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4. Regeneration and Victory


– Chapter 4 –

Regeneration and Victory

True and false assurance

Many Christians have grave doubts about their own spirit­ual condition, 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?

In Scripture, a Christian is someone who has been born anew as a “newborn babe” (1Pet.2:2) in Christ. He or she has the 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 dealing with the problem of assurance. The first way is to declare dogma­tically that everything is fine simply by the fact that we have believed in Jesus at some point in the past. So we 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, examining 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 clearly working in your life, then you have grounds for assurance. These are not merely experiential but also biblical grounds for assurance.

God always leads us in triumph

Instead of focusing on one particular Bible passage, let us deal with this subject which 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 characteristic of the life in Christ is seen in the truth 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. It serves as a touchstone, a standard, a gauge, to test if we are Christians in the New Test­ament sense. Do we echo with these words or do they sound foreign, even preposterous, to us?

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 sprink­ling of the man-made perfume of niceness or personal charm.

But the fragrance that Paul speaks of is the sweet fragrance in Christ of a sacrificial life that triumphs in every situation. The Greek word that is used here for “aroma” (osmē) is also used frequently in the Greek Old Testament (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 “aroma” is used 19 times in Leviticus (1:9,13,17, etc.) and 20 times in Numbers (15:3,7,10, etc). In Ephesians 5:2, Paul uses the word with reference to Christ:

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.

In Philippians 4:18, Paul uses “aroma” to characterize a love-gift which the Philippian Christians, who were extremely poor, insisted on giving to him.

If being victorious in Christ is an ongoing charact­eristic of the Christian life, it follows that the fragrance which flows from it is also a characteristic of the new life. These are a yardstick to measure our lives. Victory is a fundament­al mark of the regenerate person, and with it comes a fragrance that glorifies God.

Paul appeals to his own life

We tend to think that there are two types of Christians: victorious Christians and defeated Christians. Defeated Christians are supposedly also Christians, albeit of a lower class than victorious Christ­ians. Because victory remains elus­ive to many people, we somehow accept the notion of a “defeated” Christian even though it is foreign to Scripture.

Whenever a church questioned whether Paul was preach­ing the true gospel, he would do one thing to reassure them. What was it? Did he wave his seminary degree or proclaim his doctrinal position? No, he simply told them to look at his blameless, trium­phant life in Christ: “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blame­less we were among you who believed.” (1Thess.2:10)

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 or defrauded anyone? Look at our blameless lives. There is the evidence of our genuineness.” See Acts 20:33 and 2Cor.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. Do those around us — those who live or work with us — notice a fragrant Christ-like aroma about us, or do they plead with God for strength to put up with us?

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

Perhaps for this reason many are afraid of communal living. It is 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.

Not the eradication of sin but victory over sin

We said earlier, but will elaborate in a later chapter, that holi­ness in a Christian is not the eradication of sin. Even if a person is holy or perfect according to Scriptural standards, it doesn’t mean that the flesh doesn’t entice him to sin, or that the world has no attraction for him, or that Satan doesn’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 see no true spiritual or 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. Their own baptism appears to be little more than an external ritual without true spiritual content. Unhappy with living in defeat, they try to get their spiritual found­ation in order. They seek to start anew, 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

Faith precedes baptism, for it is faith that makes baptism meaning­ful. Without faith, baptism would be just an empty ritual. In Scripture, belief comes before baptism, as 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)

Then there is the remarkable account in Acts 10:47,48 in which 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? Is my faith of the kind seen in Acts 8:37, “If you believe with all your heart,” namely, a totally committed faith in Jesus?

If these questions are not answered in the affirmative, one would be left with a lack of assurance and a troubled conscience: Why am I still in my sins? How can I be set free from sin if I have never died to it? How could I have died to sin if I have never been united with Christ in his death through baptism? 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.

Should I be re-baptized?

Many Christians have doubts as to whether they have been truly born again. The request for rebaptism is usually a consequence of that uncer­tainty. Often the person would assess his or her sit­uation in this way: “Should I be rebaptized, seeing that I am now prepared to make a com­mitment which I didn’t make in the past, or 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 heart, so I now doubt the validity of my bap­tism. I am now ready to be totally committed. Should I be rebaptized?”

It is tragic that such questions should arise in the first place, for it is the responsibility of every church and every pastor to explain what is involved in baptism. Of course, even if we made 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, baptism is a “pledge [1] of a good con­science toward God” (NIV).

