On to a New Life

"In Christ Jesus neither the cutting away nor the foreskin is of any value, but a new creature," wrote Menno Simons on the title page of his book Of the Heavenly Birth and the New Creature in 1556. He quoted Paul. And with Paul and Menno Simons, the Anabaptists rejected all external means of salvation.

Salvation for the Anabaptists was Christ. To be saved was to turn to him in the heart and follow him in a new life, like Hans Betz who got converted and baptized at Donauwörth in the Fränkische Alb in 1530.

Hans was a young man with many friends. He learned how to run a loom and earned a good wage in a linen shop. Old enough to know what happens in town at night, he took part in it. He thought he had a good life and that he enjoyed it . . . but he felt guilty.

Then an Anabaptist messenger came to town. Hans heard him speak and felt an inner call. He repented of his sins, got baptized, and gave up all he had to follow Christ.

After some time, Hans found a place among a community of believers at Znaim in Moravia. When they needed to flee he fled and was captured with them. His captors threw him into the dungeons of the castle at Passau on the Danube. There he had time to write his testimony:

In the beginning, God created me to be his child. He created me clean. He gave me his image when I was still in my mother's womb. But when I was born onto the earth I lost my goodness and was robbed of the innocence God had given to me. I grew up in the world, surrounded by all the impurities of sin. I sought only possessions and money, which are against God. Whatever my eyes lusted after, I sought in my heart. . . .

Even though the law of God within me resisted the common sins in which I lived, I did not obey it. I was perverted from the bottom of my heart. My mouth could speak only bad things, and my vices were many. Even though my spirit would have been willing to stay away from sin, I was too weak in the battle and soon found myself lying on my side. The good that I wanted to do I could not accomplish because the power of sin kept forcing me to do wrong. I led an uncontrolled life, driven by the lusts of my heart. I lost God's gift and sinned to the limit. Then the law of God judged me, and even though it was given for life, it condemned me to death.

When I recognized the law of God, I began to see the magnitude of my sins, my vices, and my shame. The law wounded me and condemned me to death and hell. There, surrounded by sin, death and hell I looked for God and he brought me to life again. He moved me with his law to where I found again the grace which I had lost for so long a time. . . .

The law taught me to recognize sin and drove me back to God's gift, given in Christ. I would not have known what sin was if God had not spoken to me. Like sin rules the man who lives in it, God's grace rules the man whom Christ bears again. He is led out of all sin to live in what is right.

When the law wounded my conscience I began to cry for God's grace and mercy. I began to cry to him to help me out of my sin and to accept me once more as his child for his mercy's sake. God in his grace, heard through Christ my cry. He brought me out of death, forgave my sins, took me again as his son, and through him I overcame sin when he made me new. Because I had fallen from God through sin and come under his wrath, he bore me again as his child. He bore me in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the man in between, so that I would not be lost.

No one comes to God unless God draws him. Therefore he shows us Christ so that none of us will run away from him when we see through the law the punishment we deserve.1

Adam and Christ

"Jesus Christ, through his obedience, undid the disobedience of Adam and all his descendants," wrote Menno Simons. "And by his painful death he restored life."2

"That which Adam lost, we find again in Christ, beautifully adorned and clear,"3 wrote an Ausbund writer.

What did Adam lose?

The Anabaptists believed that Adam, when he sinned, lost his innocence. They believed that innocence is a gift of God and that we are all born with it. But when we grow up and lose our innocence, we lose the image of God, which can only be found again in Christ.4

Coming to Christ, the Anabaptists believed, is coming back to the love, the freedom, and the innocence of childhood. Sin, and the laws made to control sin, no longer affect us in Christ. In Christ we are above sin and above the law, compelled by nothing but love. Wolfgang Brandhuber, shortly before they killed him at Linz in Austria, wrote:

If we want to be one with God, we need to be one with his will (Christ Jesus). That happens when we tell him about our great needs and when we tell him that we love him. If we love him we keep his commandments because love -- if it is love -- comes from the heart. How could true love be anything but from the heart? And love continually seeks love, like the bride in Solomon's song who can sing and speak of nothing else.

