Text and Context in Dialogue

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The Yatra in Christ,
by Mark Johnson

I will never forget it. I had just learned how to share the gospel using a four-step booklet, and was eager to try it out. My school friend, Mike, and I rode our bikes down to Brighton beach to try our newfound technique on some unsuspecting sinner. With booklet in hand we accosted a boy who was sitting on the pebbles enjoying the afternoon sun. "Would you have time to go through this booklet with us?" we asked. We plunged in and explained our way through the gospel. When we asked him if he would like to pray the prayer with us he nodded and repeated the words after us. We then turned the page and assured our new friend of the reality of his new faith and left, promising to visit him at his home. I should be happy, I thought to myself. But I was not. There was something very cheap and unreal about what we had just done. How could I be sure he was sincere? What if he just prayed the prayer to get us off his back? Did he really understand the great truths of Christ's work? I cycled home baffled and very uncomfortable. What if we had given him a false sense of security? I reasoned that we would find out the genuineness of his commitment when we 'followed him up'. It was no surprise, then, to discover he was not really interested in meeting anymore. Thus started a quest to understand the way the Lord brings people to himself, a quest I am still on.

Some years later I spent many hours with a friend explaining the message of Christ as best I could in my broken Nepali. We studied the Bible together and I tried to answer his many questions about God, Jesus, sin and salvation. I believed the Holy Spirit was working in my friend's life and I longed to see him make an open profession of faith. But then the questions arose, How should I know when he is a true disciple of Christ? When can I be sure that he saved? What marks do I look for in his life? How much does he need to know in order to be a true devotee of Christ? Or to put it another way, What should we make of the claims of an evangelist or organisation when they tell us that so many thousand souls have been converted in their recent campaign? What are the Biblical principles for evaluating the progress of other people in their journey to Christ?

Various expressions have been used to label this process. We might say someone has 'new life' (Np. nava jivan), or 'rebirth' (Np. purnajivan) or that he has 'repented' (Np. paschathap garyo). We may think such expressions mean the same thing. But an investigation of the way these words are used in the Bible shows us that such terms are not interchangeable. Moreover, the way some terms are used may bring more confusion than clarity. In this article I want to delineate the ways in which these expressions are used in the Bible and reflect on how we may best employ them in our witness in Nepal. I will do this by means of 12 propositions.

  1. Regeneration is essential for salvation
  2. In his interview with the Pharisee Nicodemus the Lord Jesus states categorically that "no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3: 3).[1] There is no hope for a religious man like Nicodemus unless he is born again, regenerated. He cannot plead his great learning or high moral standards. Without the new birth he is right outside the kingdom of God. Jesus makes it clear that being a member of a church, or being born into a god-fearing family does not entitle a person to entry into God's kingdom. Only an experience of the new birth does.

  3. Regeneration is a sovereign act of God
  4. God's sovereignty in salvation is clear from many passages of Scripture. "No-one can come to me," Jesus said, "unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6: 44). The new birth is an act in which God gives new life to those whom he chooses. We are told that when Paul and his companions spoke to the women who had gathered at the place of prayer in Philippi, "The Lord opened Lydia's heart to respond to Paul's message" (Acts 16: 14). She could not have responded if the Lord had not opened her heart.

    New birth, therefore, is not something that one can choose as and when he wants. I can no more give myself spiritual birth than I gave myself physical birth. "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit" (John 3: 6). The implication of this truth is that we are cast back onto God to do the work of regeneration. It humbles us. We go to him in prayer demonstrating our utter dependence on him.

  5. Regeneration is a mysterious and unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit
  6. We must never trivialise the mystery of regeneration. There is a tendency to think that if we get the conditions just right the Holy Spirit is bound to act. That is not, however, the way the New Testament portrays his work.

    The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3: 8)

    We cannot therefore make a programme for someone to be regenerated as some might try to do. We must not think that if we just get a person to a meeting that they are bound to put their trust in Christ. The Holy Spirit will work in his own way and in his own time and may choose not to work at all. It is his prerogative. He will not be manipulated. We repudiate, then, the approach of a short-term missionary that I once met. She had just told her contact that she would have to become a Christian quickly because she was returning to her home in two days! The Holy Spirit will not perform at our beck and call as if he was one of Pavlov's dogs.

