THE NECESSITY OF REGENERATTON.
John iii. 3.—" Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
I Propose, from this verse, to show the necessity of regeneration, or the new birth. The only introductory remark which it is necessary to make before we enter on the argument is, that the Saviour in the text asserts, with great earnestness and emphasis, that the new birth is indispensable for every one who would enter into his kingdom:—" Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man"—in the Greek, any one—" be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." My argument will be directed solely to this point, that it is necessary for every one to be renewed, or regenerated, in order to be saved.
With reference to this argument, mankind may be conveniently divided into two great classes. The line, perhaps, may not be in all respects very definite, and there may be a middle region of character of considerable extent such as to leave us in doubt where to place many individuals; but it is sufficiently definite for our present purpose, and will not lead us into error in the argument. The two classes are these: — First. The openly wicked, abandoned, sensual, scoffing, profane. Secondly. The moral, the amiable, the upright, the sincere, the accomplished. The former are commonly designated as vicious; the latter as virtuous. The former are destitute of virtue and religion together ; the latter lay claim to virtue without religion. The former attempt no divorce between virtue and piety, but abjure both together; the latter attempt a divorce, and seek to hold the one without the other. The former are willing to be excluded from good society on earth as well as from heaven; the latter mean to retain their rank in the goodly fellowship of this world, whatever may be the fact about their admission into heaven. The former take a decided stand against religion and all its appearances and pretensions ; the latter desire to occupy a position somewhere on the confines of religion—and if they have not Christian piety, they intend to have something that they hope will, on the whole, answer just as well in the future world.
Now the difficulty in regard to the subject before us is not at all in reference to the former of these classes. It will be conceded on all hands that it is necessary that they should be renewed in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Had the Saviour so modified his declaration, affirming the necessity of the new birth, as to have embraced only that portion of mankind, scarcely any doctrine would have met with more favour. The only embarrassment in the case has arisen from the fact that he so shaped his remark as to include Nicodemus and all that class of men under it, so as to make it just as necessary for them to be born again as for the openly abandoned and profane. It is a difficulty arising from the fact that in one respect—not in all respects— he has put them on & level, and affirmed that, whatever elso might occur, they would be alike excluded from the kingdom of God unless they were " born of water and of the Spirit." Leaving the former of these classes, therefore, at present out of view, as those about whom there can be no debate, and as not probably among those who may read these pages, I shall direct your thoughts entirely to the question about the latter class— the amiable, the moral, the upright. The subject will have then this advantage at least, that it is one that pertains to your own case, and is one in which you will feel yourselves personally concerned.
It falls in with my design, and with my convictions also, to concede to you all that you would claim on the score of morality, amiableness, courtesy, and kindness. Of these virtues you could mention none which my argument would not allow me to concede ; of none who might set up the claim would I be disposed to call it in question. I do not see that the Redeemer was disposed to deny the existence of these virtues in Nicodemus; I am certain he did not in the young man who came to him and told him that he had kept all the commandments from his youth up, and whom the Saviour told that he lacked but one thing in order to be perfect, and whom he " loved," Mark x. 21. Yet here lies the solemn declaration of the Saviour in our path, affecting alike the case of Nicodemus, and the amiable young man, and all who are like them:—" Except any one be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Why did he make such a declaration ? On what was it based ? What were the views of man which lay in the Redeemer's soul that justified this remark ? We may not be able exactly to answer these questions, but we may state some considerations which show that the declaration is true, or that there are reasons why it was made. To that task I now proceed.
I. The first consideration which I state is, that the heart by nature, or when unrenewed, is not in a proper state for the employments and enjoyments of heaven. I speak now of the human heart as such, without any special reference to the openly wicked and profane. I speak of the unrenewed heart in its best state, and under the best discipline and cultivation. I speak of it where there may be all the charms of accomplishment ; all the beauties of native amiableness; all the courtesy of refined breeding; all that is attractive and valuable in unsuspected virtue.
There are two sources of evidence in regard to this:—the Bible and your own consciousness.
The testimony of the Bible is so clear that no one, I presume, will be disposed to doubt it, and this point need not detain us long. That testimony bears directly on the point before ns, that the human heart, as such, is evil, and must be renewed if man would be saved. Thus it is said, " The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked," Jer. xvii. 9. That is, the heart of man, as such, without reference to any particular class or condition of men. The fair meaning is, that wherever there is a human heart it has this characteristic—that it is a deceitful heart—more deceitful than all things else in a world full of deceit; and that it has within it the elements of desperate wickedness. The same account of the universal depravity of the human heart is given in Gen. viii. 21: " The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." This appears also in the form of an universal declaration. It is not that the profligate race which had been just swept away by the deluge was evil, but it is that the heart of man, as such, is evil from his youth.
