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"Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again."

Today I want to key in on something that Orthodox apologist Thomas Sm wrote in a previous exchange with me, as it highlights a fundamental problem with the way many Roman, Orthodox and Anglo Catholics think:

Reformed and increasingly non-Reformed Protestants emphasise "absolute sovereignty" and His power and claim the point of church is to worship Him because He is great and worthy of glory. You are inducted into the religion not by sacraments but by proclaiming belief. Of course, predestination then logically follows.

Mr. Sm echoes what I wrote yesterday about the belief that "people become Christians by being baptized (usually as infants) and stay Christians by doing good works and availing themselves of the sacramental mechanics performed by the church."  It reminds me of a fellow from the ACC church I used to attend who talked about an Evangelical woman he was dating, specifically about how she was trying to get him into her church so that he could be "born again."  His response to her was that he was already born again, in the waters of baptism doncha know.  Well of course.

Now, I understand that the New Testament does in fact clearly link baptism and regeneration, but how it does so is a somewhat complex topic, and the difficulty in explaining it is only compounded when we interject the practice of infant baptism into the explanation.  (The New Testament authors who wrote about baptism as regeneration were almost certainly writing about that in the context of adult baptism.  In fact, whether or not infants were baptized in the church of the first century is an open question as far as I am concerned.)  How infant baptism may "regenerate" a child is not the issue I want to discuss here however.  Rather, I am concerned to address Mr. Sm's point about Orthodox/Anglo-Catholic vs. Reformed views on how a person in "inducted into the religion" and how that relates to "proclaiming belief" in the wake of a "sovereign" intervention in an adult person's life. 

I want to begin that assessment with C.S. Lewis' account of his own conversion.  Anyone who knows anthing about Lewis knows that he was on the High Church to Anglo-Catholic end of things, and like all good High Church/Anglo-Catholics had a particular aversion to "Calvinism."   And that is an odd thing, given how "Calvinistic" his conversion was:

What is most fascinating about Lewis, especially to evangelical Christians, is the story of his own conversion. The history of the church is a history of human beings who in one way or another at various stages of their lives encountered the risen Lord and responded with a "Yes, Lord I will" to his "Yes, come." The church, then, is the sum total of men, women and children who have been enabled by the Father to be drawn to Jesus Christ through the Spirit (John 6:44, 65). Virtually every one of their names is unknown to us, and so is their conversion story. But we are fortunate to know C.S. Lewis’ testimony because he has told it to us in his writings, especially in Surprised by Joy. . . .

In 1929 C.S. Lewis found himself challenged with God’s existence. This important milestone in his conversion journey was reached rather suddenly. As he tells the story, on one occasion during this time he happened to take a bus ride. When he got on the bus he was an atheist. When he came to his stop, he got off the bus believing in God’s existence. Not that Lewis was seeking God. He said he didn’t really want to find him. The revelation about God’s existence was something of a fright to him. He wrote in Surprised by Joy: "Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat."

But God was seeking C.S. Lewis and he found him. His call was coming and Lewis could find no place to hide. As Jonah running from the Lord, Lewis had been confronted with his own great "whale," so to speak. It was God beckoning to him. The reluctant prodigal finally knew it was time to come home. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis tells us about his feelings when he could no longer deny God’s existence to himself:

"You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.... But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape."

When God drew Lewis’ heart to himself, he became conscious of the presence of his own sinfulness. "For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose," wrote Lewis. "And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name is legion."

Though Lewis was frightened by what he saw in himself, the Holy Spirit would open Lewis’ heart and mind to Christ’s forgiveness and love. It happened in September 1931 when Lewis was converted to the faith. He had engaged in a lengthy conversation about Christianity with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson that started with dinner on the 19th and continued into the early morning hours of the 20th. The discussion challenged Lewis’ thinking and set the stage for what happened two days later.

