God of Many Names:

An Introduction to Dialogue with Other Religions

Robert C. Brow

Salvation and New Birth

Faced with the multiplicity of explanations given by believers in all sorts of religions and ideologies, we continue our search for some kind of bedrock certainty that we have found the truth and are on the right path. In the previous chapter we saw that it is impossible to prove logically that our scriptures are the correct ones and all other scriptures are wrong. We now turn to the claim that an experience of salvation and new birth can give us the desired assurance.

For this purpose we have to narrow our focus. I can only illustrate from one particular claim to certainty that I know well. Then I propose to move to a rather wider experience among the various Christian denominations that nourish themselves from the Bible. Those who nourish themselves from other scriptures may be able to translate some of our conclusions into their experience. For example there is an experience of nirvana that most Buddhists hope to attain, and what seems to be a rather different experience of satori among Zen Buddhists. I made the distinction by using different names in the classification in chapter 3, but I regret that I have to leave aside a detailed account of these Buddhist experiences, and many other experiences that could no doubt be described in every kind of religion and ideology.

A few years ago I was invited to speak to a Christian meeting in a college of Toronto University. As I was being introduced, a student sitting next to me on the platform leaned over and asked in a whisper what church I belonged to. When I said it was an Anglican church, he immediately asked me "Are you born again?" I knew that in his terminology he could as well have asked "are you saved?," or "are you a believer?," or even "are you a Christian?" Since I had to begin speaking in less than a minute, and there was no time to clarify the question, I said "yes" without hesitation.

Evidently I had given the right answer and he was satisfied about my orthodoxy and qualification as a preacher. If I had said "what do you mean by that question?" he would have written me off as an unbeliever, and refused to hear a word of my message. As it was he listened to my talk with enthusiasm and thanked me warmly afterwards. I knew he used the words salvation, believer, and new birth with a particular meaning. He also assumed that his particular use of metaphors in the explanatory structure which he had been taught would be clear to me. They therefore became a shorthand test of whether I had the experience of salvation that he had in mind. If I could use the right words, quite regardless of whether I was sincere in my profession or believed as he did, I passed the test.

If my student friend could try out our method for analysing the structure of an individual's faith he would soon discover that there are many ways of using the words which he takes for granted. In answer to our third question "How do you propose to move from what you view as sin to the goal you have adopted?" Buddhists or Hindus are likely to use the word salvation (mukti). But for them it usually means being freed from the miserable round of reincarnation. And obviously that is not what my student friend had in mind.

He might answer that he has nothing to do with Hinduism. The goal which God clearly offers us in the Bible is heaven. And what prevents us getting there is the original sin which makes every person guilty and deserving of hell. He can then quote verses to show that Jesus paid the penalty for our sin. Only if we repent and accept the payment Jesus has made are we saved and guaranteed a place in heaven. If we do not do this, God's justice must send us to hell. The student might then add that when he repented and accepted Jesus as his saviour, his life changed and he now has the absolute assurance of salvation.

Clearly it is possible to choose metaphors from the Bible, give them a particular meaning, and then structure them in the logical form which our student had been taught. We observe however that his metaphors of sin and guilt, payment and justification are taken from a law court. They define God's dealings with us in terms of hell being the just penalty for our sin. It is therefore only after the penalty has been paid by Christ, and we accept it personally for ourselves, that God can begin loving us.

What if we structure the metaphors in a quite different way? From the Bible we choose metaphors and parables that suggest that God loves everybody unconditionally. We then assume that God's love is such that no one will be sent to hell. Rather hell is a freely chosen preference for the darkness away from the light of God. God's justice, like the discipline of loving parents for their children, then becomes a means of helping us to turn from darkness to light. [This structuring of biblical metaphors appears for example in C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, 1945] Someone who accepted this kind of explanation could also say that it had changed her attitude to life, and given assurance of God's love and deep joy as a Christian.

So now we have two different models of salvation, both are Theistic and both are derived from the Bible. And there are many ways of selecting our metaphors and arranging them in a logic hat would yield other explanations of God's dealings with us. Our friend's assumption that the meaning of being saved should be obvious to anyone who believes the Bible is patently false. That of course does not prove that his interpretation of the Bible is the wrong one.