As these positive declarations settle the question so far as the Bible is concerned, I turn to the other source of evidence in the case—the consciousness of the heart itself. And as the form of direct address will better fall in with the nature of the argument which I wish to urge, you will permit me with plainness to use this form. The argument relates to the following points:
(1.) You are conscious that you have no vital religion; nothing that can be properly called religion. You do not even pretend or profess to have it. You would not consider it a reflection on you at all to have it said that you made no profession of piety, as you would to have it said that you do not profess to be influenced by the laws of honour or honesty. And in your life there is nothing that can be fairly interpreted as showing that you have real religion. You do not truly pray; you do not habitually read the Bible; you do not cherish love to God; you do not depend on his mercy for salvation; you do not identify yourselves with religious persons. You claim to be moral, upright, faithful to your engagements, kind, courteous ; but in your own heart and wishes and intentions you do not claim to be religious men. Possibly you may say that all this is unkind and uncharitable. But I see not how it is so. I will concede all that you claim. I will yield all that you ask on the score of morality. I will even go farther than you will. / will yield to a man the claim to be a religious man when he professes to be, even when appearances are much against him—for I am not ignorant how much I must need the exercise of that charity " which suffereth long and is kind;" and I believe that there may be true piety where there is much imperfection, and if you make any profession of godliness I will extend the same charity to you. But I have not so read the New Testament, or so learned the character of Christ, or been so taught by any of the rules of urbanity, as to ascribe to a man what he does not himself profess to have; as to go with kind-heartedness beyond what he habitually lays claim to, and to attribute to him what never constituted a part of his own profession. Every man has a right to choose and " define his own position," and to make his own professions; and for myself, I ask no man, either from charity or justice, to attribute to me opinions and sentiments which I do not profess to have. In the same way I shall continue to judge of my neighbour, and shall conclude that I am doing him no injustice in supposing that he has no spiritual life when he asserts no claim to have any, whatever I may think about those who profess to be influenced by it.
(2.) Another consideration is, that every man is conscious that there is much in his heart that is opposed to God and to religion. The depths of depravity indeed in his soul may not have been explored; there may have been no outbreaking wickedness to overwhelm his name and family in disgrace; he may have been neither a scoffer nor an open infidel; and in fact he may never have recorded one sentence in the most confidential letter to a friend, or given utterance to one remark, in the most familiar intercourse, opposed to religion; yet no man can reach a mature period of life without knowing that there is much in his heart that is opposed to God and to religion. Many of the doctrines of religion are unpalatable to the natural heart. Its more spiritual duties are onerous and irksome. Its restraints seem like a violation of freedom. The law of God is laid across the path at times and in a manner that chafes the feelings, and disturbs the plans of life. The claims, rebukes, threatenings, and penalties of both law and gospel are galling and unpleasant to the soul. There is much in the character and government of God that seems to such a man to be not only mysterious, but ■wrong. In his afflictions, disappointments, and blighted hopes, he has been conscious of murmuring thoughts, and has been obliged to exercise restraint lest they should find their way to his lips. He cannot but be conscious that when God has directed him to love him supremely, he has not done it; when he has required him to form his plans with reference to his glory, he has formed them with reference to ease, pleasure, gain, or ambition; when he has called on him to repent, he has remained impenitent; when he has commanded him to believe, he has continued unbelieving; and when he has counselled him to pray, he has restrained prayer. He cannot but be conscious that he has given indulgence to a roving imagination; that he has delighted to dwell, in his recollections of the past, on the objects fitted to debase and corrupt him ; and that he has formed many a plan, and cherished many a wish, on which a pure Being could look only with a frown of indignation. And he cannot but be conscious that he has never found that pleasure in religion of which the Bible speaks, and which Christians declare that they enjoy; and that in the course of his life there has never been one whole day, or one whole hour, in which the mind would have found enjoyment in religion. His mind and heart are not in the course of things which God wishes, and which God is carrying forward. Hear what one says who knew:—
" Our life ia a false nature—'tis not in
The harmony of things,—this hard decree,
This uneradicable taint of sin,
This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree,
"Whose root is earth, whose leaves and branches be
The skies which rain their plagues on men like dew—
Disease, death, bondage—all the woes we see—
And worse, the woes we see not—which throb througn
The unmedicable soul, with heart-aches ever new."
Childe Harold, iv. 126.
