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04. Regeneration and Victory

Chapter 4

Regeneration and Victory

True and False Assurance

Many people have serious doubts about their own spiritual condition, and so they ask, “Am I regenerate? Have I been born again? Am I a true Christian?” It comes back to the same basic question: What is a Christian? Or what is regeneration?

According to Scripture, a Christian is someone who has been born anew as a “newborn babe” (1Pet.2.2) in Christ; he or she now has a new life in Christ and is a new person in him.

That being so, how can I know that I have been born anew or that I am a true Christian?

We have two ways of handling the problem of assurance. The first way is to declare dogma­tically that everything is okay simply by the fact that we have believed in Jesus at some point in the past. So we easily close our eyes to our true spiritual condi­tion.

The other way is to be spiritual realists who evaluate our own spiritual condition boldly and honestly, and candidly look at the evidence as to whether we are true disciples of Jesus. If the evidence is lacking, or if nothing indicates that we have been born again, then to stake a claim on assurance without a corresponding life quality would make us, of all men, most to be pitied. Christians of this kind must be the most wretched and self-deceived people who have ever walked on the face of the earth. Thinking that you have something when you don’t really have it, is the ultimate self-delusion.

But if you see in your own life the evidence of regeneration, or if the Holy Spirit is obviously working in your life, then you have grounds for assurance. Moreover, these are not merely experiential but also Scriptural grounds for assurance.

1. God Always Leads Us in Triumph

Instead of focusing on one particular Bible passage, let us deal with this subject that spans the New Testament by looking more widely into the Scriptures. We begin with 2 Corinthians 2.14:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of him in every place.

A quality or characteristic of the life in Christ is seen in the statement that God “always leads us in triumph”. The “always” makes it clear that this is not an incidental or occasional experience in the Christian life, but something which characterizes it. So it serves as a touchstone, a standard, or a gauge, to test if we are Christians in the New Testament sense. Do we echo with these words or do they sound foreign to us? Perhaps even preposterous, given our defeated Christian lives?

Do our lives spread “the sweet aroma” of Christ? A defeated Christian has no fragrance to spread. What he might spread instead is a miasma, a foul, poisonous odor of the old self-centered nature. The “old man” tries to conceal his spiritual miasma under a liberal sprinkling of the man-made perfume of niceness or even natural charm.

But the kind of fragrance that Paul talks about is the sweet fragrance in Christ of a sacrificial life that triumphs in every situation. The Greek word that he uses here for “aroma” (osmē) is a word that is used frequently in the Greek Old Testament (known as the LXX or Septuagint) for the fragrance or aroma that comes from the burning of the sacrifices offered to God on the altar. The word is used 19 times in Leviticus (1.9,13,17, etc.), and 20 times in Numbers (15.3,7,10, etc). Paul uses it also with reference to Christ in Ephesians 5.2:

And walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.

Paul also uses “aroma” in Philippians 4.18 to refer to a sacrificial love-gift which the Philippian Christians, who were extremely poor, insisted on giving to him.

Now, if being victorious in Christ is a constant and ongoing char­acteristic of the Christian life, it follows that the fragrance which flows from it is also a characteristic of the new life. These, then, provide a yardstick by which to measure our Christian lives. It becomes clear that victory is a fundament­al mark of the regenerate person. And with it comes a fragrance that glorifies God.

2. Paul’s Appeal to His Own Life

Nowadays we tend to think there are two kinds of Christian: victorious Christians and defeated Christians. Defeated Christians are also Christians, albeit of a lower class than victorious Christ­ians. Because victory remains elusive to most people, we somehow accept the notion of a “defeated” Christian even though the idea is foreign to Scripture.

Whenever some churches questioned if Paul was preach­ing the true gospel, Paul would do one thing to reassure them. What was it? Did he wave his seminary degree or proclaim his evangelical position? No, he simply told them to look at his blameless, trium­phant life in Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 2.10, for example, he said, “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blame­less we were among you who believed.”

Whenever his apostleship or message was being challenged, time and again he would point to his own life as the evidence of his genuine­ness. “You know what manner of men we are. Have we taken advan­tage of anyone? Have we defrauded anyone? Look at our blameless lives. There is the evidence of our genuineness.” See Acts 20.33; 2 Cor.7.2.

How many Christians would dare use this as a test of their own genuineness? It is what we are, not what we say, that speaks power­fully and convincingly. We can say what we like about ourselves, but the only evidence that counts is what we are. Do the people who live and work with us notice a fragrant Christ-like aroma about us, or do they plead with God for strength to put up with us?

We recognize, of course, that there are stages of spiritual growth. Young Christians may do wrong things in their ignorance and immat­urity, and not necessarily out of sinful intent. Paul often had to say to the spiritually immature, “Do you not know?” (14 times in Paul’s letters; 10 times in 1Corinthians, and 6 times in 1Corin­thians 6 alone). Young Christians are ignorant of certain things, and we need to be patient with them if their heart is right even though they may slip occasion­ally. Long-time Christians cannot, however, appeal to spiritual infancy as an excuse for wrongdoing, or for their failure to live a victor­ious life that holds up to examination.

