by Douglas Wilson
I had thought of a question during the week which I thought would bring our conversation back to some evangelical “basics.” My sessions with Pastor Spencer were unsettling and fascinating both; on the one hand I was attracted by his approach to the Scriptures, but on the other I was concerned about the danger of “too much theology” getting in the way of basic Christianity. After we had settled in our chairs, I presented my concern.
“Why should Christians discuss the sorts of doctrines we have been discussing? Shouldn’t we just stick to the gospel? Sinful men need to be told that they must be born again, and here we sit, week after week, splitting theological hairs.”
Pastor Spencer chuckled. “To be sure, sinful men need to be told that they must be born again. What would you say if one of them asked you what on earth that meant?”
I stared at him. “Isn’t that obvious? It means that men must become Christians.”
Pastor Spencer took a sip of his coffee. “How does one do that?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, the person must repent of his sins, and must put his faith in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for sinners.”
Pastor Spenser smiled. “Very good–so far. Most Christians would leave the cross out of it altogether–they would say something like `ask Jesus into your heart,’ or `make a commitment to Christ.’ Now what happens after he repents and believes?”
“He is born again.”
“Now are you aware that this order–`Repent, believe, and then you will be born again’–is not in the Bible?
I was actually aware of no such thing, so I shook my head. “What do you mean?”
“How do you know that the biblical order is not, `You must be born again, in order to repent and believe?’”
I think my mouth was hanging open. I had never heard anything like this before.
“You mean that the new birth is first?”
Pastor Spencer nodded.
“In the order you have assumed, man makes a choice, and then he is born again. But the Bible places the choice regarding the new birth in God’s hands, not man’s.”
“Where?” I asked.
“There are three basic arguments from Scripture for this. The first is how the Spirit’s work is described; the second is the nature of birth; and the third would be express statements of Scripture to this effect.
I nodded. “OK, let’s start with the first.”
He had me turn to John 3:7-8, and I read. “Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” I looked up.
Pastor Spencer said, “Would you agree that it is fairly common for Christians to evangelize by telling people how to be born again?”
“Certainly. Isn’t that what evangelism is?”
“No. Evangelism is preaching the death of Christ for sinners, and the necessity of repentance and belief. Telling people how to be born again is like telling people how to understand where the wind comes from, and where it is going. The new birth is mysterious – it is the work of the Spirit of God, not the work of man.”
“So you are saying that the new birth cannot be controlled by men.”
“Yes. I am saying that the wind blows where He pleases.”
“What must men do then?”
“They must repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
“So repentance and belief are what the man contributes?”
“In a way. It is the man who repents and believes, but the Spirit has made that repentance and belief possible by giving the sinner a new heart through regeneration. So, for example, repentance is described as something men do (Acts 26:20), but it is also seen as a gift from God (2 Tim. 2:25). In contrast, the new birth is never described as anything done by man. It is always shown as the imperial work of God.”
“You mentioned the nature of birth. What did you mean by that?”
“Jesus taught that the new birth is necessary. From this, many have falsely concluded that it is a command to be obeyed by us. But `be born’ is a passive verb, not active. `Repent’ and `believe’ are active.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that those who are born again are recipients. A birth is not something one volunteers for; it is something that happens to him.”
“Can you illustrate?”
“Sure. I was in the Navy for four years, and I am a Spencer. I joined the Navy (voluntarily) and my family (not voluntarily). When Jesus compared the start of the Christian life to a birth, which type of `joining’ did He have in mind?”
“The second, I guess,” I said reluctantly.
“And which type of joining is presented in most modern evangelism?”
“The first.” I didn’t know why I felt so miserable.
“Exactly. One of the major problems we have in the church today is the result of well-meaning but unbiblical recruiters, instead of biblical evangelists. We have even fallen to the point where we have borrowed, on a large scale, techniques of recruitment from the world.”
“How would you summarize this point about the verb `be born’?”
“By saying that if the new birth is what many describe it to be, there is no way to express in the language of birth what is happening. Birth would be an extremely clumsy metaphor for what is happening. How does one birth himself?”
I turned to the next point. “You said that there were several verses that make your point about the new birth.”
Pastor Spencer nodded. “Turn to James 1:18. Why don’t you read it out loud?”
“Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures.”
“Notice it does not say, `Of our own will He brought us forth by the word of truth. . . .”
“Where is the other passage you had in mind?”
I turned the pages slowly, thinking hard.
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
I looked at Pastor Spencer. “Do you believe there are no legitimate questions about what you are saying?”
He laughed. “I would have to be an insufferable coxcomb to say something like that. Someone could say, for example, that some passive verbs can be obeyed by us–`be filled with the Spirit’–and he could point out that God gives the right to become His children to those who received Him because they received Him. But of course I believe such objections, while valid, can still be answered.”
“There is one thing I still don’t understand,” I said. “I began by asking whether or not we are splitting theological hairs in our discussions. What practical difference does this all make? I mean, an average non-Christian isn’t going to know whether the man preaching to him believes what you are saying or not. So why bother with it? Why don’t we just preach the gospel?”
“To say that the non-Christian could not tell the difference is not to say there is no difference.”
“What does that mean?”
“Does this make any difference to the evangelist? How he prays, prepares, preaches?”
“What difference could it make?”
“The two preachers have a completely different understanding of their respective tasks. The one believes himself to be going to the sick, supplied by God with the proper medicine, and his task is to persuade the patients to take the medicine. The other man is going, like Ezekiel, to preach in a graveyard.”
“The Lord told him to prophesy to a valley full of dry bones. I dare say that Ezekiel did so with the full knowledge that if something were to happen it would have to be the result of the Spirit’s work. It certainly would not be because of anything Ezekiel did in his own power.”
“But all evangelists know that God must empower them. . . .”
“Yes, but to do what? The one seeks to raise consciousness, while the other seeks to raise the dead. All godly evangelists seek to be dependent upon God in the performance of their task; but their respective theologies will determine their understanding of that task. Believe me, I have preached the gospel both ways, and I know the difference it makes.”
I scratched my chin thoughtfully. “So you are saying that Calvinism will result in powerful evangelism..”
“No. And please don’t call it Calvinism.”
I laughed. “I can’t talk about it without words. What do you want me to call it?”
“Well, we are talking about the new birth. Let’s call it the new birth.”
“OK, OK. Why did you say `No’?”
“There have been many Christians with an accurate understanding of the gospel who have done little or nothing with it. There have been others who, like Apollos, have done a lot with a deficient understanding.”
“So this means. . . .”
“It means that if a man is empowered by the Spirit of God, more use will be made of him if he has an accurate understanding of the new birth.” Pastor Spencer grinned. “People who compare George Whitefield with John Wesley are being, shall we say, unscientific? The real question is whether Wesley would have been more powerful had he understood this, and whether Whitefield would have been less powerful had he not. And these questions cannot be answered through historical study; half of the comparison you must make didn’t happen. Consequently we are driven to the Scriptures to settle the matter.”
“Right,” I said, “Back to the Scriptures.”
This post is Part 2 in a series of 6. It originally appeared as part of a series in Credenda Agenda.