    Furthermore, because the work of regeneration is an inward operation we cannot, from our human perspective, declare with any certainty that a person is regenerate or not. Neither should we insist that a believer must have a date and time when he was 'saved'. It may be that we can look back to a particular event when we first became conscious of the work of God in our life. But we must recognise that that event may not have been the moment of regeneration. Moreover, we will not insist that everyone experience such an event for to do so would be pastorally irresponsible and potentially quite damaging to the believer's confidence in Christ.

  7. Regeneration is an event, not a process
  8. Regeneration is a work in which God so changes a person's life that he is saved. The analogy with physical birth indicates that this is a one-for-all event, not something that happens over a period of time. This is also borne out in the language Paul uses in writing to Titus:

    At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3: 4-5)

  9. Regeneration comes through listening to the word of God
  10. God has ordained that the preaching (telling, reading etc.) of his Word is the means by which a person is regenerated. "He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created" (James 1: 18).

    Though the Holy Spirit is sovereign in regeneration it does not mean that there is nothing at all that we can do. Paul, in a series of rhetorical questions, clarifies the part of the evangelist:

    How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10: 14)

    The sovereignty of God in regeneration does not preclude the use of 'means' to effect that end. Paul emphasises this again in his first letter to the Corinthians: "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1: 21). The great example of this in Scripture is in the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2).

  11. Regeneration results in purification
  12. Rebirth results in the 'washing' of sin from the sinner (Titus 3: 5 above). Jesus tells Nicodemus that, "no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit" (John 3: 5). Don Carson, drawing on the work of Linda Belleville, demonstrates convincingly that Jesus could not have been talking here of baptism. "Birth 'of water and spirit' is reference to the dual work of the Spirit, who simultaneously purifies and imparts God's nature to man." [2] Baptism does not purify a person, it is a physical expression of a spiritual reality. If this is true, as I believe it is, then how can there be any toleration for the practice of baptising new 'converts' merely for the convenience of making sure a church member is marrying a 'Christian'? (See story in my article, Fifty Years On [VOB 1:1], a story sadly repeated in many churches today).

  13. Regeneration produces repentance and faith
  14. It is often assumed that regeneration must be the fruit of repentance and faith, i.e. that once a man turns from his sin and puts his trust in the Lord Jesus for salvation he is regenerated. But the problem with such a position is that regeneration becomes contingent on an act of man. The Holy Spirit is no longer sovereign. Furthermore, if we state that a person is given new birth as a result of his repentance and faith, then we make those human acts works for salvation. The NT teaches us that salvation is by grace, not works: " it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God, not by works, so that no-one can boast" (Ephesians 2: 8-9). Faith is not a work we do in order to get salvation. It is the response of the regenerate heart to the grace of God on his life. The awakening of faith in the heart of the regenerate gives great cause for encouragement. John writes, "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5: 13).

  15. Regeneration produces visible fruit
  16. When the Holy Spirit changes a person's heart by giving them new birth it is bound to change his behaviour. The apostle Paul, in his letter to Titus (3: 4-5, quoted above) paints in sharp contrast the character of a man before and after his rebirth. The Lord Jesus uses the analogy of a tree bearing fruit according to its nature. "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (Matthew 7: 18). Positive change in the life of the regenerate is as inevitable as fruit growing on a tree. Nowhere should this be more apparent than in the regenerate man's devotion to his Saviour. Jesus talks of it in terms of a law:

    Jesus replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." (Matthew 22: 37)

    For this reason we can talk of a believer as a Christ-bhakta (c.f. Romans 8: 28; 1 Corinthians 8: 3).

    What are we to make of a professing believer who does not demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in his life? Do we simply say that he has 'backslidden'? If he continues in a life of sin then surely it demonstrates that his profession of faith is empty, meaningless. I need to warn him that his life does not exhibit the fruit that it should. He must examine his heart to see if he knows anything of the reality of the new birth.

