Monday, May 09, 2005

Understanding the New Birth

Billy Graham once wrote a bestselling book called How to Be Born Again. There’s just one small problem with that: you can no more learn how to be born again than you can learn how to be physically born. In both you can study the process in hindsight to see what happened to you. But just as you can’t decide to be born physically, neither can you decide to be born again spiritually. After telling Nicodemus that he must be born again, Jesus shifts metaphors to emphasize in a different way the decisive role of the Sovereign Spirit: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v. 8). The Scriptures teach that faith and repentance and holy living are all deeds done by us, though empowered and enabled by God. But new birth is in a different category: it is done for us.

But very few of us—even those who believe the above—have done the hard thinking of precisely how the new birth and conversion are experienced. Fortunately, Stephen Smallman—Pastor of New Life Northeast, a PCA church in urban Philadelphia—is an exception. In his pastoral ministry, he has been developing a helpful paradigm for understanding the new birth, called the “Birthline.” He explains:

. . . on a practical and pastoral level, I have found that the birthline explanation is very effective in demonstrating the point that true conversion is only part of the work of salvation that begins before the person comes to know Christ, and continues after that initial experience. It also serves to take the spotlight away from particular experiences, without denying the validity of them. I have found this particularly helpful for those raised in Christian homes who give genuine evidence of the new birth, but cannot point to a particular conversion moment.

Click here to see the Birthline diagram and to read Smallman’s explanation. I believe this can be a very helpful tool in evangelism and in discipleship as people locate themselves along the birthline and understand the work that God is doing, or has done, in their lives. I commend Smallman's work for your consideration.