Great Texts of the Bible
Regeneration and Renewal
Jesus saith to him, He that is bathed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit.—John 13:10.
1. This answer of our Lord to Peter has naturally a double meaning. It is both literal and figurative. Just as one who, having bathed in the morning, considers himself clean and does not repeat this total ablution at meal-time, but is contented with washing his feet on entering, to remove such accidental defilement as he may have contracted by the way; so he who, by sincerely attaching himself to Christ, has found pardon for his sins, needs nothing else than a daily and continual purification from the moral defilement of which he becomes conscious during the course of his life. Peter was clean because he sincerely believed in Christ. The purpose, then, of what Jesus was now doing for him was not to reconcile him to God, but to remove from him, by such an example of humility, that particular defilement, the desire for earthly power and greatness, which Jesus at that very moment observed in His own.
I never understood the full meaning of our Lord’s words in St. John 13:10, until I beheld the better sort of East Indian natives return home after performing their customary ablutions. As they return to their habitations barefoot, they necessarily contract in their progress some portion of dirt on their feet; and this is universally the case, however nigh their dwellings may be to the riverside. When, therefore, they return, the first thing they do is to mount a low stool, and pour water into a small vessel to cleanse them from the soil which they may have contracted on their journey homewards; if they are of the higher class of society, a servant performs it for them, and then they are “clean every whit.”1 [Note: D. L. Moody.]
If you speak of sanctification as the original act of God in separating us to Himself, then it is a completed thing, for we are described as “having been sanctified in Christ Jesus.” If, again, you speak of it as a legal cleansing from all past guilt, it is complete; for, being washed in the precious blood, we are already clean. But if you regard it as the personal holiness of daily life, the purifying of the heart through faith by the indwelling power of the Holy Ghost, then I am prepared to maintain from the whole testimony of the whole Word of God from one end to the other, that so long as we are in this world of conflict the sacred work is not complete, but progressive.1 [Note: E. Hoare, Sanctification, 66.]
2. It is doubtful whether in this new rite which preceded the Paschal supper, and in the reference to a past bathing, there is any specific allusion to baptism. Of course the sacramental process of initiation into the Christian society, and the action-parable of the Upper Room, express a common truth, that flesh and spirit must alike be cleansed before a frail, erring man is fit to stand in the presence of the Divine King and fulfil His behests. We have no direct statement that the twelve Apostles ever were baptized, although it is more than probable that those who were followers of John had received the rite at his hands, and these may have administered it to their comrades. Jesus Himself did not baptize. Yet without any express mention of the baptism of the twelve, Jesus affirms that they had been “bathed,” and that, with one sad exception, the virtue of the act remained. It was by the Word they had been cleansed. There is no suggestion that the spiritual change was coincident in time with the use of an outward rite which typified it. By response to the personal influence of Jesus Christ, they knew in the first fresh moments of their surrender to His will that the prophetic promise had been fulfilled, and that from the guilty errors and disabilities of the past they had been purified.
A modern writer, who lived for years in distressing poverty, and had no facilities in his sordid lodgings for washing, used to perform the greater part of his morning toilet at the British Museum, where he was a constant reader. He describes the shame he felt when he found a notice affixed, “These basins are to be used for casual ablutions only.” He had the sensations of a detected criminal. There is a wide distinction between the bathing of the body and “casual ablutions,” and the distinction runs through the teaching of the incident before us. The daily-repeated grace is a complement to the washing of regeneration which comes through the all-encircling, soul-pervading influences of Jesus Christ. It is not to supersede or obscure that primary need, as Simon Peter was in danger of supposing.1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The Divine Craftsman, 210.]
One evening, before Thomas De Quincey died, he said to his daughter, “I cannot bear the weight of clothes on my feet.” She pulled off the heavy blankets. “Yes, my love,” he said, “that is much better; I am better in every way. You know these are the feet that Jesus washed.” Ah, I scarcely can tell which I should admire most: His passion for me or His patience with me; His suffering or His longsuffering.2 [Note: A. Smellie, In the Hour of Silence, 289.]
