|Guest Article: Dr. Chip Thoronton serves as the lead pastor of the First Baptist Church of Springville, AL. He is married to his wife Kerri and they have four children.|
William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was asked by the media: What are the dangers that confront the coming century? One danger he mentioned was, “Salvation without regeneration.” He was speaking of the 20th century, but his assessment was remarkably prophetic.
A person can be a church member, attend religious societies, pray at the supper table, listen to Christian music, wear a cross, or abstain from sex until marriage . . . yet not be saved because their heart remains unregenerate. What exactly is regeneration?
Regeneration / Circumcision
Regeneration is that secret operation of the Holy Spirit whereby He imparts spiritual life to a sinner, thereby enabling the sinner to repent and believe the gospel. Scripture uses other phrases to describe it: new birth, quickening our heart, or circumcision of the heart. For instance, God says, “[A] Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29). What does this “circumcision” mean?
It would have been familiar to the Jew. OT circumcision, initially, was a physical cutting away of the foreskin of the flesh to identify one as belonging to God. It later came to represent a spiritual circumcision: the cutting away of the calloused foreskin of the heart, which identifies one as belonging to God (Deuteronomy 30:6). What does such “heart-circumcision” look like?
Paul witnessed it first-hand. He came to a city and preached by the riverside. One woman, Lydia, listened. She looked like a believer; she was a worshiper of God. Yet, her heart remained unregenerate. Scripture says, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well” (Acts 16:14-15). The Spirit circumcised her heart, enabling her to believe the gospel.
The Danger of Salvation Without Regeneration
Why is regeneration (heart-circumcision) important? First, it has eternal ramifications. The Jews thought they were saved because of their outward deeds, never realizing they needed a heart-change. Many today think the same: they claim salvation, but in reality they don’t have it. Why? Because salvation is not a matter of external deeds. It is an internal heart-change (external deeds will, of course, follow).
Second, it has earthly ramifications for the church’s witness. The problem with the church’s witness today is not the media, the culture, the left-wing liberals, or the right-wing radicals. Those are all outside forces. The problem with the church’s witness comes from inside: unregenerate people who think they are saved. The #1 reason people tell me they will not come to church is because the church is full of hypocrites. Yes, (we all know) that is merely an excuse, but they are not entirely wrong, either. The church is full of hypocrites: the ones who boast of salvation but whose hearts remain unregenerate. The ancient Jews were no different: “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written ‘The Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Romans 2:23-24). Could it be today: you who boast in your salvation dishonor God by acting unsaved? . . . (Perhaps) that is why the Name of God is blasphemed among the nation.
I have 3 boys. When they were born, I made a strange request: to watch them be circumcised. Very strange, I know. But hear me out. I knew what true circumcision meant. It served as a graphic reminder to me. You see, for 16 years I claimed salvation, but wasn’t saved. I talked the talk, I was a church member, I tithed. But my heart had not been circumcised. That graphic image would forever remind me of the day God cut through the callousness of my heart, causing me to cry out to Him and fling myself upon the mercies of Christ. It was not a result of my works; it was God’s gift to me (Ephesians 2:9).
William Booth was right. One danger facing his century and ours is salvation without regeneration.