By H. Forbes Witherby.
"The wind bloweth where it listeth . . so is everyone that is born of the Spirit." These were the Lord's own words to a night-time enquirer, one who would later on receive that new life. This book, first in a series, explores the mystery of new birth and the nature of the new life in Christ.
1. The Necessity for the New Birth
Man's state in nature that of spiritual death — no power in nature to rise above itself — no power in nature to perceive or to enter into the kingdom of God.
Man's state by nature is that of spiritual death; he has "no life" in him (John 6:53), he is "alienated from the life of God." Eph. 4:18.) There is no pulsation in human nature which beats God-ward, no craving within for God, no thirst after God — the source of life and light and love; no seeking for rest in Him, who alone can satisfy the soul.
When Adam fell from his innocency, not only did he become a sinner, but the primary instincts of his fallen nature led him to shun God, and to hide himself from His presence. Centuries have rolled on since that dark day, and men still are far from God; not indeed farther from God, as to their nature, than Adam, their progenitor, for that would be impossible but, as regards the great mass of humanity, terribly farther off as to the knowledge of God, indeed utterly ignorant of Him, and living in the darkness of moral estrangement from Him.
Human nature may be amiable or disagreeable, but natural character is not the divine nature. Good temper in a horse does not give the creature a title to be anything more than a good-tempered horse. The fine and noble qualities existent in man are the remains of the beauty and perfection of the divinely-made creature before the fall. They may be likened to the fragments of sculpture and broken pieces of exquisite ornament which are dug out of ruined temples, and treasured in museums pertaining to civilized countries; civilization admires the conceptions of ancient days, marvels at the skill that no longer exists, and seeks to imitate the fragmentary marbles it has dug out of their hiding-places; but at the same time lacks the in and the hand which conceived and executed the works of its admiration.
Man has lost spiritual perception of God, and, as those creatures which, by reason of their dwelling in the darkness of the waters of subterranean caverns, have lost the organ as well as the sense of sight, he lives and moves in the darkness of his nature's distance from God, in a world, which, alas! has cast off God; and he is ignorant of the gloom in which he dwells.
In the second chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians, two intensely solemn statements are made respecting man's state by nature. Men are there described as being dead in sins, and also as being the children of wrath: — "You . . . were dead in trespasses and sins . . . we . . . were by nature the children of wrath, even as others." (Eph. 2:2, 3.) The apostle was writing to Gentiles, to people who had been "worshippers of the great goddess, Diana," and of the image which, poor idolaters as they once were, they fancied had fallen "down from Jupiter." These Gentiles are the "you," and himself and other Hebrews the "we" of the solemn statement. But whether Gentiles or Jews, whether worshippers of Diana and her image, or of Jehovah the living God, still all men are described in the sacred record as of one stock and as in one state, their nature being precisely alike.
The course of man commenced with disobedience, it developed with human progress; till, by reason of human iniquity combined with Satanic energy, God sent the flood, and swept the face of the earth of its sciences and its cities, of its arts and its wickedness. After the flood, the re-peopled earth became, morally, like the side of the moon lying in the shroud of its own shadow; even then darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the people. The world worshipped demons, and even Israel, redeemed from idolatrous Egypt, carried images of demons in their camp. The licentious acting of the human will led the heathen into every form of horrible self-indulgence (Rom. 1:23-31), till man became what beasts can never be — lower than himself. The Jews transgressed the law Jehovah gave them, and by transgression became more culpable than the Gentiles, who had but their consciences to accuse or to excuse them (Rom. 2:15), and who, not having the restraint of divine authority, sinned with uncurbed wills.
"Dead in trespasses and sins,'' "Sons of disobedience," "Children of wrath," such is the solemn record of God concerning man!
Let us look at another era in the world's history. Light shone in its darkness, the Son of God visited this world; but the darkness comprehended not the light. And what is the record of Him concerning man in his nature, His record who came from heaven, who is grace and truth, who Himself is the Life, and whose words are spirit and life?
A sample of the human race visited Jesus, the Son of God, one night. How does nature shrink from being seen in the presence of the Holy One! This religious man had the oracles of Jehovah in his mind and memory; he was no ordinary theological master, but a noted teacher of the revealed will of God. He came to the lowly Man with a conviction of His greatness as being one sent from God, yet he was utterly ignorant of His person. There seemed, besides, something of the air of religious patronage in the words of Nicodemus as he presented himself to Jesus.
