The Spirit's Work in the Conversion of Sinners

by James Buchanan

I. The Necessity of a Great Spiritual Change

WE have a very solemn statement on this subject from the lips of One whose personal character, as well as his official authority, may well impress our minds with a conviction of its certain and infallible truth. It comes to us from the lips of Jesus - that same Jesus who is the Saviour - the only Saviour of sinners; who pitied us in our lost estate, and entered into a covenant with God on our behalf, and engaged in his own person to render the price of our redemption; and left the throne of heaven, and appeared as a man on earth - a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross; that same Jesus who afterwards ascended up into heaven, and sat down with his Father on his throne - to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth, who, as mediatorial King, is now carrying on the administration of the scheme of grace, and will ere long come in the clouds of heaven to judge the quick and the dead; - that same Jesus declares, and that, too, with the solemnity of a most emphatic asseveration, 'Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again,' or born from above, 0'he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.' And can we contemplate the character of him who speaks, and his official authority, whether as the Saviour or as the judge of men; can we consider his love for our souls, and his earnest desire for their salvation his perfect knowledge of the plan of grace and of every provision which it contains, and his divine commission to declare the will of God, and to decide the case of every soul at the last day, without feeling that the very benevolence of his character, and his almighty power as a Saviour, impart a tremendous force to his words, when 'he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth', declares that the door of heaven is barred against every unregenerate man, and that, notwithstanding all that he suffered on the cross, he will himself decide when he takes his seat on the throne, that 'except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God'?

In regard to the nature of that change which must be wrought on a sinner before he can see the kingdom of God, I shall only observe at present that it is a spiritual one, spiritual in respect alike to its subject, its author, and the means by which it is accomplished: it is wrought on the soul of man by the Word and Spirit of God. The soul is the subject of this change; it is not an external reform merely, but an internal and spiritual renovation, a change of mind and heart, taking effect on the understanding, when it is enlightened, on the conscience, when it is convinced, on the will, when it is subdued, on the affections, when they are refined and purified, on the whole man, when 'he is transformed by the renewing of his mind,' and 'created anew in Christ Jesus unto good works;' so that he is said to be 'a new creature, in whom old things have passed away, all things have become new.' The Spirit of God is the author of this change; the soul is born again only when it is 'born of the Spirit,' for 'that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.' It belongs to him to enlighten the darkened understanding, by shining into it and giving it the light of the knowledge of the glory of God; to awaken the slumbering conscience, by convincing it of sin; to subdue our rebellious wills, by 'making us a willing people in the day of his power'; 'to take away the hard and stony hearts out of our flesh, and give us hearts of flesh;' to refine and sanctify our affections; and to 'work in us all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power.' And this spiritual change is wrought by spiritual means, for the Word of God, or the truth contained in the Word, is the instrument by which the Spirit acts. 'We are born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, even by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever;' and we are saved 'through sanctification of the Spirit, and belief of the truth.'

This change is often preceded by a process of instruction and conviction, and is always followed by a progressive course of sanctification; but it properly consists in our being made willing to comply with the Gospel call, by embracing Christ for salvation, and surrendering ourselves up to him to be taught, and pardoned, and governed, according to his revealed will; and as soon as it is accomplished in the experience of any sinner, his whole relation to God, his prospects for eternity, his views and feelings, his prevailing dispositions and habits, are totally changed; insomuch that he who formerly sat in darkness is introduced into marvellous light; -he who was at a distance from God is brought nigh; - he who was in a state of enmity is translated into a state of peace; - he who was exposed to a sentence of condemnation is forgiven and accepted; - he who was lost is saved.

I need scarcely add, that it is a great change, which is here spoken of. That is a very great change which is wrought on an infant when it is born into the world, when it is introduced into a new scene, and begins to have a consciousness of its individual existence, and receives a thousand new sensations, and enters on a life of which it had no experience before. So is it with the soul at the time when a new spiritual life is imparted to it; for when our Lord speaks of its conversion under the figure of its being 'born again,' he evidently represents it as a very great change, so great as to bear some resemblance to the first commencement of conscious existence. Many other figures are employed, which are severally descriptive of one or other of its peculiar features, but all equally significant of its greatness. It is called a renovation of the soul, or its being made new; a transformation of the soul, or its being changed into another likeness; a translating of the soul, or its being brought from one position and placed in another, and a very different one; a quickening of the soul, or its receiving a new life; a resurrection of the soul, or its being raised from the dead; a new creation of the soul, or its being created anew by him who made it; the washing of the soul, or its purification from defilement; the healing of the soul, or its being delivered from disease; the liberation of the soul, or its being emancipated from bondage; the awakening of the soul, or its being aroused out of sleep; and it is compared to the change which is wrought on the blind when they receive their sight, on the deaf when their hearing is restored, on the lepers when they are cleansed, on the dead when they are raised to life. Now, of this change - so great, so spiritual, so comprehensive - the Saviour himself, who alone can save, declares, 'Except a man be born from above, he cannot see the kingdom o f God.'

