The False Gospel of the New Birth
Geoffrey J. Paxton
Geoffrey J. Paxton is an Anglican clergyman and well-known Australian educator and lecturer.
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
The leading world evangelist recently declared that "The greatest news in the universe is that we can be born again."1 For many evangelicals the new birth is the distinguishing mark of true Christianity. With them it has uncontested centrality. It has become their gospel. Raising any questions about the centrality of the new birth is regarded as virtually denying it.
"The false gospel of the new birth" imagines that the new birth refers primarily to what happens in the believer and that this is the greatest news in the world.2 This is classical Roman Catholicism. It teaches that a good thing is the best thing, that the work of the Spirit is greater than that of the Son. It takes the fruit of the gospel and elevates it over the root, which is the gospel. It confuses the effect of the gospel with the gospel itself.
This approach to the new birth is incredibly introspective and self-preoccupied. Such evangelical "navel watching" does nothing to commend robust Christianity to non-evangelicals or to those outside the church. It assaults the tender consciences of believers. It robs Christ of His glory by putting the Spirit's work in the believer above and therefore against what Christ has done for the believer in His doing and dying. It is, in fact, anti-Christ.
This will shock many fellow evangelicals. But what we are saying is not prompted by blind antagonism. The Reformers charged Rome, and in particular the pope, with being the antichrist. Calvin knew that this judgment seemed to be slander and railing. Nevertheless he maintained his position. It was clear that the Roman pontiff had shamelessly transferred to himself what belonged to God alone, and especially to Christ. For Calvin the tyranny of the Roman pontiff was all the more serious because it did "not wipe out . . . the name of Christ or of the church but rather misuses a semblance of Christ and lurks under the name of the church as under a mask."3 The very goodness of the pope made this judgment appear harsh and ruthless. "Hence Protestants have done penance by removing the offending passages from the Creeds and theologies. This reaction is understandable enough, but it misunderstands the primary point that Calvin was making."4
We have said that seeing the new birth as fundamentally something that takes place in the believer and regarding this as the greatest news in the world is anti-christ. Like the Reformers' accusation against the pope, This charge sounds harsh and ruthless. But the point we are making is the same point Calvin made when he called the pope antichrist. Antichrist puts something good in place of the best.
The ultimate evil . . . might not be the denial, but the corruption, of the ultimate truth. This is the point which the Protestant Reformation made in leveling the charge of Antichrist against the church itself.5
We are not saying that the typical evangelical approach to the new birth is an outright denial of the truth. Rather, it is the corruption of the ultimate truth. It confuses a good effect with the best cause. It puts a good fruit in place of the best root. Many who do this are good people whose Christian status and integrity we do not question. But that is the alarming thing about the newbirth craze.
Submission to sola Scriptura demands that we apply the message of Scripture to all our traditions and teachings and to the ministry of good men. Our minds must be held captive to the Word of God. We therefore offer the following observations on the relation of the new birth to the gospel.
1. Preoccupation with the new birth as the great act of God which saves us is more Roman Catholic than Protestant.
For the Reformers, being born again was neither the gospel nor that which justifies the believer unto life eternal. Being born again was the fruit of the gospel. It was an effect of the gospel. But Rome either equated the new birth with the gospel of Christ's righteousness or regarded the new birth as that work which justifies a person before God. Many modern-day evangelicals also equate gospel and new birth. "Ye must be born again" is their gospel. This is not Protestant.6
When he asserts, "This was the miracle of new birth, and this remains the very heart of the Gospel," Major Ian Thomas is in harmony with Roman Catholic theology.7 Like Rome, Thomas regards the doing and dying of Christ as subordinate to the inner life of the Spirit. Reconciliation of the sinner is "but the beginning of the story."8 The more sophisticated New Testament scholar, C.H. Dodd, also equated the gospel and regeneration of the sinner.9 Vincent Taylor does the same.10
In equating the gospel and the new birth, both sophisticated scholarship and popular piety stand squarely in the tradition of Rome. While some would not formally equate gospel and new birth, they fall into this error on the level of piety. They refer to the new birth as the authentic sign of true religion. "Are you a born-again Christian?" "He is a born-again believer." But why point to the new birth as the authenticating sign? There are certainly more biblical ways to speak of true religion.
2. Regarding the new birth as the great saving act of God places the emphasis on the internal rather than the external. It elevates the subjective to the status of the objective.
Making the new birth our emphasis elevates what God does in us to the level of what He does for us. Or it subordinates what God does for us to what He does in us.
The language of faith is the chief work of the regenerating Spirit. Faith always points away from the believing subject to Christ, the Object of faith. Instead of saying, "I am born again," faith says, "Christ lived and died for me." Rather than saying, "He is a born-again believer," it is more biblical to say, "Jesus is his Lord." "He trusts in the doing and dying of Christ."
Faith is not directed to what has happened in the believer but what has happened for the believer. Faith looks out and not in, up and not down (Col. 3:1-3).
If we live by faith, we shall speak the language of faith. If we do not speak the language of faith, we will not help people live by faith. We will disturb tender consciences and rob God of His glory.
