TEXT: JOHN iii.1-8.
WHEN the Saviour promised to His disciples the Spirit, who, after His own departure from the earth, was to come upon them abundantly, He said to them, He will take of Mine and give unto you, and thereby He will glorify Me in and through you. We have once more completed the circle of our memorial festivals, from His birth to the fulfilment of that promise; and now, without being reminded, by the universal custom of the Church, of any specially great event in the times of the founding of Christianity, we have before our Christian assemblies a long period of quiet meditation. What better can we wish for that period, than that this very Spirit who glorifies Christ may be always among us, so that each of our devout meditations may exalt Him in our eyes, and that thus, through His having a more constant and active power in us, He may be also more and more glorified through us.
It is therefore my purpose, in the period on which we are entering, to follow the words of the Saviour that I have just quoted; we will take of His own, that His Spirit may more and more enlighten us and glorify Him before us. They shall be words which the evangelists have preserved for us as His own; the most direct sayings from His lips, with which we intend during this time to connect our meditations. If, then, His Spirit is actually among us, if Christ becomes increasingly glorious to us through our study of His words, our inward parts more and more enlightened by the eternal, divine light, which He brought from heaven, our hearts more and more purified; we shall then, when the next time of commemorating our Lord comes round, return with new joy and gratitude to the beautiful circle of our Christian festivals, and anew, with yet purer spirit and in a way more worthy of Him, participate in adoring remembrance of His birth, His sufferings and His glorification.
And with what words can we better begin the series of our proposed meditations, than with one of those which most closely connect the festival period just closed with that which lies before us? The Saviour has now, as it were, completed anew before our eyes His work, of the chief points in which our Church festivals were meant to remind us; He has taken to Himself flesh and blood, He has become obedient, even to the death of the cross, He has comforted and instructed His people, He has sent down the promised Spirit after His own final departure from the world, and prepared His disciples for the founding and extension of His kingdom. Now as He generally began His work of teaching by inviting men into the kingdom of God, which had come near to them, we may suitably begin by asking, How are we to attain, or how have we at some former time attained to our part in the Saviour's benefits? How does His kingdom still go on extending in the present day? The remarkable saying of the Saviour which we have taken as the ground of our meditation, gives a clear answer to these questions.
In this whole conversation of the Saviour with Nicodemus, it is very difficult to understand the precise connection, more so than in most of the Saviour's other discourses; but we shall not be surprised at this if we reflect how it is with ourselves when we wish to communicate our most important thoughts, and are limited to a brief conversation in which to do so. We cannot in such a case bestow the usual pains and attention on so arranging our discourse that the other shall instantly take up our meaning; we cannot so enlarge that all the bearings of one thought on another shall become quite obvious; but, knowing that only a little time is granted us, we feel constrained, and strive to give expression only to what is most important, to comprise in few words a real wealth of thoughts and to impress these thoroughly on the hearer, so that he may afterwards reflect more minutely on their import, and may then be able to discover what at present escapes him. It was in this position, so far as such a comparison can be made at all, that Christ here found Himself. He was only rarely in the capital, on the occasions of the great feasts, and this man could only come to Him during the night. Hence the Saviour hastens to point out to the inquiring man the main points on which every thing depends; hence the conversation that must contain so much, passes abruptly from one great thought to another; and it is possible that John also may have had too little room to communicate much in the course of the conversation which would have given us here and there clearer insight into the connection.
But the chief of all the weighty matters which our Lord had to say to Nicodemus is just the answer to the question we have proposed. A man must be born anew, else he cannot see the kingdom of God. One life must be destroyed and give place to another -- the life of the flesh to the life of the Spirit: that is the only way in which any one can enter the kingdom of God; the new birth is the only manner in which new numbers are ever being won to it. The inquirer has various objections to this, and the Saviour removes them; but certainly in a way which we may believe left him still much to think about, and intimated to him that nothing but a higher personal experience would help him to a full clearness of understanding. Let us take the same course, by considering that a man comes into the kingdom of God only through the new birth of the Spirit. We will first make plain to ourselves, according to the Saviour's words, our common understanding of this in its simple truth: secondly, we will see what objections the masters in Israel have now as then against this doctrine; and thirdly, how we know of no other information or advice to give on the subject than what the Saviour said to Nicodemus.
I. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. These are the Saviour's words, and this, rightly considered, may be said to have been always the common understanding of Christians; I mean, the faith of the Church. There is no doubt a sense in which it may be said that every one who is born at all, whatever he may be, sees the kingdom of God and is in it. For as a man's kingdom is there where his will is held to be law, and where he arranges and commands; in this sense the kingdom of God is indeed everywhere, as certainly as God is almighty, and all that live are in it. But we all speak, just as the Saviour did, of a kingdom of God which does not include every one. For as the kingdom of an earthly prince does not, strictly speaking, extend over every place where people act outwardly according to his will, but only where his will is also the real and common will of those who serve him and live under his rule, while the rest -- however much outward appearances say the reverse -- are in a state of secret enmity against him; so the kingdom of God, in this narrower sense, is only in those who are actuated by a spirit common to them all, making known the will of God in their hearts. Those manifold gifts, which always work in harmony towards the same end, because they proceed from the same Spirit; those fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, faith, purity; those various ministries which are fulfilled now by this one, now by that one -- for if one is gone another is never wanting -- and always faithfully and ably, under the one Master; those willing servants, bound for ever, for life and death, ministering in the word of truth, in the power of God, by the armour of righteousness; those unknown, and yet well known; those dying ones, who always live anew; those poor, who make many rich; those strong ones, who are never covetous of vain-glory, so as to envy and hate each other -- that is the kingdom of God. And in each individual it is, as the Scripture says, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; the peace of God, which, confiding in the eternal love and wisdom, is disturbed by nothing; resting in the faith that the Lord will, as time goes on, glorify Himself more and more in the world of spirits; the peace of God, which brings quiet and calmness to the otherwise stormy soul, by which its conflicting passions are brought to rest, so that it is like the pure mirror, in which every object is clearly and correctly pictured. The kingdom of God in each person is joy in the Holy Spirit; the joy, far above all earthly things, in the fellowship of men with God; the joy that wants nothing more eventful than that we always feel the power of God more influential in us, and are always less losing the consciousness of Him in whom we live and move and have our being. But all men do not live in this union, nor experience this peace and joy. We know the great multitude of those who, born of the flesh, are only flesh. It is true they have all, at least many among them, a common aim; but because what each of them seeks belongs only to his worldly existence, the association they form is far from stable, hardly to be compared to that higher kingdom of God; they are only temporarily allied as individuals, and none of them can really regard what another does or enjoys as being also his own and advancing his purpose. And thus they have no peace but in the gratification of their wild passions, their natural instincts, or, it may be, of the gentle, cheerful, social affections; and next to this, from no outward hindrance coming in the way of their doings. Nor have they any joy but that of finding themselves in full possession of the wealth and appliances of life, from which that gratification proceeds; of having new treasures of this kind thrown open to them, and of finding themselves abundantly endowed in comparison with others, so that their enjoyments are secured for a long time or for ever. This is certain, that those persons are not in the kingdom of God, but are leading, far away from it, a life that is rich, luxurious, and in its way, splendidly expanding. It may be highly refined and ennobled; but even the noblest and most refined natural life and motives are still only flesh, and never become spirit. Although in the whole life of such men there occurred no act that might not also occur in the life of him who is led by the Spirit of God, yet so long as truth, integrity, love are regarded only as means towards enjoyment, and that alone is aimed at, of whatever kind it may be; so long as this and no other is the inner motive; so long as the ruling sentiment does not refer to God and to His plans, we perceive the difference most distinctly. From no amount of still higher elevating or perfecting or outward purifying whatever of this life, which, as to its inmost motives, is carnal, can that spiritual life ever be produced; such a life is born of the flesh, and remains flesh although developed to the highest bloom of health and beauty; there is no possible transition, such as that from a state of coarse, carnal life to a cultured, restrained, pleasing condition, and from this to what is really good and holy. If such men are to come into the kingdom of God, they must lead there an entirely different and new life, and the be ginning of a new life is a new birth. And we are assuredly, all of us, far from assuming that those who so live could never, just because they have once given this form to their lives, attain to the new life; and that a new birth, although necessary for them, would be impossible -- but that what is once born flesh must for ever remain flesh. For from that it must follow that what is spirit must have been originally born of the Spirit; but that is by no means what we know of ourselves. On the contrary, our experience, our distinct remembrance, tells each of us that the peace of God has not always dwelt in us from the beginning, but that it was given to us, that the flesh ruled in us before the Spirit. Though we may never have had a period