Perhaps for this reason many people are afraid of communal living. It is far easier to hide ourselves in a private corner than to participate in communal living where people can observe us from morning to night. That is the ultimate test. In church we can put up a front for a few hours, but in communal living, we cannot be on our guard day in and day out. Our true self will emerge sooner or later.

3. Not the Eradication of Sin but Victory over Sin

In an earlier chapter, I said that holi­ness in the Christian is not the eradication of sin. Even if a person is holy or perfect according to Scriptural standards, that doesn’t mean that the flesh doesn’t entice him to sin, or that the world has no attraction for him, or that Satan wouldn’t try his best to tempt him. Holiness is not the eradication of the flesh’s sinful inclination within us. What it does mean is that we triumph day in and day out, moment by moment, by God’s grace. His grace is sufficient for us to overcome the inclination to sin. If we say that we have no sin or any inclination to sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 John 1.8). Everyone has the inclination to sin. But God “always”—not occasion­ally—leads us in triumph by the Holy Spirit.

Living in constant defeat, many Christians find no real spiritual and qualitative change in their lives since the time they made their profession of faith. There is nothing significantly new in their lives, nothing which they or others could see as a trans­formation, or at least the beginnings of a transformation.

Looking at their own baptism, that too appears to them to be little more than an external ritual without real spiritual content. Not wanting to remain in defeat, they want to get their spiritual foundation in proper order. They want to get back to the beginning and, by God’s grace, put things right. They now recall that Scripture says, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mk.16.16). Faith precedes baptism. It is faith that makes baptism meaning­ful. Without faith, baptism is reduced to an empty ritual. In Scripture, it is the person who believes who is baptized. This is seen consistently in the book of Acts:

But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he con­tinued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done. (Acts 8.12,13)

Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he com­manded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. (8.36-38)

Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us. (16.14,15)

Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized. (18.8)

There is also the remarkable account in Acts 10.47,48 where the Gentile believers who had received the Holy Spirit were baptized:

“Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

The defeated Christian who longs for the victorious life will find himself struggling with questions such as: Do I have faith? Did I have faith when I was baptized? If I did have some sort of faith, was it the faith we read about in Acts 8.37, “If you believe with all your heart,” namely, a totally committed faith in Jesus? If these questions cannot be answered in the affirmative, then clearly one is left without assurance and with a troubled conscience: Are we still in our sins? How could we be free from sin if we have never died to it? And how could we have died to it if we have never been, by faith, united with Christ in his death through baptism? And how would we dare enter into death without a faith that is “with all your heart,” that is, totally com­mitted? The apostle Paul touches on all these questions in Romans 6.1-4:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

4. Should I Be Re-baptized?

Many people have doubts as to whether they have truly been born again. The request for rebaptism is usually a consequence of that uncer­tainty. Often the person would question his or her sit­uation in this way: “Should I be re-baptized, seeing that I am now prepared to make a commitment which I didn’t make in the past, or which I made only partially? When I was baptized, the pastor said nothing about total commitment, so my understanding of faith was rather woolly. I thought that believing in Jesus was simply a matter of accepting some doctrines, namely, that he went to the cross, that he died for my sins, that he rose again. I accepted all this, intell­ectually at least. But I didn’t understand faith in terms of a total commitment of my heart, so I now doubt the validity of my baptism. I am now ready to be totally committed. Should I be re-baptized?”

It is tragic that these questions should arise in the first place, because it is the responsibility of every church and every pastor to explain what is involved in baptism. Of course, even if we make everything clear, we cannot plug all the loopholes. Some people make a profession of total commit­ment insincerely, and there is not much we can do about it.

(1) The Analogy of a Legal Document

Should you be re-baptized? It is like asking, Should you repeat a vow that you have made? Baptism is a vow, much like a marriage vow, in which you say “Yes” to God. According to 1 Peter 3.21, it is a “pledge[13] of a good conscience toward God” (NIV).

Baptism can be compared, therefore, to the giving of a pledge or the signing of a legal document. After signing the legal document, do you sign it again? Would signing it twice make the document more effective and binding? Repeating your signature does not, of course, enhance the validity of the document. That you signed it once already makes it a legal and binding document.

An important related question is: What exactly did you sign? Let’s suppose the document had said, “I herewith and from this day on, finish totally with my old way of life, and henceforth acknowledge, without reserve, Jesus as my Lord and King, and commit myself totally to him. Signed, ________.”

When you signed the declaration, maybe you didn’t fully understand the terms “commit” or “Lord” or “King”. But you signed it anyway. In a court of law, is that document valid or not? Of course it is. Once you sign it, the document is valid and binding.

