February 11, 2011
by Patrick Lafferty
Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."
It's a testimony to the significance of what's transpiring in Egypt that the world's typically inconstant attention remains transfixed there. Uprisings, like after-school brawls at the bike rack, always draw a crowd of witnesses. But the attraction lies not so much in the chaos in Cairo but in the order yet to come. Egypt, as many have said, is at a crossroads: Will she only replace one oppressiveness with another, or will she enter a new era of greater rights for all her citizenry? Will it be a regime redux or rebirth?
Natan Sharansky puts Egypt in context when he explains the primary reason for her turmoil. It centers on fear. Riffing on thoughts from his 2005 book, The Case for Democracy, the former dissident of the erstwhile Soviet empire argues that Egypt confronts two options for its future—whether it will exist as a "fear society" or a "freedom society." To determine the character of a society, Sharansky applies what he calls the "town-square test": Can anyone stand in a public setting and voice their critique of the government without fear of reprisal. Until recently, Egypt's citizenry had no such confidence their criticisms would be tolerated. But if her present ordeal yields a new kind of freedom to speak, Egypt will have been, in the eyes of many, reborn.
Mark introduced us to the Holy Spirit's work of rebirth in us last Sunday. Rebirth cannot be manipulated or fabricated. It is entirely a gracious act of God to awaken us to the truth of God's Son, to establish us as one of God's children, and to earmark us for God's eternal inheritance. So rebirth entails a transformation in what we believe and in what our future holds. But does it result in anything else—anything more palpable than a change in our doctrine and destiny?
In fact it does, and it centers on fear.
Like the rebirth that might occur in Egypt, rebirth by the Spirit of God through faith in the Son of God transforms our heart (sometimes just as difficult to change as a whole society) from fear to freedom. It changes the very structure of how we view and respond to reality. Rebirth begins at the foundational level, but then filters down into every aspect of our being—slowly and methodically over time, sometimes creating as much productive turmoil as what we've seen in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
What fears does the Spirit's rebirth free us from? To paraphrase John 3:16, the immeasurable love of God led Him to deliver His beloved Son for a sacrificial death on our behalf. If we should look to Jesus in faith that His work was sufficient to forgive our sin and establish us as God's child, not only shall we not taste eternal death, but by the Spirit, we will be unshackled from the very dread of death. Rebirth frees us from our deepest fear—the darkness of death.
But there's another fear from which rebirth delivers us—one associated with death but with us in life. Jesus explains that, "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." Next to death, our deepest fear in this life is being found unacceptable—scorned, rejected, or deemed worthless—by parents, peers, or some vague standard whose origins we can't quite discern. We may not be conscious of it but in the back of all our minds is the fear of condemnation by some measure we think really matters. Christ frees us from that condemnation in itself. Rebirth by the Spirit frees us from the existential fear of it.
So how do you know if you're living out the reborn life? Is there something like Sharansky's town-square test for the soul? John Newton may have found it in his description of the reborn life (with thanks to Justin Taylor for the find)
I am not what I ought to be.
Ah! how imperfect and deficient.
Not what I might be,
considering my privileges and opportunities.
Not what I wish to be.
God, who knows my heart, knows I wish to be like him.
I am not what I hope to be;
ere long to drop this clay tabernacle, to be like him and see him as He is.
Not what I once was,
a child of sin, and slave of the devil.
Though not all these,
not what I ought to be,
not what I might be,
not what I wish or hope to be, and
not what once was,
I think I can truly say with the apostle,
"By the grace of God I am what I am." (Letters of John Newton)
The reborn life does not deny its remaining corruption, but neither does it despair over it. It acknowledges the ever-present need for maturing in our rebirth, and the ever-present love of God who solicits and enables that maturing. A heart reborn does not try to recast death as something other than sorrowful, but it faces death with courage knowing it is not alone and with hope that the end signals, at last, a truer beginning.
The reborn life, above all, is free—free to see oneself as God sees us in Christ. But the effects of this freedom don't ultimately terminate on oneself. Such freedom compels us to love the Lord our God with our entirety, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. (It may even compel us to render aid to the progress of the Gospel in Egypt!)
Life presents innumerable crossroads for whether we'll live fearfully or freely. Take Newton's "test" to see if the Spirit must remind you of your rebirth. Do you refuse its comfort, or do you rest in the grace that renews your interest in representing Him in the world?