By H. Forbes Witherby.
4. The Agent by Whom the New Birth is Effected.
The Spirit of God effects the new birth — His varied ways — He works by the truth, quickens and gains man, conscience, heart and mind, for God.
Having glanced at the truth of man's condition of spiritual death by nature, and at the character of the word of God as affecting man in his natural condition, we now come to the consideration of the One who gives effect within the heart to the truth of God.
The Holy Spirit is the gracious agent who accomplishes the new birth of men dead in sin. In His sovereignty He is pleased to work in us, and to give the words of truth, which our outward ears hear. energy within us, and so to render the word of God the word of life to us individually.
The bare letter of God's truth, apart from the Spirit's work in us, does not give us life. The word of God does not take root in our old fallen nature; on the contrary, that word only condemns our old and fallen nature, and teaches us the truth about ourselves. Apart from the Spirit of God, the letter kills. What more could it do? for the word tells us that we are in our sins and require life, and shows to us that life is the gift of God. "The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life." (2 Cor. 3:6.) The words which Jesus spoke, He said were spirit and life (John 6:63), but the souls of the hearers were rendered receptive by the Holy Ghost. To deal with the word of God as if a man could take it up and make it his own in his natural strength, is practically to assume for man a power which the truth of God denies that man possesses. Whether religious or profane, learned or ignorant, the flesh is flesh in itself, just as an oak is an oak, though there are varieties of the tree. It is written, "It is the Spirit who quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing." (John 6:63.)
The absolute necessity for the quickening power of the Holy Ghost in sinners dead in sins is indicated by the fact that where the word "quicken" is used in Scripture it generally relates to giving life at the resurrection to the body in its state of physical death. God will exercise a power, by which the dust of the dead will be raised to life, and He now exercises a power by which man in his death of sin becomes alive to Himself.
The Lord says of man in his state of spiritual death, "The dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live" (John 5:25); and now the power put forth by God in giving life to sinners dead in their sins, is after the same sort as that which He exercised in raising from the dead the body of His Son, who had died for sinners. "The exceeding greatness of His power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of His mighty power, which He wrought in Christ when He raised Him from the dead." (Eph. 1:18-20.) Life is given to the spiritually dead, who are raised from their spiritual state of death, according to the mighty power of God, even as the Lord's body was raised up from among the physically dead.
The ways of the Spirit of God, when working in souls, are exceedingly varied. We never find in the work of God in nature, or in grace, anything of a stereotyped character; but we do find general characteristics marking every group of His workings. There are not two clouds alike, yet the classes of clouds invariably preserve their character, whether they be that of the sweeping rain-cloud, or the mountain-like mass, or the far-off tracery. No two ears of wheat are exactly the same, but every ear of wheat bears the common stamp of a general character. Divine diversity in no way denies divine unity. The Holy Spirit bows or breaks men as He pleases; He is sovereign, and works as He will. He moves some souls, as the rustling corn is moved by the gentle summer breeze; He breaks others, as the forests are broken by the whirlwind. How tenderly are some hearts affected by His work, while others, by the effect of His operations, are driven almost into despair! But all in whom He works, implanting the divine life, have the general features of the family of God; and what we have to do is simply to believe and to yield ourselves to the fashioning influence of the truth. Why the Spirit of God should bring some souls so swiftly into peace with God, and seal them unto the day of redemption, and why He should permit others to groan for weary years in the spirit of bondage and fear, teaching them deep lessons as to self, we know not; but we do know that there is divine wisdom in all His gracious ways, and that the word of truth is the means whereby the happy deliverance of every soul is produced.
There are this day, amongst those whom He has quickened, some in throes of sorrow, who have been thus for months, yes, and in some instances, for years together; there are others, who have broken forth into peace and joy, with a suddenness to be compared to the spring of the arctic regions, where snows melt and winter flees away almost immediately, and where myriads of blossoms within a few days burst forth into life out of the long dreary months of death. No two souls have the identical tale to tell of God's work in them, but all have the same life; Christ is the life of all, and all have a "common salvation." The remarkable manner in which strong characters are often gently overcome, and weak ones forced into obedience of the truth, in which a high intellect is subdued by the most absolute simplicity, and a rough brute nature broken down by the most tender grace, all witness to divine wisdom, and the working as He will" of the. Spirit of God.
The sovereignty of the Spirit of God in His acting is evident in every soul, who is born from above. Not only in the case of individuals, but also in that of localities, do we see Him working as He will. It may please Him to pour out on a town or congregation during a few days such showers of blessing, perhaps by the means of a servant of God, as had not been known there during previous years of waiting and of hope; "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8.)
