THE NATURE OF REGENERATION.
2 Cok. v. 17.—" If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
Tnis point which I propose, from these words, to illustrate is, the nature of regeneration, or of the new birth. The apostle evidently refers to this in the text. He is adverting to the great change which had occurred in his own mind on a particular subject, and then advances the general sentiment, that when one becomes a Christian all his views are changed, or become " new." " We have," says he, " known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more." That is, " I formerly had carnal and worldly views of the Messiah. In common with my countrymen, I looked for a temporal prince and deliverer. But I entertain these views no longer, and regard him no more as such. My views of him are essentially changed^, and I now regard him as a spiritual Saviour, dying to make an atonement for sin." A change resembling this, he says, occurs in the case of all who are converted. If any man is in Christ, or becomes a true Christian, his views are in a similar manner changed;—changed to such an extent that it may be said he is a new creature, for the change of view does not pertain merely to his apprehensions about the Saviour, but extends to everything. In reference to all matters, " old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
This statement expresses, with perfect accuracy, the change which occurs in regeneration. It is a change of view not merely ' with reference to one particular point, but to the whole subject of religion ; a change so great that it may be properly called a new creation, or of such a nature that all things may be said in the view of the mind to be new.
It is my object now to illustrate the nature of this change; and, in order to this, it is important that we have clear views on two points. The. first is, that we separate from the work certain things which are not essential to it, or in reference to which there may be considerable variety; and the second is, that we understand what is essential to it. These are the two points which I propose now to examine.
I. There are some things which frequently accompany a change of heart, which are not essential to it. That is, in the circumstances and feelings attending it, there may be considerable variety in different individuals. This diversity relates to such points as the following, which it is important particularly to specify, because erroneous views have often given great occasion of distress:—
(1.) In regard to the duration of the seriousness, or the conviction for sin, which usually precedes a change of heart, or is experienced before evidence is obtained of conversion. Some duration of time, as a season of serious reflection, or of deep and pungent conviction for sin, usually precedes conversion, and seems to be inevitable. The change is a rational change, and occurs in connexion with a serious consideration of our condition as sinners, our danger, and our need of the mercy of God; and indeed the change does not usually occur except as the result of a careful and earnest inquiry into the character of our past lives, and of much solicitude about our final welfare. But no particular duration of time is specified in the Scriptures as necessary to reflect on our condition preparatory to conversion, and in fact there is great diversity. In some instances conversion is preceded by anxiety that has continued without much intermission for months or years; in others, there has been a succession of deep convictions for sin, like successive shocks of an earthquake, each followed by calmness and unconcern ; and in others the whole work seems to be accomplished in a few hours or a few moments, and to all appearance it may be as genuine in the one case as in the other. Many causes contribute to this variety. The temperament of the individual as phlegmatic or sanguine ; the kind of instruction imparted to him then or before; the circumstances in which he is placed, binding him with greater or less tenacity to the world; the state of religion in the church—as a time of general coldness, or a time of revival; or the want of proper counsel from his friends, or of proper sympathy from those who should help him on to God,—all tend to modify the time during which this work is taking place on the soul. Some have been taught, or have somehow imbibed the opinion, that a protracted " law-work" is necessary before they can be converted, and they expect this of course, and would be alarmed at any speedy evidence of a change of heart; and some, better taught, feel that the moment there is genuine conviction for sin, the penitent may go to God for pardon, and they go at once and find peace.
