The New Birth

There are two things to be considered here and we can recommend books in both areas.

The first area has to do broadly with salvation, being saved, which we could think about under the banner John 1.12 – ‘As many as received him to them he gave the power (or the right) to be the children of God’. ‘Receiving him’ is referred to variously as salvation, being saved, converted, repentance…and in John 3 Jesus talks about being ‘born again’; Titus 3.5 refers to ‘regeneration’. There are lots of good things to read about salvation and perhaps there should be a sub-heading about the particular meaning of ‘born again’ and ‘regeneration’.

The second area has to do not with how the new birth takes place but what it means when it has taken place. This is perhaps the more important idea for Christians, and, again, there are very good books to read.

About being saved, being born again, remarkably, although a great many books talk about it, demonstrate it, describe it, point to it, urge its necessity, there are only two that I can initially recommend as books that focus only on the new birth. Each was written by a pre-eminent evangelist of the last 60 years or so. The books are How to be born again by TL Osborn and, unsurprisingly, How to be born again by Billy Graham. There is a weakness to the approach taken. TL for example says it like this: if I were to ask you if you are married and you said that you couldn’t exactly say and that there was no particular day when a marriage occurred but that you had just ‘always sort of gone together’, you would assume a person was not married – and it is the same with being born again…Well, for myself there was clearly a day, and to describe it as a birth is so appropriate, but not everyone can so simply pin things down…Nevertheless, both books describe many elements of a person receiving Christ…elements which are present in so many other books are brought together effectively. (Another classic book, of course, though dated now, perhaps, is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.)

 

TL’s book opens with a handful of stories from their great crusades before the meat of the book, 8 steps, a chapter to each. They are 1. Discovery (that you are a sinner) 2.Repentance 3. Confession 4. Forsaking sin 5. Asking Forgiveness 6. Receiving Jesus 7. Consecration 8. Faith.  TL rarely explains – he proclaims; he is very straight.

Graham’s  book with the same title is typically kind and thoughtful. He establishes man’s need for God; his starting point is that we have a problem. Only then does he move onto the idea of sin and what it means in terms both of felt guilt and judicial guilt. Sin has a cure – he takes the reader to the cross, to man’s need for a response and God’s action, the New Birth. Like Osborn, Graham then talks a little about the meaning of the new birth. Graham uses telling illustrations and stories and is an excellent communicator to the western world. In similar vein is his excellent Peace with God.

Any book of theology will say that the new birth, being born again or born from above is God’s side of what happens; regeneration is the action of God on the human heart or spirit. Countless theology books argue about what happens, the important thing is that we pass from darkness to light, that God regenerate us, give us new birth. Usually, we need to be awakened to the possibility; the Holy Spirit works with us, on us, in us….and we respond. My favourite old carol, O little town of Bethlehem, says ‘ how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given/ when God imparts to human hearts/ the blessings of his heaven…’. In just the same way that Jesus came silently, as it were unbidden, into our world – so, the thought goes – he enters our heart….and yet, and yet…..our response and at times initiative is deeply implicated – ‘seek after him, if haply [we] may find him’.

When it comes to the effect on us of the new birth, here we can be much more definite both about what can be said and where best to read. It is not possible to better the books of Kenneth E Hagin and of these I would recommend  Understanding how to fight the good fight of faith, but many of his books contain similar material. Hagin’s very strong emphasis is this: many Christians believe that ‘all’ they have received is forgiveness of sins and realize very little of what happened in the new birth, that they became new creatures. The important scripture is 2 Cor 5.17 – ‘if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, old things are passed away, all things are become new’. Hagin explains how from the very first day he was saved he was aware of this and would always talk about it; this put a difference between him and the world and became the focal point of his view of self – a child of God, in right standing with God, united to Christ…and all this meant that many of the doubts and fears that plague so many people never had a chance with him. We could perhaps say that an understanding of the new birth is the central plank of faith. For example, we are instructed to walk in love – but where is this love? When we are born again, born from above, we become new creatures and ‘the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts’; we must believe this and let the love that is there  flow out – we must not believe the lie that says this is not so. Hagin skillfully brings this and allied thoughts home.

So, we are not just saved sinners, but are called to ‘rule and reign in life by….Jesus Christ’ (Rom 5.17). EW Kenyon’s New Creation Realities is another redoubtable book in this area. Some Christian traditions place little emphasis here and focus much more on experience with God, which can be rather subjective.

The only tradition I know of that results in faith that produces miracles, particularly for healing, focuses on the new birth. For myself, it was very important to understand that the new birth meant a radical change in a person’s spirit and not necessarily to the ‘soul’, ie to the way we think and feel – certainly that any change to the soul was a first step in a lifetime of change. To be able to say that ‘I’, my ‘spirit’, is forever altered, united to Christ (‘he that is united to Christ is one spirit’) regardless of how I feel, was and is absolutely crucial, and, for me, foundational to my understanding of faith. (Though it is not the whole story – it needs to translate into feeling too.)

The focus on the new birth, then, is central to modern evangelicalism as found in the USA. The focus on this doctrine or experience is no doubt one that would be very interesting to trace historically, and we would undoubtedly find ourselves discussing Charles Finney and John Wesley among others; there are other traditions, as I say, that do not focus on the new birth in the same way – and there are indeed only about 3 references in the Bible to the term; for this reason you don’t have to go down this line of teaching, but to understand modern Church life in our western churches, you would have to have a hold on this doctrine.

So, the focus on the new birth is crucial to faith.There are a number of references on this site to some other traditions, notably with reference to the works of Daniel Bourguet, but to me the teaching on faith seems very fundamental. In this dark world at times we simply cannot see the way ahead and we must rely on the unseen realities of faith – one of which is the reality of the New Birth and what God has accomplished for us in it.