By the kingdom of God in this place, we are to understand, not the external dispensation of the Gospel, or the visible Church of Christ in this world, although it is sometimes used in that sense, but the spiritual and invisible kingdom of God; and the statement here made is designed to warn us that no unconverted man is a member of Christ's spiritual Church on earth, or can by any possibility obtain admission into the Church triumphant in heaven. There is peculiar emphasis in the words; it is not said that he may not, or that he shall not, but that he cannot; the impossibility of any unregenerate man being admitted into heaven is declared, and that, too, by him who came to throw the door of heaven open for the reception of sinners, and who holds in his own hands the keys of the kingdom!

That we may arrive at a right conclusion on any subject, two things are necessary - a sound principle and a certain fact. In the case before us, the principle which our Lord assumes is that a man must be spiritual if he would enter into the kingdom of God; and the fact on which he founds in connection with that principle is that by nature men are not spiritual, but carnal, corrupted, and depraved. If these two things be certain, the conclusion is inevitable, that a great change is indispensably necessary, or, in other words, that 'except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Let us first of all consider the fact, which is here, assumed, and then, connecting it with the principle, which is also assumed, evince the necessity of a great spiritual change.

In thus affirming the necessity of regeneration, and the impossibility of salvation without it, our Lord proceeds on the supposition, that in our natural state we are fallen and depraved, a supposition which is uniformly assumed in Scripture, and abundantly verified by experience and observation. It is implied in our Lord's words, for unconverted men are there spoken of as being out of the kingdom of God, 0 and incapable of entering into it unless they be born again; and it is clearly stated in the 6th verse: 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.' In this comprehensive sentence, he places in vivid contrast the two great classes into which all men are divided in Scripture, I mean the regenerate and the unregenerate; but he does so in such a way as to intimate that all men belong naturally to the same class, and that if any have been restored, it was by their being born again. When he speaks of the flesh, he does not refer to the body, but to the soul; for, although the term is sometimes used to denote our corporeal frame, as when the apostle speaks of his 'living or abiding in the flesh,' it is more frequently, and always when contradistinguished as it is here from the Spirit, employed to denote our whole nature, as naturally fallen and yet unrenewed; as when the apostle says, 'So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God; but ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.' In this sense it corresponds to the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts,' and to the natural man, which receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God;' and is distinguished from the 'new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.' Hence we read of 'sinful flesh,' and 'the fleshly mind,' of which it is said that the 'carnal mind is enmity against God.' When he says, 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh,' he intimates that every human being, as he is born of the flesh or of fallen parents, is himself flesh, fallen, corrupted, and depraved; that is his natural state, his state as he is born, and in which he remains until he is born again; so that every man, without any exception, may say with David, 'Behold I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.' And when he adds, 'That which is born of the Spirit is spirit,' he intimates, indeed, that there are now two classes of men in the world, the one natural, the other spiritual, the one regenerate, the other unregenerate; but that this arises not from any original difference, still less from any spontaneous separation, but from a change which has been wrought on some, while the rest remain as they were, a change which is directly ascribed to the regenerating grace of the Spirit of God. But naturally all belong to the same class and partake of the same character; and although there may be, and doubtless there are, manifold diversities of disposition and innumerable degrees of guilt among unconverted men, yet in the one, the only point of essential importance, 'there is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.'

