Reflections on Regeneration (2)
If we were to believe that "regeneration" was nothing more than a new status before God which is the result of his grace, that would ease some difficulties, but that's not what the Reformed idea of regeneration (new birth) is. For them, and some are more rigid than others, don't you know, it's a moral transformation worked by the sovereign Lord, the Holy Spirit, irresistibly recreating a God-hating, seething rebel into a God-adoring, holiness-loving and righteousness-pursuing saint. It is no "touch-up"—it is a complete obliteration of the structures of evil that were part of the sinner. It is not merely the forgiveness of past sins and a place as one of God's children—it's a moral recreation in the image of Jesus.
As surely, they tell us, as the unforgiven one was dead in sin, as a result of the new birth the forgiven one is dead to sin. Great stress is laid on the metaphors "dead" and "born again". The utter impossibility of a corpse choosing or desiring anything is stressed and the utter impossibility of a child birthing itself is stressed. The aim is to give God all the glory for holistic redemption and take away any possible grounds for a sinner taking a share in that glory. The aim is laudable but God isn't nearly as concerned about that matter as they are and the approach they take to gain their aim is over-anxious and too lawyer-like.
Certainly Paul said the Colossians were dead in their sins (Colossians 3:13, and see Ephesians 2:1) and that the Roman Christians were dead to sin (Romans 6:11). He said the Ephesians & Colossians were "resurrected" out of their death in sin and Peter told his (Jewish) readers that they were "born again" by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3). Paul says something very similar--linking it to baptism (see Colossians 2:10-12).
We might have thought that since the metaphor of "death" is used in reference to death in sin and death to sin that we should see them as equally forceful and in opposition. We're told that those who are "dead" in sin have absolutely no desire for righteousness or holiness, that we might as well be offering a corpse food as offer an unforgiven sinner God or righteousness. Why is it then that those who are said to be dead to sin so often run after it, are pleased by it and take pleasure in it?
We're told that those not yet born again are dominated by godless selfishness and a hatred for all that is holy, corrupted in every facet of their existence and spiralling down further into the practice of sin. We might have thought since being "born again" (regenerated) and being now a new moral creature (not just forgiven—but a new moral creation!) that they would have no desire to sin, that they would take no pleasure in it, that the very thought of it would repulse them. And yet Peter warns them with great seriousness to rid themselves of all malice and guile and envy and hypocrisy (1 Peter 2:1 and see 1:13-23). Paul urges those who were recreated in the image of Jesus to rid themselves of all kinds of evil behaviour (Ephesians 5:1-20 and Colossians 3:1—4:1).
Yes, I know, we're told about growth in holiness. That is a biblical truth and about that there should be no doubt; but it isn't the biblical witness that's in question here—what's in doubt is an interpretation of the biblical witness. We are being led to believe that the "new birth" is the utter destruction of our moral corruption and the creation of a new man entirely—so we want to know how someone born again can sin and take pleasure in it. If we're told they shouldn't our response is that they do! If we're told they shouldn't our response is that it should be impossible for them to do it and yet they do. If we're told that born again people don't sin and often find pleasure in it then we say these people are not living in the same world we're living in. [1 John insists that those who are truly God's people have a life policy—they pursue Christ's likeness and as a life policy they renounce wickedness and embrace righteousness.]
The always sinless Jesus grew in holiness (Luke 2:40, 52) but there was nothing in him that sin could cling on to (compare John 14.30). Growth in holiness isn't a difficult concept to take hold of but when we're told that all the inner structures of evil--structures without which we couldn't sin--have been destroyed, the attitudes and dispositions, the capacity to desire sin—we find it hard to understand how such a person can sin at all! If the new birth is the complete opposite of the old Adamic birth how is sin possible?
Let me ask it again, if "dead" in sin is to be understood as a spiritual and moral utter incapacity to seek to do righteousness what are we to think of "dead" to sin? With laser-like precision and mathematical exactitude and geometrical certainty we define words and "explain" metaphors to absurd lengths and then wonder why people nod their heads in disbelief. Our response at their inability to believe our "lawyering"? "That's proof of their need for the new birth," Oh well.
Maybe if "dead" to sin is true despite the presence in Christians of (at times) the capacity to drink at a poisonous fountain then "dead" in sin is true despite the capacity in the non-Christian to be hungry for and eat the moral crumbs from a gracious Holy Lord's table. Maybe if those who are "born again" still sin then those who are not yet born again still know and practice the things of the Lord (compare Romans 2:6-16).
[There's something astonishing about the way Christian people who believe this Reformed teaching castigate their foes. They absolutely rage against society, calling it to practice righteousness and upright behaviour as if they believed society could even want to do it much less be able to do it. In their books and sermons and cds they teach this utter incapacity doctrine and then whip society unmercifully for not doing what it's utterly incapable of doing! They say society is born sold under sin by Adam and morally corrupt to the point that they are dead to any possibility to act in righteousness and then rage at them as if they didn't believe a word of their own teaching. Is that not a miracle?
And what happens when non-Christians do something morally fine or have a character that expresses itself habitually, life-long, in kindness? These same people dismiss it as "nothing but filthy rags." They run to texts that say you can't save yourself. I had one man tell me (hand on my heart!) that it was a form of hypocrisy. At least he was consistent and prepared to speak so boldly! With that doctrine how could it be anything else? Many of the other kind that hold his views slink off muttering things about "common grace" and "God doesn't save us by our good works!" Good grief!]
Most of us don't need to be persuaded that the entire human family--ourselves included--has been over-run by Sin and that the only Saviour is the Lord God. We see that in scripture, in ourselves and all around us. We don't need these overly-refined explanations that give the wicked an alibi and makes puppets out of humans.