If later on you begin to understand more fully what the lordship and kingship of Christ means, would your fuller understanding mean that you should sign the document again? Would that enhance the validity of the document? Obviously not. In other words, if at bap­tism you made a vow to the Lord—signing a legal document, as it were—pledging to accept Christ’s lordship and kingship, and to com­mit totally to him, would the validity of that document be enhanced by your deeper understand­ing of its contents? Would re-baptism make that vow more complete? Surely not. Re-baptism would not make a difference, any more than signing a document a second time.

(2) The Contents of the Document

But a problem could arise when we come to the con­tents of the document. Suppose that in “signing” your baptismal “document” you did not pledge anything about Christ’s kingship or lordship, or about finishing with the old way of life. You now have a problem because you have never com­mitted yourself. The problem lies not so much in the signing of the document, but in its contents. If your baptism was simply an induction into church membership, then all you have really signed for is membership in the local church. And if you later understand what total commitment is, namely, that God will be Lord of your whole life, you clearly run into a problem: Is your baptism valid?

So the crucial question is: What did you “sign” at your baptism? What did you commit yourself to? What, if anything, did you pledge to the Lord? Many people have never made any commitment at baptism, or were never asked to.

Perhaps you didn’t even have time to prepare for your baptism. If the baptismal service was held in the evening and you were only informed about it in the afternoon, then your 100-meter dash to the baptismal pool would have given you virtually zero preparation time.

What, then, did you “sign,” pledge, or say “yes” to? If you had pledged nothing, or didn’t even know what you pledged, then you have a problem of conscience. The question of the validity of your baptism comes to the fore. Would to God that pastors or evangelists not be superficial, careless, and at times even irresponsible, in administer­ing baptism.

(3) Signing a Legal Document with Wrong Motives

Here is an actual case that happened recently: A person was baptized in our church knowing all the conditions of baptism, but his commitment was insincere. He got baptized because his friends were getting baptized. God recently convicted him of his insincerity, and he repented of his attitude.

In this particular case, it was not I but another pastor who did the interviewing and baptizing. In the interview, the person gave insincere answers to the questions asked by the pastor. Now he confesses his insincerity. Is his baptism valid?

If you signed a legal document out of wrong motives, does that diminish the validity of the document? If someone signed away all his property for no good reason, would this nullify the document in a court of law? Could he plead before the judge, “I signed it for the wrong reasons, blindly following my friends’ advice. Could I be re­leased?” You already know how the judge will answer: “No, you are still bound by the docu­ment. You signed it, and it remains legal and valid. Your motives are irrelevant. That you signed it is the only matter of legal significance.”

(4) Your Vow to the Lord Stands

If you have pledged total commitment to God, that pledge is binding even if you were insincere about it. God will hold you to account for it. This principle is seen in the striking example of Jeph­thah who made a hasty vow to Yahweh God, to offer as a burnt offering whatever will come out of his house to greet him after he defeats the Ammonites. He came to regret his vow, because it was his only child who came out to meet him (Judges 11.31-40). Foolish and careless though it was, his vow had to be carried out irrespective of his motives and intentions. Any pledge made to God is binding, and we are held accountable for it. It important that we understand this.

Therefore Christians are bound by their baptismal vows, even if they are still unregenerate. Irrespective of their motives were, they made their pledge and were baptized. But being unregenerate, they are now unable to fulfill their vows.

If that is your situation, then at the judgment God will hold you liable for what you have committed yourself to. He will judge you for failing to fulfill your vow. It would have been better not to have taken the step of baptism, than having taken it not to live as a true believer, for God will judge us by our actions and our words (Mt.12.36,37).

If anyone professes to be a Christian, God will judge him or her as a Christian. Don’t profess to be a Christian unless you are willing to be a genuine one, because God will judge you as a Christian even if you don’t live like one. That is, He will judge you by the higher standard of being a Christian.

Therefore please don’t get baptized unless you understand this point, for to be baptized without regeneration means that you are obliged to live according to the requirements of the New Covenant (the New Testament) yet without the new life in Christ and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. You have committed yourself to live according to the New Covenant standard, but without the power to fulfill it. As a result, you will be in constant breach of the covenant, and in a perpetual state of guilt. I beg of you, do not play around with the living God. “For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb.12.29). Notice carefully that these words are addressed to Christians.

If you are an unregenerate Christian, then, if God is merciful to you, He will give you a bad time in order to bring you to repentance. Otherwise, what you will face at the judgment will be beyond imagination. God has no patience with liars. To have made a vow and not keep it is to have lied to God. Acts 5.1-11 records what happened to Ananias and Sapphira when they lied to God. They lied to Him over one seemingly small thing—the prop­erty they sold—and He dealt with them severely. It was a warning to the church not to make vows that will not be kept. God is a God of holiness and of truth. He has no patience with liars, though He has pity on those who make a genuine effort yet fail because of weakness.

According to Revelation 21.8, murderers and sorcerers and idolaters and “all liars” will be cast into the “lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death”. No liars will be found in the heavenly city. Who are liars but those who, for example, make a profession of allegiance to God at baptism and don’t keep it? This is frightening! The God whom I know is the living God, and I plead with you from the depths of my heart to walk truthfully with Him.

