Great Texts of the Bible
A New Beginning
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.—John 3:5.
1. It is impossible for any one to read or hear these words without remembering what solemn words they have been to multitudes of our fellow-men. There are hardly any words that Christ ever spoke which have more fascinated and held the hearts of earnest men.
In a letter from Whitefield to Benjamin Franklin, dated 1752, occur these words: “As I find you growing more and more famous in the learned world I would recommend to your diligent and unprejudiced study the mystery of the new birth. It is a most important study, and, when mastered, will richly answer all your pains. I bid you, my friend, remember that One at whose bar we shall both presently appear hath solemnly declared that without it we shall in no wise see His Kingdom.”
2. Born again! The new birth! Oh, these old words which so many souls have puzzled over and could not understand, and yet have been fascinated by so that they could not let them go! In silent chambers souls have agonized and wondered, “What is it to be born again?” In silent chambers souls, conscious of a richer and fuller life, have dreamed and questioned timidly: “Is it possible, then, that this is the new birth? Have we come any nearer to an answer to it all to-day? Have we passed from the shallow life to the profound, from the unspiritual to the spiritual, from the first life to the second?”1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Seeking Life, 208.]
How was it that he, who in 1727 could not move a village, after 1739 could shake three kingdoms? How did it come to pass that the teacher who was driven out of a little colony as a mere human irritant became the teacher, the comforter, the trusted leader of whole generations? The explanation certainly does not lie in any personal gifts of body or brain Wesley possessed. These were exactly the same at both stages of his career. Wesley at Wroote was twenty-five years of age. He had then the scholar’s brain, the zealot’s fire, the orator’s tongue; and he failed—failed consciously and completely. “I preached much,” is his own record, “but saw no fruits of my labour.” Wesley, again, in Charleston, was thirty-two years of age. At no stage of his life did he show a higher passion of zeal, or more methodical and resolute industry; a self-sacrifice so nearly heroic in temper. And yet he failed! But something came into his life by the gate of his conversion, something he never lost, something which transfigured his career. It was a strange gift of power—power that used Wesley’s natural gifts—his tough body, his keen intellect, his resolute will—as instruments, but which was more than these. Who looks on Wesley’s life as a whole, and sees on one side of a particular date doubt, weakness, and defeat, and on the other side certainty, gladness, and matchless power, cannot doubt that the secret of Wesley’s career lies in the spiritual realm. Wesley’s story is simply one embodied, historic, and overwhelming demonstration of the truth of what is called the Evangelical reading of Christianity.1 [Note: W. H. Fitchett Wesleu and his Century 281.]
3. Many are perplexed, as Nicodemus was. They understand religion on its educational and tangible side; but the doctrine of regeneration, of conversion, perplexes and offends them. They will consent to the faith of Christ, to the Church of Christ, excepting this one doctrine, which is of its very essence. Yet what of the fact? Only as our interior eyes are enlightened can we see the Kingdom of God; only as our mind, affections, conscience, and will are raised and energized by the Holy Spirit can we enter into that Kingdom and share its righteousness and blessedness. Such is the teaching of the Master, and tens of thousands in all generations testify to the truth of His teaching. They are conscious that they have experienced this very change; they know it as a fact, the most glorious fact of their history. They have been transformed in the spirit of their mind; they henceforth walk in newness of life. These witnesses will vary much as to what brought it all about, as to their recognition of the time and place of awakening, and many features of the experiences through which they passed; but concerning the substantial fact itself, that the Spirit of God has imparted to them a higher life, given them a clean heart, and renewed within them a right spirit, they bear testimony to it as the most indubitable and blessed fact of their life. Let there be no mistake about it; that penitent men are turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, is one of the best authenticated facts in the history of the race.
There are a great many things that I cannot explain and cannot reason out, and yet that I believe. I heard a commercial traveller say that he had heard that the ministry and religion of Jesus Christ were matters of revelation and not of investigation. “When it pleased God to reveal his Son in me,” says St. Paul (Galatians 1:15-16). There was a party of young men together, going up the country; and on their journey they made up their minds not to believe anything they could not reason out. An old man heard them, and presently he said, “I heard you say you would not believe anything you could not reason out.” “Yes,” they said, “that is so.” “Well,” he said, “coming down on the train to-day, I noticed some geese, some sheep, some swine, and some cattle, all eating grass. Can you tell me by what process that same grass was turned into hair, feathers, bristles, and wool? Do you believe it is a fact?” “Oh yes,” they said, “we cannot help believing that, though we fail to understand it.” “Well,” said the old man, “I cannot help believing in Jesus Christ. And I cannot help believing in the regeneration of man, when I see men who have been reclaimed, when I see men who have been reformed.”1 [Note: D. L. Moody, The Way to God, 45.]
4. Let us remember the occasion upon which the words were spoken. Our Lord at the very beginning of His ministry exercised His vital powers to heal those who were sick with all manner of diseases; and this He did in order to manifest His sympathy with human suffering, to win confidence for Himself and His message, to illustrate the operations of grace in renewing the life and vigour of the soul, and to reveal in living form, by prophecy, the coming time when the former things shall have passed away, and no one shall ever again know pain, and cry out, “I am sick!”
His works of healing not only touched the people but moved thoughtful men very deeply. One of them, a member of the Great Council, came to Him for more light. He came alone, secretly, in the night. He was no coward. He was not yet convinced, not yet ready to commit himself. He had much to sacrifice should he become a disciple of this young Rabbi. Not until he could be sure that he had more to gain than to lose would he be able to decide. At last, when all had forsaken Him and fled, it was this unknown follower of Jesus who was ready to perform the sacred rites of burial.
His words, as he first spoke, were these: “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these signs which thou doest, except God be with him.” Jesus immediately replied, not to these words, but to the inmost thought of the man, which had moved him to seek His presence and turn a listening ear to His teachings: “Except a man be born anew, he cannot so much as perceive the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus confessed that he could not understand, and then strove to draw the Master out: “Surely one cannot return to the single, throbbing cell of life, and grow, and be born anew? Thou dost not speak words that have their ordinary meanings; what, then, dost Thou mean by the use of them?” Then Jesus explained: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” By the word “flesh” Jesus evidently meant our nature as it comes into the world by the first birth, therefore what the Apostle calls the “natural”; for He sets the flesh over against the spirit as the Apostle sets the natural over against the spiritual. A man, therefore, who comes into the world in the fulness of human nature, made in the image of God, and after His likeness, must pass through a change which is really a birth anew. And this is but the quickening life, the inspiring breath of the Divine Spirit, which, confluent with his own spirit, gives him life abundantly. The growth and progress of man, then, made in God’s image and after His likeness, into His full, complete, glorious, blessed likeness, involves a transition which may be called a birth anew.
Now one thing that strikes us about Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus is its representative character. The situation is always recurring wherever the call to higher truth comes face to face with mere traditional teaching or hereditary precept. Nicodemus is always with us in one shape or another. He is the embodiment of religious conventionalism and social respectability. He is always ready with his rationalistic efforts at solving spiritual mysteries; he is always trying to reduce the mysterious to the common-place. He has his dwelling among current traditions and rules and interpretations, and he will not look beyond them. How can a man be born again except by recurrence to some improbable natural method? And Christ’s answer is always the same: You must be born again—not in the lower world, but into a higher world; you must be born again, the Spirit must touch your spirit, and you must leave rule and tradition and interpretations behind you. Morally you must be born again into the Kingdom of the Father, where God is loved and trusted and dealt with at first hand and communed with.