Now, how did He who came from heaven deal with him? Nicodemus would have been prepared for a religious discussion, but Jesus drew forth the sharp knife of truth, and with these words, "Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again," slew for ever all the religious teacher's hopes. Had Jesus spoken thus to a publican, or an outcast, the religious pride of man might have tolerated the sentence — that is, by shifting it on to the heads of others — but no, the record stands, concerning a sample of orthodox humanity, that new life is necessary in order to enter the kingdom of God. Poor Nicodemus, in the blindness of his understanding, staggered under the blow, saying, "How can these things be?"
The Lord had all men in His mind when He spake that night to the ruler of Israel, saying, first "ye" — that is, ye Jews — "must be born again," or anew; and later on, "Every one" — that is every man, Jew or Gentile — "that is born of the Spirit "(John 3:7, 8); thus showing what we have seen the epistle to the Ephesians teaches.
Nature produces nature; like begets like. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." Human nature is human nature, whether cast in a Jew or a Gentile mould, whether amiable or offensive, courageous or cringing. Good never will be evolved out of evil, nor light be born of darkness, nor perfection issue uncreated out of chaos. The flesh is, and ever will be what it is; and this is true of all. Let us not, like restless waves, vainly beat against the iron rocks of truth.
It is terribly humbling to be told, even by the Lord Himself, that the flesh is flesh, and that we must be born anew, especially to those who, like the rabbi of Israel, have shot forth their religious branches and borne their religious fruit; but these few short words, "Ye must be born again," cut us down for ever. Yes, many have they laid low spiritually, many an one have they slain as regards hope in self, in works, or in the vain belief that this old Adam-life can become fit for God, or that self, purged and sanctified, can be made to live anew. "Ye must be born anew"; yes, all must be new — a new life, a new nature. It is not the old conveniently white-washed, as the hypocrites advance; nor the old repaired and decorated, as moralists would have it; nor yet the fair garment of self-righteousness wrought out by a man on earth, that others would present to us; nor yet, again, the old changed and renovated by the Holy Ghost, as some say. No; it is what the word of God declares, "new creation." (Gal. 6:15.)
Let us bow to God. The first element in faith is obedience. All man's death and misery began by disobedience; our only hope for blessing lies in heeding God's word. Let none begin the deadly occupation of self-excuse, such occupation ends not only in self-flattery, in commending ourselves to ourselves, but in content of our nature-state of moral blindness. God save us, spiritually, from that which is one of His most benign favors naturally, contentment in blindness.
But if we enquire humbly and in His presence, "How can these things be?" He Himself will supply the answer. Yes, the cross of His Son will explain the enquiry, and, as it was with Nicodemus, so shall we yet learn to value the death of Jesus. Did not he "who at the first came to Jesus by night," when he saw the dead body of the Saviour, bring myrrh and aloes, and, with another — who was also a disciple, but secretly and in fear — wind the precious, priceless burden in the linen clothes and bury it in the new sepulchre? Yes, the death of Jesus, who died that we might live, not only opens our dull hearts to divine love; it also answers our questions concerning God and His kingdom. The body of the Holy One, laid in the grave, explains to us deep mysteries, and also divine possibilities, respecting ourselves. And where there is faith in Him there is love to Him, and a treasuring of His death in our hearts, which the God of all grace never forgets. How carefully is the record given in His book of the weight of spices Nicodemus brought wherewith to honor the body of the Lord. The memory of this tribute of love and reverence to the crucified Redeemer will not grow dim throughout eternity. He will be seen in glory, who at the first came to Jesus by night, and we shall recognise in him a man whose soul was emboldened, as well as whose questions were answered, by the Saviour's shame and death.
No spiritual perception of God's kingdom exists in us in our nature state. We have no soul-eye to see what it is like. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nature itself teaches concerning perception, God having implanted in some of His creatures an inward vision, which others possess not. The autumn gathering of the swallows proclaims a power and perception of which man may take note, but which he cannot explain; how much more apparent is the principle of God giving spiritual perception to His own people! God has revealed to them by His Spirit that which natural eye has never seen, and natural heart never conceived. (1 Cor. 2:9, 10.) Education cannot make an eye or give sight to the blind, far less can education give to the flesh, the old nature of man, ability to see beyond the limits of vision natural to it. Cultivation does not change nature, it leaves the thorn bush and the thistle, thorn and thistle still. Man can develop things of earth's kingdom which exists, he cannot create. Cultivation never enables a man to see more than the kingdom of man; it neither generates a wish nor creates a desire in him for the kingdom of God. On the contrary, cultivation of the flesh usually ends in more potent pride than ever.