  17. Not all good works are the product of a regenerate life
  18. Having said that one can tell the nature of a thing by its fruit, the Lord goes on to warn us that many will counterfeit the fruit of the regenerate man without actually being regenerate at all.

    Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matthew 7: 21)

    The great preacher and theologian of the Great Awakening in 18th Century America, Jonathan Edwards, saw many thousands of people experience the grace of God in their lives through his ministry. At the same time, however, he was painfully conscious that the fruit of revival, lively emotional experiences (Edwards calls them 'affections'), unusual effects on the body, a new desire to praise God, deep love for other believers, etc, were not proofs that the Holy Spirit had in fact worked. There were many in the revival that showed all the outward effects of having had a deep religious experience but whose profession of faith later proved empty. It was not, argued Edwards, that they became Christians, only to lose their salvation later. They were never true believers in the first place but had simply copied the actions of those who were. Mark Harris, reflecting on this problem in the Russian church, writes thus,

    The human heart is full of deceit. Although the natural man is not ready for spiritual life nor willing to submit to God and cannot receive spiritual truth on his own (1 Corinthians 2: 14), he is often willing to perform convincingly in order to be acceptable to other people. [3]

    In Nepal, over the past couple of decades, we have witnessed a great turning to Christ. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit has regenerated many thousands of men and women. I believe also that many have come into the churches without truly understanding what Christ has done for sinners. It is precisely because of this that Edwards reads like an astute 21st Century observer of the church in Nepal. We would benefit immensely from a careful examination of his penetrating analysis. [4]

  19. Conversion is the change of life that accompanies regeneration
  20. In the NT the words used for this concept are epistrepho and its cognates, especially strepho. [5] These words are used in the Greek translation of the OT (the Septuagint) to translate the Hebrew sub, 'to turn back' or 'return'. The literal meaning of these verbs then is to turn as in changing direction (cf. John 21: 20). From this, the NT uses the word in a figurative way to denote a decisive, God-ward reorientation.

    They tell us how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 Thessalonians 1: 9)

    How does conversion differ from regeneration? The key point here is that, whereas regeneration is a once-for-all inward event wrought upon the person by the Holy Spirit which may or may not be immediately apparent, conversion is a conscious turning of the sinner to God and away from sin. The Bible nowhere commands a man to make himself born again but it does command conversion (e.g. Mt. 4: 17).

    We must be careful however, in calling sinners to repentance that we do not give the impression that all that is required is some kind of external act. Getting someone to 'pray the prayer' can be substituting an empty form for real pleading. Calling a person to raise a hand or stand may give the impression that such an act will lead to spiritual birth which, as I hope I have made clear, does not follow.

  21. Conversion may not occur all at once
  22. A person who hears the gospel may consciously turn to Christ in a once-for-all conspicuous event. This is not inevitable, however. The change of heart may happen over a period of time. It is clear from the testimonies of those who have come to Christ in the Hindu context that this can take a considerable time (see following article by H.L. Richard, A Brahmin's Pilgrimage in Christ: Lessons from N.V. Tilak). It is not uncommon that a polytheist becomes a monotheist before he understands the gospel. We might be visiting a deeply religious man and exposing him to the person of Jesus in the Gospels. He moves slowly from complete ignorance to accepting that Jesus is 'one of the gods' to recognising his superiority and finally to acknowledging his uniqueness and trusting him entirely for his salvation. We must not, therefore, rebuke the seeker for his lack of progress but recognise the Holy Spirit at work even in the first moves towards the truth. We must pray and encourage him to press on in his pilgrimage. At some point in the process of conversion, then, the Holy Spirit regenerates the seeker and makes him a child of God. S.S. Smalley puts it succinctly:

    Conversion is the act of turning from sin and self towards God through Jesus Christ, often as the result of some form of proclamation. At a particular point in the process God, by grace, regenerates the believer and gives that person eternal life (Romans 6: 23; 2 Corinthians 5: 17).[6]

    But even when a man is clearly trusting in Christ the process of change goes on. Sanctification is ongoing. So for a pilgrim in Christ to announce to his friends that he has arrived not only sounds proud and unspiritual but is also inaccurate. The yatra continues, but with new confidence and hope.

