Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Are You Born Again?

What Does It Mean to Become a Christian?

If Christianity is, as historic Christianity claims, the one true religion, and, therefore, the only way to God and life eternal, nothing could be more important than being or becoming a Christian. But therein is the problem. What does it mean to “become a Christian”?

It seems to me that there is a fair amount of confusion about this very question. So, especially among evangelicals such as we, who have been influenced by the Revivals that took place in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries, there is a tendency to make distinctions which come down to our saying that some are “nominal Christians” or just “Christians” while others are “real Christians.”

We rightly reject the idea that a person is a Christian just because something has been done to or by a person. For Roman Catholics, that may mean receiving baptism and the six other sacraments. For some from the Anglican tradition, it may mean receiving baptism and being confirmed. For Arminian evangelicals, it may mean “walking the aisle” or “raising a hand” or “signing a card” or “praying a prayer” indicating some kind of “decision for Christ.”

None of these things can be divorced from what one in truth believes and how one in reality lives. A person who joins a church, but does not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of sinners, is not a Christian. A person who is on the roll of a church but who lives unrepentantly (that is, habitually lives a life of sin without grief and without desiring to turn away from it) is not a Christian.

But, some of the ways evangelicals have responded to this problem are not helpful either. For instance, some ask, “Have you asked Jesus to come into your heart?” Many of us grew up hearing it. We have sung many times about floods of joy filling our souls like the sea billows roll since Jesus came into our hearts. My observation is that this question is used most often, though not exclusively, with children.

I suppose the question is based at least in part on Revelation 3:20 where Jesus is pictured knocking at the door and promising to anyone who opens the door that he will come in and eat with him. That text itself is directed, not to unbelievers, but to the members of the lukewarm church at Laodicea. But, leaving that aside, what does it mean to “ask Jesus into your heart”? Apparently this is asking if one has done something or experienced something, but what? And, it says nothing of a sinner receiving a Savior that he/she may be justified in the sight of God.

Then many ask whether people are “born again” Christians. This question played a role in the 1976 Presidential election when Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, said he was a “born again Christian” while Gerald Ford, an Episcopalian, was made to play defense on the issue. He did affirm he was born again, but, he may have had in mind not the kind of new birth that some associate with Billy Graham Crusades, but the kind of new birth the Book of Common Prayer speaks of at baptism.

Must those who are Christians be born again? Surely they must, else they cannot see the kingdom of God. So said Jesus.

But then, from this agreement about the necessity of the new birth, evangelicals diverge as to what it means to be born again. Reformed evangelicals mean by the “new birth” regeneration, which is the secret work of the Holy Spirit leading to faith. Humans are as passive in getting born again as they are in getting born.

Still, I have heard some Reformed folks tell people to “ask” God for the new birth. I have never understood how it is that an unregenerate person is any more able to ask to be born again than to ask the Lord to save him.

Evangelicals of the Jimmy Carter sort, usually mean something that occurs as the result of a human doing something - be it “making a decision for Christ” or “asking Jesus into your heart” or however it is put.

What both the Reformed and Arminian evangelicals do when they add “born again” to Christian is to make a distinction based on experience, whether one is passive or active in it. In one case the experience is God-given prior to faith; in the other it is an experience that either is the same as “making a decision” or the result of it.

Then another way of making the distinction has to do with whether or not one has “made Jesus his personal Savior.” I suppose that the motive behind this is to insist that Jesus is not a general Savior of those who are baptized, or confirmed, or covenant children, or church members. One must recognize one’s own sin and need of a Savior. But, it seems to me that, beyond the matter of personal faith, something is wrong with the idea of a “personal Savior.” He is indeed the Savior of each individual for whom he died, but he is at the same time and no less the Savior of the body of believers, of the church (Ephesians 5:23). He is also the “Savior of the world” (John 4:42) in the sense that there is no other Savior for the world and that he is the Savior of a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Revelation 7:9).

