Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Finally Alive

Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born again." The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sounds, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. ~ John 3:7-8
One of the books that I recently completed on my reading list was John Piper's book on the new birth, Finally Alive. It was such an incredibly humbling read that I feel compelled to devote a blog post to it.
The introduction to Finally Alive begins with the Bible verse above, followed by these words from John Piper:
"The declaration of Jesus that we must be born again is either deluded or devastating to the one would be captain of his soul. Not many Biblical realities are better designed by God to reveal our helplessness in sin."
Unfortunately, as it says on the back of this book, "not everyone today is jealous to esteem this miracle for the wonder that it is."
Piper poses crucial and critical questions about being born again. Questions such as, What is the new birth? How does it come about? What does God do in regeneration? What did He do in history to make it possible? If new birth is decisively the work of God, which it is, how do I experience it? Is there anything I can do to make it happen? What is my part in bringing it about? What is the aim of the new borth? What effect does ithave? What is it like to live as a born again person? What can we do to help others be born again? If God is the great Doer in this affair, what can we do? Does our doing really matter?
Before Piper moves forward to search out Scriptural answers to these questions, he seeks to provide a Biblical definition for the term 'born again.' He targets and clears up the misuses of this term and the many misunderstandings on this subject. 'Born again' is thrown around lightly in evangelical circles. It's merely a title we assign to one who has "prayed the prayer" or made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and believe they're going to heaven now since they've confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their Savior. There's also much talk about "re-dedicating" one's life to the Lord. There's also the typical term "backslider" (as if they were a believer before but fell away for awhile?). But the problem with these blacksliders and people who teach such a concept is that they've never even considered the fact that they probably weren't "born again." Piper gives some tough love by stating that Modern Christianity is "permeated by worldliness" and completely unrecognizable from sinners! It's merely an empty, feelings-based faith that has no roots in Truth, thus bearing no lasting, eternal fruit. Popular Christianity is no different from the sinful, hedonistic society that we live. He says,

"Much is at stake in seeing the new birth in true biblical proportions. Heaven and hell are at stake - and a church in the world now that acts more like Jesus and less like the culture around it.
Which brings us back to where we started, namely, the claim that born again Christians have lifestyles of worldliness and sin that are indistinguishable from the unregenerate. I don't think so. 1 John 5:4: "Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith." But my conviction is not rosy news for the church. It implies that there are millions of church attenders who are not born again.
Nevertheless, in spite of this conviction, I will distance myself from perfectionism. In other words, I don't think that the new borth makes us perfect in this life. Sin remains, and the fight of faith is a daily necessity. Some unbelievers look like better people than some believers. But that is because some pretty bad people have been born again, and the process of transformation is not always as fast as we would like.
It's also because there are unregenerate people who for all kinds of genetic and social reasons conform to an outward morality while being God-indifferent or God-hostile on the inside. God sees the line between the regenerate and the unregenerate perfectly. We don't. But there is such a line, and those who have been born again are being changed, even if slowly, from one degree of humility and love to the next.
This matters. It matters for eternity, and it matters for the glory of Christ in this life."

"God...does not want us to be ignorant of what he does in the new birth. It means that knowing what he has revealed about the new birth is good for us."

In each section of his book, he begins by asking the most basic questions and looks to the primary sources in Scriptures to answer those questions: John 3:1-10, Eph 2:1-10, 1 Peter 1:13-25, 1 Peter 1:22 - 2:3, 2 Cor 4:1-7, Titus 3:1-8, and the entire book of 1 John. He laces through these passages with Jesus' words from the Gospels and from several OT sources. He presses into each verse, gleaning them for all their precious, Christ-exalting truth. For example, in one chapter he gives 11 Evidences of the New Birth:

1. Those who are born of God keep his commandments (1 John 2:3-4, 1 John 3:24).
2. Those who are born of God walk as Christ walked (1 John 2:5-6).
3. Those who are born of God don't hate others but love them (1 John 2:9, 3:14, 4:7-8, 4:20).
4. Those who are born of God don't love the world (1 John 2:15).
5. Those who are born of God confess the Son and receive (have) him (1 John 2:23, 4:15, 5:12).
6. Those who are born of God practice righteousness (1 John 2:29).
7. Those who are born of God don't make a practice of sinning (1 John 3:6, 1 John 3:9-10, 5:18).
8. Those who are born of God possess the Spirit of God (1 John 3:24, 4:13).
9. Those who are born of God listen submissively to the apostolic Word (1 John 4:6).
10. Those who are born of God believe that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 5:1).
11. Those who are born of God overcome the world (1 John 5:4)

It is apparent throughought the book that he does not lightly touch upon this subject. He never presumes to know the intricate, mysterious innerworkings of God and His Holy Spirit. For any pastor, such an area of study is a weighty and humbling task. John Piper seeks to share the grand glory of God revealed in Scripture about this supernatural phenenomon, but he acknowledges that there some details that the Bible does not tell us. Constantly, he points readers to the vast joy, pleasure, and satisfaction in Christ Jesus as one of the most important aims of the new birth - God awakening in us, through the power of His Holy Spirit, spiritual sight and spiritual tastebuds for the preciousness of Jesus alone.