Speaking of the writer of the “Eikon Basilike,” Carlyle said that he was the most portentously self-righteous mortal ever extant in this planet; that seemed to say to the Almighty, in place of asking for His grace and mercy, “Oh, Lord, I have attained to such a pitch of heavenly perfection that I fear it is not even in Thy power to make me any better than I am; but if at the time Thou shouldst find an opportunity for adding a little finish and perfectness to my many excellences I should feel obliged to Thee.”1 [Note: Mrs. Brookfield and Her Circle, ii. 436.]
5. In religious circles in Jerusalem there was nothing being talked of but the Kingdom of God which John the Baptist had declared to be at hand. And when Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to enter this Kingdom he must be born again, He told him just what John had been telling the whole people. John had assured them that, though the King was in their midst, they must not suppose they were already within His Kingdom by being the children of Abraham. He excommunicated the whole nation, and taught them that it was something different from natural birth that gave admission to God’s Kingdom. And just as they had compelled Gentiles to be baptized, and to submit to other arrangements when they wished to partake of Jewish privileges, so John compelled them to be baptized. The Gentile who wished to become a Jew had to be symbolically born again. He had to be baptized, going down under the cleansing waters, washing away his old and defiled life, being buried by baptism, disappearing from men’s sight as a Gentile, and rising from the water as a new man. He was thus born of water, and this time born, not a Gentile, but a Jew. As the Gentile had to be naturalized and born again that he might rank as a child of Abraham, and enjoy the external privileges of the Jew, so must the Jew himself be born again if he is to rank as a child of God and to belong to the Kingdom of God. He must submit to the double baptism of water and of the Spirit—of water for the pardon and cleansing of past sin and defilement, of the Spirit for the inspiration of a new and holy life.
The Jewish doctors, it is said, not uncommonly described the Gentile as one who became a little child, who began his life anew, when he was received by baptism into the privileges of their outer court. If so, Nicodemus must have been familiar with the expression; but it must have been to him, and to most who availed themselves of it, a mere figure of rhetoric—one of those counters which pass among religious people, which have a certain value at first, but which become at length so depreciated that they serve no purpose but to impose on those who take and those who give them. However little Nicodemus might know of Jesus, he did know that He was not resorting to figures of rhetoric—that if He spoke of a birth, He meant a birth; and he must have perceived that what He said did not apply to sinners of the Gentiles, but to him, the religious ruler of the Jews. It was, therefore, a good and healthy sign, a proof of the power of the new Teacher, that he forgot the conventionalisms of the Sanhedrim, and spoke out coarsely and naturally, as a peasant might have done. Our Lord, surely, passed this judgment upon him; for, instead of rebuking him for his question, He meets it in the most direct manner possible: “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” The object of Nicodemus in coming to ask Him about His kingdom is still kept prominently forward; but there is a noticeable change in our Lord’s words. He had spoken of seeing the Kingdom of God; He now speaks of entering into it. Each expression may, unquestionably does, involve the other; still they are distinct. To see a kingdom is to have an apprehension of its reality and of its nature; to enter into a kingdom is to become a subject of it.1 [Note: F. D. Maurice, The Gospel of John, 90.]
6. Our Lord speaks of the second birth as completed by two agencies, water and the Spirit. To make the one of these merely the symbol of the other is to miss His meaning. The Baptist baptized with water for the remission of sins, but he was always careful to disclaim power to baptize with the Holy Ghost. His baptism with water was of course symbolical; that is to say, the water itself exercised no spiritual influence, but merely represented to the eye what was invisibly done in the heart. But that which it symbolized was not the life-giving influence of the Holy Spirit, but the washing away of sin from the soul. Assurance of pardon John was empowered to give. Those who humbly submitted to his baptism with confession of their sins went from it forgiven and cleansed. But more than that was needed to make them new men—and yet, more he could not give. For that which would fill them with new life they must go to a Greater than he, who alone could bestow the Holy Ghost.
These, then, are the two great incidents of the second birth—the pardon of sin, which is preparatory, and which cuts our connection with the past; the communication of life by the Spirit of God, which fits us for the future. Both of these are represented by Christian baptism because in Christ we have both; but those who were baptized by John’s baptism were only prepared for receiving Christ’s Spirit by receiving the forgiveness of their sins.
This passage brings out the deep truth of which Baptism was afterwards made an outward and visible exponent. Here we are shown the need of an external acceptance of promise and position, and of these being sealed on us, and still further the need of the Spirit dwelling in our hearts to make this outward confession a reality, and give us power for practising it. And so, be it ever remembered, the mere form of baptism, unless the Holy Spirit be actually in the heart, can avail nothing. It is but, as it were, a husk, and can be no more, but the gift of the Holy Spirit is open to all; and as we read this passage, and are perhaps for the moment tempted to think it excludes some, or even ourselves, from the Kingdom, we should put beside it that other glorious passage of promise: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:13).1 [Note: J. H. Rogers, The “Verily, Verilys” of Christ, 28.]
Imagine not infants, but crowds of grown-up persons already changed in heart and feelings; their “life hidden with Christ in God,” losing their personal consciousness in the laver of regeneration; rising again from its depths into the light of heaven, in communion with God and nature; met as they rose from the bath with the white raiment, which is “the righteousness of the saints,” and ever after looking back on that moment as the instant of their new birth, of the putting off of the old man, and the putting on of Christ. Baptism was to them the figure of death, burial, and resurrection all in one, the most apt expression of the greatest change that can pass upon man, like the sudden change into another life when we leave the body.1 [Note: B. Jowett, The Epistles of St. Paul, i. 291.]
7. We now see what our Lord demanded of Nicodemus. It was that he should enter into an entirely new relationship to God. There were two classes of people, “the righteous” and “the sinners.” The difference between them was due to their attitude to the Law. The righteous “knew” the Law, and so counted themselves right with God; the sinners did not “know” it; and the judgment which the righteous pronounced on them was, “This people who knoweth not the law are cursed.”
Now when Nicodemus came to Jesus, instead of being confirmed in his righteousness, or perhaps told what omissions he had to make good in order that his obedience to the Law might be perfect, he was informed that the whole framework of his life was wrong. His relation had been to the Law, not to the Person of God. He had obeyed God as a servant; he had not loved Him as a son. The whole structure of righteousness which he had built up laboriously, by rigid observance of the precepts of the Law, had therefore to be taken down. He had to begin at the beginning again; or, to use the inimitable figure of our Lord, he had to be “born anew.”
The New Birth, then, is the entrance on a new attitude towards God, the attitude of a loving son to a Father instead of that of an obedient servant to a lawgiver. This new attitude is entered upon by repentance on the part of the sinner (however “righteous” the sinner may have thought himself to be), and the gift of the Spirit on God’s part. It thus involves three things—first and chiefly a new attitude to God; next, and as belonging to that, a new attitude to the past, or Repentance; and, last, a new attitude to the future, or Spiritual Life.
I doubt if there is a doctrine of Jesus which modern men so thoroughly disbelieve as that which staggered Nicodemus nineteen centuries ago. I know just how men roast it over the slow fires of their sarcasm. I have watched them score it with the keenest infidel blades. I have seen it pilloried and hung in effigy before an admiring crowd. To all of which there is just this to say—and I believe it can be substantiated with vital truth—that of all the Master’s doctrines none is more self-evident and philosophical than this. There was nothing in it to bewilder Nicodemus or any man of us. Jesus touched the bedrock of common-sense when He insisted that there is no way into His Kingdom except through “a second birth.”1 [Note: G. C. Peck, Ringing Questions, 161.]