The seeker after God's kingdom sighs over himself; he who sees it is born anew. "I see now'' is a constant expression of those who have just received sight of soul to perceive the truth revealed in the scriptures. The truth of the things of God is not altered because we by grace perceive it; it is what it was before we were born, but the difference is this: formerly we were darkness, now we are light in the Lord. (Eph. 5:8.)
There is no entrance into God's kingdom in our natural state. Nature itself teaches a lesson again. The animal does not enter into the vegetable kingdom. God, the Creator, maintains the broad lines which distinguish creature from creature. Who ever planted a forest in the ocean? The laws of nature cannot be altered by the creature; the laws of the new creation are never set aside. Being born anew, a man has a new nature. The spiritual kingdom is the element, if we may so express it, of those who are born of the Spirit; and to enter this kingdom there must be the new birth: "Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."
These words of the Lord do more than state a fact; they also explain how a man is born anew. There is an action within effected by two forces — water, i.e., the word (1 Peter 1:23), and the Spirit. Let us not forget to whom the Lord was speaking — to a Jew well acquainted with the scriptures, i.e., the Old Testament — "Art thou a master of Israel and knowest not these things? The Lord was not speaking to a christian possessing the New Testament scriptures, and acquainted with the use of the christian sacraments, which at the time of His words had not so much as an existence. Nicodemus assuredly knew, by the letter of the word, what "water" signified, and by the same word he knew what was meant by the Spirit. But he did not then know their spiritual force in his own soul. So may we understand intellectually and educationally what these things are, and yet be without their power.
We read that the Lord will gather again scattered Israel to their own land in the day of the kingdom on earth. "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean. . . And I will put my Spirit within you." (Ezek. 36:25-27.) The purifying water is the word of God, and the Spirit the Spirit of God; and at the time of the kingdom, Israel will be brought by means of the word into a new state by God, being purified thereby. "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you." The moral effect cf the word of God is purifying. By the effect of the word upon the soul, repentance is produced — we are made to feel that what God says about ourselves is true.
The new nature, derived through the Spirit implanting the word in the soul, is divine as its source. Born of the Spirit, men are thereby partakers of the divine nature, and actually possess a life which is distinct from the life they have from Adam; a life absolutely new. Christ is the source, the pattern, the expression of this life; He is the life itself, we receive it from Him by the Spirit.
Old and new truth is bound up in what we have just looked at. Old, inasmuch as it is truth, which, speaking broadly, every child of God of all ages is subject to and formed by; for whether without the law in patriarchal days, or under the law from Moses to Christ, all the people of God were born anew, and all were partakers of the divine nature, and all had a new life. Still these things are new: for, until the Lord came to this earth, man had not been taught his absolute inability in himself to enter the kingdom of God, and his state of entire estrangement from God in his nature hence he could not know the need of a life wholly and entirely distinct from the life derived from Adam.
Having the life, and knowing what the nature and character of the life is which we have, are quite distinct. Many a child of God knows only that his sins are forgiven him; but does not know either that he has new life in Christ, or what the life is which he has obtained.
To ourselves, living in times since the death and resurrection of the Lord, His words on the water and the Spirit have still a fresh intensity. His death has marked the state of all men: "If one died for all, then were all dead" (2 Cor. 5:14). We know what the dead state of our nature is, not only by the declaration of the scriptures, but also by the fact of Christ's death. Dead in sin is man's condition, and in that condition he cannot but remain, unless God communicate to him a life outside that condition.
The resurrection of our Lord evidences a life for man beyond death, a life which is freed from death's dominion (Rom. 6:9) and from sin (Rom. 6:8); and the eternal life is now communicated to us who believe on the once crucified but now risen Son of God, in His present condition of resurrection. This is truth, new in the sense that it is christian truth, not jewish truth and it is liberty, even as the Lord taught before His death, as is recorded for example in John 8, of which we shall speak presently.