You Must Birth Yourself Again

There is a new gospel on the rise in evangelical Christianity. It sounds very much like the old gospel, with one notable exclusion: it does not call people to conversion.

Or, perhaps more accurately, it does not call people to true, biblical conversion. For the new gospel has kept the language of “conversion” while divesting it of its biblical substance. It sees conversion as something we do by walking an aisle or praying a prayer or “giving our lives to Jesus.” Our action becomes the decisive event that causes us to be converted. To state it plainly: we convert ourselves.

This new gospel is the result of a theological agenda which has been imported into Scripture rather than reverently derived from it. The language of Scripture could not be clearer: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” (1 Peter 1:3). It is God our merciful Father who has caused us to be converted. Conversion is not something we do. We play no part in it. This is why Jesus used the metaphor of birth to describe conversion (John 3:3-8). We did nothing to get ourselves born physically. And we do nothing to get ourselves born spiritually.

If this clear explanation sounds strange to modern ears, it is because we have been raised on a steady (unhealthy) diet of the new gospel. And just like a McDonalds value meal seems nutritive enough until proven otherwise, J.I. Packer wishes us to compare the french-fry theology of the new gospel with the deep, substantive richness of the old:

To the question: what must I do to be saved? the old gospel replies: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. To the further question: what does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? its reply is: it means knowing oneself to be a sinner, and Christ to have died for sinners; abandoning all self-righteousness and self-confidence, and casting oneself wholly upon Him for pardon and peace; and exchanging one’s natural enmity and rebellion against God for a spirit of grateful submission to the will of Christ through the renewing of one’s heart by the Holy Ghost. And to the further question still: how am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting, if I have no natural ability to do these things? it answers: look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry to Christ, just as you are; confess your sin, your impenitence, your unbelief, and cast yourself on His mercy; ask Him to give you a new heart, working in you true repentance and firm faith; ask Him to take away your evil heart of unbelief and to write His law within you, that you may never henceforth stray from Him. Turn to Him and trust Him as best you can, and pray for grace to turn and trust more thoroughly; use the means of grace expectantly, looking to Christ to draw near to you as you seek to draw near to Him; watch, pray, read and hear God’s Word, worship and commune with God’s people, and so continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you. The emphasis in this advice is on the need to call upon Christ directly, as the very first step.

“Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him”

So do not postpone action till you think you are better, but honestly confess your badness and give yourself up here and now to the Christ who alone can make you better; and wait on Him till His light rises in your soul, as Scripture promises that it shall do. Anything less than this direct dealing with Christ is disobedience of the gospel. Such is the exercise of spirit to which the old gospel summons its hearers. “I believe… help thou mine unbelief”: this must become their cry.

(From Packer’s Foreword to The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by John Owen)


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  1. Great excerpt! It raises an interesting question for me though. Isn’t what Packer saying still based on what we do? Look to Christ, cry to Christ, speak to Christ, etc. This still seems very similar to the “new” gospel.

    Is it just the focus of the two gospels that is the difference?

  2. Sure, Trav… there is definitely a response required of us in the gospel. That is clear in Scripture. The difference is over: what IS that response? Do I convert myself (my faith therefore being the event that causes regeneration), or do I cry to Christ and plead that HE would make me new (his grace therefore being the event that causes regeneration)?

  3. I get that the response is required, I guess it just seems like we still do something to initiate God’s regenerating grace within us in the “old” gospel.

    Of course, I don’t think that we would even desire to cry to Christ and plead that he would make us new unless the Holy Spirit was already prompting us. So even though both gospels call us to conversion by grace through faith, the “new” gospel does not recognize that that faith is only available as a gift from God in the first place? I’m thinking of Ephesians 2:8-9 here.

    I’ve found it hard to tell sojourners around me that they need repent and believe, because I feel like I’m preaching “new” gospel if I do. Is that so?

  4. Bob – So I tell someone they need to “repent and believe” and they ask, “How do I do that? What does that look like?” what do you say? Are we back to the Packer quote at this point?

  5. How would YOU answer the question?

    I feel like the only appropriate answer must take into account: what is biblical repentance, and what is biblical belief? When we say “repent” and “believe,” what content does the Bible ascribe to those terms? It seems to me that Packer is trying to get at this when he identifies repentance not just as sorrow for sin but as a deep acknowledgment of my own unbelief and of my vain attempts at self-salvation; and when he identifies belief as “dealing directly with Christ… casting oneself on his mercy.”

    What Scripture commands me to repent of is sin – both the actions of sin and the condition of sinfulness, which is deeper and more complex than I imagine. And what Scripture commands me to believe is the gospel – not just assenting to the facts of Jesus’ death for sin, but casting myself upon him and resting in his mercy toward humble sinners… believing that the promises of the gospel are true for me if I rest my hope in him.

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