The Spirit-Birth

William Henry Westcott

The Lord's words to Nicodemus in John 3 show clearly that the first or old natural birth does not furnish material suitable for the kingdom of God, and will not do for Him. He speaks of the necessity for a newbirth. "Except a man be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God." It is not merely that he will not be found in it; he is positively unable to see it apart from a new Spirit-birth. The "anew" shows that no training or environment can affect the old nature so as to produce what is required, i.e., power to "see" (ver. 3), and power to "enter" the kingdom of God (ver. 5).

The Lord uses three terms:

(a) born anew (vv. 3, 7);

(b) born of water and of Spirit (ver. 5); and

(c) born of the Spirit (vv. 6, 8).

The first nullifies our natural estate as born in the ordinary course of generation; the second indicates the agencies used to produce the new; and the third showsthe lineage, and the character imparted.

(a) As to the person, he must be born anew. Born duke or democrat, no antecedent history counts. No blue blood found in, nor blue ribbon found on, the natural man averts the necessity spoken of; no red cross benefits conferred, nor red flag prospects sought after, can secure this radical change; no Jewish ordinance nor Christian rite can effect it. Simon Magus was baptised, but was in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity; the dying thief was never baptised, yet was found in Paradise with the Lord. Whatever place baptism has in the Christian economy, and however near its doctrine comes (Rom. 6) to the same repudiation of the old life derived by natural generation, it is not the theme here in the beginning of John 3. Baptism teaches the judgment of the old standing of man after the flesh; new birth is the commencement of another line altogether.

(b) The Lord evidently uses the term water to Nicodemus because the Jewish Scriptures of which he was the teacher (ver. 10, N.T.) spoke in this language of the coming blessing of the Jew. Isaiah 44: 3 says, "I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed and my blessing upon their offspring." This will be the preliminary to their saying by and by, "I am the Lord's." The need of the Israelite will be met, and the need of the land supplied, by the same hand, and by the fulfilment of the written prophecies relating to both; the Spirit conferred, and the blessing given in a national way to Jacob in the Holy Land.

Then again the prophet in Ezekiel 36: 25, 26 says: "Then will I sprinkle clean  upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all yourfilthiness, 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, etc., etc." This again is connected with the regeneration of Israel, of which the 37th chapter is a further illustration.

All this Nicodemus knew in the letter of it, but had not apprehended its meaning. It was not the application of cold water to the body in bathing which was meant by the prophet, when he spoke of cleansing away their filthiness and their idols; still less was it any incantation of a priest with so-called holy water, which never produces moral or radical change.

Every Jew knows, and every reader of Scripture ought to know, that a young man cleanses his way by taking heed thereto according to God's Word (Psalm 119: 9). It is God's Word which, when applied by the mighty energy of the Holy Spirit, produces a new birth and a new way of looking at things, God's way. It conveys God's estimate of things, it permits of our estimating good and evil as they effect God. Until a man has his eyes opened in this new way, he can never see the Kingdom of God. He can see how things affect himself, or how they effect his fellowmen. He can fight against oppression, or combat drunkenness, or legislate against slavery, and gambling, and theft, and adultery and murder. He can see the evil of such ways and aim at their restriction for his own comfort or from compassion to others. He can as a man in the world pity the poor, the sick, the wounded, the bereaved, and most earnestly seek to alleviate the misery he finds around him. He can be courageous in battle, and patriotic in sentiment, and even enthusiastic in religion; and yet lack this "sine qua non," this one thing which is not only needful but vital, not needful only but imperative: "Ye Must be born again."

The Spirit then uses the word of God in producing the new birth. Whatever sentiments and affections and capabilities lie in a man naturally, they are accounted null, and are negatived by this sweeping change. So faras the new birth 'perse' is concerned, it removes nothing and changes nothing of what was communicated at the old birth; it teaches by implication that it is God's intention to do away with the old, but in itself it does not do away with it. It does not furnish atonement, nor a judicial standing in righteousness before God, nor does it in the least of and by itself determine the character of a man's blessing; it is not a measure of any man's blessing, but rather what must precede every positive blessing in all dispensations. Whoever in the Old Testament times was the subject of Divine deliveringmercy in a spiritual sense, was born again; so in this age; so in the millennial age yet to come. Men must be born of water and of (the) Spirit to enterthe kingdom of God.

The word of God thus used by the Spirit of God, imparts a totally new direction to a man's heart, andperceptive faculties, and will, and becomes the new standard by which he learns to estimate everything. Like Asaph, if ever he is tempted to judge of things according to a fleshly mind, he is delivered from its conclusions by getting into God's presence and receiving God's thoughts (Ps. 73). In personal affliction, instead of judging God by his circumstances, he learns to perceive with Job the end of the Lord (James 5: 11). In famine, and war, and pestilence, in domestic and national adversity, he discerns the discipline of the Lord; in affairs of a private or of a public nature he is governed by thefear of God. Failure and sin instead of driving him to despair like Judas, drive him to confession and restoration like David. But in all this a man might be, as the eunuch of Acts viii. probably was, and as Cornelius in Acts 10 certainly was, still a seeker after God's salvation; born again, and destined for blessing andeternal life, butnot yet, in the Christian sense of the word, saved (Acts 11: 13, 14).

(c) Our Lord also teaches us that just as really as at the first birth that which is born of the flesh is flesh, so in this new birth that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. The man who has been led to bow to God truly has not merely changed his opinion, as a Jew or a heathen might embrace Christianity, but partakes in the sight of God of a new spiritual nature after the essential character of the parentage if I may so say, characterized by spiritual instincts, affections, and desires. It is when we perceive this fact that we can begin to trace things to their sources, what emanates from the flesh and what from the Spirit. This is so even when, as yet, the subject of this divine work has not learnt how peace and deliverance come. A chapter like Romans 7 becomes painfully real. The seventh of Romans never fails to touch us, to touch our hearts, I mean even long after we havefound peace and deliverance; but for those who enjoy deliverance it is rather like retracing our experience than miserably living it through.

Will the reader, in conclusion, compare with John 5, James 1: 18, and 1 Peter 1: 22, 23?

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