has to do with heaven and spiritual life....

SH 18

"The faces of the deep" are our desires and the falsities resulting from them. These comprise us [at this stage] and we are completely absorbed in them. Because we have no light at all, we are like the deep, or something confused and obscure.... Seen from heaven while in this state, we resemble a darkened mass with no life in it.

In general, the same images involve our devastation which precedes regeneration, as it is described many times by the prophets. Before we can know that a thing is true and that a motive is good, the things that impede and resist our knowing must be removed. Thus our old self must die before our new self can be born.

SH 19

The "Spirit of God" means the Lord's mercy, which is said to "hover" (like a hen over her eggs) over what the Lord stores away in us—which frequently throughout the Word are called "remnants," bits of knowledge about what is true and good. These remnants are never illuminated, never brought into daylight, until our outsides have been laid waste. Here remnants are called "the faces of the waters."

SH 20

Verse 3: And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. This is at the beginning, when we start to recognize that there is something superior about what is good and what is true. From the outside alone, there's no way people can know what is good and what is true, for they imagine that everything comprising self-love and love of the world is good, and everything that panders to those loves is true. Therefore, they do not know that the things they imagine to be good are in fact evil, and that those they imagine to be true are in fact false. But when we are born anew, we first start to recognize that the good in us is not really good, and then—when we enter more light—we recognize the existence of the Lord and that the Lord is everything good in itself and everything true in itself. The Lord himself says in John that men ought to know that he exists: "Unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins" (John 8:24).

The point is that the Lord is everything good in itself—or life—and everything true in itself—or light. Nothing good or true exists except from the Lord. This, too, is said in John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shines in the darkness. He was the true light that enlightens every one coming into the world (John 1:1, 3-5, 9).

SH 21

Verse 4: And God saw the light was good; and God made a distinction between the light and the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. The light is called good because it comes from the Lord, who is goodness itself. "The darkness" is those things which were there prior to our being conceived and born anew. They were seen as light, because what was evil was seen as good and what was false was seen as true. In reality, they are darkness. They are remnants of what belonged to us. All things belonging to the Lord, being things of light, are compared to the day, and all things that are our own, being things of thick darkness, are compared to the night. This occurs many times in the Word.

SH 22

Verse 5: And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.... "Evening" means every prior state, because it is a state of shade, that is, a state of falsity and absence of what is true; "morning" is every subsequent state, because it is one of light, that is, of truth and of our knowing because of our faith. In general, "evening" means all things that are our own, whereas "morning" means all those that are the Lord's.... In the Word, "morning" stands in a similar way for every coming of the Lord, and so is a term describing the new creation.

SH 24

Verse 6: And God said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let there be a distinguishing of the waters from the waters." At this point, after the Spirit of God—which is the Lord's mercy—has brought our true and good bits of knowledge into daylight, and given us our first perception that the Lord does exist and that he is what is good in all that is good and what is true in everything true, and nothing good nor anything true exists except from the Lord, a distinction is made between our inward self and our outward self. This distinction enables us to see the difference between what is known by our inward self and the facts perceived by our outward self. Our inward self is called "an expanse" in this passage, while the facts perceived by our outward self are called "the waters beneath the expanse."

[2] Until our regeneration starts, we are not aware of even the existence of our internal self, let alone its identity. Submerged in bodily and worldly concerns we imagine there is no difference between the two....

Verses 7, 8: And God made the expanse, and he made the distinction between the waters that were under the expanse and the waters that were above the expanse; and it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven....

[3]The second thing we notice when being regenerated is that we begin to become aware of the existence of our inward self, aware that everything good and true relating to our inward self belongs to the Lord alone. During regeneration, we still imagine that we are the source of the good deeds we perform and the true things we say, because the Lord can lead us by means of them to do what is good and say what is true as if on our own. Therefore, the identification of what is under the expanse comes first and identification of what is above the expanse follows. It is also a heavenly secret that the Lord uses things belonging to us—both our sensory illusions and our desires—to lead and direct us toward things that are good and true....

