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Foreword:  This is the 4th installment on the series  from Modern Reformation issue of 1996. For other articles uploaded earlier, go to the sidebar – Categories – and choose ‘The Life of a Justified Sinner’ to take you to all articles under this heading. 

The exposition below provides a good and clear exegesis of the Lord’s discourse on the new birth. You will surely be blessed by the Word of God being unfolded. However, the first few paragraphs of this article involve the current  postmodern view of  human perception today on self-identification. Yet this human thinking process when placed face-to-face with the biblical teaching, is exposed to be deeply erroneous, deceptive and worthless in the light of eternal bibilical issues of life. It is a scholarly preface, and a bit hard to read at the beginning. But patience will prove rewarding. So please read on.

EmmausTrekker

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Who Am I … Really?
The “New Self” in an Age of Self-Transformation

By Dr. Michael S. Horton

Nearly all the wisdom we possess . . . consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern (John Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.1)

No wonder Paul said the Gospel was foolishness to Greeks. For Plato, the goal of life was gnosis, mystical knowledge of the Good; Aristotle had a similar objective, but was more down-to-earth in his appreciation for the possibilities of knowing the non-mystical world of our ordinary observation. Are we god-like souls who must strive to transcend our earthly existence and attain union with the Good? Or are we merely animals that cannot help but follow our base drives and impulses? What is the “self”? Is there such a thing as an “I” or a “you”? These are not just clever questions for philosophy, but have become vexing problems for our generation.

The crisis of modernity is in many ways one crisis among many in the pursuit of reason apart from biblical revelation for wisdom concerning ultimate issues. Alexander Pope, the Romantic poet who summed up the feeling of his contemporaries, declared in his Essay on Man:

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great: . . .
[Man] hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer,
Born to die, and reasoning but to err;
A like in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion all confused; . . .
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

And yet, is there any way of discovering any answers to these questions? Not when, as Pope put it elsewhere, “The proper study of Man is Man. ” Psychology replaced theology, the inner workings of the soul finding no judge or redeemer outside of oneself. A century after Nietzsche pronounced God “dead,” existentialist writer André Malraux declared in a United Nations address that humanity was now dead as well. It is therefore little wonder that the “self” is being deconstructed, leaving a question mark over the reality of any such supposed entity.

It is in this context that our generation especially seeks to constantly reinvent the self, indulging in metamorphoses and self-transformations that make older folks tired just thinking about.

Kenneth Gergen, a leading exponent of postmodern/constructivist psychology, argues that the former goal of psychology–to lead patients into a firmer sense of self-identity–has been (happily, to his mind) replaced by a passion for wearing a variety of masks and creating a plurality of identities. Not surprisingly, he closes one of his essays by referring to Romantic poet Walt Whitman’s line, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. (I am large. I contain multitudes.)”

But what I really want to use as an important marker of this change is from psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s essay, “The Protean Style.” Taking as his metaphor the Greek myth of Proteus, who could transform himself into a lion, dragon, fire, or flood, Lifton argues that the “Protean” man or woman of our times is marked by “self-process,” a seemingly endless pursuit of experiments. In the Greek myth, valiant souls could force Proteus to prophesy their futures if they could only bind him in chains to keep him from transforming himself. Only thus bound would Proteus be forced to be himself.

Lifton offers some clinical examples of his point. One patient spoke of wearing a lot of different masks, similar to an actor who is not sure which role (if any) is his or her real “self.” Gergen insists that this wearing of many masks is actually a sign of a healthy personality.1 This, Lifton believes, is at the root of the passionate demand for new experiences. Whereas previous generations usually only had one “self” and regarded what we practice freely today as “schizophrenia,” the average person today changes vocations, religions, political ideologies, partners, and perhaps even sexual orientations without much of the agony that used to distinguish such decisions. It is simply a different mask, since there is no real “self” that can be known. “If you label me, you negate me,” as the popular expression goes.

Thus, says Lifton, the postmodern self is riddled with contradiction: radically opposed to boundaries and yet guilty for not having an “outlet for his loyalties” and for having “no symbolic structure for his achievements.” The Protean self does not know how to measure good or evil, truth or error, a positive “transformation” from a negative one. “Rather than a feeling of evil or sinfulness, it takes the form of a nagging sense of unworthiness all the more troublesome for its lack of clear origin.”2 Lifton concludes:

But we may also say that Protean man’s affinity for the young, his being metaphorically and psychologically so young in spirit, has to do with his never-ceasing quest for imagery of rebirth. He seeks such imagery of rebirth from all sources, from ideas, techniques, religions, and political systems, from mass movements and of course from drugs, or from special individuals of his own kind–that is, from fellow Protean voyagers–whom he sees as possessing that problematic gift of his namesake, the gift of prophecy.3

What all of this raises is the question of self-identity in light of Christian revelation, specifically related to this matter of rebirth and transformation.