(2.) There is great variety in regard to the intensity of feeling that precedes or attends the new birth. There is always feeling or emotion of some kind, and to some extent. So great a change in a man's opinions, relations, prospects, hopes, plans of life, as occurs in conversion to God, cannot take place without some degree of feeling. No similar change in a man's character and prospects occurs without emotion. But men pass through important changes in life with a great variety of feeling; and the sacred writers have shown their accurate knowledge of man by not attempting to describe any definite amount of feeling as necessary in the work of conversion. This matter is regulated by a great variety of causes, and so regulated that no specific rule could be given. Two brothers lose a much-loved sister. In the bosoms of both there will be a deep sense of the loss; but the amount of the emotion, in its manifestation at the grave, may bo very different. In one, it shall be seen in gushing tears; in the other, the emotion is too big for utterance, and not a tear shall moisten the cheek. The one turns away relieved in his anguish by outbreaking sorrow; the other, with a mountain on his heart, and with a uersal deadness of sensibility to all that he once loved. A father and mother stand by the grave of a child. They both feel as they never before felt, and as mortals never feel in any other situation. But nature has made a difference between the emotions of the mother and the father, and the difference will find expression at that grave. So when the soul mourns over sin, when it is about to give up the world, when the great question pertaining to the eternal welfare is to be settled for ever, there will be, there must bo emotion. But it will be differently manifested. If accompanied with strong crying and tears, in view of past guilt and present danger, nothing should lead us to say that such feeling is inappropriate; or if, in a mind differently moulded, it should be more calm, settled, and uniform conviction, let us not say that it cannot be genuine. The sorrow of that mother who never weeps may be as intense and deep as that of her whom the slightest sickness of a child bathes in tears.
(3.) There is great variety in regard to the degree of happiness attendant on the new birth. That there is joy in the change of heart, or on becoming a true Christian, is often affirmed in the sacred Scriptures, and results from the nature of the case. Conversion is usually preceded by distress of mind in view of past guilt; by a sense of danger; by solicitude about the final destiny of the soul. It results from the nature of the mind, that when this is removed, it should be followed by peace, calmness, joy. But the degree of happiness will be modified by a great variety of causes. It must depend much on the depth of the previous distress; on the degree of clearness attending the evidence of conversion ; on the habitual temperament of the mind. Some minds are full of distrust and caution, and scarcely allow themselves to contemplate the real grounds of hope which may exist; some are sanguine, in their temperament, and embrace the slightest indications of safety, and often rejoice when there is little occasion for joy. As a matter of fact, therefore, there is in this respect the greatest variety in the minds of those who are truly converted ; nor can any certain rule be laid down in regard to the degree of happiness which would be a clear token of a change of heart.
(4.) The same thing is true in regard to the evidence of conversion. In some instances the change is so sudden and decided that the convert understands clearly the force of the expressions, " being brought out of darkness into marvellous light," and " being translated from the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of God's dear Son." So sudden is the transition, so deep was the former conviction of sin, and so undoubted are the evidences of a change, that the day and the hour can be designated with an accuracy little liable to error. In many such cases the whole of the subsequent life shows that the hope thus cherished was Well-founded; and that a change of heart did occur that was as decided as was supposed. But I need not say that this does not uersally characterize the work of conversion, nor is it usually the ease. In most instances, the evidence is of a much less decisive character. Light seems to struggle with darkness; doubt is mingled with hope; clouds hang about the horizon, or even shut in the heavens, with only an occasional lighting up of the sky. Instead of a transition like that which would occur if the sun should rise suddenly at midnight, and appear at once on the meridian, and stand there ever onward without eclipse, and without a cloud, conversion is rather like the dawning of the light in the east, where you can scarcely mark the change from deep night to commencing day, and where it is so gradual that you can select no fixed points, no sudden transitions, till the sun appears. And if the figure thus suggested by the Scriptures themselves (Prov. iv. 18) may be carried a little further, when the sun is up, it is not always clear and unclouded day. He may rise bright and glorious, and send his rays across the landscape, lighting up all with beauty, and then be suddenly buried behind a dark pile of clouds; or he may meet a tempest in his way, and the lightnings may play beneath him; or the moon may cross his path and cover his disk, and a gloom and chillness—the best illustration which nature affords of what the Christian experiences when the light of God's countenance is withdrawn—may come over the world.
