"Ye must be born again." — John 3:7.
In our Lord's discourse with Nicodemus, we see how wisely, faithfully, and graciously He met a professedly religious man. The Lord's mode of dealing with this Pharisee was different from His way with the woman of Samaria. The latter was a notoriously sinful woman, unconscious of her guilty state; the blessed Lord therefore brought her at once to a sense of her ignorance and foul course, by saying, "Go, call thy husband, and come hither." But the former case was that of an outwardly blameless man blinded by false religion; the first thing therefore the Lord did with him was to cut down his religion, root and branch, and then show him that he was a perishing sinner needing mercy, and, like a bitten Israelite, could only live by looking to God's remedy. The religion of this man of the Pharisees, I say, was false, though not altogether so; for Satan's deadliest snares are composed of a mixture of truth and error. It was so with the woman in the garden, and also with the Pharisees, and it is common also in the present day. Nicodemus believed in God, assented to the veracity of the Scriptures, held the existence of both angels and spirits, and the resurrection of the body. These points were according to truth; but the grand foundation-truth of the gospel — redemption by blood — was thought nothing of; this was the fatal error. The measure of truth, little as it was, held by a man of such dignity and education, only tended to keep his mind in darkness, and enable him more successfully to spread his false religion among those who came in his way; whereas, a person wallowing in pollution and transgression, without any religious profession, would have no such temptation; hence our Lord said of some, "Publicans and harlots shall enter into the kingdom of heaven before you."
The erroneous character of this man's religion was soon exposed by our blessed Lord, for He knew what was in man. The religion of this "man of the Pharisees" was not spiritual. He knew nothing of the new birth. This is fatal ignorance. He passed over man's fall in Adam, and his being now dead in trespasses and sins; he saw no necessity for repentance, or the new birth, and yet took his place as a religious man, offering service in the name of God as if he were holy instead of being polluted; considering himself a creditable member of a popular religious sect, and considered worthy of dignity and esteem as such by others. But it was carnal religion, which, we are told, cannot please God; and as man in the flesh cannot rise above his own level, it was necessarily connected with walking and acting to be seen of men, instead of as in the sight of God — "Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God."
But Nicodemus had heard of Jesus, and desired some intercourse with Him. How, then, could it be accomplished? How could this honoured "Master of Israel," this "ruler of the Jews," have an interview with the despised Nazarene? What would the people say? Nicodemus, however, was not at rest, for he believed that Jesus was "a teacher come from God," and see Him he must. He therefore came to Jesus by night; for in this way he could satisfy his conscience without displeasing men, or exposing himself to their scorn and persecution. Such is man. Such was the spirit in which this "man of the Pharisees" approached the Lord of glory. His thought was about Jesus being a teacher. He might have imagined it would be beneficial to him professionally to listen to His instruction. Though he was constantly occupied with the letter of Scripture, and the religious duties of the synagogue, it does not appear to have once entered his mind that he was a sinner, and needed a Saviour. Now pause, and mark the way of Christ with this man. Did He say, You come to me in such an unworthy way, I cannot grant you an audience? Did He say, Cast away this and that first, and then I'll speak to you? Did He say, Get better first, and then I'll receive you? Oh, no. The loving Saviour in this, as in even other instance, fulfilled His own blessed word, "Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." How full of encouragement this is, and how blessedly it unfolds to us the graciousness of the Lord Jesus Nicodemus did not see that he was "condemned already," and exposed to the wrath of God. Alas, alas a "Master of Israel," a teacher of others, and not concerned about his own salvation. Religion not true, a religion of dead works, the religion of the fathers, the religion of the people, the rites and customs of synagogue duties, with their attendant honours and official trappings, was the powerful current which was hurling this "ruler of the Jews," and others, downward at a fearfully rapid course, and that, too, without any idea of God's way of salvation. How very solemn! But is it not the same now? What is the real condition of thousands around us? Is it that they deny the existence of Almighty God? Do they contend that He should not be worshipped? Do they set aside ecclesiastical office? Do they dispute the veracity of the Holy Scriptures? Certainly not. But if you ask them if they have experienced the new birth, you will find that some will hang down their heads in confusion; others will judge you a ranter, or a wild fanatic; while others will try to shelter themselves behind some delusive sacramental form, and deny altogether the truth of the new birth by the word of truth, and the sovereign power of the Holy Ghost. But some, perhaps, may say, Is it not very uncharitable to conclude, that all who have not experienced the new birth are hastening on the broad road to eternal destruction? May there not be something good and hopeful in them without this? We unhesitatingly reply, No; because the Lord Jesus said, "Except a man be BORN AGAIN, HE CANNOT SEE the kingdom of God." Oh that the Holy Spirit might so work in the hearts of thousands of professors around us, that they might know the folly and unprofitableness of that religion which does not begin with being "born again!"
