A New Birth; A New Longing
1Peter 1:1-5, 2:1-3
As the result of some playful sparring between denominations, Presbyterians have been given a not so flattering nickname. Because of our historical emphasis on God’s sovereignty in salvation, we are regarded, in some corners of the Christian faith, as ‘The Frozen Chosen’.
As we turn to the first letter of Peter, we shall soon see that Christians are indeed chosen. And, what we will also see is that there is no sense in which a Christian can be rightly described as ‘frozen’. If there be a person who could be described as frozen, in the sense that they make absolutely no gains in terms of godliness and Christian devotion, it should call into question whether the individual is truly called of God.
Now the argument for the ‘frozen chosen’ goes something like this: If God has predetermined who goes to heaven and who does not, what motivation is there to obey the Gospel? Those who make this argument completely misunderstand the nature of God’s choosing. God does not simply choose us in order to save us from condemnation. God chooses us in order to make us holy.
In verse 2 of chapter 1, Peter says that “(we) are chosen . . . so that (we) may obey Jesus Christ”. Paul tells the Ephesians much the same, stating that we were saved “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them”(Eph. 2:10).
Being a Christian then, involves a change. Being chosen, involves a transformation of one’s character. And the certainty of this transformation is grounded in the fact that God is behind it all.
God’s prominent role in our salvation is difficult to miss in Peter’s introduction: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance . . . reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God”(1:3-5).
Let us move backwards in this text now, beginning at verse 5. Our inheritance, our place in heaven, is reserved and protected by the power of God. Our place in heaven does not depend on our efforts, past, present, or future; if it did, our salvation would be in question down to the final minute. Assurance of our citizenship in heaven is not based on what we have done, but rather on what God has done through Jesus Christ.
Not the labours of my hands, can fulfill Thy laws demands;
Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow;
All for sin could not atone, Thou must save, and Thou alone.
As Jonah rightly exclaimed from the belly of the whale, “Salvation is from the Lord”(Jon.2:9). As the author of Hebrews reminds us, Jesus is “the author and the finisher of our faith”(Heb.12:2). And here, Peter is unequivocal in speaking about the origin of our salvation; it is God who “has caused us to be born again to a living hope” through Jesus Christ (1:3). And, if we probe even deeper, in order to see what triggers God causing our salvation, the answer we find is “His great mercy has caused us to be born again”.
Beloved, what do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘born again Christian’? Do you think of a group of fanatical Christians who approach the Christian faith a lot differently than you? Or, when you think of ‘born again Christian’ do you think of yourself?
For whatever reason, the phrase ‘born again Christian’ has been hijacked, and has become synonymous with Christianity's over-zealous fringe, rather than being regarded as a description for every Christian. Yes—every Christian. When Peter explains the necessity of being born again he is only echoing the words of Jesus, who warned Nicodemus, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).
To be born again, of course, implies a new existence; it implies a change. And one would think that a change as profound as new birth would be evident to the people around you. In other words, there should be compelling evidence confirming whether one is born again or not.
So the question is, what evidence is there to support the claim that I have experienced new birth in Christ?
We can think about the answer to that question by thinking about how we would answer someone who asked us about our natural birth. If someone asked me, ‘How do you know you were born?’, I would not reach into my wallet and produce my birth certificate. I would not feel compelled to introduce the questioner to my mother. I would simply answer, ‘Look at me. I breathe; I’m alive. That’s how I know I was born.’
So then, what is the evidence of new birth in Christ? Have a look at chapter 2, “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (2:1,2).
Peter has spent an entire chapter telling us about the nature of new birth. And now, with the word “Therefore”, he is alerting us to the implications of new birth. He is telling us about the kind of evidence that should be manifest in the person who has experienced new birth.
I could, I suppose, take some time and explain precisely what the Greek words for malice, guile, hypocrisy, and envy are, but I think you get the point. New birth causes, not only, a movement of faith towards Christ, but it also causes a movement away from our previous manner of living.
New birth causes us to change the way we think and behave. We should not need to carry our church membership certificate in our back pocket to verify our standing as a Christian. Our beliefs, and our behaviour, should be sufficient at demonstrating whether we have experienced new birth.
It should also be noted that new birth does not entail adding Jesus Christ to our existing belief systems and lifestyle. New birth implies a new existence. The Christian life requires that we abandon our previous belief systems and allow Christ, and His Word, to shape our beliefs. This is what we mean by the banner, ‘Sola Scriptura’—Scripture alone.
Thinking also about the radical change to our behaviour brought about by new birth in Christ, I was reminded of a challenge put to a congregation by a colleague of mine. This minister asked the congregation, ‘If it was a crime in this country to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’
By evidence, I’m not simply talking about being a caring and loving person, for there are many caring and loving people who are not Christians. Do not think that being committed to your family and friends is enough evidence either, for there are many non-Christians who could claim as much. The evidence required is evidence that manifests your devotion to Jesus Christ.
And what is one of the primary ways in which we express our devotion to Christ? Peter tells us, in chapter 2, “like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the Word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”
You see, the reason our beliefs change, the reason our behaviour changes, is because our longings change. Our longings change when we are born again.
Christians, recipients of new birth, long for the Word of God in a manner similar to the way newborn babies long for milk.
Some of you know that on Mondays, when Allie is working at Tyndale, I look after Anya. In the early days of fatherhood, I experienced some anxiety around being left alone with Anya and attending to her needs. Thankfully, Allie, in her gracious manner, would always provide me with clear instructions with regard to Anya’s feeding. On one Monday, however, no amount of instruction could have prepared me for what I was to endure.
After heeding the first cries of my baby girl I proceeded to give her 4 ounces of milk, which I had carefully heated. On the previous Monday, 4 ounces proved to be more than adequate—but not this Monday. As the bottle emptied, Anya let out a horrific-sounding scream. If she could have spoken, I imagined her yelling, ‘Dad, why are you torturing me?’
While holding screaming Anya in my one arm, I headed to the freezer to get the back-up milk supply. The two minutes it took me to get that milk warmed up felt like an eternity. When Anya got her second dose of milk, she was instantly content.
But why all the fuss?
I quickly learned that newborn infants don’t simply prefer things; they desperately desire things.
Do you see what Peter is saying here? It is not enough that we prefer the Bible to other books. It is not enough that we like and respect the Bible. Peter says that those who have experienced new birth should “long for the pure milk of the Word”.
Even Christians, unfortunately, do not always long for the Scriptures as we should. And because longing for the Word of God has such a critical role in our transformation, we need to, in a sense, learn how to get our longing back.
Peter helps us in this respect when he connects longing for the Word (2:2) and tasting the kindness of the Lord (2:3). What quickens our desire for reading the Word of God is tasting the Word of God.
Tasting is critical to creating, and fostering, desire. Advertisers understand this perfectly well. The slogan for Lays Potato Chips is, ‘Bet you can’t eat just one’. This principle is also true of Scripture. Reading the Bible is addictive when we begin to get the taste (Edmund Clowney).
As Christians, as individuals who have experienced new birth, it is imperative that we subdue inappropriate desires and foster healthy longings. And the best way to foster healthy longings is to taste.
I implore you: read the Scriptures. Taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). Amen.