New Birth and Eternal Life

We have received several letters with regard to papers that have appeared under the above title in this magazine, and feel that we must return to the subject again in the hope of clearing away difficulties which seem to exist in the minds of some of our correspondents.

The views expressed in these letters may be classified for answer as follows:

(1) New birth and Eternal life are one and the same thing.

(2) Eternal life is the life received at new birth.

(3) That a man is born again by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. We must test these views by the Scriptures.

Are Eternal Life and New Birth the Same Thing?

We will answer this question by substituting the terms "born again," or "new birth" for eternal life in some of the passages where the latter occurs. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but (be born again)" (John 3:16). "The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water, springing up into [the new birth]" (4:14). "This is [the new birth], that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent" (17:3). "Ye have your fruit to holiness, and the end [the new birth]" (Rom. 6:22). "He that sows to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap (the new birth)" (Gal. 6:8).

It will be seen at once from these scriptures, which we have purposely misquoted, that the two terms in question are not synonymous or interchangeable, and a careful consideration of the passages should convince our readers that eternal life is much more than new birth, and also that it is presented in many ways by the Holy Ghost in the Scriptures.

Is Eternal Life Received at New Birth?

That spiritual life is imparted at new birth, and that it will abide forever cannot be questioned, for it is by the word of God that it is brought about (1 Pet. 1:23), and that word brings forth after its own kind. But is this what is meant in the Scriptures by it eternal life?

The passages already quoted are, we believe, sufficient to prove that it is not, for one speaks of it as a sphere, or region of life, another as the knowledge of a relationship, others as something to be reached and reaped. There is also the great passage in 1 John 5 which tells us that the Son of God is it, and that we have it in Him.

We arrive at the perfectly just conclusion that life and new birth go together more by inference than from any direct statement to that effect in Scripture, for we know of no passage that definitely connects life with it; what is definitely stated is, "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." This is the Lord's own definition as to what is brought into being at new birth. There is a new spiritual condition or being which is absolutely distinct from the flesh, and which has its own nature and desires that can only be satisfied with God and Christ. It may be urged that this must be life, and with this we agree, but again ask, Is it what God calls "eternal life"? A careful study of the Scriptures will, we believe, convince our readers that it is not, and also, that eternal life is very much more than simply not perishing, as some of our correspondents seem to think.

It may help us to briefly consider those passages which treat on this work of grace, which is called "born again" in the Authorized Version. Each of them seem to present it from a different side, and may be said to deal (1) With the absolute necessity of this work in man; (2) The source from whence this work proceeds; (3) The means by which it is brought about.

(1) THE ABSOLUTE NECESSITY OF THIS WORK IN MAN.

"Verily, verily, I say to thee except A MAN be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).

The condition of man is here revealed. It was useless for Nicodemus, even though he were the best man in Jerusalem, to imagine that all he needed was teaching; these words of the Lord struck an unerring and decisive blow at such a conceit as that, and the same solemn truth is reiterated over and over — always an arresting thing in Scripture — "Except A MAN be born again" (v. 3) "Except A MAN be born of water and the Spirit" (v. 5); "YE must be born again" (v. 7).

MAN is the subject of the Lord's words, and nothing can be surer than that it was His intention to expose to His hearer the irremediable condition of man according to the flesh, which condition makes it an absolute necessity that he should be born again ere he could have any knowledge of, or part in, the things of God.

It is not the way of divine grace to uncover the utter ruin of man and his complete alienation from God without also disclosing the unfailing resources of God for his recovery; so the way in which this great thing can be accomplished is also set forth by the Lord: it is by the Spirit as the mighty Operator, working in man and producing by the word, as the instrument, a new spiritual condition in men; and since the word is spoken of under the figure of water, it is by the word in its cleansing character, separating a man morally from the evil principles of the flesh that once governed him, and made him run counter to the will of God. Having been born again he is changed in the very springs of his being — be is clean morally (see John 13:10, and 15:3).

(2) THE SOURCE FROM WHENCE THE WORK PROCEEDS.

"Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures" (Jas 1:18).

We are begotten, not by our own will, nor by any initial movement from ourselves: it is by God's sovereign, will. That will is the Source of and the determining factor in this work, above and before all else, working from and for itself, and just as absolute as when He at the creation said, "Let us make man in our own image." And so, though it cannot be entirely apart from faith, for it is by the word of truth, which must be believed to be operative, yet it is by the sovereign will of God, and by nothing in ourselves, that it is accomplished.

