Y’all [“you” in the NT is often plural, not just singular; we Southerners have had it right all along!] have renounced the former way of life, the old person, which is wasting away due to its deluded desires, in order to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new person, created in God’s likeness in true righteousness and holiness.Ephesians 4:22-24 [My translation]
For the past several weeks, I have been writing about the concept of the new birth. This week brings us to the final point of discussion before I end on a charitable and proper understanding of the doctrine of election, known elsewhere as “predestination.” However, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, so let’s proceed with this week’s work.
So far, we have seen that the new birth is, through faith, a life changing, personal encounter with the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. This life-changing encounter isn’t a work we accomplish but the free gift of God given by the Holy Spirit. This encounter both bestows and strengthens faith, uniting us with Christ through his presence in us. In Christ by the power of the Spirit, we are regenerated, made new, born again, and experience the “first” resurrection of our souls. All our loves are reoriented around our love of God in Christ Jesus. Because this gift comes through encounter with Christ, we both receive it and grow in its power by seeking him out through the witness of Scripture.
There are many ways to talk about this new birth. We can call it being “born again,” regenerated, new birth, the baptism of the Spirit, reception of the “divine and supernatural light,” and the “first” resurrection. Another way to describe it is conversion, and I think this is important for two reasons. For those raised in the church, though by faith we remember the promise made in our baptism, even we must experience the conversion of the heart that comes by personal encounter with the risen Lord through the power of the Spirit. However, we can’t reduce conversion, regeneration, or being “born again” to a single, one-time event. While encountering the risen Lord certainly reorients our hearts in a memorable and life-altering way, that encounter is but the beginning of a lifelong process of conversion. For this reason Scripture tells us: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
Due to Christ’s never ceasing love for us, we “are being transformed into [his] image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). To put it as simply as I can, not only must we be “born again,” we must be “born again, and again, and again, and again!” Not only must we be converted initially, we must be continually converted by the Spirit. This is true for the newest Christian to the most mature among us. It is for this reason we baptize, regardless of age, by affirmation of faith, understanding that whether before, during, or after, the promise of the Spirit alone brings us saving faith in the Lord Jesus. These things have been done in us so that, as Paul tells us in Ephesians, our minds might be renewed, and we come to put on the “new” person who is made in Christ’s image.
What I’m after in this series is that the hard line traditionally drawn between our justification by grace through faith (we are God’s own by God’s free gift of the Son by faith) and our sanctification (we are refined and made more holy, sanctified, over time) are blurry, and reducing them to a simple timeline betrays the richness of God’s grace towards us. In fact, they are really just two sides of the same coin, the same act of God’s grace towards us. Think about it this way. The same Father who justifies us through the Spirit-given gift of faith in Christ is the same who has destined (predestined!) us to grow in grace by that same Spirit, conforming us to Christ’s image (Romans 8:29-30).
Therefore, being “born again” is both our immersion into Christ and “vivification” by the Spirit (see Calvin, Institutes, Book III, Ch. III, s.5). This one-time, yet ongoing, experience of new birth is our “regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God that had been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam’s transgression” (Institutes, Book III, Ch. III, s.8). This goal of the restoration of the image of God in us is the point of the new birth. The goal is to become like Christ, to have our hearts turned towards him and filled with his presence.
This means, I think, two things for each of us. One, the experience of spiritual rebirth does serve as a marker in our lives wherein we depart who we once were and turn towards Christ. Calvin talks about this marker as “conversion,” which is the coming together of repentance and faith (Institutes, Book III, Ch. III, s.5). For some, this comes before baptism, for others, after or long after baptism. Call it a born-again moment, call it your initial conversion, call it whatever you like, but spiritual rebirth involves this turning towards Christ. Traditionally, the church has seen the confirmation process as something akin to this conscious choosing and turning towards Christ. However, I feel the Christian must seek beyond a formalized ceremony for this inward, spiritual reality. I believe this moment is marked by an encounter with Christ that brings an awareness of our sinfulness, the abundant mercy of God in Christ, and a sense of dying to who we once were so that we are vivified by the Spirit (ibid.).
However, that moment of encounter with Christ began a journey towards him that will never be fully completed in this life. Thus, we were reborn into him in the first resurrection, and continually renewed in his presence as we make our way to the sure promise of the resurrection to come. Here, our confirmation traditions have it right. We confirm those who are baptized, making promises along the way that we will support our brothers and sisters in this life-long journey of faith. Yet, beyond the ceremony, true conversion of the heart is the experience of being “born again” that, in time, opens us to the grace and wonder of being born again, and again, and again! Our regeneration is ongoing, and it is all aimed at making us like him so that we may dwell with him before the Father in the power of the Spirit forever.
We have been justified so that we may be sanctified, and teasing this act of grace apart isn’t always constructive. Rather, they should stand together as we look to find the marks that give us the consolation that we have been chosen by him and made his own. We will have more on this next week when we take up the doctrine of election.