In addition to assuming that there was only one possible meaning of the word salvation in the Bible, our student is also using a particular meaning of the new birth. Like the word salvation, the idea of being born again is a common metaphor in other religions. In Hinduism and Buddhism it refers quite literally to being born again into another form of life after we have left this world. But in most other forms of religion it suggests the idea of a new beginning or entering into a new kind of life. In the ancient mystery religions new birth was a metaphor for being enlightened. For those who free themselves from the dark terrors of animism and are baptized into a quite new way of life the words "born again" have a very precise meaning.

Our student would probably define faith as the decision to accept Jesus as one's personal saviour. Often when an evangelist gives the invitation to come forward to accept Christ as saviour, the new believers are told that they are now "born again." [John 1:12,13] In this sequence of explanation it is assumed that the Holy Spirit is imparted when a saving decision occurs. On that view baptism is assumed to be appropriate only after one has been born again. [Some assume that the term Christian should only be applied to those who are born again in this sense. The name Christian was however first given to disciples under instruction (Acts 11:26). At least in the case of Peter, the understanding of who Jesus was came very much later. But the term Christian in our day is used in many different senses, even by committed Christians.]

Another evangelical explanation is that baptism, like circumcision, is a covenant sign of the saving faith which will emerge in due course. [See Colossians 2:11,12 and Romans 2:28-29] That permits the baptism of children before they understand it. A variant of this is to say that baptism is like giving a person a piano. It does not automatically make her into a pianist, but it certainly gives him the opportunity, and those who practice infant baptism might say that the child should have the piano long before she can play a note.

Many ancient churches such as the Syrians of India, the Coptic church of Egypt, and the Greek Orthodox communities of Europe and the Middle East, viewed baptism as a new birth into the church for the purpose of being illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Saving faith would therefore be an outcome of this illumination. [Titus 3:5-7] Among other western churches the explanation was that baptism removed original in and imparted the grace of the Holy Spirit. They too express certainty that this is so and quote scriptures to support it. [Acts 2:38, 22:16]

I prefer to explain that Nicodemus would need to lay aside all his vast rabbinic knowledge and be baptised with water as a disciple of Jesus. When he began being taught by the Spirit he would find it was like being born again. In those days everyone knew that the only way to learn from a teacher was to enrol as one of his disciples. In India a guru might give a flower or make a mark on a new disciple's forehead. On this model Jesus, as did John the Baptist before him, used baptism as a means of enrolling disciples. In the same way colleges give a certificate of enrolment before the student has learned anything. The enrolment tells you nothing about the goodness or success of the new disciple, only that he or she is now going to be taught personally by the teacher.

[See John 3:1-5, compare 3:22, 4:1,2, Matthew 28:19,20. This might explain why whole communities and families could be baptized immediately without probation to be formed into churches. In Acts 8:12-17 there is a delay between the baptism of a group of Samaritans and the constitution of the church by the Spirit. See Acts 9:35, 16:15, 33-34. In Acts 10:44-48 however baptism followed the beginning of life in the Spirit.]

In this kind of explanatory model there is a distinction between faith to accept baptism and begin learning and the later full assurance of faith and forgiveness which is imparted by the Spirit. The model can also explain why in John's Gospel many baptized disciples of Jesus later withdrew, and among the baptized of the early churches individuals committed apostasy and even became false prophets and teachers. [See John 6:66.] In the other Gospels the Parable of the Sower describes the process of attrition that takes place after people have been baptized and begun as disciples.

Arguments for and against each of these kinds of explanation by Christians of why and when believers should be baptised, and their innumerable variants, can be given from the Bible. Evidently equally biblical explanations can vary immensely. And we would find similar differences among Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists or Marxists as to how a person becomes a committed believer.

North American sociological surveys have suggested that fifty per cent of adults describe themselves as born again. Many of these obviously have a deep faith and commitment, others may never attend a church, or bother much with God or the quality of their life. And they may or may not believe the explanation that they were born again in baptism, or were eternally saved when they made a commitment to Jesus Christ.

The expression "I am born again" or "I am saved" is used by many Christians who take it for granted that having made the prescribed faith decision, we can know that the goal is already ours. There are however many who use the expression to describe what happened when, having been nominal Christians, they found faith and were baptized into a warm accepting community. All we should insist on is that no one should use the metaphor "born again" without giving it a clearly understood meaning. But in any case we have at least half a dozen quite different models or ways in which an explanation of salvation can be given from the Bible. Does this again take us even deeper into relativism?

