Results tagged “Regeneration” from Reformation21 Blog

In scholastic theological discourse, 'moral suasion' and 'physical influence' represent two different ways of getting someone to do something. If my goal were, say, getting my four-year-old daughter to the dinner table, I might employ 'moral suasion' by promising her that she'd find her favorite dish when she arrived there, or by simply threatening her with consequences for refusing to follow my instructions to cease and desist from playing and join us for supper. I might, alternatively, employ 'physical influence' by simply picking her up, compliant or not, and carrying her to the table.

This distinction finds expression, among other places, in the Synod of Dort's explanation for how God brings his elect to faith and repentance. "God," the Canons of Dort argue, "not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to [the elect] outwardly, ... [but] also penetrates into the inmost being, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. God infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant."

The Divines at Dort described God's act of 'physical influence' upon the will in such terms to counter semi-Pelagians who professed that divine grace precedes every positive movement of the human will towards salvation, but -- when pressed -- were forced to admit that by 'grace' all they really meant was God inviting, threatening, pleading with, and otherwise attempting to suade [sic] sinners to embrace the Gospel. The underlying assumption of such persons was that sinners retain sufficient freedom of the will to respond positively to the Gospel when it is properly set before them. Grace in such a semi-Pelagian scheme need not entail any actual influence upon the will, and -- correspondingly -- remains something which can be resisted by those whom it confronts.

Though Luther never employs the exact terms I've outlined above ('moral suasion' vs. 'physical influence'), I believe this distinction lies at the heart of the difference he posits, in his Bondage of the Will, between God's work of regenerating those whom ultimately believe and God's work of hardening those whom ultimately perish in unbelief.

So enslaved, in Luther's perspective, is every human person's will to that human person's sinful nature -- i.e., so enslaved is every person's will to sin (cf. John 8.34) -- that Luther, though admitting that people sin freely and under no compulsion, is reluctant to attribute 'free choice' to sinners at all. For sinners to exercise faith in Christ, then, requires a divine act of physical influence upon their wills. "The ungodly does not come even when he hears the Word [moral suasion], unless the Father draws and teaches him inwardly [physical influence], which He does by pouring out the Spirit. There is then another 'drawing' [namely, one of physical influence] than the one that takes place outwardly [i.e., that of moral suasion]; for then" -- that is, when God employs his Spirit to bring someone to faith -- "Christ is [so] set forth... that a man is rapt away to Christ with the sweetest rapture, and rather yields passively to God's speaking, teaching, and drawing than seeks and runs himself."

For Luther, as for the Divines at Dort, 'moral suasion' and 'physical influence' coincide in the work of regeneration -- "it has thus pleased God to impart the Spirit, not without the Word, but through the Word" -- but the latter is utterly indispensable to any right response to the Gospel. Elsewhere Luther describes this "inward" work of God upon the will thus: "If God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, ... willing and delighting in and loving the good just as before it willed and delighted in and loved evil."

But Luther employs decidedly different language when he discusses God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart (and the hearts of all who die in final unbelief) in Exodus 9:12 (cf. Romans 9:17-18): "[God] provoked [Pharaoh] and increased the hardness and stubbornness of his heart by thrusting at him through the word of Moses, who threatened to take away his kingdom and withdraw the people from his tyranny, without giving him the Spirit inwardly but permitting his ungodly corrupt nature under the rule of Satan to catch fire, flare up, rage, and run riot with a kind of contemptuous self-confidence."

In other words, God hardened Pharaoh's heart through an act of 'moral suasion' alone. God confronted Pharaoh with a word which required Pharaoh to give up something he held dear, and in so doing provoked Pharaoh to cling more tightly to that very thing. Luther again explains: "It is thus [God] hardens Pharaoh, when he presents to his ungodly and evil will a word... which that will hates -- owing of course to its inborn defect and natural corruption. And since God does not change it inwardly by his Spirit, but keeps on presenting and obtruding his words... from without, ... the result is that Pharaoh is puffed up and exalted by his own imagined greatness, ... and is thus hardened and then more and more provoked and exasperated the more Moses presses and threatens him."

