Justification has Priority over the New Birth, by Geoffrey Paxton
For many evangelicals the new birth is the distinguishing mark of true Christianity. With them it has uncontested centrality. Raising any questions about the centrality of the new birth is regarded as virtually denying it. This view teaches that a good thing is the best thing, that the work of the Spirit is greater than that of the Son. This robs Christ of His glory by putting the Spirit’s work in the believer above and therefore against what Christ has done for the believer in His doing and dying.
The Reformers charged Rome, and in particular the pope, with being the antichrist. Calvin knew that this judgment seemed to be slander and railing. Nevertheless he maintained his position. It was clear that the Roman pontiff had shamelessly transferred to himself what belonged to God alone, and especially to Christ. For Calvin the tyranny of the Roman pontiff was all the more serious because it did “not wipe out . . . the name of Christ or of the church but rather misuses a semblance of Christ and lurks under the name of the church as under a mask.”.
Regarding the new birth as the greatest news in the world is anti-christ. Antichrist puts something good in place of the best. “The ultimate evil is not the denial but the corruption of the truth. This is the point which the Protestant Reformation made in leveling the charge of Antichrist against the church itself. Many modern-day evangelicals equate gospel and new birth. “Ye must be born again” is their gospel. They see the doing and dying of Christ as subordinate to the inner life of the Spirit. Reconciliation of the sinner for them is “but the beginning of the story.”
While some would not formally equate gospel and new birth, they fall into this error on the level of piety. They refer to the new birth as the authentic sign of true religion. “Are you a born-again Christian?” But why point to the new birth as the authenticating sign? Regarding the new birth as the great saving act of God places the emphasis on the internal rather than the external. It elevates the subjective to the status of the objective.
Making the new birth our emphasis elevates what God does in us to the level of what He does for us. It subordinates what God does for us to what He does in us. Faith always points away from the believing subject to Christ, the Object of faith. Instead of saying, “I am born again,” faith says, “Christ lived and died for me.” Rather than saying, “He is a born-again believer,” why not say “He trusts in the doing and dying of Christ”?
Faith is not directed to what has happened in the believer but what has happened for the believer. Faith looks out and not in, up and not down (Col. 3:1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory)
Much evangelicalism gives the impression that God accepts a person on the ground that he is born again. But this is not biblical. Evangelicals desperately need to properly relate the doing and dying of Christ to the work of the Spirit. The subordination of the work of Christ to the work of the Spirit is all too common. Much of our teaching here has more affinity with Rome than with the Reformation. The sole ground of acceptance with God is the doing and dying of Jesus Christ alone.
Does God give His Holy Spirit to one who is not yet justified, or does God justify before He gives His Holy Spirit? Further, what is the nature of the change which regeneration brings? Is it a “physical” change? First, the sovereignty of God in the matter of regeneration is incontestable. Both Mary and Nicodemus ask, “How can this be?” Both Gabriel and Jesus point to the sovereign operation of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; John 3:5-8). Mary’s song recognizes the sovereignty of God in the miracle of the new creation in Jesus Christ (Luke 1:46-55).
Second, neither Gabriel nor Jesus gives psychological descriptions of what happens in regeneration. Gabriel does not explain to Mary how God is going to pneumatically impregnate her. Mary is simply and tastefully informed, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). Jesus promptly refers Nicodemus to the ineffable and mysterious operations of the Holy Spirit: “The wind blows where ever it pleases . . . You cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The focus is on the mighty acts of God and not on physiological or psychological processes.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). This language is anything but internalistic. Mary’s song concentrates on the historical perspective of God’s operations (esp. Luke 1:55). The focus of John 3 is not on the internals of Nicodemus but on the serpent of Moses and the lifting up of the Son of Man (John 3:13-15). Internalism in the matter of regeneration is another instance of evangelical fixation with “gracious infusion” over against the “Christ alone” of the gospel.