The New Birth

John 3:3---'Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'

In the presence of this doctrine of regeneration we have difficulties as real as those of Nicodemus, for at its face value the metaphor of physical birth seems to suggest that man is no more responsible for his eternal destiny than he is for his earthly existence. Consequently we echo, though with a different emphasis, the incredulous words of Nicodemus, 'How can these things be?' It is a metaphor of physical birth which lies at the root of our difficulty, but we must always be careful not to overstrain a metaphor or to read into it what is not there. Physical birth is not to be confounded with creation. Strictly speaking, physical birth is the coming of an already living creature into the environment for which it has been created. Consequently, if the metaphor be properly applied, what Jesus called spiritual or second birth is the coming of the human soul into that spiritual environment or those spiritual relationships for which it was created.

We may insist that there must be some union with God to which the demand of conversion may appeal. Clearly there must be within us that which the new perception of God can challenge, and to which, in a moral sense it can be fastened. If conversion is neither caprice or magic, we must offer to the forces producing it a really intelligible front of attachment. And we do. For one thing, the soul and God are linked by a deep kinship. The worst of us at his very worst has something in him which God can appeal, something akin to God, round which, in a world like this, gather thoughts and feelings that in their multitude and their variety have constituted a subconscious life.

Though there is a similarity between physical and spiritual birth, there is also a difference due to the difference between body and soul. The body, like any other material thing, can be controlled by external forces. It is so indeed at birth, and so also in regard to much of our earthly activity. All of it is conditioned by natural law. But the soul cannot be coerced into spiritual relationships; indeed the very idea of such relationships involves consent. No one, for instance, can be compelled into a relationship of love with his fellows, or of hate, or envy, or pity; which means that part from the self-determination of the soul, spiritual relationships meaningless. We must therefore keep this fact in view when we speak of spiritual birth. It means, as we have said, the coming of the soul into the environment for which it has been created, but it is by consent and not by compulsion that this second birth takes place.

So it is with the Holy Spirit in regard to living the Christian life. That Spirit, which is the very presence of God, is always moving upon the heart of man. Think, for instance, of the voice of conscience in the presence of duty, or what the Quakers call a 'concern' in the presence of opportunity. We are all conscious of similar impulses and feelings presented by Christianity. That 'urge' however it is manifested, is only adequately explained as the pressure upon our life of God's Holy Spirit. It is in our power to resist the pressure of that Spirit or to yield to it. If we resist we remain of our own choice on the level of the earth; but if we yield we enter into spiritual relationships for which we were created, and that is to be 'born from above.' When we are thus regenerated, the Spirit of God controls the springs of our life's activities, and so, working through our will, but never against it, it guides us into the Kingdom of God which is the fullness of the Christian life.

I saw that to expect to put a stop to this disorder by my reason or by my will, which were themselves diseased, would be like a blind man who should pretend to correct one of his eyes by the aid of the other equally blind. I had then no resource save in the influence from without. I remembered the promise of the Holy Spirit, and what the positive declarations of the Gospel had never succeeded in bringing home to me I learned at last from necessity, and believed for the first time in my life, in this promise, in the only sense in which it answered the needs of my soul, in that, namely, of a real, external, supernatural action, capable of giving thoughts and taking them away from me, and exerted on me by a God as truly Master of my heart as He is of the rest of nature. Renouncing, then, all merit, all strength, abandoning all my personal resources, I went and prayed as I never yet prayed in my life. A new interior life began for me. . . . Hope had entered into my heart and, once entered on the path, the God of Jesus Christ, to whom I had then learned to give myself up, little by little did the rest.

What is the relation between conversion and the second birth? By conversion we generally mean a definite, conscious, cataclysmic experience in our personal history by which we deliberately turn from the path of sin or indifference into the 'way that leadeth unto life.' Such a radical change of life is at once sudden and complete. Suppose that a man after he comes to years of discretion suddenly awakes to the consciousness of the Christ-ideal. If that consciousness goes deep enough, he will turn or be 'converted' from his former manner of life and bring his being into harmony with a Christian environment. In such a case 'conversion' and 'second birth' are two aspects of one and the same experience---regeneration, or the second birth, being wrought by the transforming power of the Spirit, and conversion being our conscious choice and decision to live in accordance with that Divine influence.

But, on the other hand, there are multitudes of cases where Christian people have not been conscious at any given moment of a definite change in the religious direction of their life. From childhood they have been nurtured in a Christian atmosphere, and so gradually and unconsciously they have grown in their apprehension and acceptance of things spiritual until their character bears the hall-mark of Christianity. If, then, words have any meaning, such people are in harmony with a spiritual environment, and therefore as truly 'born from above' as the man who can tell the hour and place of his conversion.

The necessity of regeneration is a truth which a good many people are slow to believe. They cannot understand its urgency. Nicodemus could see that a Gentile might need a new birth into the Jewish communion, but how could it apply to the Jews who were already God's chosen people? Similarly we have many who observe the letter of approved rules of Christian conduct, they are model citizens; if they make no great display of excessive virtue, at least they are honorable, upright, generous, and pure in their personal lives. Where then is the necessity for the second birth? Is morality not sufficient? The answer is in the nature of morality. Morality is correct conduct, something that is external and visible; it may be rooted in nothing deeper than habit. But mechanism is not life and it can therefore never take the place of the Spirit within. Moreover, morality crystallized into a code of a religious system cannot adapt itself to new situations. We need a morality that grows and develops, a new morality for new situations. Just now the prime need is for a new social morality to meet the pressing problems of the social order. And this can only be discovered by taking the Spirit of Jesus Christ into social relationships and applying His mind to the social situation; and this can only be done by those who are 'born of the Spirit,' and in whom the Spirit of Jesus lives. Thus Jesus went right to the center of our human need when He based Christian morality, not upon rules of conduct, but upon inspiration that comes when a man is 'born from above.'

When our Lord proclaimed this truth, He also made it possible for us to realize it, for in Him the Spirit of the living God was revealed to human eyes, through His words the Spirit spoke, by His deeds the Spirit worked. If, therefore, we would be 'born of the spirit,' we must yield our hearts' allegiance to Him in whom the Spirit lived.

In Christ, timothy maranatha