The difficulties of truly awakened souls are often such, that they simply are shut up to God, and how well this is! Those who would seek to help them, find their distress and burden so intense that the presence of the trouble makes the servant of God silent in the sense of his utter inability to relieve the sin stricken soul. In others, again, dryness and barrenness of soul exist, and of so hopeless a kind, that it seems like the ground parched with long heat and east wind; the seed has been sown but shows no sign of life. It appeals, as it were, by its very desolation, for the rain from heaven as its only hope. The sole power which a believer has in truly bringing souls to God is that which flows out of him by the Holy Ghost; and most deeply important it is at all times, and particularly in days of human zeal and materialistic thought, to stir up the hearts of christian workers to faith in a present Holy Ghost, whose power in souls is identical with that which He displayed at Pentecost. Unless there be faith in the operations of the Holy Ghost we do not look for His actings, but go on as if our own strength or the truth alone could give men life. Let the christian worker learn practical lessons from the ploughman and the sower, who both do their duty, fulfilling their work to the best of the ability God has given them, and who, having done all, wait in faith for the quickening powers of the sun and rain of heaven. Neither sowers nor ploughmen make the seed they sow or the soil they plough fruitful; this is the effect of the rain or the sun of heaven.
Is a soul seeking Christ saying, "But what am I to do?" We reply, "Believe, do not reason." Man has no more right to reason than has the soil into which the seed is cast. The character of the soil may be a great hindrance to the prosperity of the growth of the seed, but both seed and soil are necessary for the life of the flower; our hearts are fruitful as we believe. Receptiveness, not reasoning, is what is required.
Does the christian worker say, "And what shall I do? Sow on, sow beside all waters, sow in the morning and in the evening, plant the truth in the hearts of the young and of the old, sow and pray, work and believe God, and He will give the increase. The word laid carefully and prayerfully in the heart in early childhood may give signs of its presence in youth, or perhaps not till old age; but follow the steps of the Master, who cast abroad the seed of the word of God. It is not for us to complain that the soil is adverse and the birds of the air are many; results are in God's hands, but the responsibility of spreading abroad the word of God has been committed to us.
The Spirit of God works in human hearts through the word. Such is His way; He does not act independently of the truths of the written volume. He takes that which He Himself has inspired, and which is the revelation of God in Christ, and He inscribes its truth upon the fleshy tables of the heart. He engraves it in us, as words are cut into the rock, to remain there for all time, so that the word becomes part of our very moral being. The truth thus made ours by the work of the Holy Ghost, is no longer like a history of some ancient nation, the record of whose deeds stirs the mind and feelings; but it has become in us the living utterance of the living God. Then the truth to us is the voice of God to ourselves, heard by our inner man.
When the truth is thus received, it is no mere opinion about the truth which we have formed; far from it, it is the word of God working within us, which works energetically in those who believe. (1 Thess. 2:13.) To the believer, God is verily his God, Christ verily his Saviour; for he is born anew and has a new nature. And the desires of the new nature rise up to the source of the nature, even to God and to His Son.
We need to maintain most carefully that it is the word of God itself which the Holy Ghost gives us to hear and to believe, for in our day the fact of the exactness of the letter of the truth is made light of. God has given man a revelation of Himself in His word, and by that revelation He gives us light. The Holy Spirit does not inscribe upon our hearts things untaught in the Scriptures. A text of Scripture, a line of a hymn, or a word dropped by the wayside, may be what He takes up wherewith to quicken the soul, but whatever He uses is invariably truth of the revelation of God. The gracious way of the Spirit of God is to speak what He hears (see John 16:13); this is the attitude which the Son took when on earth, and is now assumed by the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. He does not speak from Himself, He does not speak apart from the Father and the Son, He speaks according to what is revealed in the word of God, which word reveals the Son to us by whom we know the Father.
How man is gained for God shall now briefly occupy us. We have had before us the consideration of the word of God and the Spirit of God in His gracious activity; what shall we say of man? We begin with man's conscience, which is the moral point where the work of the Holy Ghost is most deeply felt. The conscience is man's perception of good and evil, and where the truth is known, it is this perception enlightened by the candle of the word of the living God. Every man has a conscience, but every man has not an enlightened conscience. Knowledge of good and evil exists in each human being, but it is only where the truth of God shines that a sense, in any way exact according to the standard of truth, exists.
A man's conscience may speak to him of good and evil, and more, it does witness to him of a Being with whom he has to do; but it cannot speak to him of God in His nature, save so far as God has been made known to him. Conscience, while a light within, is derived from the fall; it is not a revelation of God to man, by the truth. And it is only when the light of the truth enters the conscience that the experimental knowledge of good and evil is forced upon the convictions.
The Spirit of God lays bare and exposes man to himself. We do not say that this action of the Holy Spirit is His quickening power. Conviction is not conversion. A criminal may be convicted of his crime, but in no sense be turned from his guilt; a sinner may be made to feel by the word used by the Holy Ghost what he is, and yet not be turned to God. The hearers of Stephen were "cut to the heart," yet they added sin to sin, and stoned to death the witness to their souls. But the making us feel in ourselves what we are, is a frequent accompaniment of life. When the soil begins to be upheaved over the spot where the seed is laid, we say the seed shows signs of life. Where God is dealing with the heart, we find the conscience laid bare, and, as a consequence, repentance — turning from sin and turning to God.
