You have been born again. You are a new creature. The old has gone, the new has come. You are no longer children of the dark, walk then as children of the light. I write this to you that you may know that you are children of God. And that is what you are!
The planting of the seed of righteousness in the heart of the believer at justification precedes regeneration as the dawn does the morning.
Regeneration is not separated from justification yet logically follows it. Just as the dawn is the first part of the morning, yet we know full blown morning is not the dawn. There is no clear dividing line between dawn and day. Once the son of God has begun to rise in the heart of the new believer regeneration has already begun its work.
Regeneration is the making new of the fallen sinful human. That which was thoroughly corrupted, completely given over to self and sin but for the grace of God is now being made new. Not only is the account wiped clean, not only is the barest sanctifying touch given, but all the soul is made new. It is the return to the spiritual womb by the aged soul. Back to the arms of the spiritual parent we return, for we know ourselves to be so tender and young as to need constant care.
This regeneration makes possible the living of the life of God. Though we are made new, that newness leaves us weak. Our spiritual legs may tremble. Our ability to travel far and long without help is nil. Our naiveté leads us into a multitude of unintentional mistakes and flaws. We do not even know we cross boundaries we should not cross. And yet we are so different as to be able to be called a new person. We are so fresh regenerated as to be teachable, plastic, moldable as a child is in the presence of adults.
What does this action of God reveal about the character of God?
- God focuses on organic growth
- God celebrates small beginnings
- God does not easily give up on humanity
I must admit I am treading on the ground of the systematic and dogmatic theologians. Hopefully they will not critique me too harshly. But each of these very simple insights into the character of God provide ethical and practical guides for the preacher.
1. Following God we aim for organic steady growth in the people.
I remember one of my first flop sermons as a staff pastor. I was young, fresh out of school, and felt a lot of pressure in two directions for preaching. First, I thought I had to be funny every time. Second, I thought lives had to change every time in visible ways. Why? Most of my spiritual formation had happened in the previous four years under the ministry of traveling preachers. They seemed to always fulfill both those expectations: shouldn’t I? My pastor, Rick Shockley, pulled me aside after my flop and asked me what a great batting average would be. I said 3 out of ten. “Preaching is like batting averages,” he replied “it’s he big picture that matters more than every sermon.” You don’t have to hit a home run every time.
It does not do a pastor’s soul any good to lay the expectations of a guest preacher or revivalist on the shoulders of the preacher. That would be to expect harvest before plowing. Pastors plow, sow seeds, apply fertilizer and pest deterrents, and in due time taste the fruit of their labor. But usually it is not the pastor who brings in an entire harvest. Some other person who migrates into the parishioner’s life at just the right time brings to fruition what pastors have long labored to achieve. If we can embrace that, rather than resent, it will free us.
2. Celebrate and shoot for small beginnings in the people’s lives.
Building on the first point above, preachers can greatly increase their sense of encouragement by working in the way God does. Things in God’s kingdom most often begin small and grow to produce. This is not only true for justification and regeneration but for new initiatives in church life, shifts in church culture, changes in communal hermeneutic, advocating for social change, and other efforts of the preacher. Even revival begins as a very small and almost unnoticeable spark in the lives of a devoted few. If you have a grand vision, imagine its small beginning and start there. When you see it first emerge, celebrate it.
3. Do not give up when signs of new life, new growth, new advance or new capacity are long in coming.
Have you ever been frustrated with the slow growth of a disciple? I have discipled people for years without seeing much life change. Some times it seems the disciple goes backwards before going forwards! The addict falls of the wagon. The violent one ends up back in jail. The promiscuous has another one night stand. Even more difficult the week after week preaching to people whose faces reveal these things while you preach to them. They are not receiving. They are not changing. They only nod and smile. That’s hard for a preacher.
God waits patiently for decades to bring some children back into the fold. So can we. God waited hundreds of years for Christian faith to be celebrated by any official human institution. We can wait a few years for our efforts to be celebrated by an outsider. In every endeavor there is the burst of inspiration, the excitement of new ideas, and the thrill of imagining others involvement. Then there emerges resistance, unexpected obstacles, and unanticipated personal costs.
God does not give up easily on humanity or persons or on his kingdom agendas. God persists, endures, and keeps luring and wooing his people forward. Though we will never have the same patience of God this side of an eternal perspective, we can resist the temptation to throw in the towel just because a sermon receives no response, or a new initiative announcement raises people’s ire, or an entire group of the church seems to exhibit little or no spiritual growth. Though the disciples were traveling from town to town and commanded to dust off their feet, Titus was told to remain in his post. More often than not, God asks us to move on when things are going well, not poorly. And God asks us to endure when things are going more slowly and painfully than we would like.
Preach like God and aim for small beginnings. Celebrate slow starts. Embrace patience as a primary virtue for preaching for life change. Eventually, regeneration will lead to growth, growth to surrender, surrender to holiness, holiness to lives worth having plowed a long row to bring to fruition.