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The New Birth

My great friend (and regular commenter here) Will Mackerras recently preached a cracker at Farm Fellowship (where Paul Blackham ministers).

Do we really believe that a person in Christ will naturally and organically produce righteous fruit - just as someone in Adam will naturally and organically produce wicked fruit?  Do we have a proper understanding of our new nature?  And of what will flow from it?

Will gets Rom 2:14 absolutely right to say yes.  Even Gentile believers will do by nature the things required by the law, because they are born again - they have a new heart of flesh (Jer 31:33-34).

Then he discusses how to be born again.  We do not contribute to the new birth.  We are born again by faith (John 1:12).  Will has a wonderful analogy for how Jesus does not dispense the new birth. 

He asks us to imagine a super hero called Super Doctor.  Super Doctor has the power to cure people of their sickness at will and even from distance.  But Super Doctor's one weakness is that he hates spending time with sick people.  So he hatches a plan.  He decides that he'll wait until people come into his waiting room and then as soon as they walk through his office door he'll magically heal them so that they won't get any germs on him. 

But then he thinks they won't be very grateful for this because they'll think they effected the cure by walking through the door.  So instead he just magically zaps sick people in the community at random and trusts that eventually they'll figure out what's happened to them and turn up in his surgery to say thanks.

Of course both these scenarios are very different to Jesus' healing methods.  Sick people come to Jesus just as they are.  It's precisely the sick people who do come to Jesus - leperous warts and all. (Mark 2:17)  'If you are willing you can make me clean' said the unclean man to the Holy Lord of Israel. (Matt 8:2).  Jesus heals the way He saves.  He encounters people in their unregenerate sinful mess and through the encounter He changes them.

One implication of this for preachers is that we should be far more invitational.  We call on people to turn to Christ just as they are.  They don't need to clean themselves up but simply call on Christ even in their sins and love of darkness.

I spent some great time with Will a few weeks ago discussing how we love to hear invitational preaching.  It is of the essence of the gospel to call on sinners to come to Christ right there and then as the sinners that they are.  May our preaching reflect this precious gospel truth.






The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come." And let the one who hears say, "Come." And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. (Rev 22:17)

1. Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

2. Just as I am, and waiting not
to rid my soul of one dark blot,
to thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

3. Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

4. Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

5. Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

6. Just as I am, thy love unknown
hath broken every barrier down;
now, to be thine, yea thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Listen to the sermon here (unfortunately it misses the last few minutes).


0 thoughts on “The New Birth

  1. Matt

    I've really been enjoying the new Phatfish album, "In Jesus", in large part, because they employ an invitational style of lyric in a number of their songs e.g., "Come to Jesus".

    Great stuff!

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  3. Will

    Actually I think you quoted from it in your essay on repentance you linked to here a while ago - the little dialogue ending with "well then you would have them do that which is impossible". Perhaps you quoted it by accident.

    Thanks for this post and the link, Glen. What a great encouragement it was- I hadn't come here for a few days and then there it was. Balm!

    I only just looked up the Marrow of Modern Divinity then myself Cath. It seems to be very much the sort of thing I would agree with. However perhaps I would differ on some of the definitions. I would say that repentance is a wholehearted turning to Christ in order to ask him to provide the new birth. If this is done with a measure of faith (no matter how small) - that Jesus is actually willing and able to answer - then the same act can be called trust.
    So in that sense both trust and repentance are conditions for salvation.

    What I am passionate about is that we not define either faith or repentance so as to demand attitudes that the unregenerate person cannot yet have - in other words love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control! All of those fruits will come once the person is born again. But preceding the new birth is simply the believing cry of the broken spirit "have mercy on me, the sinner".

