Been on something of a hiatus the last month or so, but Lord willing, I’m getting back into a blogging routine again. And for starters, there’s been a pleasant conversation going on in the blogosphere regarding regeneration, the new birth, new hearts, and what exactly we mean by those words. My friend Jim Jordan has questioned whether the Bible really pictures the “new birth” as some sort of permanent change in the nature of individuals. He prefers to describe salvation as the Spirit wrestling with all baptized individuals in various ways, some persevering, some falling away, though recognizing that people are reoriented in their affections and desires toward God. My friend Doug Wilson has wanted to preserve the idea that something does in fact change in the person, though recognizing that we ought not become a soul gestapo, nor do we denigrate the real, normative grace of the covenant, the sacraments, and the many ways the Spirit works through fellowship and families, formal discipline, etc.
Seems to me that 95% or more of both perspectives are completely compatible. The Bible describes salvation in terms of once-for-all conversions and rebirths, and the history of the church is full of these testimonies. At the same time, many of us covenant kids grow up and experience dozens of “mini-conversions” to Jesus (maybe mostly in the wood shed with faithful moms and dads), but with a fundamental loyalty to God as far back as we can remember. And three cheers for that.
Here’s just a few thoughts on something that occurred to me related to the conversation:
We confess that all things are upheld by the power of God’s word. All things hold up and hold together because Jesus holds them together. And if He thought otherwise, He might snap His fingers and we might disappear in a wink. But as precarious as this sounds, God has given creation being, existence, and though it is always upheld by Him, and exists because of Him, it is nevertheless given this nature of being, and always simply because He likes it that way.
Now what my friends are talking about is whether we ought to describe the new birth/regeneration as something primarily in terms of a way of relating to God or whether there is a substantial, ontological, change of nature in an individual who is converted. Is the “new heart” a symbolic way of describing a new orientation to God through Jesus and His Spirit? Or is the “new heart” or the “rebirth” something more substantial in the individual? Is the individual transfigured? Does something change permanently when a man, woman, or child meets Jesus in a forgiving, saving way that will last forever?
But maybe it would help to ask the question this way: Does Jesus give people eternal life? Or do they live forever simply by virtue of walking with Him forever? But when we ask the question this way, it seems almost funny, and I immediately want to exclaim, “It’s both, of course!” Does the universe go on doing its thing because it has the power to go on doing its thing in itself? Or does it go on doing it’s thing because the Lord of the universe continues to bid it so? Well, the Lord of the universe bids it do so precisely by speaking the universe with the energy and life and power to go on doing so. So it seems to me that the being/nature/communion question ought not divide. All things exist and cohere in Jesus. So an individual who meets Jesus, is forgiven, and lives forever does so because the word of Christ bids him do so, and the word of Christ bids all the atoms and electrons to keep right on cranking in such a way as to make that reality. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.
At the same time, I’d toss out my sympathy with those who want to insist on a real change in the nature of individuals precisely because of the already-nature that we’re created with. If salvation is a “new creation” it cannot be any less given than the old creation. Of course it’s “givenness” is absolutely contingent on the word of Jesus, but when God spoke the original creation He spoke the sun, the moon, and stars, and those fixtures are still beaming down on us a few thousand years later. And while God is free to uncreate the world, free to mix and match pieces of creation, free to have those pieces swap places, He hasn’t and they remain what they were created to be. The new creation cannot be less real than the old creation, it cannot be less substantial than what God’s word ordinarily creates.
But God speaks other words too. Sometimes He speaks words like “light” and light appears. And other times, He says “rise and fall of the Roman Empire” and that happens, but by definition it is created and has its existence over hundreds of years. But the fact or the event and all the necessary details bound up with it, including a baby-faced tyrant named Nero, are not negotiable. God doesn’t speak “lizard” and then sit down for negotiations with atomic particles and molecular structures. But still further, just to keep things interesting, God sometimes says things like “Don’t kill,” and some people receive this word as life, and it becomes part of the word that speaks forever-life into their existence and still others struggle against it, contradict it, and ironically destroy themselves with it.
And add to this the fact that we don’t believe in reincarnation. What I mean is that in the resurrection we will not be raised as completely different sorts of beings. Sylvester Stallone will not be raised as a chipmunk, and Rihanna will not be raised as a toadstool (as fun as either of those options sound). Rather, the children of the devil will be raised to eternal death and torment while the children of God will be raised to glory and the forever life of being conformed to the image of Christ.
So here’s our pile of thoughts, but maybe the fundamental question we’re all toying with is this: what is the nature of God’s word in the eternal salvation of people? Is the word that speaks “eternal life” qualitatively like the word that says “light” — or is it more like the word “love one another” or something else? I want to say that for those who persevere, it’s both.
But in covenant theology, there’s a category for those who are invited into the life of God’s people, who share in the covering of God’s covenant grace, who taste and see the benefits, and yet they are hypocrites, apostates, unbelievers who have tasted, participated, and enjoyed some aspect of this life. But for all that, it wasn’t “eternal life” for them because, well, it wasn’t eternal.
This side of the resurrection is messy and multi-layered, and we don’t need to do the calculus on every human heart. At the same time, if we take the “new creation” language seriously, the “eternal life” language seriously, and the end of the story (sheep and goats, wheat and tares, heaven and hell, etc.), it seems to me that we also need to insist that despite the messiness, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: those who have life and those who don’t, those who know God and those who don’t. And while we must insist that there are some who believe for a time, some who taste of the powers of the age to come and fall away, some who are grafted into the vine and are later cut out, we also have to insist that in the decrees of God, the word spoken to them was not “let there be life” — it was another sort of word.
But when Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth from the grave, he always obeys, and when those who are dead in their sins rise to newness of life, there’s no going back into the grave. Call it reorientation, repentance, rebirth, whatever, but it’s something fundamentally new, the gift of faith is really given, the gift of life is really bestowed, and all those given to the Son cannot be lost (Jn. 6:39).