If you were to ask me what one aspect of biblical theology that the American evangelical church most urgently needs to recover, I would without question say the biblical doctrine of regeneration. Or to use the words of Jonathan Edwards in his classic The Religious Affections:
- “There is no question whatsoever that is of greater importance to mankind, and that it more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this: What is the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God…what is the nature of true religion?“
For Edwards he saw no greater issue, no more of a pressing matter, than defining what true religion(Christianity) is and what it is not. I, along with Jonathan Edwards, hold to the strong conviction that there is only one true religion in the world, Biblical Christianity (I use this term because there are a number of “Christian” religions out there that are “Christian” in name, but not in theology & practice), while the rest of the world’s religions are false and demonic. This is because all other religions outside of Biblical Christianity hold to some form of work’s righteousness and justification in their theology of salvation. Only Biblical Christianity holds to a low view of man, a high view of God, and man’s complete inability to do anything to merit God’s holy favor. Biblical Christianity teaches that man is completely dependent upon God’s sovereign & free grace to show salvific favor to whomever He wills-see Romans 9:15-16. Roughly 300yrs later, with religious pluralism and relativism rampant throughout our culture, the issue is just as relative and prevalent in our day as it was in Edwards’ day following the first Great Awakening. The reason being that Edwards had witnessed the Awakening firsthand and had experience both the positive and the negative side of the proliferation of Christianity throughout New England in the mid 18th century. On the positive side Edwards witnessed the Holy Spirit bring about true conversion in many lives, but on the negative side, Edwards equally witnessed the proliferation of what he called “false religion” through the counterfeiting of biblical Christianity by Satan in the lives of multitudes of people. In other words, Satan insidiously birthed counterfeit religion that may have looked, sounded, and smelt like true religion, but on closer examination was lukewarm, unholy, pretentious, and satanic.
For someone who grew up in a prototypical traditional evangelical church who now attends a radical & contemporary evangelical church, I have experienced this theological difference firsthand. Looking back, the traditional evangelical church I grew up in was moderate to even somewhat liberal (by Reformed standards) theologically where biblical theology was not emphasized and regeneration was not taught. Do you know what happens when those two things are prevalent in a church? It produces lukewarm, secular, ungodly, unholy, unconverted, people who think they are “Christian” because they go to church, have had some “religious” experience of walking down an isle, praying a prayer, asking Jesus into their heart, etc and yet, their lives have not been transformed by the sovereign saving grace of the Lord Jesus because they do not know Him and He does not know them. Why??? Because where biblical theology is not regularly preached, taught, explained, and applied, there can be no Gospel and if there’s no Gospel being proclaimed, there can be no true conversion.
I was one of those unconverted church members. I knew a lot about Jesus, but I didn’t know Jesus. And this proclamation of biblical theology isn’t just from the pulpit/stage by the pastor, no it must be from the pastor on down to the youth and children. It’s not enough to tell young people about Jesus and other Bible figures, you must explain to them the implications, particularly the theological implications of what the Bible is teaching us about who God is (He’s Triune, holy, omnipotent, omniscient, absolute, loving, sovereign and righteous), what man is (image-bearer of God, designed for worship, fellowship, and covenant with God, yet fell into sin and now is alienated from & hostile to God, and desperately needs Jesus to reconcile him back to his loving Heavenly Father), and why the world is the way it is (because rebellion & idolatry entered into the world called sin and the world’s been suffering from it ever since).
In The Religious Affections, Edwards wrestles with this very issue and comes to see that true Christian religion lies in the affections. What are the affections? Edwards defines them as “no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.” What Edwards is speaking of are those things which we are either “pleased with and inclined to” (for me: cookies & cream ice cream) or those things which we are “opposed to and displeased with” (butter pecan ice cream). Edwards sees the affections at the core of our personhood because they reveal what our heart truly delights in and what it truly opposes: “In every act of the will whatsoever, the soul either likes or dislikes, is either inclined or disinclined to what is in view: these are not essentially different from those affections of love and hatred.” In other words, heart affections can be both positive (cookies & cream) and negative (butter pecan) and it is these affections, Edwards argues, that are the most indicative of true conversion (regeneration) from false conversion (empty religion).
This juxtaposition Edwards makes in Religious Affections, true religion from spurious religion, is the distinction the Bible makes between the power of godliness and the form of godliness. “The Spirit of God,” writes Edwards, “in those that have sound and solid religion, is a spirit of powerful holy affection; and therefore God is said “to have given the Spirit of power, and of love, and of self-control.”-see 2 Timothy 1:7. The form of godliness is based off 2 Timothy 3:1-5 where Paul teaches the necessity of knowing true godliness from spurious godliness that based off whether or not that person possesses the Holy Spirit or not. This leads me to the heart of Edwards’ book and what I believe to be the heart of the biblical teaching of conversion and assurance: what are true religious or holy affections that are indicative of a regenerated heart and saving faith? For the American Evangelical Church today, there is no greater pressing issue than this. We will look at the first three holy affections in Part I of this 4-part series.