Such is the supposition on which our Lord's statement rests, the supposition of the universally fallen and corrupted state of human nature; and did we really believe this truth, did we receive it in its full scriptural import, and in its application to our own souls individually, we should have little difficulty in perceiving the necessity of a great spiritual change, and the impossibility of our being saved without being born again. But this doctrine of natural depravity, although uniformly assumed in the Bible, and frequently asserted in express terms, and abundantly verified by the experience of our own hearts, as well as by the universal history of the world, is so offensive and alarming to every unconverted man, that he is prone, if not to deny its general truth, at least to mitigate and soften its meaning, in so far as it applies to his own case; and hence many a one who admits in general terms, because he cannot decently deny, that he is a sinner, shows by his whole spirit and conversation that he has no idea of what is implied in this confession, and no heartfelt conviction that he needs to be born again. He admits that he has some imperfections, some natural frailties, some human infirmities; he may even charge himself with a few occasional delinquencies, with the omission or careless discharge of duty, and perhaps with certain acts of positive transgression. But while he admits his imperfection to this extent, he is unwilling to believe that he is so utterly fallen as to be unable to restore himself, or to stand in need of so great a change as is implied in being 'born again!' Hence, when his conscience is at any time impressed, he thinks of nothing more than a mere outward reformation, a little more attention to duty, a little more circumspection in his ordinary conduct; and thus 'cleansing the outside of the cup and platter,' he looks for acceptance with God, and admission into his kingdom, although, inwardly, no change has been wrought, none that can, even in his own estimation, correspond with, or deserve to be called, a new spiritual birth. If any such shall read these lines, it should be a very solemn reflection to them, that the Lord Jesus, when he spake to a self-righteous Pharisee, a master in Israel, made no account of his exterior decency, but insisted on the necessity of his being born again; and that, too, in terms which declare that this necessity is alike absolute and universal, there being no man of whom it is not true, that he must be converted or condemned. If you imagine, then, that you may enter into the kingdom in some other way, and that you have no need to undergo that great preparatory change, I beseech you to remember that the Lord Jesus is of a different mind, that he makes no exception in your behalf, but affirms, without qualification or reserve, that 'except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.' That solemn statement rests on the fact of our universal depravity; and even were it more difficult than it is to discover the grounds and reasons on which it is founded, such a declaration, coming from him who is at once the only Saviour and the unerring judge, should impress our minds with the conviction, that the matter is finally settled and determined by an authority which no power in heaven or on earth can challenge or resist. His authority in this matter is supreme, and one distinct statement of his will should be received as a final and irreversible decision; but the same testimony is often repeated, and in great variety of language. At one time he tells you, 'Except you repent, ye shall all likewise perish;' at another, 'If ye believe not, ye shall die in your sins;' at a third, 'Unless ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of God.' But in his words to Nicodemus there is a remarkable peculiarity; he does not merely declare that no unregenerate man shall be admitted; he affirms that he cannot - that it is impossible he should be; and it is to the grounds on which this impossibility is affirmed that I now proceed to speak.

In the Scriptures, we read of some things that are impossible with men, but which are not impossible with God; and of other things that are impossible both with God and man. Some things that are impossible with men are possible with God, and to these the angel referred, when he said to Mary, 'With God nothing shall be impossible;' and our Lord himself when he said to the disciples, 'With God all things are possible.' But while, in respect to any mere natural difficulty, God's almighty power is more than sufficient to overcome it, there are certain things which may be said to be impossible with God himself - not from any defect of power on his part, but from their repugnance to his essential attributes, and their opposition to his unchangeable will. Hence we read, that 'it is impossible for God to lie,' that he 'cannot deny himself,' and that 'without faith it is impossible to please him,' the things supposed being in their own nature contrary to the essential character of God, so that he cannot be as he is - he must cease to be God before these things can come to pass. It will be found, that to this class of moral impossibilities, the salvation of an unregenerate man belongs. There is a very remarkable difference betwixt the statement of our Lord to Nicodemus, and the deliverance, which he pronounced on another case of great difficulty. In reference to rich men, and the difficulty of their entrance into the kingdom, he had said, when the young man mentioned in the gospel 'went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions,' 'I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven: and again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.' But when the disciples said, 'Who then can be saved?' he answered, 'With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,' thereby intimating, that although naturally impossible, by reason of the manifold obstructions with which a rich man has to contend, it was not impossible for him to remove these obstructions, nor anywise inconsistent with his character to put forth his power for that end; and accordingly, although 'not many rich and not many noble are called,' yet some in every age have been converted, and made signal monuments of the efficacy of his grace. But mark the difference when he speaks of an unregenerate man; he does not say that his entrance into the kingdom, although impossible with men, is possible with God; but he pronounces absolutely, that remaining in that condition, he cannot see the kingdom of God, thereby representing it as one of those things which are impossible with God himself, and which would be alike inconsistent with his declared will, opposed to the essential perfections of his nature, and subversive of the unchangeable principles of his government. It is possible, indeed, - oh! it is very possible - that an unconverted man may be converted, that an unregenerate man may be renewed, for this, so far from being opposed to God's will, or character, or government, is in unison with them all, and a fit object for the interposition of his grace and power; but that a sinner remaining unconverted should be saved, that a man 'born of the flesh' should enter the kingdom without being 'born again' of the Spirit, - this is an impossibility, and must be so, so long as God is God.

That it is so will appear from the following considerations. 

