A number of scholars have commented on Augustine’s “pessimism.” The label has also been attached to Martin Luther and John Calvin who shared Augustine’s belief in Original Sin. That is, they all affirmed the Bible teaching that humanity died in Adam. So that no one has spiritual life without new birth.
Jesus supported this when he told Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jn 3:6) so Nicodemus needed to be “born again” or “born from above.” Spiritual life only comes by union with the Spirit. Paul also spoke of humanity being “dead” in sin before some, but not all, are made alive in Christ (Eph. 2:1-8).
This belief has a corollary that salvation is not a human project. No lifeless soul is able to generate its own new life. Good family heritage, church teaching, or noble impulses can’t produce life on their own. A person’s life in Christ comes by the Spirit; and education without his presence only produces Spiritless—lifeless—religion.
Yet a more optimistic view, shared by many, is that all humanity retains the image of God or a divine spark within. This spiritual capacity only needs to be exercised. And with this optimism in place a number of Christian communities reject calls to be “born again.” They reason that all humans have free will, and access to the creeds required for faith. This faith is then confirmed in souls as soon as basic creeds are learned and affirmed. Sound knowledge is the key.
Where do we go with these two views of spirituality? Are they mutually exclusive?
If we think in pragmatic terms the optimistic approach is more attractive. Widespread spiritual skepticism today is only reinforced when claims about supernatural selectivity are made. So, it’s wise to dismiss ideas that make Christian faith seem quirky or exclusive. The premise, for instance, of Virtue Ethics—formulated by Aristotle and blended into Christianity by Thomas Aquinas—seems sound: humans become good by practicing good deeds. And this common sense approach must be what God has in mind. So, any religious views that dismiss this notion should be dismissed themselves.
The problem with this answer is that it dismisses what Jesus told Nicodemus. Jesus started with the Spirit. All of us are invited to receive and respond to the Spirit. The Spirit gives us access to God’s heart. And he pours out God’s love in our hearts, so that we taste and share the fruit Paul described in Galatians 5, “Love, joy, peace, patience …” But all who deny—“blaspheme”—the Spirit’s ministry reject his transforming presence.
To say more, the Spirit frees human hearts from instinctive selfishness—from our being “curved in” on self by sin. Adam’s rebellion in Eden led to a disconnect with God: he was no longer bonded to God’s life by the indwelling Spirit. So all human spirits, without the Spirit’s bonding from Adam onward, also turned inward. The once naked but unashamed Adam became self-conscious and ashamed when God appeared. And now Christ’s ambition is to restore that connection. So that by sharing his Spirit—restoring what was lost—his character begins to inform and shape our character “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).
The point is critical: we don’t have access to God’s eternal life without the Spirit. And when the Spirit is restored in souls throughout the Bible change is obvious. Light replaces darkness. Joy replaces emptiness. Peace replaces fears. And selfless love dismisses selfishness. And, as Jesus pointed out in the episode reported in John 8, believers love listening to Jesus. Where we once couldn’t bear to hear his word, we now have an insatiable appetite for all he shares.
So the invitation of the Psalmist still calls out, even to “optimistic” folks who profess faith but still reject being born again. Listen for the Spirit’s wooing call, “Oh taste and see, the Lord is good!” and respond.