Hence baptism can be compared to the giving of a pledge or the signing of a legal document. After signing a 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.

A 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, God 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 you later understand more fully what the lordship and kingship of God means, would your fuller understanding mean that you ought to 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 God’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 rebaptism make that vow more complete? Surely not. Rebaptism would not make any difference, not any more than signing a document a second time.

(2) The contents of the document

But a problem could arise in regard to the con­tents of the document. Suppose that in “signing” your baptismal “document” you did not pledge anything about God’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 church membership. If you later understand what total commitment is, namely, that God will be the 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 make no commitment at baptism, or have never been asked to.

Maybe 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 don’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 and evangelists not be careless and 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? Can he plead before the judge, “I signed it for the wrong reasons, foolishly following my friend’s advice. May I be re­leased?” You already know how the judge will answer: “No, you are still bound by the terms of 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.

Christians are bound by their baptismal vows even if they are still unregenerate. Irrespective of their motives, 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.

Please don’t get baptized unless you understand this point, for to be baptized without regeneration means that you are obliged to live by the requirements of the new covenant (New Testament) yet without the new life in Christ and the power of the indwelling Spirit. You have committed yourself to living by the new covenant standard, but with­out the power to fulfill it. 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), words which are addressed to Christians.

If you are an unregenerate Christian, and 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. 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.

Revelation 21:8 says that murderers, sorcerers, 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 but don’t keep it? 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 intentionally 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 complicat­ion here. Baptism is a pledge to God of a good conscience (1Peter 3:21), and babies certainly cannot make any kind of pledge; nor is the question of a good conscience applicable to infants. In the New Testament, repent­ance and faith — two things that infants do not have — precede baptism. How then can infant baptism be valid? [2]

However, being intolerant and dogmatic doesn’t help matters in the church of God. 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 rebaptism. But this person would do well to carefully consider whether there is any basis in God’s Word for his baptism.

If you are considering rebaptism, 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 rebaptism 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 actual fact) lived as a true Christian, you need to ask whether you are truly 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 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 terms 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 soon give up in frustration in trying 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.

But if your regeneration took place sometime after your bap­tism, your baptism could be valid. (See the Additional Note at the end of this chapter.)

The evidence of regeneration

Let us consider the signs of regeneration, and see if 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, as described in Romans 7. In verse 14 Paul says, “We know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.”

The words “sold into bondage to sin” come from the vocabulary of slavery. Just as slaves were sold into bondage, so humankind has come under bondage to sin. Our sins have brought us under sin’s dominion, and we become 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 “will” 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 phrase because the will, as Paul tells us, is not under bondage in the sense of being unable to desire 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 we don’t want to do. 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 are you able to imple­ment it? Somebody opens his mouth and irritates you. 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 in Romans 8. But even before that, in Romans 6, he repeat­edly says that we are no longer under the dominion of sin, as in the following state­ments:

  • 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 sin does not control us, it 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 won­derful as that. We don’t need to be theologians to see the contrast between victory and defeat, or between freedom from sin and slavery to sin.

Are we triumphant over sin? Do we have the power to do the good we want to do? That power 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 of the 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. Power: Nothing will be impossible to you

Matthew 17:14-20 has a striking story of a man who 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 Paul 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 mistake, for these words have as much to do with the Christian life as with miracles. But because we limit these words to the doing of mir­acles, we fail to see their relevance to daily life. These words have, in fact, everything to do with daily living. Not­hing will be impossible to us every day. If God tells us to do something, we will be able to do 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. If God has the power and we have the commitment, is there any reason for failure and defeat?

Many Christians are powerless because they do not apply 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 entrusts 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 done 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 our 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 can we apply it externally in healing or exorcism.

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 would 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 God’s power that is at work in both aspects, internal and external, does it mean that 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, for it is possible to do great external works for God, yet not have internal holiness. This is something we must grasp if we are to avoid being self-deceived in this age of spiritual darkness. 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 had learned to do miracles in Jesus’ name, but their lives were not submitted to God’s will. Hence they 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).

Let us not imagine that if we speak in tongues or perform miracles, we are in a favored position before God, or that these prove that we are regenerate. If we don’t have His love, His holiness, or His life in us, we are “nothing” (1Cor.13:2) before God even if we have such faith as to move mountains (and surely no born-anew child of God is “nothing” to Him). Hence it turns out that the internal victory over sin and self is far more important than the external manifest­ation of miracles.

