instantaneous matters

Granting (with reference to this previous discussion) that most people’s experience of becoming a Christian tends to be gradual and indistinct, it is till important to say that regeneration itself is an instantaneous event, which happens in a moment, at a specific point in time.

This is mainly to do with the value in distinguishing what we feel from what actually happens, our perceptions from God’s actual work in salvation. We are already familiar enough with this distinction in terms of justification. With the Shorter Catechism we assert that justification is an act of God’s free grace – it happens once and for all in a moment of time, with the sinner at that moment going from unpardoned to pardoned, alienated to reconciled, unaccepted to accepted, standing in Adam to being represented in Christ. At that moment, your relationship to God is completely reversed, and from that moment you’re as completely justified as you’re ever going to be, fully entitled to all the blessings of the covenant of grace, and certain to reach glory.

Nevertheless, the sense of being justified, the feeling of being pardoned, the perception of being accepted, may wax and wane, swell and fade, and be blurred and confused by all sorts of uncertainties, doubts, and contrary evidence, to the extent that the newly justified sinner may well feel anything but justified (the same no doubt sometimes for the long ago justified sinner). In this case though, we don’t say that a person is justified gradually, even if we do and should say that people generally come to a realisation and appreciation of their justification in a gradual and very faltering way.

It’s the same with regeneration. The fact that someone only gradually feels spiritually living and only gradually perceives themselves to be born the second time and from above does not at all alter the objective reality that when someone is indeed spiritually alive, that life was granted to them instantaneously. As to their consciousness they might have struggled over a longer or shorter period of time between faith and doubt, but as to their objective status, there was no period of semi-living, partially undead, halfway house between unsaved and saved.

That’s because regeneration isn’t like that, in the nature of the case. Salvation isn’t like that. There are only the two possible states for a soul to be in – either unsaved or saved, either spiritual death or spiritual life, either out of Christ or united to Christ, but not a mixture of both. The Father chose a definite number, Christ procured redemption for these, and the Spirit applies his redemption to them. So while it’s perfectly possible for people to be uncertain about their own salvation, there is no uncertainty on God’s side: the Spirit either has or has not regenerated them, and there is no middle ground. Someone either is or is not the subject of God’s saving work, and the start of that saving work in any person is the effectual call which culminates in regeneration.

For my part, I don’t see any advantage in drifting away from this understanding of the instantaneousness of regeneration, either from a doctrinal or psychological point of view.


Two afterthoughts.

1) A recent rereading of John Murray’s Redemption: Accomplished and Applied reveals that he actually describes effectual calling as an act. I feel I should confess this, after implicitly invoking him on the previous post where I insisted that effectual calling is a process, not an act. However, the Westminster Confession describes effectual calling as a work, as distinct from an act. So, to avoid pitting the one against the other, I suppose that Murray’s focus must have been on the end-point of this process, while the Confession took a wider view of both the end-point and the lead-up to it. (In much the same way as you can talk about a train arriving into a station, either taking the specific point where it actually stops and disgorges its passengers, or also including the preceding duration while it hoves into view and starts slowing down, so you can talk about effectual calling either in terms of the specific point where it “effectively ushers us into the fellowship of Christ” (Murray), or also including the preceding duration of “savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills” (Larger Catechism).) (Can you tell I’ve started a daily commute by train.)

2) I’m obviously assuming that regeneration precedes faith, although, obviously, not in the sense that there is any intervening gap in time between someone being regenerated and believing or being converted.

a not very presbyterian utopia

I was intrigued this morning to read an article on how the yes and no camps will be reconciled after the independence referendum in September. (Less than 70 days to go, btw.) For various reasons though I’m hobbled somewhat in terms of being able to comment at the moment.

Happily though, I’ve had some correspondence on the issue from an old friend, Jessie Morag, who offers some thoughts.

Jessie Morag writes:


Hi a’ ghraidh!

Today I only opened the paper and found an article on the referendum debate in Lewis! Did you see it yourself? You’ll have realised anyway the guy they’re calling Andrew is actually my second cousin twice removed on my mother’s side.

He makes some great points! In fact it was just the other day I was mentioning to Andrew it’s such a pity the way nobody is speaking out about identity. Some of us find it hard enough to be Scottish sometimes, the way the Lowlanders carry on! Would Central Belt rule any better for them up in the Islands than London rule? maybe it’s a silly question but that’s what they’re asking themselves and my cousin up in Muir of Ord would tell you the same.