  4. cath

    Preceding the new birth? urgh, surely there is neither belief nor prayer nor humility preceding the new birth? ie isn't faith etc also a fruit of the new birth? (maybe i'm misinterpreting you)

    the Marrow, i don't know a huge amount about it, but the controversy that exploded around it later was all to do with what a sinner needs to do before coming to Christ - ie whether there are preconditions for faith. The Marrowmen took the view that sinners should not be told to forsake sin before coming to Christ, but should come as they are, sins and all. - the note that the original post struck here.
    "We call on people to turn to Christ just as they are. They don’t need to clean themselves up but simply call on Christ even in their sins and love of darkness." The gospel that the best of scottish presbyterianism has always treasured and proclaimed :)
    more discussion if you can excuse the self-publicising -

    Not but that many people according to their own sense of things may feel they were forsaking sin before they were consciously trusting in Christ, but that's a different question.

  5. Will

    Hi Cath,

    It looks like you have definitely understood what I am saying!

    I certainly think that the sinner's reponse to the gospel is a sovereign creation of the Holy Spirit - it's just I do not think that regeneration is the means by which the sinner is brought to Christ. I would say that the Holy Spirit causes spiritually dead people to call on Christ even though they are still dead! Only after this (immediately afterwards of course) does the person come alive.

    Ezekiel 37:11-12 seems to point strongly in that direction: "Son of Man, these bones are the whole house of Isael. They say 'Our bones are dried up and are hope is gone. We are cut off.' Therefore prophesy and say to them 'This what the sovereign Lord says: Oh my people: I am going to open your graves and bring you out of them".

    In this image dry bones actually speak! In the same way I would say that the Holy Spirit is able to cause spiritually dead people to call upon Christ and, in effect, to ask to be made alive.

    I know this seems illogical, but there are many things about the gospel which seem to defy our own logic, and I would include this among them!

    Thanks very much for your link too. I will try to have a closer look in the next few days.


  6. cath

    Well, I'm intrigued! (That's the polite way of saying flabbergasted, right...)

    Do you mind me asking, do you take this position in the line of some theological thought that I'm not familiar with, and is it a conscious disagreement with, i dunno, better not say Calvin in case you have a handy reference to the Institutes up your sleeve which I won't be able to argue with but, maybe, John Murray?

    And: when you say "immediately afterwards", do you see the new birth, faith, prayer, etc as all co-occurring? (not hostile q's, just to straighten things out!)

    I wonder if there is scope to make a distinction between what the scriptures teach about the new birth, and what a person perceives to be their own experience of the work of the Holy Spirit?
    Eg, the new birth is an instantaneous change from a state of spiritual death into a state of spiritual life (as far as I understand it, and hopefully not controversial, but open for discussion if need be). But many people who are undoubtedly now spiritually alive may not be able to identify that point in time when they were regenerated - instead they can only report a process that took place over some period of time when they, maybe, prayed more and more longingly for mercy and had a dawning/deepening conviction of Christ's willingness & ability to save (as you describe above). I wonder if that distinction between the definite, specific acts of the Holy Spirit and the way they percolate into the person's consciousness in some way parallels your scenario where a dead soul theoretically prays to be made alive - a person might well consider themselves to be dead in their sins, when in fact they are alive, seeing what can only be seen by the eyesight given by the Holy Spirit to a living soul. Dunno?

    I'd need to think a wee bit more about Ezekiel 37. Eg, how strictly are you taking the two-step process where first the bones stand up with flesh and sinews but lacking breath - just thinking aloud, but do you build anything on that aspect of it, similar to how you use v11? Does the allusion flit between an individual soul dead in their sins and the whole 'worshipping community' ie composed both of the living but desponding who need to be refreshed, and the dead very dry bones who need to be made alive? (Speculation - tell me what you think - now I better go and consult a commentary!)

  7. Will

    Hi Cath,

    Thanks for your friendly questioning!

    Yes I consciously disagree with John Murray's "Redemption: Accomplished, and Applied", though I am not sure where I stand in the broader reformed tradition on this. I have come across plenty of writers who speak of the possibility of a sinner asking for regeneration.

    For example Calvin seems to do so at page 301 of the Battles translation of the Institutes. There he speaks of Psalm 51 as David asking for regeneration, "as if from the dead". And he says that this prayer cannot be the "sign of a godly and holy disposition".