(3.) The next remark is, that such a heart is not fitted for the employments and enjoyments of heaven unless it is changed. This is evident, unless the joys and employments of heaven consist in the mere prolongation of the pleasures and business of this life. If commerce, and manufactures, and merchandize, and agriculture were to be the business there, we do not see but they might be happy. If men were to contend there in the forum; if on their lips " listening senates" were to hang ; if the pursuits of science were to give employment to the mind; if under the chisel the marble were to breathe, or under the brush the canvas be filled with forms of life ; or if pleasure were to open new parks and gardens and banqueting halls, we admit that the unrenewed mind might find happiness in heaven. But we have only one account of heaven that is worth regarding,—that in the Bible. And according to that, heaven is not the prolongation of the employments of this life, as dreamed of by the Swedenborgian; nor a Mohammedan Paradise, where Houries are created to give infinity of duration to sensual joys ; nor the Elysian fields of poets; nor such abodes as the scientific and the literary world look for. It is a place of religion; a place of adoration and holy love ; a place of pure and prolonged thanksgiving and praise; a place where the soul is expanded by the contemplation of religious truth, and where, in his works, God is adored as " first, and last, and midst, and without end." God is there. Christ, the holy, incarnate Saviour, is there. Holy angels are there. The redeemed of all ages and lands are there ; and it is a world of religious beings, and not a world of mere sages, or philosophers, or poets, or patriots, or of the winning and the accomplished. And if these things are so, then nothing can be plainer than the declaration of the Saviour in the text, that, " Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
II. The second general consideration which I urge is, that no change which man passes through in the present life will Jit for heaven except that produced in regeneration. Men experience many other changes,—some of them sudden and remarkable, and some of them extending their influence far into future years, and even as far as we can follow the dying into the dark valley; but none of them are changes that fit for heaven. "We change in our habits, views, opinions, employments, hopes, anticipations, temperament, passions; in the transition from childhood to youth, from youth to manhood, from manhood to old age. At one period, we are blithe, cheerful, merry, playful, thoughtless. At another, we cherish the generous aspirations of youth, when the blood is warm in our veins, and the world is full of allurements. At that time we are generous, open, ardent; full of life, of energy, of promise; laying large plans, and grasping at wealth and honours. Then we settle down into the calmness of sober life; we give place to serious reflection; we allow judgment to preside where passion did ; we become less lavish of expenditure, and husband our resources; we feel ourselves pressed down with the cares of the world, and we give ourselves to the serious business of living. Then the "sear and yellow leaf" comes on. The shades grow long, and are chilly. We become fixed in our opinions ; staid in our judgments ; unchangeable in our views. The fires of youth have all gone out. The business of life has been passed through. We look upon a new generation that has come up with great energy, and is pressing hard on us to elbow us out of our place, and already wishing us gone, and coveting, our houses and lands. We settle down into a contented and honoured old age, and look with satisfaction on our "children's children, the crown of old men" (Prov. xvii. 6); or perchance we draw our purse-strings tighter, as we have less use for what we have wasted life in acquiring, and become peevish and fretful, and fancy that the world, since it lost our counsel and influence, is all the while growing worse and worse.
Now one remark which I wish to make is, that in none of these changes, great as they are, is there any one that of necessity fits for heaven. The characteristics which come up in youth no more fit us for heaven than did those of the child; nor in the transition from youth to manhood, or from manhood to old age, is there of necessity a change that fits men for heaven. Not all old men are prepared to enter into the kingdom of God, any more than those in the days of their youth. In none of these changes is there any permanency to reach beyond the tomb; and if there were, in none of them is there a change to fit for heaven. The exchange of playfulness and thoughtlessness for other habits, is not religion; the subjugation of the raging passions of youth, and the coming on of the settled habits of manhood, is not of necessity the love of God; nor is the kind of feeling with which an old man regards the long path which he has trod, filled with many rough places and hills and valleys, the deadness to the world which fits a man for heaven. .
Another remark which I make in view of these changes is, that so far from their fitting for heaven, there may be in fact less inclination for religion in the succeeding change than there was in the one that went before. The young man often has less tenderness of feeling on the subject of religion, than he had when a child; the man in middle life, than he had when a youth ; the old man, least of all. The child put his little hands together every morning and evening, and uttered the language, " Our Father who art in heaven," and wept freely when his mother told him of the woes of that kind-hearted Saviour who died for all. The same child, when he becomes a youth, may be a sceptic at heart; in middle life, an avowed infidel; in old age, a hard-hearted atheist and a scoffer. His advance on the successive stages of life has not been an advance in religion, but a departure from it; and the bright-eyed and lovely boy, who commenced life gladdening a father's heart with the hope that he would be a Christian, ends it with no respect for religion, and no belief in its Divine authority and claims.