(5.) A fifth variety is observable in the different views of truth that may be presented to the mind at the time of conversion. This will be determined much by the previous habits of reading, thought, or education; by the things that have occupied the mind most during conviction for sin; or by some casual direction which may have been given to the mind at the .time of the change. With one, the attention may be occupied almost entirely with a sense of the great evil of sin, and the depravity of the heart; another shall have the thoughts directed almost exclusively to the Saviour—to the beauty of his character, to the purity of his precepts, or to the glory of his atonement; another shall see a new beauty stealing over the works of God, and to him they shall seem to have come fresh from his hand, stamped with all the proofs of creative power and goodness; while the heart of another shall be charmed with beauties in the Bible which have never met the eye before. Or, perchance, some single truth, or some single duty, shall enchain the affections and the attention ; and at the first moment of conversion the mind may be fixed on some duty or Christian enterprise that is to give character to all the subsequent life. A man converted in old age will be likely to have his thoughts turned to the mercy of that God who has so long preserved him in his sins, and to find his heart overflowing with gratitude as the leading emotion; an ingenuous and ardent youth will most likely look onward, and the eye will fix on some plan of benevolence, and he will be likely to hear with singular distinctness the command, " Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." An ardent fancy will dwell on the bright scenes in heaven; a heart of tenderness will melt at the remembrance of the scenes of Calvary. " All these workcth that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will," 1 Cor. xii. 11.
It would be easy to extend these remarks much farther, and to suggest many other differences which occur in the circumstances of the new birth. But what has been said will illustrate the general thought, that there is great variety in the feelings and views attending regeneration. There are two observations which it is proper to make here by way of inference from what has been said, before we proceed to consider the second point proposed. One is, that in examining our own evidences of piety, we should not compare ourselves much with others. Nothing is more common for young converts than to do this; and yet, if the remarks now made are well-founded, nothing is more improper. With the same amount of religion, and with evidences of piety no better or brighter than your own, another person may have had views and feelings to which you may have been almost wholly a stranger. He has a different temperament; he has been differently educated; his past life has been different; the things that arrested his attention were different; and the subjects that have particularly interested his mind at conversion have been different. There can be no certain standard of judging in the case, if you attempt to determine the nature of your own feelings by a comparison with those of others ; and there can be no propriety in setting up such a standard. The true question is, whether you have the characteristics of real piety laid down in the Bible; not whether you have experienced all that your neighbour has.
The other remark is, that if these views are correct, there is room for the exercise of large charity on the subject of religion. We should not judge others. We should not infer that because their experience does not accord wholly with ours—that because they have not precisely the same views of sin, or have not been pressed down so long with the anguish of conviction, or have not had the same clearness of evidence on their conversion, or are not able to mark with the same accuracy the moment when the change occurred—that therefore they are not Christians. All this may be true; and yet there may have been a work of conversion in their hearts, genuine and thorough, that shall abide the test of all the trials of this life, and the severer investigations of the final day. We are prepared now to consider,
II. The second point proposed for illustration: it is, What is essential to a change of heart 1 or, What uniformly occurs to distinguish this change from the other revolutions to which the mind is subject ?
The short answer to this inquiry is, that it is the commencement of true religion in the soul. It is the moment when real piety commences, and the sinner begins to live to God. Whether that point of time is actually perceived or not, or whether the convert can or cannot fix on the precise moment when the heart is changed, yet there is a time—a moment— when religion first begins to be exercised in the soul; and that is the moment of the new birth or regeneration. This single thought—that regeneration is the commencement of true religion in the soul—will aid much in the inquiry whether ice have ever hecn born again, and would save much of the perplexity which is usually felt on the subject. I have said that it is this which distinguishes this change from all other changes. Men experience other changes of feeling and character sometimes as sudden, as marked, and as permanent, as the change in regeneration ; but there is no true religion in them. A dissipated young man becomes sober and temperate ; a bitter foe becomes your friend; a man of a wild and impetuous temper settles down into the staidness and gravity of sober life; economy succeeds to extravagance ; the love of the theatre and the ball-room give way to more rational enjoyments; frivolity and vanity are sometimes succeeded by sober attention to the duties of a family or a profession ; or a youth spent without promise is sometimes followed by a middle life diligent in an honourable calling, and an old age of respectability; but in any or all of these changes there may be no religion. So we change at the different periods of life. We change, of course, from youth to manhood, and from manhood to age; we exchange that which characterizes the young man for that which becomes the man sustaining the responsibilities of life ; and then we put on the peculiar characteristics in temper, and opinions, and prejudices of age; but none of these changes amount to regeneration; for in none of them is there of necessity the commencement of religion in the soul. All may be passed through, and yet there may be no love of God, no preparation for heaven.