True Christianity works on nothing but love. It needs no law because it fulfills the commands of God out of pure love and exercises itself in this day and night. It leaves everything earthly behind. It despises everything earthly to the pit, and asks: "Why bother with that?" It seeks because it loves. The more it loves the more it seeks to be loved -- engaging itself to the Beloved One and peering out through the lattice work to watch him come from afar.5

Hans Betz, wrote:

Christ shows us the law of God for man: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." He shows us what is good and what is bad so that we may live in a different way. Christ is the fulfillment of the law that was given in figures to Moses. All the figures of the law end in Christ because Christ is the law. To obey the law, says Christ, is to love God with all the strength of our souls, and to love our neighbour as ourself. In these short commands the law is gathered up in Christ.

Faith and love out of a pure heart, says Paul, is the sum of all commands. The one who lives in God's love is a disciple of Christ and knows the truth. Love is kind and friendly and does no one harm. It bears everything and keeps away from sin. . . . This is how the law and the prophets are fulfilled in Christ our Lord. This is the way he has shown us that leads to the Father and eternal life. . . .6

A Turning Around

The Anabaptists spoke often of being born again. Menno Simons quoted Christ:

"Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."

Then he wrote :

Listen! These are not words invented by men. They were not resolved or decided on in any church council. These are the words of the Son of God! The Word is powerful and clear and means not only Nicodemus but all of Adam's descendants who have come to a mature age. It is too bad that the Word has been hidden by the ugly yeast, the dung of human commandments, human rules, and human interpretations to such an extent that scarcely one or two out of a thousand is left who understands the heavenly birth anymore.7

A new birth, a heavenly birth, a baptism of the Spirit -- the Anabaptists used all of these terms, but none more often than the term Bekehrung (conversion), which in German means literally "a turning around." They got the word from the German Gospel of Matthew: "Unless you turn yourselves around and become like little children you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 18:3).

Hans Betz wrote:

Listen to how one receives Christ. You need to make a covenant with him. In the depths of your heart you need to turn from sin. Then you will be clean. Christ will come to you and show you his Spirit -- and he will bear you again.8

Menno Simons wrote:

If you wish to be saved, your earthly, carnal, ungodly life must first be made new. The holy writings with their admonitions, their reproof, their accounts of miracles, ceremonies, and sacraments teach us nothing but repentance. If you do not repent there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can help you, for without true repentance we comfort ourselves in vain. . . .

We must be born from above. We must be transformed and made new in our hearts. We must be transplanted from the unrighteous and evil nature of Adam into the true and good nature of Christ, or we can never in all eternity be saved by any means, be they of men or of God. Whoever has not truly repented and found a new life (I speak of those who are of the age of understanding) is lost. This is unmistakably clear. Everyone who does not wish to be deceived should guard this in the little chest of his conscience.9

An Ausbund writer wrote:

Listen all you Christians who have been born again! God's Son from the Kingdom of Heaven died on the cross and suffered death and shame. Let us follow him! Let us take up our cross!

The blood of Jesus washes away the sins of those who leave all to follow him, and who believe on God alone -- even though they have sinned much. The Holy Spirit is given to those who believe and are baptized, if they follow Christ. With the Spirit they kill the flesh and find peace with God.

Those who are washed and made free from sin with the blood of Christ walk in the Spirit with broken hearts. The Spirit rules them and shows them the way. Therefore, purified children of God -- born again -- keep yourselves pure! Let no man deceive you! The one who does right is right. The one who sins is a slave to sin.10

No Turning Back

The Anabaptists could not talk about the new life without mentioning the community of Christ, found in suffering with him, and the need for a total surrender (Gelassenheit). The material on this subject is vast. It is overwhelming -- by far the most popular theme of the Anabaptist writings of southern Germany and Austria. I will quote only Hans Betz who drew a parallel between the Christian's surrender and Lot leaving everything behind when he left Sodom to begin a new life.

