Saturday, June 8, 2013

Misunderstanding the New Birth

    One of the great tragedies of modern Evangelicalism is that one of its cardinal doctrines, regeneration, is so poorly understood today. As a result there are very likely many church members sitting in our pews who think that they are "born again" when they show very little evidence of regeneration, and in all likelihood are unconverted. One might well ask how such a deplorable state of affairs ever came about.
    At the beginning of the 19th Century most Evangelicals did understand the doctrine of the new birth, and during the "Second Great Awakening" in America (ca. 1795-1835) it was not just a cherished belief but a living experience. Thousands were dramatically converted in the revivals that swept through America. It was a time when heaven truly visited earth.
    It was also a time, however, of intense theological discussion and debate, and one of the key issues under discussion was the age-old question of predestination v. free will. Unitarianism was on the rise; Calvinists were on the defensive. Beginning in the 1820's a prominent theologian at Yale named Nathaniel W. Taylor attempted to reformulate Calvinism. He argued that if human beings have a moral duty to believe, then they must have the natural ability to do so. Moral responsibility implies free will. It was not a new argument; it had been advanced in ancient times by a British monk named Pelagius, and for this reason is sometimes referred to as "Pelagianism" or "Semi-Pelagianism." But Taylor's ideas were picked up by the well-known evangelist Charles G. Finney and became widespread through his influence.
Charles G. Finney
  Finney was both brilliant and bold. A converted lawyer turned preacher, he did not hesitate to discard doctrines he did not think made sense. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he attacked Presbyterian theology. He specifically attacked the notion that human nature was depraved. "We deny that the human constitution is morally depraved, because it is impossible that sin should be a quality of the substance of soul or body. It is, and must be, a quality of choice or intention, and not of substance" (Systematic Theology, Chapter 20). What, then, is the new birth? Finney replies: "It is not a change in the substance of soul or body . . . No such change is needed, as the sinner has all the faculties and natural attributes requisite to render perfect obedience to God. All he needs is to be induced to use these powers and attributes as he ought" (Ibid., Chapter 23, IV). He then goes on to say that regeneration is essentially a change of mind: ". . . regeneration consists in the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference" (Ibid., VII.2). The Holy Spirit persuades the sinner to change his mind, but does not change anything in him to enable him to do so. According to Finney, the sinner already has the ability.

    This new way of thinking has had a devastating impact on American Evangelicalism, because it radically changed the way we go about doing ministry. Previously, churches prayed for revival. Today we organize a committee. We rely on natural means to achieve spiritual ends. Our prayer meetings are deserted, and genuine, lasting conversions are few. A five year old "asks Jesus into his heart," and at twenty five walks away from the faith. Hardly anyone, even in churches, has a sense of the presence of God as a living reality.
John Wesley
 Finney's viewpoint has often been attacked as "Arminianism," but it really is not. The old-time Methodists, who wore their Arminianism proudly on their sleeves, didn't hesitate to describe the new birth as a radical change produced by the Holy Spirit. John Wesley, who had seen real revival as a result of his own ministry, put it like this: the new birth is "that great change which God works in the soul, when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God, when it is 'created anew in Christ Jesus' . . ." (Sermons on Several Occasions, Sermon XLV: "The New Birth," II.5). Or, as John Wesley's brother Charles described it so beautifully in a hymn written shortly after his own conversion in 1738:

                "Long my imprisoned spirit lay
                    Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
                 Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,
                    I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
                 My chains fell off, my heart was free,
                    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee."
    Today many deplore the current trends in our culture, and rightly so. The foundations of Western Civilization are eroding away. But this is not likely to change until the church recovers the spiritual power it once had; and in order for this to happen we need to be reminded of how dependent we are upon the work of the Holy Spirit to achieve results in the ministry. Above all else, we need to pray. "But you do not have because you do not ask" (Jas. 4:2; NKJV).

No comments:

Post a Comment