of gross transgressions, of disgraceful passions or degrading pleasures, yet, beginning from innocence and purity of heart, we did not attain gradually more and more to the complete strength and virtue of a life pleasing to God. Between the beginning of our existence and our present life and aims there lies a time in which lust was the prevailing power; in which it conceived and brought forth sin. If we are honest, we can say that there is a period on which we look back only with the feeling that we appear to ourselves to have become since then different men. That which was then our innermost I and Self has now become something far off. and strange to us; and the law of divine appointment, which has now through the grace of God become the law of our life, which we love and obey, was then far off and strange. We were only aware of it as an external force, impeding the free course of our life, just as now the separate stirrings of the flesh and of sin are a force which we do not ascribe to our real life. Thus, then, it is true that one life has ceased and another has begun. But the beginning of the new life is the new birth; and this holds good universally, If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; the old is passed away, behold all is become new.
Thus Christ makes a division between two periods of the human race, and He is Himself its regeneration. The Christian period is not the continuation of the Jewish and pagan period, but a new one. And so for every nation the appearing of the gospel in it is its regeneration, not only a perfecting of its former condition; for, as we learn from history, much that was really good and beautiful often perishes in the first place, and the whole form is changed, the whole life takes another direction. So almost every great historical event is a judgment on some evil that has gained the mastery, and it thus becomes in one aspect or another the germ of a new life; and only where we find and understand the two things in their connection do we find and recognise a great phenomenon. And the same is true as to individuals; sin must have somewhere gained the upper hand, the flesh must have been active and ruling, that grace may have the mastery when the spirit attains to life; every one must first have tasted the life of corruption, and then, by the second act of divine omnipotence and love, he is born of the Spirit and becomes spirit. We have all, as Christians, an invincible and inalienable consciousness of this transformation; and when we welcome as members of our alliance in a stricter sense some who formerly did not belong to it, we take for granted that they have become such by the new birth which is from God.
Yet, my friends, this very thing is, on the other hand, a hard saying, a much-disputed doctrine; and as that inquiring and well-meaning master in Israel could not reconcile himself to it, but asked, How can such things be? so very many Christians, even masters in Israel, and among them those who are longing for knowledge and honest in motive, have a great deal to object to this demand, that a man must be born again. Let us now, in the second place, consider those objections.
II. When to the Saviour's assertion, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus made the objection, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? we are not to suppose that this man, who was a ruler of the Jews and a master in Israel, was so simple as to believe that Jesus, whom he regarded as a teacher sent from God, wished this to be understood literally of the physical birth, or that, if he had believed this, he would have had anything more to do with one who made such an assertion. On the contrary, from the words of the Saviour that follow, when to the question put by Nicodemus a second time, How can these things be? He answered, Art thou a master in Israel and knowest not these things? we must certainly conclude that this form of expression under the figure of the new birth was known to him. And indeed it could not be unknown among a people who made so great endeavours with so confident a hope of extending their faith and their institutions, and who prized the exclusiveness of their descent. It was a glory and a gain with this people when any foreigner was moved to seek participation in their law and in their hopes; but they could only attain fully to this by receiving a share in the nation's genealogy; they must become children of Abraham, and hence the expression of being born again might and must often have been used. This new birth, then, was also the beginning of a new life, which was to be lived no longer after the customs of the pagan fathers, but according to the manner of the new father, and according to the later law, which unite all his genuine and true-born children. But this new life was, after all, only a life according to a new outward law, which became more and more by habit a part of a man's life, other wise everything remained essentially the same; the same reverence which they had formerly divided among many supposed gods, was directed to the one true God, who yet had been dimly guessed at behind those many illusions; and the same virtue which a right-thinking heathen had no doubt already practised before he became inclined to Judaism, he had to practise and cultivate under that new law. That new birth was thus, as it were, only a new birth from a different flesh, and this Nicodemus could understand. What was born flesh remained flesh, notwithstanding this change. But now, when the Saviour required of all who would see the kingdom of God, even of him and all his brethren, that they should be born again; he concluded, and that most justly, that it was a question of a different and more inward change; and it was just in looking at this as required of himself, that he asked doubtfully, How can a man be born again when he is old? How a man who had so long been flesh should yet be able to be born of the Spirit, and to lead, with all his heart, a life actually and entirely new; this he did not understand.
