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.

A few words about salvation

What is salvation? This is a question of no small importance to believers and unbelievers alike. Here is a brief summary drawn from my reading of the Scriptures and Wesleyan theology. Please note the word “brief” in the previous sentence. This is not everything that can or needs to be written.

Salvation is about today not only tomorrow

We often talk about salvation in terms of going to heaven, and that is part of it. The hope of the saved is an eternity in presence of God, but salvation is not only in the future. It is more than a ticket to heaven, much more. Salvation is the work of God in our lives right now to free us from guilt, shame, and the shackles of sin that hold us trapped in patterns of behavior that destroy life, joy, and happiness.

Salvation began before you ever thought about God

We often think of salvation in terms of a “coming to Jesus moment.” Most of the time when we talk about “being saved” we think of an intense moment or period of time when we take an intentional step toward Christ. But to properly understand salvation, we need to understand that God began working for our salvation long before we were ever aware of him.

Even before we believe or have any inkling that we might come to believe, God’s grace is at work in us. That voice we commonly call “our conscience” that nudges us toward honesty, kindness, compassion, and mercy is not our own. It is the voice of God. It is the call of one who is leading us into the light, if we will follow. We often fight against this. We resist God’s grace, but it is there even before we know to call it grace.

Salvation fixes us

Nearly everyone understands that the world is broken. Yes, we see beauty. Yes, we can name moments of soaring heroism and mercy and grace that move us to tears or shouts of joy, but we do not have to look very hard or long to see that these things are so precious to us because they are so rare. The world is a place filled with suffering, hatred, jealousy, greed, cruelty, selfishness, violence, and despair. The world is broken. We are broken. We feel within the relentless impulses, the rage, the resentment at others, the longing for approval, the fear of rejection, the emptiness that we cannot fill, the wound we cannot heal. We are driven by forces we cannot fully understand or overcome. We are held captive by things we dare not speak out loud because they are so at odds with the image we try to project to the world.

The word we use for all of this is “sin.” Salvation what fixes us and fixes the world. God sees and knows all the things we are afraid to see in ourselves and terrified to say out loud. He would free us from their power, if we would only turn to him. If we would stand or kneel before him and drop all the ploys and tools we use to fool the world and hide from ourselves what goes on inside of us, if we would say, “God, I can’t do this. Forgive me. I need you,” he will answer, “Welcome home, child.”

Salvation brings us peace and joy

One of the first great works of salvation comes when we finally lay down our resistance to God’s grace and come to him seeking forgiveness and pardon. When we finally say, “I am yours,” we are forgiven and find ourselves at peace with the God we had been fighting and resisting before. We know the joy of coming home after a long season of wretched wandering.

Salvation begun is not salvation complete

This first work of salvation is not the last. When we lay down our arms and cease to fight against God, our struggle is not over. The sin that has bound us is broken but not exterminated at that moment. It still wars against us, now sometimes even more persistently. The ongoing work of salvation is our cooperation with the grace of God to master the sin that rages within us. The Holy Spirit working in us gives us the power to win this battle, but we must use the tools God has placed in our hands — worship, prayer, searching the Scriptures, the sacraments, Christian fellowship, works of mercy, compassion, and justice. We must run the race set before us as the Spirit transforms us into the likeness of Christ. This is the lifetime work of the Christian.

Salvation is for you

God wants you to know his peace, joy, freedom, and happiness. No one is excluded. There is no need to wait. Today is the day of salvation, if you will seek it. Call on the Lord while he is near and he will save you.

Heathen, Devil, Apostle, Christian

When John Wesley published his first book of sermons, he intended for his traveling preachers to use it as a guide for their preaching. The sermon “Salvation by Faith,” first preached a month after his Aldersgate experience, is one of those.

The sermon was one of the first of Wesley’s I ever read, and it made a strong impression on me. In it, Wesley first describes what “faith” it is by which we are saved. He does this steps. He walks through several things that are not saving faith before landing on the actual definition. My overwhelming experience when I first read the sermon and when I read it today is to notice how much of what passes for faith in the church — then and now — does not rise to what Wesley describes as saving faith.

Here are the steps Wesley climbs on his way to that destination.

Faith of a Heathen -The faith of one  who believes that God exists and is righteous and mighty and just, who believes as well that there is a future state of reward and punishment, and that moral virtue is required of all people.

Faith of the Devil – The devil believes what the heathen does, but believes as well that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior. The devil knows as well that Scripture is given to us by the inspiration of God and knows full well the contents of that holy book.

Faith of the Apostles – The faith in Jesus that led people give up all to follow him and receive during Jesus’ earthly ministry power to perform miracles and wonders of various kinds.

None of these are saving faith. They are faith but they do not rise to faith that saves. What that faith looks like we find when we see what is lacking in each of these three lesser versions of faith.

Contrary to the faith of a heathen, saving faith is faith in Christ. Contrary to the faith of the devil, it is not merely about knowing the truth about God and having full knowledge of the contents of Scripture. It is rather a disposition of the heart, to use Wesley’s phrase.

And contrary to the faith the apostles had before the crucifixion, saving faith is a faith that acknowledges the necessity of Christ’s death and the power of his resurrection. It is a faith grounded on our need and reliance upon the blood of Christ as the source of our redemption from sin. Saving faith is faith in — and utter dependence on — Jesus as the one who gave his life for us and who now lives within us.

As I read these paragraphs in Wesley’s sermon, I bring to mind names and faces attached to these different kinds of faith. I think as well of my own faith and times in my life when I could have said I had rested on each of these. I remember as well the time when I had no faith at all, not even the faith of a heathen.

For Christians I know, I think the greatest challenge is to not stop short with the faith of the devil or the apostles. I know many who have filled their minds with a great depth of knowledge about God and the Bible. They know so much and speak so well about the truths of our faith, but their hearts are not stirred by what they know. A preacher friend of mine used to say that some of the meanest Christians he knew could quote the Scripture really well. So, too, can the devil.

For another group of followers of Jesus, the risk is falling into the faith of the pre-Easter apostles. They associate faith in Jesus with being willing to make all sorts of sacrifices to follow him. They are very busy and very active people. And they do a large amount of good in the world and the church. Like the apostles, they are often most interested in the miraculous works of Jesus. They believe in and pray with great passion for healing and the breaking of spiritual strongholds. For all this, though, they have not yet come to a saving faith in Christ. They confuse “good works” for saving faith.

As a pastor and as a Christian, I recognize all these various manifestations of faith. The great challenge I see for the church is how to partner with the Holy Spirit in moving people from forms of faith that do not save into a saving faith.

Wesley had his own style in doing that. He was very direct. He spoke “plain truth for plain people” and it got him disinvited from many pulpits. He did not have a regular church to serve, and so was an invited guest preacher for most of his pulpit preaching. A very common notation in his journals was that he would get invited to preach at a place and then be told never to come back.

I can imagine sermons such as “Salvation by Faith” are a big part of that.

Few people want to be told their faith is barely even the faith of Satan. Wesley never cared much whether he bruised the ego or feelings of those who heard him preach. It made him both a powerful preacher and a despised figure.

I do not have Wesley’s temperament and I often think he would not have abided to keep me among his preachers had I been in that company. As a pastor with a settled and established congregation — rather than a saddle bag and a circuit to ride — I value Wesley’s clarity of vision and language about our faith, but I am still striving to learn how best to teach, preach, and lead God’s people more fully into this living and saving faith.