No unregenerate man can see the kingdom of God, because it is impossible for God himself to do what implies a manifest contradiction; and there is a manifest contradiction in the idea that a fleshly mind can, without any radical change of character, become a subject of God's spiritual kingdom. The expression here used to denote the state of safety and happiness into which God brings his people is deeply significant and instructive. It is not spoken of, you will observe, as a state of mere safety - mere exemption from punishment, or immunity from wrath - but as a kingdom, a kingdom in which they are safe, because they are protected by his almighty power, and happy, because they are cherished by his infinite love, but still a kingdom, in which, besides being safe and happy, they are placed under rule and government, and expected to yield submission and service, as his obedient subjects. And so is it with every one who really enters that kingdom, whether on earth or in heaven; he cannot so much as enter into the outer sanctuary here, and far less obtain admission into the holy place there, without laying down at its threshold the weapons of rebellion, and returning to his allegiance and duty. There is indeed an external kingdom of grace in which many an unregenerate man may be placed; but the true spiritual kingdom is 'not in word but in power.' 'The kingdom of God,' says Christ himself, 'is within you;' and, says the apostle, 'The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.' It mainly consists in the setting up of God's throne in the sinner's heart, subduing his will to God's authority, and winning over his affections to God's service; and to say that any man remaining in an unregenerate state can be a member of that kingdom, were to affirm that he might be at one and the same time both an alien and a citizen, a friend and an enemy, alive and dead. Every one must see, that if, when God saves men, he brings them into his kingdom, and places them under his own holy government, it is impossible, in the very nature of things, that they can enter it without undergoing a great change; and in this light, there is a self-evident truth and certainty in the words of our Lord, 'Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'

No unregenerate man can see the kingdom of God, because it is impossible for God to lie; and he has expressly said, nay he has sworn, that we must be converted or condemned. 'The word of the Lord endureth for ever.' 'Heaven and earth may pass away, but one jot or tittle of that word shall not fail.' 'God is not a man that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?

It is very true that we read in Scripture of many occasions on which his 'repentings were kindled together,' and he refrained from the execution of his threatened judgments; but if we consider these cases we shall find that they are perfectly consistent with the general doctrine, that he can neither change, nor lie, nor repent, so as to leave his word unfulfilled, or to depart from the principles of his righteous government; and that they afford no ground of hope to an unconverted sinner that he may enter into the kingdom without being born again. God is said to repent when, in consequence of the repentance of his people, his dispensations towards them are changed; but this change in his dealings with them is only a consistent and suitable manifestation of the unchangeable and eternal principles on which he conducts his holy administration. Thus, when Rehoboam 'forsook the law of the Lord, and all Israel with him,' the king of Egypt was sent up to Jerusalem with his army to chasten them: and 'the Lord said, Ye have forsaken me, therefore have I also left you in the hand of Shishak. Whereupon the princes of Israel and the king humbled themselves; and they said, The Lord is righteous. And when the Lord saw that they humbled themselves, the word of the Lord came to Shemaiah, saying, They have humbled themselves; therefore I will not destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance.' Again, when wicked Ahab, of whom it is said, 'There was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord,' 'rent his clothes, and put sackcloth on his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly: the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days.' And when the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah, and proclaimed a fast, saying, 'Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?, 'God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way, and God repented of the evil that he had said he would do unto them, and he did it not.'

These, and many other instances which might be mentioned, are so many proofs of the precious doctrine, that, under the scheme of grace and redemption, it is perfectly consistent with the truth and faithfulness of God, and the unchangeable principles of his government, to refrain from the infliction of threatened judgments, when 'the sinner forsakes his way, and returns unto the Lord;' but they afford no evidence that a man may be saved without being changed, or that God's threatenings against the impenitent will not be carried into effect. He will repent of the evil only when we repent of the sin; for otherwise, he must falsify his word, and act in direct violation of those eternal principles which make it 'impossible for God to lie.'

No unregenerate man can see the kingdom of God, because it is impossible for God to 'deny himself,' or to act in manifest opposition to the infinite perfections of his own nature, in order to save those from suffering who obstinately remain in a state of sin. 'If we believe not,' says the apostle, 'God abideth faithful; he cannot deny himself.' Even were God's determination in this matter purely arbitrary, yet being framed by his omniscient wisdom, sanctioned by his supreme authority, supported by his almighty power, and declared by his unchangeable truth, it should command our reverential attention; but it is not arbitrary; it flows, like every other part of his counsel or procedure, from the essential and immutable attributes of his divine nature. There are some things that cannot be otherwise while God is God, and this is one of them: he cannot admit an unregenerate man into his kingdom, for this were to 'deny himself,' and to act in direct opposition to every principle which regulates his procedure as the Governor of the world. The supposition that a sinful man may enter into his kingdom without being born again implies that God must deny himself in three respects: that he must rescind the law of his moral government; that he must depart from his declared design in the scheme of redemption itself; and, that he must reverse the moral constitution of man, or, in other words, alter the whole character of his kingdom.

That a spiritual character is indispensably necessary, in order to our being admitted into the kingdom of God, may be inferred from the general laws of his moral government. In one sense, all men, however rebellious, and even devils themselves, are subjects of God's kingdom, that is, they are under his government, as being bound to obey his authority, and responsible to him as their Judge. That we are under a system of government is the intuitive conviction of every thinking mind. We feel that we are subject to checks and restraints which are imposed upon us by some external authority, and which are altogether independent of our own will, insomuch that, although free to act according to our own choice, we cannot alter the constitution under which we live, nor emancipate ourselves from the control of law, nor escape or avert the consequences of our own conduct. That the system of government under which we are placed is essentially a moral one, appears alike from the evidence of our own consciousness, and from our experience and observation of the world at large. There is a mysterious law written on the tablets of our own hearts which reveals God as a Lawgiver and a judge; and our whole experience bears witness to the inseparable connection which he has established betwixt sin and misery on the one hand, and holiness and happiness on the other. This is the general constitution of God's government; and from that government the wicked are not exempted; on the contrary, its reality is evinced by the very experience of those who do most resolutely resist it, just as rebels, when they are punished for their crimes, are still treated as subjects, and become the most signal monuments of public justice.