The question I have is: Where do the Apostles in preaching the Gospel call upon people “to ask Jesus to come into your heart” or “to be born again” or “to ask Jesus to be your personal Savior?” I don’t find these kinds of gospel invitations/commands anywhere. The apostolic gospel calls upon sinners: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Peter, Acts 2:38). “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Paul, Acts 16:31).

What to say?

(1)       The Biblical distinction is between those who are Christians and those who are not, between those who believe and those who do not. When believers first began to be called “Christians” at Antioch, they were called simply Christians (Acts 11:26).

(2)       There is a legitimate distinction between the visible church (those who profess the true religion together with their children) and the invisible church (the elect of all times and places whom Jesus died to save). But the very point of the distinction is that only God can make it. We do not help to make the invisible church visible by adding an adjective to “Christian” - whether “real” or “born again” or whatever.

(3)       We must affirm the role of baptism. By this I do not mean that baptism automatically saves anyone (infant or adult), or that without baptism no one at all can be saved (as the Church of Christ teaches - one cannot be saved unless he/she is baptized by immersion for salvation). But I do make the historic Christian point - baptism puts a distinction between the church and the world. That is true whether or not one believes in child baptism (which I heartily do). Under anything other than the most extraordinary circumstances, what is a “Christian” who has not been baptized?

(4)       We need to affirm the role of a profession of faith. Almost every church that claims to be Christian teaches that one must intentionally affirm or confirm the Christian faith in addition to being baptized. But, when it comes to profession of faith, the distinction we make is between “credible” (believable) and “incredible” (unbelievable). How do we do that? In the Presbyterian church we do that by asking the five membership questions and emphasizing that affirming them is not a formality but a matter of what one intelligently and intentionally believes (a sinner in the sight of God who receives and rests upon Christ the Son of God and Savior of sinners) and sincerely intends (live as becomes a follower of Christ, support the church in its worship and work to the best of one’s ability, and, submit to the government of the church, pursuing the church’s peace and purity).

(5)       We need to make charitable and consistent use of the “keys of the kingdom.” Where the profession is incredible, the person is not received into the church’s communicant membership as a Christian (though in the case of infants and children who are baptized, they are non-communicant members of the church). Where the profession is questionable, sometimes it is wise to delay the person’s reception. Where the profession becomes incredible (by persistent denial in word or life of any of the 5 membership vows), the church’s duty is to warn the person, sometimes to suspend the person from the full privileges of church membership, or, in some cases, to excommunicate (remove a person from membership in the visible church.)

(6)       We should rejoice in the place that “Christian nurture” often has in conversion (that is, conscious faith and repentance). We bring our children to Christ in baptism; we and the church teach them “our holy religion” and “use all the means of God’s appointment to bring them up in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord”; we are not surprised when they don’t have an “experience” but simply “believe” at every developmental stage what they have been taught from infancy, “the holy Scriptures which are able to make (them) wise for salvation.” And, we should not despair if some seem to wander away from the faith, or be surprised when they return.

(7)       We should consider covenant children “Christian children” whom we expect to confess the faith as their own. We should proclaim the gospel by every legitimate means to those who are not Christians, and sincerely offer them salvation by faith in Christ. Then, when they have credibly professed faith (and, if un-baptized, been baptized), we should receive them into the company of the “Christ-ians”, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To become a Christian is to confess Christ as Savior and Lord. To be a Christian is to continue to do so for the rest of your life. Within the communion of the church.

(For any who may be interested, this was written several years ago. It is published here with punctuation edits and the addition of one sentence.)


Don Frank said...

I have heard many reformed pastors say such things as "I became a Christian when" and then specifiy a moment in time, usually college,that they became a Christian, even though they were baptized and raised by the church. You helpfully suggest that "We should consider covenant children “Christian children” whom we expect to confess the faith as their own."

Accordingly, I have a question for this audience for which I would really appreciate an answer. Is a person truly a Christian (regardless of whether the person is a child or adult) when he or she is baptized; and if he or she does not profess to be or live as a Christian in later life, he or she is considered to have fallen away? Or is a baptized person considered to be a Christion, that is provisionally, until he or she professes and lives as a Christian later in life; apart from this profession or life the person was never truly a Christian? Or is there another position that we as reformed folk should take?