The first word of our text shows us how pointed and personal our Lord was in His ministry — "YE must be born again." This tells out His faithful love. He did not propound dry doctrines, or get up eloquent addresses, to please the itching ears of His audience. No. He was the Faithful Witness, and He came not to destroy, but to save. He knew the worth of the soul, and salvation had its paramount claim in His mind. His loving heart would bear with the unworthy manner in which He was approached, and set salvation before His hearers in the plainest and most pointed way. To the cavilling Jews in the synagogue His word was, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you." On another occasion He said, "Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world. I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in. your sins; for if ye believe not that I am, ye shall die in your sins." Again we see Him standing in the midst of a crowd, and saying, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." To the careless Samaritan He said, "If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith unto thee, Give me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of Him, and He would have given thee living water." He said to the seeking blind man, "What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?" And when he replied, "Lord, that I may receive my sight," Jesus said unto him, "Receive thy sight; thy faith hath saved thee." And so in the text before us, our Lord did not set before Nicodemus some profound points of theology for his consideration, as the ruler perhaps expected; neither was it a display of eloquence, such as a learned man might have appreciated; neither did He set truth in a general way before him. No; He came at once to the point, and said, "YE must be born again!" Oh that searching word, YE! This is Divine ministry; this is the way of the perfect preacher; and this is the style that should be imitated in the present day. It is when the Holy Ghost powerfully and personally applies the truth, so as to say to the conscience, "Thou art the man," that decided good may be expected. Persons may read the Bible, and think it is all about others; they may hear the gospel, and say that the preacher was very faithful to some present; but it is when a person feels that the truth read or heard affects himself, that we may expect blessed results. "Oh, yes," said a learned gentleman, after reading the epistle to the Romans, "I see this doctrine in the Bible." "But do you feel it in your heart?" replied his friend. That question led him to consider, and make the truth of such personal application as to be the means of his conversion. Fellow-Christians! we should be pointed and personal, as well as deeply affectionate, in putting the gospel before persons, both publicly and privately. Clear doctrines are not enough. We should remember our Master's oft-repeated word, YE! People do not think we are in earnest and sincere, if we only make general statements. I was much struck the other day in reading an account of a young man. A faithful servant of Christ said to him, "Do you know that you are going on to perdition?" "No!" said he, "neither do I think your people believe it either. My mother is one of your congregation, and I am sure she loves me dearly; and if she believed it, I am persuaded she would have told me of it. My sister also goes there; she loves me very much; and I am sure, if she believed it, she would throw her arms round my neck, and say, Don't, oh, don't go to perdition!"
We may next notice how decidedly the Lord insisted on the necessity of the new birth — "Ye MUST be born again." Not you may, but you must; not, you should desire it merely, but you must. Yes, without the new birth, you must be for ever in darkness — "you cannot see the kingdom of God;" without the new birth, you must be shut out for ever from the presence of God — "you cannot enter into the kingdom of God." How plain! how decisive! How essential to be "born of the Spirit!" This secret of the new birth the learned Pharisee was entirely ignorant of, and vainly tried to argue the impossibility of a second birth; but it only drew from the loving, faithful heart of Jesus a thrice-repeated testimony to the absolute necessity of it, and the explanation that the new birth was from above and spiritual. This positive declaration at once cut at the root of the Pharisee's religion, and razed to the ground all his cherished confidence and expectation; for it pronounced a verdict on the best man in the flesh, as being so apostate and corrupt as to be unfit for the presence of God. But while it exposed man's total inability to fit himself for the kingdom of God, it referred to the power and goodness of God in quickening the dead in trespasses and sins. The doctrine our Lord here propounds is of the highest importance; for men may be moral, amiable, benevolent, outwardly religious, and the like, yet they must be born again. They may be high even in ecclesiastical office, far advanced in theological education, yet they must be born again. Man's thought of religion is, that he must gradually improve, and perhaps be ultimately good enough to be saved. God's religion is, first to have life, and then rejoice in an assured hope of glory. Man's thought is to work for life; God's way is to work from life. Man proposes to himself eternal life at the end; God presents it to the true believer at the very beginning. Man's wisdom consists in the reformation and improvement of the flesh, with persevering efforts to pile up a quantity of supposed creature-merit and self-righteousness; the Lord Jesus knocks it all down with that uncompromising sentence, "Ye MUST be born again."