Thus God "hardens" all who are exposed to the Word without a corresponding work of God's Spirit to bring them to faith and repentance: "This provocation of the ungodly, when God says or does to them the opposite of what they wish, is itself their hardening or worsening. For not only are they in themselves averse through the very corruption of their nature, but they become all the more averse and are made much worse when their aversion is resisted or thwarted." In Luther's judgment the Gospel proves the ultimate "provocation of the ungodly," because it calls sinners to abandon their most prized possession -- their own self-righteousness.

This basic difference between God's act of hardening (through 'moral suasion') and God's act of softening (through 'moral suasion' and 'physical influence') human hearts should be carefully noted. It reminds us, among other things, that God is not the author of corrupt nature or sinful human acts as such. If, in fact, God hardened human hearts in some way analogous to how he softens them -- by an act of physical influence upon them -- Scripture's claim that God is "too pure" even to "look upon sin" (much less to be the culpable cause of sin) might seem to ring hollow. Persons who, like the Divines at Dort, accept with Luther the biblical truth that God has in fact predestined some (undeserving) sinners to eternal life (accomplishing their salvation in time) and predestined other (deserving) sinners to eternal death (accomplishing, in a fundamentally different way, there condemnation in time) would do well to articulate the difference in how God ultimately achieves those respective ends with as much precision and care as Luther.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Well, what do you know...

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In Col 3:10, the apostle Paul describes one of the most stunning aspects of the Spirit's re-creative work in uniting us by faith to the risen Christ. In that verse, we read that the natural man is, by that Spirit, suddenly and irrevocably "renewed in knowledge after the image of Him who created him." 

This raises a key question: what does it mean to be "renewed in knowledge"?  Hodge answers admirably by clarifying the significance of the Greek preposition: "This renovation is said to be εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν, not in knowledge, much less by knowledge, but unto knowledge, so that he knows. Knowledge is the effect of the renovation spoken of" (Systematic Theology, 2:99). This is a renewal that issues in knowledge, a newfound knowledge that that is altogether true because it reflects the mind of God ("after the image of Him who created him").  In short, it is a God-given knowledge that self-consciously relates all created things to the God who gives this world its meaning and purpose.  

Prior to our fellowship with Christ, we knew things (and for some of us, many things) only so well, and in spite of our sinful impulse to deny the beauty and coherence of this dazzling theater of divine glory. But now in Christ we are enabled to see the world for what it really is and seek to live accordingly.  As Hodge goes on to say, "The knowledge here is not mere cognition. It is full, accurate, living, or practical knowledge" (ibid., 100). It is the kind of Spirit-fueled knowledge that qualifies the Christian to judge all things rightly (1 Cor 2:15), especially the goodness and majesty of God in Christ (John 17:3). As Francis Schaeffer might say, it is a true knowledge of true truth.

Lest the postmoderns pounce, we must be clear that such saving epistemic renewal in no way derives from an autonomous appropriation of self-evident principles, nor does it transform Christians into paragons of genius.  But neither does it lead to wimpish shoulder-shrugging as we blissfully affirm one other's ignorance!  Rather, by this epistemic recreation in the Christian the Spirit infallibly and progressively opens to him the infinite implications of Christ's triumph as far as the curse is found (John 16:13), resulting in deepening praise and increasing humility in the hearts of those who bow before the One who is Truth itself (John 14:6). Contrary to the shifting winds of our hyper-hermeneutical age, we can indeed have certainty concerning the things taught by the Spirit (Luke 1:4; cf. Acts 2:36). 

With such truth in mind (!), I heartily recommend listening to a recent chapel message by Dr. James Anderson of RTS-Charlotte and wonderfully titled, "The Atheist's Guide to Intellectual Suicide".  In this crisp, 30-minute message, Dr. Anderson very helpfully unpacks the biblical teaching that the atheist's denial of God's self-revelation is, as Dr. Anderson provocatively puts it, "the philosophical equivalent of lopping your head off". In fact, to the extent an atheist still speaks, he shows himself not only to be intellectually moribund, but self-contradictory as well.  Don't believe it?  Have a listen for yourself!  While I might quibble with Dr. Anderson's language of common sense (preferring instead the language of common grace) your time will be well spent.