Hans Betz wrote:

Let us fight valiantly on, pressing toward the prize. The one who turns to one side or the other will perish with Lot's wife who turned to look back, feeling sorry for the possessions she left behind.11

Let him who has laid his hand on the plow not look back! Press on to the goal! Press on to Jesus Christ! The one who gains Christ will rise with him from the dead on the youngest day. . . . Remember Lot's wife! When she looked back she was punished by God and became a pillar of salt. Let this be your example, you who have chosen the Way. Do not turn around! Do not look back! Declare yourselves for Christ and go ahead! If you overcome you will live with him in eternal joy!12

No Cheap Grace

"The proud world wants to be Christian too," wrote an Ausbund writer. "But the world is ashamed of the cross. The world says: No. That cannot be. Why should we suffer if the sufferings of Christ were enough to redeem us from our sins? Oh blind world, you will be put to shame! Your faith will not save you! Repent! If you do not want to suffer forever, come out from among the world and sin no more!"13

Othmar Roth of Sankt Gallen in Switzerland wrote in 1532:

Man, are you tired of being sad? Start doing what is right. Sin brings eternal pain, and one needs to fight it. Be serious! Get to know yourself first. Purify your heart and be humble. Then men may call you great.

It is difficult for the one who loves to talk to get to know himself. If he would think of who he is, he would not have so much to say. Look at yourself! Leave the rest. Do not gossip. Be quiet . . . so that in the end you may not be put to shame.

What you measure out will be measured to you. Christ treats all men fairly. No sin remains unpunished. Therefore fear God and keep his commands. No good deed remains without its reward. Pray for grace, early and late, and pray that we may be spared. If you want to be saved, keep away from sin! To be carnally minded is death. Leave the world! Leave your possessions! Leave your goods and your money! The one who thinks of death chooses the best and Christ earns grace for him.

God will not forsake the one who lives in the truth. God is ready to hear us if we hate sin. Oh Jesus Christ, it is your spirit that comforts us. Do not leave us! Be merciful to us and intercede for us . . . as we near the end of time.14

Menno Simons wrote:

We with a sincere heart desire to die to sin, to bury our sins with Christ, and to rise with him to a new life, just as our baptism signifies. We seek to walk humbly and in a holy way with Christ Jesus in this covenant of grace. . . . For even as the death of our Lord would not have profited us, had he not risen from the power of earth. . . . so it will not help us anything to bury our sins in baptism if we do not rise with Christ from the power of sin unto a new life.15

Once they discovered a new life in Christ, the Anabaptists moved . . .

1 Ausbund, 112
2 Dat Fundament des Christelycken leers . . . 1539
3 Ausbund, 51:6
4 After Balthasar Hubmaier (who wrote two books on the subject: Von der Freyhait des Willens and Von der Freywilligkeit des Menschens), Hans Denck was the Anabaptist who wrote most about man's problem with guilt and his freedom to choose. In his book, Was geredt sey... (1526), Hans taught that God created us to fulfill his desire for voluntary obedience, as opposed to the blind obedience of a log or a stone. He did not believe that God forces us to obey him, but that he permits sin so that we need to use our freedom of choice. Like Balthasar Hubmaier, Hans believed that only our flesh (our natural desires) became corrupted in Adam's fall, and that our spirits became prisoners of our flesh. Sin is a kind of sickness. To recover from it, we must surrender ourselves totally to God. Only then can our spirits dominate our unwilling flesh. Only then can we keep the law of love in obedience to God and live a new life.
5 Sendbrief, 1529
6 Ausbund, 112
7 Een corte vermaninghe van de wedergeboorte . . . ca. 1537
8 Ausbund, 107:22
9 op. cit.
10 Ausbund, 114
11 Ausbund, 113:18
12 Ausbund, 111:11-12
13 Ausbund, 79:10
14 Ausbund, 58
15 Dat Fundament des Christelycken leers . . . 1539

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