Monday, October 1, 2012

Saving Grace (4): The New Birth

Audio available, and here.
Psalm 51, 2 Kings 4.8-37, John 3.1-18, 1 Peter 1.13-25

Our fall ROOTS message series this year has looked at four of John Wesley’s 53 standard sermons. We’ve focused on themes of salvation and grace. We started with Salvation by Faith, then The Almost Christian and The Witness of the Spirit. Today, we finish this series with The New Birth (sermon 39).

I mentioned the theme with some friends this week and heard, "Well, my wife is not going to hear this. No new birth in our house!" It was a joke, and it is based on the mistake Nicodemus made when he was meeting with Jesus: Literalism. But Jesus was speaking figuratively, not literally – and speaking truth: "You MUST be born again."

Today, most folks have heard the expression "born again". It has become, for some, a description of a certain kind of Christian person. "Are you a Christian?" "Yes, but I’m not one of those ‘born-again-ers’." It has become associated with aggressive evangelism, judgmental conviction, and narrow-mindedness. Of course, that doesn’t even vaguely resemble Jesus, who gives us this phrase. So, I suggest to you that any negative associations you have with the expression be laid aside as we look at the biblical text through the lens of John Wesley.

A little background: The expression "born again" shows up only on two passages in the Bible. One is in Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus in John 3, a passage that uses the phrase more than once. The other is in 1 Peter 1.23. Both cases use the phrase the same way, and both are translated into English in multiple ways: "born again", "born from above", "born anew". A parallel phrase, "born of the Spirit", shows up in Galatians 4.29 as well as in John 3. Notice that in this image, it is the Spirit of God who gives birth, a decidedly feminine image.

Though it is not a frequent phrase in the Bible, Wesley tells us that it was a common expression among Jews of Jesus’ time. It was an expression for baptism of "heathen" Gentiles as they converted and became Jews, in preparation for their circumcision (II.3). So, why would Nicodemus, a leading teacher, be surprised and confused? Why would he so easily slip into literalism? Literalism is self-defense. Literalism is the way we protect ourselves from the power of the Word. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that HE must be born again. But Nicodemus is already a Jew. He was born a Jew. He was circumcised. He is a leading teacher among the Jews, not an "unclean" Gentile. He is one of the good guys. He doesn’t need conversion, maybe improvement, probably self-improvement with no outside help, but definitely not conversion. "YOU must be born again." So, he retreats, covers himself with literalism, because he is protecting himself from the very plain meaning of Jesus’ words: Nicodemus, the religious leader, the good guy, needs the new birth just like all the "heathen".

Wesley says that the new birth, "renewing our fallen nature", along with justification, "forgiving our sins", are the two "fundamental" doctrines of the Christian faith (Intro.1). (He uses the term "fundamental" 200 years before the movement by that name.) And, Wesley goes on to answer three questions about the doctrine of the new birth:

"Why must we be born again?
How must we be born again?
Wherefore must we be born again?" (Intro.2)

Why must we be born again? The human problem.
Wesley reminds us of the Genesis story of Creation and Fall. We were made in God’s image – spiritual beings with understanding, free will, and immortality. We were made in God’s image – and given authority to govern and care for this world. We were made in God’s image – moral beings, holy, and full of love (I.1).

But we ate the forbidden fruit, and, as God promised "thou shalt surely die". Wesley writes, "In that day he did die; he died to God – the most dreadful of all deaths. He lost the life of God.... The body dies when it is separated from the soul; the soul, when it is separated from God" (I.2). After they ate the forbidden fruit, the man and his wife had their eyes open, they saw their nakedness and for the first time they felt shame. They hid themselves in the garden, hid themselves from God. It is such a futile thing. What made them think that they could hide from God? They were separated from God and immediately "lost both the knowledge and love of God, without which the image of God could not subsist.... And became unholy as well as unhappy. ... He had sunk into pride and self-will, the very image of the devil; and into sensual appetites and desires, the image of the beasts that perish" (I.2).