A New Attitude to God
1. To be “born again” means to get back to our childhood. Who has not cried, “Oh, that I were a child again! If only I could start life over again, free from all the errors and disasters, free from all the stains and soils of the past!” We may, we can. We can get back to childhood again. For Naaman there was the river that washed away the leprosy of the flesh; for us “there is a fountain opened in the house of David for sin and uncleanness,” where the soul may be washed clean. To get back to childhood, to get the weight of sin removed, to start anew—Jesus says we can. Science tells us that all that is wanted to create a new star is a start. There are the vast floating nebulae. If they will only cohere at some little point, then the globe will begin to form, and presently you will have a star. All that we want is the point of contact, the cohering point; then the new life will begin to stir in us, and the new soul begin to grow into the starry image of Christ.
2. When a child is born in common life it is born into a sonship; it becomes at once a member of the family; and there and then, before it has done a thing to merit it, the little child has a right to its father’s and mother’s love. It is exactly the same with the new birth of the child of God. Every person born of the Spirit is born into a sonship, and is received at once as a beloved child into the family of God. This is what St. John teaches us (John 1:12): “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name”; and what St. Paul teaches (Galatians 4:4-5): “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.”
3. Now this new attitude to God, which is here called a new birth, is necessary—“Ye must be born again.” It is necessary for the acknowledged sinner, since his attitude is openly and admittedly wrong. But it is necessary also for every person whose highest aim in life has been to do his duty. He must be born anew as a son and begin to live a life of love to God as his Father. The Kingdom of God, as far as man is concerned, is a state in which we are in our right relation to Him. All irrational creatures obey God and do His will: the sun runs his course with an exactness and punctuality we cannot rival; the grace and strength of many of the lower animals, their marvellous instincts and aptitudes, are so superior to anything in ourselves that we cannot even comprehend them. But what we have as our speciality is to render to God a willing service; to understand His purposes and enter sympathetically into them. The lower creatures obey a law impressed upon their nature; they cannot sin; their performance of God’s will is a tribute to the power which made them so skilfully, but it lacks all conscious recognition of His worthiness to be served and all knowledge of His object in creation. It is God serving Himself: He made them so, and therefore they do His will. So it is with men who merely obey their nature: they may do kindly, noble, heroic actions, but they lack all reference to God; and, however excellent these actions are, they give no guarantee that the men who do them would sympathize with God in all things, and do His will gladly.
“In the evening I got into a very interesting conversation with Macleod, the blacksmith of the Pioneer. He is a Scot from Campsie, has a true west country twang, and, like most of our countrymen, is far better informed on many subjects of the highest importance than nine-tenths of those among whom he lives. I found him to be a Christian, and the manner of his calling was one of the most singular that has ever been heard of. He was for some time resting on a righteousness of his own, trusting to a moral life and his general goodness, but frequently with misgivings as to the security of his foundations. At times he felt that the sand on which he was resting was moving. When at Johanna on board the Lynx, he was sent along with a party to assist the Enchantress, which had got ashore. In the subsequent destruction of the vessel there was much confusion. Kicking about the deck, he found some of Spurgeon’s sermons. In reading a few sentences casually where the book opened, he met the expression: ‘You need not carry your coals to Newcastle,’ i.e. you need not bring your righteousness to the righteousness of Christ. He saw his mistake, and shortly afterwards found peace and rest on the true foundation.” This blacksmith had made the very discovery that was made by Saul of Tarsus, Luther, Wesley, and Dr. Chalmers.1 [Note: Stewart of Lovedale, 67.]
(1) This new attitude is not required, of course, of such as are already subjects of the change; and many are so even from their earliest years, having grown up into Christ by the preventing or anticipating grace of their nurture in the Lord, so that they can recollect no time when Christ was not their love, and the currents of their inclination did not run toward His word and His cause. The case, however, of such is no real exception; and, besides this, there is even no semblance of exception. Intelligence, in fact, is not more necessary to our proper humanity than the second birth of this humanity to its salvation.
The first years of our existence are simply animal; then the life of a young man is not that of mere instinct, it is a life of passion, with mighty indignations, strong aversions. And then passing on through life we sometimes see a person in whom these things are merged; the instincts are there only for the support of existence; the passions are so ruled that they have become gentleness, and meekness, and love. Between these two extremes there must have been a middle point, when the life of sense, appetite, and passion, which had ruled, ceased to rule, and was ruled over by the life of the spirit; that moment, whether it be long or short, whether it come like the rushing mighty wind, or as the slow, gentle zephyr of the spring—whenever that moment was, then was the moment of spiritual regeneration.
My conversion to the Lord Jesus might, with propriety, be compared to a mother rousing an infant with a kiss—a simile answering exactly to my experience in recalling it. Nor can I look back to that blessed epoch in my life without magnifying His tender loving-kindness who spared me the doubts, terrors, and perplexities through which so many souls have passed ere they tasted “joy and peace in believing.”1 [Note: The Life, Labours, and Writings of Cæsar Malan, 37.]
There is no outwardly marked act of religious decision in Rainy’s youth, except that he was admitted as a communicant in the year 1842 in connection with St. John’s congregation, the minister of which at the time was the Rev. Dr. Thomas Brown. He was a notably regular attendant at public worship. But we have merely these outward facts. No one now survives who could give any report of his religious impressions at this period and he has himself left no indication of them. I venture, however, to recall in this connection a remark he once made to me to the effect that Tolstoi’s way of stating the Christian life lacked something of saneness and even his way of exposing sinful life something of wholesomeness, probably because his conversion unfortunately had had to be so violent a reaction. Robert Rainy’s decisive religious experience, it may be safely said (if one may so far presume as to characterize it), was not so much a reaction as a realization—that equally genuine and equally evangelical type of conversion (though the word conversion seems inappropriate to describe it) which consists in the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ becoming, and that perhaps not at any special time but with the natural development of mind and heart and will, something personal and something vital. A Christian life thus originated is at once supernatural and normal. It is the Christian life of one who not only has been converted but has been converted and become as a little child, with a child’s natural trust in its father, a child’s sheer happiness in goodness, a child’s instinct of recoil from the impure. This was the note of Principal Rainy’s religion to the end, and it seems to have been so from the beginning.2 [Note: P. C. Simpson, The Life of Principal Rainy, i. 25.]
(2) One reason why the new attitude must be entered on by everybody is that it is the entrance into a new order of being. It is the passage from the natural to the spiritual. That fact gives the figure of the “new birth” peculiar appropriateness, though the figure must not be urged too far, or treated literally. The passage from the natural to the spiritual is beyond a man’s own effort; it is accomplished by co-operation with the Spirit of God.
