Regeneration: What Is It? Part 1

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There are few subjects which have given rise to more difficulty and perplexity than that of regeneration, or the new birth. Very many who are, themselves, the subjects of this new birth are at a loss to know what it is, and filled with doubt as to whether they have ever really experienced it. Many there are who, were they to clothe their desires in words, would say, "Oh! that I knew for certain, that I had passed from death unto life. If only I were sure that I was born again, I should be happy indeed.'' Thus are they harassed with doubts and fears, from day to day, and from year to year. Sometimes they are full of hope that the great change has passed upon them; but, anon, something springs up within them which leads them to think their former hopes were a delusion. Judging from feeling and experience, rather than from the plain teaching of the word of God, they are, of necessity, plunged in uncertainty and confusion as to the whole matter.
Now, I would desire to enter, in company with my reader, upon an examination, in the light of scripture, of this most interesting subject. It is to be feared that very much of the misapprehension which prevails in reference thereto, arises from the habit of preaching regeneration and its fruits instead of Christ. The effect is put before the cause, and this must always produce derangement of thought.
Let us, then, proceed to consider this question. What is regeneration? How is it produced? What are its results?
1. And, first, what is regeneration? Very many look upon it as a change of the old nature, produced, no doubt, by the influence of the Spirit of God. This change is gradual in its operation, and proceeds, from stage to stage, until the old nature is completely brought under. This view of the subject involves two errors, namely, first, an error as to the real condition of our old nature; and, secondly, as to the distinct personality of the Holy Ghost. It denies the hopeless ruin of nature; and represents the Holy Ghost more as an influence than as a Person.
As to our true state by nature, the word of God presents it as one of total and irrecoverable ruin. Let us adduce the proofs. " And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, arid that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually:' (Gen, vi. 5.) The words " every "-" only "-and " continually" set aside every idea of a redeeming feature in man's condition before God. Again, " The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that docth good, no, not one." (Psalm 14:2, 32The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. 3They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Psalm 14:2‑3).) Here, again, the expressions "all" -"none"-"no, not owe "-preclude the idea of a single redeeming quality, in man's condition, as judged in the presence of God. Having thus drawn a proof from Moses and one from the Psalms, let us take one or two from the prophets. " Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it." (Isa. 1:5, 65Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. 6From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment. (Isaiah 1:5‑6).) "The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field." (Isa. 40:66The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: (Isaiah 40:6).) "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jer. 17:99The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9).)
The above will suffice from the Old Testament. Let us, now, turn to the New. "Jesus did not commit himself, because he knew all. and needed not that any should testify of man; for he knew what was in man." (John 2:24, 2524But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, 25And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man. (John 2:24‑25).) "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." (John 3:66That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:6).) Read, also, Rom. 3:9-199What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; 10As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. 13Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: 14Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: 15Their feet are swift to shed blood: 16Destruction and misery are in their ways: 17And the way of peace have they not known: 18There is no fear of God before their eyes. 19Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Romans 3:9‑19). " Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." (Rom. 8:77Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. (Romans 8:7).) " Having no hope, and without God in the world." (Eph. 2:1212That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: (Ephesians 2:12).) These quotations might be multiplied, but there is no need. Sufficient proof has been adduced to show forth the true condition of nature. It is " lost" " guilty "-" alienated"- without strength "-" evil only "-" evil continually."
How, then, we may lawfully inquire, can that which is spoken of in such a way, ever be changed or improved? "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?" "That which is crooked cannot be made straight." The fact is, the more closely we examine the word of God, the more we shall see that it is not the divine method to improve a fallen, ruined thing, but to bring in something entirely new. It is precisely thus in reference to man's natural condition. God is not seeking to improve it. The gospel does not propose as its object, to better man's nature but to give him a new one. It seeks not to put a new piece upon an old garment, but to impart a new garment altogether. The law looked for something in man, but never got it. Ordinances were given, but man used them to shut out God. The gospel, on the contrary, shows us Christ magnifying the law and making it honorable; it shows Him dying on the cross, and nailing ordinances thereto; it shows Him rising from the tomb, and taking His seat as a Conqueror, at the right hand of the majesty in the heavens; and, finally, it declares that all who believe in His name are partakers of His risen life, and are one with Him. (See, carefully, the following passages. John 20:3131But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. (John 20:31). Acts 13:3939And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:39). Rom. 6:4-114Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: 6Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. 7For he that is dead is freed from sin. 8Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: 9Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. 10For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. 11Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:4‑11). Eph. 2:1-61And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; 2Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: 3Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, 5Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) 6And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: (Ephesians 2:1‑6). iii. 13-18. Col. 2:10-1510And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: 11In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. 13And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; 14Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; 15And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. (Colossians 2:10‑15).)
