I wrote my beef about “regeneration” a decade ago, and I don’t really see the need to reopen what I think now. (Jordan, Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration: Some Tentative Explorations. Biblical Horizons Occasional Paper No. 32; available for $5.00 from Biblical Horizons, Box 1096, Niceville, FL 32588.)
My pal Doug Wilson has been writing a series of essays on “Life in the Regeneration” (I like the title!) and I’m being constrained to say something. So let me do this as a series of points.
1. I’m a postmillennialist, because I actually believe (gasp!) that Jesus was serious when He said He intended to disciple all nations.
So, I don’t think I have to get everything right today. In fact, I know I won’t. In the year AD 35,678, some theologian in what is now Sri Lanka will come up with the very best explanation of the things under discussion, and I’m willing to wait.
2. As a Federal Visionary (?) I want to use Bible language the way the Bible uses it whenever I can do so. Well, “regeneration” in the Bible means the new age. In the regeneration the twelve Jewish apostles will rule over the tribes of Israel, in the way Jesus did (by teaching, miracles, and martyrdom). This happened in the Apostolic Age. (Mt. 19:28).
Also baptism places every baptized person into the New Age (Titus 3:5). It does not turn him magically into a faithful believer. While in Titus Paul is speaking about faith-full believers, the baptism of nations into the new age has also a wider significance, just as did the baptism of the nation Israel in the Red Sea.
France today is a baptized nation. Are most people faithful believers? No. But is this a nation that lives with archaic taboos of sex, food, calendar, and location? No. They are post-Christian secular humanists. They have moved into the New Age. They are an apostate Christian culture. It happened in history. There’s no going back.
This is true whether French atheists take their babies for baptism or not (and many do!). Jesus said nations would be transferred by baptism from old to new, and they are.
3. The “washing of regeneration” can also have a closer meaning. Children are baptized into the church and receive a new life in the Spirit. They sing new songs, have new aunts and uncles, speak new words, learn some of the Bible, and so forth. Some do not persevere, but pretty much all Christian children have a gut loyalty to Jesus. Yes, they do. And the new life that was given them was, yes, a new life.
And they can never escape it. Never. If they die apostate, they die as apostate Christians.
Note well, the new life that children have is in Christ. They are included in the Messianic Community whose Head is Jesus Christ. They are not “partly” in Christ. Those who eventually fall away were not “pseudo” in Christ. They have the new life, as described above, which life comes from Jesus via the Spirit in the Messianic Community.
4. “Regeneration” as it is often used (moving away from how the Bible uses it) can also mean a new life that is familiar with God, friendly with God. The question here is whether such regenerations must be permanent or can be temporary. Here is the Scylla and Charybdis of this discussion. Some say that regeneration must be permanent. This has come to be the conventional “Calvinistic” notion. Others, like me, say that because the new life is in Christ, if a person turn away from being in Christ he loses his regeneration in that sense, becoming, we may say, de-generate. But he was once truly regenerated, sincerely given new life by God, the God of truth who never lies. God does not trick anyone by giving them a mere “taste” of the Kingdom and then damning them.
5. This whole business of “regenerated” (using the word in a way the Bible does not) Christians who fall away is a mystery. Adam was created good, not neutral. God blessed him (Gen. 1:28; compare Num. 6:22-27). So, how can a sinless person blessed by God turn away from Him? How is that possible? If you think you can understand this, I recommend you think again. You cannot. You would have to be God to understand it.
The same is true when we consider how a person who is changed and reoriented to God, and given the Holy Spirit, can turn away and be damned. Consider Saul. The Holy Spirit came upon him mightily (1 Sam. 10:6). He was given a new heart (v. 9). He prophesied (v. 10; and consider Acts 2:17). He received a new father (Samuel; vv.11-12). Is there something missing here? What else does the text need to say to indicate that Saul was “regenerated” (better: reoriented)? But later on, Saul attacked the Lord’s anointed, David. He murdered the priests, which was a direct assault on God Himself. He wound up participating in a memorial feast with unleavened bread with a witch. And at the last he committed suicide. He never took any opportunity to repent.
6. The recent Calvinistic notion that “true regeneration” means a person will never fall away is simply not borne out by the facts. And it is a dangerous notion, in my opinion. For one thing, it means none of the warnings in Hebrews or anywhere else in the Bible are real, because “regenerate” people cannot fall away, and “unregenerate” people were never in the faith at all and there’s nothing they can do (or want to do) to get themselves elected and regenerated. For another thing, it has meant a tendency to replace faith-religion with sight-religion, the most famous and horrid example being the “visible sainthood” business that the Puritans got themselves into. Trusting God’s promises was not good enough for these Puritans; they had to see evidence of “real conversion,” and of course they did not see this in their children, who had grown up in a normal Christian way living the life of faith and obedience but not going through any crises.
The influential pentecostal Calvinistic Methodist Martyn Lloyd-Jones created a good deal of havoc in England doing just this stuff. A British friend told me that toward the end, Lloyd-Jones had half the evangelicals in England worrying about whether they were really born again because they had not had the kind of glorious Holy Spirit baptism that Lloyd-Jones was pushing. Men and women were begging God for this blessing, and not receiving it were moving into despair. I personally know of more than one case of this.
