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Tuesday, 30 November 2021

A theological reflection on the steps to being born again (from above) Part 1.

 


Part one is all about thinking about the issues of salvation and eternal life and where we stand.  In the second part we are going to look at how Herman Bavinck explains the steps towards being born again.  Nowadays the term ‘born again’ gets thrown all over the place and it has lost its meaning in modern culture.  We forget about sin and the broken relationship with God.  For some people being born again is a lifestyle choice and there is no conviction of what sin actually is.  In some churches sin is probably not even mentioned because it causes offence. This is the whole point.  A patient has every right to know what the cause of the ailment is.  It is the same with spiritual truths.  Let us bite the bullet and look deeper into the social ills of our soul in the direction to finding the perfect cure.

I took this one evening when I went for a local walk.

 

“16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John 3:16-21”

For some people to be born again is a lifestyle choice.  Presidents have claimed to be born again and it has been a very large winning vote in some parts of the world.  Only God really knows if these politicians were sincere in their belief in Christ or whether it was because they wanted power. Ultimate power resides in heaven and not on earth. 

God works in mysterious ways that we will never understand but we can have some understanding of his nature as revealed through Holy Scripture. By the Holy Spirit we can have some glimpses into God’s motives.  So from a very basic level what are some of the characteristics of God.  Off the top of my head thinking about Scripture here is a short list:

·        God is Love

·        God is Holy

·        God is righteous

·        God is Judge

·        God is Creator

·        God is omnipotent

·        God is omnipresent

·        God is omniscient

·        God became a Man

·        God sent His Son and he died on a cross

·        God the son rose from the dead

·        God in Christ by the Holy Spirit loves his Church

I’m sure one could make this list even longer.  What about Man (humans)

·        Man has Broken his relationship with God because he wanted to be God

·        Man is a Sinner

·        Man is Self-centred

·        Man is marred by the Fall

·        Man is capricious can love one moment and hate the next

·        Man can be judgmental based on false motives

·        Man can create new ways to sin

·        Man is powerless although some fool themselves to thinking they have power

·        Man can only be in one place at one time even through the internet knowledge is finite

·        Man is completely lost, and he cannot save himself.

·        Man’s knowledge is limited.

When we look at these two lists, we can see that there are very big differences between the God of the Bible and the nature of humans.  As humans we are perishing and there is no sight of salvation on the horizon.  We are like a ship without a rudder in a stormy sea.  Is there any hope for us?  O look over there I see a light house.  It is God who switched the light on, it is God who has thrown us a line to come to him!   I want to now look at some verses from John’s Gospel and try to start to understand what the issues are about being born again:

“16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John 3:16-21”

“For God so loved the world”

When God created the world before the sin of Adam the world was perfect, and it was good.  The first chapter in Genesis tells us it was good.   Humans marred this beautiful creation yet even though this was the case God gave us a way through the work of the Son and the Holy Spirit through the gift of faith.  God’s motive is love because his nature is love so it does not surprise me that the text continues to say,

” That He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

The story of Noah points to this truth that we are all drowning, and we cannot save ourselves.  It is a salvage job by God to save a remnant.  From the two basic lists I made about God and Man at the beginning we could see that there was no way that Man can fix this broken relationship with God.  God have to take the first step.  God did a lot more than take the first step.  He sent His Son into the world and died for our sins.  This was a high cost.  Judgement is already on our heads because of the wrongs we have done.  Self-centredness is the biggest crime because it refuses God-centredness:

“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” 

 

What about Nicodemus in the passage when Jesus says to him “you must be born again”?   The literal translation is born from above (ἄνωθεν John 3:3) the root being ‘ana’ = above.  Looking at the context of the whole passage we can see that Jesus is talking about how to enter God’s Kingdom, but Nicodemus interpreted it as entering into the womb a second time. The usual word for again is actually παλιν (again). Jesus did not use this word but this is how Nicodemus understood it.

As well as the adverb from above in the Nicodemus story, John uses it in other place too:

·        “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. John 3:31

·        And He was saying to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. John 8:23

·        Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason, he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” John 19:11

 

I also found it interesting that James the Lord’s brother also uses ‘above’ with the same meaning as Christ:

·        Every good thing given, and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. James 1:17

·        This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. James 3:15

·        But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. James 3:17

So then why did Nicodemus ask the question; “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” John 3:4

Nicodemus was half correct but missed the main meaning.  Nicodemus had to have a new birth, but he interpreted it in an earthly physical way.  