When our Lord speaks of the 'kingdom of God,' he does not refer to the moral government which is common to all men; but to that kingdom of grace and glory, into which it is his will to gather into one all his redeemed people, a kingdom in which every subject should be alike safe and happy, being delivered from all evil, and defended by his almighty power. He speaks of the state into which, as the Saviour, he brings his people - a state of perfect safety and peace; but still, you will observe, he speaks of it as 'a kingdom,' nay, as 'the kingdom of God,' and this implies, that while in other respects it differs from the universal kingdom, which comprehends under it the righteous and the wicked, the fallen and the un-fallen, and extends alike to heaven, earth, and hell, it agrees with it in this, that it implies a system of discipline and government, administered by God himself, according to such rules and principles as are consistent with the perfections of his nature and sanctioned by his unchangeable will. He is represented as the head of this new kingdom, and his people as his subjects there: and although our Lord does not refer to God's general government, but to this new kingdom of grace and glory, we may infer from his language that this kingdom will bear some resemblance to the former, in so far, at least, as to have a moral constitution, such as will make a holy character essential to the enjoyment of its privileges. It must be so, indeed, unless that kingdom be designed to supersede, or rather to reverse the whole moral constitution of the world, and to introduce another and an opposite system, which should make no account of character in the distribution of happiness, and secure exemption from suffering without effecting any deliverance from sin. How far this corresponds with God's actual design as it is revealed in the Gospel will fall to be considered in the sequel; but meanwhile there are two considerations that I would merely suggest as affording a strong presumption that Christ's kingdom cannot materially differ in this respect from the general government of God. The first is, that this government is not an arbitrary constitution, arising, like the Jewish ritual, from his mere will, and capable, like that and every other positive ordinance, of being abrogated; but a constitution which, as it derives its authority from his supreme will, is itself derived from the essential and unchangeable perfections of his nature; so that, unless God himself were to change, or the relation betwixt God and his creatures to cease, the leading principles of that government must remain the same under every successive dispensation; - and the second is, that it is a government not confined to men, but comprehensive of all orders of his intelligent creatures, applicable to all who are capable of knowing God and serving him, and extending to angels and seraphim, to whose society his people are to be united in the kingdom of glory; so that, unless the redeemed are to be governed by a different law, it is absolutely necessary that they should be spiritual and holy as the angels are in heaven. From these two considerations it is manifest that in setting up a new kingdom God will adhere to those great principles which are involved in his universal moral government; and from its fundamental laws we may infer with certainty, that as they who are saved are said to be brought into a kingdom, nay, into the very kingdom of God, they must be endued with a holy character.

That a spiritual character is indispensably necessary in order to our being admitted into the kingdom of God appears from his declared design in the scheme of redemption itself So far from being intended to reverse or supersede the moral government of God, or to release us from the operation of those laws which connect sin with suffering, the scheme of redemption was designed to secure our happiness by restoring us to a state of holy conformity to God's will. Its design in relation to the law is declared, when our Lord himself said, 'Think not that I am come to destroy the law: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil;' and the apostle, 'Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid. Yea, we establish the law.' And its design in relation to ourselves is intimated, when we read that it was alike the purpose of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to deliver us from sin as well as from suffering, and to restore us to the image as well as the favour of God. I solicit your attention to the declared purpose of each of the Three Persons in the Godhead, in that scheme of grace and redemption, which is the only provision that has been made, or that ever will be made, for your salvation.

The design of God the Father is thus expressed: 'God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our Gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.' And the design of Christ the Saviour is thus declared: 'Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish;' 'He gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.' And the design of the Holy Spirit is not only implied in his very office, as the re-newer and sanctifier of God's people, and evinced by the whole scope and tendency of the Word, which is the Spirit's message and a declaration of his will; but it is expressly declared, when it is said, 'When he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment;' and that he will 'guide his people into all truth,' so as to fulfil the Lord's prayer on their behalf, 'Sanctify them through thy truth: thy Word is truth.'

From these passages it is manifest that in the scheme of redemption itself God proceeds on the principle that a spiritual character is indispensably necessary in order to our admission into his kingdom. The very salvation which he has provided is spiritual; it includes various blessings of unspeakable value, such as the pardon of sin, peace of conscience, assurance of God's love, exemption from hell, and admission into heaven; but these blessings, so necessary to our safety, and so conducive to our happiness, are inseparably connected, by God's appointment, as well as in their own nature, with a new spiritual character, and cannot be enjoyed without it, for the promise runs in these terms: 'Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.'

