A 2017 STUDY BY LIFEWAY RESEARCH discovered that 24% of Americans profess to be evangelical. A higher percent claim to be born again. But when pressed, only about 15% of Americans can affirm the most basic evangelical beliefs.
This is not a new problem. Anyone who has been a Christian for long knows someone who professes Christianity but fails to believe what Christians should believe or believes but exhibits little or no fruit. That is because there is always a gap between the number of people who profess to be born again and those who possess the reality. This is true of every congregation. That is one reason why constant preaching of the gospel matters. The more it is preached, the smaller that gap becomes.
This begs the question: how can we know that someone who professes new birth actually possesses it? The crucial difference is simple. Those legitimately born again are in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s presence radically changes one’s beliefs and behaviors.
Although you and I can never know with certainty the spiritual condition of someone who professes faith in Christ—God alone sees the heart—it behooves us to wisely understand the nature of New Birth and how it affects those who receive it.
Christ In Our Hearts
So, back to our question. What does it mean to have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us? Fundamentally, it means that the Holy Spirit is communicating a conviction about Christ’s moral beauty to the eyes and ears of our heart. This communication has four important distinctives.
- First, the medium of God’s communication is a conviction of faith.
- Second, the place where it occurs is the heart.
- Third, the knowledge communicated is the moral beauty of Christ—a growing grasp of his moral and spiritual goodness.
- Fourth, the effect is changed behavior motivated by a growing desire to be holy as God is holy.
The Medium of Communication
First, the medium of communion with God is a growing conviction of faith. Remember, “Faith is the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). True faith empowers us to increasingly see truth through God’s eyes—from a divine perspective. New Birth equips us to increasingly “taste” spiritual truth. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). The primary way we “taste” is through conviction.
For example, I recently read Paul’s description of man’s sinfulness in Romans 3:9-20. As I read, “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit,” God opened my heart to see that this was often me. Then the thought that God had loved me, even in this condition, overwhelmed me. The result was an amplified conviction about the depth of God’s love and mercy. My soul soared in gratitude, and I felt a heightened desire to serve and live for God.
This is what takes place when the Holy Spirit speaks to us. We see spiritual truth with God’s eyes, and conviction is always the byproduct.
Most reading these words have experienced similar encounters with God. It can take place while reading scripture, while listening to a sermon, while busy jogging, driving, or vacuuming the living room. To the degree that this communication happens everything changes.
The Place of Communication
Second, the location of this interaction with God is the heart, not the mind. In the work of sanctification, God never bypasses the mind. The intellect is crucial. Although the conviction that points to new birth passes through the mind it occurs in the heart. “It is with the heart that you believe and are justified” (Romans 10:10). “Faith is the candlestick,” noted Spurgeon, “which holds the candle by which the chamber of the heart is enlightened.”
We use the expression “from the heart” to describe something done with enthusiasm and joy—something done because we want to. By contrast, we say, “my heart wasn’t into it” to describe behavior done strictly from a sense of duty. Although some duty always characterizes Christianity, fundamentally it is a heart religion. Before conversion, our hearts might be “into” material wealth, popularity, entertainment, or career success. After conversion, we are increasingly “into” God himself (not just his gifts). Increasingly he becomes our heart’s delight. Bunyan described this Holy Spirit’s heart-conviction as God branding it with a hot iron.
The Subject Communicated
Third, the subject of this communication is ultimately the moral beauty and goodness of Christ. I am not talking about eschatology or the best form of church government. These subjects matter, but you can have convictions about them and not be born again. But you cannot have a conviction about the moral beauty, the utter glory and trustworthiness of Christ, without the inward presence of the Holy Spirit.
That is why Paul described new birth as the shining forth of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” in our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6). It is a growing heart conviction that God is good, that he can be trusted; that I can waste my life in his service, and that I will not be disappointed. This conviction about God’s goodness frees me to take the risks that always accompany obedience. It is a down payment on our eternal inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).
This “light” is on a rheostat. The more we gaze at Christ the brighter it gets. For example, at conversion my knowledge of God’s glory was basic. I trusted that God forgave my sin and loved me. But, over the years God has increasingly turned that light up. It now includes the excellence of his justice, the depth of his righteousness, and the majesty of his sovereignty. With each communication, the capacity to delight in his goodness has grown and joyful obedience has increasingly followed.