As for those who were insincere at baptism: If you were fully informed that your baptism involved the absolute lordship of God whereby God will come into your life as your Lord and King, then your baptism is valid irrespective of your motives.

Those who were baptized as infants run into a serious com­plication here. Baptism is a pledge to God of a good conscience (1 Peter 3.21), and babies certainly cannot make any kind of pledge; nor is the question of a good conscience applicable to infants. More­over, in the New Testament, repentance and faith—things that infants also cannot do or have—precede baptism. How then can infant baptism can be valid?[14]

However, being intolerantly dogmatic doesn’t help matters in the church of God. Therefore if anyone who was baptized as an infant thinks that his baptism is valid, that is a matter between himself and God. It is left to his conscience, for which he must answer to the Lord. It is not up to us to insist on re-baptism. But he will do well to carefully consider whether there is any basis in God’s Word for his baptism.

If you are considering re-baptism, try to recall what you pledged, if anything, at your baptism. What did you say to God? If you pledged total commitment to Him, your baptism stands. This holds true even if you did not use the term “total commitment” but you understood baptism to mean death to the old way of life and enter­ing a new life in which God is Lord. Your baptism remains valid, and re-baptism is unnecessary.

If you have de jure (publicly, i.e. before witnesses, formally, or “legally”) committed yourself to God, but have not de facto (in fact) lived as a true Christian, you need to ask whether you are really born again. We don’t teach baptismal regeneration, that is, we don’t teach that baptism in itself can regenerate a person, because that would be to ascribe magical powers to baptism. When you receive baptism, that baptism does not automatically regenerate you. Regeneration is the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life when you open your heart totally to God.

Therefore baptism and regeneration can be two separate events, and very often they are. You may have been baptized (and are thereby bound by the requirements of the New Covenant), and you may want to claim the privileges of the New Covenant granted to those who live by its obligations. But if you have not been born anew, you will be unable to live by the terms of the Covenant, that is, to live as a true Christian. You will be so utterly defeated by sin, the flesh, and the powers of darkness, that you will very soon give up in frustration if you really try to be a true Christian despite not having been regenerated. If spiritual defeat and frustration is your usual exper­ience, you have good reason to ask whether you are regenerate or not.

However, if your regeneration took place some time after your bap­tism, your baptism could, nevertheless, be valid. (See prev­ious discussion and the Additional Note at the end of this chapter.)

5. Evidence of Regeneration

Let us consider the signs of regeneration, and see whether they are true in your Christian life. If these signs are not evident in your life, you have good reason to doubt whether you have been born again, and whether you are a true Christian according to the Scriptural definition of “Christ­ian”.

The Unregenerate Man is a Slave of Sin

If you are a non-Christian or a nominal Chris­tian (as opposed to a true Christian), how would you describe your spiritual situation? From your own experience, you would know that you are in bondage to sin. That is what Romans 7 is all about. In verse 14 Paul says, “We know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.”

The term “sold into bondage to sin” comes from the vocabulary of slavery. Slaves were sold into bondage. Likewise, humankind has come under “bondage to sin”. Our sins have brought us under sin’s dominion; we are slaves of sin. Romans 7.15-19 sums up the situation:

I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate … No longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is pre­sent in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.

Paul repeatedly says we are still able to “will” what is good. If that were not so, presumably you would not be reading this book about becoming a new person in Christ. You know what is right, and you earnestly want to do it, but you find yourself powerless to do it.

That is why we must be careful with the term “the bondage of the will”. The will is not in bondage in the sense of being incapable of willing what is good. “Bondage of the will” is a misleading term because the will, as Paul tells us, is not under bondage in the sense of being unable to will what is good. The real problem lies not in the willing, but in the doing of what is willed. The will is in bondage only in the sense that it is unable to do the good that it wills. This is different from an absolute and total bondage of the will. The will is still free in the important sense of being able to desire the good.

The same passage says that we do the evil that we don’t want to do. This again stresses the fact that the evil that we do is contrary to our will. It is not really we who are doing the evil, but sin which indwells us. The indwelling sin enslaves us and compels us.

The mark of the unregenerate man is that he cannot do what is right. For example, you know that patience is good, but were you able to implement it? No, because somebody opens his mouth and you become irritated. You try to suppress your anger and work up some love, but you cannot help but be angry. Is that your experience? If you cannot refrain from doing evil despite your intention to do good, that is a sure sign that you are still under bondage to sin. You have not yet exper­ienced regeneration whereby God’s power comes in and sets you free.

Regeneration: Four Aspects of Being Victorious

(1) Overcoming Sin

“If therefore the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8.36). Have you ever exper­ienced the Lord setting you free? If not, how are you any different from a non-Christian? He is in bondage to sin and you are in bondage to sin. Many Christians are different from non-Chris­tians only in name.