Very closely related to this are the objections of the men of our own days, and, in part, of the present masters in Israel. Their opinion takes this direction -- that a man is of course constantly changing during his life on earth, one in a greater, another in a less degree; and that with one this change may be more a real advance from good to better, with another more a mere variation of conditions the value of which may be pretty much alike. Every man, they say, is at the same time flesh and spirit; thus has God in a similar way endowed all; only in some, through that progress which they make, the spirit gains more and more command over the flesh, and those are the good; with others, on the contrary, the spirit is long kept under, is only rarely seen in its beauty and strength; and the greater part of their life is devoted to various manifestations of carnality, in violent secret or open conflict with the spirit, and those are the wicked; but the great majority of men are those whoso lives pass away in continual vacillations, without a decisive preponderance on the one side or the other. But still the spirit is present and at work in all; for otherwise they could not be men, but would be beasts. Now if, after a long apparent resistance, during which, however, the spirit is inwardly gaining strength unseen, it suddenly comes forth with increased power, this looks like a special divine communication and revelation, and if from that point onwards there is a permanent supremacy of the spirit over the flesh, then this is regarded as a transformation, and it is called conversion or new birth. And yet it is not the beginning of a new life; the same spirit has always been in the man and has lived and worked in him, warning, threatening, resisting, punishing, making him ashamed. For, say they, if it is to be supposed that this power which draws man to a higher and better life, and which people are accustomed to call the Spirit of God, is not given to men until later, how could it be said that a man was the same man as before, if an entirely new element were added to his being? and if only some receive this power and others do not, how can it be said that the two beings are of the same kind and partake of one and the same nature? And if that higher life which is the condition of the divine approval and of a man's present and future blessedness, can only be attained by means of a power to be thus specially communicated to him by God, and God imparts this power to some earlier, so that they are able to attain a higher perfection in this life, and to others later, though He does impart it to them, and to others again not at all, what a change takes place in our idea of the divine Being, in whom we strive to imagine infinite righteousness and infinite love united; how does this change into an idea of utterly unintelligible, and for that very reason terrible despotism! For why does He take compassion on the one, and leave the other to his fate? If man is at first born only of the flesh and is wholly flesh, then there is nothing beforehand in any one that would make him more fit for the kingdom of God or inclined towards it, and therefore no ground in the one for being preferred or in the other for being set aside. And can that be regarded as a Christian doctrine, or indeed at all as one, without which the whole of Christianity is not rightly understood, which brings such confusion into that living sense of God, which is really the source of everything good in man?