Even the infidelity peculiar to Christendom has not robbed its votaries of conscience, though it has seared it as with a hot iron. When scepticism has done its deadly work, the sensitiveness of the conscience in relation to the truth of God is gone. And as infidelity continues to leaven christian doctrine we may expect more of this evidence of its presence. The pioneer of this Christianized infidelity is religion apart from the truth of God, which produces in souls religiousness without reality, and coats over consciences with a moral thickness that resists the edge of the truth. Where religion has its own theories, and does not bow to the truth, it levels a road over the consciences of men for the advance of infidelity. It is this kind of work in which Satan is now largely engaged in our own land, and he has many a sapper and miner road-making by means of religious teaching, which denies the truth, and all the truth, and nothing but the truth of the Scriptures. In a short time the infidel army will come marching along this road.
There is another kind of conscience hardness, which is too common in our land, favored as it is with gospel truth. Those who have often heard the truth, and have as often trifled with it, become insensible to its thunderings, as workmen working where hammers ring continually upon iron become physically deaf. Still every man has a conscience, and when the Spirit of God works in him, his conscience is laid bare; he feels in himself what good and evil is, and by the light of the truth of God reads the evil of his ways, repents, and does works meet for repentance.
We place the heart after the conscience. Man's heart was captured first by Satan — a deceived heart turned him aside, then the act of disobedience followed; that which was forbidden was taken, and the eyes of the conscience were opened. Man knew within himself, by the light of the commandment he had broken, what good and evil were. In the state of innocency man's conscience was like a sleeping babe; he fell, and his conscience awoke like a giant, never to close the eye again. The sense of good and evil is acquired, never for all ages to be lost; but, with the sense of good and evil, man, in his fallen state, has no power to attain to righteousness, no power in himself to rise out of the state of evil in which he is.
In entire distinction from man in innocency, or man knowing good and evil and being under the power of sin, the believer is of the new creation, and is created after God in righteousness and true holiness. (Eph. 4:24.) His conscience is now God's servant, and in the glory to come will have not a word to say, for righteousness and holiness of truth then will be his native air. There is no return to innocency — to the state in which Satan found man and deceived him; but God makes all things new. The state of innocency in Paradise was not absolute perfection; the state of being as gods, and knowing good and evil, and yet having no power to live to God, was development, indeed, but development into death. The new creation is the knowledge of good and evil, together with the life of God and His indwelling Spirit, and, as a consequence, dwelling in the light and love of the nature of God. This new creation is perfect, and when the people of God are before Him in bodies of glory their state will be perfection.
In a state of sin, man's heart is estranged from God, and when God, working within us, brings us back to the sense of our departure from Himself, and of our sinfulness, He opens our hearts to receive His word and to turn to Himself. When the heart of man is reached, the citadel of his moral being is gained, and this is usually won by gaining first the outworks of his conscience. When the heart is gained, the sinner is saved: "If thou shalt believe in thine heart" . . . "with the heart man believeth." (Rom. 10:9, 10.) Where the word of God is believed as the truth of God, and not as the word of men, God Himself is believed, and Christ received.
The mind follows the heart. It is given to God as the heart is filled with Christ, and God the Holy Ghost gives eyes to the understanding. The believer looks upon the truth not, as once was the case, as with the eye of one who belongs not to the kingdom upon which he looks, but with the eye of one whose spirit is in unison with the truth. A nature is communicated to the believer which is of the truth, so that he is as a child who has not only the life of his father, but his father's nature.
Until there be life, there cannot be living activity of the mind for God. The natural man receiveth not the things of God, for they are foolishness unto him. (Cor. 2:14.) The natural man may examine the things of God through the telescope of his reason, as the astronomer the stars which he never will reach, and which are worlds with which the men of this planet have no communion. The truth is outside the natural man; the true believer is of it. On the other hand, the simplest believer on the Son of God has life in Him, and also wisdom given to know the things of God. "The anointing which ye have received of Him abideth in you, the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in Him." (1 John 2:27.)
In a professing day like the present, it behoves all to be most earnest with themselves, not to rest in nominal christianity, which is not life, but at the best only a name to live. Satisfaction ensuing from acquaintance with religious doctrines, with creeds, with the letter of the Scriptures, is resting short of Christ. Many thronged Jesus on that day, when but one in faith touched His clothes. Need of Him drew that poor sufferer to the Saviour, and so it is also in our times; need draws us to Jesus. Thousands are evangelical, alas, few believe the gospel; tens of thousands are nominally christians, but small is the number of those who have been to Christ for themselves! May God give each reader to come to His Son for life, for the Lord has said, "Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out"; and more, "This is the will of Him that sent Me, that every one that seeth the Son, and believeth on Him, may have everlasting life." (John 6:37-40.)