Spiritual Birthline by Stephen E. Smallman
The thesis of this book is that spiritual birth is analogous to physical birth and thus a process. As physical birth begins with conception, which results in pregnancy and eventually in delivery leading to growth, so spiritual birth begins with regeneration followed by God’s effectual calling leading to conversion and finally sanctification (pp. 24-25). Accepting this analogy enables us to see that each person’s spiritual journey to conversion is unique. More importantly it allows the evangelist to recognize that he is not a salesman attempting to close a deal. He is a midwife (p. 71) assisting in the delivery of a spiritual infant. The book is literally filled with unique experiences of the spiritual birthline which prop up Smallman’s position—a position which has much to commend it.
Theologically the author is defending a Reformed understanding of soteriology. He is careful to choose his words and he tries not to draw too deep a line in the sand, but his doctrinal emphasis is clear. Smallman believes regeneration is an act of God which breathes spiritual life into a soul (p. 26). At that point we are “spiritually pregnant“ and being drawn toward conversion. But actual conversion, at which time the individual repents and places faith in Christ, may be years away (p. 21). Therefore, the individual has spiritual life—they are “born again,” in some cases years before conversion. Conversion is just the time when the baby goes public (p. 27); the spiritual infant has actually been alive for some time.
As you might expect this is a rather controversial view, especially in the form taken by Smallman. Many, probably most, Christians realize that salvation is a supernatural work of God. No one will come to Christ without the regenerating work of God. However, the majority of Bible students would see the point of regeneration as all but simultaneous with the moment of faith. The idea that there could be days, months or even years separating regeneration from conversion is not a view that is common. And the reason being is that there is nothing in Scripture that directly teaches such.
The student of Scriptures may recognize that in some sense regeneration must precede conversion, but most see this as a logical sequence, not one actually worked out in time. Another thing that hamstrings Smallman’s position is that Scripture does not support it with any clarity. Regeneration (a number of different Greek words are used) itself is only mentioned in John 3:7, Titus 3:5 and 1 Peter 1:3, 23, and no passage addresses the timing. Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again and Peter says that regeneration is a result of God’s action through the Word. Paul tells us in Titus that regeneration is the particular ministry of the Holy Spirit. But no passage specifically addresses the order or the timing of regeneration and faith.
Smallman is basing his view of a long spiritual gestation period, admittedly (p. 122), on the experiences of people, rather than the revelation of Scripture. One practical level where this view seems to be harmful is in its outworking within the church. Smallman sees people as belongers before believers (p. 55). Therefore regenerate people, who are not yet converted are allowed to participate in any activity of the church including communion (p. 135, cf 132-133). This is a surefire way to fill the church with tares.
There are a number of other disturbing concepts offered by Smallman.
• He speaks of the church being missional—(p. 55) a trendy understanding of the church being a blessing to the world rather than an evangelist calling people to Christ. Missional sees the evangelistic mandate of the church as that of being a blessing rather than a witness.
• He believes Chuck Colson’s Roman Catholic wife to be a true Christian (p. 62).
• He believes in visions as an evangelistic tool (pp. 78-79, 116, 126).
• He has a convoluted view of conversion of children from Christian homes. He personally claimed the “promise” that his children would be saved (p. 141, 142), but apparently that promise does not extend to all Christian homes (p. 146)
• He speaks of “finding our center in Jesus,” a Roman Catholic mystical expression nowhere found in Scripture.
Spiritual Birthline is truly a mixed bag. It has a number of good concepts but it is marred by the problems noted above. Overall I cannot recommend this book.