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Born Again & Justified by Faith Alone
a Summary of Christology
F. Earle Fox
See also original expanded versions
April 15, 2012 -- Easter 1
This week and next, I want to give you a summary of the central issues which I have hoped to communicate to you about the Christian faith. I have mentioned a few times the periodic need of the Body of Christ to have a Reformation for our own current time. That is necessary because each new era raises new questions for Christians to answer, and we create some new problems for ourselves, not least because of our divisions -- just as in the 1500's with the Protestant Reformation.
Today I will summarized things I have said about being “born again” and
“justification by faith”.
What did Jesus mean when He told Nicodemus that he needed to be "born anew", or "born again"? The primary issue is what does it mean to become a child of God? What does it mean to become a member of the family of God? And what is this family of God?
he classical text is John 3 where Jesus says to Nicodemus, "...unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.... ...unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit..."
Nicodemus had accomplished his first birth in good shape, becoming a mature and capable Jewish leader.
But even all that cultural identity was not enough. Unless he was born anew, Nicodemus would see only worldly kingdoms -- Israel, Rome, Greece, Germany, France, America -- but not the Kingdom of God.
In order to see the Kingdom of God, something else had to happen. Nicodemus needed to be returned to that Kingdom from which the human race had fallen. In the closed circle cosmos of the Fall, with no clear perception of God, or trust that He even existed, one could have no clear perception of the nature and reality of that Kingdom.
In the Greek text, the phrase "born again" mean "sired again", or "begotten again", a specifically fathering role, which is no doubt why Nicodemus took Jesus so literally. Jesus was speaking of an actual birth process, but a spiritual birth, not a second physical birth. And, the word for "again" can mean "from above". Hence, "sired from above...." "begotten from above". God wants to become our Father.
Every birth has three stages, conception, gestation, and delivery. The born again experience has the same three steps. Spiritual conception is our receiving of Christ. The Word of God, as Jesus tells us in the parable of the seeds, is the spiritual seed from the Father planted in our hearts and minds. The gestation period is our time of spiritual growth through life, as we mature toward... the delivery -- which occurs at physical death. Death is in fact the new birth -- for those who have chosen to follow Jesus to the Father. "O death! Where is thy victory??? Oh death! Where is thy sting???"
St. Paul refers very briefly to this new birth process in Romans 8:22.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
What is this waiting for our adoption as sons and daughters of God? We, ourselves, groan in travail, says Paul. Our present life is like going through a birth canal. We groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons. And what is this adoption? It is the redemption of our bodies, the resurrection. Bodies are important to the Kingdom of God, they are not "second-rate" compared to the spiritual. In the unfallen Kingdom, flesh and spirit work together in a sacramental way.
But even here on earth, we are not walking blindly. We have the "first fruits of the Spirit", that which Paul (RSV version) three times refers to as the "guarantee" of things to come, the fullness of the Kingdom. The first fruits is the personal experience of dramatic change in one's life, a freedom from guilt, a stability of one's own being, an ability to be oneself fully and openly in the face of opposition, a freedom to be witnesses for Christ.
The fullness of adoption as sons and
daughters of God does not come instantly after conception. It comes with birth
at the end of the canal, that is, at death, and the reception of our new bodies.
But the power of the Holy Spirit, the new Comforter sent by Jesus, sets us free
before that to be witnesses right now
to the world around us, a new ability to be obedient to the law of God,
producing fruits of the Spirit in our own Christian community, spilling out into
But to get resurrected, you first have to die. Dying in Christ is the exit from the worldly birth into the life of the resurrection, which is the redemption, the salvation, the sanctification of our bodies . Or, more accurately, the resurrection to whichever ultimate choice we have made. We either build heaven with God and each other, or we build hell all by ourselves. We will have chosen to be either sheep or goats.
The Bible does not teach that we are born again at
our conversion, but rather suggests that at conversion, we
are conceived, sired from above,
we begin the process
of being born again, which is
accomplished after gestation, leading to death and the resurrection of our
bodies -- either to heaven or to hell. We have often short-cut this born again
process into one instant step. But it is a process.
