Some concluding thoughts (see also here and here) on Stuart Olyott's article in the Banner Magazine for December 2009 entitled Where Luther Got It Wrong - and Why We need To Know about It. I especially want to focus on his claim that the doctrine of "mediate regeneration" as he calls it will be the ruin of gospel work in the UK. Why does he take issue with the idea that the Word is the instrument by which the Spirit brings a person to new life in Christ? We start with his proposed definition of the new birth,
"Regeneration is a supernatural enlightenment of the human soul brought about by the direct and immediate energy of the Holy Spirit working within that soul. There is nothing 'mediate' about it. It is not brought about by some influence or instruction from outside, but by the implanting of new spiritual life inside." (p. 26)
This statement is typical of what might be found in the standard works of Reformed systematic theology. Olyott stresses the unmediated character of regeneration in order to safeguard the sovereignty of the Spirit. He wants to avoid any suggestion that the Word inhrently contains the Spirit's saving power. But is it right to suggest that regeneration is ordinarily an immediate act of the Spirit apart from the instrumentality of the Word? Part of the problem is that the discourse of systematic theology is not always the same as that of the Bible itself. Systematics in its drive for conceptual clarity can sometimes ride roughshod over the differing nuances of the biblical material. Regeneration, or being born again is sometimes described in the Bible as a work of the Spirit without mention of the instrumentality of the Word. The classic passage is John 3:3-8. But this is not the whole story. Other texts attribute the new birth to God working by his Word, James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23. Olyott is aware of this and addresses the issue in his article. He suggests (p. 28) that these verses are "not [about] the act of germination (where new life comes into being) but to the moment of birth (where a new life becomes visible)." But I'm not sure that such a distinction can be justified. Biblical writers use a variety of terminology to refer to the same saving event. In the Gospel According to John Jesus speaks of being "born again" (John 3:3, 8), Paul writes, "if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17), he teaches that the dead in sin are "made alive" (Ephesians 2:5), and uses the language of "regeneration" (Titus 3:5). In each case Scripture is referring to God's great work of bringing the dead in sin to new life in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Also, take Peter's teaching on the new birth in his First Epistle. In 1 Peter 1:3, we read that "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead". This stands in parallel with what Paul says in Ephesians 2:4-5, where God makes those who were dead in sin alive together with Christ. In neither case is the Word explicitly mentioned as an instrument of regeneration. However, Peter uses the same Greek word in 1 Peter 1:3 (translated "begotten again" NKJV) and 1 Peter 1:23 (translated "born again" NKJV). Note that in the latter text we read, "having been born again... through the word of God". The word is the "incorruptible seed...which lives and abides forever". This "word" is identified with the gospel that was originally preached to Peter's readers, 1 Peter 1:23-25. For Peter the Word of the gospel is clearly the means by which God begets us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Reformed systematic theology needs to be revised to take this fact into account (see John Murray's attempt to do this in The Collected Works of John Murray Volume 2, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 196-198).