If such be God's design in the scheme of redemption - the declared design of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit - how can you expect to be saved without undergoing a great spiritual change? If you hope to be saved without being born again, your hope must rest, either on the supposition that you are not naturally fallen and depraved, or on the idea that a holy and spiritual character is not indispensably necessary in order to your admission into the kingdom. On one or other of these two suppositions your hope must be built, if you expect salvation without a change of heart; for, if the fact be certain, that you are naturally fallen and depraved, and if the principle be correct, that 'without holiness no man shall see the Lord,' the absolute necessity of regeneration is at once established. Now, on whichever of these two suppositions you may take your stand, there is enough in God's declared design in the work of redemption to convince you that they are both alike false and dangerous; for if, on the one hand, you flatter yourselves that you are not so utterly fallen as to require to be renewed, or as to be unable to effect your own restoration, should not your fond confidence in this opinion be shaken, when you find that in the scheme which God himself has revealed for the recovery of men, he proceeds uniformly on the contrary supposition, and makes provision for their regeneration by his own Spirit, and speaks to all in the same language, as sinners that have fallen, and that need to be restored? And if, on the other hand, you flatter yourselves that although you may be partially sinful, you may yet enter into the kingdom without undergoing any great spiritual change, oh! should not this presumptuous expectation be utterly extirpated and destroyed, when you find that it is in direct opposition to God's whole design, and cannot be fulfilled without subverting the scheme of grace? For what does your expectation imply? Does it not imply that God will depart from his purpose of saving sinners' through sanctification of the Spirit,' and save them without being sanctified, thereby reversing the constitution of the scheme of grace, and violating the principle on which it is based? In other words, does it not imply that God must set aside the great scheme of redemption, a scheme on which he has already exercised all the riches of his omniscient wisdom, and expended the blood of his Son? that immutable wisdom, and inflexible justice, and unfailing truth, must all bend and bow down before the sinner, and suffer him to enter into the kingdom unrenewed? and do you not see that the whole design of God in the redemption of the world must be abandoned before your hope can be fulfilled? Does it not imply that the Saviour himself must relinquish the object, which he had in view, when 'he came to save his people from their sins;' that he must adopt a new design, and throw open the door of his kingdom to the unholy and the unclean not to the unholy that they may be renewed, or the unclean that they may be washed, for in that sense the door is always open, and open for all, but to such as seek to remain in their natural state 'dead in trespasses and in sins;' and that he must assume a new character, as the Saviour of those who refuse the only salvation he has yet procured, and who are 'neither washed, nor sanctified, nor justified by the Spirit of God? And does it not imply that the Holy Spirit must relinquish his offices as the Sanctifier and Comforter of his people, or that his functions and operations are unnecessary and superfluous? for why is he revealed as the 'Spirit that quickeneth,' if there be no need of a new birth? why as the Spirit of sanctification, if without sanctification you can enter into the kingdom? and why as the Comforter of the church? Can it be that he is to comfort men while they continue in their natural state, and to pour his blessed consolations into unsanctified hearts, and to make them happy while they remain unholy? All this, and much more, is implied in the presumptuous expectation that any of us can enter into the kingdom without undergoing a great spiritual change: it implies that the scheme of redemption itself must be changed, and that, too, after it has been accomplished by the incarnation, and sufferings, and death of God's own Son; for that scheme proceeds from first to last on the supposition that we are fallen, and that we must be renewed, if we would enter into the kingdom.

That a spiritual character is indispensably necessary in order to our being admitted into the kingdom of God appears from the actual constitution of our own nature, which is essentially a moral one, and renders it impossible for us to enjoy heaven, even were we admitted into it, unless our character be brought into conformity with the will of God. We have already seen that the general government of God is a moral government, and that a holy character must be necessary in his kingdom, so long as God is God. We now add, for the purpose of evincing the certainty of this great truth, that the constitution of our own nature is essentially a moral constitution, and that a holy character must be essential to our happiness, so long as man is man. The principles of our own nature, the very constitution of our being, must be reversed, before we could be happy in God's kingdom without a holy and spiritual character. Let me advert to some of these principles; and, viewing them in connection with the character of God's kingdom, you will at once perceive that we must be holy if we would be happy there.

