April 2012

The need for new birth

At the end of my last post I asked the question, ‘what about those folk who have grown up in a Christian home and church environment and who have never consciously made a response to the Gospel – are they “saved”’? I am sure most Christians have at some time heard the statement that just because you live in a garage does not mean that you are a car. But why is it true that someone brought up in a Christian environment, and who conforms to the outward norms of Christianity, is not necessarily saved?

Ever since the enlightenment, and particularly since the reformation, the distinction between mind (soul) and spirit has become blurred and even non-existent. The early church theologians regarded human beings as triune creatures comprising body, soul, and spirit. However, modern theologians see human beings as dualities or even modalities – creatures comprised of a physical and a non-material aspect (spirit/soul) or beings where these aspects are so integrated that they constitute an undifferentiated whole. As a result of this type of thinking, many Christian teachers regard ‘salvation’ essentially as a change from one way of thinking to another. So, the presentation of the Gospel becomes a reasoned argument and a persuasive exercise, and salvation itself is seen as more an act of the human will than a supernatural act of God. Yes I know I might be oversimplifying things and that most evangelicals would not accept that they might be thinking this way. However, I do think that this is a definite underlying problem in much of today’s church.

A few components of Salvation

It is true that we need to change our minds about ourselves, God, and the need for salvation; this change of mind and heart is part of what we label ‘repentance’. It is also true that we need to exercise our wills to accept what Jesus has done for us and to ask him for a new spiritual life.

However, and this is a huge ‘however’, this is only the small ‘manward’ side of salvation, the simple response to what God has done and what he offers to do for us. The two overwhelmingly major components of our salvation are firstly what Jesus Christ did on the cross of Calvary to make our salvation even possible, and secondly what the Holy Spirit does in creating a new spiritual life within us. This miraculous act of creation is called the New Birth. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3), and again, “unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (vs. 5). Yet again Jesus said, “You must be born again.” (vs. 7).

A baby cannot be born without an actual, and most times traumatic, birthing experience. Babies do not slowly materialise until one day the surprised mother says “O look! It seems we have a child!”  In similar fashion to be born again of the Spirit is a definite and momentous event – it is supernatural creative miracle!

I have written this post not just to answer the question concerning people who grow up in Christian environments but to draw attention to the deeper issue of recognising the new birth of the spirit as an essential and definitive Christian experience. Do you have any thoughts on this? If you do I would love you to comment on the blog.

What must we do to be saved?

When Peter first preached the Gospel, his listeners cried out, “what must we do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). We all know, as they did then, that we cannot save ourselves; there is nothing we can do to merit or provide salvation for ourselves or anyone else. Salvation is a gift of God. However, Peter’s audience realised that they needed to make some sort of response to the Gospel, but they didn’t know what that response should be.

In a previous post I told the story (a true story by the way) of the evangelist who asked the waiter to ‘receive Jesus’. Was the waiter’s prayer an adequate and effective response, and to what was he responding? Wayne Grudem writes in his book ‘Systematic Theology’ that ‘anyone who comes to Christ for salvation must have at least a basic understanding of who Christ is and how he meets our needs for salvation’. He goes on to say that the explanation of salvation must include at least the fact that all people have sinned (Romans 3:23), that the penalty for our sin is death (Romans 6:23), and that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins (Romans 5:8). If these basic facts are not presented in some comprehensible form then to what exactly is the person expected to respond? Without wishing to be crass, would the following ‘gospel’ invitation’ suffice… “Tim do you know Jesus? No, Well Jesus this is Tim, and Tim say ‘pleased to meet you Jesus’. Good, now you are saved.” Yet many of the alter call/sinner’s prayer methods we see and hear so often are really little more than that.

One of the evangelists who recently preached in my church said that we shouldn’t expect people to come blubbering to the front to repent when all that is needed is to simply call upon the name of the Lord. Yet, surely, if repentance is required it needs to be real and to be real it must be heart-felt?! Imagine committing serial adultery over several years and then saying to your spouse “I call on you to take me back!….  what…. why won’t you?” As a very minimum your spouse would need to be convinced that you were heart-broken over how you had hurt her/him, deeply repentant, and determined that it would not happen again.

After real repentance must come a genuine and informed acknowledgement that we cannot make it right with God. We can’t pay him off and we can’t work off our debt for the rest of our lives.  Jesus has paid for our sinful rebellion and we must understand, acknowledge and accept the wonder and validity of this. Yet, even that is insufficient, because even if we repent and accept what Jesus has done on our behalf we are still the same old fatally flawed human being we were moments before our repentance and acceptance. God needs to do something radical – he needs to give us a new spiritual existence – we need to ask him to give us this new life; we need to be born again. Jesus taught Nicodemus about this (John 3) and Paul explained it comprehensively (Ephesians 4:21-24 and many other places). We receive the new birth by faith and then confess what God has done for and in us by telling others especially through the physical ‘telling’ of water baptism. These then are the things we need to do in order to receive the free salvation God offers us in Christ Jesus. Anything less is an inadequate response to an inadequate Gospel.

A thought to leave with you – what about those folk who have grown up in a Christian home and church environment and who have never consciously made a response to the Gospel – are they ‘saved’?

