John 3 Might Not Mean What You Think It Does (2)

In part 1 we looked briefly at what John 3 says in distinction from the way it is often applied relative to our personal regeneration (awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life). In particular, we noted Jesus’ emphasis on the secret and mysterious nature of the Spirit’s working. In v. 8 our Lord says, “…you do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Too often we have made that verse say, “We do know whence it comes and whither it goes and here the indicators…”. This is a temptation to be avoided. The Spirit is sovereign and mysterious. He operates through his ordained means, namely the preaching of the holy gospel to awaken his elect, in his own good time, from death to life and he uses the holy sacraments to signify and to seal his promises to those to whom he has given new life and true faith. On this see Heidelberg Catechism 65. According to Scripture as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches, there is no need to juxtapose the Spirit with the means he has ordained. It is the Spirit, not the means, operating sovereignly but the Spirit does use the means. On this see the 3/4 head of doctrine in the Canons of Dort (1619).

Another way to try to de-mystify the work of the Spirit is to try to identify his work with a particular great event. In American religious history scholars speak of the “First Great Awakening” in the 18th century and the “Second Great Awakening” in the 19th century. For a brief account and analysis of these events relative to the Reformed confession see Recovering the Reformed Confession.

In light of these episodes (and others like them, e.g., the nineteenth-century Reveil movements in Europe) evangelical and Reformed Christians have often assumed an identity between the work of the Spirit about which our Lord Jesus spoke in John 3 and the revival movements in the 18th and 19th centuries. Further, it is not uncommon to assume that anyone who criticizes the various revival movements is implicitly denying the necessity of being sovereignly regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Let me be perfectly clear: our Lord Jesus said, “You must be born again/from above.” It is not possible for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God without being regenerated by the Holy Spirit. It is contrary to basic Christian doctrine to deny the necessity of regeneration. It is contrary to the Word of  God to deny the necessity of regeneration. It is contrary to the Reformed confession. In Canons of Dort 3/4 12–13 we confess:

12. And this is that regeneration so highly extolled in Scripture, that renewal, new creation, resurrection from the dead, making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no way effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation that, after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the Author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Wherefore also man himself is rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.

13.Believers in this life cannot fully comprehend the manner of this operation. Nevertheless, they are satisfied to know and experience that by this grace of God they are enabled to believe with the heart and to love their Savior.

Of course the Synod said much more succinctly and powerfully what this essay is trying to say. It is God who regenerates. We must be regenerated. That regeneration is by sovereign, unconditional work of the Spirit. We know that it is, after the fact, but we do not know and cannot know precisely when it was. We confess: “we cannot fully comprehend the manner of this operation.” We ought to be satisfied to know that God has done it and that we now believe.

Nevertheless, the habit of associating the work of the Spirit with great social, religious, and even psychological events is deeply ingrained in the the American psyche. For those in the tradition of the Second Great Awakening associated with Charles G. Finney (1792–1875) et al. it is a given, a datum that those who “walked the sawdust trail” or responded to the “altar call” are believers. The walk to the so-called “anxious bench” is the first act of a Christian. For not a few with experience in this tradition, not to have walked the aisle may be a source of nagging doubt.

For those with roots in or who identify with the First Great Awakening, associated with the ministry of Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) and George Whitefield (1770–70), on the Reformed side), there is a conviction that, in contrast to Finney, regeneration is sovereignly wrought by the Spirit but it is accompanied by certain experiences. Edwards wrote at length on these experiences and how to evaluate them properly. In contrast, rather than look to those, I have argued we ought to look for the evidence of the Spirit’s work in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–26).

The influence of the First Great Awakening and the paradigm it established is very strong among predestinarians of various ecclesiologies (Baptist, congregationalist, Presbyterian) and traditions. For some the association of the work of the Spirit with the sorts of experiences described in the First Great Awakening is so strong that to criticize the paradigm or the event is to reject the work of the Spirit itself. Of course, this move is not new. Both Whitefield and Edwards (among others) denounced as unregenerate even the orthodox Reformed and Presbyterians (e.g., the Old Side Presbyterians) who criticized the movement.

