Experiencing New Birth

All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for instruction, for being persuaded, for correction, and for being guided in righteousness so that the child of God may be complete, having been fully equipped for every good work.

—2 Timothy 3:16-17 [My translation]

For several weeks I have been writing and preaching that our faith in the Lordship of Jesus, shown in our baptism, is the foundation upon which we can be “born again.” What I mean by this phrase “born again” is the sense St. Augustine uses when he describes our experience of the “first resurrection” of our souls through direct and personal encounter with the resurrected Lord. Just as Jesus breathed his Spirit into the disciples (John 20:22) after their own baptism, experience of the empty tomb, and confession of faith, our faith prepares us for the fullness of Christ’s presence in us in this spiritual rebirth, or being “born again.” In short, we must be born anew in the Spirit, sealed by Christ’s presence in us, to become what God would have us to be: clothed in Christ and conformed to his image.

The obvious question for most of us is, “How do we experience this new birth?” Well, first off, the new birth isn’t a work or something we can achieve on our way to some sort of “higher” knowledge of God. It is a gift freely given by Christ in the power of his Spirit, and bestowed upon his own in faith. Here, we get down to brass tacks. If it is freely given by Christ through faith, then it must come through encounter with him alone. Solo Christo; by Christ alone.

If this is the case, then there is one surefire way to meet him, and that is by reading, breathing in, and immersing oneself in the Word of God, Scripture, which is the word we must hear and trust alone concerning the Word, Jesus Christ (see John 1:1). This is exactly what we hear Paul telling us about Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Scripture is God-breathed. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit who breathed meaning and truth into the writers of Scriptures. The same Holy Spirit who breathed life into those pages breathes life into us as we read and understand who Christ is (seeing him on every page) by the Spirit’s inspiration.

Breathed into by God the Spirit through this witness without parallel, we are instructed, persuaded, corrected, and guided in every good way so that we can be complete. In short, as we read Scripture, the Spirit opens us and fills us with Christ’s presence, building us in faith and making us complete in him. There is no other way to get there; no shortcut. We must read, study, and be engrossed by Scripture, and in that encounter, we come face-to-face with the living Lord who breathes his life into us.

If we understand this rightly, we can certainly look to our baptism as the sure promise that God (in God’s time) will make us complete in faith by the power of the Spirit and bring us through this “new birth.” Nevertheless, a simple dunking or sprinkling will never suffice. I affirm, as it is stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, that while baptism is of central importance, “grace and salvation are not so inseparably [tied] to it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated” (Chapter XXVIII, s.5). In other words, baptism is a sure promise, but our baptisms are made sure through faith as God’s gift to the believer. Faith is required, and faith comes only through an indwelling/sealing of the Spirit in the new birth. If you desire to receive that gift of saving faith, we belong to One who freely bestows it to those who seek him. Knock, and it shall be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).

Of course, some would argue that baptism equals the new birth/gift of the Spirit. They point to theologians like Luther, who, they claim, taught that new birth equals baptism, and that all other talk of being born again, or experiencing the first resurrection, is an unnecessary complication (see Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Shameless). For example, Luther writes that those who are tempted or doubt should remember their baptisms, and that the Christian ought “to be nourished and strengthened until death by the continual remembrance of this promise made to us in baptism” (Babylonian Captivity of the Church). They also point to Luther’s maxim that “the only way to drive away the Devil is through faith in Christ, by saying: ‘I have been baptized, I am a Christian’” (Luther: Man between God and the Devil).

I agree with Luther, and I especially agree that “unless faith is present or is conferred in baptism, baptism will profit us nothing” (Babylonian Captivity of the Church). Baptism requires faith, faith comes by the Spirit, and the indwelling of the Spirit is the free gift of God. This makes perfect sense in Luther’s case. Though baptized, he spent years in despair of God’s salvation. However, the promises of God were sure in his baptism, but only in God’s time and as that baptism was made effective in the gift of faith. Luther himself recounts how this happened for him. Through his devoted reading and study of Scripture, the time came when the gift of faith and rebirth was given, and he finally understood Paul’s words in Romans 1:17 that “the righteous shall live by faith.” When the Spirit moved upon him to receive the utter truth of this declaration, he writes, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates” (Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings).

Imagine that! Luther himself shares with us that the very moment by which faith came to him and equipped him to overturn an entire church order came as a free gift, as an encounter with the risen Lord in the power of the Spirit, and the language he uses is “born again.” I say it again: you must be born again!

In closing, my purpose here isn’t to have us question the efficacy of our baptisms, as if they didn’t “take” the first time. No. Instead, my purpose is simply to show that faith is a gift given freely. Maybe that faith was shaky or half-formed when you took your turn at the baptismal font. Maybe in faith another claimed God’s promises for you when you were a babe. It doesn’t matter. It is by God’s work, God’s power, God’s Spirit that faith is always conveyed, and in faith we can look towards our baptisms as God’s sure promise. However, don’t forget the faith part, and “faith comes from hearing, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Hear Christ. Experience Christ. Be born anew by his gift. Receive his Spirit. Seek him where he is found. Hear and read and immerse yourself in the Gospel, and I believe that we are and shall be “born again.”

In Christ,

Pastor Sam

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