Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: new birth

Christ in you, the hope of glory

Jesus spoke the following words while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. The words were shocking, no doubt deliberately so.

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. (John 6:53-58)

Many who had been following Jesus turned away. These mysterious words didn’t sound at all like the Messiah they had been taught to expect. When Jesus asked the twelve if they would also turn away, Peter responded “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”

The apostle Paul explained the mystery like this in Colossians 1:26-27: “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what [is] the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

The key to understanding Messiah’s kingdom is that the citizens of this kingdom are people who have Jesus Christ inside of them, ruling their lives from the heart. Every time a person is born again, the Lord Jesus Christ is incarnate within them.

This was Jesus’ promise to His disciples in John 14:16-18: “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” He repeats the promise in His prayer in the 17th chapter of John: “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.”

Paul explains the promise a little further in Romans chapter eight: “ But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” (Verses 9-11).

The promise is that the believer will have both the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ dwelling in him or her. “He (the Holy Spirit) shall be in you / I (Jesus) will come to you.” “If so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you / And if Christ be in you.”

I believe this is what the apostle John is speaking of in the following verses: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (1 John 4:2-3). I don’t think he is saying that it is enough to believe that Jesus once walked this earth in human flesh. We must know that He is here right now, in my flesh and your flesh, if we are Christians.

“Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). Christ is in every Christian, no matter our ethnic background, social or economic status. This is the identifying mark of the true Christian, recognizable only by other Christians.

Inside or outside?

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There is a line that we cross when we give our hearts to the Lord. Many people stop once they have crossed the line, mill around with others they find there and wonder why they are not experiencing the blessings of Christian life that they were promised. After awhile, some of them step back to the wrong side of the line, become once more captives to sin and console themselves that Christian life wasn’t what they had been led to believe.

God’s plan is for us to keep on going after we have crossed that line and go ever deeper into His love and obedience to His will.Those who do that find the rewards and joys of Christian life are far beyond their expectations.

The tennis ball doesn’t decide which side of the line it falls on, but we can.

The cackle or the egg?

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The cackle of a hen is a promise that she has laid an egg. But my farm boy experience taught me that sometimes the cackle was a false promise – no egg could be found.

Christians put a lot of emphasis on experiences, and rightly so. Christian life is a new life that must begin with a new birth, an experience. As we grow after the new birth, there should be other experiences: a deeper consecration, a correction in the course our life has been taking, a conviction about whom we should marry, a conviction for service.

I wonder, though, if we should put less emphasis on the experience and more on the result. Some people claim heart-warming experiences with the Lord, but nothing changes in their life. They have mistaken the cackle for the egg.

Blaise Pascal wrote that the heart of man is so wicked that as soon as he begins to think of getting converted he believes he is converted. Someone who has travelled in Christian circles long enough knows what an experience sounds like. He may want so badly to have his own experience that he manages to convince himself that he really has had one.

This is a dangerous situation. Forty years ago my wife and I went to hear David Wilkerson speak in Regina, taking a friend with us. Our friend was deeply moved during the meeting and stood when the call came. All the way home she bubbled over with how her life was going to be different from then on. The bubbles lasted a couple of days and then were gone, leaving no sign of a change in her life. It wasn’t David Wilkerson’s fault, he gave good direction, but our friend didn’t make a connection with God. The cackle filled a momentary emotional need but left no trace of changed life.

As Mennonites, we do not baptize solely on the basis of a person’s experience. The person who claims to have had a new birth experience tells that experience to a congregation made up of people who are born again and know how it transforms a life. The congregation decides on the baptism, not just on the basis of the experience, but on the substance of the changed life they have observed in the convert.

I don’t mean this to sound disrespectful of anyone. But I do want to point out the emptiness of telling a wonderful experience with the Lord when there is no evidence of a changed life. Years ago a friend told me about someone with whom he’d had some costly business dealings. I’ll call the man Andy. My friend said “Every time Andy gets into trouble, he get’s born again. He’s been born again four or five times already and he’s still the same man he always was.” I knew the circumstances and I knew my friend was telling things as they were. Andy’s multiple claims of being born again were no more than empty cackling.

I don’t want to hear that so-and-so has had an experience. I want to see that his life is transformed. Just like I don’t care how often a hen cackles, I want to see the egg.

A fading faith

[This is one of my earliest posts on this blog, dating from four and a half years ago.]