(3) THE MEANS BY WHICH IT IS ACCOMPLISHED.

"Having been born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which lives and abides for ever" (1 Peter 1:23).

This passage is occupied with the means that God uses, and the seed of God is set in contrast to the seed of man; the latter is corruptible, for all flesh is as grass and it cannot abide, but those who are born of the incorruptible seed of God must live and abide for ever, for this is the character of the word by which, as we have seen before, the work is accomplished, and it produces after its own kind.

Is Eternal Life the Life Received at New Birth?

These are the three passages which speak definitely of being "born again," and it is interesting to note that they are addressed, in the first instance, to one who was a Jew, and in the other cases to those who had been Jews and who were acquainted with the Old Testament Scripture, and consequently should have known of the necessity of this, for the truth as to it had been revealed in their Scriptures as that which was needful before they could enter rightly upon their blessing, which was earthly in character. New birth belonged to the earthly side of things (John 3:12), but all men in every dispensation must be born again if they are to be in right relations with God and to see and enter His kingdom. But eternal life as revealed by the Lord in His own person on earth is a heavenly life and outside all dispensations, it is given to us who believe in Him, who do not belong to dispensations at all, but are heavenly as He is. New birth we believe is the preparation of the soul for the reception of the Son of God in whom eternal life is, and who is it. John 1:12-13 is sufficient to prove this, for there we learn that those who received Him were born of God; and again, in John 10:27-28, we find that it is to His sheep who hear His voice that the Lord gives eternal life. New birth is the outcome of the operation of the Spirit by the word in the soul; eternal life is connected with faith in the Son of God.

We do not deny that a person might, under the same preaching of the Word, come under the operation of the Spirit and turn in repentance towards God — "know his own sore and his own grief and spread forth his hands" (2 Chr. 6:29), in supplication to God, and also put his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The former would be life in His soul, the latter would save him, bring him into the position of a child of God (Gal. 3:26), and as such be would have eternal life, which every member of God's family has, whether babes, young men, or fathers. We believe these two may be simultaneous as the sword-stroke and the wound, nevertheless they are distinct and, as in the case of Cornelius quoted in the next paragraph, some time may intervene between the two.

The exigencies of space compel us to postpone any further reference to eternal life in its character, environment, and relationships as distinct from new birth, in this issue of the magazine, but we would ask our readers to carefully study the scriptures quoted thus far, and while not separating that which God has joined together, to be also careful not to confound that which He has made distinct.

Is a Man Born Again by Believing in the Lord Jesus Christ?

Certainly a man who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ is born again; his faith in Christ, we believe, is the proof that he is so born; but he is more — he is saved; he is justified; he possesses eternal life in the One in whom he believes; and these things are not the same or the Spirit of God would not have made a difference. But let us take the case of Cornelius as an example of that which we wish to make clear, for, though living in a transitional time, yet being the first Gentile to receive the gospel, he is a pattern man and brings out clearly that a man may be alive to God and yet not "saved" in the sense in which Scripture speaks of this, which surely is the only right sense. Peter was sent to him to tell him words by which he and his house were to be saved (Acts 11:14). So that he was not saved until Peter spoke these words to him, and yet "he was a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people and prayed to God alway" (Acts 10:2). Did this spring from what he was naturally? Impossible. His prayers and alms went up as a memorial before God (v. 4). Why? Because they were the fruit of God's work in his soul, there was spiritual life there, and his seeking after God was the result of it; but he was not saved until he heard the glad tidings from Peter's lips. He had heard some word from God previously, he must have done so, must also have believed it, or how could he have done things which were acceptable to God, things which proved that he was born again? But he had not heard the gospel of God's Son, and it is by this gospel that a man is saved and by this he receives eternal life.

Since it is the word that is used by the Spirit to accomplish the new birth, there must be faith in the word or it would be profitless, as Hebrews 4:2 makes clear; but here again we have to go to another scripture than those that speak of being born again.

We must remember that the word of God covers more than the gospel by which men are saved; it includes the solemn truth quoted from Isaiah 40:6 by Peter (chap. 1:24), a word declaring the condition of men, and when this word as to himself comes home to a man it produces repentance towards God in him and he is ready to put his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But we must leave the further consideration of the subject to another issue, God willing.

