18 August 2003

the seed of regeneration

Sometimes Reformed soteriology seems to want to locate salvation in some kind of inherent quality of the heart that determines whether or not a person "truly" believes or is "truly" regenerate. This way of putting things, however, runs into several dangers: placing our trust in something in us rather than in Christ, fostering a tendency towards examining the quality of our faith, and undermining assurance rather than calling us to perseverance.

One of the biblical texts that comes into play in such discussions is the parable of the sower. For instance, the Canons of Dort point to that parable ("Head of Doctrine Five," Rejection of Errors 7) as providing a taxonomy by which we can distinguish genuine faith from temporary faith, insisting (rightly, I think) that the difference is not merely one of temporal endurance.

Part of the difference between persevering faith and temporary faith, then, is the in disposition of the believer to receive the Word of God, though the metaphors (stony ground, no root, absence of fruit that comes to maturity) in themselves tell us little of what precisely that means.

It seems to me that "stony ground" means, in part, a refusal to allow faith to penetrate one's heart sufficiently, through continued resistance to the Spirit. And being "choked out by weeds" is allowing the cares and tribulations of this world to overcome faith. According to Jesus' parable, neither kind of response allows for fruit to grow or, if there is fruit, for it to come to maturity.

Now, I suppose there is a danger that Jesus' warning here could be turned overly introspective and a source of doubt--"Am I being too stony hearted?" or "Am I allowing life's worries to get to me too much?" and thus one can conclude "I'm not really a believer" or "I'm not really regenerate." But that is not quite the response I think Jesus intended.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be concered about our own stoniness or being choked by worry, but Jesus doesn't propose doubt of one's salvation as the solution. That is to reify "faith" and the grace of regeneration to see if it is of the right sort, to detect some hidden difference in its quality. No, what Jesus seems to be doing is to call us to "constancy and steadfastness" in whatever faith we have, to set aside any stone and to put down the weeds of worry.

But then, it seems, that duration is really a central issue--we must endure, not merely as a matter of temporal extension, but enduring as Jesus endured, setting our eyes upon our Father's calling and his faithfulness to us, and getting busy with the task at hand, which for us, as for Jesus, always involves cross-bearing. That is the constancy and steadfastness of which our Lord speaks.

In this connetion I think it important to recognize that the faith of the disciples themselves was one that was choked and whithered in the time of trial that came upon them (see Mk 14:50), but that this wasn't the end. They moved past that whithered faith in the power of the new life flowing from the resurrected Christ. The wilted plants revived and bore great fruit. That same resurrection life is still offered to us in Jesus that we might bear fruit too.

I'm wary of Dort's (and much of Reformed theology after it) drawing theological conclusions that strike me as underdetermined by the text itself. It is true that genuine, persevering faith is not merely a matter of duration, but of constancy and steadfastness. And the sower is always ready to give us the grace to prepare our hearts so that such constancy and steadfastness is possible.

No doubt some will turn out to be stony or choked by cares, but that ought not be a source of doubt, but a call to perseverance in faith lest we too be found to be stony or infested by weeds.