  23. Conversion is spiritual and moral not social and cultural
  24. Conversion in the Bible is a spiritual and moral turning. In the OT the prophets would call on the people of Israel to turn back to God. This conversion, then, had three facets: 1) obedience to the will of God; 2) trust in God in rejection of all human help and all false gods; and 3) turning aside from all ungodly actions. [7]

    In the NT the teaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus expresses the full OT nuance of conversion in the command to 'repent' (Gk. metanoeo, Mk. 1: 15). This is more than just a daily confession of sin. It is a radical change of heart. The new believer in Christ is now confronted with certain patterns of behaviour that have been part of his way of life that need changing. But what exactly needs to change? It is simply confusing and unhelpful to say that 'everything needs to change' as I have heard from the pulpit. Pastoral issues need to be brought under the light of Scripture, properly interpreted, to discern appropriate advice. When a custom, however seemingly insignificant, is proscribed merely on the basis that it is 'something we don't do' it can have four serious and unwelcome consequences.

    Firstly, it leaves the believer confused as to how to make ethical decisions. The Bible is the yardstick or, to use Biblical language, the plumb-line by which we measure our lives (Amos 7: 7-8). But if we make ethical decisions by appealing to some other standard it leaves the believer confused as to how such decisions should be made. Growth is stunted. The disciple does not grow up, as he should.

    Secondly, such a condemnation ties a millstone of false guilt on the sensitive conscience. The believer's joy in Christ is yanked from under him leaving him floundering in unnecessary guilt feelings that he cannot resolve.

    Thirdly, this practice leads to duplicity as practices that are taboo go 'underground' rather than being dealt with in the open. Church members learn that there are certain subjects that must not be talked about with other members. In some cases there is a general awareness that a certain practice goes on but a quiet understanding that it is not to be aired in public.

    Fourthly, the authority of the Bible is undermined by such actions. If there are some acts that, while not acceptable to the church leadership, are nevertheless allowed to go on in secret perhaps other practices, clearly contrary to God's moral directives in the Bible, can also be acceptable.

    NT conversion is not a change from one social group (jat/jati) to another. I have argued this before (VOB 1:1, Fifty Years On) and it has been expressed repeatedly in successive issues of this journal. Because there continues to be so much confusion on this point I will reiterate it here. Paul instructs the Corinthians thus: "each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him" (1 Corinthians 7: 17). And to make sure no one says 'Well that was just for the Corinthians' the apostle adds, "This is the rule I lay down in all the churches."

    Conversion then, in the Biblical sense, cannot mean social change. But that is the usual way it is understood in South Asia. Even if the new believer does not say that he has changed religion or community his actions will speak louder than words if he rejects wholesale the traditions of his parents or marries outside the customary boundaries. It is the latter action, more than any other perhaps, that demonstrates to the wider society that the new believer has indeed rejected his birth-community.

In conclusion, I plead for a more thoroughly Biblical approach to this most basic and fundamental issue. The stakes are high. Men are women are approaching the great white throne. Will we continue to send them there with a false sense of security? Are we prepared to pay the price to reform our evangelism? I will never forget the boy on Brighton beach and I am determined that, with God's help, I will never again substitute mechanical form for real spirituality.


  1. All Bible quotes are from the New International Version.
  2. D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984, p. 41f.
  3. Mark Harris, 'Understanding Conversion', Evangelical Missions Quarterly 38 (4): 495, October 2002.
  4. Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections, Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1961, (First published 1746). (This work has recently been abridged and re-written for today's readers and published by Grace Publications Trust under the title The Experience That Counts! and available from Evangelical Press, 12 Wooler St., Darlington, Co. Durham, DL1 1RQ, UK.)
  5. Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich (eds.) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1 vol. ed. G.W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985, p. 1093ff.
  6. S.S. Smalley, 'Conversion' in Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright and J.I. Packer (eds.) New Dictionary of Theology, Leicester and Downers Grove: IVP, 1988, p. 167.
  7. Kittel & Friedrich (eds.) p. 641.

Mark Johnson is the pen name of a missionary working in Nepal. He is editor of Voice of Bhakti.

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bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty