Christmas is upon us, and the New Year is right around the corner. Gifts will be given and received and countless resolutions to change will be made. But the greatest gift was given a little over 2000 years ago, the gift of God’s very own Son, and with God’s gift comes the promise and power to be changed. With Jesus God sent the gift that just keeps on giving, to use a well-worn cliché. It keeps on giving year after year, really every moment of every day. It’s the gift of God’s grace. With Jesus God sent the world the gift of forgiveness, but that’s not all. That same gift of grace in Jesus Christ is not only forgiveness but also new birth that comes with a brand new life. Yet it seems that many, including me at one time in my life, from what’s called the conservative to the liberal end of the Christian spectrum, would rather just have the forgiveness without the new birth and the new life that goes along with it.
Just the other day, I caught a clip on a documentary about corrupt dictators who launder and shelter money in shell companies in order to hide who the money really belongs to and how it is being used. The program was called “Filthy Rich” on CNBC. A guy in Nevada admitted that he set up these types of organizations for a fee and would even sign his own name as the head of these organizations to allow the real owner to remain anonymous. It wasn’t long into the interview before the man became obviously uncomfortable trying to explain the morality of what he was doing, although he had no problem explaining the legality. What he is doing is perfectly legal in Nevada, apparently. Nonetheless, legal and moral aren’t always in harmony. At one point, it seemed in order to assuage his ever-increasing sense of shame, he retorted something to the effect of, “Well, I’m a Christian and we’re all sinners,” as if this somehow gave him an excuse for committing willful sin, even if it was mainly being willfully ignorant of the possible nefarious activities that he is probably aiding and abetting for a fee. Sometimes we just want the forgiveness without letting go of our pleasurable and/or profitable sin, but it just doesn’t work that way.
To use another Biblical metaphor, it’s like someone expecting forgiveness while continuing to walk on the wide road that Jesus says leads to destruction (Matt 7:13-14). In other words, it’s the false assurance of being able to enjoy the benefits of being with God while walking faster and faster in the opposite direction away from Him. In Christ God offers us the gift of forgiveness, but we have to let go of sin that is pulling us toward oblivion and turn around (that’s what the word “repent” means) to receive it. When we do we also receive new birth, which John Wesley called the gate to sanctification (Sermon 45 The New Birth IV:3). Sanctification is the journey of growth into “the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13 NRSV).
Like forgiveness, the new birth is also a gift of God. It’s not something we do to or for ourselves. It’s something that happens to us, it’s a change wrought in our hearts and souls by the Spirit of God. Through it we become a new person, a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:17), with different passions and desires, different affections and thoughts, new hopes and dreams, a whole new way of thinking and living in the world. As a matter of fact, we become foreigners to this world because we become citizens (Philp 3:20) of a new world, the age to come, the new Jerusalem in the New Heaven and Earth (Rev 21:1-8). This new world already started breaking into this world with the birth of its King, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.
The good news is not just that God loves us just the way we are, but that God loves us enough to save us from the very things that destroy us and others and society around us. He sets us free from the desires that lead to our own hurt, no matter how good, right, or natural they may feel. In their place He gives us new desires, desires to do his will. Yet we can’t receive any of this while holding on to sin. We have to let it go and turn away from it with God’s help, what we Methodists call prevenient grace.
In the eyes of the world, some of our friends and relatives, and possibly even in the eyes of our churches or denominations it will appear that we have lost our minds. Indeed, we have! We lose our minds, the old mind of the flesh which won’t allow us to please God by submitting to His moral law and is in fact hostile toward God (Rom 8:7-8), but we gain the mind of Christ! As a result we can say along with the apostle Paul, “I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:19-20).
Seeking and expecting new birth from above with all its corresponding fruit is the antidote for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” in his classic book, “The Cost of Discipleship.” New birth comes as a gift of grace along with forgiveness on the heels of a death, the death of our old sinful self that has been steeped in the profligate ways of a fallen world that is governed by insatiable lust for sensual pleasure and amusement and led by pride and self-promotion (1 John 2:15-16). The new birth is the gateway to the narrow way and it comes with a cross by which we are to deny ourselves every day (Luke 9:23). We must crucify the remnant of our old selves daily. We must take off the old self with it rebellious, selfish practices and put on our new self, the renewed image of God in us (see Col 3). This too is the gift of Christ, the power to put off the old and put on the new, the power to become more and more like Jesus, as we work out our own salvation by the power of God that is at work within us (Philp 2:12-13). Christ didn’t come to make us more comfortable with who we are, but to enable us to become something more than we could ever become on our own. It’s a gift, a glorious gift, but it’s a gift that has to be received through faith. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12).
God through Christ, through His broken body and shed blood, through the cleansing and regenerating flood of Baptism, and through the renewal of and by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), gives us the power to become “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20). This is real and it is wonderful, but it is not part of an either-or proposition where we can opt for forgiveness without the change. It’s not an option, it a requirement to be able to see and enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “You must be born anew from above” (John 3:7). This is the gift of God in its fullness, and it comes with the promise of continuing grace for growth into “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). It is the gift that keeps on giving in the process of sanctification as we are transformed into greater and greater degrees of glory (2 Cor 3:18) until we find ourselves glorified with Christ in the resurrection of the righteous and for all eternity as we enjoy fellowship with God and the people of God forever.
Because we are born in sin, we must be born again. But, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9), one may say. “I can’t turn around because sin’s hold is too strong” “I can’t break free!” No you can’t, but sin’s grip has already been broken, and it wasn’t by you or me. It was Jesus, the Christ. It is he who “breaks the power of canceled sin and sets the prisoner free” (Charles Wesley, United Methodist Hymnal # 57, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”). So wake up and realize who is really holding who. Let go! Let go! Turn away, and:
“Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and Life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild be lays his glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth” (Charles Wesley, United Methodist Hymnal # 240, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”).
“Thanks be to God for his ineffable gift!”(2 Cor 9:15).