Saturday, May 16, 2015

Just What Do They Mean "Born Again"?

Over the past months, we've considered some of the problems with Herbert W Armstrong's teachings on "born again," and how the modern-day Churches of God have carried his fallacies forward. Today, I'd like to close this series by explaining what we "deceived" Christians believe about regeneration, or being "born again."

I know, you think you already understand. I always thought I did. After all, COG literature is replete with critiques of "so-called Christian" doctrines.  The problem is, HWA and those who followed him have created a "Christian" straw man, assigned it highly shallow, flimsy beliefs, then knocked it down. And why would we have any reason to doubt them? Most COG members are disenchanted Protestants and Catholic, as well as their children, who have never darkened the door of a non-COG church outside of weddings and funerals.

These factors, combined with Armstrong's dogmatism and authoritarianism, created a feedback loop that keeps us in the dark about what "deceived" Christians believe. Plus, Google wasn't a factor until relatively recently.

Most of today's COGs are less authoritarian, but they continue HWA's tradition of taking swipes at these supposedly monolithic, shallow beliefs:

"The theological concept of regeneration was considered an instantaneous result of one's commitment to Christ without repentance or change of conduct." United Church of God, Study Paper on "Born Again," p. 7.

"'Born again' should not be relegated to merely a catchy phrase or slogan. It is meant to convey a message much deeper than a phrase some associate with a mostly emotional experience." (UCG, Study Paper on "Born Again", p. 18)

"Many believe conversion is just accepting Jesus into your heart or professing Jesus with your mouth or giving your heart to the Lord. If you say the word “Jesus,” does that mean that from then on you are a born again Christian?" (Arnold Hampton, Christian Conversion, Church of God, a Worldwide Association,

These authors are continuing their mentor's time-honored tradition of misunderstanding, misinterpreting and slandering their "so-called Christian" neighbors. Want an example?  Well, Armstrong asserted that Catholics believe they have entered the Kingdom of God once they embrace the Catholic faith, with no mention of an earthly kingdom. Never mind the fact that the Nicene Creed is recited at each Catholic mass - a creed which discusses Jesus' return in glory to judge the living and dead and His never-ending Kingdom.

Further, HWA taught his followers that Protestants largely inherited this "error" from Catholicism, except for those who are even more foolish, believing the Kingdom of God is something ethereal, something 'set up in men's hearts." (HWA, Just what do you mean born again, p. 35). I'm not sure where HWA became so familiar with Protestant doctrine (as if there is one monolithic set of beliefs). But I can say with 100 percent certainty that there are Protestant churches that teach that Jesus will literally return to earth and establish His kingdom, because the one that I attend does. And it's not small denomination, either. There are millions of members, which means that millions of your deceived, false Christian neighbors believe Jesus will literally return and set up His Kingdom on earth. And that's just ONE denomination. I know that not all denominations believe in a literal return, but it's a total fabrication to say that the churches of God are the only ones who do.

So, with all that being said, are you sure know what your "so-called Christian" neighbors believe about being "born again"?

That's what I thought. So I'll get to the point.

Most traditional Christians believe that regeneration, or what some call being "born again", is an act in which God imparts new spiritual life through the Holy Spirit (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 699). When this regeneration takes place, humans who were once spiritually dead in their sins, dead to God (Ephesians 2:1) are made spiritually alive (Ephesians 2:5, Colossians 2:13, Romans 8:10).

In HWA's model, Christians are begotten of God at baptism and "born again" at the resurrection, at Christ's return. Human effort factors into whether we "make it" from conception to birth, or whether we become an abortion (HWA, Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 45).

In contrast, traditional Christians believe humans play an active role in other steps of the redemption process, but we play no active role in regeneration. Just as we did not choose to be made physically alive, we do not choose to be spiritually born, either (James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:3). Analogies like Ezekiel 36:26-27 seem to indicate man is entirely passive in regeneration. It is entirely an act of God. It is not something that occurs at baptism, as the United Church of God explains in its 2002 study paper on "Born Again." (p. 7). The "washing of regeneration" mentioned in Titus 3:4-5 does not indicate a literal washing, but a cleansing performed by the spirit. Consider Ezekiel 36:25-26, which foreshadows such a time:

"Ezekiel is prophesying that God will give an internal cleansing from the pollution of sin in the heart at the same time as he awakens new spiritual life within his people." (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 702, footnote 7).

So when Jesus discusses being born of water and spirit in John 3, He is most likely talking about a spiritual cleansing from sin, not baptism. Baptism and other physical rites are not being discussed in this passage, and Christian baptism did not start until Pentecost. This series is not intended to explore the issue of baptism at length, but suffice it to say that many scriptures contradict UCG's teachings about so-called "baptismal regeneration" based on Titus 3:4-5. Baptism is a positive rite of Christianity,  but is not absolutely necessary for salvation. Consider Acts 16:14, which tells us that the Lord opened Lydia's heart to understand Paul's teachings, and THEN she was baptized. Salvation comes through faith, not through physical actions. UCG's teachings on baptism foreshadow the church's greater misunderstanding of the human condition and the need for regeneration.