And to this they further add, that it is a doctrine that burdens and perplexes the conscience, and on account of it, all that God does for men is for a great many of them fruit less, so that they attain to no real repose and joy in life; and if this is not the case with still many more, that is only because they do not really hold this doctrine very firmly. For if in the midst of a man's life a new life must be begun, one must surely be able to show and give proof when and how it began. With the lower creatures, whose life assumes different forms one after another, this is the case -- we can see how the one life dies out and the other springs up -- and therefore we ought to be able just in the same way to perceive when the flesh dies and the man is born of the Spirit. Hence among the friends of this doctrine a desire naturally prevails to be distinctly aware of the moment of this change, this new birth. Now the more this new life, as is the way with life in general, has been the outcome of hard struggles amid tears and groans, the more sure every one feels able to be, that he is born of the Spirit; and the less one particular moment stands out distinctly from all others as the starting point of this new life, the more uncertain it seems to be whether the new birth has actually taken place, and every thing that seems to indicate the new life is suspected of being possibly an empty show. But, it is said, not without justice, how few men come in a natural way to such a distinctly marked out moment, which perceptibly and, as it were, visibly separates the two parts of their lives! And just because this is so, this opinion has always produced a vain striving after such a moment, with which the conviction of divine grace may be specially connected, and on the remembrance of which the mind may rest in full confidence. Hence it has always stirred up a multitude of tormenting and useless anxieties in the best of men, who though obedient to all the teachings of Christianity, yet could never attain to any real comfort on account of this one opinion, which it was not in their power to verify. Indeed how many examples have there been in every age, that these doubts have gnawed away a man's life, have dried up the inmost marrow of his spirit, and have, not unfrequently, shaken his mind into complete derangement! And this -- so it is asked, not, as it seems, unreasonably -- this is supposed to be a doctrine revealed by the God who does not even desire the death of the sinner, much less that of the righteous? This is sup posed to be the teaching of the Saviour, the friend of man, who came to seek that which was lost, as if He had rather come to cast into awful perplexity those who are walking in the straight and safe way?
These are the objections, not only of worldly people (who are not the persons to whom the demands of Christianity appear too rigorous), but also of many masters in Israel, to the Saviour's words, that a man must be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God. And if we ask them what they propose to make of those words, if they are really Christians and do not dispute the words of the Saviour, then all that probably remains for them to say is, that at the time when Christ spoke these words they had their own important meaning, and that the mistake is only in trying to apply them to the present time. For at that time, they will say, every one, even he in whom a spiritual rule was already established, needed to experience so great a change, in order to enter the kingdom of God through Jesus, that it might really be regarded as a complete revolution. It was necessary that his idea of God, from which all good ways and doings of a man proceed, should be changed; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, although He was certainly not thought of in a fleshly way as an idol, but spiritually as the source of all good, needed to become for him the universal Father of men, who desires only to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, and who purifies the hearts of the heathen also through faith in His Son. In like manner it was necessary that his whole endeavours to observe the externals of that separating law which was, nevertheless, a spiritual law, seeing that it told against evil desires in every way -- that these endeavours should be directed to the universal law under which all men can unite. His love had to change from the narrow-hearted love of those of his own race, which, nevertheless, being opposed to selfishness, was a work of the Spirit, into that love which embraces in all men alike the image of God; and his hopes of earthly power and greatness, which yet were to be the power and glory of the righteous, behoved to change into joy in a wholly spiritual kingdom of God. But no, there is no such revolution as this, seeing that the very beginnings of what is spiritual in a man born and brought up as a Christian can have no other distinction than this. For this very knowledge is in stilled into every one from his youth up; these sentiments are in every way required from all; and as certainly as every man is born at once flesh and spirit, just as certainly every Christian has from the beginning this spirit, which therefore only needs gradually to increase, without any entire change, in order to the man's becoming a man of God, fitted for every good work.
