Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Loose Ends on "Born Again"

After taking a break for the spring days, today, we'd like to tie up some loose ends from our analysis of Herbert Armstrong's Booklet, Just What Do You Mean Born Again.

You're probably thinking, "Finally!" We know the feeling. Though this study is meant to address the major doctrinal flaws in the booklet, we know it does not address each and every page. Still, we think we've covered enough ground to at least establish reasonable doubt of Armstrong's take on "born again."

Maybe you're still wondering why, in 2015, we would rehash a publication last updated in 1972. Well, the booklet may be more than 40 years old, but many of its false conclusions are alive and well in today's Churches of God. The Living Church of God; Church of God, a Worldwide Association; United Church of God; Philadelphia Church of God; Church of God, an International Community and many others still teach Armstrong's basic doctrines about salvation based on his reproduction analogy. (Incidentally, UCG still affirms HWA's teachings on "born again" out of one side of their mouth, while the other side quietly whispered he was wrong in their 2002 study paper on "Born Again.")

In fact, the only group we know of in the Church of God community that has rejected this false teaching is John Ritenbaugh's Church of the Great God. Ritenbaugh is the church's founder and pastor, and has taken considerable effort to refute HWA's traditional teachings on regeneration in his series, "Born Again or Begotten?".  Last time, Ritenbaugh helped us debunk HWA's interpretation of John 3:8. Today, he'll help us address Armstrong's misinterpretations of 1 John 3, which HWA supported through his faulty interpretation of John 3:8.

First John 3:2 describes Christians as children of God, but also states that our final form has not yet been revealed. Armstrong points out that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:50), and the rest of the passage (verses 42-54) tells us that glorified humans will resemble "the image of the heavenly Man." (verse 49). What is that image? Armstrong directs our attention to the description in Revelation 1:14-15, which he snidely notes does not fit today's so-called "born again" Christian.

"We shall appear like him at the second coming to earth.  What will he be like? Like the glorified Christ - his eyes blaze like fire, feet like burnished brass, face shines like the sun," Armstrong said. "And that is the way you and I shall look, if and when we are finally born of God! These deceived people who talk about having had a "born-again" experience certainly don't look like THAT!" (Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 40).

Voila! Your Methodist neighbor clearly doesn't look like that now. That settles it. Believers are literally "born again" into the Kingdom of God at Christ's return. Game over. Or maybe not.

But Paul, the author of 1 Corinthians, never mentions being "born again" in the context of a resurrection, in 1 Corinthians or anywhere else, Ritenbaugh points out. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 5:8, Paul uses the word "born" in terms of his calling. Throughout the Bible, the final step of the process is consistently described in terms of glorification, change or transformation through resurrection, not a birth (1 Corinthians 15:51-54, Philippians 3:21, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18). And Romans 1:4, another scripture HWA used to "prove" Christ was born again at His resurrection, in reality, indicates the resurrection proved Christ was who He said He was. In other words, the resurrection was the evidence - the reason - that we have faith in Christ. Not the thing that made Him the Christ.

He Cannot Sin

The final argument from the booklet I'd like to address is from I John 3:9:

"Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God."

Armstrong juxtaposed this verse with 1 John 1:8, which tells us that we deceive ourselves if we think we have no sin. Do the two verses contradict one another, or is there another explanation, HWA mused.  Naturally, he has an explanation. First John 1:8-9 plainly tells us that converted Christians do sin, though not habitually, deliberately or willfully.

So what about 1 John 3:9, which tells us it's impossible for Christians to sin? It must mean that those who have been born of God cannot sin. Do you still sin? Then you are not born of God yet, HWA argues, and won't be until the resurrection.

Other theologians agree that 1 John 1:8 and 1 John 3:9 do not contradict one another, but for another reason. The latter verse uses the Greek perfect tense, indicating an ongoing lifestyle, not an individual occurrence, according to evangelical theologian, professor and author Wayne Grudem. Grudem explains that John means that the Holy Spirit will keep the regenerated man for living a sinful lifestyle, not prevent him from individual lapses (Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 704).

Even if you don't like that explanation, HWA's reasoning contradicts itself within the context verse 9 in isolation (not to mention the entire passage).

(I John 3:9) Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.

Suppose this verse really does discuss Christians who have been resurrected, or "literally born" into God's Kingdom. Then why would God's "seed" remain in one who has been born? According to HWA's analogy, we are no longer talking about someone who's only "begotten"  at this point. But seed indicates a conceptual, fetal, incomplete status.

If that's not enough, the whole passage is exhorting and instructing brethren to show love to one another in this life. Explaining that love is evidence of true Christianity. Why would John fast-forward to the resurrection in verse 9, when the context of the passage indicates he is talking about current conduct?

UCG's 2002 study paper on "born again" even takes this position:

"The context of I John chapter 3 is unmistakably referring to the present Christian life. It is not referring to the future life in the resurrection." (Born Again, p. 18)

While we plan to spend one more post explaining what "so-called Christians" believe about this topic, we'd like to close with a few statements from Ritenbaugh's and UCG's writings on "born again". Our comments are in bold.

"In the end, the begotten-again analogy is found completely lacking in describing what happens to begin our spiritual life. What has not changed in the least is its practical application to Christian life. However, what has been clarified should impress upon us even more forcefully is that, because our names are already entered into the Book of Life, we are already in God's Family Kingdom with our citizenship already issued, and there is every reason we should make it to the end. Therefore, we should be all the more responsible and urgent to bring glory to our God." (Ritenbaugh, Born Again or Begotten, Part 3)  The analogy is completely lacking, but still has practical application in our lives? Hmmmm...

"The analogy of being begotten and in the womb of the church is not only scripturally wrong, it is totally inadequate when God commands us to do practical activities normal to Christian life" (such as pray, fast, sacrifice, repent, forgive, show mercy and many others)." (Ritenbaugh, Born Again or Begotten, Part 3). Again, it is scripturally wrong and totally inadequate, but it still applies to us how?

"The individual is not literally reborn at the time of conversion. On the other hand, a significant chance takes place in this life - so significant that it can be considered the beginning of a new life." (UCG, Born Again, p. 6) Um.  The beginning of a new life usually is called a birth. 

"Therefore, while the fetal analogy is not found specifically in the Bible as an application to Christians, it is helpful to understanding the salvation process." (UCG, Born Again, p. 30). Why cling to an analogy that is not found in the Bible to explain a Biblical process? Especially when there is a perfectly good biblical analogy several New Testament writer used to explain the process. Which, again, many within the COG community admit is biblically sound. 

"This (the fetal analogy) is a good analogy and it is theologically sound." (UCG, Born Again, p. 28). Wait. They just said this analogy is not found in the Bible. How can it be theologically sound?  

"It may be difficult to distinguish from the context between that which takes place at conversion and that which takes place at the time of the resurrection. But why should we attempt to do so if both apply?" (UCG, Born Again, p. 16). Because the man who founded your church ridiculed "so-called Christians" who accepted this conclusion as false brethren; and because you continue to do so today. Because your church makes it a litmus test for true Christians. It is disingenuous to straddle the fence now to try to simultaneously attempt to preserve your tithe base and save face, theologically speaking.  

After reading these statements, one must infer that UCG and the many former UCG ministers who lead other COG organizations today hold onto their teaching largely because allegiance to Armstrong's ideas and writings are at least as dear to them than the ideas and writings of John, Peter and Paul. How about you? Is your allegiance to a man's extra-biblical teachings or to the Word of God?

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

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