When I write, as I often do, about the absolute necessity of the new birth, one question that has arisen is this — who or what am I arguing with? Here is a quick answer, or at least as quick as a four-fold answer can be.
First, as Chesterton noticed, when Satan fell, he fell by the force of gravity. We sin, when we sin, downhill. The fact that God has introduced the new creation into this world, the new humanity, does not keep Heaven from being up, and up means uphill. This does not in any way nullify the reality and all-pervasiveness of grace, but it rather means, simply, that grace is what enables us to want to walk uphill. When we get tired of walking uphill, this is another way of saying that we are getting tired of His grace. Grace does what it does, and not something else.
But sinners love affirming the consequent, and so they think that this somehow means that anything difficult (anything uphill-like) must be, on this definition, some form of grace. And so many stair steppers for a works mentality are manufactured, and one is installed in the family room of the religionist, so that he can have all the sweat, and be no closer to glory when he is done.
So the first reason for emphasizing the new birth is that this is the only antidote to the carnal mind, and the carnal mind is a downhill mind. The natural man does not discern the things of the spirit because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14). Grace only makes sense to a gracious mind, and so this is why I emphasize the new birth. In this world, the saints I am responsible for pastoring are confronted daily with an awful lot of downhill options. If we are to take up the cross daily, and we are (Luke 9:23), the purpose of every cross is a resurrection. This is why we may walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). Walking in newness of life means walking in the regeneration.
The second reason is that I am part of a larger effort to reform the worship of the church. Liturgical reformation is most necessary, for reasons I have argued for elsewhere, but emphasizing the objectivity of worship and the sacraments, and the spiritual reality of the visible church, brings its own set of temptations. This is not an argument against such a reformation, any more than math problems are an argument against math classes, but those who try to recruit people into math classes by ignorantly or dishonestly ignoring the immediate presence of math problems are not helping matters at all.
Without regeneration, the most glorious church service ever conducted is rank superstition, and God hates it. When the life goes out of worship, it is not long after that the (few remaining) living go out too. Those in whom the new life still resides will not wait around too long in a mausoleum. The mass exodus of evangelicals from the formal, liturgical churches was by and large well-justified. It was good that they were chased out, and it was good that the others left. We might be accused of leaving the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and if we are accused of this, we might reply that the marble floors, the guttering candles, and all the dead bodies had started to creep us out.
If I want to help lead evangelicals back to more respectful worship, and I do, one of the things I must do is demonstrate for them that I understand what drove them out in the first place. Worship God in a decorated palace tomb without the Spirit? I’d rather go to Hell, but I repeat myself. Hell is any place where God has withdrawn His favor. Anybody who wants to lead the saints into a more formal worship had better ensure that it is a formal and lively worship. And by lively I do not mean having a preacher who waves his arms while speaking — I mean a community that has experienced, and walks in, the new birth. Anything else can go to blazes.
It was entirely predictable, but in this nascent movement back to God-honoring worship, worship that is characterized by the reverent awe that the Scriptures require (Heb. 12:28-29), a contingent of voices has arisen, not to reassure evangelicals that such worship need not be as dead a six ton slab of cold marble, but rather to demonstrate just how cold that marble can be. But look how it shines!
Third, in a different direction, there are some who object to the doctrine of the new birth on philosophical grounds. They wonder if we have such a thing as a “nature” that admits of an ontological change into another kind of nature. I have interacted with this view at length in other posts, and the best example would be Jim Jordan’s monograph on the subject. Jim is a friend, from whom I have gleaned a lot, but I believe he is seriously mistaken on this one.
Those who read through the issue of Credenda on the Federal Vision saw the “joint statement,” which laid out our definition of what we believed the basic issues were. At the conclusion of that statement was a list of issues where FV participants differ among themselves, and this issue was one of those. What this means is that some FV advocates are evangelicals and some are not. This does not mean that I accuse those who differ with me on this subject of heresy — it simply means that I would say they are not evangelicals. There are many fine Christians who have not been evangelicals, so this is not an attempt at a slam. But I am an evangelical, and I believe that historic evangelicalism (as distinguished from what has become a pink bubble gum form of evangelicalism) has contributed something important to the general inheritance of the catholic church. We brought a gift for the treasury, and I don’t want to see it sold off in the annual rummage sale. I write as a catholic evangelical, not a sectarian one.
So the third reason I keep pounding away at this issue is that Jim Jordan is influential in our circles (as he ought to be on numerous issues), but I still want our evangelical center to hold.
And last, the new birth is important to emphasize because we live in postmodern times, and blurred distinctions are a natural refuge for those who want to hide from God. This is why the unregenerate love postmodernism so much. But one Puritan put it, we serve a precise God, which is gloriously true. The holiness code taught the Israelites their ABCs — this, not that, here, not there. If the accident happens on this side of the border, you will be tried in this jurisdiction, and six inches over, you will be tried in that one. Male and female created He them. A fertilized human egg will live forever, and an unfertilized one won’t. God draws razor lines between soul and spirit, and between bones and marrow. The living God is the God who distinguishes, and sinners need to deal with it.
So then, if it is true that certain members of the covenant, as baptized as anybody around here, can die and go to Hell, then there must be something which distinguishes them from those who do not. The Bible describes this distinction, over and over again, as a matter of regeneration. Sons of the devil (with all their sacramental papers in order nonetheless) were his sons by generation. They cannot become sons of another without another generation, without a regeneration. Here is the great question that every living soul must be confronted with at some point, and which preachers are charged to deliver to them — who’s your daddy?
One of the great issues that Federal Vision advocates fought for was the right to speak as the Bible speaks. But this is more than double-bladed — this is a regular Swiss army knife. Not only do we speak biblically when we call the baptismal font the laver of regeneration (which it certainly is), we also speak biblically when we say of multitudes who have been presented at that very same font, that they are vipers, sons of the devil, unwashed pigs, whitewashed tombs, blind guides, tares planted by an enemy, unfruitful branches, and clouds without rain — in short, unregenerate.
And what do these unregenerate need? They need Jesus, of course, but Jesus is received by evangelical faith alone. And to round this circle out, I am not calling these religionists away from the Church — I am inviting them in. They are the ones knocking about on the outside of the sacraments, the outside of worship, the outside of the psalms, the outside of the kingdom. As the great Puritan Thomas Watson put it, not everyone who hangs around the court speaks with the king.