3. Preoccupation with the new birth in much evangelical thinking does not do justice to the Bible.
Much evangelicalism gives the impression that God accepts a person on the ground that he is born again. But this is not biblical. Evangelicals desperately need to properly relate the doing and dying of Christ to the work of the Spirit. The subordination of the work of Christ to the work of the Spirit is all too common. Much of our teaching here has more affinity with Rome than with the Reformation.
The sole ground of acceptance with God is the doing and dying of Jesus Christ alone. Whatever we say about the new birth must never qualify this fact.
Most evangelicals think that being born again primarily means individual regeneration. But the Bible says little about this. When it speaks of regeneration, its overwhelming preoccupation is on corporate or collective regeneration (e.g., "new creation," 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; "new man," Eph. 2:15; 4:24; Col. 3:10 "made alive with," Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13; James 1:18; Gal. 3:26; 1 Cor. 15:45; Jer. 31:31f.; Ezek. 36:26f.). Regeneration must not be restricted to a private work done in the individual. It includes the whole church and the whole new creation (cf. esp. Matt. 1 g:28, where regeneration is as comprehensive as the new world to come). This broader perspective is dominant in the Bible. It ought to be dominant for us as well.
We do not deny the regeneration of the believer. But the believer is not the primary locus of the new birth. The primary locus of the new birth is Jesus Christ. Regeneration in Christ, not in the believer, is the fundamental focus of the New Testament.
In John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that the old order, represented in Nicodemus, needs total transformation if it is to see the kingdom (v.3). Nicodemus thinks Jesus is suggesting that man must transform himself (v. 4). Jesus replies that this is not a matter of self-effort but of the Spirit (vv. 5-8). Nicodemus then asks how the Spirit can do such a thing (v. g). Jesus, in turn, upbraids the old order ("you people," v. 11) for not knowing the prophetic ("teacher of Israel," v.10) message of the Old Testament. He then declares where and how this transformation takes place. It is not by man's ascension into heaven (moral evolution and its Babel-like arrogance) but by the Son of Man who comes down from heaven (vv. 13-14).
Jesus does not point fundamentally to the inside of Nicodemus at all. Rather, He points to the gospel as that in which and by which the new birth takes place. The new birth is primarily the activity of the Son of Man—His coming down and His being lifted up. Indeed, the regeneration of the world takes place in the regeneration in Christ (v.16).
When Paul speaks of the "making alive" and the "regeneration" of believers, his focus is also on the gospel. God made us alive in Christ (Eph. 2:5). God seated us in heavenly realms in Christ (Eph. 2:6). The focus is not on the believer but on the gospel of Christ.
In Titus 3:3-7 Paul shows the necessity of talking about the subjective aspect of regeneration in the setting of the objective gospel. He speaks of the appearance of the kindness and love of God our Saviour (v. 4). He refers to the salvation of God which is wholly of grace (v.5). And when he mentions "the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit," he quickly adds, "through Jesus Christ our Savior" (vv. 5-6). Paul then speaks of justification by grace (v.7). Although he mentions the subjective element of regeneration, his focus is on the objective action of God in the gospel (v.4, incarnation; v. 5, justification by grace alone; v. 6, propter Christum, because of Christ; v.7, justification by grace again).
Because of their widespread disregard for the perspective of the whole Bible, many evangelicals have failed to honor its objective thrust on regeneration. Regeneration and related aspects of God's work in the New Testament must be put in the context of the unfolded plan of God in the entire Bible. It is easier to escape preoccupation with individualistic regeneration when this perspective is maintained.
In the old dispensation, regeneration is promised for creation itself (Isa. 4:2; 11:6f.; 27:6; 32:15; 44:3f.; 61:lf.; 63:11-14; Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26f.; 37:14). But many evangelical expositions make the comprehensive regeneration of creation serve a fundamentally individualistic emphasis.
The exciting new era fulfills the Old Testament promise. But this fulfillment is not primarily what God does in the hearts of men and women. It is what He does in Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of comprehensive regeneration. This is the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope (Acts 2:23, 30; 3:13; 5:30f.; 10:36-43; 13:32-33; 15:14-18). This is the preoccupation of the New Testament (Luke 1:30f.; 2:25-32; 3:15-17, 21f.; 4:1,14, 16-19; Rom. 1:4; 1 Cor. 15; Acts 2:33; John 3:13-16).
Thus, the New Testament can say, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Cor. 517). The primary focus of regeneration and re-creation is the gospel. God has recreated and regenerated the world in Jesus of Nazareth (Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:10,15; 4:24; Co. 3:10-11; 1 Cor. 15:45).
Where is this emphasis in evangelicalism? Just as we have allowed inner renewal to swallow up imputed righteousness, so we have allowed our subjective regeneration to swallow up objective regeneration in Christ for us. Anthropocentricism triumphs again!