For twelve years we lived in a little village in Ontario.  Directly across the street from our home was the United Church manse.  The minister and his wife were a pleasant older couple, professional and polished.  There came a Christmas Day where we were all snowbound after a three-foot snowfall that began the day before.  Some people’s children couldn’t make it home for Christmas, family gatherings were cancelled.  In the evening, after the storm had ended, the minister and his wife invited their neighbours to gather in their home.  We appreciated the gesture, but this was about the only time we really had occasion to visit with them.

Eventually, they moved on and were replaced by a young couple with small children.  These people were different — not much polish, but downright friendly.  We visited on our way to the corner store while waiting for the mail, in their home, in our home, our daughter babysat their children, they sent their children to our congregation’s Vacation Bible School.

I began to realize there was something else different about this United Church minister: he appeared to be a man of genuine faith.  Over the course of our visiting his story came out.  He had been raised in a locale that was pretty solidly Roman Catholic.  In his youth, he had searched for answers to his inner spiritual need and had met the Lord.  He no longer felt at home in the Catholic church and the only alternative in the area was the United Church.  He had joined that church, went to theological college and become a minister.

During that time a TV program did a show on the practice of excommunication.  One half dealt with the practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the other half with the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.  They interviewed a few people who had been expelled from the church and who seemed to relish the opportunity to vocalize their bitterness.  The next time I talked with my neighbour from across the street, he mentioned seeing this program, then said, “I have only one question.  Is there a way for someone who has been excommunicated from your church to become a member again?”

I explained that it was indeed possible and that most of those who were excommunicated were later re-accepted into full fellowship in the church.  The church only excommunicated those who had lost contact with God and the purpose was to awaken them to the seriousness of that loss and move them to re-establish their relationship with their Lord and Saviour.  I also explained that I had never observed that those who had been excommunicated and re-accepted carried any stigma among the brethren.  The re-acceptance was genuine and complete.

His response floored me: “I wish we could do that in the United Church of Canada.  I wish we could say to our people that this is what we believe and if you don’t believe it and live by it, you have no right to be members here.”

Another time this minister told me, “I believe there are nine real Christians in my congregation.”  I think I could have guessed the names of the ones he was thinking of.  Most of them were older, in their seventies, and I sensed something in them that closely resembled what I felt from this minister.  I think there must have been a lingering evangelical witness in parts of the United Church during their youth and they had caught something that carried on to the end of their lives.  There was also one younger couple who were born again during the time that our neighbour was ministering in the local United Church.

The years have gone by, the newly-converted young couple moved to a more evangelical church, the older true-hearted folks have passed on without passing their faith to their children.  The minister too died suddenly some years ago.  His wife was also our friend, but I don’t believe she ever shared his faith.

The United Church of Canada appears to be slowly dying.  One would be hard-pressed to find much trace of spiritual life among the adherents.  Neither is there much social advantage to be found anymore in attending the United Church.  Rural churches have been closing and consolidating for several generations.  Urban churches are declining in membership and beginning to ask for help to maintain their magnificent buildings.

Sadly, I am seeing the same kind of rot developing in churches that were once considered evangelical.  People are transferring from church to church in search of one that will be more spiritual than the last one.  Whole congregations are transferring from one denomination to another for the same reason.  What is the answer?

Keeping the faith

Most Amish trace their families back to Mennonites from the Canton of Berne in Switzerland. An Old Order Amish bishop once said to me, “There must have been a special strength of character in those Bernese Anabaptists that has enabled their descendants to keep the faith for hundreds of  years.”

The Amish divided from the Mennonites after some of them fled from persecution in Switzerland and resettled in Alsace. Some of the main issues were that  church members should not wear moustaches or buttons. (Soldiers had moustaches and buttons in those days were much like jewellery, made of silver, gold and other costly materials.) In my friend’s view, the fact that the Old Order Amish still shave their upper lip and fasten their clothes with hooks and eyes was evidence that they were keeping the faith.

John Holdeman was also descended from Mennonites who originated from the Canton of Berne and was also concerned about keeping the faith. His idea of the essentials of the faith was quite different, though. The concerns he mentioned were that only truly born again people should be baptized and that parents should have a proper love and care for their children that would guide them to avoid the dangers of youthful immorality.

John Holdeman’s concerns were shared by a few others in the Mennonite church of his day, but most seemed to think all was well. Almost 160 years ago those who felt that the old church was drifting away from the faith began holding separate services. That was the beginning of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

John Holdeman’s first book was entitled The Old Ground and Foundation. That title portrays his concern to maintain the purity of the faith that has been handed down since Apostolic times. The essentials of that faith never become stale and outmoded, it can be adapted to every nation and era, yet still be the same faith. We cannot bind it to fashions and forms of a past era without deforming the faith and rendering it powerless.

