First, a little humor:
A preacher once heard about another preacher who gained notoriety by preaching the world’s longest sermon. He felt led to preach some kind of notable sermon, too, and get in the record books. But he didn’t want to bore people with a long sermon.
So he decided he would preach the world’s shortest sermon and he told his congregation that he was going to do this. He didn’t want it to be just an excuse for a sermon. He had to say something meaningful in the sermon.
He received a lot of good suggestions. When the time came for his notable short sermon he stood up at the pulpit, cleared his throat and said, “Love,” and then sat down.
[This is where I tell my congregation, that unfortunately, ethical issues in terms of plagiarism, prohibit me from preaching someone else’s sermon, so my message will be longer — perhaps considerably longer — than this particular pastor’s sermon!]
There are many doctrines within Christianity, but if we tried to narrow them down to two fundamental doctrines, they would have to be the doctrine of justification, and the doctrine of new birth.
The first, the doctrine of justification relates to the wonderful work God does for us through His grace in forgiving our sins. The second relates to what God does in us by renewing our fallen nature.
The moment we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are justified by the grace of God through the redemption in Jesus Christ. Its “just as if” we had never sinned. In that same moment, we are also “born of the Spirit.” Sometime we call this “born again.” The term “born again” is often associated with Pentecostal churches, sometimes called the “Holy Rollers.” However, in fact, being “born again” or experiencing “new birth” is an event all who professes Christianity will experience upon truly confessing Christ as Lord and Savior. In the sense of “time”, neither of these events is before the other. That said however, in our human thinking we must first conceive and believe that God turns His wrath away for us with our surrender, and then we sense His Spirit begin to work in our hearts. In this sense, justification occurs just ahead of the new birth.
In John Wesley’s time, much controversy existed concerning the terms and meaning of justification, new birth… and baptismal regeneration, not unlike many controversies of today.
Wesley attempted to address these issues in his sermon “The New Birth” written in 1760. Today, we begin a series of reviewing Wesley’s sermons, exploring his theology and in so doing, discovering the roots of our denomination. I am confident as we review and put into contemporary language the sermons of John Wesley, we can discover the very foundation of the Methodist church, a foundation from which, we have perhaps somehow in some ways drifted away.
Therefore, we begin by answering three questions. (1) Why must we be born again? What is the foundation of this doctrine of the new birth? (2) How must we be born again? And (3) To what ends must we be born again?
Why must we be born again? The foundation of this doctrine rests with the creation of the world. God said, “let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him. Male and female He created them.
When God created man, He created him not just in His natural image, a picture of His own immortality, a spiritual being enabled with understanding, freedom of will, and various affections. — nor merely in his political image, that is, the governor of this lower world, having “dominion over the fishes of the sea, and over all the earth;” — but chiefly in his moral image; which, according to the Apostle, is “righteousness and true holiness.” (Eph. 4:24.) In this image of God was man made.
“God is love:” Accordingly, man at his creation was full of love; which was the sole principle, the sole standard of all his tempers, thoughts, words, and actions.
God is full of justice, mercy, and truth; so was man as he came from the hands of his Creator. God is spotless purity; and so man was in the beginning pure from every sinful imperfection; otherwise God could not have pronounced him, as well as all the other work of his hands, “very good” (Gen. 1:31.)
“Man” could not have been “very good” had he not been pure from sin, and filled with righteousness and true holiness. For there is no halfway. If we assume an intelligent creature not to love God, not to be righteous and holy, we necessarily suppose him not to be good at all; much less to be “very good.”
However, although God made man in His own image, God did not make him immutable or unchallengeable. This would not have been consistent with the situation of trial in which God was pleased to place him; the ability to exercise his free will. Man was therefore, created able to stand, and yet liable to fall.
When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, He told he of all he could do, and all that was his before him. God also gave Adam his first opportunity to exercise his free will buy setting out specific limitations within the garden, and gave him a solemn warning against violating the limitations... There were no secrets hidden from man, no secret agenda.
Nevertheless, man did not honor the limitations. He disobeyed God and he fell from his high estate. He “ate of the tree the Lord had commanded him, Thou shalt not eat thereof.”
By this willful act of disobedience to his Creator, this deliberate rebellion against his Sovereign God, man openly declared he would no longer have God to rule over him. Man made the decision he would be governed by his own will, and not the will of God who created him; and that he would not seek his happiness in God, but in the world, in the works of his hands.
Now, God had told him before, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
The Lord’s Word cannot be broken. Consequently, in that day man 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.
The body dies when separated from the soul; the soul, when separated from God. It is this separation from God, Adam sustained in the day, and the hour he ate of the forbidden fruit.
Adam demonstrated this separation immediately by his behavior. With the love of God extinguished in his soul, and his soul now “alienated from the life of God,” he was now a slave to the power of fear, and he fled from the presence of the Lord. In fact, so little did he remember Him who fills heaven and earth, that he tried to “hide himself from the Lord God among the trees of the garden:” (Gen. 3:8:)
Therefore, had he lost both the knowledge and the love of God, without which the image of God could not exist. Because of his actions, his choice therefore, man was no longer the perfect image of God. At the same time, he became unholy as well as unhappy. Man had sunk into pride and self-will. Instead of being the image of God, man became the very image of the devil and opened himself to sensual appetites and desires, the image of the beasts that perish.
