Given that all are included in Christ through his incarnation, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension, how are we to understand what happens when a person turns to God in faith (the moment often referred to as "regeneration" or being "born again")? And what about evangelism: How are we to present the gospel in a truly Christ-centered way, including inviting a person to a response of faith?
|Thomas F. Torrance|
RegenerationAs with evangelism (see below), the key to a thoroughly biblical, Christ-centered understanding of regeneration is to focus one's attention first not on personal (subjective) experience, but on the objective (albeit mysterious) reality of Jesus Christ as the permanent union of God and humanity in one divine-human person. This key is helpfully addressed by Thomas F. Torrance in his book The Mediation of Christ:
It is significant that the New Testament does not use the term regeneration (paliggenesia), as so often modern evangelical theology does, for what goes on in the human heart. It is used only of the great regeneration that took place in and through the Incarnation and of the final transformation of the world when Jesus Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead and make all things new. That is to say, the Gospel speaks of regeneration as wholly bound up with Jesus Christ himself.
[We are] born again when Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary and rose again from the virgin tomb, the first-born from the dead…[we are] hid with Christ in God and will be revealed only when Jesus Christ comes again. He took [our] corrupt humanity in his Incarnation, sanctified, cleansed and redeemed it, giving it new birth, in his death and resurrection. In other words, our new birth, our regeneration, our conversion, are what has taken place in Jesus Christ himself, so that when we speak of our conversion of our regeneration we are referring to our sharing in the conversion or regeneration of our humanity brought about by Jesus in and through himself for our sake. In a profound and proper sense, therefore, we must speak of Jesus Christ as constituting in himself the very substance of our conversion, so that we must think of him as taking our place even in our acts of repentance and personal decision, for without them all so-called repentance and conversion are empty. Since a conversion in that truly evangelical sense is a turning away from ourselves to Christ, it calls for a conversion from our in-turned notions of conversion to one which is grounded and sustained in Christ Jesus himself (pp85-86, emphasis added).
EvangelismOf course this vision of our inclusion in Christ causes us to think about our evangelistic invitations. To what are we inviting people? T.F. continues in The Mediation of Christ:
The Gospel is to be proclaimed in such a way that full place is given to the man Jesus in his Person and Work as the Mediator between God and man [a message of] unconditional grace and reconciling exchange. The pattern had already been clearly set by our Lord when he proclaimed that all who wished to be his disciples must renounce themselves, or give up all right to themselves, take up the cross and follow him, and when he laid it down as a basic principle that those who want to save their lives will lose them. Face to face with Christ all would-be followers find themselves called into radical question, together with their preconceptions, self-centered desires and self-will, for to have him as Lord and Savior means that he takes their place in order to give them his place. The preaching of the Gospel in that radical form is not easy, for when we call upon people to repent and believe in Jesus Christ that they may be saved, we have a great difficulty in doing that in such a way that we do not throw people back upon themselves in autonomous acts of personal repentance and decision, or encourage them to come to Christ for their own sake rather than for Christ’s sake, in direct conflict with the very principle about motives laid down by Jesus.
There is, then, an evangelical way to preach the Gospel and an unevangelical way to preach it. The Gospel is preached in an unevangelical way, as happens so often in modern evangelicalism, when the preacher announces: this is what Jesus Christ has done for you, but you will not be saved unless you make your own personal decision for Christ as your Savior. Or: Jesus Christ loved you and gave his life for you on the Cross, but you will be saved only if you give your heart to him. In that event what is actually coming across to people is not a Gospel of unconditional grace but some other Gospel of conditional grace which belies the essential nature and content of the Gospel as it is in Jesus. It was that subtle legalist twist of the Gospel which worried St. Paul so much in his Epistle to the Galatians, a distortion of the truth which can easily take a 'gentile' as well as a 'Jewish' form. To preach the Gospel in that conditional or legalist way has the effect of telling poor sinners that in the last resort the responsibility for their salvation is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and placed upon them--but in that case they feel that they will never be saved. The know perfectly well in their own hearts that if the chain that binds them to God in Jesus Christ has as even one of its links their own feeble act of decision, then the whole chain is as weak as that, its weakest link. They are aware that the very self who is being called upon to make such a momentous decision requires to be saved, so that the preaching of the Gospel would not really be good news unless it announced that in his unconditional love and grace Jesus Christ had put that human self, that ego of their, on an entirely different basis by being replaced at that crucial point by Jesus Christ himself.
How, then, is the Gospel to be preached in a genuinely evangelical way? Surely in such a way that full and central place is given to the vicarious humanity of Jesus as the all-sufficient human response to the love of God which he has freely and unconditionally provided for us. We preach and teach the Gospel evangelically, then, in such a way as this:
God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ as his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very Being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualized his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from you ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his life in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God but as man. He had acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions and your responses to God’s love and even your acts of faith. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted by him. Therefore, renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus as your Lord and Savior.
To preach the Gospel of the unconditional grace of God in that unconditional way is to set before people the astonishing good news of what God has freely provided for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. To repent and believe in Jesus Christ and commit myself to him on that basis means that I do not need to look over my shoulder all the time to see whether I have really given myself personally to him, whether I really believe and trust him, whether my faith is at all adequate, for in faith it is not upon my faith, my believing or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what Jesus Christ has done for me in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father. That means that I am completely liberated from all ulterior movies in believing or following Jesus Christ, for on the ground of his vicarious human response for me, I am free for spontaneous joyful response and worship and service as I could not otherwise be (pp92-95, emphasis added).As one of my friends says, in this presentation of the Good News there truly is no bad news. And so to all that T.F. says here, I add my hearty, Amen!