1. In this text Jesus teaches that the efficacy of a disciple’s first act of faith abides, and must not be thought of as invalidated by after-infirmities. If there were Divine forces present in that memorable change, it surely had qualities of permanence in it, for that which God effects cannot pass away as the morning cloud. We do not commit ourselves to the doctrines of indefectible grace and unconditional perseverance when we so interpret the Master’s saying. The reference here made to Judas proves that to the rule of patient, tireless, long-continued, all-subduing grace there may be a tragic break. By false dealing, by calculated delinquency, by obstinate transgression, the bathed man may hopelessly defile himself again. But in eleven cases out of twelve the sanctifying grace asserts its permanence, for it is stamped with some of the qualities of its unchanging Minister.
When the great warrior knew that the end was sure, he met it with the confident resignation of his faith. He had seen death too often and too near to dread the parting hour of mortal anguish. Chaplains, preachers, godly persons, attended in an adjoining room and came in and out as the heavy hours went on, to read the Bible to him or to pray with him. To one of them he put the moving question, so deep with penitential meaning, so pathetic in its humility and misgiving, in its wistful recall of the bright bygone dawn of life in the soul: “Tell me, is it possible to fall from grace?” “No, it is not possible,” said the minister. “Then,” said the dying Cromwell, “I am safe, for I know that I was once in grace.”1 [Note: John Morley, Oliver Cromwell, 506.]
The efforts of an unregenerate man to resist evil may be compared to the waves that break away from the receding tide; they are vain and constantly declining struggles against the backward movement of the heart. The falls of a regenerate man, on the other hand, are the recessions of the wave in an advancing tide; the great progression will still be Godward. What we want is the flow of the new nature to overbear all the obstacles of wind and sand, and this must be given by attraction from above.2 [Note: John Ker, Thoughts for Heart and Life, 21.]
2. Why should the grace which wipes out past sin, and renews the thoughts and affections of the heart, fill this commanding place in the religious history? The Master forbids the idea that those successive effusions of spiritual influence, which keep the disciple in constant fitness for His uses, can compare in vital importance with this initial transformation. As He judges things, regeneration is a fact standing apart, and nothing must come into competition with it. The answer is many-sided. Initiation into the cleansing fellowship of Jesus is coincident with a deeper and more exhaustive self-discovery than is possible at the later stages of the religious history, unless indeed there has been flagrant, stupefying apostasy. The new convert has put off his disguises, making a frank and a full confession of sin and attaining a memorable release from its power. The whole manhood is moved by the fresh and dramatic disclosures of saving grace which attend the first surrender to the gospel call. The past is put off with a thoroughness which leaves little or no room for repetition. A man convinced of sin, and impelled by the new-born hope of redemption from its power, is passive under the processes of Divine mercy to an extent never perhaps equalled again. As those blessed influences which purify from the taint of the past immerse the soul, a strangely quiescent and submissive temper arises. The disciple is more conscious of God’s act and less of his own than in those subsequent experiences in which the factors of self-discipline and self-direction tend to predominate. And because Divine power is so supremely conspicuous in this purifying change its results abide, as perhaps grace sought through channels of daily edification does not.
Many and great gifts of the Holy Spirit do come really into a man, which yet are not regeneration; but they go and come. Whereas that is regeneration when and where God hath planted His habitation, and God is become one with man. In God, neither the world, nor pleasure, nor joy is suffered; nature must want all these when the mind standeth in God.1 [Note: Matthew Weyer.]
1. When the gift which changes the moral habits, and puts away the dishonour and condemnation of the past, has been received, accessory processes are needed so that the disciple may be kept without spot. Christ’s followers are moving in the midst of the unregenerate, and it is only through daily vigilance and faith that they can escape the mischances inseparable from their position in the world. Through this lowly ministry, commonly performed by the slave at the opening of a feast, Jesus wished to save His disciples from that loss of hope which their imminent backsliding might cause, to remind them of the gentle and compassionate view He took of their infirmities, and to prevent, where it might still be possible, infirmities from passing into flagrant sins. He is willing to treat their passing moods of envy and ambition as mere casualties of the way, like the dust and films of foulness cleaving to the feet of the pilgrim. Such things do not belong to the new manhood which has been called forth within them, but have in part happened through contact with the world.