Don Frank said...

Since I have recevied no responses to my question, I will posit that the answer is that the majority of reformed folk now believe that a baptized person is considered to be a Christion only provisionally, until he or she professes to be and lives as a Christian later in life; apart from this profession or life the person was never truly a Christian?

Assuming that this statement is true, I will further posit that this position has opened the door to the surge of revivalism and para-church organizations, and a low view of the church against which so many in this readership rail against.

The reason I say this is because if baptism does not represent a declaration of God that the child or adult is unprovisionally a Christian (not necessarily a faithful one), then the Church has abrogated its role as God's agent in bringing that child or adult under the discipline of the Church when the child or adult strays (this follows if we assume the child or adult was not truly a Christian, but only provisionally). As a result, baptized people (of which there are a whole lot)are a prime audience for revivalism and para-church membership for these avenues provide them with a community that has its own rules for declaring that the person is a true Christian which are much more individual centric and therefore more appealing than the stuffy Church institution that so many late moderners and post-moderners are averse to.

Steve said...

Don, “rail against”?

But you seem to be laying revivalism at the feet of Reformed orthodoxy because it has a category for nominal Christianity. Reformed Christianity holds that there are two kinds of covenantal members: those who are outwardly members and those who are inwardly members. The basic idea is this: baptism marks a covenant child as an outward member who is then brought up in the instruction of the church via catechetical instruction which has an eye toward a profession of faith which then brings full circle what was set in motion by baptism and affirms that previously outward member now as an inward member who may fully commune.

Ironically, your charge is exactly evangelical to the extent that it assumes there is only one kind of covenant membership, and to sustain this category of nominal Christianity is not only to abrogate the church’s role as God’s disciplinary agent (!) but also to push covenant children into the arms of revivalism. Odd. You seem to be blaming Reformed orthodoxy for creating revivalism by being Reformed. Is the answer then that Reformed Christianity should become credo-baptistic in order to hobble revivalism? But revivalism is already credo-baptistic because it, too, despises nominal Christianity.

I think you need to go back to the drawing board.

Don Frank said...

Thanks for the response, Steve. Let me make sure I understand what you are thinking (without regard to whether or not it is the "reformed orthodox" position, since I am convinced that any truly reformed orthodox person would encourage continued discussion and refinement of the "reformed orthodox" position). Furthermore, let's make sure that our abstractions of categories (e.g., "nominal Christianity" and "outward" versus "inward" members)stand up to Scriptural usage.

So, are you saying that a person baptized, according to Scripture, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit", putting on Christ, and "buried with Him (i.e, Christ), are only "outward" members (in name only) until they show an outward sign (like "profession of faith") which then proves that they are now a member inwardly?

Would you use this same distinction for a man and woman who have entered into the covenant of marriage, only nominally referring to them as husband and wife until they demonstrate faithfulness to each other.

Or would it not be better to treat baptized people as true Chrisitans who along with Paul, should be exhorted to walk according to the Spirit and not set their minds on the things of the flesh?

Steve said...

Don, I am distinguishing between covenant children and those who are afar off (i.e. adult converts). And my comment only really had the former in view. Baptized children are ordinarily outward members until a credible profession of faith indicates their inward membership. So, yes, I think you’ve paraphrased my point fair enough.

No, I don’t think the distinction works for marriage, because that seems more analogous to the adult convert. A husband and wife are to be considered husband and wife upon legal declaration of their marriage and may enjoy all the benefits of marriage. Likewise for the adult convert who makes credible profession of faith, who then may enjoy all the benefits of salvation. Unfaithfulness in either situation may undo all that.

So, yes, it would be better to treat baptized adult converts as inward members of the covenant, because that is what they are. But when it comes to baptized children of the covenant more caution is warranted: they shouldn’t be treated as inward members of the covenant (contra the implications of paedocommunionism) but also not as little pagans needing evangelization (contra the implications of credo-baptism). PC and CB are two sides of an errant sacramental coin. They enjoy a unique place that isn’t always understood very well.

