Monday, March 26, 2012

The one vital thing


I find you grow more and more famous in the learned world. As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity, I would now humbly recommend to your diligent, unprejudiced pursuit and study, the mystery of the new birth. It is a most important, interesting study; and, when mastered, will richly answer and repay you for all your pains. One, at whose bar we are shortly to appear, hath solemnly declared, without it we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. You will excuse this freedom. I must have something of Christ in all my letters.

George Whitefield
Letter to Benjamin Franklin, August 17, 1752 


There are so many questions I get asked. At any particular time, I can be faced with having to give people answers to things that they expect me to be literate in. Here are some recent ones. Who do you think will be the new Archbishop of Canterbury? What are we meant to think about gay marriage? Are evangelical Christians homophobic? Why do the lives of Christians, in the most part, look indistinguishable from those who do not believe? Why does God not always heal people? What is a Calvinist?

These are all interesting things on which, given some air time, I will happily hold court but they are not vital. There is only one vital thing for anybody to comprehend and experience and that is for me, as it was for Whitfield- the new birth. I have been following Jesus for over twenty years and it seems to have all boiled down to one question which I am asking people more and more these days and this is it.

"Are you born of the Spirit?" (the necessity Jesus gave us in John 3:5-7)

Or a better variant might be:

"Tell me about your experience of the new birth? or in non-church speak "What's your story?"

I once visited an Anglican Church in Antigua and two be-hatted elderly West Indian ladies who had given me a lift to where I was staying stopped the car half way back on the side of the road and asked me if I had experienced the new birth. I have never forgotten them and as it happens happily I was able to tell them I had. They rejoiced (I have always wondered what I was in for if I had said no...).

Now, almost always with most people who are not born again there are a host a qualifications and an awful lot of ... 'it depends what that means' to get over. Not so I have found with the person who is actually born again. Now I know what you may be thinking. 'Born again' has far too much of the bouffant hair, smiles, white suits, cable telly channel and make-up about it.

So here is an alternative word.

Grace.

Instead of "Have you been born again?" how about "Have you experienced the power of grace of God?".

I think the whole of the Bible and its purpose is to press people into an encounter with, need of and desperation for grace. Just look at Israel and what a bunch of ungrateful, self-centred, disobedient, ignorant so and so's they all are as a people. Sound like anyone you know?

In the NT there are three places I would go apart from Romans 3:21:26 which Leon Morris describes as ...'probably the most important paragraph ever written'. The three are John 3, John 4 and 1 Peter 1:3-5. We meet three people. The first two, a wise religious wealthy man and a prostitute both get the same diagnostic from Jesus and then this diagnostic and vital truth is written down for us by an uneducated born-again fisherman. Do you see the ultimate need for our comprehension of grace? Nicodemus who has it all together is in danger of missing it because he thinks he doesn't need it and the woman at the well is in danger of missing it because she thinks she doesn't deserve it. Peter, a numbty pride-filled rather dim disciple then gets to write the new birth up for us in the Bible. Incredible. And we are utterly blind to it unless mercy and grace open us up. Try asking a pew-filling or even baptised nominal member of the Church of England as I often do to tell you what a Christian is and if ..'.being a good person'  doesn't get a mention then I will be surprised.

I think often about those who say they 'aren't following Jesus' any more. Usually it means not coming to church, some anger (often justified), hurt, 'an evangelical phase', 'I did Alpha once', disappointment, didn't count the cost, let downs, pride, wanting to  blend in, married someone not born-again or intellectual enlightenment (superiority) and many other reasons. Here's the thing and I don't know if this is true of you if you are born again but I simply can't not follow Jesus. I've tried. Again the question for this huge and varied bunch is "Are you/Were you born again?" You can go to the depths of the sea if you are and Jesus will still pursue you and if you've tasted grace, despite your boldest protestations, nothing else will satisfy like it.

Watch this stunning testimony of one man's encounter with grace. I think if you were to ask him "Have you been born again?" he might just, perhaps, possibly, maybe, say yes.

Amazing grace.

Grace is for all- drug addict, sex addict, rich, poor, gay, straight, married, single, kids, no kids, Catholic, penty, liberal, conservative, happy, high, low, sad, sick, healthy, complementarian, egalitarian, young or old and it is marked by one thing and one thing only on our hearts. The new birth.

As Whitfield observes who is and who is not born of the Spirit is '..the mystery of the new birth....' . 

The real question is I suppose "Am I?" 

To help you work that out you can listen here.

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