Reflection

When Jesus made the statement in his answer to Nicodemus:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3

Or

 , “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born a new he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3

Or

, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3

God by the Holy Spirit has to make the first move in order that we can even see God’s Kingdom.  Nicodemus was a pharisee and represented the Law.  He could not see the kingdom of God and it had to be explained to him from Jesus our Lord.  This tells us that the law although it is good because God sent it, it cannot save us from our sins.   In part 2 I will be going through Bavincks ethics as he explains to us the steps to becoming a follower of Christ.  

Saturday, 13 November 2021

The Trinitarian God and the gift of faith

 There has always been controversy on how we become followers of Christ.  The truth is we were dead in our sins and trespasses and there is no way a person who is dead towards God can become alive.  It is an impossibility. Faith is seen as a gift of God and so it should be.  St Augustine was living the sinful life and then he heard a child singing about opening a book. He took it as a command from God and he got converted after reading Romans:

Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts. Romans 13:13-14”

(Taken from https://www.midwestaugustinians.org/conversion-of-st-augustine )

Whilst walking 10000 steps this was the view! Beautiful
 

Faith is a gift because God has to make the first move and then there is the effect of salvation (mystical union).  I don’t understand how the work of salvation happens and the order.  It is a mystery:

“. . . God works in us without our help. ” Without any cooperation on our part, God begins this regeneration in us by his irresistible grace, penetrating our conscience through to our heart and pouring into us a new life-principle. This enlightens our understanding, judgment, conscience, and memory so that the darkness disappears, and we evaluate ourselves, God, and Christ differently.113 The scales fall from our eyes (Acts 9:18). God bends and turns around our will, so that sinners cannot resist, and drives them to Christ; he re-creates their inclinations and passions and rekindles in them a love for God and Christ. He opens the heart, as he did with Lydia (Acts 16:14), rips away the lock of the heart (Hosea 13:8), which until now was closed through prejudgments, and conquers the power and mastery of the flesh. The “new person” is born and the old has passed away (2 Cor. 5:17).” (Taken from Reformed Ethics; by Herman Bavinck; edited by John Bolt; Baker publishing; page 262)

This is why faith should be seen as a gift.  If I was a car God had to turn the ignition key for it to start.  The engine would start, the lights would work, the mileage would show up and the tank of petrol would be full. Even though God created the whole of the universe and mankind, he also created a brand-new creation in the human being.  When a person was estranged from God one moment, the next moment they are worshipping him.  What a mystery!

In relation to this mystery Bavinck quotes Jesus:

“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8”

As Bavinck says this new birth, regeneration ‘born again’ is completely mysterious to us.  We don’t even know how it happens:

“We do not know how life comes to the soul—Whether it is carried in from the outside or created from within.”  He also quotes revelations:

“And the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” Revelation 1:18

God uses Scripture and it is the Holy Spirit who wields this sword.  Bavinck uses the metaphor of a hammer hitting us.

God the Holy Spirit has to make us ‘living twigs’ before we can be ingrafted into the olive tree:

He says “But the only way to come into fellowship with Christ is by faith; this assumes a spiritual act, and it thus already assumes spiritual life, rebirth.  Thus we arrive at this proposition: the initial life in regeneration is produced through and from the Holy Spirit, and that life is manifest in the work of faith, and that faith grasps Christ.118 Mystical union arises (logically) after regeneration, simultaneously with and through faith. Becoming one with Christ, we therefore already have the organizing principle of life. But this life-principle now draws, as it grows, all its power, strength, and nourishment from Christ. And in order to be grafted into him who is the olive tree, we must already be living twigs. One does not engraft dead branches.” (From pages 262-263)

Reflection

We now understand why faith is a gift of God. While we were sinners before the foundation of the world God had a plan for us.  God called us while deep in sin. I’m not going any deeper than this at the moment because my aim is to encourage believers to stay faithful to Christ.  A gift is a beautiful thing if it is from the heart.  God created us in the first place in the first creation.  We messed up really badly and we lost our way home to our spiritual father.  Therefore, God has made a new creation in us by writing his laws on our hearts.  To me election is like the wind we will never fully grasp it here on earth.  There is no guarantee that even after 10000 years we will understand the depths of election and how much God really loved us.    The main point is that we have been saved from eternal separation from our Trinitarian God.

Friday, 5 November 2021

What are the subjective causes of the spiritual life for the believer?


November the 16th is a very special day for those who enjoy Herman Bavincks Theology.  Volume 2 of his Reformed Ethics is published on that day.  I have ordered mine, but it will take time to arrive as it is through the post.  Here in Finland the clocks have gone back to the Wintertime and one can feel that soon the temperatures will be below zero.   It reminds me of the children’s story about the Moomin.  Autumn is almost finished and soon the snows will come and the Moomin will be hibernating except the young ones as they start their own adventures.  In the United Kingdom today is Bonfire Night.  This is a celebration of stopping a gun powder plot to blow up the houses of Parliament.  

