Understanding How We Experience the New Birth
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
One thing I love to think about is the gracious work of God in saving sinners like me. It was perhaps for that reason that I was drawn to Stephen Smallman’s Spiritual Birthline: Understanding How We Experience the New Birth (Crossway, 2006). The book is an attempt to discover how people experience the work of the Holy Spirit in spiritual birth; especially to show how the Spirit is at work in a person’s life before they actually exercise faith in Jesus (19).
Clearly this is a topic that has not received a lot of attention in recent evangelicalism and I am glad Smallman has taken the initiative to write on it. The author is an experienced pastor and the warmth of this experience is really evident on every page. That is perhaps what I most enjoyed about the book. Smallman is intent on showing us that there is no cookie-cutter process that God uses with each individual, rather each person is saved by the Lord through a massive variety of interventions, events, and such things. One job of the faithful pastor is to carefully examine people to see where they are in this process and help them along in it toward Christ.
Having said that, I do have some major concerns about the theology of the book. My own view is that Smallman has pressed the human birth process too far as an analogy for what happens in spiritual birth. Although he unequivocally states that the Scriptures must be the final authority in interpreting our salvation experience (34), he undoes his own argument by beginning the book with personal experiences and the illustration of human conception and birth, then setting out to make the Word fit his description. (This methodological error is apparent in chapter 7 (72, 73) as well.
The whole premise of the book can be captured in the following model:
3. Delivery: the baby cries
1. Life begins
2. Effectual calling
3. Conversion: repentance and faith
Right away we are met with an interesting proposal. Smallman suggests that spiritual life exists before conversion and that the evidence of this is the effectual call that is taking place on the individual; what he also describes as the "process of coming to a conscious faith, once the work of God has begun…" (27). He attempts to defend this from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 – but I remain unconvinced.
It seems that Smallman has confused what older theologians referred to as "awakening" with the "effectual call." In their careful language they were holding forth the difference between a King Agrippa and a Lydia. Agrippa was visibly agitated by the Apostle Paul’s preaching – awakened, but not converted. In another time and place, Lydia was awakened, too… but it was an awakening that led to conversion since the "Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul." Then, and only then, could anyone know that Lydia was effectually called by God into a saving relationship with Himself. Smallman tries to protect this distinction between awakening and calling (without using the terms), but his pressing of the birth model keeps betraying his theology.
The question that plagued my mind through the book was this: Would the person who physically dies in "stage two" of "pregnancy/effectual calling" find himself in heaven with Christ. In other words, would the individual who has given no outward manifestation or profession of new life in Christ be truly born again? If consistent, I think Smallman would have to answer yes. In his zeal to stress the "process" of salvation as compared to the oft-touted "event-salvation" of modern evangelicalism, I think he has gone too far. In fact, he seems to suggest a kind of "ignorant conversion" (my term, not his) wherein "how people view themselves may not be the same as where they actually are or… where God sees them." (42).
This comes into focus as he describes how the children of Christian families come to faith. He rightly notes that there are no second-generation conversion experiences described in the New Testament, but then he wrongly (in my opinion) turns to the Old Testament to find how it was children became a part of the community. What ends up being taught is a kind of "presumptive-regeneration light" that still tries to urge some form of public profession that acknowledges the words of Romans 10:5-17.
All in all I found the book rather frustrating. Not because there was so much in it that I disagreed with, but because there was so much in it that I liked. The emphasis on learning to search out the spiritual stories of others was very helpful. The reminder that not all come to faith in neat and predictable ways was also great. But the fuzziness of his soteriology (doctrine of salvation), and allusions to emergent trends – "belonging before believing" (55, 133), "open communion" (135), "kingdom living" (155ff) – makes me very hesitant to recommend the book. In dealing with matters of this magnitude, we need precision to the text.