Emma's written a great post on what people look for in conversion experiences. It reminded me of this wonderful sermon by Tom Torrance on John 3.
Here he lays into the modern (20th century) notion of defining the new birth psychologically. Instead we must see regeneration - along with every other aspect of the Christian life - as something found in Christ.
We all know that our forgiveness, adoption, righteousness, election, holiness and redemption are found in Jesus. We ought to know that our new birth is found there too. It is not a prior experience outside of Jesus which then brings us to Christ. It is the new life which Christ pioneered through His life, death and resurrection. It is the begotten life of the Spirit which Christ eternally possessed and now shares with those who are His.
Therefore we do not find our conversion in ourselves but in Him. And we do not offer a conversion experience but a Christ who converts.
The implications of this for our discipleship and evangelism are far-reaching - perhaps I'll tease out more later - but for now let's just hear TFT...
Behind all that Jesus has been saying there lies the fact of His own birth and incarnation. All that Jesus has said in fact about the new birth refers ultimately to His own birth. He is the only begotten Son of God, and it is in Him that our humanity... is born again out of the old Adam into the new. In other words it is in Christ and through Christ only that we are born again.
...This is not very easy for us to understand today, because we have turned the new birth or conversion into a carnal experience of the soul, and have identified it with a psychological event in our lives. This makes it all the more imperative for us to listen carefully to Jesus here, and to look above and beyond our own historical or psychological experience and find the significance of our new birth in Christ Himself. Christ is the only one, strictly speaking, who is born of the Spirit from above, but He gives the right to all who receive and believe in Him or are baptised in His name to become sons of God - that is, not in their own name but in Christ's Name. Christ Himself is the truth and reality of our new birth...
We must learn to take refuge even from our experiences of conversion, or of new birth, in Christ and find in His birth and in His resurrection the truth and reality of ours...
...In Jesus Christ, from His birth to His death and resurrection, there took place the great "conversion" of our humanity, and its destiny, back to God.
...If we look into our hearts and lives we see how corrupt they still are, how desperately wicked we are, and indeed the nearer we get to Christ the more sinful we feel and know ourselves to be. No, we cannot see our new birth by examining our spiritual experience psychologically, by looking within. We must learn to look away from ourselves to Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith, for we are dead, as St Paul says, and our life is hid with Christ in God.
This habit that modern people often have of thinking and speaking of the new birth as if it could be perceived in the soul and is something to be possessed in themselves is a great snare to many humble and earnest believers; it drives them to despair or turns them into hypocrites, for though they try to live up to "born again and converted" lived, they know secretly how sinful they are, and that considered in their deepest selves they are not new creatures. That is not the way of Jesus but the way of the Pharisees.
-- When Christ Comes, and Comes Again.
Here's a sermon of mine on John 3 which tries to make some of the same points in a more law-gospel kind of way. I.e. We must have this new birth. We can't conjure it up. But Jesus brings it down as a gift.