In this world we find a number of creatures which have what is known as animal life. They can work, and feel, and, in a fashion, think. They have wills, and certain dispositions, and distinctive characteristics. Every creature that has animal life has a certain nature according to its kind, and determined by its parentage; and this nature which the animal receives from its parents determines from the first the capabilities and sphere of the animal’s life. The mole cannot soar in the face of the sun like the eagle; neither can the bird that comes out of the eagle’s egg burrow like the mole. No training can possibly make the tortoise as swift as the antelope, or the antelope as strong as the lion. If a mole began to fly and enjoy the sunlight it must be counted a new kind of creature, and no longer a mole. The very fact of its passing certain limitations shows that another nature has somehow been infused into it. Beyond its own nature no animal can act. You might as well attempt to give the eagle the appearance of the serpent as try to teach it to crawl. Each kind of animal is by its birth endowed with its own nature, fitting it to do certain things, and making other things impossible. So is it with us: we are born with certain faculties and endowments, with a certain nature; and just as all animals, without receiving any new, individual, supernatural help from God, can act according to their nature, so can we. We, being human, have a high and richly-endowed animal nature, a nature that leads us not only to eat, drink, sleep, and fight like the lower animals, but also to think and to love, and which, by culture and education, can enjoy a much richer and wider life than the lower creatures. Men need not be in the Kingdom of God in order to do much that is admirable, noble, lovely, because their nature as animals fits them for that. If we were to exist at all as a race of animals superior to all others, then all this is just what must be found in us. Irrespective of any kingdom of God at all, irrespective of any knowledge of God or reference to Him, we have a life in this world, and a nature fitting us for it. And it is this we have by our natural birth, a place among our kind, an animal life. The first man, from whom we all descend, was, as St. Paul profoundly says, “a living soul,” that is to say, an animal, a living human being; but he had not “a quickening spirit,” could not give to his children spiritual life and make them children of God.
It is not any doctrine of development or self-culture, no scheme of ethical practice or social reorganization; but it is a salvation—a power moving on fallen humanity from above its level to regenerate, and so to save. The whole fabric is absurd, therefore, unless there was something to be done in man, and for him, that required a supernatural intervention. We can see, too, at a glance, that the style of the transaction is supernatural from the incarnate appearing onward. Were it otherwise—were Christianity a merely natural and earthly product—then it were only a fungus growing out of the world, and, with all its high pretensions, could have nothing more to do for the world than any other fungus for the heap on which it grows. The very name, Jesus, is a false pretence unless He has something to do for the race which the race cannot do for itself—something regenerative and new-creative—something fitly called a salvation.1 [Note: H. Bushnell, The New Life, 60.]
The difference between the two positions is radical. Translating from the language of Science into that of Religion, the theory of Spontaneous Generation is simply that a man may become gradually better and better until in course of the process he reaches that quality of religious nature known as Spiritual Life. This Life is not something added ab extra to the natural man; it is the normal and appropriate development of the natural man. Biogenesis opposes to this the whole doctrine of Regeneration. The Spiritual Life is the gift of the Living Spirit. The spiritual man is no mere development of the natural man. He is a New Creation born from above. As well expect a hay infusion to become gradually more and more living, until in course of the process it reached Vitality, as expect a man by becoming better and better to attain the Eternal Life.2 [Note: H. Drummond, Natural Law in the Spiritual World, 65.]
Truly there is only one way of being born again, regeneration by the power of the Spirit of God, the new heart; but there are many ways of conversion, of outwardly turning to the Lord, of taking the actual first step that shows on whose side we are. Regeneration is the sole work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart and soul, and is in every case one and the same. Conversion, on the other hand, bringing into play the action also of the human will, is never absolutely the same perhaps in even two souls—as like and yet as different as are the faces of men.3 [Note: John G. Paton, ii. 217.]
A New Attitude to the Past
The new attitude to God involves a new attitude to the past life. The “sinner” repents of his sin and turns to God in Christ; the “righteous” man passes from outward obedience to inward love, with a sense of his sinfulness as keen as that of any acknowledged sinner.
When men talk of the abolition of conversion and of the imitation of Jesus Christ, they forget that there is a past which must be atoned for. Look at it this way. Supposing I have run up an account with a tradesman, and I owe him quite a large sum of money. I call at his place of business and I tell him that in future all my transactions with him will be on a strictly cash basis, that I will pay for everything as I order or receive it. I say nothing about the money which I owe him, but I point out that as I intend to pay cash in future we start all square! Do you think you could find a tradesman willing to agree to this? No. “What about the money you already owe?” he would ask. “Payment of cash in the future will never wipe out the debt of the past, and not until that is cleared off can we start square.”1 [Note: A Father’s Letters to his Son, 128.]
1. We can verify our Lord’s assertion by honestly searching the depths of our own hearts, and looking at ourselves in the light of God. Think what is meant when we say, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” Think of that absolute purity, that, to us, awful aversion from all that is evil, from all that is sinful. Think of what sort of men they must be who can see the Lord. Are we fit to pass that threshold? Are we fit to gaze into that Face? Is it possible that we should have fellowship with Him? If we rightly meditate upon two facts, the holiness of God and our own characters, we shall feel that Jesus Christ has truly stated the case when He says, “Ye must be born again.” Unless we can get ourselves radically changed, there is no Heaven for us; there is no fellowship with God for us. We must stand before Him, and feel that a great gulf is fixed between us and Him.
Self-dissatisfaction is with most of us our one necessity. Do you remember Browning’s verses on the pictures in Florence, that tremendous and thrilling contrast which he draws between the great Christian pictures in their manifest incompleteness and the early Greek statues with their manifest completeness of beauty and grace? Many of us have felt the contrast. It would be well for us all if we fought our way with him through the depression to which the thought sometimes gives birth. How vividly he sets forth the truth that a sense of incompleteness is the first condition of completeness! You must ever be born again to higher completeness if you would believe in a life to come, and the very fact that you recognize your imperfection is the best thing about you. It is finiteness in view and purpose that is our besetting sin. It was finiteness of view and purpose that gave to the old classic statues a chance to seem complete, and their very finiteness is the proof of their utter incompleteness; out of that came at once their possibilities and their impossibilities.1 [Note: R. Eyton, The Glory of the Lord, 25.]
Growth came when, looking your last on them all,
You turned your eyes inwardly one fine day
And cried with a start—What if we so small
Be greater and grander the while than they?
Are they perfect of lineament, perfect of stature?
In both, of such lower types are we
Precisely because of our wider nature;
For time, theirs—ours, for eternity.
To-day’s brief passion limits their range;
It seethes with the morrow for us and more.
They are perfect—how else? they shall never change:
We are faulty—why not? we have time in store.
The Artificer’s hand is not arrested
With us; we are rough-hewn, nowise polished:
They stand for our copy, and, once invested
With all they can teach, we shall see them abolished.
’Tis a life-long toil till our lump be leaven—
The better! What’s come to perfection perishes.
Things learned on earth, we shall practise in heaven.
2. How close and personal are the lessons which we may learn from our Lord’s treatment of Nicodemus! He had lost a great opportunity in resisting the teaching of John. The “way of the Lord” would have been prepared in his heart had he listened to the desert preacher. He would not now have been sitting bewildered and amazed at the teaching of Jesus. Neglect of light and truth is always punished. Every duty we omit obscures some truth we should have known. As one of Browning’s characters says—
I see a duty and do it not, therefore I see no higher.
We must be faithful to the light which comes to us, if we would be ready for the greater light when it arises.
Our deeds still travel with us from afar,
And what we have been makes us what we are.
We can never tell how much we lose by unfaithfulness to the truths which touch the conscience or to the light which shows the way of duty. The demands from which we shrink or which we refuse are not always done with when we turn away from them. They meet us again. The sin we know, the duty we have neglected, the right which we have disobeyed, present themselves to us again. They have to be confessed, performed, obeyed, before we can enter the kingdom of life and peace.