SH 26

Verse 8: And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

SH 27

Verse 9: And God said, "Let the waters under heaven be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear;" and it was so. Once we know of the existence of our inward and outward selves, and know that (contrary to appearances) what is true and good flows from our inward self into our outward self (or from the Lord by way of our inward self), then bits of true and good knowledge residing with us are stored away in our memory and registered among the facts there. Anything—natural, spiritual, or celestial—that finds its way into our external memory lodges there as known fact. From there, it is brought out by the Lord. These bits of knowledge are "the waters gathered together to one place," and are called "seas." Our outward nature itself, however, is called "the dry land," and immediately afterward is called "the earth," as in the verses that follow.

SH 28

Verse 10: And God called the dry land earth, and the gathering together of the waters he called seas; and God saw that it was good....

SH 29

Verses 11, 12: And God said, "Let the earth cause tender plants to spring up, seed-bearing plants, fruit-trees bearing fruit, each according to its kind; and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind;" and God saw that it was good. Once the earth or an individual has been enabled to receive heavenly seeds from the Lord and produce some good and true things, the Lord first of all causes something tender to spring up. This first emergence is called a "seed-bearing plant." Then something springs up that is more useful and reproduces itself, and this is called a "tree bearing fruit in which is its seed, each according to its kind.... "

[2]... This is the third state of our regeneration, the state in which we are repentant. It is like passing from shadow into light, or from evening into morning. This is why it is said in Verse 13: And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.

SH 30

Verses 14-17: And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens, to make a distinction between the day and the night; and they will be for signs and for set times, and for days and years. And they will be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth;" and it was so. And God made two great lights, the greater light to have dominion over the day, and the lesser light to have dominion over the night; and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth....

[2] When we are being created anew, faith develops in the following progression. First of all we have no life, for life does not exist in anything evil and false (only in what is good and true). Then we start to receive life from the Lord by means of faith existing in our memory—factual faith—then by faith existing in our understanding—conceptual faith—and after this by faith existing in our heart—loving or saving faith. Factual faith and conceptual faith are represented in verses 3-13 by the inanimate creation. Faith made alive by means of love is represented in verses 20-25 by the animate creations. Consequently, verses 14-17 contain the first mention of love and the faith deriving from love (which are called "lights"). Love is the "greater light which has dominion over the day," and faith deriving from love is "the lesser light which has dominion over the night." Because they ought to make one, a singular verb is used instead of a plural one in the phrase, "let there be lights."

[3]Love and faith have their place in our inward life as warmth and light do in our outward, bodily life. For this reason, love and faith are represented by warmth and light. Therefore, it is said that "lights" were set in the expanse of the heavens (that is to say, in our inward self), the greater light in our will and the lesser in our understanding. Yet they make their appearances in the will and understanding only as sunlight does in the objects it strikes. To the Lord alone belongs the mercy that moves the will with love and the understanding with truth or faith....

SH 34

People who have love have faith as well, so they have heavenly life. Those who claim to have faith and yet have none of the life inherent in love do not. The life of faith devoid of love is like sunlight devoid of warmth, like wintertime when nothing grows and every single thing is inactive and dies off. Faith deriving from love, on the other hand, is like sunlight in spring; everything grows and blossoms under the warmth of the sun. It is similar with spiritual and celestial things, which normally are represented in the Word by things found in the world and on earth. An absence of faith, and faith devoid of love, also are compared by the Lord to winter, where he foretold in Mark how the close of the age would be: Pray that your flight may not happen in winter, for those will be days of affliction (Mark 13:18-19). "Flight" means the final period, and also the time when a person dies. "Winter" is life which is destitute of love, and "days of affliction" is the wretched condition of such a person in the next life.

SH 35

Each of us has two inherent powers, intention and understanding. When our understanding is governed by our intention, they constitute one mind and so one life. In that case, we intend and do what we think and intend. But when our understanding differs from our intention—as it is with those who claim to have faith but live otherwise—then a mind which had been one is split in two. One half seeks to transport itself into heaven while the other inclines toward hell. Since it is our intentions that accomplish everything we do, our whole self would rush straight to hell in that situation unless the Lord took pity on us.

