Friday, November 6, 2009

The New Birth and the Christian Life: God Grants What He Requires

In the most recent official post in this series on the doctrine of regeneration, we wrapped up the section on the theology of the new birth. We looked at man's spiritual death (or total depravity), and how that spiritual death manifests itself in the inability to see. We looked at the freedom and sovereignty of God in salvation, and we considered the ordo salutis. Below is a summary of that section.
  1. All people are born spiritually dead (Rom 5:12-21; Rom 3:10-18; Eph 2:1-3; Col 2:13; Ps 51:5; 58:3).
  2. That spiritual death manifests itself in the inability to see Jesus Christ as He actually is (John 3:3; John 1:4; Mt 13:13-14; Deut 29:2-4; 2Cor 4:3-6).
  3. Therefore, to have any fellowship with God (i.e., to be saved from the just punishment of God's wrath against our sin), we must be born again. Nothing short of an entire new birth will save us (John 3:3, 5; Rom 14:23; Is 64:6).
  4. This work of regeneration is entirely the work of God; it is not dependent upon anything in man (John 3:8; Ezek 36:25-27; Ezek 37:1-14; Jas 1:18; 1Pet 1:3; John 1:12-13).
  5. Our faith in Christ does not effect (or cause, or bring about) our regeneration. Believing is the result of our regeneration (1Jn 5:1; Ac 16:14), which is granted by the Father (John 6:37, 44-45, 65) through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8).
So that was the section on the theology of the new birth.

But there’s a good, practical question that all of that sovereignty-of-God theology raises. And that is: How can Christ command us to be born again if regeneration is entirely a work of God? That is, Jesus tells Nicodemus that to see and enter the kingdom of heaven, he must be born again. But it's impossible for Nicodemus to do anything about that, because regeneration is entirely a work of the Spirit of God. How can God require something of us that is impossible for us to do?

It is in answering this question that
we get into real implications of this wonderful doctrine of regeneration for the Christian life. How does this teaching that seems so basic, so foundational, so “beginning-of-Christianity” affect our day-to-day experiences as Christians? How does it help us battle sin? How does it help us obey Christ?

Well, I kind of preempted a lot of what I'm going to say in the coming posts in the final "God is the Gospel" post last Friday, in which I unpacked how understanding the relationship between justification as seeing Christ and sanctification as seeing Christ empowers the Christian fight for holiness. Understanding that post is the key to understanding the three posts in this section of our study on regeneration. If you haven't read that one, I encourage you to do so.

But today I want to stand on that post, and now just go a bit beyond it. So I asked the questions, "How does understanding the doctrine of regeneration help us battle sin and obey Christ?" and "How can God require things of us which are impossible for us to do?"

The answer is: God grants what He requires. Consider some passages of Scripture that bear out this theme (mouse over the references).

  • Jeremiah 24:7 – Yahweh requires whole-hearted devotion from Israel, which they've demonstrated over and over that they cannot do. So Yahweh grants Israel a heart to know Him.
  • Jeremiah 31:33-34 – Because it's impossible for God's people to obey Him whole-heartedly via the Law (which He requires), He grants that the Law be put within us, and He writes it on our hearts.
  • Ezekiel 36:25-27 – Again, because we can't obey from the heart as He requires, He will grant us new heart and a new spirit and will cause us to walk in His statutes.
  • 1 Chronicles 29:10-16 – David tells God that all things are His, and so any worship or honor that he could offer is only that which is produced and given by God Himself. He grants the means to worship as He requires.
  • Romans 11:36 – All things are from Him (granted by Him), and all things are to Him (required by Him).
Augustine, who struggled mightily with sexual sin before his conversion, when contemplating that God commands us to be pure, put it this way: "On your exceedingly great mercy rests all my hope. Give what you command, and then command whatever you will."

Augustine had such hope that he could say to God, "Command whatever you want! Whatever you require, I'm OK with that! As long as you give what you command. As long as you grant what you require!"

And so God can command people to be born again, even though rebirth is entirely a work of the Holy Spirit, because God has always, does now, and always will grant to His people what He requires of them. And because both our justification and our sanctification is a matter of spiritual sight, we see the same principle of God granting what He requires in our fight for holiness as well.

Do you see the genius of grace, here? By commanding something of everyone that is impossible for them to do, God magnifies our helplessness and inability related to our spiritual condition (which we've already looked at in regards to justification, but which is also true of us in regards sanctification). And because He commands only what is possible for God Himself to accomplish, He magnifies Christ’s (His own) sufficiency and fullness of glory. By granting what He requires, God presents Himself as All in all! He places us in our proper position, as needy beggars (Mt 5:3) eager to receive from His hand. Then, as our benefactor, He becomes sweet to us as He grants what He requires.

This should give us tremendous hope and freedom as we seek to live the Christian life in increasing conformity to the will of God, the image of Christ. The obedience that we are called to as Christians is indeed impossible (cf. Mt 22:37-40). But all my hope for progress in my sanctification hangs on this wonderful truth that my God graciously grants what He requires.

The impossible is required of me. And because of this bountiful grace, the impossible is no longer burdensome (1Jn 5:3).

But that's for next time.

For all things come from You, and from Your hand we have given You.
- 1 Chronicles 29:14 -

1. The Theology of the New Birth
1.1. Man's Spiritual Death (Total Depravity)
1.2. The Dead Cannot See
1.3. The Wind Blows Where it Wishes: The Freedom of God and Irresistible Grace
1.4. Regeneration and Faith: Temporally Simultaneous but Logically Distinct

2. Implications for the Christian Life
2.1. God Grants What He Requires
2.2. The Impossible is No Longer Burdensome
2.3. The Means of Justification is the Means of Sanctification

3. Implications for Gospel Ministry
3.1. Introduction
3.2. Evangelism
3.3. Apologetics

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