It is a principle of our nature, a law indelibly written on the tablets of our hearts, and by which every one feels that he is a law to himself, that our character must be brought into conformity with our conscience, otherwise happiness is impossible. Conscience is God's vicegerent in the soul, a secret minister within, which marks the difference betwixt good and evil, and approves of the one but condemns the other; and, while it responds to the unseen Lawgiver, acts sometimes as an accuser preferring a charge, sometimes as a judge pronouncing a verdict, sometimes as an executioner carrying judgment into effect; and, though it slumbers and sleeps, it still awakens with greater strength, and is always present, so that we cannot flee from it, but go where we will, we must carry it along with us; and as a part of our imperishable nature, it will survive death itself, and appear with us at the judgment-seat, and remain with us in eternity. Now, sin and the conscience are opposed the one to the other; and where both meet in the same bosom, there is a fearful conflict, sin struggling against conscience and seeking to stifle it, conscience protesting against sin and appealing to the justice of God. This fearful conflict is, and must be, destructive of happiness. 'There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked; for the wicked is as a raging sea when it cannot rest.' One or other, therefore, - either sin or the sinner's conscience, must be destroyed before his happiness can be secured. As we cannot get rid of conscience, we must get rid of sin: sin is the disease of our moral nature; conscience is a part of its constitution; and we must not expect that God will alter the structure of our being, in order to make us happy without being renewed. Conscience cannot be destroyed, but sin may; and it must be destroyed if you would enter into God's kingdom.

It is a principle of our nature, that, in order to happiness, there must be some correspondence betwixt the tastes, the dispositions, the habits of a man, and the scene in which he is placed; the society with which he mingles, and the services in which he is employed. A coward on the field of battle, a profligate in the house of prayer, a giddy worldling standing by a deathbed, a drunkard in the company of holy men, feel instinctively that they are misplaced; they have no enjoyment there. Now, suppose the scene to be 'the kingdom of God'- a kingdom which is described as consisting in 'righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost' - and that an unregenerate man were translated into God's immediate presence, and placed among the society and engaged in the services of the upper sanctuary - oh! if he were not thoroughly changed at the instant when he crossed its threshold, can you conceive it to be possible that he could be happy there? Well, then, either our characters must become holy, or the whole style and nature of God's kingdom must be changed. We must be raised to a state of meetness for heaven, or heaven must be lowered and accommodated to our carnal tastes. The latter is impossible; God's kingdom must be holy, and if we would enter into the kingdom, we must be holy too.

From the considerations which have been adduced - from the general laws of God's moral government, from his declared design in the work of redemption, and from the actual constitution of our own nature - it must be evident that a spiritual and holy character is indispensably necessary in order to our entrance into his kingdom; and this principle, thus firmly established, is sufficient to demonstrate the necessity of regeneration, and the impossibility of salvation without it, in the case of all who are naturally fallen or infected with sin. If there be any who can justly plead exemption from this necessity, they are such and such only as can truly say that they are naturally un-fallen and spiritual and holy, and as such fit for the kingdom of God. But the Bible proceeds on the supposition that there are none such on earth, that 'all have sinned and come short of the glory of God;' and I believe that every conscience will do the preacher's work, by convincing you of this great truth, provided only it be duly instructed in the things of the kingdom of God. If the spiritual nature of that kingdom, and the holy character of God, and the awful sanctity of his government, and his real design in the work of redemption - if these things be clearly discerned by any man's conscience, as they stand revealed in the light of God's Word - he will intuitively perceive, and instinctively feel, that he must be changed or lost, that he must be born anew, if he would see the kingdom of God.

