We have seen that questions about spiritual regeneration are tightly tied to questions of spiritual generation. Who is your father? Is it the devil, or is it God the Father? Those are the basic options, and being united to Christ through His Church does not mean that the devil might not still be your father.
But those who contend that there is such a thing as a genuine heart transformation — called regeneration, when your paternity changes — have to beware of certain pitfalls. It is not possible for us to read hearts (Luke 8:17), and we ought not to act as though we can. There will be plenty of secrets for the Last Day to reveal. Neither is it possible for us to read the decrees of God (Dt. 29:29), and we should not act as though we can do that either. We can’t read hearts, and we can’t read the Book of Life.
But from these important truths many have concluded (erroneously) that it is not possible for us to read the story we are in. But that is a different thing entirely. Now it is not possible to read a story without reading the characters, and this is something all of us do all the time — although we have been trained for some time now to leave this essential human activity out of the church. But we ought to lean against this. We must evaluate the spiritual condition of those around us, and it is essential for pastors to know how to do this.
But if you read the story, and the characters in it, it will be thought you are trying to read hearts, or that you are trying to read the secret counsels of God. But these are different things entirely. Here’s how it works.
We all have to make decisions about the character of others, and we do this all the time. We do this based upon their actions, words, placement in the story, timing, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so forth. A man requests the privilege of courting your daughter. Another man asks to be rehired by you after you fired him last summer for constant tardiness. Yet another asks you to vote for him.
Or a preacher asks you to believe . . . what? We are told to do more than reject certain teachings. We are also told to reject the teachers of those teachings, because of their heart condition.
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:15-20).
If you walk away from a false prophet, you are doing so because of your evaluation of the external story — in this case, their fruits. Corrupt fruit means corrupt tree, and good fruit means a good tree. Some false teachers have to be examined closely because they come in sheep’s clothing. But your read of the story tells you that something is “off” — “my, what long ears you have . . .” Now when you have obediently applied this instruction from the Lord, and you no longer tune into Brother Zed’s Prosperity Hour, you are doing so on the supposition that he is a wolf. Why? Because Jesus told you to.
When someone does this, he is not “reading hearts.” This is not a deductive operation — we do not surmise the nature of the fruit from the nature of the tree. It goes the other way. The fruit is the story, the tree is the inner reality. Inwardly, Jesus says, a false prophet is a ravening wolf — but that is not one of your premises. That is the conclusion, and it is the conclusion because it is the moral of the story.
This is not an instance of Jesus using superpowers to identify false prophets, but which we can’t do, not being Jesus and all. No, this is Jesus telling us what to do. He is telling us that — without access to the decrees or the examined prophet’s heart laid out before us on a dissecting table — we have the authority to conclude that someone is inwardly a ravening wolf. This is not reading hearts, or reading the decrees. It is reading the story. The outer story reveals the inner man.
Paul does something similar.
“If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself” (1 Tim. 6:3-5).
This is a conditional — Paul doesn’t even know the name of the person who might object to his wholesome words, and yet he knows his motives, which are entirely bad. He expects Timothy (and us) to “withdraw” ourselves from those people, whoever they are, which means that we have to read the story.
The biblical pattern of this kind of thing is clear and repeated often. How does Stephen conclude his speech in Acts 7? He concludes with a polemical evaluation of the heart condition of the men who had brought him there. This is not because he had their hearts under a microscope; this is because he knew how this particular story goes. He knew what a protagonist is and what an antagonist is. Here is his peroration, and I call it a bull’s eye.
“Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye” (Acts 7:51).
It is not necessary to claim that Stephen had any special inspiration here (along with an admonition to all of us not to try this sort of thing at home). Inspiration is a trump card that modernity uses to keep us from being shaped by biblical narrative.
“Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phi. 3:2-3).
This is not the apostle saying “there are dogs out there, I know who they are, but I am not telling.” This is Paul saying that we should beware of the dogs. But in order to beware of them, you have to be able to identify them. How do you do that? It is not by putting on hyper-spiritual glasses that enable you to see the essential dogginess at the core of their heart. You see on the basis of their evil works, their demand for circumcision, and so on. You read the story.
Can such judgments ever be wrong? Well, of course they can. That does not mean that we are warned away from making them. The straight line we use to keep ourselves from wronging others in such things is for us to be steeped in the narrative of Scripture. We can test drive our responses with novels and movies. Practice reading stories, because that is what your life is. So the end of the whole endeavor is to live our lives out to the fullest, reading our own story rightly. And there is no way to do this without making conclusions about the internal spiritual condition of others.
Let me illustrate it this way. I was counseling someone recently about how to deal with someone who has been a chronic liar for a long time. How can we tell whether or not to believe them this time? If a chronic liar is insulted that you don’t believe them, or don’t believe them quickly, then that means that they have not yet repented. But if a chronic liar accepts the disbelief of others with humility and grace, then this means they have repented.
Suppose you have a backslidden Christian, but someone who is truly regenerate. He has backslidden badly, and is utterly miserable, but still in that frame of mind where he is trying to shout down his regenerate misery in a flurry of cocaine and floozies. Cocaine is in there because “flurry of floozies” would be way too much, even for a writer like me. And yet, despite the chaos of sin around him (for some reason) he knows that he knows God, and that God is going get him back any minute now. Has this kind of thing ever happened? You bet it has. Now suppose this man, in this condition, is confronted by a Christian who knew him fifteen years before, back when he was walking with God. Suppose the old friend rebukes him on the basis of the cocaine and floozies, and says something like, “You are not a Christian, and you never were.”
The man in sin could know that this was false, and precisely because it was false, he would acknowledge that such an assessment was utterly just. If the accusation were true (and the man were unregenerate) he would likely be as indignant as a wet cat. “What do you mean, not a Christian? I prayed the prayer at my grandma’s knee, and signed the family Bible!” But if he really were a believer, he would know exactly why his confronter was reading the story the way he was reading it.
There is safety in the way we are taught to read. It is part of God’s phonics program.