The new birth

art 07It takes grace to change a term of ridicule into an affirmation of faith, and grace was clearly God’s gift to the revival movement that became The United Methodist Church. The methodical disciplines that 300 years ago became the hallmark of the Oxford Holy Club under the leadership of John and Charles Wesley soon became the foundation of a revival that helped transform religious life in eighteenth-century England and the American colonies. That same revival is now transforming life in developing nations worldwide.

During Lent I’m taking a fresh look at six of John Wesley’s key ideas that are close to the heart of our Methodist spiritual heritage. Last week I started with his sermon, “Catholic Spirit.” (Today he would likely call it “Universal Spirit.”) In it he spoke about the universal Spirit of God that lives in every person regardless of any religious label. We may not think alike, he contended, and we may not worship alike, but may we not love alike?

Wesley cared less about dogma, creeds, and styles of worship than about our answers to questions like these: Is your heart right with God? Do you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ? Is your faith filled with the energy of love? Are you employed in doing not your will but God’s will? Does your love of God constrain you to serve God with reverence? Is your heart right with your neighbor so that you love your neighbor without exception as you love yourself? Do you show your love at every opportunity by doing all the good you can to all the people you can – neighbors or strangers, friends or enemies, good or bad?

If your answer to these questions is “yes,” he said, then “give me your hand.” Wesley was not indifferent to opinions or worship or which congregation a person belonged to. Those things mattered to him, and they still matter. But none of those things – not opinion nor worship style nor affiliation – must prevent anyone from expressing love in practical ways. The universal spirit of love binds us together into one human family and holds us in the presence of God.

Although Wesley thought the universal spirit of love is more important than any particular teaching or dogma, there were teachings he thought important. And if any teachings in all of Christianity are fundamental, he said, they are the teachings about justification and new birth. Justification speaks of the great work God does for us in healing our relationship with God. The new birth speaks of the great work God does in us by restoring the image of God in which we are created.

“No one can see the kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “without being born from above. You must be born from above” (John 3:3, 7). In this part of the world, mainstream Christians have grown at least a little suspicious of our so-called “born again” brothers and sisters. So how can we come to terms with this new birth, the birth “from above” that Jesus says is necessary for us? Why do we need it; what is the nature of it; and what is its purpose? Here’s what Wesley believed.

His starting point was that we are created in God’s image spiritually, endowed with understanding, freedom of will, and various feelings and emotions. We are created in God’s image politically, in the way we are meant to relate to other people and to all of creation. And we are created in God’s image morally, in how we are intended to live a life of devotion and justice.

Since God is love (1 John 4:8), we were created full of love, full of compassion, justice, mercy, and truth, traits that all of our actions are meant to express. That was our God-nature from the beginning. But we were not made fixed and unchangeable. We were created, Wesley said, “able to stand, yet liable to fall.” We were made perfect yet vulnerable to making mistakes. Because we have freedom of choice, we are free to make poor choices, which is just what we have done.

We decided that we will not be governed by the will of God or seek our happiness in God; rather, we have chosen to seek happiness and fulfillment in the world and in the work of our own hands, the fruit of our own labors. When we made that choice, God’s image in us became tarnished. We drifted, in the words of St. Paul, “far away from the life of God because [we] have shut [our] minds and hardened [our] hearts” against God (Eph. 4:18 nlt). Because we make poor choices, choices that are world centered and self centered instead of God centered, we no longer reflect the image of God. We must uncover the God-image in us.

Spiritual rebirth, birth “from above,” is something like our natural birth. Before we are born into this world, we have eyes but don’t see, and we have ears but don’t hear, or at least we hear very little. But as soon as we are born we begin to breathe and live in a wholly different way. The same thing happens spiritually. Our spiritual senses are locked up, or they function very little. We see eternal things “in a mirror, dimly” and not yet face to face; our knowledge is only partial and not yet mature (1 Cor. 13:12).

But as soon as we are born from above there is a total change. “I pray that . . . with the eyes of your heart enlightened,” Paul wrote, “you may know what is the hope to which [God] has called you, what are the riches of [God’s] glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe” (Eph. 1:17-19). Now we experience the great change God works in the soul in bestowing new life, and we are ready to put on the new self, “created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24).

Baptism is not the new birth. Baptism is merely “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, being baptized and joining a church doesn’t make you Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you an automobile. A person can be born of water in baptism (John 3:5) and not be born of the Spirit or born from above (John 3:8). That’s why Paul asked the Ephesians so pointedly, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” And they replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:1-2).

Most of us have at least heard of the Holy Spirit. We use the Spirit’s name and refer to it in our prayers. But frankly, most so-called Christians, most church members, have not received the baptism of Spirit that makes them no longer conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of their minds, so that they may discern “what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).

Whether baptized or unbaptized – Jesus said it plainly, and Wesley affirmed it just as plainly – you must be born again if you are to see the kingdom of God, much more step into it. The kingdom of God is spread upon the earth, Jesus said, and people don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas 113). Why? Because they have not experienced the baptism of the Spirit; they have not been born from above.

You may object, “I do no harm to anyone.” May everyone come as far, but you must go farther. You may object again, “I not only do no harm, but I do all the good I can.” That’s wonderful, it’s even a sign of God’s grace at work in you, but you must go farther still. “But I also try to obey God,” you may say, “am active in my church, and participate in the sacraments.” Well and good, and still it is not enough to heal you and restore the fullness of God’s image in you. Still you must be born again.

If you have not experienced the inward change worked by God, let this be your constant prayer: “Lord, to all you have blessed me with, add this – let me be born again! Deny whatever you will, but do not deny this – let me be born from above! Take away whatever you view as an obstacle – only give me this, to be born of the Spirit, to be received among the children of God! Let me be born not of mortal parentage but of immortal, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Pet. 1:23), and then let me daily grow in the grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18).

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