Q & A with Dr. Warren Vanhetloo

Question

Dr. Van, why do you think we (the current Christian community) make such a big deal in talking about the virgin birth? The commercialization of this event has made this a nice myth in today’s Christmas culture holiday, with no theological significance. I do not see very many references in the New Testament to the virgin birth being mentioned in the proclamation of the gospel. I do see the significance to the virgin birth, but why does it have such a small amount of Scriptural mention? Have we contributed to the culture myth with our manger scenes, etc.? Should we continue?

I’m not sure of the PA Dutch wording, but I like “Once is for always.” If God says it once, that gives us eternal truth. Happily, there are several passages which clearly set forth the truth of the special conception of a body for our Savior. Perhaps our present Christian communities sense a special need to emphasize the miraculous conception in a culture in which there is little or no respect for the sacredness of sex and also a great deal of fictitious nonsense about unusual origins. I think it is more likely a reaction in recognition of a need than an overplay of manger scenes, etc.

Also, I think two things in ancient cultures need to be considered in weighing why the fact was reported but not often repeated as the Gospel spread. The rulers of several different countries declared themselves to have been specially conceived children of the national deity. A supposed “miraculous” parentage was typically claimed in several religious settings. I suspect that in almost every case the ordinary people fully realized that their rulers were but ordinary men and would die as ordinary men die, except for the pomp and circumstance. The forceful and distinct message of Christianity as it went forth was the death and resurrection; learning later of a unique birth would be no problem regarding such an One.

Also, and more important in the areas where the Gospel spread so extensively, was the use of the word “virgin” of the temple prostitutes. Physical sex was considered a means of communion with the deity, an act of worship, throughout much of the known world. To speak of the mother of our Savior as a virgin would immediately misclassify her in the ears of most Gentiles. Her relation to the work of the Savior was not a significant part of the Gospel. Among believers, for later theological considerations, it was important. We can rejoice that Mary hid all these things in her heart and that Dr. Luke later learned of them from her and recorded them as divine revelation.

The important teaching of the Bible is that the eternal God took upon Himself a true human body, being born and growing up to fulfill His life as a sacrificial substitute. There is much throughout the New Testament about the Word becoming flesh, that Jesus came from heaven and that He returned to heaven. What we need to emphasize is the unique nature of our Redeemer, not just a unique conception. That Jesus is the eternal God-man is an important part of the Christmas story. That He is coming again and will judge and rule is also part of the story. I think those are the parts that need to be more emphasized.

“All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made”…”He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not” (John 1:3, 10).

Question

Dr Van, our teacher this morning referred to a commentary which stated that everyone should have a conversion experience. We were at Acts 19:4, where the twelve had been baptized but had not believed on Christ Jesus. What do you think of this?

I have several thoughts. In context, the twelve had known only of the immersion taught by John, who urged his followers to believe on Him who should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus (Acts 19:4), which they then did, and were immersed in the Name of the Lord Jesus (5). That much seems without question.

Is anyone ever saved by being immersed in water? The teaching of Scripture seems clear that a physical action is not what is effective, but personal trust in the finished work of Christ is necessary to procure our salvation. Whether the immersion is that introduced by John the Baptist, by Jesus, or a particular wording demanded by a denomination, water immersion, in and by itself, has no redeeming power. Nor does sprinkling or anything else substituted for immersion. A physical action does not produce spiritual results.

Second, John’s baptism could be valid or invalid. When he immersed Jesus of Nazareth, the Father and the Holy Spirit gave audible and visible approval. So far as we know, the disciples who then followed Jesus were not immersed again. John’s immersion was, so to speak, “Christian” immersion. In the ministry of Jesus, the disciples did the immersing, not Jesus Himself (John 4:2). The Apostle Paul did not often perform the immersions. The validity of water immersion, following Pentecost, was that it gave public testimony to immersion into the death and resurrection of Jesus by the Holy Spirit (usually called Spirit baptism).

Having such an experience of being born again is the sine qua non of redemption. The authority for that is no denominational declaration or textbook requirement, but the clear teaching of Jesus. He said to one thoroughly acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures, “Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). And further, “That which born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto you, you must be born again” (John 3:6-7). Apart from the special birth of Jesus Himself, there are not, there will not be, and there have not been any exceptions. One who has not had a new birth experience is not a Christian.

Here there is a very important distinction to emphasize: this is not to say that only those who can remember such a conversion experience are born again believers. For many, the time and manner of their personally putting their soul’s salvation into Jesus was so early or under such circumstances that they no longer remember it. It is not the recall but the reality that is important. The Bible does not emphasize the recall. It teaches that where there is birth there is growth. Going forward at an invitation but showing no spiritual life thereafter is self-deception or Satan deception. One who is not made spiritually alive is yet spiritually dead.

What of one who has serious doubts about whether or not he is saved? God is not willing that any should perish. You cannot offend Him by asking Him to save you a second or third or more times. Is it important to know which time He may have judged that your heart approach was right and completed the work of regeneration? Not at all. What is important is that a new life has been implanted, and it will show itself in everyday conduct.

“Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other Name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).


Warren Vanhetloo has A.B., B.D., Th.M., Th.D., and D.D. degrees. He served three pastorates in Michigan, taught 20 years at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN), taught 23 years at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and is listed as adjunct faculty at Calvary. Retired, he lives in Holland, Michigan. Since the death of his wife a year ago, at the urging of fellow faculty and former students, he sends an email newsletter called “Cogitations” to those who request it.

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