It was on Sept. 22, 1931 that Lewis said yes to the Lord’s offer of himself — yes, according to his testimony, this was the exact day he became a Christian. It happened on a ride to the Whipsnade Zoo with his brother, Warren. Lewis tells about it in his book, Surprised by Joy: "I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion.... It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake". . . .

On Christmas Day 1931, C.S. Lewis joined the Anglican Church and took communion.  (Article here.)

Now, Lewis was baptized as an infant in 1898, but by his own reckoning he did not become a Christian until 1931.  At which point was he really "inducted into the religion", to quote Mr. Sm?  At his baptism?  Is it really that simple? 

This highlights a phemomenon that has manifested itself in the history of the Church from the apostles (ad especially that most unwilling of them, St. Paul) to Lewis: the conversion experience.  No matter how "regeneration" in the New Testament is to be understood, no matter whether or not infants born to Christian parents are proper subjects of baptism, and no matter whether or not a conversion experience is dramatic, like that of Lewis and countless others, for one to be truly "inducted into the religion", he or she must experientially, not just sacramentally, be "delivered . . . from the power of darkness, and . . . translated . . . into the kingdom of his dear Son."  (Col. 1:13) 

So if Mr. Sm and his fellow Catholics are wrong that one is inducted into the religion, usually as an infant, through baptism, then yes, there is an argument that predestination does "logically follow."   Why predestination and not some Evangelical form of anti-predestination, like Arminianism?  Because only a predestinarian soteriology rationally (not to mention biblically) accounts for why a person who is "dead in trespasses and sins" is made spiritually alive and "translated", which is to say converted, to the Kingdom of God's dear Son.  That's what happened to Lewis, just as it did to St. Paul:  God fetched them.  And whom God fetches, He never loses. This is what St. Augustine and many Catholics after him believed.  No wonder, then, that anti-Augustinian Roman, Orthodox and Anglo Catholics either despise and therefore reject, or in the alternative try to deconstruct, this article:

XVII. Of Predestination and Election.

Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God, be called according to God's purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God's mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well becausse it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God's Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.

St. Paul and C.S. Lewis had dramatic conversion experiences, but of course it was only St. Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who retained a "Calvinistic" understanding of what happened to him.  This precisely why I would (and do) say to Catholics who rail against "Calvinism", their argument really isn't with Calvinism but with St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. John.  And if your argument is with the apostles, it is also with the Lord who sent them.  Even St. Innocent of Alaska understood the matter: "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day."

Liberals and Catholics often either deride or make fun of "born-again Christians."  Yes, there is a rather amusing stereotype out there of the "born-again Christian", but it's stereotypical for reasons other than the born-againness of which they speak, for the fact of the matter is that there is no other kind of Christian than a born-again one.  Born "from above", to literally translate the Greek in John 3.  "Born of God" (who is "above") to quote John 1.

Nothing I write here should be construed to mean that I diminish the need for sacraments.  Far from it.  Jesus and His apostles are clear on the matter:  if we are Christians, we are to be baptized and we are to regularly receive Holy Communion.  Everything taken together, however, means merely that while we are not saved by the adminstration of sacraments, we are not saved without them.  That is to say, they are secondary, not primary.  Anti-Augustinian Catholic sacramentalism has it "bass ackwards". 

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Reader Comments (5)

Even the soft Augustinianism of the Council of Trent places baptism at the end, rather than the beginning, of spiritual rebirth:

"Now [adults] are disposed unto the said justice [justification], when, excited and assisted by divine grace, conceiving faith by hearing, they are freely moved towards God, believing those things to be true which God has revealed and promised,-and this especially, that God justifies the impious by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; and when, understanding themselves to be sinners, they, by turning themselves, from the fear of divine justice whereby they are profitably agitated, to consider the mercy of God, are raised unto hope, confiding that God will be propitious to them for Christ's sake; and they begin to love Him as the fountain of all justice; and are therefore moved against sins by a certain hatred and detestation, to wit, by that penitence which must be performed before baptism: lastly, when they purpose to receive baptism, to begin a new life, and to keep the commandments of God."

