Wednesday with Wesley: On Regeneration

John_WesleyJohn Wesley was someone who focused on the practical matters of living out the Christian life. But he did not ignore the essential doctrines of the faith.

In sermon #45, entitled “The New Birth”, John Wesley explores the doctrine of regeneration.

If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two, — the doctrine of justification, and that of the new birth: The former relating to that great work which God does for us, in forgiving our sins; the latter, to the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature.

What is regeneration?

John Wesley, in the middle of the sermon gives us this definition of the “new birth”. I have altered the format but not the wording (appears in italics).

It is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness.

It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God

  • when it is “created anew in Christ Jesus;”
  • when it is “renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness;”
  • when the love of the world is changed into the love of God;
  • pride into humility;
  • passion into meekness;
  • hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all mankind.

In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the “mind which was in Christ Jesus.” This is the nature of the new birth: “So is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

Some Questions

Wesley felt that the following three questions were not adequately addressed in the various writings available on the new birth:

  1. Why must we be born again?
  2. How must we be born again?
  3. To what end is it necessary that we be born again?

The sermon attempts to answer each question.

Why must we be born again?

Here Wesley, goes back to the creation account and reminds us that man was made in the image of God. However, man chose to rebel “against his Sovereign, [and] openly declared that he would no longer have God to rule over him”.

Accordingly, in that day he did die: He died to God, — the most dreadful of all deaths. He lost the life of God: He was separated from Him, in union with whom his spiritual life consisted.

This spiritual death suffered by Adam was passed onto all who are descended from him. From this Wesley concluded that:

This, then, is the foundation of the new birth, — the entire corruption of our nature. Hence it is, that, being born in sin, we must be “born again.”

How must we be born again?

Here, one might expect Wesley to remind us that the new birth is a gracious work of God through the Holy Spirit given to those who believe in Jesus.

Instead he compares the spiritual birth to natural birth.

While a man is in a mere natural state, before he is born of God, he has, in a spiritual sense, eyes and sees not; a thick impenetrable veil lies upon them; he has ears, but hears not; he is utterly deaf to what he is most of all concerned to hear. His other spiritual senses are all locked up: He is in the same condition as if he had them not. … therefore, though he is a living man, he is a dead Christian.

But as soon as he is born of God, there is a total change in all these particulars. …

And now he may be properly said to live: God having quickened him by his Spirit, he is alive to God through Jesus Christ. He lives a life which the world knoweth not of, a “life which is hid with Christ in God.”

To what end is it necessary that we be born again?

Wesley gives us three purposes for being reborn, which can really be summarized in one word – holiness.

  1. Holiness: Not a bare external religion, a round of outward duties, how many soever they be, and how exactly soever performed. No: Gospel holiness is no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart …
  2. Eternal Salvation: without holiness no man shall see the Lord … and none can be holy, except he be born again.
  3. Happiness: none can be happy even in this world … who is not holy.

On the difference between regeneration and sanctification

Wesley clearly explains the difference between regeneration and sanctification when he rebuts the assertions made in a treatise “The Nature and Grounds of Christian Regeneration [TNGCR]”.

[TNGCR] all along speaks of regeneration as a progressive work, carried on in the soul by slow degrees, from the time of our first turning to God. This is undeniably true of sanctification; but of regeneration, the new birth, it is not true. This is a part of sanctification, not the whole; it is the gate to it, the entrance into it. When we are born again, then our sanctification, our inward and outward holiness, begins; and thenceforward we are gradually to “grow up in Him who is our Head.”

Additional Observations

Wesley concludes his sermon with additional observations regarding the new birth:

  • baptism is not the new birth … one [is] an outward and sensible sign; the other, [an] inward and spiritual grace
  • the new birth … does not always accompany baptism. A man may possibly be “born of water,” and yet not be “born of the Spirit.”
  • the new birth is not the same [as] sanctification.
  • those who persist in sin should be treated as unregenerate; the tree is known by its fruits: … they continue [as] servants of sin, without any pretence either to inward or outward holiness.
  • no “good works” can substitute for being reborn; None of these things will stand in the place of the new birth; no, nor any thing under heaven.

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