Victory over sin is the mark of the regenerate man, whereas bondage to sin is the mark of the unregenerate man. Paul expounds this fully in Romans 8. But even before that, in Romans 6, he repeat­edly says that we are no longer under the dominion of sin, as we see in the following excerpts:

We should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin (vv.6,7). Consider your­selves dead to sin but alive to God (v.11). Do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts (v.12). Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace (v.14). You are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteous­ness (v.16). You were slaves of sin (v.17). Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness (v.18). Having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the out­come, eternal life (v.22).

If we are not controlled by sin, sin cannot compel us to do something against our will. Because Christ has set us free, our will is free to do what is right in God’s eyes. It is as simple and as won­derful as that. We don’t need to be theologians to understand the contrast between victory and defeat, or between freedom from sin and slavery to sin.

Are we triumphant over sin? Do we con­stantly have the power to do the good we want to do? That power, of course, comes not from our human strength but from God’s indwelling Spirit. That is what being saved by grace means. God’s grace to us is His gracious gift to us of new life in Christ. This new life carries God’s transforming and enabling power, which saves us from the power of sin day by day. This victorious life is the Christian life that God calls us to live.

(2) Nothing Will Be Impossible to You: Power

Matthew 17.14-20 has an interesting story. A man begs Jesus to heal his demon-possessed son because the disciples could not cast out the demon. Jesus replies, “O unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” Jesus immediately casts out the demon and the boy is freed. The disciples ask Jesus privately, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?” Jesus replies, “Because of the littleness of your faith, for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.”

Nothing shall be impossible to you. We will have power over demons. More than that, we will triumph in every situation. There is no enemy in the world that we cannot overcome through God’s power, whether it be the flesh or the self or the devil; as the apostle put it, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil.4.13).

We often assume that when Jesus said, “Nothing shall be impossible to you,” he was referring to miracles. That is a big mistake. These words have as much to do with the Christian life as with miracles. But because we limit these words to performing mir­acles, we fail to see their relevance to daily life. These words have, in fact, everything to do with daily living. Every day nothing will be impossible to us. If God tells us to do something, we will be able to it. If He gives us a command, He will empower us to obey it. If He tells us to love, He will empower us to love the unlovely. If He tells us to be holy, He will give us the power of holiness. Therefore, if God has the power and we have the commitment, is there any reason for failure or defeat?

Many Christians are powerless because they have not imple­mented this truth in their daily lives. If the words “nothing shall be impossible to you” were true in our lives, we would be able to fulfill any mission that God has entrusted to His people in these last days. This includes bringing the gospel to “the whole world for a witness to all nations, and then the end shall come” (Mt.24.14). We will discover that every obstacle can be overcome. Casting out demons or healing the sick will be accomplished by that same sovereign power from God.

But if these words aren’t true in our lives, or if we don’t live in practical holiness, it would be imposs­ible for us to triumph in any area of lives. These words must first be applied internally in our hearts; then we will discover that nothing is impossible in the spiritual life. Only then will we be ready to apply it externally in exorcism or in healing.

Which is more difficult, casting out a demon or living in holiness? Which requires greater power? Anyone who has tried to live a life of holiness in all sincerity will know that the two are equally difficult, indeed impossible. It takes the same mighty power of God to love the unlovely as to heal a crippled man. If you have not experienced that power inside you, clearly you would be unable to apply it externally.

Though it is the power of God that is at work in both cases, the one internal and the other external, does that mean they are equal­ly powerful manifestations of God’s power? Does it mean, for example, that the one who heals the sick by God’s power is necessarily a holy man? Jesus warns us that this is not necessarily so. Surprising­ly, it is possible to do great external works for God, yet not have internal holiness. This is something we must grasp if we don’t wish to be deceived, or self-deceived, in this present age of spiritual darkness. This is why Jesus said,

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many mir­acles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Mt.7.21-23).

These people may have learned to do miracles in Jesus’ name, but those whose lives are not submitted to God’s will, will have no place in God’s kingdom. Paul says much the same:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing (1Cor.13.1,2).

So let’s not imagine that if we can speak in tongues or perform miracles, we are in a favored position before God, or that these prove that we are regenerate. We are “nothing” (1Cor.13.2) before God (and surely no born-anew child of God is “nothing” to Him) if we don’t have His love or His holiness, or the fullness of His life in us, even if we have such faith as to move mountains. It thus turns out, therefore, that the internal victory over sin and self is far more important than the external manifest­ations of miracles.

Why then does Jesus speak of doing the impos­sible? Because it’s impossible of us to live the new life in this old sin-dominated world. Our old innate self-centeredness, and sin dwelling in our flesh, and the powers of darkness, all these combine to form a colossal force that is opposed to our new life in Christ. There is absolutely no way for us to triumph except by God’s power. If the Christian life could be lived in our own strength, we wouldn’t need God at all. The reality is that the Christian life involves the daily appli­cation of God’s power through the Holy Spirit within us. For this reason we glory in the gospel of the living God. By faith in God we do the impossible.

