How Many Selves Are There? (Part One)

New born baby

Recently, my wife’s 95 year-old mother went to be with her Lord in glory. Judy’s much-loved mom, Blanche Engevik, was a faithful, delightful, and unselfish servant of God. Judy is the second of eight children, all still living, who miss their mother greatly, but rejoice in her homegoing. Blanche’s passing led me to think about the major transition points during a person’s lifetime.

Each of these transitions can be thought of as the beginning of a new “self,” a word that one dictionary (Webster’s) defines (for our purposes here) as “the identity, character, or essential qualities of any person.” While we live all of our years as one continuing “self” (oneself), it is possible and, I trust, helpful to differentiate a number of other “selves” as we move along in life.

First, there is The Initial Self, begun at conception. When the sperm and egg from our parents united we began to exist. Within that fertilized egg (except in certain cases of genetic abnormality) were contained all things essential for our development as human beings, as long as we were attached to our mother and protected in her womb (Ps. 139:13-16).

Second, there is The Independent Self, begun at birth. When our little body was separated from that of our mother we began to live in a completely different matrix: air, along with fabric, human touch from outside, and all manner of things. During our early years in this new mode of existence we were totally dependent on others for our survival and nurture, yet in one relatively brief slice of time, at our birth, we became materially (as a body) an unattached and independent self. The Bible refers to this self as being “in Adam,” in contrast to the third self (explained next), being “in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22). The Bible also refers to this second self as the “old self,” in contrast to the “new self” (Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-10).

Third, there is The In-Christ Self, begun at regeneration. This is the moment when God re-generates a person: gives new life — spiritual life — to that individual. We may think of this as another conception, a spiritual one. The divine seed or “sperm” – God’s very life! — enters the human “egg” (the human being) and re-generates (but does not obliterate) the person (The Independent Self) and makes a new creation. This is the moment of new birth, which Jesus spoke of as being “born again” (John 3:3-8; see also 1:9-13). This is the beginning of the “new self.” The apostle Paul declared that “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here (2 Cor. 5:17). “He saved us through the washing of rebirth (‘regeneration’ in the King James Version) and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3: 5).

One of the most important designations for believers in the New Testament writings is that we are “in Christ.” This is the magnificent, historic doctrine of our union with Christ, from which flow most – if not all – other doctrines pertaining to the believer’s life here on earth and throughout eternity (John 15:1-4; 17:26; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 1:1-4; 4:32; Phil. 1:1; 2:1-2). This transaction is that of which Peter writes: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Pet. 1:13). (The Greek word here for “seed” is spora, from which we get “spore,” and the Greek word for “seed” in I John 3:9, which speaks of “God’s seed” living in those who are “born of God,” is sperma, from which we get our word “sperm.”)

While we had nothing to do (initially) with becoming our first two selves, we are invited and commanded to enter into this third self, our new life in Christ, as taught in the above-mentioned texts from the gospel of John and in such passages as Acts 2:37-41; 3:19-20; and 2 Corinthians 5:17-6:2. Even though God is the One who works this change in us, so that our salvation is not accomplished  by any effort of our own or of anyone else, we are expected and enabled by our loving Father to receive this gift of new life by our personal choice, through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

Many of those who baptize babies teach that the divine work of rebirth takes place through the ceremony itself, but there is no serious biblical support for such a view. The scriptures clearly teach that baptism follows one’s deliberate, personal decision to receive Christ. Confusion in the minds of some Christians may be due to the fact that, in the years of the early church, conversion involved three elements that were understood as being practically (and ideally) inseparable: belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, baptism in (or by, or with) the Holy Spirit, and water baptism. Concerning Spirit baptism, this is best understood as the Father’s work (gift) of immersing every newborn believer into one “spiritual water, ” as it were — the Holy Spirit himself – so that all who are “in” this ocean of divine love, power, and holiness are one spiritual body in Christ, his universal Church (Lk. 24:45-49; Acts 1:4-5; 2: 32-41; 9:17-19; 10:43-48; 11:15-18; and especially 1 Cor. 12:13).

While the newly developing church needed time – as led by God – to fully integrate new believers from four different backgrounds (Jews, half-Jews [Samaritans], non-Jews [Gentiles], and the disciples of John the Baptist) into the one universal body of Christ (as seen throughout the book of Acts), the order that emerges (theologically) in the conversion event is, as stated above, faith in Jesus, Spirit baptism, and water baptism.  The first two of these occur at the same time, even though some (erroneously, I believe) teach that Spirit baptism – demonstrated by “speaking in tongues” – must be pursued and attained by every Christian after they receive Christ, unless they spoke in tongues at the time of their conversion.

Concerning water baptism, in the New Testament church, after the divinely-led development of Christian experience and teaching on these matters, over a period of some twenty-five years (recorded in Acts 1:1 to 19:10), there was no such category as “unbaptized Christian.” From the beginning, our Lord intended belief to be followed immediately by baptism in water (Mt. 28:18-20). (The Greek word baptizo – the verb behind our noun “baptism” — means to dip or immerse, even plunge, drench, or overwhelm.) Water baptism was (and is) to be the outward sign of the inward change in us (regeneration accompanied by Spirit baptism), as our testimony to the world that our old life (old self) was crucified with Christ and that we are new selves in him (Rom. 6:1-14; Gal. 2:20; 6:14-15).

However we think about infant baptism, believer baptism, and Spirit baptism, our confidence in God for our new birth, new self, and new way of life must be in him alone, never in anything done to us or for us by human beings, ceremonies, or formulas, and not even in our own prayer to receive Christ, as though it was our accomplishment or meritorious work. Nevertheless, those who enter into the third-self category, The In-Christ Self, enter by their God-empowered volition. This is not something that happens to a person automatically, as in the cases of The Initial Self and The Independent Self. It is a terrible mistake – a very serious, even fatal, error – to assume that people who grow up in a “Christian” culture will gradually become “in Christ” apart from the saving work of God in them, through their repentance and faith, leading to eternal life (Jn. 6: 35-44, 63-65).

(In the next posting, God willing, I will develop two or three more transition points: two or three more selves. The first will be The Intermediate Self, begun at death. As in the case of our first two selves, these final selves, once they begin, will not involve any choice on our part.)