Keeping the main thought in view, that the new birth is the beginning of religion in the heart, I propose now briefly to specify a few things which are always manifested in this change.
(1.) The first which I mention is, that there is a new view of the beauty of religion. Religion appears lovely ; it has charms which were not before felt or perceived. I do not mean, of course, that there is any new intellectual power, or faculty of perceiving truth, created. I do not mean that the " new man in Christ" becomes different as an intellectual being from what he was before, or that he becomes of necessity intellectually superior to his fellow-men. I know well that it is not so. But while the mental faculties remain unchanged, the mind may acquire a wholly new view of the value of an object, and see a beauty in it unperceived before. This often occurs in other things than in religion, implying a change that may be a good illustration of the nature of regeneration. We are often sensible of some such change of view in regard to the value of objects, and in regard to their beauty also. A young man may have no deep sense of the value of temperance. Driven on by youthful passion, or led on by the solicitation of so-called friends, thrown into circumstances where he may have little time and less opportunity for reflection, he will see no particular beauty in this virtue, and a temperate life will have no charms for him. But his views may be suddenly changed, and so changed that a temperate life shall appear lovely in his view, and that no consideration would induce him to return to his former sentiments and practice. So virtue of all kinds may be made to appear lovely to those for whom it had no charms ; and a change from vice to virtue may occur that shall characterize the whole of the subsequent life.
A change, of which this is but the feeble illustration, occurs in regard to religion, when a sinner is born again. Religion assumes a different aspect from what it had ever before in the view of the mind. Before, the attention given to it was of a very limited or a very undesirable character. In many cases, it excited positive disgust and hatred; it roused violent opposition ; it was made the subject of ridicule and scorn. In other instances, where this violence of opposition was not felt or expressed, the utmost interest that was felt in religion was such as this. It was an interest arising from the belief that it was of value to the community, or because preaching had some intellectual or literary attractions; or because one's friends were members of a particular church ; or because there was a general belief that religion was necessary for the salvation of the soul. But when the heart is changed, the interest in religion is of a wholly different kind. It is the interest arising from love; an interest in that which is seen to be beautiful, and where it assumes an importance superior to all other things combined. That new beauty, perceived in religion, leads to a corresponding interest in all that pertains to it. There is an interest in the duties and doctrines of religion ; in the welfare of the church ; in the spread of the gospel; in prayer and praise,—that now seems to find a place in the soul as a matter of course, which nothing before could rouse or create. And this leads me to observe,
(2.) That happiness is now found in the things that were formerly disregarded, and that afforded no pleasure. Particularly there is a new pleasure in the following things: (a) In the character of God. He is now seen to be just such a Being as Rhould be adored and loved. Before this change, the views of God in the minds of men are very various. In many cases, there is felt a decided opposition to his character; in others, his laws are regarded as severe; in others, there is entire indifference to his claims ; in others, there are strong doubts about the rectitude of his administration:—in none, is there any perceived beauty in his character. But when the heart is changed there is a new view of God, and a happiness felt in him unknown before. The heart is reconciled to him, and acquiesces in his claims. The character of God is such as meets the entire approbation of the soul; and the renewed man feels ■that it is just such as it is desirable it should be. Were there power to make any change in that character, the Christian would not do it, for God's character in the view of his mind is perfect. The language of the renewed man is, " Whom have I in heaven but thee ? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee." (b) The same thing is true in regard to the plan of salvation through the Redeemer. It is impossible for an unconverted sinner to find happiness in the contemplation of that plan, or perhaps to see much beauty in it, or to feel anything attractive in the idea of depending wholly on the merits of Christ for salvation. The most, perhaps, that can be felt is a cold admiration of the character of the Redeemer ; but as to any beauty in the scheme of the atonement, or any happiness in its contemplation, it is unknown to the sinner. But the converted man finds pleasure in the contemplation of that plan of salvation. It meets his case. It provides a way of pardon. It has brought him back to God. It has done for him what he cannot do, and has saved him from errors from which otherwise he could not have been saved; and his happiness now is identified with that scheme of salvation by the Redeemer. Christ becomes " all in all;" and the language of the soul is, " I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord." (c) Thus, too, there is pleasure in the Bible. There is a beauty now seen in its pages which man never sees until he is converted; and nothing is more common for the young convert, in speaking of the Bible, than to say that it is to him " a new book i" and his wonder is excited that the same things may have been read, and perhaps from very childhood, with no perception of their beauty. There is no miracle in this; no exertion of any new intellectual faculty or power of mind. The simple fact is, that the statements in the Bible now meet a new condition of his heart, and those beauties are perceived because they correspond with the state of the soul. The same thing will continue to occur through life. New circumstances arise; new forms of temptation and trial occur when new beauty is seen in the word of God, and it seems to have been penned just for such an occasion. A closer acquaintance with it only shows more and more with what profound skill it is adapted to the wants of the human soul; and the impression of its beauty and value increases to the end of life. I need not remind you how often the beauty of the sacred Scriptures is commended by the saints of old, nor what exquisite happiness the psalmist represents himself as finding in the volume of revealed truth:—" O how love I thy law ! it is my meditation all the day." " More to be desired," said he, speaking of the statutes of the Lord, " are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb." This is language that would express only the feelings of a heart that is renewed, (d) The same thing is true of the happiness found in the worship of God—of the privilege of drawing near to him in the closet and in the sanctuary. " It is good for me to draw near to God." " How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God." " I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God tha \ to dwell in the tents of wickedness." This, too, is language which expresses the feelings of a new-born soul. It is not language which expresses any feelings which they have who are not renewed. There is no interest which such persons can have, in the pomp of gorgeous religious rites; or in the music of the sanctuary, executed with the utmost power and skill; or in the most eloquent exhibition of truth in the pulpit, that meets the fulness of such declarations about the happiness felt in the worship of God. It is a happiness peculiar to the renovated man; where the heart finds pleasure in communion with God ; where the regenerated spirit finds pleasure in those pure services that raise it above the world. And though I do not design to insist on it that these elevated joys are essential to the evidence of a change of heart, yet I do mean to advance the sentiment, that where such a change exists there will be experienced a happiness in God; in the plan of salvation ; in the Bible ; in public and private worship,—such as was not experienced before, and such as is produced only by the love of religion.
(3.) A third essential feature in this change is, a readiness to forsake all sin, and all pursuits that are inconsistent with a holy life. This enters of course into the change, for it is a change from sin to holiness. The past life is now seen to have been unholy, and it becomes the purpose of the soul to abandon all that is offensive to God. And this love of sin, and of sinful pursuits, is not abandoned now merely because it is commanded to be; it is the preference of the heart to do it. The renewed heart renounces these things as a matter of course, and at any sacrifice. Paul gave up at once his career of ambition,—though it required the sacrifice of all his earthly prospects; and the Ephesian converts abandoned a dishonest calling at once, though requiring the sacrifice of their "books" and the destruction of a large amount of property. No proposition can be clearer than that a man who is not willing to forsake his sinful pursuits can have no evidence that he is born again.