So, our question today is: What are the subjective causes of the spiritual life for the believer?

 

When I was studying I made a box for my calliper

This raises serious questions about the steps to conversion (the origin of our spiritual life) being a follower of Christ.  Herman Bavinck points out that within the Churches there are many different views. So, what are the views?

“An actual preparation in the sense of using the light of nature by the free will of humans (Pelagius) or through the means of grace (Remonstrants, Lutherans) does not exist, of course. Remonstrants require that one longs for righteousness through Christ while still in a sinful condition”.  (From: Reformed Ethics; Herman Bavinck; edited by John Bolt; Book 2, chapter 7, page 255-256)

When looking at these different views Bavinck says it can become ‘stifling’. (Page 256) I can see where Bavinck is coming from, and it is so much easier to follow the Reformed view that ‘that regeneration is the absolute beginning of the spiritual life’(ibid). When I became a Christian, it was very simple; I heard the sermon God spoke to my heart and that I should follow Christ.  I was only 14 and I did not understand all the ins and outs and the truth is that when the Holy Spirit calls us it is God who is doing this work.  In our past sinful life, we were dead in our sins.  How can a dead person bring themselves to life?

So, what sorts of things precedes Christian conversion?

It is interesting that in the footnotes we have Ames’ ideas mentioned:

“Ames, Conscience, II.iv.1e7. This preparation includes self—examination based on “seriously looking into the Law of God,” resulting in a “conviction of conscience” (Rom. 1:20, 32; 2:20; 7:7), concluded by despair arising from our inability to save ourselves (Rom. 7:9, 13), followed by “a true humiliation of heart, which consists of grief and fear because of sin,” which “brings forth conversion” (Matt. 9:12)”. (Footnote 83 page 256)

Then Bavinck mentions the “British theologians at the Synod of Dort spoke similarly of “antecedents to conversion” such as the hearing of God’s Word, going to church, awareness of God’s will, a sense of sin, fear of punishment, thought of liberation, and hope of some pardon. Divine grace does not work through sudden enthusiasm; it assumes predispositions. “

Herman does not have a problem with preparatory thinking “as long as rebirth/regeneration remains the absolute beginning.” (Page 256)

Having said all of this Bavinck prefers the words ‘antecedent acts’ to ‘preparatory acts.’  The Master theologian gives us some very helpful Scriptural references:

·        Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus (Luke 1921—10).

·        Peters preaching ‘moved’ the crowd before the conversions (Acts 2)

·        The jailer was scared and confused with the earthquake (Acts 16)

·        Paul was struck to the ground and was blind (Acts 9)

With what we have been talking about Herman gives us some thing helpful when thinking about what preceded salvation (regeneration):

“The spiritual life never develops gradually from it, is not earned by it. Sometimes God regenerates apart from all those preparations, at once, suddenly. But ordinarily this preparation precedes, and that is why we must observe the outward means of grace: going to church, reading God’s Word, searching our souls in the light of conscience and Scripture, testing ourselves. God binds his blessing to the use of these means. To this extent we can agree with Prof. Shedd that someone who proceeds in this manner will probably be born again and converted.  At any rate, we must do what we can, taking the path God uses for conversion.” (Page 257)

Reflection

God calls us into his salvation.  We cannot save ourselves from being completely separated from God.  Before we come to a place to follow Christ, we all have our own story to tell. Our experiences vary but with God nothing is impossible.  I had a Catholic and Muslim background, refugee for a couple of days, displaced from Cyprus because of the troubles in 1974; Then divorce followed, and physical and psychological abuse filled my life. I failed school and as a teenager went to work in a couple of textile mills. I became a Christian in the very early eighties at the preaching the word of God.  The hymn was:

            Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.

Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!

Heir of salvation, purchase of God,

Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

            This is my story, this is my song,

Praising my Savior all the day long.

This is my story, this is my song,

  Praising my Savior all the day long. https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/308

Following Christ is the best thing that happened to me.  I am not a ship without a rudder.   With the gift of faith all the bad is turned to good.  I left the mill went to college and became a theologian, teacher and now at the moment a carpenter.   Let us fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfector of our faith and I want to Finnish off with some verses from Hebrews:

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3 NASB

 

Next time I will follow Herman Bavinck teach us what some of these antecedent acts are. 

You might be a child, teenager, adult or a senior person.  All I can say is that God is love and he reaches his hand out to you no matter how good or bad you might have been.  The Trinitarian God offers you a genuine life in this life and eternal life in the next life.  There is true freedom in obedience.  If you want to know more consult with your local pastor or minister they can pray and support you as you look into these issues.

 

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