Thursday, September 04, 2008

Being Born Again by Gary Brady

What the Bible teaches about Being Born Again,
by Gary Brady, Evangelical Press, 2008, 175pp.
Jesus famously said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” (John 3:7). But what does it mean to be born again? This is an important question because we will never know the blessings of God’s kingdom unless we are born anew. In this book, my good friend and fellow blogger Gary Brady (of Heavenly Worldliness) sets forth the Bible’s teaching on this vital subject with clarity and care. He defines regeneration biblically and theologically as God’s sovereign and gracious work of bringing a sinner to new life in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
Why is the new birth so necessary? Gary ably demonstrates that we need to be born again because by nature we are dead in trespasses and sins. I'm not sure what he means at one point by, "Our very creatureliness makes new birth necessary." (p. 76). As he shows elsewhere in the book the problem is not that we are creatures, but fallen creatures. God's character demands that the sinner be regenerated if we are to share in the future glory of his people. Regeneration is a monergistic act of God. That is, we make no contribution whatsoever to our new birth. God changes us from within, enlightening the darkened mind, softening the hardened heart and liberating the enslaved will. We cannot therefore decide to be born again. We are not even born again by faith. We believe only because God first implanted spiritual life in our souls. Conversion or repentance and faith is the conscious effect of the hidden work of regeneration.
But there is much confusion these days over what it means to be born again. A helpful chapter is devoted to ‘What is it not?’ It is not reincarnation, or a fresh commitment to God on our part. Regeneration is not a consequence of baptism. More positively, the writer draws on material from both Testaments to set forth the rich mosaic of the Bible’s teaching on the new birth. Detailed attention is rightly paid to John 3, but not at the expense of other key texts. Brady’s handling of Scripture is deft and insightful. But I found myself disagreeing with him at one or two points. Brady equates the new birth with Spirit baptism (p. 72-73). This might be a legitimate understanding of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:13, where he says that all believers were "baptised by one Spirit into one body", although the accent here is on union with Christ rather than regeneration per se. But is Luke thinking of regeneration when he speaks of Spirit baptism in Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5-8, 2:1-4, 10:44ff, 11:15-18? I think not. By any reckoning, the disciples were regenerate prior to Pentecost, yet they were baptised with the Spirit on that day. It seems to me that Spirit baptism in Luke's usage refers to the filling of the Spirit that is promised to all believers rather than regeneration.
Gary reflects on the causes of new birth. The fundamental cause is God acting by the power of his Spirit rather than the efforts of man. The qualifying cause is the atoning death of Christ. We live because he died for our sins. This is certainly the case, but perhaps a little more attention could have been devoted to the the relationship between Christ's resurrection and our regeneration especially given the fact that 1 Peter 1:3 is quoted at the head of Chapter 7. The instrumental cause of being born again is the Word of God. This is clearly taught in James 1:18 and 1 Peter 1:23. Although regeneration is wholly God's work, he does not ordinarily bring sinners to new life apart from the proclamation of the Gospel. Lydia is a case in point. The Lord opened her heart so that she gave heed to the message spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).
The theological issue of where regeneration fits in the scheme of salvation or ordo salutis is discussed. It is stressed the new birth is the fruit of God’s sovereign election that leads to a godly life. It is legitimate to reflect on the relationship between the differing links in the "golden chain" of salvation, such as regeneration and justification, regeneration and adoption, and regeneration and sanctification. While this might be helpful in some ways, we need to bear in mind that the unifying factor in all aspects of salvation, regeneration included, is union with Christ. Welcome attention is given to the cosmic and eschatological dimensions of being born again. Brady insists that God’s ultimate purpose is not simply to regenerate individual sinners, but the whole of the universe when Christ returns (Matthew 19:28).

Issues surrounding the new birth such as when it happens and how we can tell if we are born again are faced with pastoral sensitivity and wisdom. The reader is urged to soberly examine his life in the light of Scripture, especially the "tests of life" in 1 John. A concluding chapter issues a final plea to those who are not born again to seek the new birth. I agree that the non-Christian seriously needs to be born again. Regeneration is not a spiritual luxury. As Jesus said, "You must be born again". But it seems to me that the New Testament encourages the unbeliever to repent and believe the Gospel, rather than pray for the new birth. After all we will only know that we are born again when we believe that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 5:1).
Gary is a great communicator. He writes with winsome clarity and illustrates his material well. He is careful to carry his readers with him, offering a brief summary statement at the end of each chapter before tackling a new aspect of the subject. The text is packed with great quotes from theological writers old and new. There are some real gems here like this one from Stephen Charnock, "Repentance is a change of the mind and regeneration is the change of the man." (p. 136). Being persnickety by predilection and scholarly by pretension, I was a little irked that the citations lack footnotes, making the references hard to follow up. But many people find footnotes off-putting, so I suppose scholarly apparatus had to be jettisoned for the sake of accessibility. Fair enough. Such quibbles aside, this is an excellent treatment of what it means to be born again. Highly recommended for evangelistic use and for helping believers gain a better understanding of the new birth.
* An edited version of this review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Protestant Truth.


Gary Brady said...

Thanks for that Guy. Criticisms noted. Most of the quotations can be cashed up simply by googling them. Nearly everything I quote can be found somewhere on the net I think.

Gary Brady said...

BTW "cashed up" is a phrase I just invented. I'm not sure what I was trying to write. :-)

Exiled Preacher said...

Point taken re googleability of the quotes. I just can't see why some people find footnotes so scary and off-putting. They don't bite.