Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Marks of the New Birth (John 3:8)

John Wesley called himself a “man of one book,” meaning that he based what he taught and preached and how he lived on one book – the Bible.

But when the need arose, Wesley would talk about things that Scripture didn’t talk about. In the sermon “Marks of the New Birth,” he mentions at the outset that the new birth doesn’t really require a definition, since scripture doesn’t give one. People, on the other hand, need one pretty badly, because the definition can help them see if they’ve moved onto God’s path or not. So he’ll give one.

He sees three of these marks: Faith, hope and love. Now, these three tend to hang out with each other, especially in the New Testament, and that connection plays a role in how Wesley considers them as marks of the new birth.

Wesley preached a whole sermon on salvation by faith, so we just need to remind ourselves that faith is more than intellectual consent that Jesus is God’s son. We remember that true faith involves making changes in our lives based on the reality Jesus represents.

When we were of the world, we looked out for number one, for example. As Christians, we still look out for number one, but we’ve moved ourselves out of that spot so God can occupy it. The choice may produce unsettling or even unpleasant results, but we show our faith by continuing to live that way even so.

Also, even though we know sin remains in our lives, we believe it can’t rule us anymore and we show our faith when we repent, seek forgiveness and try to live differently – again.

Our life of faith helps strengthen our hope, Wesley says. We could hope in our own abilities, but we know that’s a false hope. Instead, we hope in the promise God gives.

The Holy Spirit reminds us that we are children of God, adopted as heirs with Christ. The Spirit testifies against spirits of fear, bondage and hopelessness that label us as lost and worthless. Hopelessness could be like acid, eating away at our faith, but hope works against that erosion as we continue to live lives of faith.

We might look at our world and think giving up hope is a sensible idea. Things are, after all, pretty messed up and it doesn’t look like anyone has a solution for these problems. But hope disagrees and insists God will prevail, whether now or in a life to come.

In a way, we could say with faith, we submit our minds and our actions to God. With hope, we submit our emotions to him. Hope is much more subjective than faith – just listen to how we talk about it: “I feel hopeful.” “This feels hopeless.”

So, when we submit our thoughts, our words and actions, and our emotions to God, Wesley says those are two of the marks of the new birth in Christ. If we find places in our lives where we haven’t submitted to God, we know those are areas where we need to bury our old selves so they can rise with Christ.

The third mark of the new birth is love, and things get a little complicated here. Most of us have a hard time defining love, although we can give some basic characteristics. It includes emotions, but it’s a lot more than just a feeling. It demands actions, but they have to come from a loving motivation.

Wesley reminds us Jesus puts love at the core of the two greatest commandments – love of God and love of neighbor. And even if we can’t pin it down exactly, we know that it means we give of ourselves. Not just what we feel and not just what we do, but a mixture of them, combined with that whatever-it-is that makes us who we are.

This final mark of the new birth shows when our love is given to God and our neighbor. It’s not given to success, or the good opinion of other people, or material goods, or pleasurable experiences.

As we dedicate our thoughts and actions and our feelings and ourselves to God and to our neighbor, Wesley says, we show that we are new creations in Christ, and that our old selves are passing away. Even if we slip up or turn aside here and there, we’re no longer who we made ourselves to be. We have become – and we’re still becoming – who God has always designed and desired us to be.

Born anew, through the good news.

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