In pursuing this subject we desire only to present the truth as we believe the Scriptures present it; our readers will judge for themselves how far we succeed in doing this, but they must judge, not by any preconceived notion or traditional teaching which they may have received, but by the Word of God. 'Search the Scriptures daily to see whether these things are so.' We would remember that even natural life cannot be explained; there are many secrets as to its organization that God has kept from men, and this is also true in the spiritual sphere. We may take account of the phenomena of what we call conversion: the Word is heard, the conscience is aroused, the whole man is changed, he yields to the truth of God and seeks after God, but just when, and where, and how, in the course of this subjective work of the Spirit of God in the soul, the man is born anew we cannot tell. "As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who makes all" (Eccl. 11:5). "The wind blows where it lists, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it comes or whither it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8).

But what Scripture distinguishes we must not confound, though we may not carve up the truth of God into separate blocks, as is done with Bath stone, for one truth overlaps another. They are like the colours of the rainbow — you may distinguish but you must not separate them.

We would ask our readers first of all to carefully note that being born anew is connected with, and for entrance into, the kingdom of God. The words are, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see THE KINGDOM OF GOD" (John 3:3), and, "Verily, verily, I say to thee, Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into THE KINGDOM OF GOD." The Lord does not here connect new birth with entrance into the family of God — though that is the way some of our correspondents seem to read the passage — but speaks of it as the great thing needful for the kingdom. We may be sure that the Lord was right, and that every word of His is a tried word; and since that is so, we must connect new birth with the kingdom as He has done.

Now, the kingdom of God is not the theme of John's Gospel, it belongs more particularly to the Synoptic Gospels. The revelation of the Father — and, in consequence, the family, and eternal life, which is the life of the family — eternal life fully manifested in the Son of God; this is John's great subject. But at the very commencement of this manifestation, of which men could never have thought, and which had not been the subject of prophecy, we have the kingdom of God introduced, and it is introduced with a purpose.

Nicodemus was well acquainted with the thought of the kingdom. It was that for which Israel looked; but they looked for it, with themselves as the centre of it, because they were the children of Abraham; they wanted it on the line of nature. The Lord shows that this could not be, for the natural children of Abraham, like the rest of mankind, were corrupt and absolutely unreliable. There must be a new generation, and that from God. That is true for the Jew; it will be a necessity on his part for the kingdom when it comes into public display at the appearing of Christ. But the truth goes out beyond the Jew; it is, "Except A MAN (anyone) be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

The thought that connects itself with the kingdom is subjection to rule. The kingdom of God now is moral in its character, that is, it is in the souls of men, not in public display (Rom. 14:17); but even so it means subjection to God, and a moment's consideration must convince us of the necessity of this if we are to learn the deep things afterwards revealed in this Gospel. How could the Father's name be known and His love become a reality to any man unless he first comes into subjection to God? Man in his best estate is a rebel, and nowhere was this seen more clearly than in Israel. Could rebellious man, whose very nature was enmity against God, enter into the deep secrets of eternal love? Impossible. We must have an entirely new nature that will be subject to God; he must be born again, and so enter the kingdom of God. This is brought about by the Spirit's operation. We know by what means, but we cannot tell how. Nevertheless, we see the result of the operation. There is that within the man who comes under it, that which is subject to God and responds in faith to the presentation of the Son of God.

Every one knows the difference between a kingdom and a family; the thought associated with the latter in Scripture is the greater of the two. New birth is connected with the kingdom, and eternal life belongs, for us, to the family. It will have its connection on the earthly side of it with the kingdom in the Millennium (see Ps. 133; Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:4-6); but we are dealing here with eternal life, not as it is presented in connection with the millennium, but as it was manifested in the Son of God for us. As such it is connected with the knowledge of the only true God, revealed as Father, and with Jesus Christ, His sent One (John 17).

What may perplex us in this connection is the attempt to make the spiritual work fit too closely the natural figure used by the Lord. There is undoubtedly an analogy between natural birth and being born anew in the fact that it is a new beginning — a new generation, and a thing of mystery; but this is as far as we may go with the figure. Nicodemus was puzzled and sought a natural explanation of it; he knew not these things. Let us beware of falling into the same error.

Then, according to these words of the Lord to this ruler of the Jews, a man must be born anew before he can enter into the kingdom of God; he ceases to be a rebel, and comes under the rule of God. What a mighty change is this. Nothing short of "born anew" could describe it. It is a new beginning entirely, not the old flesh made better, for that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and it cannot be coaxed, educated or forced into obedience to God; but that which is born of the Spirit is spirit, there is a new Spiritual nature by the operation of God's Spirit; it is from above; so that the one Who is the subject of this mighty operation will desire to do the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven; he is in the kingdom of God.

