Let’s talk about being “born again.” Regeneration, entry of God’s nature and life into our real existence and identity, has, as a natural progression or part, entry into the status of discipleship to Jesus Christ in the power of the new life. Living in the status of disciple has, as a natural part and progression, spiritual formation in Christlikeness. Progression in spiritual formation in Christlikeness leads to easy, routine obedience to the commandments Christ brought to us, and to living the public life—from the inside out—any sincere and thoughtful person would expect from the biblical record and the track record of the “great ones” in Christian history.
But this leaves us with difficult practical problems facing the project of spiritual formation in Christlikeness in our local assemblies and in the larger units of Christian organization—even, indeed, in the “Christian” atmosphere of thought still pervading the Western world.
We have to deal with a massive population of churched and unchurched people who think of “being saved” or “being right with God” merely in terms of some picture of justification, not regeneration. Being “born again” is usually understood now, not in terms of being animated by a “life from above,” but in terms of a profession of faith—often a profession of faith in the death of Christ as bearing the punishment for sin that otherwise would fall on us. This understanding usually prevails in ways that do not involve—may not even make mention of—participation in divine life. (And, of course, one can mention it without engaging it.)
Then, of course, the otherwise natural progression into discipleship and its spiritual (trans)formation naturally does not occur, and the churches and surrounding society is flooded with discipleshipless Christians whose lives seem not to differ profoundly, if at all, from non-Christians. Because of human hunger for something deeper than a strictly physical existence, we then see multitudes who say that they are not religious (not “churched,” they usually mean) but they nonetheless are “very spiritual.” Most often these are people who think they have seen, and seen through, the authentic Christian way. (Ironically, the “spirituality” they practice commonly has little or no bearing on their character, for they despise “morality” almost as much as they do “religion,” and morality now is often lumped together or confused with religion: treated as “the same thing.”)
For Evangelical Christians, turning around the ship of their social reality, and restoring the understanding of salvation that characterized evangelicalism from its beginnings in Luther, and periodically after him, will be very difficult if not impossible. It would primarily be a work of scriptural interpretation and theological reformulation, but modification of time-hardened practices will also be required. Radical changes in what we do in the way of “church” will have to be made.This in turn will demand the utmost in loving character, humility of mind, and dependence upon the hand of God in a “with God” life.4 But that is the way it is supposed to be anyway, is it not? It can be done and has been done, providing some of the most brilliant periods in the history of Christ’s people.
I will suggest two steps on the way forward.
One is that responsible leaders at all levels of Christian activity begin to exemplify and teach, in their official activities, spiritual formation in Christlikeness as something essential to the condition of “being saved”—not as a precondition but as a natural development. How that is to be worked out, avoiding “works righteousness” and legalism, is something that must be carefully elaborated in scriptural, theological, ecclesiastical, and psychological terms.
The other is that efforts in evangelism and toward increasing “church membership” be very purposively reoriented toward bringing people to the point of regeneration and discipleship. The work of turning people to Christ is not done until that point. If we continue to make “converts” or “Christians,” instead of disciples animated with the life from above that comes at “new” birth, spiritual formation and obedience to Christ (doing “all that he commanded”) have little prospect other than that of a passing fad, which will certainly disappoint or will fade into diverse legalisms and vacuous “spiritualities”—things that fall entirely within human abilities, otherwise known as “the flesh.”
The future of vital Christian life lies in the hands of the pastors and others who teach for Christ—especially including those who teach pastors. What will they do? The greatest field open for discipleship evangelism today is the North American and European churches and seminaries (“divinity” schools). They are full of people hungering for the real life which, surely we all know, is offered in companionship with Christ in his kingdom.