Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Theological Journey Pt. 6: Born to Believe

John 3 has to be one of the most popular chapters in all of the Bible. Almost any Christian you run into can quote verse 16. Most people are familiar with the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus where Jesus insisted that a person "must be born again" (v. 7) to see the kingdom of God. It is said that George Whitfield, one of the greatest evangelists of the Great Awakening, preached from John 3 over three thousand times, insisting that his hearers must be born again. It is reported that when he was asked why he preached so forcefully and continually that man must be born again he replied, "because, you must be born again!"

Because the term "born again" is now so common in Christian circles, many of us have no idea what it truly means. For many, it simply means that at one point we "decided" to follow God. We think it means we walked down an aisle or signed a card. Such simplistic definitions rob the very term of the supernatural meaning contained in the term itself. The very idea of being born a second time, in any sense, is absolutely beyond human comprehension.

The concept of the new birth appears several times in scripture and is said in a couple of different ways, though generally referring to the same idea. It is spoken of as being "born again" (John 3:7), or "born of God" (John 1:13). In many gospel presentations over many years in recent history, the concept of "deciding to be born again" has become very popular. Usually a simple gospel presentation is made and then the listeners are told that if they come to the front of the room and pray a prayer, it will result in their being "born again."

However, I would argue that the supernatural reality of what this term means is greatly distorted by this kind of human system. That is not to say that God does not use alter calls to save people or that there is no place for them. However, I believe there is a far more biblical way of speaking of how someone actually comes to be born again.
To get an idea of what I'm talking about, it is important that we look at the Apostle John's first letter. In chapter 5, he speaks of the new birth by saying, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God" (1 John 5:1). What could be more simple than this statement? Doesn't this verse justify all those gospel invitations we were just talking about? Before you allow this verse to move into the background of your mind once again, I want to point something out that many Christians are unaware of. In the original Greek language (as well as in this translation), the "belief" being referred to in the verse is a present reality. Being "born of God" is referred to as an already completed reality. What difference does this make? It makes all the difference in the world! The way that this sentence is structured makes faith the result of the new birth.

Some argue with this point and say that the grammar could still be understood in an ambiguous way. While many of us may be tempted to latch onto a more ambiguous view of this verse in defense of our traditions, this is not the only place in the letter where John wrote in these terms. In actual fact, this wording is very common throughout the letter. For example, with a very similar grammatical structure, John writes of the believer saying, "he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9). A bit later, he writes, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God." (1 John 4:7). Even later he writes, "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world" (1 John 5:4).

Should we actually argue from these passages that, before being born again, we must first bring ourselves to a point where we cannot go on sinning? Are we to believe that in order to be born again we must first love the brethren? Are we to believe that in order to be born of God we must first overcome the world? Don't so many passages teach that our good works, overcoming of sin, loving the brethren, and conquering the world are an evidence of being born of God? (Ephesians 2:8-10).

When we take all of these passages into account, we realize that the message of John's first letter is to tell of the many evidences of who is and is not our brother or sister in Christ. The evidence of the new birth includes good works, a love for the people of God, a conquering of sin, and the faith that brings those good things about.

You will not find a single place in scripture where faith is said to be the means of being born again. Certainly, you will see many places that say faith results in salvation. However, we know from the New Testament that salvation has a past, present, and future reality to it. We have been justified (Romans 5:1), we are being sanctified (1 Thessalonians 4:3), and we will be saved from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). Therefore, there are many reasons to say that we are saved as a result of faith. But the new birth is always referred to as the grounding element of salvation that results in all others. The faith that justifies us comes as a result of the work of God.

In the first chapter of the gospel of John, after it is said that those who receive Christ will be given the right to become children of God (perhaps referring to our awaited adoption [Romans 8:23]), he says that we were born "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). It is not our will that brings about the new birth, it is the new birth that makes us willing.
Once this truth is embraced, many scriptures begin to jump off the page that show how faith finds it's ultimate source in God. It is a gift from him. Just to name a few,

"One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message" (Acts 16:14).

"When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).

"For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned" (Romans 12:3).

"Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 6:23).

"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" (Philippians 1:29).

"And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 2:24-25).

Some respond to such texts by saying something like, "yes, God gives faith, but we must respond and exercise that faith." I've come to find this a rather silly thing to say given the fact that we never speak of faith this way in any other context. Whenever we hear someone spoken of as a person who "has great faith," we always assume that it means they are a person who "exercises great faith." For God to give us faith means he is creating one who exercises faith.

Scripture clearly tells us that we are to work out our salvation, this of course including the exercise of faith, but Paul digs underneath such language and grounds it in God's sovereign work by saying, "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). If the willingness to believe comes from God as well as the resulting work, there is nothing for us to boast in but our great Father in heaven. There is no passivity in the true Christian life. But every aspect of our activity, including our faith, is to be thrown back at the feet of the one who gave it to us.

The new birth is no more in our control than our first birth. Like a helpless infant, we are utterly in the hands of the God who washes us from our sin. The first cry that comes out of our mouths as spiritual newborns is called "faith." Like someone who has been resuscitated after drowning, we are now free to breathe and yet will do nothing other than breathe. Just as we were slaves to our sin, we are now slaves to God. Yet, this slavery is the greatest freedom we will ever know. Our new nature cannot help but believe in the Christ whose image it is being conformed to.
This is why so many have come to call this "irresistible grace." It is not because human beings cannot resist the truth of God in their fallen state, but because our resistance will always be subject to the timing of God. At any time God chooses to work, he can remove a heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

Now can you see how this must impact our gospel presentation? We are to call people to repent. We are to present the truth. We are to tell of how justification comes through faith alone. But we must never tell someone how to be born again. We must preach the gospel and believe that it is the power of God behind our preaching that will grant new hearts and bring about the greatest miracle imaginable when we say the words of Jesus "you must be born again!"

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