Quoting the apostle Paul, Wesley goes on, "In Adam all died" (1 Corinthians 15.22, Romans 5; Wesley, I.4). "Every one descended from [Adam] comes into the world spiritually dead ... wholly dead in sin ... void of the image of God .... This, then, is the foundation of the new birth – the entire corruption of our nature. Hence it is, that, being born in sin, we must be ‘born again’" (I.4).

Tough language, and we may want to quibble with it. I certainly would. I would want to say to Wesley that, in my humble opinion, even in our state of being "dead in sin" there is something recognizable in us as the image of God, just as we recognize something of the person we love in their body after physical death. But the biblical testimony is quite clear: We’re dead. Sin killed us. And we won’t begin a new life without a new birth.

How must we be born again? The divine solution
Wesley knows that we want more detail on this – exactly how does it happen? – we want more detail on this than the Scripture makes available. He points out what Jesus says to Nicodemus about the wind: "It blows where it wills. You hear the sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going" (II.2). The "how" we get from Jesus and Wesley is not the nuts and bolts. It is simply that God brings new life, that God works a "great change" in the soul. It is nothing less than a new creation in Christ, a renewal of the image of God in righteousness and true holiness (II.5, Ephesians 4.24, 2 Corinthians 5.17).

In this description, Wesley extends the birth metaphor by discussing actual human birth: "Before a child is born into the world he has eyes, but sees not" (II.4). At the moment of birth, we begin to breathe. Why? Because just as God breathed his breath into the first man, God breathes into us. Wesley describes the new birth in this way: "Grace is descending into [your] heart; and prayer and praise ascending to heaven; ... as by a kind of spiritual respiration the life of God in the soul is sustained" (II.4). It is a beautiful description of prayer as our life breath, keeping us connected to the breath of God.

A Bethany story: Emily, a young girl, came for baptism because "I feel the Spirit". "Tell me about this." "One night, I just felt the Spirit, and I breathed deep."

Wherefore must we be born again? The enduring blessings.
We must be born again for holiness. So often, when we hear about holiness, we fixate on rules. John Wesley focused on love. And, in this sermon, he went back to the foundational first question – why we must be born again, the human problem. We must be born again because we were made in the image of God and sin has destroyed or damaged that image in us. "Holiness," John Wesley writes, "is no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart; it is no other than the whole mind which was in Christ Jesus" (III.1).

We must be born again, secondly, for salvation. "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord" (III.2, Hebrews 12.14). If you want to see God, that is, if you want eternal salvation, then you need the new birth. He reminds us of how easy it is for our deceitful hearts to "flatter" ourselves: He’s honest, she’s virtuous, they won’t miss heaven. Won’t I do as well as them? "Yes," Wesley declares, "as well as your unholy neighbors; as well as your neighbors that die in their sins! For you will all drop into the pit together...!" (III.2). If none can be holy without being born again, and if holiness is required to see God, then the new birth brings the blessing of our eternal salvation.

We must be born again, finally, for happiness "even in this world. For it is not possible ... that a man should be happy who is not holy" (III.3). "Malice, hatred, envy, jealousy, revenge create a present hell in the breast; but even the softer passions, if not kept within due bounds, give a thousand times more pain than pleasure" (III.3). True happiness is rooted in holiness, and holiness comes with new life, which begins with new birth. Therefore, the new birth brings the blessing of true happiness.

It does not matter who we are. We must be born again. We must be born again because sin killed us, separating us from God and from God’s image in our lives. We must be born again for holiness, eternal salvation, and true happiness. And it is nothing less than the gift of God.

"Today is the day of salvation" (Luke 19.9, 2 Corinthians 6.2). Today, humble yourselves before God, confess your sin, and ask for this gift.

Resources:"The New Birth", John Wesley, in his standard sermons. Available online at

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