Perhaps the most troubling section of Finally Alive is when Piper address the questions, "Why must we be born again?" The reality and knowledge of ourselves is disturbing. The depth of sin and corruption that makes up the human heart is unfathomable to us. Oftentimes, that reality grows distant and loses its frightening image. We tend to grow cold in our understanding and dealing with sin. The Bible doesn't lightly touch upon the subject of sin. And so, Piper, humbly and lovingly, takes us through verse after verse on our condition, giving deep, convicting, terrible insight to the question, "Why must we be born again?" He states firmly,
"The Bible has a clear and devastating message about the state of our souls." and
"Jesus had no romantic notions about the best of men."

One might ask upon reading those 'disturbing' chapters, "Why do we have to keep emphasizing our sin?" Because it keeps the Cross near in all its beauty and grandeur! The Good News cannot ever be GOOD, wonderful, praise-worthy, joyful news without knowledge of the Bad News. As imperative as the bad news is to hear before one is 'born again,' even moreso after to keep the greatness and gloriousness of the Gospel bright in our eyes! And to keep us from idle, carnal wanderings in our faith! It's humbling and good to hear the Truths that are dark and terrible. It is shameful to preach the Gospel message without preaching about the seriousness of our sin.

Here are the 7 Biblical explanations that Piper gives on our condition apart from the new birth and why it is so necessary:
1. Apart from the new birth, we are dead in trespasses and sin (Eph 2:1-2).
2. Apart from the new bith, we are by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3).
3. Apart from the new birth, we love darkness and hate the light (John 3:19-20).
4. Apart from the new birth, our hearts are hard like stone (Ezek 36:26; Eph 4:18)
5. Apart from the new birth, we are unable to submit to God or please God (Rom 8:7-8).
6. Apart from the new birth, we are unable to accept the gospel (Eph 4:18; 1 Cor 2:14).
7. Apart from the new birth, we are unable to come to Christ or embrace him as Lord (John 6:44, 65; 1 Cor 12:3)

As the study moves forward and more detailed, Piper builds upon Scripture with Scripture and exhorts us to submit our feelings to the Truth.
"The Biblical truth that saving faith is possibly only because God causes unbelievers to be born again (1 John 5:1) may make us feel empowered and encouraged and bold and hopefuly in our personal evangelism, or it may make us feel fatalistic, pointless, unmotivated, and paralyzed in our evangelism. If we fatalistic and pointless and unmotivated and paralyzed in our witness to unbelievers, our feelings are out of sync with the truth, and we should ask the Lord to change our feelings."
" to bring {our] vagrant feelings into line with ultimate reality. My feelings are not God. God is God. My feelings do not define truth. God's word defines truth. My feelings are echoes and responses to what my mind perceives. And sometimes - many times - my feelings are out of sync with truth. When that happens - and it happens every day in some measure - I try not to bend the truth to justify my imperfect feelings, but rather, I plead with God: Purify my perceptions of your truth and transform my feelings so that they are in sync with the truth."

The last chapters of his book are dedicated to sharing the Gospel. I was so strongly encouraged by the practical ways to evangelize that I think I shall type them out soon and share them here on my blog. They were convicting to me as they challenged me to refocus my efforts and reshape my thinking on how I go about my days. John Piper shares the joy and freedom found in being a clay pot that, although we're unable to make the new birth happen in anyone, that proclaims and shares the treasure of Christ and the surpassing power of God in all that we say and do. The fact that we are unable to cause anyone to be born again gives more hope to our powerful God who may choose to use us anytime or anywhere to stir others to His glorious reality.