An abiding church

“Reader, understand what I mean; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen one’s of God, in the before mentioned churches; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elijah; but our dispute is, in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life, Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways. ” – Menno Simons, 1554

This statement reveals a fundamental difference between the historic position of the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith and other faith traditions. We are concerned that the faith be transmitted unchanged in spirit and life from one place to another and from one generation to following generations. Granted, there are Mennonite denominations which have majored in preserving cultural traditions to the detriment of genuine faith. This is a departure from the faith.

As I look at other denominations, the change and decline of their faith during my lifetime is something that, if it had been foretold 50 or 60 years ago, I would not have believed possible. Even the Anglican Church of today bears faint resemblance to the Anglican Church of which I was a member in my youth.

It has been ever thus. My paternal ancestors were English Puritans who in 1638 removed to Massachusetts in search of religious liberty. When churches were established in the towns of Massachusetts, membership was restricted to those who could tell of an experience where the Lord forgave their sins and spoke peace to their hearts. Feeling assured that God would bless their commitment by leading their children to the same salvation, they continued to have their babies baptized.

Alas, the Christian experience is not automatically transmitted from one generation to the next. The majority of those children did not get converted. In 1662, a Synod of the New England Congregational churches enacted a new policy. Those who had been baptized in infancy but had not come to a personal experience of saving faith were members and could have their own children baptized, as long as they professed the doctrines of Christianity and lived a life free from scandal. However, they would henceforth not have the right to vote in church affairs, nor to take part in the Lord’s Supper. This is known as the Halfway Covenant.

A few years later, John Stoddard began to admit all members to communion in his church, considering the sacrament  a means by which the grace of God was extended to mankind and arguing that it was not right to refuse the means of grace to those who were most in need of it. Despite opposition from the Cottons and Mathers, this position spread to other churches and by 1700 all Congregational churches practiced open communion, making no distinction between the converted and unconverted.

The New England Congregationalists had now come full circle to the position of the Church of England that their fathers had felt the need to flee. Then in 1748 Jonathan Edwards, Stoddard’s grandson and his successor in the pulpit at Northampton, Massachusetts, announced that he could not admit members to communion without evidence of saving grace.

This was the beginning of the Great Awakening which revitalized New England Christianity. In later years, others opted for Unitarianism or just abandoned any pretense of Christian faith. And the circle goes round and round.

This is the merry-go-round that Menno wanted to avoid. And so do we in our day. Our desire is for an abiding church where the true faith will be taught and lived by our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.

Raised eyebrow Christians

I was going to write supercilious, but that’s just a fancy latin word meaning raised eyebrows. So I decided to speak plain English.

There was a time in my mid-twenties when I was quite sure that everyone who claimed to be born again thought they were better than anyone else. Then there came a time in my life when everything was going wrong, at work and in my personal life. I wanted to run away and start over somewhere else, but I had already tried that a few years earlier and it didn’t work. My troubles were my own doing and there didn’t seem to be a way out. I mulled this over and over in my mind. There is much more to the story, but I finally came to the point of believing that God was real and I was a sinner. I prayed for forgiveness and for help to find a way through my troubles.

The only immediate change I was aware of was that the turmoil was gone and I believed I could find a way through my troubles. Over the next few weeks I realized that more had changed, my attitude, the things that I thought were important and the things I wanted to read. Eventually it sunk in that this was what the Bible called being born again.

Years have passed. After many years of being a born-again Christian, I see that I am also in danger of being one of those raised eyebrow Christians who thinks he is better than others.The gospel is so plain and simple, why can’t they grasp it? Why do the short-lived pleasures of the world have such a grip on them?

Why do I find it so hard to remember that I was once like they are? Even the apostle Paul needed to remind himself what kind of man he had been before he met the Lord on the road to Damascus. He reminded others, too, of what they had been: “Such were some of you.”

I need to remember that if it was possible for me to be saved, it is possible for anyone. I need to communicate that to others, not just by words but by attitude and action. I am not made of any better material than others, they are not made of inferior material, the only difference is forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And I need to ditch the Christian jargon. It has become so familiar, but there was a time when it was an unknown language that made me feel that Christians though they were above me.  I don’t want to make someone else feel that way.

The inward and spiritual grace

The following are statements from the Catechism found in the Book of Common Prayer, which was used for centuries by Anglicans around the world.