Different schools of theology debate exactly when regeneration happens - immediately before, simultaneously or immediately after a Christian responds to effective calling by repenting and placing their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. It seems  appear these appeared almost simultaneously in Acts 10:44, when the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and others listening to Peter while he was still speaking. Regardless of the exact sequence of events, traditional Christians are regenerated or "born-again" at the outset of their Christian walk, not at its culmination. We are new creations now.

(2 Corinthians 5:17) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new."

We don't know exactly how God regenerates us. The change is internal and invisible, as Jesus alluded to Nicodemus in John 3:8. The wind is invisible and moves secretly, but we see can see its effects in objects around us - blowing leaves, tree limbs and flags. Similarly, humans who have been regenerated will show evidence of new spiritual life through patterns of behavior and desires that are pleasing to God (Systematic Theology, 702). Traditional Christianity calls this process "sanctification," and see it is as evidence of regeneration, not the process through which we secure our "rebirth."

Verses like 1 John 2:29 and 1 John 5:3-4 are in keeping with this line of thought, not indicators that Christians must achieve sinless perfection. Those who are born again will not continue in a pattern of sin - God has given them the ability to overcome the pressures and temptations that would otherwise keep us from obedience. Through our faith in Christ, we can overcome. (link to previous post).

John emphasizes that things like obedience and brotherly love will be the necessarily results in the lives of those who have been born again. Similarly, in Galatians 5:22-23, Paul writes about the traits that the Holy Spirit will produce in Christians' lives over time. If there is true regeneration, these elements will become more and more evident in one's life.

"Neither Jesus nor Paul nor John point to activity in the church or miracles as evidence of regeneration. They rather point to character traits in life." (Grudem, Systematic Theology, pp. 705-706.)

(Of course this begs the question of whether traditional Christians believe those who have been "born again" can lose their salvation. Some teach that God is so powerful that He is able to prevent believers from falling away; thus one who turns from God must never have been truly regenerated. Others argue that Scripture demonstrates one can lose his salvation. Even those who teach this believe it can only happen through deliberate, willful rejection of Jesus and renunciation of faith, not through failing to achieve a particular level of spiritual growth.)

According to Matthew 7:22, prophecy, exorcisms, miracles and other mighty works in Jesus' name do not indicate a person has been born again. Years of intensive church activity do not indicate a person has been born again. Apparently all these things can be produced when a natural man or woman "plays church" on his or her own strength.

"But genuine love for God and his people, heartfelt obedience to his commands, and the Christ-like character traits that Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit, demonstrated consistently over a period of time in a person's life, simply cannot be produced by the natural man or woman working in his or her own strength. These can only come about by the spirit of God working within and giving us new life." (Systematic Theology, p. 706).

The kind of transformation traditional Christianity associates with being "born again" isn't as flashy or exciting as HWA's description. But it's certainly not vague, meaningless or namby-pamby. It's even more important because it allows a transformation of man's real problem - his heart.

Armstrong taught that humans are born morally neutral, and that negative traits like self-centeredness, anger, jealousy, lust and greed are acquired from the devil or the environment. They are not an inherent part of the human heart. Satan, the Prince of the Power of the air, broadcasts his attitude to the world like radio signals, and that the human spirit is tuned in to his wavelength (HWA, The Incredible Human Potential, pp. 146-152). Almost all the COGs still teach this theory of tabula rasa (Latin for "blank slate") today.

The problem is, the idea originated with Aristotle, not the Bible. Scripture paints a much different view of the human heart - according to verses like Psalm 51:5, Job 14:4 and Psalm 58:3. Jeremiah 17:9 puts it best:

"The heart is desperately wicked, who can know it?"

Our hearts are more than just tuned in to the wrong channel. Consider your own words, your own thoughts. You could duct-tape your mouth shut, but the thoughts would still be there. The real problem is the heart from which your words and thoughts spring.  As Jesus said, out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34).

And really, this is why the whole issue matters. If our sin-slate is wiped clean at baptism, and we can simply "change the channel" to God's frequency using the Holy Spirit as a power tool, then all is well in the COGs. The fact that your church teaches your eternal destiny depends on whether you can change enough to avoid spiritual abortion shouldn't be an issue. But if the problem with your heart is deeper than a matter of will, well, that's a different story.

So do you have the spiritual sniffles, or is your heart desperately ill? Are you making good progress at overcoming your sin? Is the antibiotic of the Holy Spirit giving you an extra boost to fight the sin in your life? Or are you in need of something stronger? Do you love your neighbor as yourself, even when it's inconvenient? Do you struggle with faith, even though God has come through for you every time before? Do you struggle to contain your angry reactions when your pride is hurt? Do you bite your tongue, only to have the bitter words burn in your throat? You know, all the duct tape in the world won't keep the hateful feelings from bubbling up inside of you. And even more importantly, do you believe your Creator, who sees all your reactions and knows all your thoughts, thinks you have changed enough to qualify for eternal life?

Let's face it. You don't need a spiritual vitamin. You need a total heart transplant - a complete regeneration . The job is too big for you, but it's not too much for the Great Physician. Jesus came to heal those who know they are sinners, not those who think they are righteous (Mark 2:17, NASB). Step into the New Covenant and accept the true healing that only comes by grace through faith in the shed blood of the Christ alone.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11