7. Instead of lodging an anchor of perseverance in a changed individual, we need to see the unchanging anchor and heart as Jesus Himself. “If anyone is in Christ – a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).” Outside of Christ, no new creation. “Your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears” (Col. 3:3-4). Outside of Christ, no new life. A person has a new life and is a new creation as long as he clings to Jesus; but if he turns away he loses his participation in new life and in the new creation.
As I wrote in my paper at some length, the new heart of Ezekiel 36 is not some new heart in individuals, but is Jesus. Ezekiel is in the temple, as he was a high priest, and in the holy of holies (the heart) of the Temple was the Word Made Stone – a wonderful thing, solid, dependable, but temporary and not powerful enough to cause men to life the right way. There is something better coming: the Word Made Flesh, and that is the new heart. This by the way is just how Paul understands Ezekiel in 2 Corinthians 3.
If our regeneration is in Christ, united to His resurrection from the womb of the earth, then our perseverance lies in clinging to Jesus. From God’s side, we persevere because Jesus prays for us (John 17) and sends the Spirit to keep us.
8. Doesn’t God change peoples’ “natures” somehow, so that they now want to receive Jesus and put faith in Him? This is the normal recent Calvinistic understanding, that God regenerates people hearts and then they turn to Jesus. Peter Leithart has dealt with this matter quite well here and here and here. There is also good information here. The question involves what is a “nature,” and also whether God does things impersonally to people. There seems to be hidden here a notion of “grace” that is really like the Force from Star Wars, so that God sends an infusion of grace-stuff into peoples’ “hearts” and that changes them so that then they enter into a personal relationship with God.
Well, I don’t think so. I believe that the only kind of relationship we can have with God is personal. We either like God or we don’t. What happens when an adult is converted is that God reorients him from hating Him to liking Him. I do not see the Bible probing into the mysteries here, and I believe that numerous passages have been misread precisely because of the influence of this mechanical notion of salvation (such as John 3, Ezekiel 36, etc.).
The misreading is also due to the influence of Socratic and Cartesian thinking. Socrates said, “Know yourself.” Nothing more stupid can be imagined from a Christian standpoint, given that we are infinitely complex images of God. As Rosenstock-Huessy says, “It is not given to man to know himself.” We must trust what the Bible says about us. Similarly, Descartes says, “I can doubt, so I know I exist.” (“I think, therefore I am.”) Nonsense. I know I exist because others speak to me. Both of these traditions are pretty individualistic. The individualism of the Enlightenment played into the development of the recent Calvinistic notion of personal “regeneration.” Understanding the New Heart, the New Life, the New Root, etc. as Jesus Christ, and our participation in union with Him, was not the order of the day. All these phrases and others were read as what happens to individuals.
9. The last bit simply has to do with church discipline. Doug in his blogessays is very concerned about warning Christians who are not living the Christian life. I completely agree. I’ve rebuked men before (it’s never pleasant), and most fled and left the church, though a couple appreciated my words and are friends now. What I do not see anywhere in the Bible is someone saying, “Friend, you aren’t regenerate. You have not been born again.” It would be kind of weird for Paul to say something like that, because there’s nothing a person can do about it. He cannot born himself again. He cannot create himself. He cannot ask God to predestinate him for salvation.
But the Bible certainly shows people being rebuked for sin, and in very strong language. A good example is Acts 7:51, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Etc.” Was Stephen saying, “You are unregenerate”? There’s really no reason to say that or to speak to unregenerate people at all, since they cannot hear what you have to say. No, Stephen charged them with deep sin and apostasy, but any such rebuke has to have an evangelical motive. The subtext is always, “Change your ways and repent while it is day, before the night comes and no man can repent.”
The theoretical theological question about “heart regeneration,” whatever that might or might not be, is simply off the table pastorally. We cannot know who is elect to eternal life, or whom God might choose to reorient to Himself. We preach and exhort and rebuke people as people, accountable to God. A baptized person caught up in a prevailing sin needs to be exhorted to turn back to Jesus, to reorient himself, to avail himself of the means of grace, such as worship, psalmody, the Lord’s Supper, and getting someone else to be accountable to in the body. An unbaptized person needs to be invited into the kingdom, and warned of the consequences of failing to do so.
I can mention that Doug Wilson has a good post on this matter here. I don’t agree with everything, as my essay here makes clear, but he has a good point about a pastor’s duty to evaluate and counsel people based on their narratives.
10. I’m myself not particularly bothered if someone wants to hold to the recent Calvinistic view of “heart regeneration” as a theory connected to the doctrine of predestination. What bothers me is when this theory is drawn down into the life of the church as if it is something we can actually understand and make applications from. I believe that doing this has had disastrous effects historically. I mentioned Martyn Lloyd-Jones, but we can also think about Primitive Baptists and any number of Dutch and Scottish sects in which people wait to be regenerated before they dare to come to the Lord’s Table.