But there is more. Our parents seem to us at birth to be as God. When in the womb, we literally live and move and have our being in our mothers, the phrase Paul quoted from the Greek poet who described God that way, "in whom we live and move and have our being." Parents are not God, of course, even though infants see them that way. But parents are made in the Image of God, male and female, so as to introduce us to the real God as we grow up under them.
But being fallen parents, they do a second rate job. So we inherit, often copy, maybe even multiply, their sins. Our own natures, created likewise to reflect the Image of God, either male or female, can be badly damaged and distorted, passing on the sins and brokenness of our parents to our children.
So it becomes all the more urgent that we accept the offer of God to be
born again, sired from above by the spiritual seed of the Word of God, uniting
with our souls to become new creatures in Christ. We are conceived again, and
begin the long journey down the birth canal of life to death and resurrection,
the redemption of our bodies, i.e., the transformation of our bodies into the
spiritual bodies appropriate for an unfallen world.
After conversion, we are in the position of leaving our human parents, first by normal growing up, and then by being called by our now heavenly Parent to be His child. God mothers us as well as fathers us. We humans are made in the Image of God, male and female. Eve is given to Adam to be a help meet, or appropriate, for him. Adam, made in the Godly image of manhood, was not equipped to bear adequately the Godly image of motherhood. That was Eve's vocation. Both were made in the Image of God, reflecting those fathering and mothering sides of God which are so necessary for our growth as persons.
When God creates Adam, He breathes His breath into the dirt from the ground, which then becomes a living being. The breath of God is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, as we say in the Creed. The power of the Holy Spirit is the power to be oneself, fully and wholly, the power of being. Our mothers first communicate that ability to us as infants. We soak up the stability of mother. That is the beginning of our own ontological, personal stability.
Our fathers major in teaching us moral responsibility, a sense of direction and purpose, which is built on the earlier foundation from mother of personal, ontological stability. So we are taught by our parents who we are and where we are going. They can do an adequate job of that only to the extent to which they themselves have traveled down that spiritual birth canal toward being children of God and are indeed reflecting His fathering and mothering nature.
So this second trip down the birth canal, this time "of the Spirit", into a childhood relationship with God Himself, leads us to the place where our human parents are no longer God to us. They become brother and sister, hopefully in the Lord. God is now our Parent. We are now both fathered and mothered by God -- members of the family of God, children of God.
In the Kingdom, God alone mothers us and fathers us. Our other relations
are sibling relationships, we are all equal, children by adoption and grace
before the same Parent.
Justification by Faith Alone – our Second Topic
….. is closely related to being born again. Both deal with the recovery of our unfallen state in relationship to God.
The big issue here is the relation between faith and works. What do our works have to do with salvation? with being a member of the family of God?
There are two issues to sort out: 1. What does 'justification' mean? and, 2. why justification by faith alone? What is this "alone" business? 'Alone' usually means 'not by works'. Faith is then taken to be in some kind of contradiction to works.
‘Justification' means having a good reason for something. We justify our actions by giving an acceptable reason for doing them. I might reply to a question: "Why are you here at St. Luke's this morning?" with "Because I do not get paid if I do not show up."
We have that same justification relationship with God, only more so. God
keeps track of our behavior and holds us accountable for how we behave. “Why are
you doing that?” The summary of His standards for our behavior is contained in
the Two Great Commandments -- to love God and to love our neighbor.
The word 'justification' is right at the heart of the Christian message. Generally, we mean something like, 'In a right relation with God regarding sin and righteousness.'
In the religious arena, justification has to do with sin. We did
something for which we have no justification. I.e., we cannot give to God any
good reason for having done that act.
God gave us a standard by which actions are measured as right or wrong. We are commanded to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. When we disobey, we compromise our reason for existence.
Loving God means doing according to His will, dedicating the freedom of our will to His service. Much of that is done through loving our neighbor. Loving our neighbors means doing good, life and relationship enhancing things, for them.
It is God’s being our Creator out of nothing which enables Him to define our reason for existence. Only the Creator of something can define the reason for the existence of that thing -- for the simple and logical reason that He, and only He, gave us that existence.
