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“Born of Water and of the Spirit”

J. T. Mawson

“Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

A statement so momentous to every one of us as this is will be best understood by being considered in the setting in which it is given to us in the Word of God. All the words of our Lord Jesus Christ were fitly spoken and they shine in consequence as apples of gold in pictures of silver, and if we are to catch the full significance of them we must pay due regard to the circumstances in which He uttered them.

Naturally we should have thought the words more applicable to the sinful woman of chapter 4, for her case was so evidently bad that a new birth appeared to be her only hope, but instead, the best man in the most religious city on earth was chosen to be the hearer of this tremendous truth, and if it was proclaimed to the best, it is applicable to all. None is exempted from this solemn necessity who would enter God’s kingdom; whosoever fails of this, whether Pharisee or sinner, must remain outside of it for ever, for there is no difference as to the nature of men between the best and the worst, however diverse may be their ways and it is the nature of man that is in question here. If this is understood the truth will grip with a greater power and we shall have a clearer sense of what “born of water” means.

We cannot question the sincerity of Nicodemus. In seeking that night interview with the Lord Jesus he acknowledged that things were not right. He probably had a keen sense of his own inability to live up to his own standard, and felt a need in his soul that all his religion had failed to touch, and, attracted by the works of the Lord, he hoped that He would at least be some help to him, and to the condition of things prevailing at the time, having in view the improvement of man as he was, on the assumption that he was capable of improvement. But the Lord anticipated all such conceit as that, and exploded every such notion by the astounding statement, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That was not the statement of a mere teacher, as Nicodemus supposed the Lord to be, who was handing on a message with which he had been entrusted. It was the word of Him who had weighed every man in the balances and found all wanting, and who had said long before, “The end of all flesh is come before Me.”

If there had been one chord in man’s fallen nature that would or could have responded to God’s touch, He would out of that chord have developed eternal harmonies; if there had been any fibre in that which is born of the flesh that was untainted and holy, and subject to the will of God, there would have been in that fibre a basis of life which under Divine culture would have grown into a glorious kingdom for God, but there was none. There is no part of the flesh that is not flesh, and being flesh it is all corrupt. “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; but wounds and bruises, and putrefying sores; they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment” (Isa. 1:5-6). And a stronger statement than that is made by the prophet Jeremiah, which shows us that the flesh is not only corrupt but incapable of cure. “Thus saith the Lord, Thy bruise is incurable, and thy wound is grievous. There is none to plead thy cause, that thou mayest be bound up; thou hast no healing medicines” (30:12-13). These things were said of the best the race of men could produce when tested under the best conditions, and they reveal the state of all. And if the language of the New Testament is less graphic, it is not less emphatic. It tells us that “the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63) and “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8).

We are endeavouring to find out the extent of the ruin in which sin has involved man, in order to understand what the Lord meant when He said, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” The ruin is clearly and conclusively stated in these passages quoted from the Word of God. They show us that man in his sinful, fallen condition cannot and will not be subject to God, and so is, and must be, outside God’s kingdom for ever unless he is born anew. We question not that there is an amiability, a generosity, a kindliness, and a certain nobility about many men, showing what man must have been when first he came from God’s creative hand, made in His image and after His likeness, and before sin, with vandal malice, marred the work of God. But all that belongs to the sphere of his relationship with his fellows, and the best of that is spoiled by selfishness and sin, it does not enter into his relationship with God, and nothing can be right if a man is not right with God. At the very centre of the being of every man by nature SELF is enthroned, and his own will instead of God’s controls him: the flesh, which is his nature as a sinner, is not obedient to the law of God, nor indeed can it be. He was made for God’s glory, to be a vessel in which the good and perfect and acceptable will of God might be displayed to the universe, but having fallen, and being now a sinner by nature, God’s will is irksome and hateful to him; it is his very nature to run counter to it, and he is not a subject in God’s kingdom, but a rebel against it.

The nature of a thing cannot be changed. The Ethiopian cannot change his skin, nor the leopard his spots; men do not gather grapes of thorns, nor figs of thistles; a corrupt tree bringeth forth corrupt fruit and it cannot bring forth any other. So also is the flesh, and that which is born of it is flesh, and “the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, HATRED, VARIANCE, EMULATIONS, WRATH, STRIFE, heresies, ENVYINGS, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they that do these things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19, 21).

Then, since this evil nature in man, that he inherits as a child of Adam, cannot be changed, a new birth is an evident necessity, if he is ever to be delivered from it, and take his place in God’s kingdom in glad subjection to God’s will. He must have a new life and nature as diverse from the old life and nature as light is from darkness, but God alone can bring about this supernatural birth, He alone can impart a new life, and He can only do it in righteousness, and that involves the setting aside in judgment the old nature of self-will and disobedience, and of everything that would challenge His supremacy; and this brings us to the meaning of “born of water.”