What is True Religious Experience?
- Origin: The Holy Spirit–all true religion begins with the God of the Bible, particularly the Holy Spirit as He is the principle Agent in bringing about conviction “concerning sin, righteousness and judgment” and He is the principle Agent in bringing about regeneration and conversion–see John 16:7-10; Titus 3:5-6. Fact: there can be NO salvation without regeneration; which is to say the Holy Spirit changing a person’s metaphysical makeup by indwelling their heart which radically shifts their worldview. By means of this indwelling, the Holy Spirit imparts His character, which consists of holiness and godliness, to the Christian. This is the beginning of true Christianity and the source of all holy affections. Edwards was thoroughly convinced that genuine Christian character is ultimately not a matter of human achievement, but rather has at its root the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit. Edwards’ view of the Holy Spirit may be summarized as “the divine love in the soul of the saints who becomes the well-spring of activity and the divine life itself.”
- Ground & Joy: The Holiness & Beauty of God–the ground or basis for true religion is founded upon the holiness & beauty of God. In other words, true saving faith at its core is radically theocentric rather than anthropocentric because it delights in God and His holiness above all things. Many speculate over what exactly is the Gospel(i.e. forgiveness of sins, eternal life, escape from eternal condemnation, etc) while the Scripture clearly teaches that the Gospel is finding a hidden treasure and discovering that treasure is God Himself and all He has purchased for the sinner through the Son’s suffering, death & resurrection. God is the Gospel, He is the gift we receive at salvation and through that we receive the copious blessings connected to the Atonement of Christ(forgiveness of sins, justification before God, eternal life with Him, freedom from sin, etc.) and its through finding this treasure that we come to see God as He truly is: the holy and infinite Creator, Savior & Redeemer who loves saving sinners for His glory, not theirs. Here’s how Edwards says it in Religious Affections: “Spiritual understanding consists…in a sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things…that flows from such a (new) sense. Spiritual understanding consists primarily in a sense of heart of spiritual beauty.” True believers delight & savor in God’s holiness and majesty, they love God primarily for who He is not for what He has done for them otherwise Christianity is just another form of self-love.
- Illumination: Spiritual Perception–according to Edwards, “holy affections are not heat without light.” In other words, true religion(saving faith in Jesus) isn’t just some private subjective matter that only pertains to the individual, rather true religion is based on public, objective, historic events that only by the illumination of the Holy Spirit can someone truly grasp and understand their implications. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor 2:14 that “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, nor is he able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Therefore, the Spirit must first act upon the heart and mind of the individual if he is ever to “see and savor” spiritual knowledge and beauty. This seeing & savoring is what Edwards called “the new sense” speaking of a new way of seeing the reality that has always been present, but not perceived. The new sense is “an ideal and sensible apprehension of the spiritual excellency of divine things“, namely the glory and excellency of Jesus Christ. Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, Christ is “unknown and incomprehensible.” This is because according to the biblical doctrine of total depravity, unregenerate humanity is unable to sense this “spiritual excellency & divine knowledge”; hence, the revelation & illumination of the Holy Spirit is necessary to change fallen man’s disposition from/to God. John Calvin called this the sensus suavitatis which means “sense of sweetness” speaking of the Spirit’s incredible witness of giving divine knowledge in the believer’s heart. Edwards compared this “divine knowledge” to the sweet taste of honey that only those who have tasted it know the exact nature and sweetness of it as opposed to those who just “talk about” or “look upon” honey. In other words, only those who have been illuminated by the Holy Spirit can see and comprehend divine truth, namely the Gospel itself. Many people can talk about the Gospel and even know facts about it and Christianity, but it is only those who have tasted the gracious promises of God revealed in Jesus Christ who are truly Christian and know God.
As written above, the doctrines of regeneration and assurance are in dire need of being rediscovered and taught in most evangelical churches in America. I have great trepidation over the fact that many attend evangelical churches every week, would confess to being Christian, yet remain unregenerated and unconverted. If you are a parent the most important thing you can teach your children is the difference between morality and the Gospel. Morality is about duty, the Gospel is about God and His grace in forgiving our wretched moral & spiritual depravity. Next time we will look at the next 3 holy affections.
- “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk that by it you may grow up into salvation–if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”-1 Peter 2:2-3