(1) The first evidence of the reality of the new attitude to the past is that the sinner ceases from sin. This is the meaning of the words of St. John (1 John 3:9): “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” The passage of which this forms a part is sometimes quoted as proving the sinlessness of all those who are partakers of what is called higher life. The sixth verse especially is thus appealed to. But these passages do not refer to any particular class who have attained this higher life of which they speak, but to all, according to the sixth verse, who have either seen or known Christ, and, according to the ninth verse, to all who have been born again. If the passage teaches the perfect sinlessness in thought, word, and act of any individual, it is of every one that has been born of the Spirit. But that is not the meaning of the passage. The tense employed in the Greek is the tense employed to denote habit, and the word is that made use of by St. John himself to express habitual practice. The word rendered “commit” in 1 John 3:9 is the same word as is rendered “keep” in John 7:19 : “None of you keepeth the law”; and the one verse may explain the other. As none of the Jews kept the law, so those who have been born again do not keep sin. With their whole heart they have given up their wicked ways; their habits are changed; they have abandoned their former ways; they hate the sins they once loved, and they prove by their life and conversation that a real change has taken place in their heart. That this is the true meaning of the passage is proved beyond all doubt by the tenth verse, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil; whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.”
A man lying drunk was accosted by Dr. Kidd, who asked him what he was and why he was lying there. “Do you not know me, Doctor? I am ane o’ your converts,” was the reply. “Very like my handiwork,” rejoined the Doctor; “for if God had converted you, you wouldn‘t be where you are.”1 [Note: James Stark, Dr. Kidd of Aberdeen, 277.]
(2) Another sign of the reality of our new attitude to our past life is that we obtain a clear victory over sin. It is impossible to overestimate the terrific hold that sin has on the natural man. It grips him with such a grasp that he has no better hope of escape than a fly has in a spider’s web. But when a person is reconciled to God through the precious blood of Christ, and born in Him into the family of God, the web is broken, the chains are loosed, the conqueror is conquered, and the captive free. Look at the words in 1 John 5:4-5 : “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” The change therefore is not merely one in thought or feeling, nor only an alteration of opinion; it is essentially practical, and the result of it is that the dishonest man becomes honest; the drunkard becomes sober; the rough-tempered man gentle; the corrupt man pure; and the immoral profligate is transformed into the humble, holy, repentant, and God-fearing servant of the Lord.
I would not for one minute have you suppose that God’s children are perfect, and without spot or stain or defilement in themselves. Do not go away and say I told you they were pure as angels and never made a slip or stumble. The same St. John in the same Epistle declares: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.… If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” But I do say that in the matter of breaking God’s commandments, every one that is born again is quite a new man. He no longer takes a light and cool and easy view of sin; he no longer judges of it with the world’s judgment; he no longer thinks a little swearing, or a little Sabbath-breaking, or a little fornication, or a little drinking, or a little covetousness, small and trifling matters; but he looks on every sort of sin against God or man as exceeding abominable and damnable in the Lord’s sight, and, as far as in him lies, he hates it and abhors it, and desires to be rid of it root and branch, with his whole heart and mind and soul and strength.1 [Note: J. C. Ryle, The Christian Race, 44.]
Immediately upon his conversion the conviction came clearly to the scholar’s mind that his opium-habit must at once be broken. There seems to have been no parleying about it. Ever since he first entered the missionary’s household his conscience had troubled him on the subject. Mr. Hill’s kind but sorrowful words would not leave him, and their reproach was burnt into his soul.
“Mr. Hsi,” he had said, “you are a distinguished member of a scholarly family. I deeply regret to see you brought to so enfeebled a condition through opium. If you do not cleanse yourself, how can you be an example to others?”
But at that time he knew no power that could enable him to cleanse himself from the degrading vice. Now all was different. He belonged to Christ, and there could be no doubt as to the will of his new Master. It was thoroughly in keeping with the character of the man to come to this clear decision at once. Of course, he knew well what leaving off opium-smoking would involve. But there was no shrinking; no attempt at half measures. He saw it must be sacrificed at once, entirely, and for ever.
Then came the awful conflict. It was as though the great enemy of souls, seeing his prisoner escaping, fell back upon this opium-habit as an invincible chain with which to bind him. How critical was the struggle, how momentous the issues, Hsi himself hardly realized. Upon its outcome all his future power and usefulness depended. As angels lingered near the Saviour tempted in the wilderness, may we not believe the watchful ones lingered near Hsi in the hour of his great need? By the merciful aid of God he was at last victorious.2 [Note: J. E. Hellier, Life of David Hill, 136.]
(3) Another sign is that we gain the victory over the world. What is the natural man?—a wretched slave to the opinion of this world. What the world says is right he follows and approves; what the world says is wrong he renounces and condemns also. How shall I do what my neighbours do not do? What will men say of me if I become more strict than they? This is the natural man’s argument. But from all this he that is born again is free. He is no longer led by the praise or the blame, the laughter or the frown, of children of Adam like himself. He no longer thinks that the sort of religion which everybody about him professes must necessarily be right. He no longer considers “What will the world say?” but “What does God command?”
I fear that unworldliness is almost conspicuous by its absence from our Church members to-day. The world and the Church are so interlocked in unholy wedlock that it is scarcely possible to say where the Church ends and where the world begins. There was a time when the world and the Church were widely separated, in the days when the early Christians carried their cross for Jesus; but now the world has become religious, or which amounts to the same thing, the Church has become worldly and the power of God has almost left us.1 [Note: G. C. Grubb, Unsearchable Riches, 33.]
(4) The whole man is changed. “Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” There are new sorrows, new joys, new motives, new hopes, and new principles. All things are now seen under a new light, and so appear in a new colour; for “all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ.” That great reconciliation changes everything.
It is inevitable that in such a moment there shall come into a man’s mind a disgust for the past life,—the life of selfishness, the life of low ideals, the life of contentment with self and with selfish surroundings. There will come a disgust in the man’s soul, and he will say, Is it possible that I was made for this, that this is the end and object of my life?—to go down town every morning and back again at night, to see more beautiful things year by year in my house, to gather my books about me, to learn a little more, to make myself more comfortable? Is it possible that this is the last expression of life, the outcome of all the Divine power that has been moving in the universe since the fiery clouds first filled the firmament? Is this the outcome of it? An animal, comfortable, respecting himself, respected of his fellow-men? Is this the end? Is there no higher term of existence?1 [Note: L. Parks, The Winning of the Soul, 182.]
In a former chapter, we followed Father Paul Le Jeune on his winter roamings, with a band of Montagnais, among the forests on the northern boundary of Maine. Now Father Gabriel Druilletes sets forth on a similar excursion, but with one essential difference. Le Jeune’s companions were heathen, who persecuted him day and night with their gibes and sarcasms. Those of Druilletes were all converts, who looked on him as a friend and a father. There were prayers, confessions, masses, and invocations of St. Joseph. They built their bark chapel at every camp, and no festival of the Church passed unobserved. On Good Friday they laid their best robe of beaver-skin on the snow, placed on it a crucifix, and knelt around it in prayer. What was their prayer? It was a petition for the forgiveness and the conversion of their enemies, the Iroquois. Those who know the intensity and tenacity of an Indian’s hatred will see in this something more than a change from one superstition to another. An idea had been presented to the mind of the savage to which he had previously been an utter stranger. This is the most remarkable record of success in the whole body of the Jesuit Relations.2 [Note: Parkman, The Jesuits in North America, ii. 138.]