But what are we to understand by the new birth? "Ye must be BORN AGAIN." Certainly it is not an alteration of the old fleshly nature into that which is spiritual; for our Lord in the previous verse clearly shows the distinction between the two natures and the two births: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." The apostles too, in their writings, continually keep up this distinction of the two natures, not only as a matter of doctrine, but also of experience and practice. The believer is spoken of as made a partaker of the Divine nature, and as having the Spirit of Christ in him; his experience is referred to as necessarily one of conflict, because of the opposite workings of the two natures — flesh and Spirit: "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would." While in reference to practice, he is exhorted to "walk in the Spirit," and "not fulfil the lusts of the flesh;" to "put off the old man which is corrupt, and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness." This is a subject of immense importance; for if a really exercised soul imagines that being born again is a conversion of the old Adam, sinful nature into that which is holy, he cannot have perfect peace; for he must find that his experience does not correspond with the idea. Hence many a quickened soul thinks he cannot be a Christian, because he finds, with a principle of delight in the law of God, that there is another principle working in him which is contrary to holiness; while the truth is, he would not be "born again," if he had no experience of this inward conflict. His conscience must find peace alone through the blood of the cross. Instead of Paul saying that he felt sin was rooted out of him, he says, "Sin dwelleth in me;" though instead of obeying it, he by the Spirit mortified the deeds of the body, he kept his body under and brought it into subjection. He regarded his "old man" as an enemy, and kept it under; and exhorted saints not to fulfil the lusts of the flesh, but to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Being "born again" clearly, then, is not a conversion of "the flesh" into "the Spirit."
Neither does the new birth consist in mere outward reformations and moral amendments; for "a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit." Let the immoral become moral, the licentious chaste, or the drunkard sober, still, before God, he is only "born of the flesh." You may trim neatly, or cut off the branches of a thorn tree, and make its appearance more agreeable to the eye, still it is a thorn, and cannot bear grapes. The new birth, then, is something very different from outward reformation. Neither are persons born again by sacramental rites. It is easy to say it is so, but it is a fearful delusion. It is true that our Lord spoke of being born of water, but it was of water and of the Spirit: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." By water our Lord, doubtless, referred to the word of grace, that "living water" which God dispenses to thirsty souls, as presented in the story of the woman of Samaria. (John 4:10-14.) We read also in the first epistle of Peter of being "born again" by the word.
The new birth is a spiritual work; "so is every one that is born of the Spirit." We feel His operations in our hearts, but we can tell nothing of His coming or going. It is a heavenly work; we are born from above [margin]. It is not man's work, but the work of God; we are "born not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of men, but of God." It is a new life, so that those who are partakers of it are new creatures: "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation." It is done once and for ever; we are "born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever." This new creation, then, is clearly the work of God the Holy Ghost by the word: "We are His workmanship, created. in Christ Jesus unto good works," etc.
Nicodemus might well be astounded at our Lord's decisive preaching, and exclaim, "How can these things be?" which at once opened the door for our Lord to present to him the wondrous story of the cross. Having broken down the ruler's religion by the doctrine of the new birth, Jesus now presents to him the glorious salvation of the God of all grace, and shows him that the only place a man can truthfully take is that of a perishing sinner, and a receiver of life from Him. This is the way in which sinners are born again. Man is a fallen creature; he has been driven out from the presence of God, and is "dead in sins." Jesus is the fountain of life, and the cross is the fountain opened; there the water of life flows freely. Christ crucified is the smitten Rock, whence streams of living water flow abundantly to the needy and undone; and there the Spirit brings perishing, thirsty souls, to look and live; to drink and live for ever. Wherever else they drink they thirst again, but whoso drinketh of the water that Jesus gives shall never thirst, but it shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. Yes, Jesus crucified, risen, and glorified, is everlasting consolation, a never-failing, soul-satisfying portion. There is no possibility of being born again, apart from Christ crucified and risen. There the river of life flows. There it is written, "Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." Such, thus believing on the Lord Jesus for salvation, have received Him whom God hath sent, and have passed from death unto life.
An intelligent Israelite ought to have known something about the new birth. The plain statement of Ezekiel, "I will give them a new heart," should have been enough to have taught the ruler this, while the prophet's vision of the resurrection of the dry bones should have shown him that God is the Quickener of the dead. Our Lord, therefore, exposes still further the ignorance of this "man of the Pharisees" by the question, "Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?"
