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New Birth

by J. I. Packer

Often our thoughts about the new birth are too subjective, by which I mean, not too personal [that could hardly be], but too turned in, with all our interest focused on the individual who believes rather than on the Christ who saves. This is bad thinking, and it produces two bad results.

The first is that our minds get possessed by a standard expectation of emotional experience in conversion [so much sorrow for sin, so much agony of search, so much excess of joy]. We deduce this expectation from conversion stories known to us, probably starting with those of Paul, Augustine, Luther, Bunyan, Wesley, and our own, and then we use it as a yardstick for judging whether our contemporaries are converted. This is sad and silly. Conversion experiences, even those that are sudden and dateable [and perhaps only a minority of them are], vary too much to fit any standard expectations, and the effect of using this yardstick is that we are often found dismissing as unconverted many who show abundant signs of present convertedness, while continuing to treat as converted folk who look as if the standard experience to which they once testified has now completely worn off. The truth is, as the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards knew, that no emotional state or sequence as such, no isolated experience considered on its own, can be an unambiguous index of new birth, and we shall make endless errors if we think and judge otherwise. Only a life of present convertedness can justify confidence that a person was converted at some point in his or her past.

Problem Free Life?

We all need to experience New Birth.

The second bad result is that in our evangelistic presentations Christ appears not as the centre of attention and himself the key to life's meaning, but as a figure - sometimes a very smudgy figure - brought in as the answer to some preset egocentric questions of our own [How may I find peace of conscience? peace of heart and mind when under pressure? happiness? joy? power for living?]. The necessity of faithful discipleship to Jesus, and the demands of it, are not stressed [some even think that as a matter of principle they should not be], and so the cost of following Jesus is not counted. In consequence, our evangelism reaps large crops of still unconverted folk who think they can cast Jesus for the role of P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves, calling him in and making use of him as Saviour and Helper, while declining to have him as Lord. Also, it brings in great numbers who, misled by the glowing one-sidedness of our message, have assumed that Christ can be relied on to shield those who are his from all major trouble. The first group become dead wood in our churches, if they do not drift away entirely. The second group experiences traumatic upsets - traumatic, because they expected the opposite.

I quote this testimony at random from the Christian press: "My husband…and I were youth directors in our church…when our 2 1/2 year old son accidentally drowned. We had lived for the Lord and never lost anyone. We thought we would be spared such things. I went through four years numb, not understanding, not accepting my anger, continuing to try to be strong. I really was not talking to anyone about the pain and finally went into deep depression…" The nurture that leaves Christians with false expectations of the kind confessed here and with no resources save the stiff upper lip for coping when trouble strikes, is defective to the point of cruelty. Where do these expectations come from? Are they just wishful thinking, or have they been induced by external factors? It seems very plain that the salesmanlike man centeredness of so much of our evangelism, cracking up the benefits and minimizing the burdens of the Christian life and thereby fixing the lines on which converts will subsequently think, is one root cause to which they ought to be traced.

How could we purge our evangelism of its excessive and damaging subjectivity? The short answer is: by learning to keep in step with the Spirit's new covenant ministry and to focus more directly on Jesus Christ himself as Saviour God, as model human being, as coming Judge, as Lover of the weak, poor, and unlovely, and as Leader along the path of cross bearing that he himself trod. Then we could correct the standard-experience stereotype of conversion, stressing that conversion is essentially not feelings at all, but personal commitment to this Christ. Then, too, we could correct the habit of treating conversion experiences in isolation as signs of Christian authenticity, by stressing that the only proof of past conversion is present convertedness. Also we could then correct the irreverent idea that Jesus the Saviour is there to be used, by stressing that as God incarnate he must be worshipped both by words of praise and by works of service.

In addition, we could then correct the bed-of-roses idea of the Christian life, by stressing that while, as Richard Baxter put it,

Christ leads me through no darker rooms
Than he went through before,

Christ's way was the way of a resurrection experience following a death experience, and we must expect to find that he is constantly taking us along that same road in one or other of its thousand different forms.

Finally, we could then correct woolliness of view as to what Christian commitment involves, by stressing the need for constant meditation on the four gospels, over and above the rest of our Bible reading; for gospel study enables us both to keep our Lord in clear view and to hold before our minds the relational frame of discipleship to him. The doctrines on which our discipleship rests are clearest in the epistles, but the nature of discipleship itself is most vividly portrayed in the gospels. Some Christians seem to prefer the epistles to the gospels and talk of graduating from the gospels to the epistles as if this were a mark of growing up spiritually; but really this attitude is a very bad sign, suggesting that we are more interested in theological notions than in fellowship with the Lord Jesus in person. We would think, rather, of the theology of the epistles as preparing us to understand better the disciple relationship with Christ that is set forth in the gospels, and we should never let ourselves forget that the four gospels are, as has often and rightly been said, the most wonderful books on earth.

excerpt from Keep In Step With The Spirit by J. I. Packer

For more information about Glenn Davis see our About Glenn page and/or his Author's Page.

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