Friday, February 5, 2010

Reflections on the New Birth

How is it that a sinner comes to faith in Christ? How is it that a person is "born again"? And how does one's view of the new birth effect how one prays for sinners in need of salvation? Several recent conversations have prompted me to think on these questions anew.

In our day the prevailing notion of the new birth has been that which was espoused by Charles G. Finney, the great revivalist of the nineteenth century, who said, "The Spirit's agency is not needed to give him power, but to overcome his voluntary obstinacy" ("Sinners bound to change their own hearts," 1834 from Finney's view was that the new birth, or change of heart, was not a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit but simply the work of moral persuasion to convince the sinner voluntarily to change his/her governing principles of action. In Finney's view the Spirit works by moral persuasion through the "living voice" of the preacher to induce the sinner to change his own heart, but there is no supernatural power exerted by the Spirit to effect a change of heart. If there were, according to Finney, the change of heart would have no moral virtue to it. But does God save in light of some moral virtue in the creature? Is this the key that unlocks God's treasure room of mercy? "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3: 5 NASB).

Evangelical Christianity in the twentieth century was virtually swallowed up in this notion of salvation as ultimately resting, not on the graciousness of God, but on the decision of the sinner (referred to as "decisional regeneration). This, in effect, puts the power of salvation in the hands of the sinner and not in the hands of God. It ignores the true nature of human depravity and reduces sin to merely sinful actions and not a sinful disposition inherited from our fallen first parents. Finney's arguments are sophistry of the worst sort, for he failed to understand the position against which he argued or deliberately misrepresented it for rhetorical purposes.

But my question here is, "How does one's view of the new birth effect how one prays for a lost sinner?" If I believe that the sinner ultimately is responsible for causing the new birth by his/her own choice to believe or not believe in Christ, then what motive is there to pray to God to convert that sinner? God cannot do it. God can only lay before the sinner certain inducements designed to encourage the sinner to believe in Christ. In Finney's view God is not Lord of the conscience. The sinner is. God cannot intrude into the heart of the sinner and effect the new birth. He can only seek to persuade the sinner to do it himself. So what is the point of praying for God to save someone if, in fact, the person's salvation is finally dependent upon his/her choice and not the gracious purpose of God? Has this spirit of a man-centered view of the new birth undermined our sense of duty to pray for the lost? Could this way of thinking about salvation be the very reason so many of our churches are flat-lining and dying today? Is this why we shed no tears in prayer for unconverted friends and family members? "Well, it's really up to her whether she wants to follow Christ or not." Preserving an inviolate free will becomes more important than the salvation of the soul and the individual is made into his/her own savior in the process. Is God really honored by such a view of salvation?

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