III. Now what are we going to reply to all this? I know nothing else than what Christ answered to Nicodemus, Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again: the wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh or whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Just so should we have to tell those objectors, that they seem indeed to know the works of the Spirit very well, and yet not to know whence they come. You think, I would say to them, that this is the way of it, that the right knowledge is now instilled into all from their youth, so that now no one can think less or worse of God and divine things than is according to their amount of Christian knowledge. You think it is enough that every one is called on by all means to have sentiments conformed to the gospel; because, seeing that these sentiments are widely diffused, and that it becomes publicly known how each person stands affected towards them, it is certain that every one who stands in awe of public opinion and to whom the respect of men is of consequence, is very careful not to set them openly at defiance; and if he goes on being thus careful, he becomes naturally more and more unaccustomed to act in direct opposition to them, and more incapable of doing so: and hence, because these sentiments and principles have passed into all social institutions and regulations, the carnality of men is restrained even from childhood, and thus at a very early stage the flesh is, as it were, spiritualized. So that in a kind of casual way, you think, it is to be done? and that if this kind of thing went on continuously, a man would gradually become, without the need of a further great inward change, a man well-pleasing to God and fitted for the work of God! Do you actually fail to see the vast difference between the highest perfection to which man can attain from this point, and the still most imperfect virtue of the beginner in true faith? We, on our side, cannot but say that while the kingdom of God no doubt has an effect on those whom you describe, the latter alone is actually in it, and bears it within him. The evil that the former avoids is, as regards his being in the kingdom of God, just the same as if he had done it; and the good that he does must be forgiven to him just as much as the evil, if he is to enter that kingdom, because it is never the result of faith. Yes, between your perfect man and our beginner there is just as great a gulf as between the man in Abraham's bosom and the one in the place of torment. For what we seek is only effected when that which, as you say, every one now knows, -- although this universal knowledge must be of a very subordinate kind, so long as it remains a dead knowledge in so many, -- when this becomes ill the individual man a living impulse, his only impulse, the essence and the inmost strength of his life; not a law that comes to him from without and which he fears and respects, but his one pleasure and love, without which he does not feel right. And that is the faith of which it is truly said that it comes by preaching, which, however, only means that the grace of God brings it about through the word and life of those in whom it already is; not at all that it develops naturally and of itself out of the dead knowledge. From that knowledge to faith there is no gradual transition; we come to it only by means of an entire change and a new birth. And is it the case in any other sphere that what is dead becomes gradually and of itself a living being; what belongs to others a thing of our own; fear and dislike of anything, not mere habitude and in difference, but delight and love? And yet such is the difference which we have described. For if the opponents of our doctrine appeal to the feelings of approval of good, of shame and regret for evil, which originate and develop as of themselves in the Christian community; and if we further concede, what may be much more rarely the case than is supposed, that those feelings are quite pure and genuine; yet it is certain that notwithstanding all the keenness of those feelings, the will is quite void of what the feeling approves, and leans to something quite different: it is certain that, much reason as there may be for maintaining that man does not of his own accord will evil as evil, just as little does he of his own accord will good as good, and that the strength and persistence of this feeling does not even in the longest time transform the will; but on the contrary, if such a change do not take place through grace, even the feeling itself does not continue in its sharpness and purity, but gets gradually blunted into in difference and obduracy. And if our opponents further appeal to the fact that every man, even the most wicked, has moments in which he feels really moved to good, and that therefore even for such there is no need of a new birth, but only that those moments be made permanent; yet we all know only too well from a former time those unsatisfactory, fleeting emotions, in which there was certainly a hint of the new man; but we know also that we then felt only as if taken hold of by an unknown power. We felt that if this power became a part of us and constantly dwelt in us, we should become different persons; but even the most earnest wishes were not capable of effecting this. Now this very thing, the renewing of the will, which is undoubtedly the centre of the whole being, the continual indwelling, as the Spirit of God, of that which before only stirred the feelings from with out, and in a passing way as the power of the Word and of the Church; -- this is the new birth, before which, now as in the time of Nicodemus, a man, though possessed of all those advantages, is still only flesh; and of which no one will assert that it is connected with the natural birth into earthly life; for he who should assert this about himself would make him self equal to the Son of God; but on the contrary, we have all come short of this glory that we ought to have before God. The second birth may be easier now than at the time when Jesus talked with Nicodemus; it must be so, otherwise there would be no consistency in the work of God; but it is quite as necessary for entering the kingdom of God; and every one must be so much the more shut up to it, because the servant who is always hearing his Lord's will, and has in deed in himself a warning voice to remind him of it, and yet never does it, is deserving of the greater contempt, and more over of double punishment.