November 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

I know this is only slightly related to your post, but thought you'd be interested in this latest article from the Conciliar Anglican: Any thoughts? Personally, I align myself with the old high churchmen and greatly appreciate the Caroline Divines. The creeping papalism of the Oxford movement I can't follow. I appreciate Anglicanism for its patristic catholicism, firmly grounded in the Holy Scriptures.

November 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAn Awkward Aardvark

Thanks, Aardvark. I am on The Conciliar Anglican's e-mail list, so I was aware of this new article. I read it this morning with great interest, as it sort of dovetails with a discussion I had with a Reformed Episcopal priest yesterday. He was telling me about the history of the REC and how today it has moved toward a more classical Anglican position. He stated and I agreed that there are certain positions of early Anglo-Catholicism that are worthy of acceptance. It will be interesting to see what Fr. Jonathan has to say in this regard.

On a related note, I intend to redouble my efforts (as I have failed recently) to accentuate the positive and de-emphasize the negative. That means, as I stated in my Aug. 7 article "Ecumenical Bonhomie", accentuating what Roman, Orthodox and Anglo Catholics have gotten right instead of what they have gotten wrong. I will complement that by trying to show that we on the "Reformed" end of things have gotten crucial things right, but also where we may have gone wrong in the past or may be missing the mark now. To that end, I have deleted a few of the more polemical recent exchanges and am working on rewriting certain posts to take the polemical edges off them.

November 11, 2013 | Registered CommenterEmbryo Parson

I'm glad I stumbled across this excellent article.

I understand where you're coming from on infant baptism, and I agree with your concerns. However, as I noted briefly in Bruce's article, I believe we can affirm with Augustine that infants partake in a real sacramental and covenantal manner in rebirth through baptism (and going beyond Augustine, I think in all likelihood that this pre-conscious partaking in rebirth in the covenant child precedes the washing in Christ's Spirit and Blood in the Sacrament of Baptism). Of course, it is a very unfortunate and dangerous thing when our necessary conscious rebirth is lightly dismissed.

That said, our conscious rebirth will ideally occur so early and organically that there is never a point where a covenant child does not remember trusting in Christ for Salvation. However, that is very often not the case and therefore because a child has come under the dominion of sin and is outside of Christ a more dramatic and memorable conversion experience (where one consciously goes from death to life) is an absolute necessity at some point in his or her life. And even those who have a conscious saving faith in Christ will likely have times of serious renewal/conversion (or, "rebirth") in their life--necessitated either by falling into serious sin or simply as a consequence of spiritual growth (the term rebirth/regeneration was used, after all, by Calvin and many other reformers as a synonym for ongoing repentance/sanctification).

"And whom God fetches, He never loses.[link to John 10:28]" Great line. This is certainly true in the case of the elect Good Ground (in whom God has ordained to finish the good work he began). However, as you know from my excessive number of posts on this issue, I believe the Scriptures also teach (as Augustine notes) that there are many who are not of the elect Good Ground whom God has ordained to have new life begotten in them by the eternal seed of God's Word and yet later to be justly chocked by the weeds of sin, and lose their salvation (and this in no way contradicts the great and comforting promise of John 10:28, however that is a discussion for when I have more time). Of course, the difference between the elect and these non-elect is that to one God gives the undeserved gift of perseverance while justly withholding it in the case of the other.

Finally, as you have noted here and elsewhere, the 39 Articles express this Augustinian teaching of predestination along with the awesome comfort that belongs to the elect according to the Scriptures in Article 17 (while the Anglican formularies also speak of the reality that those who are in Christ can fall from Salvation). It's amazing that so many Roman Catholics (and Anglo-Catholics) scoff at the truths contained in Article 17 in light of their clear precedent in the works of Augustine and other great Western fathers (not to mention, the precedent for these teachings in Scripture itself).

God Bless, W.A. Scott

December 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWA Scott

No disagreement, Mr. Scott.

March 29, 2014 | Registered CommenterEmbryo Parson

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