Why does Jesus speak of doing the impos­sible? Because it’s imposs­ible for us to live the new life in a sin-dominated world. Our old self-centeredness, combined with sin dwelling in our flesh and the powers of darkness in the world, all 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 dwelling in 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 shadows of defeat 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 touches every aspect of the Christian life, includ­ing prayer.

We fix our eyes on the good news 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

Jesus says, “I appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (John 15:16). If we profess to be born-anew Christians, 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 for. That is the kind of power we need for dealing 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 it, so that we may be victorious over sin and be fruitful for God.

It doesn’t mean that we ask for a Cadillac or BMW. If we think that God will 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 — 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 seeks is not material blessings but victory and the assurance of answered prayers.

4. Joy

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.” (John 16:23) 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 come naturally 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 beauty and fra­grance of Christ’s life to others, that they may be drawn to him. The joy which God gives us then over­flows to other people, strengthen­ing them in their weak­ness, and encouraging them in their sadness.

This kind of joy is rare today, so it may have the unintended con­sequence of creating envy in those who lack joy and victory. I recently heard someone graciously share that at one time she was having a hard time living victoriously. When she saw that others were doing slightly better, she felt uneasy and unhappy. Those who live in constant defeat would feel uncomfortable mingling with those who are victorious.

But Jesus wants us to live victoriously. We cannot do it in our own strength, so he tells us, “Ask for whatever is needed for victory, and it will be given to you.”

The Christian who applies Jesus’ words will know no defeat. It does not mean that he is immune to pain, suffering, affliction, or persecut­ion. At times he may be knocked down, but not permanently knocked out. Paul describes this from his own experience:

But we have this treasure (the light of the knowledge of God in Christ, v.6) in jars of clay (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. (2Corinthians 4:7-10, NIV)

The remarkable thing that emerges from this passage is not only that Paul was able to steadfastly endure the most adverse circum­stances thanks to God’s “all-surpassing power” in him (v.7), but also that in these circumstances he joyfully and triumphantly fulfilled 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 preceding section tells us that all this is in the context of the preaching of the gospel.

The victorious life is not easy. Victory implies battle. How can there be victory without battle? The greater the battle, the greater the victory and the power needed. The greater the chall­enge, the greater the grace that God supplies. We go from strength to strength, from one level of challenge and victory to the next.

Overcoming in Revelation 2 and 3

In the letters to the seven churches recorded 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). This shows 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 in tragedy, such as those who have entered into a relationship with God at baptism, yet have been living in disobedience and defeat. Here is 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 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). The defeated Christian will come under the penalty of the second death. The first death is physical death, the second is spiritual death. To die physically is no great deal, but to die spiritually is to be finished forever. This is what hell is 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. What is the morning star? It is revealed at the end of Revelation that the morning star is none other than Jesus himself (Rev.22:16)! At the cross he gave himself for us. If by grace we are overcomers, he will give himself to us! To have him is 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). 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 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 his 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: fighting with him in the final decisive victory, 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 Rebaptism in Acts

Rebaptism is hardly ever mentioned in the New Testament, but where it is mentioned (in Acts 19), it increases our understand­ing not only of baptism but also of John’s baptism. The following is a case of rebaptism that took place in Ephesus, where Paul rebaptized around 12 men though they had already received John’s baptism:

1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 7 There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1-7, ESV)

How do we understand this remarkable account? Christians, espe­cially those who don’t know that “Christian” baptism has its origins in John’s baptism, may think that the 12 men were rebap­tized because there was something incomplete about John’s baptism that necessitated rebaptism.

But let us look at the matter carefully. Where did John’s baptism come from? Was it from heaven, that is, from God? Or was it from men? This was the question Jesus asked the Pharisees when they were challeng­ing his authority (Mk.11:30; Lk.20:4). It is said else­where (in Luke 7:30) that the Pharisees, by refusing to be baptized by John, were rejecting God’s purpose for them.

But if John’s baptism is from God, why were the 12 men rebap­tized with another baptism, the so-called “Christian” baptism? It is remarkable that the rebaptism even took place at all, because these two baptisms — John’s baptism and Christian baptism — are the same in substance, with both expressing repentance and faith in Jesus.