It is of the very last importance to be clear and sound as to this. If I am led to believe that regeneration is a certain change in my old nature, and that this change is gradual in its operation, then, as a necessary consequence, I shall be filled with continual anxiety and apprehension, doubt and fear, depression and gloom, when I discover, as I surely will, that nature is nature, and will be naught else but nature to the end of the chapter. No influence or operation of the Holy Ghost can ever make the flesh spiritual. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh" and can never be aught else but "flesh;" and "all flesh is as grass"-as withered grass. The flesh is presented in scripture not as a thing to be improved, but as a thing which God counts as " dead," and which we are called to " mortify "-subdue and deny, in all its thoughts and ways. In the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, we see the end of everything pertaining to our old nature. " They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts." (Gal. 5:2424And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. (Galatians 5:24).) He does not say, " they that are Christ's are improving, or trying to improve the flesh." No; but they have crucified it. It is utterly unimprovable. How can they do this? By the energy of the Holy Ghost, acting, not on the old nature, but in the new, and enabling them to keep the old nature where the cross has put it, namely, in the place of death. God expects nothing from the flesh; neither should we. He looks upon it as dead; so should we. He has put it out of sight, and we should keep it so. The flesh should not be allowed to show itself. God does not own it. It has no existence, before Him. True, it is in us, but God gives us the precious privilege of viewing and treating it as dead. His word to us is, " Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom. 6:1111Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:11).)
This is an immense relief to the heart that has struggled for years, in the hopeless business of trying to improve nature. It is an immense relief, moreover, to the conscience which has been seeking a foundation for its peace, in the gradual improvement of a totally unimprovable thing. Finally, it is an immense relief to any soul that may, for years, have been earnestly breathing after holiness, but has looked upon holiness as consisting in the improvement of that which hates holiness and loves sin. To each and all of such, it is infinitely precious and important to understand the real nature of regeneration. NO one who has not experienced it can conceive the intensity of anguish, and the bitterness of the disappointment, which a soul feels, who, vainly expecting some improvement in nature, finds, after years of struggling, that nature is nature still. And just in proportion to the anguish and disappointment, will be the joy of discovering that God is not looking for any improvement in nature-that He sees it as dead, and us as alive in Christ-one with Him, and accepted in Him, forever. To be led into a clear and full apprehension of this, is divine emancipation to the conscience, and true elevation for the whole moral being.
Let us, then, see, clearly, what regeneration is. It is a new birth-the imparting of a new life-the implantation of a new nature-the formation of a new man. The old nature remains, in all its distinctness; and the new nature is introduced, in all its distinctness. This new nature has its own habits, its own desires, its own tendencies, its own affections. All these are spiritual, heavenly, divine. Its aspirations are all upward. It is ever breathing after the heavenly source from which it has emanated. As in nature, water always finds its own level, so in grace, the new, the divine nature always tends towards its own proper source. Thus regeneration is to the soul what the birth of Isaac was to the household of Abraham. (Gen. 21) Ishmael remained the same Ishmael; but Isaac was introduced. So the old nature remains the same; but the new is introduced. " That which is born of the Spirit is spirit." It partakes of the nature of its source. A child partakes of the nature of its parents; and the believer is made " a partaker of the divine nature." (2 Pet. 1:44Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (2 Peter 1:4).) " Of his own will begat he us." (Jas. 1)
In a word, then, regeneration is God's own work, from first to last. God is the Operator, man is the happy, privileged subject. His co-operation is not sought in a work which must ever bear the impress of one Almighty hand. God was alone in creation-alone in redemption- and He must be alone in the mysterious and glorious work of regeneration. We shall, if the Lord will, consider the two remaining points of our subject in a future article.