The Christian who walks with God won’t live in the shadow of defeat, precisely because all things are possible to him through God. That is a huge claim to make, but no bigger than what is expressed in, “Thanks be to God who always leads us in His triumph in Christ” (2Cor.2.14). This victory applies to every aspect of the Christian life, including prayer.

Again, let us keep before our eyes the truth that salvation is by grace not just in terms of a one-time forgiveness of sins, but in terms of living by God’s power day by day.

(3) You Will Receive What You Ask: Fruitfulness

In John 15.16 Jesus says, “I appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain.” If we profess to be a born-anew Christian, do we bear fruit, and does our fruit remain? Fruitfulness is another evidence of regenera­tion.

The Lord goes on to say, “That whatever you ask of the Father in my name, He may give to you.” Here is another clause without limits. If you bear fruit, the Father will give you whatever you ask Him in Jesus’ name. Amazing! Nothing will be impos­sible to you, for you will receive what you ask. That is the kind of power we need to deal with real-life situations. The word “whatever” covers every situation. Every new day has its own unique situations and chall­enges. We need a blanket assurance, as it were, to meet every new situation, every new conflict, every new pressure, and every new trial. In every situation we have the assurance that whatever we ask for, we will receive, so that we can be victorious over sin and be fruitful for God.

This doesn’t mean we will ask for a Cadillac or a Mercedes Benz. If we think that God is going to give us whatever we want to satisfy our lust and greed, we have not understood the Scriptures at all. We must learn to consider all earthly and transient things—money, houses, cars, prestige, and so on—as little more than garbage when compared to what is eternal. We are to have Paul’s attitude when he says, “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil.3.8). What the spiritual man wants is not material blessings but victory, and for this purpose the constant assurance of answered prayers.

(4) Joy

In John 16.23 Jesus says, “Truly, truly I say to you, if you shall ask the Father for anything, He will give it to you in my name.” Note again the blanket assurance in the word “anything”. The next verse says, “Until now you have asked for nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.”

The defeated man is joyless. He has a heavy, sullen look on his face, not a cheerful smile. Joy doesn’t normally come to a person who had just failed his exams or lost in a competition. Defeat brings sorrow, but the Lord wants us to have joy.

“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2Cor.2.14). Does God lead us in triumph so that we may brag about it? No, it is for the purpose of spreading the fra­grance of Christ’s life and beauty to others, that they may be drawn to know him. The joy that God gives us overflows to other people, refreshing and encouraging them. Our joy strengthens them in their weakness, and heartens them in their discouragement.

However, the lack of joy is so widespread today that your joy may have the unintended result of creating envy in people who lack victory and joy! I recently heard someone graciously share that at one time she was having difficulty living victoriously. When she saw that others were doing slightly better, she felt uneasy, at times even unhappy. If you are living in constant defeat, it is natural to feel uncomfortable when you are among people who are victorious, and to stay away from them.

But Jesus wants us to live victoriously. He knows that we cannot do it in our own strength, so he tells us, “Ask for whatever is needed for victory, and I will give it to you.”

The Christian who implements Jesus’ words in his life will know no defeat. It doesn’t mean that he is immune to suffering, pain, affliction, perplexity, or persecution. At times he may be knocked down, but he won’t be permanently knocked out. The apostle describes it like this from his own experience:

But we have this treasure (i.e. the light of the knowledge of God in Christ, v.6) in jars of clay (i.e. our bodies), to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; per­plexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2Cor.4.7-10, NIV)

The remarkable thing that emerges from this passage is not only the fact that Paul is able to steadfastly endure under the most adverse circum­stances thanks to God’s “all-surpassing power” in him (v.7), but precisely through those circumstances to joyfully and triumphantly fulfill the mission entrusted to him, namely, to reveal the life of Jesus in his body. And what happens when the life of Jesus is revealed? It brings the light of salvation to all who see it (v.6). The preaching of the gospel is the subject of the whole preceding section.

The victorious life is not an easy life. Victory implies battle. How can there be victory without battle? Spiritual battle is never easy. The greater the battle, the greater the victory—and greater the power needed for that victory. The greater the challenge, the greater the grace that God supplies; in this way we go from strength to strength. After one stage of victory, a greater challenge confronts us, and we go on to the next level of victory.

In Conclusion: Overcoming in Revelation 2 and 3

In the letters to the seven churches recorded for us in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, the word “overcome” occurs seven times in the space of two chapters (Rev.2.7,11,17,26; 3.5,12,21). These verses clearly show that overcoming is essential for salvation, for he who overcomes will eat of the tree of life (2.7), will not be hurt by the second death (2.11), and will have his name kept in the book of life (3.5).