Contrary to what we may think, both these elements — repent­ance and faith in Jesus — are integral to John’s baptism, as seen in Paul’s statement to the 12 men: “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).

Likewise both these elements, repentance and faith, are integral to Christian baptism, as seen in Acts 2:38 (“repent and be baptized”) and Col.2:12 (“baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith”).

It is crucial for us to resolve the status of John’s baptism because the pre­ceding passage, Acts 18:24-28, speaks of Apollos, a believer who had an outstanding church ministry, and who even coworked with Paul and Peter (1Cor.3:6,22). But against our expectations, verse 25 says that Apollos had received “only the baptism of John”. The Bible never says that Apollos was subsequently rebaptized by Paul or anyone else.

Moreover, a few of the apostles — most certainly Peter — had earlier been followers of John the Baptizer (John 1:35-42), also known as John the Baptist, and for that reason they must have been baptized by John. Yet there is no record that these apostles were ever rebaptized after they had come to know and follow Jesus.

And we must not forget that Jesus himself was baptized by John. Or that vast multitudes came to John to be baptized by him (Luke 3:7,10), with no subsequent record of mass rebaptism.

Moreover, the 12 men in Acts 19 were called disciples” (v.1) despite having received only John’s baptism. “Disciple” is the usual term for a Christian (Acts 11:26). This would indicate, at the very least, that the 12 men had associated with the wider group of dis­ciples in Ephesus, and were regarded as being part of that fellowship by the fact that they had received baptism, albeit John’s bap­tism. The 12 men must have, in addition, believed in Jesus in some sense, or they wouldn’t have been regarded as disciples. Indeed Paul spoke of them as having “believed” (v.2). Hence they were not total unbeliev­ers, otherwise Paul would not have asked them whether they have received the Holy Spirit (v.2).

All this shows that the problem in regard to the 12 men in Ephesus does not lie in John’s baptism. John’s baptism was certainly from God, being appointed and approved by God. There must have been some other factor that rendered the first baptism of the 12 men invalid, such that they needed to be rebaptized.

The problem cannot be that their baptism was not done “in the name of Jesus,” for the same was true of the first apostles and of Apollos. The answer to this is found in Acts 19:2 which tells us that the real problem was that the men had not received the Holy Spirit: They said “no” when Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

But if that is the case, why was it necessary to rebaptize them? Couldn’t they simply have received the laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Spirit? This was exactly what was done in the case of the people in Samaria who had not received the Spirit when they were baptized in the name of Jesus. So the apostles laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:16-17).

The problem was not only that the 12 men in Ephesus hadn’t received the Holy Spirit, but that they hadn’t even heard of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2). They must have been Gentiles who were unfamil­iar with the Old Testa­ment, for no Jew could have failed to know of the Holy Spirit (cf. Psalm 51:11, “Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me”). Since the 12 men had not even heard of the Holy Spirit, their contact with the disciples in Ephesus must have been recent.

The best evidence therefore indicates that the men in Ephesus were earlier baptized by Gentile fol­lowers or proselytes of John the Baptizer who were poorly taught in the things of God. As a result, these 12 men were so ignorant of the things of God (apart from repentance) that they could scarcely have made a mean­ingful com­mitment to God at their baptism. But the matter becomes clearer when we look at Acts 19:4-5:

Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:4-5, NIV)

What is “this” new information that they had just heard from Paul and which led to their rebaptism? It was certainly not the teaching of repent­ance, for without repentance they wouldn’t even have received John’s baptism. What is evidently new to the 12 men is the other vital element of baptism, namely that John the Baptizer him­self had preached faith in the Lord Jesus. These 12 men evidently did not know that John preached faith in Jesus, or that he had pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (Jn.1:29,36).

Since these 12 men did not know the full meaning of John’s bap­tism including that part about faith in Jesus, they could not have made any commitment of faith in Jesus at their first baptism, render­ing their bap­tism invalid. The problem does not lie in John’s baptism itself but in how it was administered and explained. But as soon as the whole mean­ing of John’s baptism was explained to the 12 men, they immediately put their faith in Jesus, and were rebap­tized by Paul “into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5).

John’s baptism, if it includes the dual elements of faith and repent­ance, is valid, and does not need to be followed by rebaptism.

[1] The Greek word here for “pledge” 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 the meaning “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, reprinted 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.

[2] 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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