Friday, August 15, 2014

The Doctrine of Regeneration, Part 2

I anticipate an objection at this point. Someone will say, “Telling someone about the necessity of being born again in one breath, then that he is utterly helpless to produce such a work in his own soul in the next breath, is self-defeating and self-contradictory.” But that misses the whole point of Jesus’ argument. The point of Jesus’ statement was to expose the fallacy of trusting in your own efforts for salvation. If devotion to a life of law keeping could save person, Nicodemus had it in the bag. In contradistinction to this, Jesus informs him that no one is saved, regardless of personal achievements, family history, social status, or religious devotion. Sin is universal and therefore the new birth is necessary.

(4) The Method of the New Birth

"The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (3:8). This verse handles 3 principles with regard to the doctrine of Regeneration.

1. The sovereignty of God in regeneration – the wind blows where it wishes. In the same way that the wind blows unobstructed by political, racial, or cultural hindrances, God’s Spirit cannot be frustrated in his regenerating activity.

2. Regeneration is a Divine mystery – do not know where it comes from and where it is going. To say that regeneration is a divine mystery is to say that there is more to it than we can understand. This accounts for the variety of explanations and experiences we all have with regard to our own conversion. Many people are unaware of the moment when the new birth occurred. While many trace their new birth back to a certain date or time, those dates marked the moment when the person first understood the gospel or first committed himself to Christ in obedience to the gospel. In which case, the date to which the individual has attached significance is not necessarily the date of regeneration, but rather the date of gospel conversion, a separate event entirely. I’ll say it again: to say that regeneration is a divine mysteries to say that there is more to it than we can understand. This should prompt a spirit of reverence, awe, and worship.

3. Everyone who is born again is born again in exactly the same way. Salvation by God’s grace through the direct work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart is the method which Scripture teaches and it is the only method which makes sense of the various circumstances in which sinners are found. Whether one was a Jew under the Old Testament administration of the covenant of grace, an individual who has had all the privileges of New Testament Christianity available to him, a child who dies in infancy, someone who is developmentally or mentally challenged, or someone born in an un-evangelized heathen nation, this is the only way ordained of God for salvation and it “fits” like a key fits a lock, for each of the aforementioned cases. Everyone who is regenerated is regenerated in exactly the same way, by a sovereign and mysterious operation of God’s Spirit within the human soul.

This means that Regeneration is immediate. God doesn’t use the works of the sinner, on the one hand, or the gospel preacher’s efforts on the other hand. Faith is the gift of God in regeneration. Philippians 1:29 says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,.” Some of the missionaries with whom I used to associate, because they had something of a martyr complex, really liked this verse. They got an inordinate amount of joy out of stressing the fact that the Scripture says that God has granted to us to “suffer for his sake.” Granted, that is true. But the privilege of suffering for Jesus is not the only thing that this verse says has been granted to us, nor is it the primary thing which this verse says has been granted to us. For the sake of Christ it has been granted to us to believe in him. The verb “granted” is the Greek word ἐχαρίσθη. It derives from a root which literally means, “’favor that cancels’. It is used of God giving His grace to pardon. This is freely done and therefore not based on any merit of the one receiving forgiveness.” It is in what is known in grammar the passive voice. In English, our verbs have one of two voices, active or passive. When the verb is in the active voice it signifies that the subject of the sentence is the doer of the verb’s action. The passive voice is used to signify that the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the verb’s action.

Irenaeus writes “God cannot be known without God.” This refers to more than special revelation. Irenaeus means to say that a saving knowledge of God must begin on God’s part. We cannot begin the process. Truly, as Christ said, those who are born of the Spirit are like the wind. God’s Spirit blows where He wills. We see that it blows and we feel it, but it remains a mystery which God alone comprehends. We can only marvel at the provisions of grace made available to us in the finished Mediatorial work of Christ.

Clement of Alexandria writes, "The heavenly and truly divine love comes to men thus, when in the soul itself the spark of true goodness, kindled in the soul by the Divine Word, is able to burst forth into flame; and, what is of the highest importance, salvation runs parallel with sincere willingness – choice and life being, so to speak, yoked together." 

Here we see Clement arguing (to pagan Greeks, we might add) that the human ability to respond to God’s grace comes from God Himself simultaneously with the grace. He does not assert that there is “good in every man.” The “spark of true goodness” Clement mentions, is kindled by Christ. There is no “divine spark” in all men that simply needs to be tapped into. That is Eastern mysticism, not Christian theology.

In the following passage, the Theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus eloquently describes the loving response to God’s grace that regeneration creates. “If thou hast poured out upon God the whole of thy love; if thou hast not two objects of desire, both the passing and the abiding, both the visible and the invisible, then thou hast been so pierced by the arrow of election, and hast so learned the beauty of the Bridegroom, that thou too canst say with the bridal drama and song, thou art sweetness and altogether loveliness.”

Notice that Gregory gives a test, so to speak, for one’s assurance of salvation. Can one be sensibly aware of the greatness of his own sin and misery, and of the greatness of God’s provision in Christ for this sin and misery, and not express it in gratitude and love? Can you say that you are enthralled by the glory and beauty of God’s plan of salvation? Here we see what Packer called “signs of life.” If we indeed have what, Scougal called, “the life of God in the soul of a man,” it will manifest itself naturally in a life of loving communion with God.

The pioneer missionary Patrick described his own conversion in these telling words: "Whence I, once rustic, exiled, unlearned, who does not know how to provide for the future, this at least I know most certainly that before I was humiliated I was like a stone lying in the deep mire; and He that is mighty came and in His mercy lifted me up, and raised me aloft, and placed me on the top of the wall. And therefore I ought to cry out aloud and so also render something to the Lord for His great benefits here and in eternity - benefits which the mind of men is unable to appraise.”

Patrick envisions himself like an inanimate stone lying in the mud.  This is a brilliant image.  It illustrates perfectly man’s inability to do anything about his own spiritual condition.  It illustrates man’s deadness in “trespasses and sins.” A stone can no more lift itself from the mire than it can understand the obnoxiousness of its condition. 

These quotes, I hope, show us that, though centuries separate us from our forefathers in the faith, our experience of God’s grace is one and the same. We should find it very encouraging to read of a Christian conversion from 1700-1800 years ago, and complete resonate with the language of being sought by God and raised into newness of life.

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