In 1740 New Sider Gilbert Tennent preached the notorious sermon entitled “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” The gist was that any who had the audacity to question the New Side were not just misguided, under-tutored or even wrong. They were, in fact, unconverted. He eventually repented of the low-ball of desperation. Doubtless, though, he likely scaled back his indictment to match what the Old Lights had said of his side: wrong.
At Reformation21 Phil Ryken relays the take John Piper has on the phrase “born again” and why someone needs to, evidently, step up to the plate and get everything cleared up. Thus, per Ryken, Piper writes:
“When the Barna Group uses the term ‘born again’ to describe American church-goers whose lives are indistinguishable from the world, and who sin as much as the world, and sacrifice for others as little as the world, and embrace injustice as readily as the world, and covet things as greedily as the world, and enjoy God-ignoring entertainment as enthusiastically as the world — when the term ‘born again’ is used to describe these professing Christians, the Barna Group is making a profound mistake.
What the research shows instead, according to Piper, “is not that born-again people are permeated with worldliness,” but “that the church is permeated by people who are not born again.”
Does the spirit of Tennent live on, now with an eye toward the sheep instead of the shepherds?
What is curiously absent Piper’s analysis is the notion that “born-again-ism” has a lot less to do with the alleged antinomianism (which proves degeneracy) of certain folk and instead more to do with an accent placed heavily upon inward experience. But he seems to want to go with the former.
This kind of thing seems ubiquitous and quite popular. One sees it all the time, the idea that ours is an age that would “make Babylon blush.” And to some extent I get it. I watch TV, too. But why does it always seem that when the trigger is pulled on social/cultural/religious critique the chosen target is always how “seedy” we all are with the implication to “do better”? Given that the Pauline antithesis is this age/next age it would seem that we might have just as much chance at misguided virtue as natural vice. This tendency to call into question the alleged antinomianism of certain folks, after a while, begins to look a lot like the stuff of urban legend because it’s actually much easier to find legalists than antinomians. After all, human beings were originally made for law. It’s not only in our nurture but quite in our nature. We come by it honestly enough. Recall that Eve was our first legalist. She could have done lots of things with the fruit, up to and including bringing it home and placing it on her mantle as a conversation starter. But in responding to the serpent’s bidding she added to God’s law by saying something about not being able to touch it. God never said that. Could it be that to make “born-again-ism” turn on behaviorism instead of experientialism is a signal that what is roaming the earth seeking whom it may devour is actually what prompted Eve to initiate the “don’t handle, don’t touch” rule?
If what is supposed to distinguish believers from non- is that the former are somehow appreciably less given to greed, lust, injustice, coveting and all the rest along come our confessions:
• Belgic Confession
Art. 24: “…we can do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them.”
• Westminster Confession of Faith
13,2 “This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part….”
16,2 “These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith….”
16,5 “…and as they [good works] are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.”
• Westminster Larger Catechism
Q and A 78: “…their [believers’] best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.”
• Heidelberg Catechism
Q and A 62: “…the righteousness which can stand before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect and wholly conformable to the divine law, while even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.”
Q and A 114: “…even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience….”
It would seem to me that, if our confessions are right, there isn’t a whole lot to brag about, and the proposed template for distinction begins to diminish hand over fist. It appears that we should expect to be more sinful than not, even those we might think are the holiest of us and those works we would dare call our “best.” Why do I get the feeling with Piper that classes of believers are about to be arranged, those who are carnal and those who are top-flight?
As tempting as Piper’s implication is, it may actually be that what distinguishes believer from non- is that the former heed word and take sacrament which affirm time and again that we are finally no different from the pagan but that only there by the grace of God go we.