But typical Sassenach journo! Didn’t Andrew just use the phrase ‘milk and honey’ and of course the journo starts dreaming up all sorts of allusions to religion. Did you see the bit where it says: “The yes campaign is an act of faith in the promised land, it resonates with a utopian language of Scotland’s Presbyterian history.”

I mean, what will they come up with next!

Don’t they know that More’s utopia is a bit different from the Millennium? Certainly the nationalist utopia is! Actually most presbyterians I know are a bit apprehensive about the kind of independence on offer. I was hearing from my sister in law’s cousin at the time when they set up the Scottish Parliament how they had to fight to even have prayers in the parliament because they wanted it to be secular. It’s as if they want to airbrush the Reformation out of our history altogether.

They definitely don’t respect the Bible when they’re making new laws anyway. Remember the so called consultation about gay marriage? They’re perfectly happy trampling underfoot what’s left of society’s conscience when they want to push through their liberal agenda, or progressive if that’s what they want to call it. As Uncle Angus was saying on the phone the other day: If these are the kind of values we have to look forward to after independence, we certainly can’t be voting yes. By the way, Uncle Angus was telling me the Continuings have put out a paper on the referendum, I’m sure you’ll have seen it. He says it’s awfully long, but after all we were disappointed with the Free Church papers, which were half for and half against, the very definition of swithering.

Well, the church is in a sorry state and you can’t help thinking there’s an element of judgment in it all. They say a nation gets the rulers it deserves and certainly there hasn’t been a clear voice from the church on all these moral issues in the past few decades.

When you think of the Reformers and the Covenanters and the Disruption worthies, and look where we are now. The sacrifices our forefathers made to give us the heritage we have in terms of our civil and religious liberties, and the best utopia they can offer us now is all this materialistic talk about oil and pensions! Plus a state guardian for every child in Scotland! I bet you Andrew is mortified, I would be!!

Well, I better not keep you my dear!

Cheerie an drasda and toodle pip!

Jessie M xx


(For anyone interested, the Free Church papers on independence are here, and the Free Church Continuing paper is here (pdf).)

Jessie Morag’s people are from Ballantrushal, although she now stays in the Central Belt. She prefers when you pronounce it ‘Jessie’ instead of ‘Chessie.’

boring is fine but it has to be real

johnmurrayThere’s a post newly appeared on Old Life on the topic of conversion. It includes a suggestion (in the middle of a lengthy quotation) that rather than being a moment of crisis, ‘it could just as likely be the case that the movement from spiritual death to spiritual life is gradual and life-long.’

Since some nasty gremlin seems to be thwarting my recent attempts to post comments on Old Life, here’s a quick blog post instead.

Two things to agree with in general.

1) It’s okay not to have a testimony. It’s doctrinally wrong and pastorally unhelpful to ‘insist upon experiences and encounters and restrictions and insights’ to prove whether someone is a believer or not.

2) It’s important not to confuse the work of the Spirit with gushes of emotion. We’re saved by faith, not by feeling – by faith in Christ’s work for us, not by sensing the Spirit’s work in us. (Or as a comment on the post so aptly puts it, ‘the important thing about “faith” is not the “experience” but the object of faith.’)

But two cautions deserve a mention too.

1) It’s unhelpful to use the term ‘conversion’ to refer to the whole course of someone’s career as a believer. Our confession and catechisms distinguish between effectual calling, regeneration and sanctification. Both effectual calling and sanctification (can) take place over a period of time. But regeneration is instantaneous. It happens in a moment, a specific point in time. Whether or not it is subjectively experienced as a crisis, it is nevertheless objectively a one-off event. We can be ‘converted to God little by little’ if by conversion there you mean effectual calling. We can be ‘converted to God little by little’ if by conversion there you mean sanctification. But it is a faithful saying, unworthy of all sarcastic tone, that ‘a person is either alive or dead, and to go from the wretched state of the latter to the exalted state of the former requires a monumental form of divine intervention.’ That divine intervention is what we otherwise call regeneration, and regeneration does not happen ‘little by little, by stages.’

2) Boring is fine. Conversions don’t have to be dramatic. But conversion does have to happen. Otherwise you won’t be saved.

Many people may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved (WCF 10.3). Contrary to what is asserted in the quoted article, it has never been the case that ‘affirmative answers to questions commonly asked at a public affirmation of faith were a sufficient gauge to a man or woman’s standing before God.’ Giving the right answers is a sufficient gauge to someone’s standing within the visible church – sure. That’s right and proper, but that’s not the same as their standing before God, which is presumably what ultimately matters.

