In discussions with a friend, he wondered at my use of evangelical to describe my position, when many Calvinistic evangelicals (think Lloyd-Jones here) would certainly balk at my applications of it.
A word of warning first. Some of the following may be disturbing to my Baptist friends, but I don’t mind spooking them — but only so long as I am spooking them by being more evangelical than they are being. Hope this makes sense in a minute. I know it doesn’t make sense now. Calm down.
First, I identify as an evangelical because of what I consider to be shared foundational assumptions about what regeneration is. Try this: “Regeneration is a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit which monergistically transforms a child of the devil into a child of God, and which necessarily results in a life of repentance and faith being subsequently manifest in that individual.” How’s that? Can I get an amen?
Now most of our problems come from attempts to get the repentance and faith into an antecedent position to the transformation by the Spirit. But it is regeneration > repentance > faith, not repentance > faith > regeneration. I have to hear the gospel preached before I can believe it, but I don’t have to hear the gospel preached before the Spirit disposes my heart to listen to that preacher. At some point prior to Mary speaking, the Spirit disposed the heart of John the Baptist in the womb to leap when he heard the words of Mary’s salutation (Luke 1:44). Regeneration is prior; regeneration comes first.
Like all good monergistic Calvinists I believe that we repent and believe because we were already reborn, and we are not reborn because we did something first. If we have to do something first, this is bad news for those of us who can’t “do” anything.
That being the case, if that is an acceptable evangelical definition of regeneration, then why can it not be applied to little ones? If it is a monergistic gift, bearing fruit as age-appropriate, what restricts God from giving that gift early on?
Now I know that my baptist friends, and my Banner of Truth friends, would differ with such applications as I am going to make here — but I can make them without changing a word in our shared definition of regeneration. This means that I am pushing this definition into the corners, but applying it more extensively is not an alteration. We have been together for a while, playing our guitars on the porch, and true, I have headed for Nashville in search of a record deal, but I am still playing the same song.
What is that song? Human beings are all descended from their father Adam, and are objects of wrath by nature — every last one of them. In order for that condition to change, God must unilaterally do it, and when he does this, the life of the convert exhibits what he has done. If a person goes to Heaven when he dies, this means, necessarily, that God intervened at some point in his life — the time stamp of which is usually unknown to us, but which is always known to the God who did the intervening.
For us to say that the sovereign God can’t really start this work of His until after the kid has memorized the Heidelberg Catechism is to do two things. It is to make a kid memorize the Heidelberg, and it is to demonstrate for him how to effectively disregard what it teaches. God is God! We do not get to cordon off our covenant children with those yellow caution tapes, so that the God of all covenant mercies won’t jump the gun. “There He goes again . . . forgiving people early.”
Allowing that God starts early, and does so lots of times, is not culturally evangelical. Most evangelicals don’t think this way, I cheerfully admit. But when they become more evangelical, they will. It is not culturally evangelical, but it is doctrinally evangelical. My evangelicalism is Lloyd-Jonesian, and with its hair in a braid. It is not culturally that way, which is fine, and I don’t have his swell accent either. And I can’t preach like he could. But in what I am saying we have agreement in two essential things — God is God, and the absolute necessity of the new birth.
What aspect of our shared definition would I not be applying? I believe I am applying it consistently, and across the board. To affirm the reality of regenerate zygotes (which I do affirm, lots of them) is not a contradiction of evangelicalism simply because the zygote doesn’t have legs yet, and cannot walk the aisle at the invitation. The aisle, the invitation, the playing of Just As I Am, the waiting for a certain birthday, all that stuff, are not essential to evangelicalism. They are merely cultural trappings, some innocent, some not so much. The monergistic work of the Holy Spirit is essential to a true and robust evangelicalism, and the Bible tells us that He often starts in on that work pretty darn early.
“But thou art he that took me out of the womb: Thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: Thou art my God from my mother’s belly” (Ps. 22:9-10).
“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger” (Ps. 8:2).
“When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also . . . And that from a child [brephos, fetus, infant] thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:5, 2 Tim. 3:15)
Now what about those people who agree with this on paper, but who never experience it? Wisdom is vindicated by her children. If a kid was baptized, educated in the covenant, catechized until his eyes bulged out, and all the rest of that drill, and apostatized in a terrible flame-out as soon as he left home, what does that do to the promises? Nothing! Let God be true, and every man a liar. But notice what saying this necessitates. It requires us to acknowledge that when the words don’t come true, it was the men who were lying, not God. It also requires us to acknowledge that somebody was lying. Nobody goes to Hell on a misunderstanding.
Faithfulness is as faithfulness does. If I were a televangelist healing folks on the teevee, and everybody was leaving the stage in the same wheelchair that brought them there, at some point I ought to reexamine my textual premises.
It is the same kind of thing here. The works of the flesh are manifest, which in the Greek means that dirty deeds are apparent. When that kind of heart is made manifest, we can see that God is not breaking His Word, but rather that He is keeping it. Those who live this way will not inherit the kingdom of God, and we shouldn’t care if they were baptized by John the Baptist three times in the morning, and then spent the afternoon playing with the axe he left at the root of the tree.