The first time that water is mentioned in Scripture is in Genesis 1, where the earth is shown to us, not in its pristine glory as created by God in the beginning, but a fallen earth, shrouded in darkness and wholly submerged by the great waters, a fitting figure of man in his fallen condition—ignorant of God and lying in moral and spiritual death; but the Spirit of God was there, brooding over and moving upon that scene of death. It is interesting and instructive to notice that the water and the Spirit are brought together in relation to the physical new birth of the earth, as they are in relation to the spiritual new birth of men. The former will help us to understand the latter. What I want to emphasize in this connection is that whatever it was that had plunged the original creation into the state of chaos in which it appears in Genesis 1:2, the waters of death and judgment had passed wholly upon it before the Spirit of God began anew, but when He did move, those very waters that had extinguished apparently all hope of life became by the Word of God a life-giving element, and they brought forth swarms of life (Gen. 1:20). Out of death came life.

Coming to the flood of waters in Noah’s day, I must lay stress upon the fact that it was here that God said, “The end of all flesh is come before Me.” The incorrigibility of man in his natural condition is here declared, and this answers to John 3. However great God’s long-suffering with man may be, this judgment has been passed upon him. The flood was the execution of that judgment upon that generation, and the actual removal of it from God’s sight is typical of the great truth that we must all learn, and the sooner the better—that man in the flesh will not do for God, for he is not subject to the will of God, neither indeed can be; the judgment of death has passed upon him, all that he is as according to the flesh must pass out of God’s sight for ever, for it cannot please Him. There must be a new beginning. “Ye must be born again.”

The great thought in the water, then, is the setting aside of what man is by nature as a basis of blessing for him; it is the judgment of death on a man as being in the flesh. This I am persuaded must be recognized in John 3:5. It is the end of a man, the end of all his hopes of evolving any good out of himself, but it is God’s beginning. But how God can begin with blessing in connection with a man lying in moral and spiritual death, and under God’s judgment—for “death [as the judgment of God upon what man is by nature] passed upon all men for that all have sinned”—can only be understood at the cross. From the riven side of the Son of God, hanging dead upon the cross, there flowed forth blood and WATER. And the only Gospel that tells us this is the Gospel which declares that a man must be born of water and the Spirit. The blood was for the expiation of sins, and has special reference to that which God’s justice demanded because of our guilt. The water has a peculiar application to what we are by nature rather than by practice. It is death—not our actual death, but Christ’s death for us—which has set God free to take us up for blessing, setting aside what we are by nature and giving us a new beginning and a new nature by the Spirit. By it the ground is cleared of what will not answer to God’s will to make way for the new life and nature which is altogether of Himself.

But John 3 does not bring to our notice what has been done for us, but what is done in us. It tells of the subjective work wrought by the Spirit of God in a man, without which the work done by the Son of God for him would be in vain, as far as he is concerned. And this brings us to the way it has been done. We read of the washing of WATER BY THE WORD (Eph. 5:26). The truth that opens the eyes of a man to his true condition, and leads him to repentance and self-abhorrence, is the Word of God. It cleanses him morally from the old life, makes him turn from it with loathing.

Thus he is cleansed by the water. He has now God’s thoughts about Himself and is well prepared to receive God’s thoughts about Christ and to rest in Him as his only hope. “Now are ye clean,” said the Lord to His disciples, “through the word which I have spoken unto you.” He did not say, “through the blood I shall shed for you,” for He was not speaking of their sins and justification, but of their sanctification for fruit-bearing, of a life and nature which was new to them, the life and nature of the true vine, clean and not corrupt, which was in them all through His Word. Elsewhere the Word of God is spoken of as the incorruptible seed, which liveth and abideth for ever, and in this character it carries with it all that Christ is and has done, but in John 3:5 it is the Word in the power it possesses to turn a man from what he is by nature to accept God’s judgment upon what he is by nature, so that with repentance and self-judgment he turns to Christ. The Spirit works with and uses the Word as water to this end, and the man emerges from his native darkness and self-satisfaction into light, and faith in Christ. It is not the old nature that does this, not even the old nature changed, but a new nature the man has by the operation of the water and Spirit, for that which is born of the flesh is flesh and will always remain so until death brings it to an end, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit, and that can never be destroyed. The water sets aside the old and the Spirit introduces the new. The water in the passage is not baptism, nevertheless when the truth of baptism is developed there is that in it which answers outwardly to what the passage teaches. Take, for instance, Romans 6:4, “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism unto 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.” There is the disappearance of the old and the manifestation of new in figure.

We have indeed great need to consider these words of the Lord, and to be led into a fuller conception of their solemn and profound meaning.