Finally Alive by John Piper
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Recently I was listening to a recording of Vishal Mangalwadi’s lecture “From Bach to Cobain,” which is part of a series that he gave at the University of Minnesota under the title “Must the Sun Set on the West?” In this lecture, he spoke briefl y about the use of the mantra in Eastern religions. When I heard what he said, I thought: That will be very signifi cant in helping me make one of my points in this chapter, namely, how the “word” functions to bring about the new birth.
So let me try to make a connection between the focus of the previous chapter on 1 Peter 1:23 and the present focus on John 1:12–13 by means of pondering how a mantra differs from the gospel. It is amazing how many religious websites link the meaning of mantra to John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The point they make is that reality is essentially sound, and we can gain access to ultimate reality by repeating certain sacred sounds. Hence, mantra.
Verbal Sounds without Verbal Meaning
One website explains a mantra like this: “Just by repeating the name, that which cannot be understood will be understood, and just by repeating the name that which cannot be seen, will be seen.”16 In other words, the way a mantra works is not by clarifying the meaning of words and showing how the meaning of words corresponds to reality. Rather, a mantra is a combination of verbal sounds without verbal meaning. The aim of a mantra is not to make ideas clear, but to make ideas vanish, so that there is a more immediate access to ultimate reality.
Knowing where you stand in this matter is very important. Some Christians, who don’t know what they believe about how God relates to us through the mind, lose their bearings and drift into the practices of Eastern religions without any sense that they may be cutting themselves off from Christ.
An Intelligible Narration about Jesus
1 Peter 1:23 says, as we saw in the last chapter, that we “have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” This sentence is stupendously important. We are born again, that is, we are united by the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ so that we share in his new, eternal resurrection life through the word of God. This miracle, this transfer from death to life, happens through the hearing of the word of God.
Now you need to decide whether you think this is a reference to the use of the word of God as a mantra, or the use of the word of God as a mentally intelligible narration of real historical events concerning Jesus Christ and what this person and these events mean for those who believe. Are we connected to divine reality—to God
in the new birth—by the mystical processes of repetition of sacred sounds, freeing our minds from thought, and gaining immediate access to ultimate reality, or are we connected to divine reality—to Jesus Christ crucifi ed and risen—by hearing and believing the intelligible words of God as the narration of what Jesus Christ accomplished for us when he died and rose again in history?
After saying in 1 Peter 1:23 that we are born again “through the living and abiding word of God,” Peter says in verse 25, “This word is the good news that was preached to you.” In other words, the word through which we are born again is “the good news that was preached to you.” And what is that? What is that gospel or good news? It’s this:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of fi rst importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor. 15:1–5)
The Gospel Is News
In other words, the gospel is news about events and their significance. It’s about events that happened, that people could see with their eyes and touch with their hands and think about with their minds and describe with their mouths. It’s the news about the death of Jesus in history and his resurrection and these events getting their meaning, as Paul says, from Scripture: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”
We are saved, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:2, by believing this news. And we believe it because we heard it and understood it with our minds. Paul ends that section in 1 Corinthians 15:11
by saying, “So we preach and so you believed.” As he said in Romans 10:17: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” And Galatians 3:2, 5: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?…Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?”
In other words, “hearing with faith” is what happens when we are “born again through the living and abiding word of God.” The gospel—the news about Jesus Christ—is preached, we hear it, and through it we are born again. Faith is brought into being. “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18).
It Doesn’t Work Like That
This truth, this living and abiding word, this gospel, is not a mantra. And it doesn’t work like a mantra. It doesn’t work through the repetition of sacred sounds. It works because it is the intelligible truth about what really happened when Jesus died and rose again, and because God means for his Son to be glorified by our knowing and believing who his Son really is and what he really did to save sinners.
What we learn from 1 Peter 1:23 (“born again through the living and abiding word of God, the gospel”) is that the whole worldview supporting the mantra is misguided and mistaken. It isn’t rooted in history. It isn’t rooted in Jesus Christ. It isn’t rooted in the intelligibility of historical narrative. It isn’t rooted in the responsibility of the human mind to construe meaning from the preaching of Christ. It isn’t rooted in the duty of the soul to see and believe the gospel of Christ crucified and risen.
O how jealous I am that the followers of Jesus be a Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, discerning people. For example, I pray that you don’t just sign up for your local yoga class and not
17 http://yoga.iloveindia.com/yoga-types/mantra-yoga.html, accessed 5-1-08.
18 http://yoga.iloveindia.com/what-yoga.html, accessed 05-01-08.
know what you are doing. Yoga is to the body what mantra is to the mouth. The two are rooted in the same worldview. Take my own town as an example. When I go to the Minneapolis YWCA website and click on “fi tness classes,” I find 22 references to yoga, including Beginning Yoga, MS Yoga, Youngster Yoga, Youth Dance and Yoga, and Yoga for Everybody.