That noble old soul, Abraham, stood by me as an angel of God in sickness and in danger; he went at my side wherever I had to go; he helped me willingly to the last inch of strength in all that I had to do; and it was perfectly manifest that he was doing all this, not from mere human love, but for the sake of Jesus. That man had been a Cannibal in his heathen days, but by the grace of God there he stood verily a new creature in Christ Jesus. Any trust, however sacred or valuable, could be absolutely reposed in him; and in trial or danger, I was often refreshed by that old Teacher’s prayers, as I used to be by the prayers of my saintly father in my childhood’s home. No white man could have been a more valuable helper to me in my perilous circumstances, and no person, white or black, could have shown more fearless and chivalrous devotion.3 [Note: John G. Paton, i. 173.]
A New Attitude to the Future
We have seen that two things are essential to a member of the Kingdom—an outward act of allegiance, signifying repentance and the acceptance of pardon, and an inward infusion of a new nature, which is indicated generally in chap. John 1:12 by the words, “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”
The Christianity of Clovis does not indeed produce any fruits of the kind usually looked for in a modern convert. We do not hear of his repenting ever so little of any of his sins, nor resolving to lead a new life in any the smallest particular. He had not been impressed with convictions of sin at the battle of Tolbiac; nor, in asking for the help of the God of Clotilde, had he felt or professed the remotest intention of changing his character, or abandoning his projects. What he was, before he believed in his queen’s God, he only more intensely afterwards became, in the confidence of that before unknown God’s supernatural help. His natural gratitude to the Delivering Power, and pride in its protection, added only fierceness to his soldiership, and deepened his political enmities with the rancour of religious indignation. No more dangerous snare is set by the fiends for human frailty than the belief that our own enemies are also the enemies of God; and it is perfectly conceivable to me that the conduct of Clovis might have been the more unscrupulous, precisely in the measure that his faith was more sincere.1 [Note: Ruskin, The Bible of Amiens (Works, xxxiii. 39).]
1. The new birth is the commencement of a new life. When the child is born it begins to live. No one can tell what that mysterious power is that we call life. It is something which all the science of the world is unable either to create or to define. Now as life commences in the child at the moment of its birth, so life commences in the soul when it is born again of the Spirit. The new birth is not merely a change of habit in a living soul, it is the commencement of life where there was none before. Thus the change when a person is born again is of the same character as that which took place in Adam when God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” There is the same difference in a person before the new birth and after it as there is between a beautiful statue and a living man. The statue may be perfect in form, but it is lifeless; the living person may be in some respects less beautiful in figure, but he is alive, and, being alive, can move, and think, and act for God.
They tell me that some months ago a young Scotsman, who had been blind all his life, suddenly, by a marvellous operation, received his sight. They say that to that young man the world is another place. He wanders daily up and down in scenes with which you and I are so familiar that we do not even call them beautiful, and he sees a radiance which was hidden from ordinary everyday eyes that have gazed upon them all their lives. “Oh,” he says, “the world is so beautiful! Who would have thought it was so beautiful?” Apt figure of the experience of the man who has found his God through the touch of a quickening Spirit.1 [Note: R. J. Campbell, The Song of Ages, 160.]
Lord, I was blind: I could not see
In Thy marred visage any grace;
But now the brightness of Thy face
In radiant vision dawns on me.
2. The fundamental difficulty in understanding the truth of the new birth and the new life lies in attempting to grasp it as a whole, and not in its special activities. All life grows vague if you try to understand its central essence. All life is clear, if you look at its special exhibitions. Ask us what life is in the most commonplace of living men, and we utterly fail to tell what it is in its unfound essence, or where it lurks among the hiding-places of the wondrous body; but when he lifts his hand and strikes, when he opens his mouth and talks, then in a moment we know unmistakably the living man. Now, so it is with the spiritual life. It is hard to tell just what the essence of the new Christian life is in any man. Theologians may contend over that, just as the physiologists contend over the essence of life in the body; but the new functions of the new existence, the way in which each separate power works differently, and each separate act is done differently, in the Christian’s experience—this is not hard to trace.
(1) One of the features of the new life is self-satisfaction.—There is a bad and a good self-satisfaction. The bad self-satisfaction is only too common. It is what we call self-conceit. A man seems to himself sufficient for everything. There is no task that he will not accept. He does not look outside himself. The strength is in his own arm, which he can make strong as iron to subdue his foes; in his own heart, which he can make hard as a rock to bear his troubles. For doing or enduring he needs nothing but himself. He can do anything. That self-conceit must die, or the man is a failure. Somehow or other, the man must learn that in himself he can do nothing. Then comes humility; and when in his humility he casts himself upon another strength, and expects to do nothing save in the power of God, then he is born again into a new self-satisfaction. To find himself taken by God; to feel that God is giving him His strength; to say, “I can do anything through Christ”; to face the world not in his own power, but in his Master’s—that is the new, the deeper self-satisfaction.
“The first effect of conversion,” says Pascal, “is that we see the world and ourselves from a standpoint altogether new.” New also are the feelings of relief after struggle, of peace and harmony, of strength suddenly acquired, that the triumph of unity brings in its train. The convert is caught up into a world of grandeurs hitherto unknown. While shackled to the Moi he was a prisoner in a strange land, cooped up in narrow bounds of space and time. Its chains once broken, he feels heir to immensities beyond all telling.1 [Note: Viscount St. Cyres, Pascal, 227.]
It is with man’s Soul as it was with Nature: the beginning of Creation is—Light. Till the eye have vision, the whole members are in bonds. Divine moment, when over the tempest-tost Soul, as once over the wild-weltering Chaos, it is spoken: Let there be Light! Ever to the greatest that has felt such moment, is it not miraculous and God-announcing; even as, under simpler figures, to the simplest and least? The mad primeval Discord is hushed; the rudely-jumbled conflicting elements bind themselves into separate Firmaments: deep silent rock-foundations are built beneath; and the skyey vault with its everlasting Luminaries above: instead of a dark wasteful Chaos, we have a blooming, fertile, heaven-encompassed World.2 [Note: Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, bk. ii. ch. ix.]
(2) Another feature is Happiness.—It is easy to recognize the two levels of happiness, and the way in which men pass from the upper and lighter into the profounder and more serious one. Is this man happy whom I see in the first flush of youth, just feeling his new powers, the red blood strong and swift in all his veins, the exquisite delight of trying his just-discovered faculties of taste and thought and skill filling each day with interest up to the brim? Is he happy, he with his countless friends, his easy home, the tools and toys of life both lying ready at his hand? Most certainly he is. His days sing as they go, and sparkle with a bright delight that makes the generous observer rejoice for him, and makes the jealous envy him.
But then you lose sight of him for a while, and years after you come on him again. The man is changed. All is so altered! Everything is sobered. Is he happy still? As you look into his face you cannot doubt his happiness a moment, but neither can you fail to see that this new happiness is something very different from that which sparkled there before. This is serene and steady, and as you look at it you see that its newness lies in this, that it is a happiness in principles and character, while the other was a happiness in circumstances. The man whom you used to know was happy because everything was right about him, because his self was thoroughly indulged, because the sun shone and he was strong. The man whom you know now is happy because there is goodness in the world, because God is governing it, because in his own character the discipline of God is going on. The first sort of happiness was self-indulgent; the new sort is built on and around self-sacrifice.
You hear much of conversion nowadays: but people always seem to think they have got to be made wretched by conversion,—to be converted to long faces. No, friends, you have got to be converted to short ones; you have to repent into childhood, to repent into delight, and delightsomeness.1 [Note: Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive (Works, xviii. 431).]
To “the typical Moody convert,” during this mission, the Gospel came as tidings of great joy.