The ruler's question, however, "How can these things be?" was speedily responded to; and the difficulty, of how a man is born again, was very simply and beautifully told out by our Lord. He refers the enquirer to His own Scriptures; the Book of Numbers is selected, and the well-known tale of the serpent of brass is brought forth as the key to unlock the mystery of the new birth. The Pharisee's conscience is brought at once to the fountain of living water; the bitten, dying Israelites are depicted as receiving life through looking at the serpent of brass lifted up; and there Nicodemus might learn that, with all his Pharisaic religion and theological science, he is still dead in sins, and, like the bitten Israelite, must perish, unless he look simply to the Son of man lifted up on Calvary's cross. By looking only to the brazen serpent, the dying Israelite lived; and so now, dead and ruined sinners receive life eternal only by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It was life, eternal life, that Christ presented to the sinful Pharisee, as the free gift of God to "every one," "any one," "whosoever" believeth on the Son of God.
In this beautiful discourse with Nicodemus, our Lord showed also how competent He was for this great work of giving new life to the dead in sins, and also of the amazing power and virtue of the work of the cross, by telling him that He was Son of God as well as Son of man — God and man in one person — in heaven and yet on earth. "No man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son," etc. The Lord also most plainly showed the freeness of the grace of God, that is, the willingness of His heart to receive all, and cast out none that come to Him, by twice saying, "Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
The doctrine of the new birth is therefore taught by our Lord in connection with the cross. A new birth is inseparable from new life; that new life is here defined to be not temporal, but eternal, and as flowing only to us from God, through the death of Christ, and that to every one that believeth. Therefore our Lord told Nicodemus, that to be born again of water and of the Spirit, he must take the place of a ruined, perishing sinner before the Son of God, who was crucified, and thus he would receive eternal life, and stand no longer as one condemned, but as having pardon and acceptance with God. This, indeed, is being born of God. The Holy Spirit always directs the soul to the person and work of Christ. The Holy Ghost does not say, Look at me for salvation, look to my operations for peace, look to my gifts for assurance. Oh, no! He is the Glorifier of Christ, therefore He saith, Look to Jesus lifted up, look to the Lamb slain, the Saviour of sinners; believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved; and if we be led of the Spirit, we shall surely testify of Christ. Were I merely to preach, Ye must be born again, it would be no message of glad tidings, no balm for the weary and heavy laden, no comfort for the anxious enquirer; but when we connect with the doctrine of the new birth the blessed truth, that Christ crucified is an ocean of boundless love, an overflowing fountain of living water, a well of everlasting life to every sinner that believes, we announce good tidings of great joy.
My reader, what think YOU of Christ? Has your thirsty soul drank the living water of His salvation? or are you perishing with hunger while there is bread enough and to spare in the Father's house? The fashion, pleasure, and honour of this present evil world are rapidly passing away. The summons of the God of all flesh may soon call you into His presence. Your own conscience admonishes you that you are a sinner. Experience has long ago convinced you that you are hastening to the chamber of death. You have often tried earth's best refreshments, and as often proved that he that drinketh of this water shall thirst again. You have avoided the foul habits of the licentious; you have shunned the companionship of the riotous; you have declined to walk with scoffers; you refuse the assumptious vanity of rationalists; you have withdrawn from Socinian blasphemy, and the infidelity of popery; but have you been born again? or, in other words, have you, as a guilty, undone sinner, been brought bite God's presence, and believed on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation? If not, dear reader, let me affectionately say to you, that you are dead in sins, and what you want is life — eternal life! Sacraments and ordinances of any kind cannot give you life. Separation from immoralities cannot give you life. Withdrawing from the foulest forms of blasphemy and delusion still leaves you without life. Enlisting yourself among the ranks of your most religious neighbours cannot give you life. The strictest outward propriety cannot give you life. Neither can church office, ecclesiastical honours, or theological knowledge, as we have seen in Nicodemus, give you life. God only can give you life, and that life — eternal life — is in His Son Jesus Christ. Beware, then, lest you die without Christ; for "he that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him." (John 3:36.)
"Rise, my soul! behold, 'tis Jesus!
Jesus fills thy wondering eyes;
See Him now, in glory seated,
Where thy sins no more can rise.
"There, in righteousness transcendent,
Lo! He doth in heaven appear;
Shows the blood of His atonement
As thy title to be there.
"All thy sins were laid upon Him,
Jesus bore them on the tree;
God, who knew them, laid them on Him,
And, believing, thou art free.
"God now brings thee to His dwelling,
Spreads for thee His feast divine;
Bids thee welcome, ever telling
What a portion there is thine.
"In that circle of God's favour —
Circle of the Father's love —
All is rest, and rest for ever,
All is perfectness above.
"Blessed, glorious word, "For ever!"
Yea, "for ever" is the word;
Nothing can the ransomed sever,
Nought divide them from the Lord."