Those who fail to overcome will end up in tragedy. Those who have entered into a relationship with God at baptism, yet have been living in disobedience and defeat, are certainly not “overcomers” in any sense. But let them now listen carefully to what the Lord says about “overcoming:

(1) “To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God” (Rev.2.7). The privilege of eating of the tree of life was taken from Adam and Eve, but is granted to those who are regen­erate and victor­ious. Defeated Christians will have no access to the tree of life because they, like Adam, have failed. Those who don’t overcome sin by the grace and power which God has provided for them won’t enter the Paradise of God, or eat of the tree of life.

(2) “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death” (Rev.2.11). What does that mean but that the defeated Christian will come under the power and penalty of the second death? The first death is physical death, the second is spiritual death. To die physically is no big deal, but to die spiritually is to be finished forever. That is what hell is all about.

(3) “To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna” (Rev.2.17). Manna represents the bread of life, given to those who overcome. But those who lack the bread of life will perish.

(4) “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations … I will also give him the morning star” (Rev.2.26,28). The overcomers will reign with Christ. And what does “give him the morning star” mean? At the end of Revelation it is revealed that the “morning star” is none other than Jesus himself (Rev.22.16)! Upon the cross he gave himself for us; if by grace we are overcomers, he will give himself to us! To have him is surely to have more than everything that is worth having.

(5) “He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life” (Rev.3.5). The overcomers will be clothed in white. In heaven everyone will be dressed in white (representing purity, righteousness, cf. Rev.3.4,18; 19.8), which means that anyone who is not dressed in white will end up like the man who didn’t have a wedding garment and was cast into the outer darkness (Mt.22.11-13). Only the victorious will be dressed in white, ready to enter the kingdom of heaven. He who does not overcome will, accordingly, have his name removed from the Book of Life and will end up in the “second death”.

(6) “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from my God, and my new name” (Rev.3.12).

Only the victorious will abide in God’s heavenly temple and dwell in His presence forever. They will have Jesus’ new name written on them, that is, they will be the Lord’s special possession.

(7) “He who overcomes, I will grant him to sit down with me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on His throne” (Rev.3.21).

Sitting down with Christ on his throne! That indicates many things, such as participating in the final decisive victory through him, receiv­ing authority from him, being glorified together with him and, above all, being close to him and enjoying intimate fellow­ship with him.

May we, by his grace, be found among the overcomers.

 

Additional Note

A Case of Re-baptism in Acts

Is re-baptism found in the New Testament? Has Scripture not provided us with an example of this in Acts 19? Here we read of “about twelve men” (v.7) who had received “John’s baptism” (v.3). Yet they are re-baptized by the apostle Paul.

Someone who doesn’t know the origin of “Christian baptism,” namely that it derives from John’s baptism, may say, “Well, that was John’s baptism, not Christian baptism”.

Let us consider the matter more carefully: “Was John’s baptism of God or of men?” This was the question Jesus asked the Pharisees when they were questioning his authority (Mk.11.30; Lk.20.4). The Pharisees, by refusing to be baptized by John, was rejecting God’s saving purpose for themselves (Lk.7.30).

But if John’s baptism was of God, why did the twelve in Acts 19 need to be re-baptized with another baptism from God? These two baptisms are not different in character. Both have to do with repentance of sin and faith in Christ, the Messiah. Paul confirms this: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus” (Acts 19.4).

This call to repentance and faith that we see in John’s baptism is also the substance of “Christian baptism,” as we see for example in Acts 2.38, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. Since the two baptisms are really one in essence, why the need for re-baptism in Acts 19?

An answer to this question becomes even more urgent in view of the fact that in the passage immediately preceding the passage in Acts 19, we learn about a man named Apollos (Acts 18.24-28) who had an outstand­ing ministry in the churches. In 1Cor.3.6,22 he is men­tioned as co-working with the apostles Peter and Paul. Yet Acts 18.25 mentions that Apollos only had John’s baptism, and the next verse merely says that Priscilla and Aquila “explained to him the way of God more accurately”. But nowhere in Acts is there any mention of Apollos being asked to be re-baptized by Paul or anyone else.

There is the further fact that a few of the apostles, and almost certainly Peter, had previously been followers of John the Baptizer (or the “Baptist”), and for that reason had certainly been baptized by John (Jo.1.35-42). Moreover, the gospels mention that multitudes of peo­ple came to John to be baptized (Lk.3.7,10), so it wasn’t only John’s own disciples who were baptized by him.

There is no record that the apostles who were baptized by John were re-baptized after they came to know Jesus and followed him. Moreover, we must not forget that Jesus himself was baptized by John.

It is also important to note that the men in Acts 19.1 were described as discipleseven though they had only received John’s baptism. “Disciples” in Acts was the usual name for “Christians” (Acts 11.26). This would indicate, at the very least, that they had associated themselves with the believers in Ephesus, and were regarded as being a part of that fellowship even if they hadn’t yet committed themselves to God, and were therefore still unregenerate and had, consequently, not received the Holy Spirit of God.

