Ye Must Be Born Again

"Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).

Rousing from slumber at about 6 am, I found Amy sitting up in her bed. She said "I’m having contractions." "How frequently?" I asked. "Every 5 minutes since 5 am." A tinge of panic surged up my spine as I stuttered, "I thought the mid-wife said just yesterday that the baby is not engaged yet and that it would be at least a week more!" Dr Tow had said that it would be sooner than later, and he had even offered to examine Amy the next day just to be sure that she can go through a natural delivery despite having a caesarean when she delivered Jonathan. But it was too late to have the examination now.

We got our bags ready, roused Jonathan enough to tell him that we are going to the hospital and to solemnly charge him to obey Elder and Mrs Khoo. Presently, Eld Khoo prayed with us, and then we were off into the dark, cold, morning—heading for the hospital.

All the beds were occupied, so we had to wait. It was a long, disconcerting 2 hours’ wait. In between the contractions, a scream from a room up the corridor or an agonising sob from another room could be heard.

Soon, Amy was admitted. She was immediately strapped up to a machine to monitor baby’s heart beat and the rate and intensity of contraction. She would remain strapped for most of the next 20 hours or so. As the day wore on, the pain became more and more unbearable. The Entonox wisps and, towards the end, Epidural did not remove the pain completely. Not knowing how to comfort my wife, I reminded her that birth pangs are a consequence of the Fall. That did not help her very much! But at least we had an interesting discussion on whether pain existed before the fall and whether child birth would be without pain at all had the Fall not have occurred.

What relief, praise and thanksgiving filled our hearts when Joel finally emerged more than 20 hours after the contractions begun. The mid-wife later revealed to us that of all the mothers who were admitted around the time, my wife was the only one expected to have an emergency caesarean, but she turned out to be the only one who delivered naturally. We thank God for the experience—draining though it might have been.

This experience, —more than the birth of Jonathan, of which I was not a witness,—reminded me of the Lord’s statement to Nicodemus, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." It was a study based on this verse, which several years ago, helped me to understand Calvinism more clearly. Two key ideas from this verse struck me.

First and foremost, it struck me that the Lord was highlighting the priority of regeneration over faith. One who is not born again "cannotsee the kingdom of God." The Lord did not say, "Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." He is speaking about spiritual sight, or faith (see Jn 3:12). He is saying that faith comes about through regeneration. This, essentially, means that when Paul says that faith is a gift of God (Eph 2:8), he is not saying that faith is planted or poured into our hearts as if it is an entity that can be transplanted. He is, rather, saying that faith or trust comes about because of regeneration, i.e. regeneration precedes faith. In regeneration, we are made able to see spiritual things (1 Cor 2:14-15). Our dispositions are also changed so that we find Christ excellent, lovely and irresistible (cf. Ezk 11:19; Acts 13:48; Phil 1:29). In other words, C.S. Lewis was simply not making sense when he said that he was dragged into the kingdom kicking and screaming. The Lord does not force our wills. He changes our hearts so we find Christ more attractive than sin and Satan, and our wills simply make a choice for what the heart finds to be most attractive. Secondly, by using the illustration of childbirth, the Lord is saying that our regeneration is wholly a sovereign work of God. Just as Joel did not co-operate at all when he was born, so we did not co-operate in our regeneration. In other words, regeneration is monergistic rather than synergistic. Man by nature, —because of Original Sin, —is irresistibly drawn to sin and Satan. He is "dead in trespasses and sins" says Paul (Eph 2:1). In order that he may trust in Christ, a miracle, no less in magnitude than the raising of Lazarus must be performed. Just as Lazarus did not co-operate with the Lord when He raised him from the dead, so we did not co-operate with the Holy Spirit when He regenerated us.