The Lord turns to heavenly things from verse 12 and we learn in connection with these that whosoever believes in the Son of Man lifted up, who is also the only-begotten Son of God, should have everlasting life. The same order comes out in John 1:12-13. There were those who received the Lord, and to these He gave the right to become children of God; but they were born of God who thus received Him; and in consequence, as subject to God, they received the Son of God, and so got the right to be children of God, and eternal life belongs to the family.

There is a beautiful moral order here, and though a man might pass in one gospel preaching from a rebel right into the family of God, and so have eternal life, yet that does not destroy the truth as to this moral order which we have pointed out.

But the question is asked of us, When does one become a babe in God's family? We reply in the words of Scripture: "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26). And every child — whether babe, young man, or father — has eternal life. Faith in the Son of God puts the one who has it into the Christian position and privileges, such a one has the Spirit of God dwelling within him because he is a son by faith in Christ Jesus, and as such he can address God as Father (Gal. 4:6). The indwelling of the Spirit means much more than being born of the Spirit: the one is the preparation of the house, the other the occupation of it.

New birth is a necessity; eternal life is a gift. New birth is by the operation of the Spirit; eternal life is through faith in the Son of God. New birth brings the one who is the subject of it into the kingdom of God; eternal life is the life of every child of God today

Space forbids us, even if we were able, to follow out through John's Gospel the many beautiful ways in which eternal life is presented; but we would notice that as natural life has its income and expenditure, so also has eternal life, and we might speak of chapter 6 as its income. "I am that bread of life" (v. 48). "Whoso eats My flesh, and drinks My blood, has eternal life" (v. 4). "He that eats My flesh, and drinks My blood, dwells in Me, and I in him" (v. 56). The expenditure may be seen in chapter 7:38-39, for there it is life flowing out in the power of the Holy Ghost. The income and expenditure of it may easily be discerned also in chapters 14-17. We do not speak of expenditure in the sense of waste, but of the energy of life in its outgoings, and if this is to be maintained according to its native vigour there must be the income, the appropriation of Christ in the way that John 6 presents Him.

It has its relationship, environment, conditions, and character also, but all these have been set forth fully in the Son of God, for not only is this life in Him, and we have it as having Him (1 John 5:12), but He is it, for "This is the true God and eternal life" (v. 20).

It has been pointed out that Paul nowhere speaks of new birth, but he gives us that which is the outward and manifest sign of it, for he speaks of "repentance towards God." Repentance is the soul's bowing in subjection to the word of God; then he also gives the result of it: "faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ." He also preached the "kingdom of God," the only door of entrance to which is new birth, and in addition to this he taught "those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 28:31), which would include the whole range of Christian truth, including eternal life, which in Paul's teaching is presented to the faith of the saints as something to be laid hold upon.

Peter in his Epistle (chap. 1) carries us further than John 3, and teaches us that, in contrast to those who are of man's generation, those that are born again will live and abide forever, for they are born by the imperishable seed of God. James 1 gives us still another thought, in that those who are begotten by the will of God should bear His character and be doers of the Word.

But both these are kingdom Epistles, that is, the truths contained in them has to do with our life as God's people in subjection to Him in the world; they do not unfold those exalted relationships and privileges which are peculiar to Christianity, on the heavenly side of it. These belong to the ministry of John and Paul.

In John's First Epistle we are on other ground, though even here we do not leave the truth of the kingdom entirely, for we read: "Whosoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God." The Christ is the Anointed, the Messiah, and the Head of the kingdom, and the one who believed in Him in this character was born of God, his faith was proof that he was so born; but then we read: "And every one that loves Him that begat loves him also that is begotten of Him" (1 John 5:1). This is the family and eternal life, and here these distinctive truths overlap each other, they blend one into the other like the colours of the rainbow of which we have spoken.

The distinction between new birth and eternal life is maintained even in connection with the millennium, for the "sheep" of Matthew 25 were most surely born again — they were "the righteous" (v. 46), and such are born of God (1 John 2:29) — and they go, as such, "into life eternal."

This we believe to be the truth, however poorly we have been able to express it, and we only ask that it may be tested by the infallible Scriptures.