The Great Essential
“Ye must be born again.”—John 3:7
During the Napoleon wars there met one night on a raft in the middle of a German river the emperors of France and Russia for a conference, the result of which was to change the map of Europe. But centuries before there was a far greater conference. It was between Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The result of this conference was to change the fate of countless thousands of human souls.
It was no mere accident that the kind of a man that he was, came to Jesus by night; it was no mere accident that to Nicodemus Jesus should speak that significant sentence: “Ye must be born again.” Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish national congress, he was a man of wealth and rank, of influence and culture. He was moreover a man of undoubted uprightness and purity of character. He was perhaps the equal or superior of any of us.
If a man ignorant and obscure had come to Jesus, and if the Master had said, “Ye must be born again,” then a man of culture and influence might have had some reason in saying, “I can understand what kind of a man would need a new life in order to be saved, but I do not belong to that class.” Or if it had been to one wicked and vicious that Jesus had spoken these words, then the man conscious of honesty and uprightness might have had an excuse for saying, “It is evident that a man who is wicked and impure would need something additional in order to be saved. But that does not include me.” But if to a man like Nicodemus Jesus should say, “ye must be born again,”if such a man needed regeneration in order to obtain everlasting life, so do you and I need it.
What Regeneration Is
Now, before we go on to consider what regeneration is, let us stop for a moment to discuss what it is not. In the first place regeneration is not merely reformation. Reformation is, as evidenced by the word itself, a reforming or remoulding of what you already have. But regeneration is the bringing in of a new power and life which you did not before possess. Supposing a man starts to reform, he has tried that before. All he has to help him are his own powers, which are weak and insufficient.
In the next place regeneration is not simply culture. Some seem to think that all a man needs to do is to keep getting a little better and better, until finally he gets good enough to be saved. This idea has no warrant in the Scripture.
You can grow in grace, but you cannot grow into grace. If you have but an embryo apple tree, you may hope to develop a full grown tree in time. But by no process of cultivation can you change a willow into an apple tree, or an eucalyptus into an orange tree. Spiritual birth must precede spiritual growth, spiritual fruitage and maturity.
Moreover, regeneration is not simply being religious. A man might be as religious as Satan and yet go where Satan goes. Religion never saved anybody. The world has many religions, all of which are absolutely impotent to bring salvation. There is but one Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Professing or Possessing
Becoming a Christian, being born again, is not merely joining the church. Many people have joined the church as they would have joined a literary society or lodge. If there was an electric light bulb that gave no light it would do no good to connect it to the pulpit or the platform, or to the piano; it must in some way be put into touch with the central dynamo. Many young people have come into the church from the Sunday school. They have passed the ecclesiastical examination, answering the questions just as they would pass from the eighth grade in the high school. They have been ground out like cobs out of a corn sheller. They have had no change of heart, no spiritual experience. Many have gone through the forms, the rites, the ceremonies, they have attended church and given of their money, yet all this has not brought salvation. Belonging to church does not make a Christian of you any more than going to a stable makes a horse of you, or going into a garage makes an automobile of you. Yet, on the other hand, when you do become a Christian, you will take to the church as naturally as a fish takes to water.
There are many things that are important for a person’s welfare and development that are not essential. For example, education is important, yet many ignorant people have done a great work for the world. Friends are important, yet many who have had little influence and few acquaintances have done great good. Money is important. While it is more difficult for a rich man to be a Christian than it is for a poor man, yet if he is a Christian he can do more for the world than a poor man can do. All of these things are important, but they are not essential. But there is one thing absolutely necessary. It is what the lawyer would call a “sine qua non,” without which nothing.
A sculptor spent months on carving a statue of physical perfection. When he had completed his work he invited a friend to view his finished product. Removing the veil from the marble statue he said with an air of pride, “Is it not perfect?” “No, it is not,” replied the friend. “It lacks one thing.” “What is that?” asked the sculptor, evidently disappointed. “Life,” answered the friend. You may have everything else, education, money, friends, and yet if you do not have spiritual life, you have nothing. Salvation is not a matter merely of good or bad, or of good or better; it is a matter of life or death.
Regeneration is essential not only for salvation but effectual spiritual service. There are many Sunday school teachers who can impart intellectual instruction to the pupils, but they have no power to develop their spiritual life. It is impossible for any one to give to others that which he does not possess himself. There are teachers that can describe minutely the route from Jerusalem to Galilee, but they cannot point the way from Earth to heaven. There are many church members who are interested in the material side of church work, regarding the finances, the equipment of the building, the social activities, etc., but they have no interest in soul winning. They say they do not believe in revivals. That can be easily explained. How can you expect a person to believe in something about which he knows nothing? Many ask me why I do not speak more against dancing, liquor drinking, card playing and theater going. My answer is: “When a person is born again these things will not trouble him.”
There are many that celebrate their physical birthdays that have little interest in their spiritual birthdays. Certainly the time that you were born of the spirit was a more important time than when you were born of the flesh. If you are born but once you will die twice, but if you are born twice you will die but once. The first death is the death of the body; the second death is the death of the soul. Over those who have been born again, the second death has no power.