Effectual calling, as the work of God the Spirit, involves convincing us of our sin and misery, in a way different from the expedient ‘I have sinned’ of a pharaoh or the compulsive trembling of a Felix. It involves enlightening the mind spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God – which is something other than understanding the technicalities on only a theoretical level. It involves renewing the will, in such a way that the natural choice stops being sin and is instead Christ. All of this might quite likely happen ‘little by little, and by stages,’ and the point when it culminates in being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit might not be discernible either to the person being called or anyone else, but it is all qualitatively and supernaturally different both from what they themselves were like before the Spirit began to work and from anyone who the Spirit does not work in.

Whether the switchover is experienced as some awful crisis or barely perceived at all, its necessary outcome is spiritual reality in the mind, will, and affections – a renewed nature which should embrace the church, clergy, creeds, and liturgy, but which is not the product of the most reformed of creed or liturgy.

The bottom line

* The fact that Calvin uttered the words ‘we are converted to God little by little, and by stages’ does not warrant today’s Calvinists blurring the distinction between the instantaneousness of regeneration and the extended-in-time-ness of effectual calling and sanctification.

* The fact that some people misguidedly insist on dramatic conversion narratives and intense religious experiences does not warrant blurring the distinction between being unconverted and being converted, blaming some ‘revivalist impulse’ of the eighteenth century, when the teaching of our pre-existing confessional documents is so clear.

Ceremony of Innocence

Ceremony of InnocenceIf you only read one novel this summer, let Ceremony of Innocence be it. Dorothy Cummings McLean has been entertaining hundreds of readers for years on various incarnations of her blog, and finally a publishing house has done the wider world a favour by making one of her full scale novels available in book form.

Although the most obvious peg to hang Ceremony of Innocence on is the style of Graham Greene, this is a fresh and original work in its own right. Whatever debts may be owed to Greene, in McLean, the atmosphere is less seedy, the drama more wholesome, the moral dilemmas sharper – and all leavened with flashes of comedy that are entirely McLean’s own.

Without giving away the plot – watch out, by the way, for clever flashbacks, as the Canadian/Scottish journalist narrator Catriona McClelland covers terrorist bombings across Germany, attends wild parties, splits up with her boyfriend, and comes under suspicion of involvement in the death of a student activist – let me tell you what else is striking about this book.

For one thing, the writing is so evocative. The naivety of young Western liberals in their sympathy for Islamic extremism is captured perfectly. Students too – their chat, their parties, their noughties wide-eyed cynicism. Catriona – cynical and hard-bitten, but vulnerable. Throughout, the dialogue is brilliant (including, I must say, the German/English and German/English/Scottish code-switching).

Then, the strong female characters – the one key protagonist who is beautiful, intelligent, and nevertheless very much in the background is not one of the women, but Dennis, Catriona’s unlikely boyfriend. It’s Catriona who is the complex character who does lots of things – has run-ins with neo-Nazis, wins popular and critical acclaim for her work, gets mired in intrigue, survives explosions – she’s likeable but with complicated edges, she’s deeply compromised but in nevertheless a very identifiable way. And the other characters driving the plot forward are Suzy, and Anna-Maria and Silke, even the GP and Aisha. Dennis, meanwhile, just provides home comforts and is the object of competition among other eligible women, in a delightful inversion of conventional characterisation.

And of course, the wrestling with big scary moral issues. War guilt – the bombing of Coventry, the bombing of Dresden. How violence breeds violence, the far right responding to home grown terrorism responding to interventionist foreign policy. Catriona living with Dennis and so also with prickles of conscience and social and ecclesiastical disapproval. And, throughout, how to deal with treachery – when Suzy brazenly betrayed Catriona in pursuing Dennis, when Catriona self-servingly hid information from Dennis, and, darkest of all, when somebody seems to have done something to lead to Suzy ending up dead. Complicity, betrayal, cowardice, selfishness… people doing things you know are wrong, but which seem in their complex circumstances to be almost unavoidable – but they know they’re wrong too, so guilt and unease abound.

Although some of these themes will be very familiar from Graham Greene, what McLean has done is to take the best of Greene, dust it down and give it some of her unique sparkle. There is nothing cosy or fluffy about Ceremony of Innocence, but the writing is stellar, and it will make you think.

(Ceremony of Innocence by Dororthy Cummings McLean – available from Amazon in hardback or kindle)