Don Frank said...

This is the point at which I think we may not fully agree, and where some (not all) of our reformed forefathers may have been willing to blur some Scriptural distinctions in order to accommodate what was really happening in the visible church at large. What I mean is that the covenant sign of baptism was seen (and still is today) by many to be an entitlement to anyone who wanted their child baptized without any instruction, knowledge or acceptance of what a sacred covenant rite it is. Consequently, instead of treating a covenant child as a true Christian, another category (I would argue one that is not substantiated by Scripture) was created for the burgeoning number of baptized children and adults who were never taught, understood or subscribed to the covenant implications of baptism. This new category does not actually solve any problem because it simply replaces one visible and scripturally mandated sign (baptism) with another (profession of faith, or, if you're into revivalism, "making a decision for Christ"). I understand your concern about not treating baptized children as little pagans needing evangelization, but in practice, that is the way we will treat them if we don't treat them as full-blooded Christians and hold them accountable to their baptism. In other words, I'm saying that it is more Scriptural and leaves the state of a person's heart to the all knowing God who sees into every heart to treat the child as a true (inward) Christian unless or until he or she strays by openly denying the faith. When this happens, Scripture commands a solution (i.e, deliver such a one to Satan...that his spirit may be saved) that upholds the authority of the church and the covenant significance of baptism.

Steve said...

Don, my FV-o-meter is starting to register: you seem to be reacting against revivalism and pointing to conventional Reformed faith and practice as at least partly a culprit.

But then you also say, “What I mean is that the covenant sign of baptism was seen (and still is today) by many to be an entitlement to anyone who wanted their child baptized without any instruction, knowledge or acceptance of what a sacred covenant rite it is.” That seems to imply that covenant children shouldn’t be baptized until they profess credible faith. FV isn’t credo-baptist but paedocommunionist, so this seems to quell the FV-o-meter.

So I am not sure exactly what you’re suggesting happen. But I don’t see how we will end up treating covenant children as little pagans if we don’t treat them as inward members of the covenant. Again, your view seems ill-at-ease with nominal Christianity and you’re trying to find a way to swallow it up. But I say, along with confessional Reformed orthodoxy, have patience. No need to strain in one direction or the other. The Spirit works in his own due time.

Don Frank said...

Steve, I fear your FV-o-meter, whatever that is, may need to be recalibrated by the magisterial authority of Scripture rather than the magisterium (obvious allusion to the RC church of Luther's time)of "confessional Reformed orthodoxy" to which you so often seem to bend your knee.

"Ill-at-ease with nominal Christianity", you bet I am. Look up the word nominal in any dictionary and you'll see that it means in name only. Surely you would acknowledge that Jesus, the prophets and apostles come down hardest on those Jews or Christians who only call themselves by the name (e.g., Jew in Rom 2:17).

Remember what I said earlier that we need to make sure that our abstractions of categories (e.g., "nominal Christianity" and "outward" versus "inward" members)stand up to Scriptural usage. Your (or should I say the magisterium's) abstraction of "nominal" or "outward" Christian as one that we should embrace for our baptized children is one that Scripture clearly and condemningly refers to as a hypocrite.

Paul does not mince with God's word - either one walks after the flesh or one walks after the spirit.

So yes, I would agree that if you are going to maintain your nominal Christian category, don't baptize your children until after they profess faith lest baptism be an empty sign. If your children have already been baptized, I encourage you to hold them accountable to their baptisms such that if they deny their faith, they will come under Christ's authority delegated to the church to deliver such a one to Satan...that his spirit may be saved.

In the mean time, I suggest it would be more constructive to come up with a better abstraction for infants who have been baptized as those who have been put on the way of salvation, which, I suggest, is the meaning of the term re-generation as used by Calvin with reference to baptism in the ICR. In any event, Steve, I am confident that you will continue to engage in the majesty and mystery of God in His word and Spirit as I hope we have done in this discussion.