We learn, however, from the case of Nicodemus, that the doctrine of regeneration is apt to excite surprise and even incredulity, not only in the ignorant and profligate, who make no profession of religion, but in many who belong nominally to the Church of God, who are strict and scrupulous in their attention to its forms, and, to a certain extent, conscientious in acting according to their convictions of duty. The man with whom our Lord held this conversation was a Pharisee; he belonged to a sect which is elsewhere declared to be 'the straitest sect of the law,' and described as 'believing themselves to be righteous, and despising others;' he was 'a ruler of the Jews and a master in Israel,' and as such recognized as fit to teach and direct others in matters of faith and duty; and he seems to have been so far impressed by our Lord's ministry as to be willing to inquire after the truth; for if his coming to Jesus under the cloud of night be a proof that he was still influenced in some degree by the fear of man, his coming at all, and especially his coming with such a confession on his lips -'Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher sent from God; for no man can do these miracles which thou doest, except God be with him' - must be considered, if his position in society, his party connections, and his Jewish prejudices be taken into account, as a sufficient proof that he was in some measure impressed, and desirous of obtaining further information. Yet even this man, this conscientious Pharisee, this master in Israel, this timid but honest inquirer, no sooner heard the doctrine of regeneration, and that, too, from the lips of one whom he acknowledged as a teacher sent from God, than he exclaimed, 'How can a man be born when he is old? and when it was further explained to him, and its absolute necessity declared, he still 'answered and said, How can these things be? The chief reason of his incredulity doubtless was, that he had no perception of the spirituality and extent of God's law, and no inward and experimental conviction of his own sinfulness - none at least that impressed him with a sense of the necessity of any great change to qualify him for the kingdom of God; and the want of any heartfelt conviction of its necessity left his mind open to the full impression of those little difficulties as to the mode or manner of its production which often occur to those who merely speculate on the subject, but which soon vanish and disappear when the conscience is awakened, and the heart impressed by the great reality itself. Perceiving that his mind was perplexing itself with these difficulties, and disposed to question the truth, merely because it could not understand the manner in which so great a change could be wrought, our Lord first of all suggested a beautiful analogy, to show that there were many things whose reality could not be doubted, although the mode of their operation, and many circumstances connected with them, could not be explained. He selected the wind, the vital air by which natural life itself is sustained, which, although it be invisible, is known to us from its effects; he reminded him, that while its operation as an agent in nature was undoubted, there were many circumstances connected with its operation which were shrouded in impenetrable mystery; and left him to infer, that if it were so with that wind which is so essential to the natural life of man, it was not unreasonable to believe that his spiritual life might be produced and sustained by an agency equally real and efficacious, although, like the former, it was also invisible and mysterious: and while he seeks in this way to remove the ground of his incredulity, which was the supposed impossibility of such a change, he at the same time brings before him, and presses on his consideration, another impossibility, as real as the former one was imaginary, - namely, the impossibility of an unregenerate man entering into the kingdom of God. His mind was occupying itself with speculative difficulties as to the way in which so great a change could be wrought; but our Lord tells him, if there be a difficulty on the one hand, there is a much greater on the other, and that it is not so impossible that a man should be born again, as it is that without being born again he should enter into the kingdom of God. It is in this way that we would still deal with the difficulties and objections, which are founded on the alleged mysteriousness of the work of the Spirit. We would first of all remind you, that there are many realities, which you know and believe in spite of the difficulty of explaining every circumstance concerning them; and then we would press the great reality on your attention, and show that however mysterious the nature and mode of the new birth may be, there is no mystery and no doubt, either as to the fact that you are fallen, or as to the principle that a spiritual character is indispensable in order to your being members of God's spiritual kingdom; and that, from these two considerations combined, it follows, with demonstrable certainty, that 'except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'

I believe that in most cases the difficulty of convincing men of the necessity of regeneration arises out of the want of a right scriptural apprehension of the fact that they are fallen, and corrupted, and depraved; for did they really believe the doctrine of human depravity in its full extent, and in its application to their own souls - were they experimentally convinced of the guilt and demerit of sin, and of their own sinfulness and danger in the sight of God - their own consciences would intuitively discern their need of some great change in order to their entering into his kingdom. A solid work of conviction would, in such cases, be the most effectual argument for the necessity of regeneration. But perhaps this conviction may be wrought in their consciences by simply unfolding and applying the principle which our Lord assumes, viz., that a man must be spiritual if he would be a member of God's kingdom; for this principle is evident from the very nature of that kingdom, and every mind which is rightly instructed in regard to it, and which is duly impressed with its spiritual character, its unalterable laws, and its essential and pervading sanctity, must intuitively discern its own unfitness to enjoy it, by the evidence of its own consciousness and in the light of its own experience. For just as one vivid view of God in his true character was enough to draw from the lips of Job that humble confession -'I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee, wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes;' and just as a view of the glory of Christ had a similar effect on the apostle when he 'fell at his feet as dead;' so may we expect that a correct apprehension of the kingdom of God, and of its awful and unchangeable sanctity, will be accompanied with a profound sense of our own unworthiness, and a conviction that we must undergo some great change before we can be qualified to enjoy, or permitted to enter it.

Let me beseech you individually to weigh well this solemn statement of the Lord, and to consider it in its application to your own souls. You cannot fail to see that he speaks of a very great change, since he compares it to your 'being born again,' - of a very necessary change, since without it you cannot see the kingdom of God; and when you hear such a statement from the lips of one who is himself the only Saviour of sinners, and who will, ere long, appear as the judge of all, you cannot fail to be convinced that it is alike your duty and your interest to apply it to your own case, and to improve it for your own salvation. I am aware that some, when they read of the new birth of the soul, contrive to evade the truth, which Christ declares, by saying that his words are figurative. On this principle they explain away a great part of the Word of God. With them every thing is figurative: we have a figurative fall, a figurative curse, a figurative atonement, a figurative Saviour, a figurative regeneration, a figurative heaven, a figurative hell, in fact, a figurative Gospel. But grant that figurative language is employed on this as on many other subjects, grant that metaphors are used to give us a lively apprehension of its nature; I say figurative language has a meaning, nay, it is employed on purpose to enhance the meaning of plainer words. What, then, is the meaning of this figure? what is the reality which this metaphor describes? Does it not mean some change - some great change - some great change of mind and heart - a change that has some resemblance to a birth, a resurrection, a creation? Why were these figures employed, but to declare the magnitude of that change, whose necessity is affirmed with a decision and a peremptory plainness, which leaves no room for doubt?


From: The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit 

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