Is There Such a Thing as Being Born Again?
We are now arrived at the question of holiness, — a question which divides, however, into a number of others. Before we can consider the motives to it which the Word of God supplies, — for we are all agreed that it must be a free and voluntary disposition of heart acted on by these, — we must consider who and what the man is to whom they are addressed. What is it to be a child of God? and who is a child of God?
Dr. Steele gives us an answer from his favourite Mr. Fletcher, which, for its evaporation into nothing of blessed Christian truth, is scarcely to be exceeded by any thing we have met in the whole range of theology. It is a special invention to meet a special difficulty with the Arminian creed, which converts and reconverts any number of times that may be needed to save its free-will theory from shipwreck. What do you think, child of God, if such I am addressing, — what do you think that this precious term implies? Relationship? Any real affinity, such as, in nature, your being your father's child suggests? Well, then, you are mistaken: it is just an orientalism, a figure of speech. Had you learnt Hebrew in your youth, you would have been better instructed.
"But I thought I was born again? People are not born again to be children of the devil, are they?"
Ah, you are uninstructed! "Born again"! Why, you should remember what a mistake "honest Nicodemus" made about it. Are you carnal enough to think of any thing real in it? It is all the oriental mode of speech, dear friend: a figure, just a figure!
"They ask, 'Can a man be a child of God today and a child of the devil tomorrow?' . . . The question would be easily answered, if, setting aside the oriental mode of speech, they simply asked, 'May one who has 'ceased to do evil' and learned to do well today, cease to do well and learn to do evil tomorrow? . . . If the dying thief, the Philippian jailer, and multitudes of Jews in one day went over from the sons of folly to the sons of wisdom, where is the absurdity of saying, they could measure the same way back again in one day, and draw back in the horrid womb of sin as early as Satan drew back into rebellion," etc., etc., etc.? (p. 135.)
Yes, why not even ten times a day? It is all very easy to the imagination, if — let our author still pardon the doubt; — if new birth be only a figure of speech, and man is converted by his own will simply, or the Holy Ghost's work be just like a friend's words in the ear, and nothing more!
So it must be for Dr. Steele. He simply makes nothing of it. "Common sense exegesis" does not too narrowly scan texts, nor are God's ways so unlike human ways, it seems, for this to be any great objection!
But we have Dr. Steele's exposition, with the help of some of his favored exegetes, of the doctrine of new birth as found in the crucial passage (John 3): — "Two natures coexisting in the believer, in his best possible earthly state, is proved by John 3:6, which is amended to read thus: 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and remains flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.' This is quoted to prove that the single nature is untouched in the new birth, while an entirely new nature, or rather new creature, is created and associated therewith." (p. 114.)
His own exposition is found in his objections
1. That John uses the term 'flesh' in the Pauline sense, which, as Meyer says, is strange to him, while Cremer, in his 'Biblico-Theological Lexicon,' quotes this passage as an instance of John's use of sarx, 'flesh,' to signify merely that which 'mediates and brings about man's connection with nature.' He finds six shades of meaning to this important word, the last only embracing the idea of sin. He excludes from this meaning all passages in the four gospels in which the word occurs."
Bold it may seem to take up again what Cremer and Meyer have thus settled for us. No need to give their reasons, even! Yet, spite of the temerity of the undertaking, we are going to look at the passage for ourselves. Let us, however, now go on with the objections:
2. It is assumed that such writers as Weiss and Julius Muller are in error when they say that the meaning of Jesus is, 'the corporeal birth only produces the corporeal sensual part.'" (p. 115.)
Dr. S. and his commentators seem to forget one thing essential to all exposition of a text, — the context. The question raised here is, Why cannot a man enter the kingdom of God without being born again? It is no answer to say, "The corporeal birth only produces the corporeal sensual part." What, in fact, do these words mean? That the human spirit is not the product of natural generation? That has nothing to do with the matter; for then it would mean that the work of the Spirit was needed to produce the higher part, and the Lord would be talking throughout of natural birth, not of being born again.
It is plain that man as he is cannot go into the kingdom of God; he may have spirit and soul and body, as every natural man has, yet he must be born again. 'That which is born of the flesh must be, then, the whole man; and the whole natural man — spirit and soul and body — is only 'flesh.' This is not, therefore, "what mediates and brings about man's connection with nature," as Cremer says; it is the proof that he is a fallen being. Spirit and soul and body are all only characterized by their lowest part; and that is, the fallen, the sinful state: men must be born again. Let us hear the next objection.