Again, in John 3, our Lord Jesus did not prescribe particular experiences nor large-scale social-religious events or movements. He prescribed new birth by the Holy Spirit. We have added the concomitant experiences and events. When we do this, in our own way, we are seeking to make a bit more reasonable and understandable the mysterious, sovereign, unconditional work of the Spirit. We may rightly criticize those traditions that so identify baptism with the gospel or the work of the Spirit so as to think that all baptized persons are (ex opere) regenerated but do not those who so identify the work of the Spirit with certain spiritual experiences do virtually the same thing or at least something like it?

Here is a plea to reconsider John 3 in its own context, on its own terms, and to let the power of those words shape us again. Let us think critically about our favorite events and experiences in the light of God’s Word. Let also think and speak a bit more charitably about those who, in light of John 3, do not see the First or Second Great Awakenings in the same way as those who see them as mighty works of God.

True revival is the sovereign work of the Spirit to wake the dead to new life, the granting of true faith and through it mystical union with Christ. It may or may not be accompanied by the sorts of phenomena associated with the Great Awakenings. That it is we may reasonably doubt.

11 comments

  1. Dr. Clark,
    I’m curious to hear your perspective on my views and experience.

    First, to clear the air, I am happy to be identified as an old light/old side and old school Presbyterian. I think that the excesses of the First Great Awakening should be carefully discerned by Presbyterians, though they are often ignored.

    The Spirit’s work is mysterious, but we can make certain distinctions. The Standards refer to the “common operations of the Spirit” in unbelievers. So, there are saving works of the Spirit, which produce definite and lasting fruit, and common works of the Spirit which do not.

    Believers have experiences that vary tremendously. My pastor’s experience is that he does not know a day when he did not trust Christ for his salvation. I think that this is legitimate, and we even have some examples of it in Scripture.

    However, ordinarily, “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” As WLC 155 says, “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.” So, it is ordinary that people come to faith some time in the course of their lives under the preaching of the Gospel.

    The way that the Spirit works in the lives of individuals to bring them to faith varies. Sometimes it is easier to discern, and sometimes it is quite difficult. Sometimes it is immediate, and sometimes it is more gradual. We ought not be too concerned about that.

    The way that I usually use the word “conversion” is to refer to the whole process of God bringing a man to newness of life. It refers to the subjective experience of the saving work of the Spirit, insofar as it relates to a man being brought to life spiritually.

    In my own experience, I grew up in church, and had some religious interest throughout my childhood. In my teenage years I rebelled in significant ways–I was one of the worst among my peers in the public school that I attended. Occasionally, however, I would be overcome with a conviction of the guilt of my sin, and of my need for God. I knew that Christ had a claim on me, and that I was responsible. Still, there was no lasting fruit.

    When I was eighteen, after a period of deep depression (I was gazing at the husks that the swine ate, if you will), God did a powerful work to humble me to my core. I repented of my sin thoroughly, saying again and again, “I don’t want to do what I want to do anymore. I want to do what you want me to do.” By God’s grace, I have been walking in communion with God in newness of life ever since.

    So, there are some things that I feel that I can pretty confidently say about my own experience. Throughout my life, I experienced the common operations of the Spirit of God. For this I am grateful, as it gave me a stock of knowledge that God used in my life later. When I was eighteen, God did a saving work in my life. I can’t say precisely when he regenerated me–those are secret things. But I know that his saving work in my life (including regeneration) happened around the time of the experience I noted above. I consider this latter event to be my conversion.

    Not everyone has an experience like mine. In fact, I almost envy those who don’t have such an experience–mine is marked by being pulled out of deep sinfulness. Would that I would have remembered my creator in the days of my youth!