And as to the difficulties that may arise in adhering to these words of the Saviour, that a man enters the kingdom of God only through the new birth; we have no cause to allow our faith or our feelings to be confused by such fancies. Is there a single one of the doctrines peculiar to Christianity, about which those to whom it is distasteful, or who cannot understand its nature, do not make the same assertions? Believers are not perplexed in this way; it is only those who pervert the terms of faith into sophistries which are beyond man's province, who are caught in their own net. They ask, if it is thus with the Spirit of God, and some may have it and others not, how can it be said, in that case, that men have all the same kind of nature? But are there not in every higher, living nature, faculties, and those indeed the noblest, that are not developed until a later- period? Now, if with certain persons this development is delayed, those faculties are imperfectly cultivated, and therefore unhealthy -- marred and disfigured in many ways. And we say this freely of those who are without the Spirit of God; for to have that Spirit belongs to the original nature of man, who was created in the image of God. They say, if a man has not been born again, and this can only take place through grace, then it seems a mere arbitrary choice on God's part, that He shows this grace to some and not to others. Is not this the creature speaking foolish words against Him who has formed it? words which are too high for him, and which he does not understand? Well, suppose that you admit no difference between those who are born anew of the Spirit and those who are only flesh; does that, if you are set on reasoning in this way, at all take you past the difficulty of having to think of God as acting in an arbitrary way? You place your comfort, your satisfaction, we will suppose, in virtue, in piety, in the cultivation of your mind; or if you chose to place them in something lower it would be all the same. For some are certainly better and more pious than others, have more virtue and culture, or if you prefer it, more gifts of fortune, more comforts and enjoyments. Now, if you take together all those accomplishments that you possess, all these delightful circumstances in which you are placed, would you really be arrogant enough to maintain that you owe all this to yourself? that you have given much to yourself, or if you have but little, that you have withheld more from yourself? Have not God's leadings a great share in the developing of your faculties, in the determining of your position? And when you look at the inner nature of each one, and find one richly gifted and another but scantily; has each made his own nature, or is it of God? Therefore it is not the new birth that is the stumbling-block of those sophistical objectors; it is that they are trying to contend with God, as no man can possibly contend with Him! Assuredly never yet has a believing soul become doubtful about receiving afresh the divine grace, or been troubled in the lively and vigorous use of it, because he saw that others did not possess it just as he did; and never has a heart that was honestly longing for that grace left off entreating for it from heaven, because all did not possess it in exactly the same degree! The man who really desires what is good will make no such mistake; it is only the vain sophist who becomes a fool in counting himself wise. What can hurt the man who follows after good? Nothing; not even the deepest mystery of the divine will.
And none of us, my friends, must let himself be perplexed by the suggestion that if a new birth were necessary, every one ought to know and be able to point out when this miracle of divine grace was wrought on him. On what alone is it that this demand is founded, which certainly many Christians, because they count too much on certain special experiences, are accustomed to make? It cannot be denied, in regard to such persons, that they certainly argue too much from their own experiences; by which they have perplexed many an anxious heart. But the Saviour says nothing of this; He rather leaves us free to give a wider meaning to the words, Thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh; a meaning in which they less imply a reproach, than express the man's necessary uncertainty. For could it be the same thing to require, Ye must be born again, and You must know when and how you were born again. Do we know it about our natural birth, otherwise than by the accounts of others, such as no one can give us about what has been transacted between God and the soul alone? Is not the beginning of every form of life, from the lowest to the highest, hidden in the impenetrable darkness of divine creation, and is it likely that this would not be the case with the most mysterious creation of the Spirit? that the new life would be just as imperceptibly entered on and developed as the old? And certainly those also are mistaken who think they have actually watched the beginning of this life. It may be that they regard as such one of the many preparatory stirrings of the mind, from which, after all, no continuous spiritual life resulted, or that they confound the first full consciousness of that life with the beginning of it. To this consciousness each of us attains sooner or later; it reveals itself in certain moments of exuberant feeling; it is authenticated by the fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience; it is the witness of the Spirit of God in our hearts that we are the children of God; and with this let us be satisfied. But let us never sit down so contented with the sense and the certainty of our own life in the kingdom of God, as not to make it our most earnest endeavour to help others forward into this new life. And in this loving endeavour let us aim at nothing less, and set nothing less before them than this great word of the Saviour, so that the little that we can do may be done in the right direction, and that even we may help in the work of the Spirit of God. Amen.
(From the Author's third collection, published in 1814.)