Those who insist that there is only one way to work with the Bible's many metaphors of water, washing, salvation, exodus, redemption, discipleship, commitment, new birth and living and learning by the Spirit, are fundamentalists. And if they insist that only those who follow their logic can take communion in their church, they have formed a sect based on their tradition. They thereby close themselves off from learning more from the Spirit about new aspects of these metaphors in the world-wide church.

We can now distinguish a pluralism of explanatory models from the evidence of a common experience. In the previous chapter we have already seen that each set of religious scriptures tends to nourish a different family of denominations. The Christian family of denominations includes Anglicans, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, United Churches, Lutherans, Brethren, Nazarenes, Coptic, Syrian and Greek Orthodox, and many others. They differ in the way they explain themselves, but they all nourish themselves from the same Old and New Testament.

We now add a further close connection between the spiritual experience of individual Christian believers and their scriptures. If anyone doubts this the cure is to go and make friends in a community of Coptic Christians from Egypt, or South American Pentecostals, or Southern Baptists in the United States, or any other denomination that is in many ways very different from their own.

In passing we note that by permitting different explanatory models to be tried out in the life of worshipping communities, denominations foster the creativity that is needed for growth. In nations where no denominational differences are allowed we should expect to find the deadness of oppressive tradition. And if churches refuse to allow denominational differences to exist within their structures, those differences will leave and flourish outside. The Roman Catholic Church discovered this painfully in the Reformation, and Anglicans hopefully learned their lesson with the Methodists. As Jesus explained, traditionalists may prefer the bouquet of fine old wine, but new wineskins need to be provided for every generation of new wine of the Spirit. [Luke 5:37-39]

We have noted that in the Christian group of denominations around our one set of scriptures there are many models of how faith, baptism, and the new birth should be explained. The interesting thing is that Jesus himself did not tell us how any of these words are to be structured in an explanatory model. All we know is that for nineteen hundred years Christians have obeyed the great commission to baptise in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Here again he apparently did not give his disciples a model to explain the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.

What is significant is that Christians all over the world who regularly read the Bible tend to relate themselves to God in three ways. As little children they feel themselves cared for by God as a loving parent. We might call that an experience of God above them. Secondly a very wide range of Christians, speak of wisdom, inspiration, and prayers that come up from within them. The usual name given to God within us is the Holy Spirit.

It is interesting that John Milton, an evangelical puritan, began his Paradise Lost with an invocation both to the Muses and to the Holy Spirit as if there was no great need to distinguish between them. There is certainly evidence that the Greek artists and composers looked within themselves for creative inspiration. Their metaphor was a group of wise beautiful ladies. The Hebrew prophets and judges used the word ruach, which means wind or breath, which gives us two other metaphors of the spirit moving across a nation and the personal inspiration of prophets, artists, composers, and judges or leaders.

In addition to the metaphors of God above us and God within us, we already find in the Old Testament many references to God as forgiving friend, tender shepherd, Davidic king. Most Christians include in their creed the explanation that God the Son was active long before he took birth and lived among us for thirty years. And since the resurrection and ascension they assume that this same person is God beside them, Emmanuel or "God with us." There again, although their explanatory model of salvation and the new birth may be very different, we find many Christians of all denominations speaking of the same experience. Every day they sense that Jesus is walking with them as shepherd and friend, and coming to be with them in every crisis of their life.

Martin Buber spoke of an I and Thou experience of God. [Ich und Du, 1923, English trans. 1937] The important fact is that many Christians in all denominations, regardless of how they explain their doctrine, find themselves in an I and Thou relationship to God as Father, God as Son, and God as Spirit. This seems especially true of those who read and reread the Bible to nourish their life and worship. But it is nonsense to assume that because other Christians do not use the same jargon and doctrinal explanation that we use, they have no relationship to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

What was wrong with my student friend was not his experience, which I am sure was genuine, but his assumption that if I did not use his test words as he did I must be an unbeliever. His assurance of certainty seemed to be based on the assumption that he knew the right model of salvation, and we have seen that there is no way to prove that our explanatory model is the correct one. That still leaves us floundering in relativism.

It seems that among Christians the connection between the experience of individual believers, their assurance that they have found the right way, the model they use to explain their faith, the stories and metaphors of their Scriptures, and the various grouping of denominations around those scriptures is not established by deductive logic. But then if the nature of these powerful links is not logical, we wonder what could be their strength? Is there a moral force that persuades us to choose one way of salvation as opposed to another, and even gives us the certainty we so badly need?

Chapter 6...