“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ ” — John 3:7
John Wesley and George Whitefield both said that the trans-Atlantic revival of the 1740s was fueled by the recovery of two great doctrines: justification by faith and the new birth.
This is a striking observation in light of the present evangelical scene. In recent years books and blog posts, conferences and colloquiums have sprung up like mushrooms (some nourishing, some poisonous) to deal with the doctrine of justification. The recent gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta is just one example.
A Present Neglect?
We hear far less, however, about regeneration, as J. I. Packer recently indicated. Iain Murray touches on it throughout his writings, John Piper preached a series on it (now this book), Doug Wilson blogged his way through his view of it, and some lesser-known works such as this one have appeared. And to be sure, if we look hard we can find the odd sermon, seminar, or book on regeneration.
But all this is a trickle compared to the flood of teaching on the new birth in the preaching and writing of centuries past.
One thinks not only of Wesley and Whitefield’s famous sermons on the subject but also the work of others both before and after the Great Awakening. We find rich expositions of the new birth in Richard Sibbes’s reflection on 2 Corinthians 3:18, Richard Baxter’s A Treatise of Conversion, John Owen’s work on the Holy Spirit in volume 3 of his Works, Francis Turretin’s sustained analytical treatment of regeneration in volume 2 of his Institutes, Stephen Charnock’s The Doctrine of Regeneration, John Howe’s 13 sermons on 1 John 5:1, Peter van Mastricht’s A Treatise on Regeneration, Joseph Alleine’s volume on true conversion, Henry Scougal’s famous and influential letter to a friend, Archibald Alexander’s Thoughts on Religious Experience, George Duffield’s 600-page tome, Scottish pastor William Anderson’s work, J. C. Ryle’s classic, many of Spurgeon’s sermons, such as this one, and A. W. Pink’s treatment. In a more recent generation we heard of the new birth from Billy Graham, John Stott, and J. I. Packer. Robust treatments shine forth also in the great confessions of the past, such as the Canons of Dordt, the Scots Confession of 1560, the Belgic Confession, and the Second Helvetic Confession.
The solution to the present neglect of the new birth is not abject hand-wringing that a golden age of the past has slipped through our fingers. Even if we could, we would not want to re-establish the past. God has a fresh purpose of grace for the church in our generation.
But we do want to learn from those who have gone before. And as I become increasingly familiar with the saints of the past who saw revival up close and whose ministries had a hand, under God, in fostering it, one doctrine crops up time and again—the new birth.
Will we allow ourselves to be instructed here?
There is no formula to conjure up revival (see Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism), but there is still much that we can do to prepare for the outpouring of the Spirit (see the first half of Ray Ortlund’s When God Comes to Church). As we gratefully receive Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge’s book recounting past outpourings and look in hope toward the future, could it be that one way we can prepare for such floodlike blessing in our own day is a renewed lifting up of the doctrine of the new birth?
This will require renewed doctrinal clarity. We live in a day rife with sermonic exhortations to “get born again!” by walking down an aisle, raising a hand, or praying a prayer. Barna and others have further muddied the water by designating as “born again” any who align themselves with basic Christian belief, however nominally. It would therefore be easy to allow deficient teaching on the new birth to sour us to the doctrine itself. But the answer to a deficiently explained doctrine is not to ignore the doctrine altogether any more than the answer to a deficiently advertised cure for cancer is to ignore the cure altogether.
Wisdom from Northampton
A sage guide here is Jonathan Edwards. Who else knew God and Scripture so well, planted himself in the ministry of a local church, saw authentic revival up close, wisely received and promoted what was real while exposing and rejecting what wasn’t—and, through it all, returned time and again to the doctrine of regeneration?
In five ways Edwards provides wise counsel in considering the new birth in our own 21st-century lives and ministries.
1. Edwards reminds us that the doctrines of justification and the new birth do not compete with but complement one another. Few have thought so penetratingly about the doctrine of justification as Edwards, as ongoing articles and dissertations attest. Edwards himself said that it was his extended sermon series on justification by faith that God used to spark the 1734–35 revival in Northampton. Yet even more pervasive in his writing and preaching ministry was the “divine and supernatural light” decisively wrought in the new birth. Edwards viewed justification, the decisive verdict over us, and regeneration, as the decisive change in us, as mutually reinforcing.
2. Edwards reminds us that the new birth is completely a work of God. A conviction of sovereignly wrought regeneration wonderfully drains our law-marinated hearts of their inveterate semi-Pelagianism. We can make ourselves come alive to the beauty of Christ no more than a rotting corpse can make itself come alive to the beauty of the meadow in which it is buried. “The new birth is not the product of the will of man but of the will of God,” Edwards said. God regenerates “with a potent irresistible energy. If any are converted and saved it is not of man that wills originally but of God that wills and works according to his will.”
3. Edwards reminds us that prayer is fueled, not quenched, by the doctrine of the new birth. If the new birth is partly the result of self-generated contribution, earnestness in prayer is severely dampened. But if the new birth is wholly an invasion of grace, God’s doing, prayer is filled with maximal urgency. Edwards writes:
This notion of self-determination and self-dependence tends to prevent, or enervate, all prayer to God for converting grace; for why should men earnestly cry to God for his grace, to determine their hearts to that, which they must be determined to of themselves. And indeed it destroys the very notion of conversion itself. There can properly be no such thing, or anything akin to what the Scripture speaks of conversion, renovation of the heart, regeneration, etc. if growing good, by a number of self-determined acts, are all that is required.
4. Edwards reminds us that the new birth is the bedrock of real joy. It is no accident that the first sermon ever preached by the great theologian of the new birth was “Christian Happiness.” Edwards describes a Christian’s new birth as the “change made in the views of his mind, and relish of his heart” and as what “draws his heart to [God], and . . . seeks his interest and happiness in God.”
5. Edwards reminds us that religious people stand in need of new birth no less than irreligious people. The only difference is that religious people may not know they need it—in which case they are worse off, not better off, than irreligious people. “It is a truth of the utmost certainty,” Edwards said, “with respect to every man, born of the race of Adam, by ordinary generation, that unless he be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. This is true, not only of the heathen, but of them that are born of the professing people of God, as Nicodemus, and the Jews.”
I don’t blow the trumpet for a renewal of the doctrine of the new birth so you can “like” this article on Facebook on your way to checking your email. The point is to join one another, on our faces before God, pleading expectantly for a fresh explosion of regeneration-mindful grace in our own time, a spiritual defibrillation that shocks our hearts awake to God once more.
“No doctrine in Christianity is more necessary than the doctrine of rebirth,” the German Pietist A. H. Francke remarked 300 years ago. “This is the very ground upon which Christianity stands.” Let us therefore remember regeneration. Let us allow any duly appropriate chastening for neglecting regeneration be far outshadowed by reinvigoration and fresh hope. And, instructed by Edwards, let us ask the Lord for a fresh awareness of the impotence of natural living, the power of supernatural living, and the reality—and availability—of the new birth to get us there.
Jesus told a religious man, “You must be born again.” Will we tell the religious men and women in our lives and ministries anything less?