Catechist. What do you mean by the word Sacrament?

Answer. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given to us by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof.

Catechist. What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?

Answer. A death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness; for being by nature born into man’s sinful state, we are hereby made the children of grace by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Catechist, What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer. Repentance; whereby they forsake sin, which separates them from God; and faith; whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that Sacrament.

Catechist. Why then are infants baptized?

Answer. Infants are baptized so that, being received into Christ’s Church, they may grow in grace and be trained in the household of faith.

There is much truth in these words written by Thomas Cranmer more than 500 years ago. And I do believe that many Anglicans down through the centuries did repent and were born again.

I also believe that a great many were not – including myself. And I do not believe that those who experienced a new birth did so as a result of the outward sign of baptism. There is much in Anglicanism that is good and beneficial, I remember especially the emphasis on reading the Scriptures in every service. But the teaching that the sacraments are a means of grace has let  many people down.

I agree fully that the sacraments are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. But it is confusion to teach that these inward and spiritual graces are received by means of the sacraments. I was baptized, confirmed, became an altar boy, took communion often, and never experienced the inward and spiritual graces that the catechism promised.

I abandoned the Anglican Church and the whole idea of there being any meaning in church and Christianity. Some years later, not having found satisfactory answers to the questions of life elsewhere, I began again to read the Bible. Finally, the Holy Spirit let me see my sinfulness; I repented and was born again.

A few years later I was baptized and became a member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, which teaches that the inward and spiritual grace is the qualification for baptism. Likewise, spiritual unity in a congregation is the qualification for communion. Outward signs can produce neither spiritual life nor spiritual unity.

This is the historic position of the Anabaptists. The inward and spiritual graces are essential to being a Christian and must precede the outward and visible signs.

Slaying the beast within

A year and a half ago, a young man who had served a sentence for armed robbery appeared in court to explain that he had learned his lesson. He said that he had learned that he needed to stop and think before doing something and consider the consequences. “I have learned to tell the difference between good and evil,” he testified.

Two weeks ago, the fiancee of this young man, mother of his two young children, went missing. A few days later a sack containing her dismembered body was found under a bridge. The young man who had supposedly learned to tell the difference between good and evil has been charged with murder. What happened?

There is a beast within each one of us that cannot learn, cannot be tamed. Most often it shows itself in words, but sometimes far more horrible things happen. James writes:

And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.  James 3:6-10

The apostle Paul wrote: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). No  anger management course, no behaviour modification therapy, can ever fully master this beast. It has to die.

That is why Jesus said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). That is, if we are to be followers of Jesus Christ, we must daily renounce the inclinations of that inner beast and nail it to the cross. Paul is saying the same thing when he writes: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13). “Mortify” is used here in its original French sense of “make to die.”

The new birth is the result of the death of this inner beast, to be replaced by a new life, one that is not animated, or in harmony with, the forces of hell, but one that is animated by the Holy Spirit and in harmony with the powers of heaven. Here are the words of Paul again: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

The beast within does not want to stay dead. That is why Jesus spoke of the daily need for self-denial and cross bearing. That does not mean a daily new birth; the Holy Spirit does not leave us so easily. A Christian may do and say things at times that indicate the influence of the inner beast; if someone else has been hurt the Holy Spirit will prompt him to make amends for the hurt he has caused. No one should ever have to wonder who has control of the life of someone who calls himself a Christian.

Discipleship

A disciple is a learner. When we are born again we are babes in Christ, there is so much for us to learn. And just like a small child, most of what we learn comes from watching what others do and trying to do the same thing. Thus, just like a small child, we are as much in need of good examples as we are of good teachers.

The apostle Paul could say: “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample” (Philippians 3:17). Hebrews 13:7 instructs us to “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.”

In order to learn how to walk this Christian way, we need to seek out Christians who are sound in the faith and who live that faith in everyday life, and imitate their faith and their way of putting that faith into action.

Jesus is of course our ultimate example, yet without consecrated followers of Jesus as contemporary examples, we can form ideas about how to walk that will leave us weak and handicapped.

This leads to the question of where to find such examples. It seems to me that the best examples to follow are those who are still learning themselves. Anyone who thinks he has got this Christian way down pat and has nothing more to learn is definitely not a good example to follow. The best leaders are those who are still learning to follow Jesus and who expect that there will always be more to learn. An eagerness to learn and to grow more and more like Jesus is the best description of humility that I can think of.

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