The Second Birth
Some one says: “Explain to me about the second birth.” “It cannot be done,” I answer, “Explain all about the first birth, if you please.” You cannot do it. The whole subject of life and its creation is a mystery. Various psychologists have recently written books upon the psychology of conversion. They are attempting the impossible. Jesus said you cannot explain spiritual birth. You might as well put a lark upon the dissecting table and tear its little throat to pieces to find its song. You might as well take a great painting, from the brush of a talented artist, and analyze in the chemist’s laboratory the pigments of oil and color to try to find the secret of the painter’s talent. Regeneration is something that cannot be explained, it must be experienced.
Jesus said that while you could not observe the process of the regeneration of a soul, yet you can discern the results. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof.” Here is a young man that was formerly careless and thoughtless, with low ambition and ideals. Now his life is transformed. What is that. It is the result of regeneration. Like the sound of the wind, it is the birth of the spirit. Here is a lady that before was frivolous and superficial, caring only for social follies and amusements; but now her life has been enriched and broadened and heightened and deepened. She has a love for the word of God, for prayer, for Christian work. Every one notes the change. What caused it? The birth of the spirit.
Let every one of you seek to have his own experience. Do not expect that you will have the same experience that somebody else has. I’ve sometimes thought that the conversion of Saul of Tarsus has been almost a detriment to some otherwise good people. They have expected to have an experience just like Saul had. They are waiting for some great and wonderful light to burst upon their path. They think until they do, they cannot be saved. I never had any great light burst upon me, and I know that I am saved. These people make me think of a little girl who came home late from church one Sunday. Her mother said: “Daughter, why are you so late this morning?” “It was because I stayed to a class meeting,” she replied. “What did you do there?” the mother asked. “Just the same as the rest of them,” she answered. “When my turn came I got up and said: “I have been serving the Lord for forty years, and I hope you will all pray for me.”
I hear some one interpose: “Do you not believe it possible for a person to approach the Christian life so gradually that he cannot look back to the definite time when he accepted Christ?” Yes; I believe that is possible. For example, I do not care how you came into the city—whether you came on foot or on horseback—whether you came in an automobile or on a limited train. What I want to know is, are you here? But I really feel sorry for those who cannot look back to a definite time of their conversion. A religion that you can get without knowing it you are apt to lose without knowing it.
If you meet the conditions for regeneration, you may be sure that God will give the results. The first condition is forsaking sin. Prepare the soil of your heart for the reception of the seed.
Banish from your heart everything that will be hostile to the love of God. Woo the presence of the Holy Spirit, as a youth would woo the affection of a maiden. Begin this night to do what you believe a Christian ought to do, and you will not have to wait very long until you have the assurance that you are a Christian.
In the next place, definitely receive Jesus as your personal Saviour. This is as distinct an act as matrimony. You ask some folks: “Are you a Christian?” and they reply, “I do not know whether I am or not. Sometimes I think I am and sometimes I think I am not.”
If you do not know that you are a Christian, you can put it down as pretty certain that you are not.
Living the Christian Life
“But,” says some one, “can you become a Christian in a moment?” Yes! “What,” says someone, “do you mean to say that in a moment all his entire life was changed?” Yes; so when you receive Jesus as your personal Saviour and say to Him, “I will.” God for Christ’s sake receives you and you are born again. Beginning the Christian life is the matter of a moment. Living the Christian life is the matter of eternity.
Have you ever, in going out into the country in the summer, noticed the corn just tasseling? You saw also the ears had begun to form upon the end of which were the silks. These silks are tiny tubes, each one connected with an embryo kernel on the cob. From the tassels there falls upon the silks a powdery, seed substance, called pollen. If these silks are receptive this pollen flows down the tiny tubes into the embryo ear. It is fertilized, vitalized and develops into a full grown ear. But if, on the other hand, the silks are unreceptive and dry, this pollen is blown off and the ear shrivels and dies. Now apply this scientific truth to spiritual affairs. Jesus says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in.”The process of becoming a Christian is like the palm of your hand, as God looks at it from above He calls it “being born again.” As we look at it from beneath it is obedience to Christ.
And in the last place, not only receive Jesus, but confess Him as your personal Saviour. A young man may have believed in a young woman for years, but she does not become his wife until there is that definite acknowledgement. In a great audience one evening I asked every one to repeat with me the great word “Jesus”—the greatest word ever spoken by lips, human or divine. Then at a given signal I asked them to add the personal pronoun “my”—saying, “My Jesus.” Do you understand the difference? Immediately there was a line of cleavage drawn through the audience, separating often husband and wife, parents and child; but many for the first time, said, “My Jesus,” and meant it. They received Christ and a new life began.
My friend, have you ever had a spiritual birthday? If you never had one before, receive Christ now. Say from your heart, “My Jesus.” Confess Him as your Saviour. Then God will do His part, and you will be born into the kingdom of heaven.