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.

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4 Comments on “Justification has Priority over the New Birth, by Geoffrey Paxton”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    Garcia, Mark A. Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology. Studies in Christian History and Thought. Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2008.
    Letham, Robert. Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011. 208 pp. []
    Kennedy, Kevin Dixon. Union with Christ and the Extent of the Atonement in Calvin. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. x + 177 pp

    These three theologians are teaching that definite atonement is not really the point anymore, because what matters is “union”, by which they equate the application of the atonement with the atonement. They also make the Holy Spirit the one who applies the atonement, in such a way that legal imputation no longer has any priority.

    Although John Owen taught that God only imputed the sins of the elect
    to Christ, Owen did not teach that all the elect were justified as
    soon as Christ bore those sins. Owen taught with Romans 6 that the
    elect must come into legal union with Christ’s death. Until the elect
    are “placed into” that death, they remain under the wrath of God.

    But these theologians use “union” talk to accuse the rest of us with thinking there is no need for faith. If the substitution for sins has already been made, they say, then all for whom it was made should logically already be justified. If the righteousness has already been obtained, then all for whom it was earned should logically already be justified by it. This is the claim they make.

    But it’s clear that Owen did not teach justification apart from faith.
    It’s also clear that Owen did not teach that faith was a mere
    recognition that we were already justified. (See Carl Trueman’s
    various books and essays on John Owen). “Unionists” should not ignore
    Owen’s careful distinction between the atonement and the legal
    application of the atonement.
    .
    Some “unionists” practically locate the efficacy of the atonement not in Christ’s propitiation itself but in the efficacy of regeneration and faith
    to unite people with that propitiation. This is their argument: “you
    can’t say that there’s double jeopardy until after a person has been
    married to Christ by faith. Then, and only then, they say, could you
    say that a person was dying for the same sins twice.”

    But otherwise, it is claimed, you can teach everybody that “Christ is
    dead for you” without that meaning that Christ has died for your sins,
    because according to them, Christ’s death for sinners is not the same
    thing legally as Christ’s death to pay for the specific sins of
    sinners. So, again according to these theologians, it’s the “union” which
    designates for whose sins Christ died.

  2. markmcculley Says:

    Tom Nettles in By His Grace and For His Glory is quite good on refuting the “offer”. His book makes Macarthur and Phil Johnson and a lot of the double talking Calvinists very angry.

    Check out his chapter on Christ Died for our Sins, According to the Scriptures. Nettles refutes the Dordt formula (sufficient/ efficient) while at the same time being honest about the history of most Calvinists liking it.

    Nettles quotes Andrew Fuller: “We could say that a certain number of Christ’s acts of obedience becomes ours as that certain number of sins becomes his. In the former case his one undivided obedience affords a ground of justification to any number of believers; in the latter, his one atonement is sufficient for the pardon of any number of sins or sinners.

    Nettles explains that Fuller “misconceives the biblical relation of imputation. Justification should not be considered as analogous to atonement but rather to the imputation of Adam’s sin”.

    More from Nettles’ refutation of Andrew Fuller and “sufficient for all”.
    Error one: it’s tantamount to identifying the doctrine of effectual calling with atonement. What one really means by definite atonement is that the difference is not in the atonement but in the Spirit’s work of calling.

    “A second error is subtle in nature and involves a shift in the understanding of the sacrificial death. Although Jesus’ death is spoken of as passive obedience–and though the concepts of reconciliation and propitiation are defined as activities accomplished in the Father’s setting forth God the Son–when the sufficiency of the death of Christ arises, the emphasis shifts from the Son’s passive obedience to what he actively accomplished by his infinite divine nature.”

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Calvin—The Fathers of Trent pretend that righteousness is twofold, as if we were justified partly by forgiveness of sins and partly by spiritual regeneration; or, to express their view in other words, as if our righteousness were composed partly of imputation, partly of quality. I maintain that it is one, and simple, and is wholly included in the gratuitous acceptance of God. I besides hold that it is without us, because we are righteous in Christ only. Let them produce evidence from Scripture, if they have any, to convince us of their doctrine. I, while I have the whole Scripture supporting me, will now be satisfied with this one reason, viz., that when mention is made of the righteousness of works, the law and the gospel place it in the perfect obedience of the law; and as that nowhere appears, they leave us no alternative but to flee to Christ alone, that we may be regarded as righteous in him, not being so in ourselves. (Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote)

  4. Matt Anderson Says:

    This is an excellent article and a great summation of how pietistic evangelicals like Washer and Piper go wrong.

    These pietists will often cite Christ’s declaration of ‘You must be born again’ to Nicodemus as support for their placing priority on the new birth. However, it seems to me that Christ deals with Nicodemus in the same way he deals with the rich young ruler – he was commanding them to do something they COULD NOT do in order to get them to look to Christ himself for their righteousness.


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