Learn a lesson from the eye of the miner, who all day long is working amid the flying coal-dust. When he emerges in the light of day, his face may be grimy enough; but his eyes are clear and lustrous, because the fountain of tears, in the lachrymal gland, is ever pouring its gentle tides over the eye, cleansing away each speck of dust as soon as it alights. Is not this the miracle of cleansing which our spirits need in such a world as this? And this is what our blessed Lord is prepared to do for us, if only we will trust Him.2 [Note: F. B. Meyer, Present Tenses, 22.]
As these men had with shame to lay their feet in Christ’s hands, so must we. As His hands had to come in contact with the soiled feet of the disciples, so has His moral nature to come in contact with the sins from which He cleanses us. His heart is purer than were His hands, and He shrinks more from contact with moral than with physical pollution; and yet without ceasing we bring Him into contact with such pollution. When we consider what those stains actually are from which we must ask Christ to wash us, we feel tempted to exclaim with Peter, “Thou shalt never wash my feet!” As these men must have shivered with shame through all their nature, so do we when we see Christ stoop before us to wash away once again the defilement we have contracted; when we lay our feet soiled with the miry and dusty ways of life in His sacred hands; when we see the uncomplaining, unreproachful grace with which He performs for us this lowly and painful office. But only thus are we prepared for communion with Him and with one another. Only by admitting that we need cleansing, and by humbly allowing Him to cleanse us, are we brought into true fellowship with Him. With the humble and contrite spirit which has thrown down all barriers of pride and freely admits His love and rejoices in His holiness does He abide.1 [Note: Marcus Dods.]
2. We must seek daily release from the incipient defilements which fasten upon the regenerate personality without at first bringing upon it specific marks of guilt and wrong-doing. The neglected stain, however extenuating the circumstances in which it affixed itself, may end in a disfigurement that will be more than skin-deep in its results. Forgetfulness of the solemn lesson taught by the feet-washing may make the apostate. A lapse of temper, an unwatched desire provoked by our converse with the world, often incubates into a flagrant sin. “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath”; and may we not add, upon any thoughtless mood or unchastened temper which has settled upon us whilst moving through secular scenes? The feet that have trod the hot, foul highways, or that perhaps have not even crossed the threshold of the home, must be washed. Do not slight the little shortcomings which befall you, and allow them to accrete into blemishes which may vitiate the life.
To become indifferent or insensitive to the stains of daily sin is one of the saddest things that can befall us. Little by little it puts a space between us and the Saviour, as begrimed windows seem to put the light further and further off. We must keep the glass clean if we would have the cheerful light; and we must keep close touch with the pardoning blood if we would maintain the joy of salvation.1 [Note: J. R. Howatt, Jesus the Poet, 273.]
In describing the different habits of the people of two adjacent provinces the Chinese say, “A Hupeh man does not sleep unless he has first cleansed his feet; but a Honan man only washes his feet on the day when he fords a river.”
Up the long slope of this low sandy shore
Are rolled the tidal waters day by day;
Traces of wandering feet are washed away,
Relics of busy hands are seen no more.
The soiled and trampled surface is smooth’d o’er
By punctual waves that high behests obey;
Once and again the tides assert their sway,
And o’er the sands their cleansing waters pour.
Even so, Lord, daily, hourly, o’er my soul
Sin-stained and care-worn, let Thy heavenly Grace—
A blest, atoning flood—divinely roll,
And all the footsteps of the world efface,
That like the wave-washed sand this soul of mine,
Spotless and fair, smooth and serene, may shine!2 [Note: Richard Wilton.]
Regeneration and Renewal
Arnold (T.), Sermons, ii. 127.
Barrett (G. S.), Musings for Quiet Hours, 74.
Bonar (H.), Family Sermons, 87.
Farrar (F. W.), In the Days of thy Youth, 243.
Howatt (J. R.), Jesus the Poet, 272.
Jerdan (C.), Gospel Milk and Honey, 285.
Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, iii. 239.
Selby (T. G.), The Divine Craftsman, 207.
Smellie (A.), In the Hour of Silence, 289.
Temple (F.), Sermons in Rugby School Chapel, ii. 116.
Waterston (R.), Thoughts on the Lord’s Supper, 91.
Webster (F. S.), My Lord and I, 154.
Wordsworth (C.), Christian Boyhood at a Public School, i. 438.
Expositor, 2nd Ser., iv. 146 (Cox).