Clearly, they must have believed in Jesus in some sense, or they wouldn’t have been associating with the believers or wouldn’t have been identified as one of the disciples. Moreover, Paul also spoke of them as having “believed” in some sense (v.2). He wouldn’t have asked unbe­lievers whether or not they had received the Holy Spirit (v.2).

All this clearly shows that the problem in Acts 19 doesn’t lie in John’s baptism. John’s baptism was certainly from God, that is, it was appointed by Him and approved by Him. The problem was clearly with the twelve recipients of the baptism. It was a problem that rendered their baptism invalid, and for that reason baptism had to be repeated.

The problem in the case of these twelve men cannot be that their baptism was invalid for the reason that they hadn’t been formally bap­tized “in the name of Jesus,” because the same was true of the first apostles and also of Apollos.

From Acts 19.2 we know that their problem had to do with the fact that they had not received the Holy Spirit. But in that case, why did they need to be re-baptized rather than just receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands? Acts 8.16-17 speaks of those who had been baptized in Jesus’ name, yet had not received the Spirit; they then received the Spirit through the laying on of the apostles’ hands.

The problem in regard to the twelve men in Ephesus is not only that they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit, but that they hadn’t even heard of the Spirit (Acts 19.2)! If that is the case, it would mean that these men must have been Gentiles who didn’t know the Old Testament. No Jew could have failed to hear about the Spirit of God. Evidently, they had only very recently come into contact with the disciples at Ephesus, and had not yet learned about the Holy Spirit from them.

Moreover, it seems that these men must have received their baptism through Gentile followers or proselytes of the Baptizer, and that these follow­ers of John must have themselves been very poorly taught about the things of God. All this would indicate that these twelve men were so ignorant of the things of God that, apart from their repenting of their sins, they could scarcely have made a meaningful com­mitment to God at their baptism.

But the matter becomes even clearer when we look more care­fully at Acts 19.4,5 again:

And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repent­ance, telling the people to believe in him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” And when they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Now what exactly is “this” new information that they had received from Paul and which resulted in their being baptized again? Certainly it was not repentance, because without it they wouldn’t have received John’s baptism at all. What is evidently new to them was that John himself had preached faith in Jesus as the Redeemer and Lord. The person(s) who baptized them had never taught them this. Hence they would also not have been taught that John the Baptizer had himself acknowledged Jesus as his own Master and Lord, the thongs of whose sandals John saw himself as unworthy to untie (Mk.1.7; Lk.3.16; Jo.1.27); untying thongs was the work of a slave. Also, they wouldn’t have been taught by those who first baptized them that John had pointed to Jesus as “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (Jo.1.29,36).

Since these twelve men had never been taught the full meaning of John’s baptism, and didn’t know about faith in Jesus as Savior, Messiah, and Lord, it is obvious that they could not have made any commitment of faith in Jesus at their baptism, which in their case was solely for repentance. They had not “signed” any pledge of faith in Jesus as Lord, so their baptism was invalid. The problem wasn’t with John’s baptism itself, but with the particular baptism of the twelve men. Once the true nature of John’s baptism was explained to them, they immediately put their faith in Jesus, as John had taught, and so were baptized by Paul “into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Ac.19.5).

It is now clear that it was under these circumstances that Paul required them to be re-baptized even though they had already joined a group of believers.

 


[13] The Greek word here is the noun eperōtēma. Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich (A Lexicon of the Greek-English New Testament), under ἐπερώτημα, has: “a pledge (s. L-S-J s.v. 3 with pap. ref.) to God proceeding from a clear conscience (so GCRichards, JTS 32, ’31, 77 and EGSelwyn, 1 Pt ad loc.)”.

They also give “request, appeal” but provide no evidence that the noun has this meaning. The authoritative Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford, ed. by Jones, reprint 1973, has no such definitions for the noun. It gives the following: “1. question 2. answer to inquiry 3. = Latin ‘stipulatio’ hence prob. pledge, 1 Pet. 3.21”. Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, reprinted 1972, also give ‘stipulatio’. The verb ‘stipulor’ means “to pledge, agree upon”. The noun ‘stipulatio,’ a “contract, obligation, stipulation” (cf. Follett World-Wide Latin Dictionary).

Greeven, in Theological Dictionary of the NT Abr. in One Volume, under ἐρωτάω, writes, “eperōtēma. This word means ‘question.’ The only NT instance is in 1 Pet. 3:21, which perhaps rests on the use in the LXX for an oracular question addressed to God, so that we are to translate ‘request’ ”. But Greeven’s statement is problematic on two counts: (1) A “question” is not to be confused with a “request”. The former means to ask about something; the latter to ask for something. (2) eperōtēma does not occur in the LXX, hence its link to the LXX is tenuous to say the least, and certainly justifies Greeven’s tenuous “perhaps”. By contrast, “pledge” is on far more solid ground.

[14] I am aware of the standard argument from Old Testament circumcision, etc., which in the light of the New Testament teaching just mentioned, carries little or no weight.

 

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