The elements of the full Gospel

Building doctrine and practice through verse picking and proof-texting is a marvellously creative art form. However, it is a dark art!

Romans 10:13 states that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” So salvation is obtained simply by anyone who prays “save me please Lord Jesus”. Right?

Acts 16:31 has, ‘believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ So, to be saved a person doesn’t even need to ask the Lord for salvation, he just needs to silently believe in Jesus. Right?

Acts 2:38 ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ Ok then, if I ask God to forgive my past sins and have the priest sprinkle some water on my head and I will be saved. Right?

The problem with this approach is that it ignores other biblical texts which contradict or add to what we have so carefully selected. For instance, what about adding Acts 26:20 to Acts 2:38… ‘I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.’ And what happens when we add 1 Corinthians 15:2 to Acts 16:31 … ‘by this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.’

As with so many things in the scriptures it is not a case of either this or that, it is a case of both this and that. In order to get an understanding of the full Gospel message and the required response to it we must take all the relevant texts into consideration. When we do this we arrive at the following essential elements: REPENT – ACCEPT – ASK – RECEIVE – CONFESS.

To repent is to change one’s mind and set ones will to turn around completely from one state of life to another. To repent is to admit that I am a rebel and that I have lived my life my way and in my strength, and as a result have lived a life of self and sin. To accept is to believe that Jesus has paid the price for my rebellious sin and that I accept unreservedly his act of self-giving on my behalf. To ask is to request of God that he forgive me and grant me the free gift of new spiritual life. Finally, to confess is to confirm before others what Jesus has done for me and how I have responded to his grace. Confession is both verbal and through the act or water baptism.

Now I could support each of these elements with a biblical text or two but you might like to complete that exercise yourself… how about it?

Say a little prayer with me

The evangelist is sitting in a coffee shop with a friend. A waiter comes up to him to take their order. The evangelist beams at him and says, “My friend, do you know Jesus?” The man, a good natured black African in his twenties, smiles a little uncertainly and says “no I don’t.” The evangelist asks him if he would like to know Jesus and the man nods, so the evangelist asks him to pray a little prayer with him, which he does quite happily. The evangelist turns to his friend and says “Praise God, another person saved into the kingdom!”

The friend is somewhat taken aback by all this so he asks the evangelist on what grounds he thinks the waiter is now ‘saved’. The evangelist looks surprised and says, “Acts 2:21 of course; ‘And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. He called on the name of the Lord when he prayed the sinner’s prayer with me so now he is saved!”

Let me give you another scenario. The evangelist you have invited to preach the Gospel in your church on Sunday morning has just used up all the time singing and ministering to the people by praying for healings, speaking out words of knowledge, and so on. He suddenly realises that his time is up and he hasn’t yet got around to preaching so he says “Now, is there anyone here who wants to accept Jesus into their hearts? Everybody please close your eyes and bow your heads…” He then proceeds to pray, and includes in his prayer references to repentance, the blood of Christ, acceptance of salvation, and so on. Then he says, “Now let’s all pray together” and he invites anyone in the congregation who doesn’t know Jesus as saviour to pray the ‘sinner’s prayer’ silently with him. After this he says; ”now while all heads are bowed and all eyes closed, if you prayed that prayer with me just slip your hand up for a moment… thank you sir… God bless you madam…”

What’s wrong with either or both of these scenarios? Have the people concerned heard the Gospel? Have they responded adequately to the Gospel? Are they now saved? I will continue to explore this important issue in my next post.

Other posts in this series:

The Gospel and the response
The essence of the Gospel

The essence of the Gospel

The word ‘gospel’ comes from the Greek word evangelion and simply means ‘good news’. The NIV sometimes translates the Greek as good news, as in Matthew 4:23, and at other times as gospel, as in Matthew 24:14.

In the New Testament evangelion is linked in to the words kingdom, grace and salvation, but often it is directly connected with Jesus Christ himself. For instance, the Gospel of Mark starts with the words ‘the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. Jesus is the embodiment of the Kingdom of God and the good news of the coming of this kingdom on earth is all about him. I don’t think that many would quibble with the fact that the Gospel is about Jesus, but differences in opinion start to arise when we attempt to unpack the elements of the good news about Jesus.

In Ephesians 1:13 Paul writes about the ‘gospel of your salvation’ and it is here, concerning salvation, that we find marked differences within the theology and practice of different Christians and groups. Calvinists will say that only some people have been selected by God to be ‘saved’ which might be good news for the elect and very bad news for everybody else. Others claim that everyone has been saved through what Jesus has accomplished and that the good news is that people simply need to realise this and enjoy their status. Some groups claim that salvation must be earned in some way, and yet others believe that salvation isn’t necessary at all.

Differences in application evidence differences in theology. Some evangelists focus their efforts on encouraging people to ‘accept Christ into your heart’, but what does this really mean? Others strive to obtain commitments to Christ, and yet others see their mandate as helping people to pray ‘the sinners prayer’. On the other side of the continuum are those who insist that the biblical mandate is to make disciples and that disciples are those who do a lot more than simply pray a little prayer.

What do you believe to be the essence of the Gospel? In my next post I will describe one approach to presenting the Gospel and then ask you to evaluate it.

Other posts in this series:

The Gospel and the response

About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.