4. Failure to let the gospel dictate our understanding of regeneration has led us to speak about it in wrong categories.
There are long-standing controversies over regeneration. There is the matter of justification and regeneration. Does God give His Holy Spirit to one who is not yet justified, or does God justify before He gives His Holy Spirit? Further, what is the precise nature of the change which regeneration brings? Is it a "physical" change? Then there is the controversy over the relation of faith and regeneration. Do we believe and then become regenerated, or are we regenerated in order that we may believe?
In much of our discussion of regeneration we have descended to the level of psychological examination. But the way the Bible speaks about the new birth that took place in Jesus Christ—the new birth for us—should guide us in speaking about the new birth of subjective experience. It is instructive to place Matthew 1 :18f. and Luke 1 :26f. alongside John 3. The following aspects of regeneration then emerge:
First, the sovereignty of God in the matter of regeneration is incontestable. Both Mary and Nicodemus ask, "How can this be?" A~id both Gabriel and Jesus point to the sovereign operation of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; John 3:5-8). Mary's song recognizes the sovereignty of God in the miracle of the new creation in Jesus Christ (Luke 1:46-55; cf. "He" in vv. 51-54).
Second, neither Gabriel nor Jesus gives psychological descriptions of what happens in regeneration (Matt. 1:18f.; Luke 1:26f.; John 3:3f.). Gabriel does not explain to Mary how God is going to pneumatically impregnate her. Mary is simply and tastefully informed, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35). Jesus promptly refers Nicodemus to the ineffable and mysterious operations of the Holy Spirit: "The wind blows where ever it pleases . . . You cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). Once again the focus is on the mighty acts of God and not on physiological or psychological processes.
Third, much evangelicalism is preoccupied with the internal and inside rather than the external and outside. Generally speaking, this dichotomy is not biblical. The elevation of the internal over the external aspect of a person is fraught with theological and philosophical difficulties. The healthier holistic emphasis of the Bible should guide us here.
No doubt the announcement of Gabriel to Mary concerned delicate and internal issues. But notice Gabriel's emphasis: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35). This language is anything but internalistic. Mary's song concentrates on the historical perspective of God's operations (esp. Luke 1:55). The focus of John 3 is not on the internals of Nicodemus but on the serpent of Moses and the lifting up of the Son of Man (John 3:13-15).
Internalism in the matter of regeneration is another instance of evangelical fixation with gratia infusa over against the solus Christus of the gospel. Soteriology and anthropology go hand in hand. We need to view ourselves in the light of the gospel. We need to say with Mary, "Let it be to me according to Your Word."
Regeneration must be seen in the context of the promise and fulfillment schema of the Bible. Our doctrine of regeneration must focus on the renewing and recreating activity of God in Jesus Christ. This is "objective regeneration." If we are to be biblical—especially when writing a book on what it means to be born again—we ought to focus on the gospel. It is here that God has given us new birth and new creation.
Then, with the focus on objective regeneration should go the teaching of "comprehensive regeneration" —the regeneration of the whole church and of creation itself. Comprehensive regeneration does justice to the length and breadth of the biblical doctrine. It enables us to escape a narrow individualism.
Next, there is the biblical teaching on "subjective regeneration." In its truest biblical perspective subjective regeneration is my being caught up in the great purpose and plan of God in Jesus Christ. Even when I speak of the change in my heart, I must do so in the context of the objective regenerating activity of God in Christ. The chief mark of subjective regeneration is its focus on objective regeneration. Faith is the chief work of the regenerating Spirit. Nothing shows that a person is born again more than his trust in the doing and dying of Christ. This perspective has been missed in popular evangelical literature.
Much evangelicalism stresses the new birth as an instantaneous activity. But although being born again is a definite experience with a real beginning, both the Scriptures and the Reformers emphasize the continuing nature of regeneration. Hence, we may speak of "continuing regeneration." Calvin rightly taught that being born again is a lifelong process.
Finally, there is "consummative regeneration" (Matt. 19:28). The whole world is moving toward the conclusion of the plans of God from the beginning. In an age of ecological and economic disintegration this would be a welcome emphasis in evangelicalism. We hear much about here-and-now new birth. We need also to hear of the coming final regenerative action of God.
Here, then, are the essential biblical elements in regeneration. The objective regeneration in Christ, is also a comprehensive regeneration. The subjective regeneration of the individual is a continuing regeneration as well. We look forward to consummative regeneration, when God will conclude His purposes for this universe.
1 Billy Graham, How to Be Born Again, p.10.
2 John Wesley White, What Does It Mean to Be Born Again?
3 John H. Leith, "Soli Deo Gloria," New Testament Studies in Honor of William Childs Robinson, ed. J. McDowell Richards, p. 118, quoting John Calvin, Institutes, lV.7.25.
4 Leith, pp.118-19.
5 Reinhold Niebuhr, quoted in Leith, pp.118-19.
6 Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent; John Calvin, Antidote to the Council of Trent.
7 Major Ian Thomas, The Saving Life of Christ, 1964 ed., pp. lit.
8 Ibid., p.12.
9 C.H. Dodd, The Epistle to the Romans, pp. 1Sf., 53, 58f., 84, 99; idem. The Meaning of Paul for Today, pp. 106f.
10 Vincent Taylor, Forgiveness and Reconciliation.