    • Hi Tyler,

      I agree entirely with WLC 155. If I understand your narrative, I think it reinforces what I’m saying. The Spirit works through the ordained means. He works mysteriously, secretly. He works at different times in peoples lives. Many covenant children have always believed, some go through a period of rebellion before the Spirit convicts them of sin and brings them to new life. Faithful Christian parents are always praying for the Spirit’s work in their covenant children. They expect but they do not presume.

    • Dr. Clark,
      I agree completely. Would you say that it can be proper for those who “go through a period of rebellion before the Spirit convicts them of sin and brings them to new life” to speak of this experience as their conversion?

  2. Tyler, forgive me for sticking my nose in. It bothers me that you seem preoccupied with having the right exeperience. We are not saved by our experience, but by resting and trusting in what Christ has done. He has suffered the wrath of God that you deserved and lived the perfect life you need to stand justified before a perfect and righteous God. When you trust in Christ you are credited with His perfect righteousness! It does not matter when it happened, how it happened, or what you experienced. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The question is, do you believe this?

    • Angela,
      I think you’re mistaken about my perspective. Note the following quotes from my post:
      “Believers have experiences that vary tremendously. My pastor’s experience is that he does not know a day when he did not trust Christ for his salvation. I think that this is legitimate, and we even have some examples of it in Scripture.”

      “The way that the Spirit works in the lives of individuals to bring them to faith varies. Sometimes it is easier to discern, and sometimes it is quite difficult. Sometimes it is immediate, and sometimes it is more gradual. We ought not be too concerned about that.”

      “Not everyone has an experience like mine. In fact, I almost envy those who don’t have such an experience–mine is marked by being pulled out of deep sinfulness.”

    • “Tyler, forgive me for sticking my nose in. It bothers me that you seem preoccupied with having the right exeperience. We are not saved by our experience, but by resting and trusting in what Christ has done. ”

      It would bother me too if Tyler actually said anything that indicated such a preoccupation. The fact of the matter is, he didn’t. He merely stated what happened to him. No one really seemed interested in interacting with what Tyler had to say or even praising God that Tyler came to saving faith. In fact, someone even went so far as to ask if Tyler believed in justification by faith alone.

      I have a strong suspicion that Tyler did not post here with the idea he would be going through an Inquisition.

  3. It seems to me that there is confusion about what it means to be born again. It has become synonymous with having some sort of religious experience that you can point to as proof that you are a born again Christian among certain evangelicals. Being born again, as I understand it, means you have new life in the Spirit. It is evidenced by trusting in Christ alone for your righteousness. It will also bear fruit of striving to obey God’s law, not for justification, but as an expression of love and gratitude to God. God’s ordained means of accomplishing this are the preached word and use of the sacraments. So it seems to me we are going beyond what God has ordained when we look to religious experience to provide evidence that we are born again.

  4. In many Evangelical circles, being “born again” = Decisional regeneration. It may not be referred to as an experience per-se, but one has to make a definite conscious decision/choice to accept Christ as Savior and pray the sinners’ prayer, or else you’re not “saved”. In this paradigm, someone who cannot remember a time when they did not believe that Jesus died for their sins is not truly born again. Decision replaces faith as the instrument by which one receives grace. I remember once hearing a pastor say that Martin Luther was not born again, because there was no record that he had followed this decisional formula.

    I believe this idea is a very subtle form of works-righteousness, even though proponents would deny that works are involved.

  5. Thank you for this Diane! I am deeply troubled by the many people in evangelical churches who are adding to justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on Christ alone the notion that you need some kind of religious experience, a personal decision, a sinner’s prayer or any other qualification to be sure you are right with God. God’s Word tells us, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” First John 5:1

  6. Three great ravagers of the Church arose in the late 19th century: Darwinism, ‘Higher’ Criticism, and Finney’s ‘New methods’ – which spawned ‘decisional regeneration’.
    So as a long-time evangelical, & lover of the Reformation Solas, Amen Diane!

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