    John Owen also seems to, with some qualifications, in his work on the Holy Spirit (part IV, iii): "May a person who is unregenerate pray for the Spirit of regeneration to effect that work in him?...Persons convinced of sin, and a state of sin, may and ought to pray that God, by the effectual communication of his Spirit unto them, would deliver them from that condition. This is one way whereby we 'flee the wrath to come'".

    JI Packer in his intro to Owen's "the Death of Death in the Death of Christ", encourages any unconverted reader - before they repent and believe - to acknowledge that this is totally beyond their capacity and to ask God to enable them to do it. At page 21 he says "Cry to Christ, just as you are. Confess your sin, your impenitence, your unbelief, and cast yourself on his mercy; ask him to give you a new heart, working in you true repentance and firm faith"

    More recently I heard the "new Calvinist" Mark Driscoll encouraging any non-christian listeners present to ask Jesus to regenerate them. (Engage 08 Conference at the Katoomba Christian Convention, talk 1, last 5 minutes).

    This is all very intriguing, as all of these people would very strongly affirm that before a person is regenerate they are spiritually dead. Yet how can a dead a person call on Christ?

    Of course they would also (as would I) strongly affirm that this cry is the sovereign work of God. But as I said above isn't it amazing that the Holy Spirit is able to cause a dead person to ask to be made alive?

    So I suppose to answer your question I do not see faith, prayer and regeneration as all occurring at the same time. Regeneration follows on from faith, but in a "twinkling of an eye". Perhaps it is a bit like the way in which Daniel's prayer in Daniel 9:23 is answered: "As soon as you began to pray, and answer was given" (I only use that as an illustration, not because Daniel's prayer is for the new birth.)

    I am not sure what to make of the experience of people who say they became Christians gradually. I suppose we all come to faith in some sense gradually (even if, say, only in the few seconds it might take to hear and understand a gospel presentation). But I think we need to affirm that regeneration is what makes a person a Christian, and this must occurr at some point instantaneously. The fact that we might not remember it happening I do not think contradicts this.

    Perhaps in that regard the Ezekiel 37 passage might be a good illustration again. The whole resurrection of the bones occurs over a little time, but surely the point at which the breath enters and they come alive must be instantaneous?

    In any event I suppose the point I would want to emphasise is that Israel's cry comes when the bones are still dry. This seems to suggest that the way God brings a person to salvation is first to cause them to seek it (even though they are dead!), and then to give it to them.

    With respect to your eyesight example, I think the healing of the blind beggar in Luke 18 is the same sort of miracle. Jesus has said in Luke 11:34 "Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness." Yet here in Luke 18 a blind person asks for sight, apparently trusting that Jesus can answer. "Your faith has healed you", Jesus says in verse 42. I think this is amazing!

    I hope that it is helpful! Thanks again for your friendly questioning.


  8. Glen

    I wonder if we can all agree to some over-arching truths here:

    * Salvation is God's work from start to finish


    * the ultimate ordo salutis is 'salvation by faith'

    From this it is obvious that 'faith' is not in any sense a meritorious work and that it too is part of the whole gracious offer of salvation from the sovereign Father (Eph 2:8-9)

    From what I can see, Cath and Will - you'd both be wanting to uphold something like that?

    And then I see Will wanting to point us to Romans 10 - calling on the name of the LORD is that by which we are saved. Titus 3 - regeneration is part and parcel (not a precursor) to this salvation (which is by faith). And then the most explicit verse on this issue: John 1:12- 'those who believed in His name He gave the right to become children of God.' Now since this is the only explicit co-ordination of faith and regeneration in Scripture wouldn't we sit up and take very great notice of the logic here? And if we're of a mind to have a quite detailed ordo salutis (which we might not, but if we did) wouldn't we be very strongly tempted to put faith before regeneration?

    Now, again, none of this means we throw out the framework above. And none of it means that we have to posit some kind of 'capacity' in unregenerate man for faith or for the new birth or for any 'potential' in fallen man for salvation. One way of saying that salvation is God's work from start to finish is to say that salvation is always a miracle. No-one at the wedding at Cana should have praised the 'capacity' of the local water to become the wine they were drinking, there was only one Person to praise. Same with salvation.

    What I understand Will to be saying (and I'm in great sympathy with it) is that when we look back on a person's salvation, part of what we're looking back upon is the miracle of dead people calling on the name of the LORD - all under the sovereign direction of the Father and called forth by His living and Spirit-breathed word. And that the benefit of seeing things this way is that it's made very clear 1) that the person who is saved really is wicked - God justifying the ungodly, 2) that sinners can call on Christ just as they are, and 3) that salvation really does come by faith - which is the ultimate ordo salutis that we should really care about, but one which can sometimes get reversed if we're not careful.

  9. cath

    Right, I see (I think) ...

    Re the citations from Calvin, Owen et al - I'd be surprised if it turned out that there was any serious divergence between their positions and John Murray's (not that I know anything of the possible nuances of Driscoll's theological thought...).

    Rather, isn't it possible that there could be a confusion here between what people in their sins ought to be doing, and what they are actually able to do? No matter how dead in sins a person is, they are still under obligation to cry for mercy, and believe, repent, etc (no matter how little they see their need of it, etc). But as far as I've ever understood it, the scriptures (or, God, or, the preacher) make these claims on sinners-in-their-sins, not because they think they can fulfil them but because it is their (sinners') duty to do so (pray etc), and because the Holy Spirit can use these demands to expose to a sinner (i) their duty, (ii) their inability to perform, and (iii) their need therefore of such a salvation as includes the gifting of the ability to perform [for Christ's sake] (in perhaps about the same way as you don't refrain from encouraging the unsaved to obey the 10 commandments simply because they're unable to obey in the gospel way).

    Ie, there is no question but that unsaved people should be urgently exhorted to pray to be regenerated and given a new heart, but even when they do make these prayers, there is a world of difference between "praying" in the sense of saying the words and "praying" in the sense of having the Holy Spirit give you the kind of cry that is entirely dependent on the sovereign grace of God in Christ (or however you might describe it) - which would be the difference between what an unregenerate and regenerate soul can do, respectively. Q - How can a dead a person call on Christ? - A - they can't, in sense 2, although they can and must in sense 1. (Or at least that's how the Calvin/Owen/Murray-inspired preaching i've been brought up under would see it!)

    Re John 1:12, I hesitate to disagree, but shouldn't "the power to be called the sons of God" be seen as adoption rather than regeneration ?
    I might also have thought that Jn 3:3 was an explicit linking of regeneration and faith, although that obv assumes that "seeing the kingdom of God" can be equated with "believing" ?
    That way, although it's maybe just a slight difference in perspective, there's no difficulty acknowledging the miracle of salvation by faith, but just when you wonder where faith comes from, it can all from start to finish be attributed to the quickening work of the Holy Spirit.

    Thanks anyway Will and Glen for your thoughtful (& thought-provoking) responses!

  10. cath

    [Sorry - a ps - i looked up JC Ryle, the loveliest Anglican I know :) - he has a chapter on Prayer in Practical Religion, which was not quite as definitively supportive of what I'm saying as I'd thought from memory, but he does say this:

    "To those who do not pray. ... It is useless to say that you cannot pray till you have faith and a new heart, and that you must sit still and wait for them. This is to add sin to sin. It is bad enough to be unconverted and going to hell. It is even worse to say, 'I know it, but I will not cry for mercy.' This is is a kind of argument for which there is no warrant in Scripture. [Here he quotes Isa 55:6, Hosea 14:1, Acts 8:22.] If you want faith and a new heart, go and cry to the Lord for them. The very attempt to pray has often been the quickening of a dead soul."

    To me this implies that he thinks a person can't pray till they have faith/new heart, although even so this is no excuse for failing to pray ... BUT i'm not really building a strong argument on it, it's just the first thing that i pulled off the shelf and not even directly addressing the question at hand!

    Goodnight and have a beneficial Lord's Day!

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