One explanation says that in “mantra yoga” one “has to chant a word or a phrase until he/she transcends mind and emotions. In the process the super conscious is discovered and achieved.”17 Then yoga itself is described like this:
Yoga focuses on harmony between mind and body. Yoga derives its philosophy from Indian metaphysical beliefs. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit language and means union or merger. The ultimate aim of this philosophy is to strike a balance between mind and body and attain self-enlightenment. To achieve this, yoga uses movement, breath, posture, relaxation, and meditation in order to establish a healthy, lively, and balanced approach to life.18
You were born again through the living and abiding word of God. This word is the gospel of Jesus Christ crucifi ed and risen. Don’t fall prey to another gospel. There is no other gospel, and there is no other path to God—or to ultimate well-being—than hearing, understanding, and believing the scandalous news of Jesus Christ in the gospel.
The Word Became Flesh
So when we come to John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”), we will not stop there, tear it out of its context, and fit it into a worldview that tries to transcend the fl esh with meditation, mantras, and
yoga. No, we will read all the way to verse 14 and beyond: “And the Word became fl esh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
This is why the word through which we are born again cannot be a mantra. It became fl esh and dwelt among us and lived a perfect life and died in our place and bore the wrath of God and rose physically from the dead, and it now comes to us in a historical narrative called the gospel. The Word was God and is God. He was not a sound. He was a Person. He was called the Word because he represents the expression of all that God the Father is.
And the Word became fl esh. And the story of his saving work—the gospel, the word of God—is the way Jesus Christ, the Word, comes to us and regenerates us and renews us. We hear this word, and by grace, we understand this word, and receive this word, and are born again by this word. And we never, never, never try—by mantras or any other means—to empty our minds of this word. Never.
Born Not of Man but of God
Focus briefl y on John 1:11–13:
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the fl esh nor of the will of man, but of God.
This text has the same structure as 1 Peter 1:22–23, which we have spent so much time on. In verse 12, those who are given the right to be the children of God are those who receive Christ and believe on his name. So being a child of God is connected
to believing. It doesn’t say how it’s connected—which causes which—it just says they are connected. If you receive Christ, if you believe in his name, you are a child of God. That is, you are born again and belong to God’s family forever. So becoming a child of God is connected to our act of believing. That’s like 1 Peter 1:22.
Then in John 1:13, being born again is connected not with our act of believing but with God’s act of begetting: “…who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the fl esh nor of the will of man, but of God.” The emphasis in verse 13 is to make clear that the act of the new birth is not caused by ordinary human agency.
There are three negations: not of blood (literally “bloods”), not of the will of the fl esh, not of the will of man (literally, of a male, that is, a husband). In other words, the emphasis falls on saying that being in God’s family is decisively not connected with being in any human family—including the Jewish family. Being born the second time does not depend on who gave birth to you the first time.
“Not of bloods” means that two people coming together from two bloodlines is irrelevant. Their union does not make a child of God. “Not of the will of the fl esh” means that humanity as mere humanity (fl esh) cannot produce a child of God. Jesus says in John 3:6, “That which is born of the fl esh is flesh.” That’s all that flesh can produce. It can’t produce a child of God. “Not of the will of a male” means that no husband, no matter how holy he is, can produce a child of God.
The alternative to all these is not any human act, but God himself. Verse 13: “…who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the fl esh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Decisive over human blood and human will and human husbands is God. Those who received Christ and believed on his name are born of God. They are the born-again ones.
The emphasis of John 1:12–13 falls on new birth being the work of God, not man. So how does John understand the relationship between our act of believing and God’s act of begetting? Does God’s begetting cause our believing, or does our believing bring about God’s begetting? Does the new birth bring about faith, or does faith bring about the new birth? If we only had these verses, the emphasis would fall on: not of the will of the flesh, but of God. That is, God’s begetting, not man’s believing would appear to be decisive in the new birth.
God’s Begetting Causes Our Believing
But we are not limited to these verses to know what John teaches about how our faith and God’s work in the new birth relate to each other. John tells us plainly in 1 John 5:1. This is the clearest text in the New Testament on the relationship between faith and the new birth. Watch the verbs closely as we read 1 John 5:1: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Here is what John Stott says on this verse, and I agree totally:
The combination of present tense (believes) and perfect tense [has been born] is important. It shows clearly that believing is the consequence, not the cause, of the new birth. Our present, continuing activity of believing is the result, and therefore, the evidence, of our past experience
of new birth by which we became and remain God’s children.19
So here’s the upshot of these last two chapters: God’s act in bringing about the new birth is the bringing into being of a believer where once there was only spiritual deadness and unbelief. The reason that the new birth is God’s creation of a
19 John Stott, The Letters of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 175.
believer is that this new creation happens through the word of God (1 Pet. 1:23; James 1:18)—through the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit, creates spiritual understanding and faith where once there was blindness and unbelief.20 It does this as a narrative of historical events—the cross and the resurrection—that reveal the glory of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:4–6). This narrative is the power of God bringing about the new birth and awakening faith (Rom. 1:16).
Therefore, the new birth does not come through a mantra or anything like it. It comes as a God-given, clear-headed, conscious embrace of the historical person Jesus Christ as the Savior, Lord, and Treasure of our life. And because of that I can—and I do— appeal to you: Look at him in the gospel—the story of his life and death and resurrection and what they mean for your life. See his glory and his truth. Receive him and believe in his name. And you will be a child of God.
20 For more on faith as a gift of God, see 2 Tim. 2:25–26; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29;
Acts 5:31; 13:48; 16:14; 18:27.