As early as the first chapter, John’s Gospel acknowledges that although the Word came to his own, they did not accept him. “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1: 12-13). Early in his ministry Jesus encounters the thoughtful Jewish scholar Nicodemus who has conceded that Jesus is “a teacher who has come from God,” given the miraculous signs (John 3:1-2). How Jesus responds to this admission is quite remarkable. Nicodemus is not now embraced as a disciple, for it is one thing to admit that Jesus is sent from God because of the miracles and quite another to trust in him and to be personally swept into the in-breaking tide of the kingdom of God . First, Jesus declares, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above,” to which Nicodemus replies, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” All that Nicodemus can see (indeed, all that human reason can see apart from God’s gracious illumination of the biblical text) is the mechanics of the natural, observable world. He sees miracles performed in time and space and, like any rational individual, must conclude that the one who performs these miracles must be who he says he is. Further, he knows what birth means, having circumcised many newborn children in his rabbinical career. But how could a grown person be “born”? Nicodemus cannot understand why the miracles are performed, but only that they were performed and he cannot understand our Lord’s meaning in the New Birth, apart from the mechanics of natural procreation.

Jesus persists: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (v. 5-8). Notice that Jesus is declaring not what we must do in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, but what must be done for and to us. While many Christians today believe that this is a command that the unbeliever is capable of obeying, that is not our Lord’s point at all. Not only does he say that the New Birth must precede entrance into the kingdom of God ; he insists that “flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” It is important to notice that Jesus is not saying, “spirit gives birth to spirit,” but “the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” In other words, he is not opposing spirit and matter here, but is declaring that it is the Holy Spirit and not the believing sinner who is responsible for this New Birth and entrance into the kingdom. It is a point Jesus makes again, for instance, in John 6. As his listeners grumble at his teaching of salvation by grace alone, he declares, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh [i.e., human striving] counts for nothing” (v. 63).

In his words to Nicodemus, Jesus says that this birth is from above, not from below; from God’s Spirit, not from somewhere within the activity of the individual whose will is bound to sin. This is why people are “born not of . . . human decision . . . , but born of God” (John 1:13). As Paul would later write, “It does not therefore depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16). And the further point Paul makes in that section (viz., that God “has mercy on whom he will have mercy”) is first declared here in our Lord’s remarks to Nicodemus. The Spirit, he says, blows wherever he will–like the wind, whose coming and going is mysterious and entirely free.

But Nicodemus is still confused, bound as he yet is to the wisdom of the flesh. “How can this be?” This, of course, is what we have been asking down through the ages and it is at the root of some of the greatest debates in church history. Nicodemus sees things only “from below,” in terms of human resources, while Jesus urges him to see things “from above,” from the perspective of divine sovereignty and grace. “You are Israel ‘s teacher,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “and do you not understand these things? . . . I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (v. 12). And yet notice the compassionate heart of our Redeemer. Undaunted by his interlocutor’s stubbornness, Jesus persists in explaining this point: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (v. 13-15).

Now what does this response have to do with being born again? Where one might have expected Jesus to lead Nicodemus into steps of conversion or a sinner’s prayer, he instead explains that Nicodemus actually has no access to “things heavenly.” It is not a matter of Nicodemus finding God or climbing into the heavenly chamber, since the Son of Man is the only one who has ever stood before God and it is by his coming below, not by Nicodemus’ rising above, that this New Birth is made possible. How then will the Son of Man effect this miraculous birth? By being lifted up, a reference to Numbers 21:8-9 where God commands Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole so that the disobedient Israelites suffering under the biting curse of venomous snakes could look to this foreshadowing of the Messiah and be saved. Promised to Adam and Eve as the one who would crush the serpent’s head, and in the wilderness lifted up symbolically as the life for all who look upon the sign in faith, Jesus would be lifted up physically on the Cross, where God’s justice and mercy would kiss for the eternal life of all who believe. This is why Paul says that we do not have to go up into the heavens to bring Christ down, but to simply hear the preached Word of the Gospel ( Rom. 10:6-15). It is also why our Lord, with Golgotha in sight, would pray, Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).

The Heidelberg Catechism puts it this way: “Since, then, faith alone makes us share in Christ and all his benefits, where does such faith originate? The Holy Spirit creates it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments” (Question 65). On one side, we are faced with the naturalist or Pelagian, who sees religion as little more than morality. A Christian is simply someone who has made a decision to submit to the life-style Jesus models. On the other side, we face the enthusiast, who sees religion in terms of private experience that requires no mediation through the preached Word, the truth of the Gospel proclaimed in clear doctrinal and historical terms. However these two types may seem contradictory, they both represent the “Nicodemus syndrome,” the desire to attain salvation by the flesh rather than to be given salvation by the Spirit. The liberal Protestant cannot see the kingdom of God because it is heavenly and things heavenly are regarded as simply out of bounds for real knowledge, while the enthusiast cannot see the kingdom of God because he or she insists on climbing up into heaven instead of receiving the Word who has come down to earth and is made known in earthy forms of ink and paper, human speech, water, bread and wine.

After leading off his famous Institutes with the quote cited in the beginning of this article, Calvin observes that it is impossible to contemplate self-identity apart from God. First, God is our Creator in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And yet, we can begin also with ourselves and before long we realize that we are not only created with amazing dignity, but sinking in “miserable ruin, into which the rebellion of the first man cast us.” “Thus,” writes Calvin, “from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and–what is more–depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone.” This leads us once more to contemplate God:

And we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves . . . Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy–this pride is innate in all of us–unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity.

Theology, not psychology; the external Word, not internal self-identity, must give us our definition. We are created, not self-creating; sinners, not innocent spirits; redeemed in Christ, not striving after our own selfhood.

So what does this have to do with the Protean self, the tendency we have described above? Actually, it has a great deal of relevance. First, the answer to the perpetual, anxious, and feverish process of constantly re-inventing our “self” is met with the realization that our self-identity is not something we achieve, but something we are given.

Either we are given our identity in Adam, our first representative, or we are given our identity in Jesus Christ, our “second Adam” and the head of the new humanity of those who are born from above. If we are only born from below (i.e., natural birth), we are lost. Furthermore, if we seek to be born again from within, we are lost. Genuine identity must come not from “self” but from “other”–that which is not self. Just as we do not possess identity in ourselves as human beings, instead receiving our identity by our relationships to other people, so too we have an identity as Christians only because of our relation to Christ as we share in his Body, the church.

As the New Birth–a cataclysmic, supernatural resurrection of the soul that is “dead in trespasses and sins”–comes from above, so too does the sanctification that grows out of that vital union with Christ. We are branches of the Vine, members of the Body, precious stones in the Temple , co-heirs with Christ: this is our identity, a gift. As we have all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ by virtue of being chosen in him, redeemed by him, and sealed in him by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:3-13), it is only by acknowledging and constantly embracing this vital union with Christ that our sanctification can replace the striving for self-identity whose very elusiveness has led to the postmodern crisis of selfhood. Instead of wearing new masks and feverishly transforming ourselves through multiple “rebirths,” or taking up new identities based on the icons and vain promises of mass marketing and consumerism, we give up ourselves and our pretended right to define ourselves. Instead of re-inventing our “self,” we die to self and are raised to new life in Christ. Crucified with him, we are raised with him in newness of life, forever changed.

There once lived a young man who, despite his Christian mother’s prayers, gave himself over to a life-style of debauchery and joined a mystical cult that involved “free love.” One day, as he was in his backyard, he overheard a child singing, “Take up and read, take up and read,” and it just so happened that the young man had recently picked up Paul’s epistles out of cursory interest. The book was opened to Romans 13:

“The hour has come for you to wake from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

Gripped by a sense of guilt and utter lostness, he who had found his identity in false religion and immorality turned in faith to Jesus Christ. Clothed in his lust for new experiences and unfettered liberty, he now could see nothing but bondage in himself and he clothed himself in Christ, accepting from the hand of another the gift of a new identity. That young man’s name, if you haven’t guessed by now, was Aurelius Augustinus, known to us as St. Augustine . Augustine left a life of error and license not because he acceded to his mother’s pious wishes, nor because he wanted to merit his way into eternal life. After all, he became the ardent foe of Pelagius and works-righteousness. Rather, it was because that which had seemed beautiful was now ugly; that which was attractive was repulsive; that in which he had claimed unlimited freedom he now regarded as insufferable bondage. Grace, that double-cure, promised him a way out, a way of escape from both sin’s guilt and power. The Bread of Life held out to him, Augustine was suddenly given a new way of seeing himself and his world that reoriented his entire self-understanding in a radical moment. Not all conversions, of course, are so abrupt and instantaneous, but the New Birth itself (the cause of conversion) is always abrupt and instantaneous. The Wind blows and the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame leap for joy.

It is that promise of new clothing–both justification and sanctification, a new standing and a new nature–that the Gospel holds out. As God renamed Jacob (“he who struggles for control”) Israel (“he struggles with God”), so he renames us in baptism. By losing our life we gain it. In the Revelation our Savior declares that his people are given the hidden manna of life everlasting. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (Rev. 2:17).

But the New Birth does not end the battle; it only begins it. Throughout our lives, the struggle is enormous as we battle against the constant pretensions of the flesh (i.e., our sinful identity in Adam), those life-styles, and assertions of selfhood that regard the Spirit as the enemy of freedom. In truth, the Holy Spirit liberates us to enjoy a clearly defined selfhood that is no longer in bondage to the Protean pursuit. At last, Proteus has been captured and chained, forced to appear as he really is, but instead of Proteus’ prophesying, it is God who prophesies or preaches, naming and identifying our true, alienated self and then freeing us to enjoy a new selfhood. It is an identity that is given to us from outside of ourselves, not one that is constantly re-invented from within; an identity that is firm, not constantly wandering aimlessly for a place of rest and purposeful existence; an identity that is eternal and not bound to the passing fads of this evil age. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on things below. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).

Notes:
1 Kenneth Gergen, “The Healthy, Happy Human Being Wears Many Masks,” in The Truth About Truth: De-confusing and Re-constructing the Postmodern World, ed. by Walter Truett Anderson (New York: Putnam, 1995), 136-44.
2 Robert Jay Lifton, “The Protean Self,” in The Truth About Truth: De-confusing and Re-constructing the Postmodern World, op. cit., 132.
3 Ibid., 135.


Dr. Michael Horton is the chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California . Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.).

 

*Italics and emphasis mine – EmmausTrekker

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Today’s reading is Ephesians 6:10-20 (ESV http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/search/?q=Ephesians+6%3A10-20 )

A quick overview of this section reminds us of the following things: (1) that the Christian is involve in a warfare, (2) that the warfare is spiritual wherein the controlling powers of darkness are unseen influencing the unbelieving world, (3) that the current inhabitants of this world are categorized in two groups only: those who are living in darkness and those who are living in the light of God.

  • Ephesians 2:1-3 gives us a preview of the life before conversion to Christ. We are influenced by the prince (ruler) of darkness resulting to a life of continual disobedience to God, carrying out every lust of the body and mind.
  • In contrast (Ephesians 5:6-16), the new life that God created in the person who is in Christ is described as walking in the light of God (v.8) displaying fruit in keeping with goodness, righteousness and truth (v.9), always discerning what is pleasing to the Lord (v.10), and do not have any part in the unfruitful work of darkness (v.11).

The link between light and life can be established in Psalm 36 and read verse 9, “For in You is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.”

  • Whenever God brings His truth to a person, only then will he realize his sin and his desperate need for God and His truth continually. You see, in Psalm 36:1-4, man apart from God is sinful in his heart, not fearful of God, and truly blind to the fact that he is a sinner who is wicked enough to think that evil itself is right (not rejecting evil, v.4).
  • Until God becomes the source of life, and shines His truth in our heart can we realize darkness resides within the very core of our being.  Paul writes in Romans 7:7 – if it were not for the Law, he would have not known that he is covetous!

And this God given life can only be received through Jesus Christ who said, “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). 

  • This declaration was prefaced by the narrative about the adulterous woman who was exposed by the Pharisees. She deserves to be stoned as required by the Law of Moses. But Jesus confronted all her accusers and exposed their sinful hearts because their original intention was to test Him, to find something to charge against Him (they were breaking the Law -“do not put the Lord your God to the test”!) They did not know that they are as sinful as the adulterous woman – they all deserve punishment.  Only when Jesus exposed them all (his silence to the charge against the woman proves that she is indeed guilty) did they begin to realize their condition – so it seems. His graciousness was revealed to all as well – – first, exposing the sin of the Pharisees was an act of grace (remember Romans 7:7 ?), and His forgiveness granted to the adulterer is also an act of His grace. You see, the light of God’s truth in Christ has its 2 effects: condemns the unrepentant (Pharisees) and draws the sinner unto repentance (the woman in a manner of contrast to the Pharisees).

Lastly, Ephesians 4:17 -20 tells us that the person living in the light of God’s truth progressively increases in his abandon of the old life as he learns on the forgiveness he receives in Jesus Christ. And more importantly, this new life is not man-made but a creative work of God (v.24) exhibiting true righteousness and holiness.

So you see my beloved brothers, there are two kinds of people in the world – those in the light and those in darkness; two kinds of rulers – God over the children of the light, Satan over the children of darkness, and two kinds of fruit – righteousness and truth for God’s people while disobedience and lust for the unregenerated. Two opposing kingdoms who will always be at war until all the enemies of Jesus Christ will be finally defeated in the Day of His return.  We are in a warfare against darkness and we need the full armor of God to protect us as the days become more evil.

Next: Part 2 – Last But Not The Least                https://emmaustrekker.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/panoply-series-part-2-last-but-not-the-least/

Previous: Panoply Series – Introduction (link below) https://emmaustrekker.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/panoply-series/

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