George MacDonald once famously said that obedience is the great opener of eyes. But obedience has to come from an obedient heart, and in order to have obedient hearts, we must have new hearts. This brings us (yet again) to the foundational necessity of the new birth. Without that reality, there is absolutely nothing we can do to make the Christian life work. Whatever we try to make it work, without the new birth, we are like monkeys pushing buttons on a broken cash register. Nothing happens. There is only one thing to do, apart from repentance, which is to pretend that something really is happening, which is an easy reach for monkey brains with monkey hearts.
Those buttons might be ethical — giving up everything for the poor, but without love, which is a big Pauline goose egg (1 Cor. 13:3). Those buttons might be the fancy dress parade of sacramentalism, and yet the Lord wonders aloud who asked us to come around to trample noisily in His courts (Is. 1:12). Those buttons might be doctrinal, as we think we have figured out how to plump up all the cushions on Moses’ seat, and we are quite cozy there as we issue directives for others (Matt. 23:2).
But the natural man, the unconverted man, the unregenerate man, is the same kind of man whether he is inside the covenant or outside it, with the difference that reprobates inside the covenant have greater condemnation. They are sinning against greater light, and to whom much is given, much is required. But they do not have a heart that can meet the greater requirement, and they cannot manufacture the heart they need. If we could repent and believe with our old hearts, then why do we need new ones?
When a natural man is converted, all of a sudden everything that was an opaque mystery to him before becomes a delight, with light shed all over it. The Bible turns into English, the worship of God in a way that honors Him becomes a delight, and the poor turn into Jesus Christ, instead of a rung in somebody’s heaven ladder. Before conversion, these things are covered in darkness. He cannot understand them for they are spiritually discerned.
“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
And anybody who believes that such a “natural man” can only exist outside the confines of the visible church is an observer who doesn’t get out much. Churches are shot through with such unconverted parishioners — and by this I mean to indicate Roman Catholic churches, Eastern Orthodox churches, Lutheran churches, Reformed churches, and evangelical churches. Whatever are we to do with this? Well, we should start by preaching the gospel to everybody. And by “preach the gospel,” incidentally, I do not mean the common travesty of rounding up the truly converted and preaching in such a way as to unsettle their confidence. Once upon a time, as I have heard tell, gospel was thought to be good news.
Once converted, everything that used to be “law” is now gift, it is now grace. This includes the grace of dying. The privilege of participating in the cross of Jesus is a privilege, it is a gift. Mortification is grace, it is gift, it is goodness. Mortification is a great kindness.
There are three levels of “dying,” all of which are grace, which I will illustrate using the metaphor of a garden.
The first happens when the Lord rototills a weed patch and turns it into a dirt patch for a garden. This is the foundational mortification, the death of the old man (which was the weed patch) and the creation of a new man (which is a garden). This is what happens at true conversion (Rom. 6:3).
The second kind of death occurs within the Christian life, and can be described as the digging up of big weeds in the garden. Paul, speaking to Christians, tells them that they have already died (level one) and that their life is now hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). But then a few verses later, he tells them to mortify the really big weeds (Col. 3:5). This means that real Christians can struggle with big sins. What problems do these saints have, which Paul calls here their “members which are on the earth?” They include “fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” All pretty bad. But God’s grace is with us still, and if we are converted, we will love the idea of having these big weeds pulled. If we are not truly converted, we will hate the idea. Hatred of this second level of mortification means that we actually hated the first level, which means that we have not really received the first level. Anybody who loves the weeds is still a weed patch — regardless of their attachment to the visible church. Loving your sin while loving Jesus is an exercise that the Bible calls kidding yourself.
And the third level of mortification is a godly Christian going out to the garden at 6 am to weed every day. There has never been a gardener in the history of the world who went out into his garden to find weeds who couldn’t find any. What diligent gardener ever walked over his garden without finding a single weed? He always finds something, but the weeds (however toxic in their nature) are the size of his thumbnail. They are pulled a lot more easily than the knee high weeds were. This is an ongoing process of mortification (Rom. 8:13), and it too is a grace.
Bonhoeffer said that when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. A gracious heart hears this message, and leaps for joy. An ungracious heart hears it, and looks for a place to hide. Anything but death. Scripture teaches us, and history shows us, that the very best hiding places, at least for a brief time, are found in the things of God — the Church, the Bible, the sacraments, the catechism, the ministry, the Internet theology debates, the church splits over a bunch of nothing, the mercy ministries, and of course, the venerable tradition of the fathers. Those fathers, incidentally, can be found both in the Jerusalem chamber at Westminster and in the Syrian desert.
So here is the good news. So hear the gospel — ugly dies, and loveliness rises.