“I had seen occasional instances before of instant transition from religious anxiety to the clear and triumphant consciousness of restoration to God; but what struck me in the gallery of Bingley Hall was the fact that this instant transition took place with nearly every person with whom I talked. They had come up into the gallery anxious, restless, feeling after God in the darkness, and when, after a conversation of a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, they went away, their faces were filled with light, and they left me not only at peace with God but filled with joy. I have seen the sunrise from the top of Helvellyn and the top of the Righi, and there is something very glorious in it; but to see the light of heaven suddenly strike on man after man in the course of one evening is very much more thrilling. These people carried their new joy with them to their homes and their workshops. It could not be hid.”1 [Note: The Life of R. W. Dale of Birmingham, 319.]
A short time before leaving for China it became my daily duty to dress the foot of a patient suffering from senile gangrene. The disease commenced as usual insidiously, and the patient had little idea that he was a doomed man and probably had not long to live. I was not the first to attend him, but when the case was transferred to me I naturally became very anxious about his soul. The family with whom he lived were Christians, and from them I learned that he was an avowed atheist and very antagonistic to anything religious. They had without asking his consent invited a Scripture reader to visit him, but in great passion he had ordered him from the room. The Vicar of the district had also called, hoping to help him, but he had spit in his face and refused to allow him to speak. His temper was described to me as very violent, and altogether the case seemed as hopeless as could well be imagined.
Upon first commencing to attend him I prayed much about it, but for two or three days said nothing of a religious nature. By special care in dressing his diseased limb I was able considerably to lessen his sufferings, and he soon began to manifest appreciation of my services. One day with a trembling heart I took advantage of his grateful acknowledgments to tell him what was the spring of my action, and to speak of his solemn position and need of God’s mercy through Christ. It was evidently only a powerful effort of self-restraint that kept his lips closed. He turned over in bed with his back to me, and uttered no word.
I could not get the poor man out of my mind, and very often through each day I pleaded with God, by His Spirit, to save him ere He took him hence. After dressing the wound and relieving the pain, I never failed to say a few words to him which I hoped the Lord would bless. He always turned his back, looking annoyed, but never made any reply.
After continuing this for some time my heart sank. It seemed to me that I was not only doing no good but perhaps really hardening him and increasing his guilt. One day after dressing his limb and washing my hands, instead of returning to the bedside, I went to the door and stood hesitating a moment with the thought in my mind, “Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.” Looking at my patient I saw his surprise, as it was the first time since opening the subject that I had attempted to leave without saying a few words for my Master.
I could bear it no longer. Bursting into tears, I crossed the room and said: “My friend, whether you will hear or whether you will forbear, I must deliver my soul,” and went on to speak very earnestly, telling him how much I wished that he would let me pray with him. To my unspeakable joy he did not turn away, but replied:
“If it will be a relief to you, do.”
I need scarcely say that falling upon my knees I poured out my soul to God on his behalf. Then and there, I believe, the Lord wrought a change in his soul. He was never afterwards unwilling to be spoken to and prayed with, and within a few days he definitely accepted Christ as his Saviour.
Oh the joy it was to me to see that dear man rejoicing in hope of the glory of God! He told me that for forty years he had never darkened the door of a church or chapel, and that then, forty years ago, he had only entered a place of worship to be married, and could not be persuaded to go inside when his wife was buried. Now, thank God, his sin-stained soul I had every reason to believe was washed, was sanctified, was “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” Often in my early work in China, when circumstances rendered me almost hopeless of success, I have thought of this man’s conversion and have been encouraged to persevere in speaking the Word, whether men would hear or whether they would forbear.
The now happy sufferer lived for some time after this change, and was never tired of bearing testimony to the grace of God. Though his condition was most distressing, the alteration in his character and behaviour made the previously painful duty of attending him one of real pleasure. I have often thought since in connection with this case and the work of God generally of the words, “He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.” Perhaps if there were more of that intense distress for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire. Sometimes it may be that while we are complaining of the hardness of the hearts of those we are seeking to benefit, the hardness of our own hearts and our own feeble apprehension of the solemn reality of eternal things may be the true cause of our want of success.1 [Note: Hudson Taylor in Early Years, 178.]
(3) Faith.—There is a first faith and a second faith. The first faith is the easy, traditional belief of childhood, taken from other people, believed because it belongs to the time and land. The second faith is the personal conviction of the soul. It is the heart knowing, because God has spoken to it, the things of God, the after-faith that means communion. The first faith has a certain regulative force, but it has no real, life-giving power in it. The second faith is full of life. It, and it alone, is the belief which brings salvation.
Bushnell’s reconversion, if such it should be called, was a conversion to duty rather than to faith, but he made the discovery that faith could wait, but duty could not. Through this simple principle he found his way not only into a full faith, but into the conception of Christianity as a life—Christ Himself rather than beliefs about Christ, a distinction which, if not then seen in its fulness, is implied in all his writings.1 [Note: T. T. Munger, Horace Bushnell, 27.]
(4) Knowledge.—There is a shallow and a deep, an upper and a lower knowledge. The quick perception that catches the mere outside of things, and, recognizing the current condition of affairs, is able to throw itself in with them and so achieve a certain cheap success; and the calm, philosophic wisdom which looks down to the roots of things and sees their causes, and really helps to govern them—those are the two.
Have you never heard a man talking flippantly to-day of the world’s system, of the government of life, of the secrets of existence? and to-morrow some blow, some surprise has come right into the midst of his knowledge and killed it. Things have gone entirely different from what he expected, from what he prophesied. He has found how ignorant he is, and has been driven to the deeper understanding of a Will that works under everything, to that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. Knowledge, ignorance, wisdom—here are the strata of life again; the first birth into one, death through the second, and a new birth into the third.2 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Seeking Life, 198.]
A young girl of twelve years decided to become a Christian. She was one of a large family of children. The new purpose went down into the vitals of her sensitive nature, and became the over-mastering passion. She had less opportunity of schooling than some of the others. But in strong, gripping life-purpose, in mental keenness, in deep, tender sympathy, and in the achievement of her life, she has so far outstripped all the others of the family, parents and children alike, that there seems to be no second.3 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Home Ideals, 248.]
A friend in America told me that in one of his after-meetings, a man came to him with a long list of questions written out for him to answer. He said: “If you can answer these questions satisfactorily, I have made up my mind to be a Christian.” “Do you not think,” said my friend, “that you had better come to Christ first? Then you can look into these questions.” The man thought that perhaps he had better do so. After he had received Christ, he looked again at his list of questions; but then it seemed to him as if they had all been answered. Nicodemus came with his troubled mind, and Christ said to him, “Ye must be born again.” He was treated altogether differently from what he expected; but I venture to say that was the most blessed night in all his life. To be “born again” is the greatest blessing that will ever come to us in this world.1 [Note: D. L. Moody, The Way to God, 39.]
(5) Love.—We have now a new motive in life. Hitherto it has been only for ourselves that we have cared to live, and not even for our better selves, but just to gratify what our own fancies have dictated. And now this is changed. “Not your own” is our watchword; to show forth the praises of Him who hath called us “out of darkness into his marvellous light” is our aim, so that, as it were, a new spirit is infused into us, and a new object set before us. This is the direct consequence of our acceptance of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, for “he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.”
Love is the infallible mark of possessing eternal life in Christ. “We know,” says the Apostle John, “that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren”—the brethren of the Lord Jesus Christ; those that do the will of Jesus; we feel at home with them, and learn to love them, because they have the same Father, the same Elder Brother as ourselves.2 [Note: G. C. Grubb, Unsearchable Riches, 32.]
