I just finished listening to a talk which addressed the question of whether regeneration should be defined as a change in nature, and was reminded of something from Wodehouse. Some minds are like the soup in a bad restaurant — better left unstirred.
Two basic things came to mind, and I will let them float by your spoon thus wise.
The first question raised has to do with whether we even have a nature that could be transformed at the moment of regeneration. So do we have “a nature?” This made me think immediately of a more basic question — does nature have a nature?
Since God spoke everything that exists from nothing, and because He continues to speak it, this is the same thing as asking whether God’s speech has a nature. Scripture teaches us that the world was formed initially by the Word of God (Heb. 11:3; John 1:3). And Scripture teaches us also that the world as created is sustained by that same Word (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:17).
So then, when God speaks the mountains, they come to be. And as God continues to speak the mountains, they stand fast (Ps. 33:9). This has to be the foundation of any doctrine of created nature, and because of that, it is not possible to conceive of any kind of nature with a nature that is independent and autonomous. In other words, everything that exists does so in relationship to the God who created it “this way” and who continues to speak it so that it remains “this way.” That “way” is its nature.
God gave man dominion over this world and its fixities, and this means we are responsible to identify and defend those aspects of the world’s nature that are supposed to be kept inviolate. It also means that we are supposed to mess around with the rest of it. Our task is to preserve the world as it is, and to tinker with the world as it is. This is why getting your son hormone shots to prepare him for girlhood is an abomination, and getting him braces and a haircut is good parenting. We are to see and understand what God spoke as among the permanent things, and we are supposed to see and recognize that He intends for us to mow the lawn. In other words, to exercise dominion in this way we have to acknowledge that nature — God’s speech — is itself speaking. It speaks to us in a language we know, and when we pretend not to know it, we are lying.
One of the things that must be fundamentally transformed is our broken human nature, the result of our relationship with God being out of joint. That being the case, we are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). When we are regenerated, we are reconciled — and we are reconciled permanently. It is not possible for someone to be adopted into God’s family in reality and then fall from that position. Someone can have union with Christ in and through the visible church in a way that is not salvific, and in a way that does not change his nature, but this is not possible for the elect.
In Scripture, living creatures receive their nature by means of generation. We have the nature we do because of who our father is. In regeneration we have a father-transplant, and this is an operation that cannot happen twice. For more on all of this I would refer you to my book Against the Church.
So let me frame the question in this cut-to-the-chase way. If we do not have a nature that can be transformed by regeneration, then we also do not have a nature that could be violated by a sex change operation.
Make no mistake. This is what the debate is ultimately over. Without the fact of regeneration, we will be prey to these and other similar lusts . . . to the lusts themselves. Without the doctrine of regeneration, we will be prey to certain reprobate arguments that insist that we Christians leave all such lusts alone. And the demand will be that we leave all such lusts alone. If we say anything critical of those who are banging something unnatural in the public square, we will be roundly condemned for violating their privacy.
Without the categories of nature created, nature fallen, and the prospect of nature restored in the gospel, we will stand there shamefaced. We will stand there shamefaced because we will have brought our truncated biblical/historical knife to an eschatological gunfight.
The second great question has to do with the need for using biblical language and terminology, and letting the metaphors of Scripture do our heavy lifting for us. I think this is crucial, and in the denial of nature I do believe the demands of a particular systematic theology is driving some to overlook what the text is actually saying. In the talk I listened to, the language of the vine in John 15 was appealed to, but I think with a very important category left out. Two kinds of branches were mentioned — those in the vine and those outside the vine. Those in the vine bore fruit because they were in the vine, and those outside the vine did not bear fruit because they were outside it.
But in the illustration the way Jesus used it, the lack of fruit was the reason for separation from the vine, and not the other way around. It was fruitlessness, then separation, not separation and therefore fruitlessness. Of course branches that were never attached to Christ do not bear His fruit either, but they were not really part of His illustration. Branches that were never attached to Christ are not even mentioned by Jesus.
The nexus of the problem in the text is caused by those who were attached to Him in a fruitless way, leading to final separation from Him. In other words, the illustration as John records it is one that draws a stark distinction between two kinds of attached branches. How would we describe the difference between these two kinds of branches? The classical terminology for this indisputable scriptural reality concerning covenant members is that of converted/unconverted or regenerate/unregenerate. There is no decent reason that I can see for taking this most necessary and helpful terminology out of the picture. As Chesterton said somewhere, we shouldn’t take any fence down until we know why it was put up in the first place.
In sum, we are not dealing with regenerate (attached to the vine) and unregenerate (unattached to the vine), but rather regenerate (attached to the vine and fruitful and predestined to abide) and unregenerate (attached to the vine and unfruitful and destined to not abide). In order to do justice to the plain language of Scripture, we absolutely must have a nature — and ourselves as part of that nature — which has a nature.