SH 38

Verse 18: And to have dominion over the day and the night, and to make a distinction between the light and the darkness; and God saw that it was good. "Day" here means what is good, and "night" means what is evil. Consequently, good actions are called "works of the day," whereas evil actions are called "works of the night." "Light" means what is true, and "darkness" what is false, just as the Lord says: "Men preferred darkness rather than light; whoever does the truth comes to the light" ( John 3:19-21).

Verse 19: And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day....

SH 39

Verse 20: And God said, let the waters bring forth creeping things, living creatures; and let birds fly above the earth, upon the face of the expanse of the heavens. After the great lights have been kindled and lodged in our inner life—from which our outer self receives its light—we start to live for the first time. Until then, we can hardly be said to have lived, for we had imagined that the good things we had done were done from ourselves, and the true things we had said were said from ourselves. Since we are dead when functioning from ourselves (there being nothing in us that is not evil and false), whatever we produce from ourselves is not alive. This is so true that we are incapable of doing from ourselves any good deed that is good in itself....

[2] Nevertheless when the Lord is revitalizing us, or regenerating us, he does allow us to imagine at first that good and true things do originate in us. This is because at that point we cannot grasp anything else, or be led to believe that everything good and true comes from the Lord alone. As long as we hold the former opinion, our true thoughts and good actions are comparable to "a tender plant," then "a plant bearing seed," and after that "a fruit tree," all of which are inanimate. But once we have been brought to life by love and faith, and believe that the Lord is at work in every good deed we do and in every true thing we say, we are compared to creeping things from the water and to birds which fly above the earth and then to beasts, all of which are animate and are called "living creatures."

SH 40

"Creeping things which the waters bring forth" means facts which belong to our outward nature, while "birds" generally means rational concepts and also intellectual concepts (concepts belonging to our inward self)....

SH 41

Whatever belongs to us has no life in itself. If it becomes visible in our experience, it is like something bony and black. But whatever comes from the Lord has life. There is something spiritual and heavenly in it, and it appears in our experience as something human and alive....

SH 42

Verse 21: And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that creeps, which the waters produced abundantly according to their kinds; and all winged birds according to their kinds; and God saw that it was good. As I have said, "fish" means facts—here, facts that are quickened and brought to life through faith from the Lord. "Sea monsters" mean the general sources of those facts, under which and from which details are derived (nothing whatever in the universe exists without depending on some source for its reality and continued existence). In the Prophets, sea monsters are mentioned several times, meaning those general sources of facts.

SH 43

Verse 22: And God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas; and let birds be multiplied upon the earth." Everything that has life in itself from the Lord is fruitful and multiplies itself without limit. This does not happen while we live in our bodies, but in the other life it is astonishing! In the Word, "being fruitful" has reference to matters of love, while "multiplying" refers to matters of faith....

Verse 23: And there was evening, and there was morning, a fifth day.

SH 44

Verses 24, 25: And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds, beasts and creeping things and wild animals of the earth according to their kinds;" and it was so. And God made wild animals of the earth according to their kinds, and beasts according to their kinds, and everything that creeps along the ground according to its kind; and God saw that it was good. Like the earth, we can produce nothing good unless some bits of knowledge from faith already have been sown in us, enabling us to know what to believe and do. It is the function of our intellect to hear the Word, and the function of our intentionality to do it. If we hear the Word and do not do it, we claim to believe but do not live according to our belief. We separate hearing and doing, and split our mind in two directions, like the man the Lord called foolish: "Everyone who hears my words and does them I liken to a wise man who built his house upon the rock; but everyone who hears my words and does not do them I liken to a foolish man who built his house upon the sand." (Matthew 7:24-26).

Matters of the intellect ... are meant by "creeping things which the waters produce," and by "birds over the earth and the face of the expanse." Matters of intentionality are meant here by "living creatures which the earth brings forth," by "beasts and creeping things" and also by "wild animals of the earth...."


True Christianity Chapters 9 and 10 (510-625);
Secrets of Heaven (6-63).


An intention to repent begins the regenerative process, and understanding dominates the second stage. How are these two related in their third stage, regeneration?

Discuss the significance of freedom of choice in each of the three stages.

The "three stages" and the "seven days" repeat themselves in a continuous process. Is the "void and emptiness" repeated in the same way? How, or why not?

What questions or issues does the lesson raise for you?

To Chapter 5