He that is born of the Spirit loves his neighbour as himself; he knows nothing of the selfishness and uncharitableness and ill-nature of this world; he loves his neighbour’s property as his own; he would not injure it, nor stand by and see it injured; he loves his neighbour’s person as his own, and he would count no trouble ill bestowed if he could help or assist him; he loves his neighbour’s character as his own, and you will not hear him speak a word against it, or allow it to be blackened by falsehoods if he can defend it; and then he loves his neighbour’s soul as his own, and he will not suffer him to turn his back on God without endeavouring to stop him by saying, “Oh, do not so!”1 [Note: J. C. Ryle, The Christian Race, 51.]
I no longer stood aloof from men, and found pleasure in intellectual superiority; I was willing to “become a fool for Christ’s sake” if by any means I might save some. I issued a card of invitation to the services of my church with this motto of St. Paul’s upon it, which I now felt was mine. I had had for years feelings of resentment towards one who, I thought, had wronged me; those feelings were now dead. In another case I had been harsh and unforgiving under great provocation; but when I met after a long interval of time the one who had injured me, my heart had only love and pity for him. I sought out the drunkard and the harlot, and, when I found them, all repulsion perished in the flow of infinite compassion which I felt. I prayed with fallen women, sought them in their miserable abodes, fought with them for their own souls, and O exquisite moment!—I saw the soul awake in them, I saw in their tear-filled eyes the look that Jesus saw in the eyes of Magdalene. On my last Sabbath in London before leaving for America, one of these rescued girls, now as pure of look and manner as those most sweetly nurtured, called at my house to give my daughter a little present bought with the first money she had earned by honest toil in many years. On the day we sailed another said a special mass for us, and held the day sacred for prayer, in the convent where her bruised life had been nursed back to moral beauty. Love had triumphed in them, and I had brought them that love.2 [Note: W. J. Dawson, The Empire of Love, 115.]
(6) Goodness.—There is a first and second goodness. Man is born into a garden, as that story runs. Right impulses, perceptions that the good is better and more beautiful than the bad—these are not wanting in the early, the unregenerate life. And yet that life is unregenerate. It must be born again. Those good impulses, that mere sense of the beauty of goodness, that ignorance of vice, are not the true strength of the moral man, in which he can resist temptation and really grow to God. That fails. He dies out of that; and, once out of that, he never can go back to it again. The angels and the flaming sword are at the gate, to keep any man who has been innocent, and sinned, from ever returning to innocence again.
There is a natural goodness; there is also a relative goodness. Some men are naturally good-tempered; it costs them nothing to be amiable; it would be difficult for them to be severe even in the judgment of wrong,—they would excuse it, or wink at it, or in some way escape the duty of branding it. And some are constitutionally more generous than others. They like to give; they like to lighten burdens, and to help the blind and the weak over difficult roads. This, indeed, is beautiful, charming, as are also other wild flowers often found in hedge-rows or in rocky places.1 [Note: J. Parker.]
The very first mark of regeneration is straightness. Oh, for a revival of Divine righteousness in our business circles! oh, for a revival of Divine righteousness in our ecclesiastical dealings with money! oh, for a revival of Divine righteousness in our family lives! The first mark that God gives is not any inward ecstasy, is not any peculiarity of feeling, is not the singing of hymns, and saying Hallelujah; the first mark of regeneration is that you are straight inside and straight outside. He that doeth righteousness, hath been born of God.2 [Note: G. C. Grubb, Unsearchable Riches, 29.]
(7) Progress.—When we are born again it is not only to a position but a power, not only to give us a technical right to certain promises and possessions, but to enable us to enter upon them and to use them. There is, indeed, a new creation in us—a power that never existed before; and one which, though it may be very small at first, still does exist, and will go on growing and growing day by day, until it assumes a real and vigorous proportion which all our enemies “shall not be able to gainsay nor resist.”
Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does mean that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier.3 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 193.]
The soul’s whole life is in progress, in the eternal search, the quest of the Grail.
Glory of warrior, glory of orator, glory of song,
Paid with a voice flying by to be lost in an endless sea—
Glory of virtue to fight, to struggle, to right the wrong,—
Nay but she aimed not at glory, no lover of glory she:
Give her the glory of going on and still to be.
The wages of sin is death; if the wages of virtue be dust
Would she have heart to endure for the life of the worm and the fly?
She desires no isles of the blest, no quiet seats of the just,
To rest in a golden grove or to bask in a summer sky;
Give her the wages of going on and not to die.
This “going on” is the life of the soul. It is the essential thing in Christian character, which is not a possession of finished qualities, but a stern self-government under the will of God to the end of the widest service and an unending attainment.1 [Note: R. E. Speer, The Marks of a Man, 160.]
One of the most interesting aspects of the life of St. Francis is, in fact, the continual development revealing itself in him. He is one of the small number to whom to live is to be active, and to be active is to make progress. There is hardly any one except St. Paul in whom is found to the same degree the devouring need of being always something more, always something better.2 [Note: Paul Sabatier, St. Francis of Assisi.]
Our course is onward, onward into light:
What though the darkness gathereth amain,
Yet to return or tarry, both are vain.
How tarry, when around us is thick night?
Whither return? what flower yet ever might,
In days of gloom and cold and stormy rain,
Enclose itself in its green bud again,
Hiding from wrath of tempest out of sight?
Courage—we travel through a darksome cave;
But still as nearer to the light we draw,
Fresh gales will reach us from the upper air,
And wholesome dews of heaven our foreheads lave,
The darkness lighten more, till full of awe
We stand in the open sunshine unaware.3 [Note: R. C. Trench, Poems, 36.]
A New Beginning
Albertson (C. C.), The Gospel according to Christ, 25.
Arnold (T.), Sermons, vi. 124.
Bain (J. A.), Questions Answered by Christ, 133.
Banks (L. A.), The Great Saints of the Bible, 276.
Brooks (P.), Seeking Life, 193.
Burrell (D. J.), The Verilies of Jesus, 1.
Bushnell (H.), The New Life, 58.
Campbell (R. J.), The Song of Ages, 147.
Chapman (J. W.), Revival Sermons, 110.
Dawson (W. J.), The Evangelistic Note, 133.
Drummond (H.), Natural Law in the Spiritual World, 64.
Edger (S.), Sermons at Auckland, New Zealand, i. 96.
Eyton (R.), The Glory of the Lord, 20.
Gordon (A. J.), Ecce Venit, 85.
Grubb (G. C.), Unsearchable Riches, 24.
Hoare (E.), Great Principles of Divine Truth, 239.
Jowett (J. H.), Brooks by the Traveller’s Way, 137.
Maurice (F. D.), The Gospel of St. John, 85.
Moberly (G.), Plain Sermons at Brighstone, 1.
Moody (D. L.), The Way to God, 38.
Parks (L.), The Winning of the Soul, 177.
Pearse (M. G.), Jesus Christ and the People, 370.
Peck (G. C.), Ringing Questions, 157.
Reid (J.), Jesus and Nicodemus, 43.
Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, iv. 103.
Rogers (J. H.), The “Verily, Verilys” of Christ, 12, 21.
Ryle (J. C.), The Christian Race, 15.
Simon (D. W.), Twice Born, 1.
Watkinson (W. L.), The Fatal Barter, 77.
Watkinson (W. L.), The Transfigured Sackcloth, 169.
Christian Age, xlvi. 114 (Duryea).
Christian World Pulpit, x. 201, xxviii. 266, xxx. 33 (Beecher); lxxv. 104 (Watkinson).