The same remarks are applicable to the world, to its pleasures, its gaieties, its vanities. In the case of a true convert to Christ, the theatre is forsaken, not because it is a matter of express injunction in the Bible, but because it ceases to interest the mind. The changed heart becomes interested in other things, and in the superior relish for the pleasures and hopes of religion : the pleasure once found in such amusements is extinguished of course. So to a mind truly converted and made to taste the happiness of communion with God, the pleasures of the ball-room and the brilliant party cease to allure and charm. To such a mind it is not mere command which requires the forsaking of " the pride, pomp, and vanity of the world;" it is not mere conscience which keeps from an indulgence in such pleasures; it is not the mere apprehension that pain will be given to the friends of piety, and dishonour reflected on the church—though all of these things will influence the mind; it is, tfcat the relish, the love for such things is lost. The heart has become attached to nobler and more elevated pursuits, and has learned to find pleasure in that which now satisfies the soul. " Old things have passed away, and all things have become new;" and pleasures which a few months since the individual would not have been induced to forsake for any price in gold or diamonds, are now abandoned as a matter of course. The heart has become dead to such pleasures; and to mingle in them now with relish and satisfaction would be far more diflicult than it would have been before to forsake them—nay, would be impossible.
(4.) I need only advert to one other essential characteristic of this change: it is, that there is a readiness to devote all to God, and to do his will. The question asked by Paul at his conversion was, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" and the same question substantially is asked by every one who becomes a Christian. Before the heart is renewed, far different principles rule the conduct. Men act with reference to honour, to gain, to office, to amusement, to sensual indulgence. Their time they regard as their own ; their talents as their own ; their houses, lands, bonds, stocks, books as their own, to be held and disposed of without reference to the will of another. The young man feels at perfect liberty to choose any calling that may gratify his taste, or that holds out alluring prospects of gain, without reference to the will of his Maker, or to the good of men. The plan is laid for a profession which shall give the greatest scope for the display of genius, or which shall conduct most speedily to the temple of fame, or which shall soonest enable him to look round on his possessions with the consciousness of independence. In all these things conversion to God makes a decided, a thorough change. Talent, learning, strength, vigour of body, is felt to belong to God. Though educated for different purposes, as Paul was, the young man feels now that his talents and learning are to be devoted to his Maker; though wealth has been gained for different objects, yet the convert now feels that it all belongs to Him who has redeemed him ; and though the young female may have been trained to adorn the social circle, yet it is now felt that these accomplishments should be made tributary to the purpose of doing good in those circles which it was designed only to please, and should be subordinate to the grand purpose of preparation for the society of the skies. " Old things are passed away, and all things are become new;" and talent, and influence, and learning, and wealth, and accomplishments are converted to the new and holy purpose of living to God.
There are, perhaps, other things which might be adduced here, but you will gather, I trust, from what has been said, what is essential to this change. The grand thing, you will understand, is, that it is the commencement of pure religion in the soul. Whether attended with more protracted or briefer preparation ; with higher or lower degrees of joy ; with more decided or with fainter evidences of conversion; with the contemplation of identical or different truths,—it is the same. It is the beginning of real piety in the heart. Whether it be in the thrilling scenes of a revival of religion, or under the calmer operations of truth, where few are converted; whether the change take place in the ardour of youth, or when age has chilled the sensibilities and awakened the intellect; whether under a ministry holding to Calvinistic or Arminian views, or a ministry of " three orders " or " one ;" or whether in a church with multitudinous forms, and with a great zeal for the " apostolic succession," and with great regard for the office of baptism; or where there is no ministry, and no form, and no belief in baptism at all,—there is but one work that is the work of conversion ; there is but one baptism of the Spirit; there is everywhere essentially the same thing in the change of the heart. It is the beginning of true religion in the soul. It leads to simple dependence on Christ for salvation. It is attended by a new interest in religion ; a new pleasure in its services; a new relish for the Bible and for prayer; new love for Christians, new plans of life ; as well as with a readiness to forsake all that God hates, and to devote the life to his service jn any sphere to which, by his Spirit and his providence, he shall direct.