The hope of the new birth

I was reading John Wesley’s sermon “The Marks of the New Birth” recently. It is an excellent sermon worthy of consideration by any Methodist preacher.

The thing I noticed in it — which, despite being obvious, had evaded my previous readings — was how Wesley here is arguing for the doctrine of new birth as a doctrine of hope. One of the arguments he is working against in this sermon comes, I assume, from Anglican critics of the Methodist movement who say that once a person is baptized they have been “born again by water and the Spirit” and so all the Methodist talk about new birth or being born again is some sort of misleading enthusiasm.

Wesley’s response to that argument tells us a few key things about Methodism, which we also simply call Scriptural Christianity.

First, Wesley clearly has no time for an argument that our status with God is determined by some event in our personal history. He is quite explicit about this. While he does not dispute the value of baptism or the regeneration that it provides, he wants to see more than a baptism certificate when inquiring about the status of our salvation. The key issue is not “were you once baptized?” The key question is this: Does you inward and outward life right now provide evidence that your are born of God?

Here is how Wesley puts it:

Say not then in your heart, “I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.” Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners What think you? Are these now the children of God? Verily, I say unto you, whosoever you are, unto whom any one of the preceding characters belongs, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the works of your father ye do.” Unto you I call, in the name of Him whom you crucify afresh, and in his words to your circumcised predecessors, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell.”

It is not hard to see how such preaching would upset many Christians who had rested on the thought that since they were baptized and participated in the ordinances and sacraments of the church their salvation was secure. To them, Wesley says, show me the fruit of your salvation. Show me a holy heart and life, and then I will believe you are indeed born of God. For saying such things, many a congregation informed the Rev. Wesley he would not be invited back.

But this first point builds to his second, and the source of hope that can be found in the doctrine of the new birth.

Whether they would hear him preach or not, many Christians then — as today — struggle with the sense that something is not right in their faith. Yes, they were baptized. Yes, they came to the altar and accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord, but still they do not know the joy of the Holy Spirit that the Bible speaks about. They do not feel the power to overcome their sin. They do not know the blessed assurance of their salvation. Their Christian walk is a forced march not a dance of joy.

To such people, the doctrine of the new birth is a doctrine of hope.

The teaching that says baptism is the only new birth in the church, which Wesley appears to be arguing against, leaves Christians in a fairly desperate place if, like many, they do not presently find themselves experiencing the righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit that Paul writes about in Romans.

To such Christians, Wesley says, there is hope. There is more. There is a better way. If you look at your faith, if you examine your walk with Christ, and find it lacking, even absent, you can still be born again. You can still know the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. You can receive again the Spirit of that allows you to name God tenderly as Father.

This I find quite helpful, but what is its relevance to us today?

You will not find many in Methodist churches who argue that the only new birth is in baptism, but I do think you will find a great many Christians who are both struggling in their faith and relying too much on some version of baptism certificate salvation. A great many Christians have none of the joy and power of salvation, but cling to the thought that since they were baptized or saved once their salvation is solid. They trudge along to church every Sunday, finding there no real joy or peace with God, which makes them all the more insistent that following the rules and being a good church member will get them into heaven.

Methodists, starting with Wesley, have always said the Bible promises us more than this. You can know the joy and peace and power of salvation today. What’s more, if you do not know those things, your salvation itself may be at risk. Do not cling to your baptism certificate as proof that you are a child of God. Look to your heart. Look to your life. Do you bear the marks of someone who is born of God? Do you have the faith of one who has placed their whole trust in the redemption of Christ? Do you have the hope of eternal life that leads you to rejoicing? Do you have the love of God that wells up within you like a fountain and spills out as love of neighbor?

These are the marks of the new birth. If you do not see them in yourself, do not despair. Do not cling defensively to your baptism certificate, your church camp come-to-Jesus encounter, your church attendance record, or your ability to quote biblical verses. Cry out instead to God. Pray for the Holy Spirit to come again. Pray to be born anew. Do not cease praying and seeking until you can say, “I am a child of God, born of His Spirit. The old has passed away. The new creation is here.”

There is more. There is joy. There is peace. There is, in Jesus, new life.

Where do you seek happiness?

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.” (Psalm 16:1-2, NRSV)

Something Augustine of Hippo wrote caught my eye yesterday. I was reading in his book about understanding and teaching the Scriptures. In it, he wrote about the key to our happiness being that we place our hope for happiness in the correct place. Our chief mistake in life is that we seek happiness in the things of this world rather than in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This caught my attention.

I’ve read this before. I’ve heard it before. I’ve even preached and taught this before, but like so many of the really important truths, I had lost sight of it. As we are all prone to do, I had let the world capture my gaze and forgotten what the Psalms and the rest of Scripture speaks of so frequently. I have no good apart from God.

This is more than the simple theological truth that God is the source of all good things. As important as that statement is — and as worthy as it is of deep reflection, this is not what caught my attention.

What matters is not simply whether God is the source of good but whether God is the good for which our entire life aims. Is our life organized around drawing closer to God, finding our joy in God, and finding peace only in God?

For the vast majority of us, the answer is “no.”

Yes, we hope to know the blessing of God. Yes, we turn to God when we fall ill or those we love are in the hospital. Yes, we hope to go to heaven and take pleasure in the life of the church.

But all these fall short of the point.

The purpose of prayer is not a transaction where we get something from God. The purpose of worship is not to feel the warm glow of candlelight on Christmas Eve. The point of all that we do is God. We pray, we worship, we sing, we do the good works, so we might be drawn into the enjoyment of God’s fellowship. To stop short of that is to miss the mark entirely.

In what do you place your hope for happiness? Is it God? Is it something else?

For parents worried about their children

My morning prayer and Bible reading brought me to the opening chapter of Job today, and these words I don’t think I’ve ever really taken time to notice before:

His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their sisters to eat and drink with them. When the period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice burnt offerings for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom. (Job 1:4-5, NIV)

When we read of Job we often focus on everything that come later, but this morning I find myself reflecting on Job as a model for parents.

As a pastor, I interact with many parents and grandparents who are distressed by or worried about their sons, daughters, and grandchildren. They do not know how to reach them, and they worry over poor choices that they feel helpless to do anything about.

I wonder if Job might serve as a model here.

We no longer need to sacrifice animals, of course. I don’t want to advise grandmas to be slaughtering goats in the back yard. Jesus Christ was the final and perfect sacrifice for all sin.

But perhaps, like Job, we parents and grandparents might rise in the morning and seek purification and forgiveness for our households and our children. We can turn to God in prayer and lift them up in the name of Jesus, praying that by the blood of the lamb the Father might forgive them – even for sins we are not sure they may have committed.

Just as Job loved his family, so we might follow his lead in loving ours.