Fourth, this communication has one consistent effect: It motivates us to be like Christ in holiness and righteousness. New birth and spiritual fruit are like Siamese twins: they cannot be separated.
Our hearts cannot feel a growing conviction about the “glory of God in the face of Christ” and not long to imitate what we see. This is what Paul meant when he also wrote,
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.2 Corinthians 3:18
We will always imitate the object of our worship. That is why John inexorably connects new birth and a changed way of life.
We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.1 John 3:14
Let’s close with three lessons that flow from these principles. First, understanding how God communicates with us amplifies the importance of the cross. Second, it convinces us of the importance and limitations of knowledge. Third, it teaches us to judge ourselves realistically but cautiously.
First, God’s moral beauty shines brightest from the cross. Therefore, Christians focused on the cross are most apt to experience conviction about God’s moral goodness and the transformation that follows. “On the rediscovery and fresh appreciation of the cross,” wrote James Denney, “the future and power of Christianity depend.”[i] Pastors that understand this focus on the cross. They “proclaim Christ” (Colossians 1:28) from the pulpit. They take every opportunity to lift up Christ in whom are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). Like Paul, the aim of their ministry is to know nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Corinthians 2:2).
Limitations of Knowledge
Second, these truths reinforce the importance and limitations of knowledge. You can never have enough of it. But it also motivates us to constantly confess that knowledge by itself is never sufficient. We need the inward work of the Holy Spirit. We need illumination, and this is a supernatural process. Therefore, saturate your mind in the Bible and good Christian literature, but never forget that more is needed. Knowledge alone does not change us. Only the movement of that knowledge from the mind to the heart, evidenced by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit’s conviction, evidences new birth.
Third, since there is always a gap between those who profess new birth and those who possess it Paul exhorted the Corinthians to “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test” (2 Corinthians 13:5)? Ask yourself these kinds of questions. Do I possess a growing passion to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ—a passion that proceeds from a growing heartfelt conviction that he is good beyond comprehension? Am I becoming increasingly fruitful?
Tragically, many legitimately born again will read this and doubt their salvation. That is not my intention. It is possible for us to experience the assurance that we have been born again. The first proof is a positive answer to the question above. I love and trust Christ more today than ten years ago. Yes, I know you have doubts. All Christians do at one time or another. But, has your view of Christ changed? Do you increasingly want to imitate him? Has he become the Treasure in the field for which you would sell everything? (Matthew 13:44).
Second, are you changing—not, are you perfect, but are you changing? “You may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29). Do you handle your money, your time, and your gifts differently? Is your speech becoming more godly? Are you more willing to forgive, to love an enemy, to push yourself out of your comfort zone? Are you changing how you relate to your spouse? Your roommate? Your parents? “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).
Third, there will be a spiritual oxymoron. People born of God feel increasingly more unworthy, more sinful, and more dependent upon Christ and his grace. That is because their knowledge of Christ’s perfections grows much faster than their ability to change. Therefore, even though they are growing, the contrast makes them feel increasingly unworthy. That is why, at the end of his life, all Paul could say about himself was “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
From the data gathered from his many surveys, George Barna concludes that when “evaluating 15 moral behaviors, [those who profess to be] born again Christians are statistically indistinguishable from non-born-again adults.”[ii]
This will not be true of those who possess the reality of new birth. Just the opposite—they will increasingly enjoy the communion with God which this article has described, and a Believer enjoying this communion will begin to change. “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4). That is because God saves purposefully. “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
In conclusion, when the Holy Spirit indwells us he communicates
a growing conviction about Christ’s moral goodness to the eyes and ears of our
heart, and it slowly changes everything. “The
core of conversion,” writes John Hannah, “is the gift from God of a new
indwelling principle in the heart of mankind. That principle is the very life
of God; it is the love of God. This alone is the ground of true virtue
and morality and is the exclusive means for glorifying God.”[iii]
[i] Denney, James, The Death of Christ, pg 7 (Albany, OR, Ages Software, 1902, reprinted 1997)
[iii] John Hannah, To God Be The Glory, pg. 32