3. There is a confounding of birth with creation out of nothing. 'For, as generation,' says Dr. Whedon, 'is a modification of substance or being, imparting to it a new principle of life, conforming it, as living being, to the likeness of the generator, so regeneration is a modification of the human spirit by the Holy Spirit, conforming the temper of the human to the holy.'"
But Scripture calls new birth a creation, Dr. Steele. "We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works." (Eph. 2: l0.) A natural birth must not be confounded with a supernatural. A supernatural birth means for man human nature raised to a higher plane, even to the likeness of the Generator, as Dr. Whedon well says; thus "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
This is, as Dr. Steele quite truly says, not the creation of a new man put into the believer, but the impartation of life to one before dead in trespasses and sins. I grant to him that this language about the new man is a mistake often made, but which many of the Plymouth Brethren have a good while since protested against. A new life and a new man are different thoughts. But a new life means a new nature. In this way, however, it would be plainly wrong to speak of a change taking place in the old nature. It might give place to it: how far it does so we must prove, not assert; and to say that "soul, body, and spirit" are "born again by the endowment of spiritual life" (pp. i i6,)*** is to go beyond Scripture. "If Christ is in you," says the apostle, "the body is dead because of sin." (Rom. 8:10.) This is too plain a text to admit of controversy. The question of the two natures I reserve for the present.
But this new life given of God is not merely a moral change, — a ceasing to do evil and learning to do well. It is a real new element of being in the believer, though it may be impossible to define; and no wonder, for natural life is impossible to define. By it we are actually, not putatively, the children of God, — really born of Him: "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." (John 1:13.)
Change there is as the result of it, — real, moral, permanent. "Born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever" (1 Peter 1:23). "Whosoever is born of God does not practice sin, for His seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." (1 John 3:9.) This is not stated of a special class among Christians, as it is often applied — a class who have attained a perfection which others have not, but of all that are born of God. And it announces as clearly as can be the permanence of the change which new birth produces. It is impossible for the child of God to go back into the condition from whence he has been delivered. His seed remaineth in him. The life which he has received is "eternal life."
But what is eternal life? Alas, that among Christians the question should yet need to be asked, and that the answer should be received by many with controversy, instead of joy and worship. "God hath given unto us eternal life, and this life is in His Son." "In Him was life; and the life was the light of men." (1 John 5:11; John 1.) It is the "divine nature" of which we are made partakers (2 Peter 1), which in Him displayed itself in undimmed brightness amid the moral darkness of the world, a darkness which comprehended not the light. In us, it is indeed dimmed in manifestation; yet we have it, — already have it, — have "passed out of death into life." (John 5:24, R. V) It is eternal life, because in Him it never had beginning; and having it, though dependently, "in Him," its possession constitutes us really "children of God."
Thus we see why, in the one born of God, His seed remaineth. There is no condition here as Dr. Steele would have it, nor do we "see at a glance," or see at all, in the Greek, as he declares, the conditions of continuance or perseverance, where the Lord says, "He that heareth My words, and believeth . . hath everlasting life." The Greek, if we are to be precise, simply says, "He that is hearing and believing hath." It is not, therefore, that "if these conditions are fulfilled, the new life inspired by the first act of evangelical faith becomes everlasting" (p. 132.) It is not so said, nor does this give the true meaning of everlasting life at all. "This is the commonsense view," perhaps, — the loose, careless view, as these words so often mean. The truth of eternal life is gone, or rather, never was in the author's mind. New birth, there is none. Moral suasion by the Holy Ghost upon the natural man, this is all the divine work in it.
It is plain to see how in this way it is as easy to turn one way as to turn the other way, for a saint to become a sinner as for a sinner to become a saint. Nay, it should be easier, for gravitation is only too natural. The descent to hell is easy.
And thus where these views are entertained, after every "revival" you will find a numerous host of backsliders; people who are scarce ever taught to doubt the truth of their conversion, though their goodness was like the early dew: who think they have known all there is in "religion," though for them it did as little as possible. But if they want it, it can be obtained again where they got it before; and they must be more careful that they keep it. Not so, Dr. Steele: new birth is indeed a "creation." It takes the power of Omnipotence to accomplish this wondrous work. And into God's new creation no new curse shall ever enter: there shall be no more return to night and chaos. Are not these the terms of the new covenant: "I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts; and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people; . . for I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.