Sin, then, means violating our reason for existence. I am logically incapable of determining my own reason for existence. I can determine the reason only for my own actions and attitudes -- because I am the actor who, by my own freewill, is doing them.
But, I cannot determine the reason for my existence because my existence is not my act. My existence is an act of God. That is what it means for God to be my Creator.
It follows then that I cannot justify my being. I cannot justify, give the reason for, my "self". My self is a creature of God. My existence is not something I do, it is something I receive, a gift of grace.
This distinction between who we are and what we do is essential to
understanding the meaning of salvation and a right relation with God.
What has this to do with "by faith alone", that is, not by works?
Salvation by "works" means that by doing certain good works, we can oblige God to let us into heaven. Our good works are then like a ticket which pays our way through the Pearly Gates. St. Peter accepts the ticket and lets us in.
There was a discussion on faith, salvation, and freewill between St. Augustine and an English monk named Pelagius. The debate focused on the dangers of thinking that we could earn our way into heaven by good works. It seemed to imply that we did not need Jesus or the cross to gain us entry into heaven because we could obey the law by our own freewill, and thus have earned our way on our own. No need for Jesus.
But again, it is impossible to obligate God. There is no law over God by which we can accuse Him. God is never obligated to anybody, for any thing, for any reason. So our freewill, no matter how well we behave, never does anything to obligate God. It might please God, but that does not obligate Him.
Furthermore, much of the discussion revolved around a confusion on what was being justified. There was a confusion between our being and our doing. I can indeed justify my doings if I can give a good reason for them. But I cannot justify my being. That is logically impossible. Only God is the giver of my being, and thus can give me a reason for my being.
And it is my being, my personhood, which is being saved, not my doings,
my behavior. God wants our good works to be our gift to Him and our
neighbor, an act of love. Love is a free gift, not price for admission.
The problem comes when, in the Fall, we become separated from God, and lose our awareness of Him as the foundation of our being. We get the impression that we exist on our own, so we no longer sense any justification for our being coming from God. And then we begin to think that we ourselves have to justify our being. We have to come up with reasons to show that our existence is a good idea. And how do we do that? We do it by trying to impress other people, including God -- with our behavior. That is the meaning of "salvation by works". We try to be ourselves by what we can do, rather than by what God does for us. And when that fails, we retreat into ourselves, or we go on the attack and use power, manipulation, and coercion to be a "somebody". The world's rat race.
We are no longer just giving good reasons for our behavior (as we
should), we are using our behavior to give good reasons for our being
(which only God can do). It is a logical fallacy, but we try to do it anyhow
because we are so desperate for the justification which we lost when we
separated ourselves from the Hand and Voice of God. We think we can establish
our own ground of being and give our own reason for existence. But we cannot.
But the Kingdom is more than offered. We are commanded to get there with all possible haste. You do not have to prove your self to God. He already knows of what good you are capable.
When Jesus made love the substance of the two Great Commandments, He was in effect ordering us into the Kingdom. That makes no sense if we see heaven as a walled city into which we must earn our way. But if heaven is a relationship of gracefulness between God and ourselves, then it makes perfect sense. You do not buy your way into a relationship, you build your way in with other persons. Love relationships are built, not earned. We are commanded to build that relationship with all the energy, skill, and devotion we can muster. God is not keeping us out. Building is different from buying.
Grace and works then work in tandem. The very opportunity to do those works is an act of grace from God. We are freely given the opportunity to put our working ability to His service – which then turns us into His kind of persons.
So works are not excluded from salvation. We are to work with all that
we have, not to earn heaven, but to build heaven with God, build that
relationship of truth and grace. Obedient use of our freewill is precisely what
God is aiming at. That is our reason for existence, that is our
Being born again and being justified by grace are parts of the same
package of salvation. They are both about the restoration of our fallen relation
with God our creator who draws us back at great cost to Himself.
So, Jesus did not die on the cross to save my doings, my behavior. He died on the cross because of my wrong doings, my rebellious and ignorant behavior. It is my behavior which puts Him on the cross. Jesus died to save my being, not my doings. He died to change my doings, not save them. We never have to repent of being ourselves, we may have to repent of our behavior. In any event, God loves us, His children. He wants to pour out His glory upon us.
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