These two points of doctrine are so crucial to a proper understanding of the work of salvation that a failure to grasp them has been the result of numerous errors in the church throughout the ages. Pelagianism denying Original Sin, denies that man is spiritually dead and asserts that he is able to do good and to attain salvation in that way. Christ did not die an substitutionary death. Pelagianism is ancient Liberalism. It is anti-Christian. Arminianism or semi-Pelagianism teaches that man is partially dead, and that he can co-operate with the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Man is saved by grace but not saved Sola Gratia (by faith only). He responses either in faith or in unbelief when the Holy Spirit begins to woo him. Grace, in other words, is resistible. While salvation in the Calvinistic scheme may be illustrated by the raising of Lazarus. Salvation in the Arminian scheme may be illustrated by the rescue of a drowning man. The sinner is reckoned as drowning and the Gospel likened to a lifesaver thrown beside him. All he needs to do is to reach out to grab the lifesaver and he would be saved. Or the sinner may be likened to a sick man, and the Gospel the medicine that will save him. All he has to do is to reach out for the medicine, to swallow it, and he would be saved. The sinner under this scheme has to co-operate to be saved. Classical Dispensationalism (e.g. Chafer, Ryrie, Walvoord), adds to the confusion by saying that they agree with the Reformed teaching that regeneration is monergistic, but at the same time asserts that faith precedes regeneration. Fallen man is able to exercise faith, by himself. After he has exercised faith, the Holy Spirit regenerates him monergistically. How do the Dispensationalists come to such a position? Firstly, they have mistaken historical, intellectual faith for the faith of the Scripture. In the Scripture, faith is wholehearted trust that comes about through a changed heart. To Dispensationalists, faith is simply saying "I believe that Christ died for me." To a Dispensationalist, anyone who says he believes that Christ died for him, and prays to receive Christ is a Christian. He may not have received Jesus as Lord, but he has received Him as Saviour. This is also why many Dispensationalists believe that there is such things as Carnal Christians—Christians who will be saved as by fire because they acknowledge Christ as Saviour though they have not submitted to His Lordship. Secondly, to Dispensationalists, regeneration is the implantation of a divine nature in the heart of believers. It is not a renovation of the old nature, but an impartation of a new nature which will exists side-by-side with the old nature and will constantly be at war with it. The Reformed position is that the war is between the flesh which represents the "remaining corruption" and the Spirit which represents the "regenerate part" (WCF 13.2-3). It is not a war between two separate entities in the soul.

These differences are not merely, theoretical differences that have no bearing on the Christian life. The implications are deep and far reaching. The evangelistic and revivalistic thrusts of Charles G. Finney were based on a form of Pelagianism. His introduction of altar calls was founded on this faulty understanding of the doctrine of salvation. I shudder to think of how many hundreds of thousands were deluded to think that they were saved or revived when they had merely been manipulated emotionally by Finney’s methods. It is my suspicion that much of the man-centredness, shallow-evangelicalism in the United States, Britain and around the world can be attributed to Finneyism. The evangelist Billy Graham was at times Pelagian and at times Dispensational in his Gospel presentation. His use of emotional appeals, of testimonies and of music—"Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling," "Come to the saviour, make no delay," etc is based on his faulty theology. Again, how many would have been misled to think that they are saved and assured that they are saved and are not to doubt their salvation when they had made mere intellectual or even emotional professions only. And is it not the case that the methods of Campus Crusade are also based on the Dispensational doctrine of salvation? I wonder how many, who, according to Crusade have "PRC’ed" (Prayed to Receive Christ), will hear the Lord say "I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Matt 7:23)? And to think that I was once involved in the evangelistic campaigns of Campus Crusade. How sad. Sadder still, for quite a while, I had continued to evangelise in the same Dispensational manner: "God loves you … Christ died for you … If you want to be a Christian, pray with me now." At first, I thought that the sinner’s prayer, being an act of faith makes one a Christian. Then, when I began to understand more about election, I somehow convinced myself that only the elect would be able to say, "Yes, I want to be a Christian." All these errors, and giving of false assurances, would not have been necessary had I understood that regeneration precedes faith. God by a sovereign work of regeneration makes Christians by enabling them to repent and embrace Christ in faith. Sinners do not make themselves Christian or initiate their new birth by praying the sinner’s prayer.

Dear friend, you may also have been "led to Christ" by an Arminian or Dispensational presentation of the Gospel. I am not denying that a work of grace has already begun in your heart despite the errors. However, I would urge you, as I urge myself, to examine yourself, whether you be in the faith (2 Cor 13:5) and to give diligence to make your calling and election sure (2 Pet 1:10). If your life, after you profess Christ, is not in any way different from before you profess Christ, —apart, perhaps from the fact that you attend church as a matter of routine,—then, I would urge you, especially, to take heed. Listen to the words of Spurgeon:

"I have heard it often that if you believe that Jesus Christ died for you, you will be saved. My dear reader, do not be deluded by such an idea. You may believe that Jesus Christ died for you, and may believe what is not true; you may believe that which will bring you no sort of good whatever. That is not saving faith [ie. Saving faith is not just believing that Christ died for you]. The man who has saving faith afterwards attains to the conviction that Christ died for him, but it is not of the essence of saving faith. Do not get that into your head, or it will ruin you. Do not say, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ died for me,’ and because of that feel that you are saved. I pray you to remember that the genuine faith that saves the soul has for its main element—trust—absolute rest of the whole soul—on the Lord Jesus Christ to save me …" (Sermons, 58.583).

If your faith is merely one of intellectual assent that Christ died for you. May I urge you to repent of your sin of unbelief and stubborn rebellion against Christ, and then plead with the Lord that He may change your heart and help you to truly trust Him as Saviour and Lord. Do not fail to seek Him until you are sure that "Christ be formed in you" (Gal 4:19).