Reflections on Regeneration (1)
I've made the proposal that Jesus isn't talking about Nicodemus' moral or spiritual condition when he spoke of his need of a "new birth". I don't deny that Nicodemus, like every other sinful human, needed God acting in pure grace to save him from the penalty and power of sin from which he could never save himself. I'm simply proposing that that is not what Jesus was talking about in John 3:3-8.
But moving on from there I'd like to respond a bit to the standard Evangelical presentation of "regeneration" (the new birth) because I can't help thinking there's more confusion than there needs to be.
The standard Evangelical presentation, particularly in the Reformed circles, begins with the understanding that due to Adam's sin everyone thereafter is born under God's condemnation because they are guilty because they are Adam's descendants. (Romans 5:12-19 is one text that would figure prominently in the discussion.) They are born not only guilty before God, they are also born morally corrupt and as they grow they prove, by personal sin, not only their guilt but their inherited moral corruption. All humans, from Adam to this day—without exception (well, One exception)—are born morally polluted, godless in their self-seeking and incapable of wanting to please God. It is more than the truth that they cannot save themselves; they cannot want God to save them; cannot even care that they are lost and it is even a question if they can discern that they are lost. In this state every human remains until God in grace and power, utterly and absolutely independent of the sinner transforms the inner world of the sinner and makes him into a new man. It's because they are in this state that they must have God to work a moral miracle in and for them for they cannot save themselves. This is where "the new birth" teaching enters.
[All this being true, there was no way that Nicodemus could understand the truth Jesus was speaking. Jesus might as well have been speaking to the wall for Nicodemus was born incapable of understanding it and would remain that way until the Holy Spirit transformed him within. As Packer will express it, Nicodemus was blind and couldn't discern spiritual realities. It doesn't matter that God uses the gospel to bring about the new birth, without God's prevenient grace Nicodemus could not savingly receive special grace by which to savingly understand and obey the gospel.]
If the matter were only left the way P. E Hughes expressed it in an article on Grace in Elwell's Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, not only would it make sense it would accord with the plain sense of the NT. "God does not treat men as though they were puppets with no mind or will of their own…By Christ's command the gospel of divine grace is freely proclaimed throughout the whole world…Those who turn away from it do so of their own choice and stand self-condemned as lovers of darkness…Those who thankfully receive it do so in full personal responsibility…but then they give all the praise to God because their whole redemption is, in some wonderful way, due entirely to the grace of God and not at all to themselves."
But that isn't enough for many in the Reformed tradition. The only will a sinner has is the one he was born with—utterly incapable of doing other than rejecting God and loving darkness. The corrupt will is his own in the sense that he was born with it; but he didn't ask for it and he can't even want to do anything about it! Even if God asked him, "Do you want me to do something about it?" he couldn't say yes! Until God works a moral miracle on him (the new birth) he cannot even truly discern what state he is in and wouldn't truly know what God meant!
[This all seems so contrary to the plain meaning of vast tracts of scripture and what we see in daily life that qualifications are made at every turn. The doctrine is adjusted to meet the facts but such is the fear of Pelagianism and some faces of Roman Catholic teaching that the problematic aspects of it remain entrenched and sinners are puppets. God must get the glory even if existence becomes a stage play.]
By the time this doctrinal development is done you can't even take the sinner's "thanksgiving" for salvation at face value. He doesn't choose—he merely responds. Of course we're told that isn't true because his will has been set free from corruption so that it can freely choose righteousness and thanksgiving; but that won't work. The "new birth" might only be the beginning of God's regenerating work but we're told (Calvin and others stressed this) that it is a lifelong work of God so it isn't as though the sinner is given a free will and independently exercises it. The new birth, they tell us, is the result of efficacious and irresistible grace and the continuing work of regeneration is on the same basis. There's simply nothing you can do about it because, we're told, God is omnipotent. According to this doctrine, once you've been given a gift you can't possibly refuse you can't possibly refuse to do other with it than what God irresistibly wants you to do. You can't tell him you don't want his "new birth"; he works a moral miracle and you want it without having wanted to want it. Now that you have what you had no choice in getting, your "free" will irresistibly follows where you are irresistibly led. [Make no mistake—the stress on "monergism" says precisely that—you don't choose or in any shape or form cooperate with the new birth and how it develops, the Holy Spirit alone restructures your entire inner world, including your choosing/willing faculty.]
We're left with a world of good puppets and bad puppets.