My heart was overcome with the glory of the Gospel in Piper's last words:

"Jesus' words "You must be born again" (John 3:7) go to the heart of the world's problems. There will be no final peace, no final justice, no triumph over hate and selfishness and racism without this profound change in human nature.
All other diagnoses and remedies are superficial. They may eve be valuable - like laws that restrain people from doing their worst. But without the new birth, people are not changed at the root, and that is where the problem lies. If human beings are not changed at the root, then our innate selfishness will spoil every dream.
Jesus' remedy fits the depths of our disorder. If we only did bad things because of bad circumstances, then ther emight be hope that changing the circumstances would change our behavior. But our problem is not simply that we do bad things - like slanderings others, and cheating in privated, and neglecting our responsibilities, and shunning those who are different, and doing shoddy work, and bending the truth, and gratifying our desires ant others' expense, and ignoring the poor, and giving no regard to our Maker.
Our problem is that what we do comes from who we are (Matt 7:16-17, 12:34).
So if your heartache is for your own personal changed, or for change in your marriage, or change in your prodigal children, or in your church, or in the systemic structures of injustice, or in the political system, or in the hostilities among nations, or in the human degradation of the environment, or in the raunchiness of our entertainment culture, or in the miseries of the poor, or in the calllous opulence of the rich, or in the inequities of educational opportunity, or in arrogant attitudes of ethnocentrism, or in a hundred areas of human need caused by some form of human greed - if your heart aches for any of these, then you should care supremely about the new birth.
There are other ways of shaping culture and guiding behavior. But none so deep. None so far-reaching. None so universally relevant. None so eternally significant."

Oh that God might grant us sight to always see this eternal, divine truth as precious!!

I once thought there was need to move beyond the basic Gospel message. In one sense I was right, and in another sense, I was wrong. I was right in the sense that we need to move beyond - not away from the Gospel, but into the Gospel. There is a vast depth of meaning, grace, and glory in the Gospel left unexplored. You can hear all the lovely, happy bits of the Gospel message whilst walking through a Christian bookstore or attending church every sunday. But you'll never know the depth and granduer of it merely by doing or being a part of the "Christian" things. Healing, power, holy affections for Christ and the Cross, and vibrant life come only from daily beholding the Gospel and God's glory in all its detail! There is great need to daily abide and meditate in this Truth. There are vast treasures in this Truth that we have yet tasted.

This might concern some, but in reading Finally Alive in line with the Bible, I have been even more strongly rooted in my belief of God's sovereignty, His effectual calling (predestination), and man's complete inability to will or to choose God. One might think, "Oh gosh, she's just been reaffirmed in her Calvinism." If, by Calvinism, you mean that God, lovingly, chose before creation a Bride for Himself (the souls of whom He knows all by name!) and overcomes our hardened, depraved hearts, and wills to bring us to Himself, thereby granting (in his mysterious, sovereign goodness!) some vessels for mercy and some for wrath - then yes, I have been 'reaffirmed' in that belief. However, I highly disapprove of its labeling as Calvinism - as if Calvin himself came up with such a hated belief that tears free-will straight out of our hands! Our very nature shivers at such a reality. Do we really believe that the teaching of predestination and God's soverign choice is merely the result of one man's interpretation of Scripture? No one ever curses or hates the Apostle Paul for some of the things he wrote about this in Romans. No, we just avoid it and pretend it's not there.
Test everything with Scripture. Answer Scripture with Scripture. Lace them together. This is not something we cannot know.
I cannot run from these hard truths. The more earnestly I've tried to find anything in Scripture that might suggest otherwise, the increasingly more apparent it becomes that God will give His glory to NO ONE. He does it all - every little and hard thing, even those that our finite minds cannot comprehend. There is much freedom in His sovereign grace - freedom that, otherwise, would not have been there if our little wills marred His Spirit's divine innerworkings. It frees us up to trust in Him - Rom 8:28 - knowing that He works for our good and His glory, which is our joy.

Lord, I thank You that the new birth and the entire Gospel is entirely Your work because otherwise, I would never have chosen You and known Your Life! What sweet, precious, comforting, freeing joy this is to our souls!


Nolan said...

☆ (imagine it's a gold sticker)

There is only one thing that I can add to this post that is really necessary, and that is AMEN!

I particularly liked this part:
My feelings are not God. God is God. My feelings do not define truth. God's word defines truth. My feelings are echoes and responses to what my mind perceives. And sometimes - many times - my feelings are out of sync with truth.

Understanding identity is important in understanding verses such as the ones Piper listed under "11 Evidences of the New Birth".

Oh and referring to your clarification:
One might think, "Oh gosh, she's just been reaffirmed in her Calvinism."
I think 1 Corinthians 3 could teach us a thing or two about labeling.

I'll have to check this book out! A friend from Mars Hill calls John Piper "The Pipebomb." Oh, and if you get a chance, I would recommend "Classic Christianity" by Bob George.

Thank you for sharing these truths.

Anonymous said...

This is a good review of a very good book! I haven't read it myself, but perhaps I should add it to my long-term list (which by the way, is very long). A true, complete understanding of the Gospel is actually a rare thing, but is truly freeing to those who find it!