In Adam we all died, all human kind, all the children of men. The natural consequence of this is, that every one descended from Adam, that includes all of here this morning, comes into the world spiritually dead, dead to God, wholly dead in sin; entirely void of the life of God; void of the image of God, of all that righteousness and holiness wherein Adam was created.
Instead of this, every man born into the world now bears the image of the devil in pride and self-will, the image of the beast, in sensual appetites and desires. This, then, is the foundation of the new birth, — the entire corruption of our nature.
It is for this reason, being born in sin, we must be “born again.” And it is for this reason, every one that is born of a woman must be born of the Spirit of God.
But how can we be born again? What is the nature of the new birth? How does this work. What does to be “born again” look like?
This is the Second question. It is probably the most significant question we can conceive. It is a question of such great concern we can’t begin to properly explore it this morning. We will discuss this second question in depth next week.
This morning, we are going to perform two Sacraments. Holy Communion and Baptism. Both are Christ ordained. So, what is a Sacrament? There are two parts to a sacrament. First, there is an outward, visible sign that we can understand. In the sacrament of Holy Communion, we break and consume bread and we drink juice. We understand this act to be an outward sign of our acknowledgment of Christ’s sacrifice for each of us and the elements used represent the body and blood of Jesus. Christ instructs us to take and eat, and to do this often, in remembrance of Him.
The second part of a Sacrament is an inward and spiritual grace we can sense and believe. The second part of the sacrament of Holy Communion is God’s justifying and sanctifying grace acting on and in our souls. The justifying grace is the forgiveness of our sins, and the sanctifying grace of God working within our souls as we strive toward Holiness.
The sacrament of Baptism is a sacrament in which Christ has ordained the washing with water to be a sign and seal of regeneration by His Spirit. So what is the outward sign? The outward sign is the water in which the person is baptized “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The spiritual sign then is a death unto sin, and a new birth into righteousness. The significant part of this sacrament we must understand is this. Remember, the second part of a Sacrament is an inward and spiritual grace we can sense and believe.
New birth is not the same thing as baptism, and it does not always accompany baptism: They do not constantly go together. A man my possibly be “born of water,” and yet not be “born of the Spirit.” There may sometimes be the outward sign, where there is not the inward grace.
How does this relate to infant baptism? With infants, there is a bit of a Holy mystery. As Methodists, we believe all who are baptized in their infancy are at the same time in a sense, born again; and this is why the church so strongly encourages infant baptism. Simply because we cannot comprehend how God accomplishes this work in infants does not invalidate its truth. For neither can we comprehend in our humanness how God works His divine grace in an adult.
However, whatever the case with infants, it is sure that in the case of adults, all who are baptized are not at the same time born again.
Further, the “new birth” which takes place during an infant baptism is a birth free from the sin of Adam and Eve. As each of us in born into sin, as we have seen this morning, the act of infant baptism washes away that child’s original sin, and in that sense, the child is indeed “born again” and as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus Christ at His baptism, so to the Holy Spirit descends into the child.
However, as we mature, we gain the ability to reason, to make own choices. We know Jesus lived a Holy and pure life dedicated to pleasing His Father in Heaven. Therefore, there is no doubt what so ever of the inward sign of the sacrament.
The child baptized as an infant, as he or she matures, ultimately has the choice to deny his or her baptism in the sense of saying no to the guiding love of the Holy Spirit. He or she may fall away from the righteousness God offered them in infancy. They may surely fall back into a state of sin. However, the presence of the Holy Spirit will forever be pursuing them, drawing them, wooing them if you will back into the presence of Christ. This is prevenient grace and this grace, along with justifying grace, is present during infant baptism. The justifying grace cleanses the child of all original sin and prevenient grace begins the work of drawing them into intimate relationship with God.
The Holy Spirit will never leave the child, though the child can choose to deny His presence, and in that sense, deny his baptism. The child, as an adult, may make conscious choices to sin, to choose drug addiction, to choose immoral ways, to choose to do wrong.
Still, as God exercises Prevenient Grace within the child, that pursuing, that wooing, there will come a time when the child, now as an adult will choose to acknowledge Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior. It is then that in a conscious choice, the child, now an adult, will choose to be “born again.” God’s prevenient grace has brought him or her back to Him and now God’s sanctifying grace, that grace which works in our souls to strive toward Holiness will guide and direct and bring peace to the child.
Therefore, the act of Baptism in other than infants is not the same as “new birth.” In addition, the “new birth” given to the infant, birth from the original sin, is subject to a later choice by the child/adult to the sins of the world, or the ways of Christ.
Therefore, the act of baptism alone is not an act of salvation.
A final word. I believe there is clear evidence in the Bible that God embraces all children regardless of whether or not they are baptized at least until the age of reason. So too, I believe God embraces all who regardless of age are unable to consciously make decisions for themselves, and that includes all who are mentally ill which I believe includes suicide victims. And they are victims, victims of a mental disorder. Surely, someone who takes their own life is suffering from sever mental impairment. These children of God are assured of their salvation.
So why do we baptize infants? Salvation requires our acceptance of God’s grace, trust in Christ, and ongoing growth in holiness as long as we live. Baptism offers the promise that the Holy Spirit will always be working in our lives. Baptism charges the parents, and this congregation of believers to come alongside this family and this child to raise him up in the way of Christ. Baptism brings this child into that church as a member of Christ’s church universal and the family of God.