Another remark may he made here respecting the changes which occur in men's lives. They often change from vice to virtue ; from gross intemperance to soberness of living; from profaneness to outward respect for the name of God; from the love of idle and dissolute companionship to a love for the fellowship of the virtuous and the refined; but there is of necessity no change here that fits men for heaven. The reformed inebriate is not necessarily a man who loves God ; nor does one who abandons habits of profligacy of course become a man of prayer. A man may change his business, his profession, his country, his dwelling, his friends; but it does not follow that he has passed through any change that will fit him to dwell with God. He may subdue many of his evil propensities; may humble much of his pride; and cease to be a scoffer or a philosophical foe of the gospel; may forsake his wicked companions, and may become a supporter of the gospel, and a regular and respectful attendant in the house of God on the sabbath,—and still be as decidedly irreligious at heart as he was before. The most decided period of irreligion in his life may be when all these changes have been gone through; the most determined hatred to religion ever expressed in the eye may be in that unnatural and frightful brilliancy with which it is lighted up when told to believe in Christ, just before its light is to be extinguished for ever. All these things are too plain, and too much a matter of common observation, to make it proper to lengthen out the argument which they furnish: and if these things are so, then there is but one change that fits men for heaven; and then nothing can be more true than the declaration of the Saviour, that " Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
III. The third general consideration which I urge to show the necessity of regeneration is the fact, that nothing can be substituted in its place—nothing can be made to answer the same purpose. If this be so—if it be true that men by nature are not fitted for heaven, and that none of the numerous changes which they undergo in the ordinary transitions of life fit them for it, and that they can substitute nothing in the place of the new birth that will answer the same purpose,—then it will follow clearly that there is a necessity that man should be horn again. Now, that it is so will be apparent on the slightest reflection. There is one doctrine of substitution, or putting one thing in the place of another, that is set forth as a true principle in the government of God, and is that on which the redemption of the whole world is made to turn:—it is the doctrine of the substituted sufferings of the Redeemer in the place of sinners, and the fact that our hope of salvation depends on that. But in the Scriptures the doctrine of substitution is limited to that, nor is there an intimation that the principle can ever be extended. It was only the extraordinary necessity of the case that justified the admission of that one instance into the system; and it was only the fact that immense and eternal good would accrue from that one case to unnumbered millions that made it proper. But the necessity extends no farther. There is no intimation that one man can take the place of another; or that a lack of any one thing required can be compensated by something else which shall be offered in its stead. And the scriptural doctrine on this point is one of common sense. You demand a specific act of obedience from a child. There is no general virtue, and no other act of obedience which will supply the place of that, if it is not rendered. You demand love from a friend. If that is withheld, there is no offering of gold or silver, of wine or oil, that will supply its place. A wife demands constancy and fidelity in a husband. If these are not rendered, there is no diamond-ring—no string of orient pearls—no richly-set bracelets—no winning smile of professed affection, that can supply their place. They are all insult and mockery—an infinite aggravation of the offence, when tendered by an unfaithful man; and what might in other circumstances be tokens of affection of inestimable value, are now spurned with disdain and loathing.
God demands the heart—the love, the friendship, the confidence of his creature, man; such love, and friendship, and affection as are the fruit of a renovated heart. With such a renovated heart, what you could render to him would be an acceptable and a valuable offering. Your moral life and integrity, based on holy principles, would be acceptable; the homage of the bended knee, and the song of praise in appropriate forms of devotion, would be lovely in his view; your acts of fidelity in the transactions of business and in the relations of life, as the expression of love to him, would be pleasing in his sight; your money, offered in charity to the cause of humanity, would be received as a grateful tribute at your hands. But suppose you
go and offer these things without a renovated heart—without love to him—without having obeyed his first commandment, can they be a substitute for such a renovated heart ? Can a moral life, and faithfulness in your dealings with mankind, answer the same purpose as the love which he requires you to render to himself? Can the homage of the bended knee, and the song of praise on the lips, answer the purpose of the offering of the heart before One who looks through all the chambers of the soul ? Can wealth hoarded and prized, or scattered among the needy; can beauty or accomplishment; can a graceful exterior, a lively wit, a cultivated intellect, and propriety of manners, be of value to him without the heart, or answer the purpose which he contemplates by its change ? Just as much as diamond rings, and strings of pearls, answer the place of fidelity and affection to an outraged and injured wife—and no more. Go and plead your moral character before God, as a reason why you should be saved. What would be its reception ? " All this would be well," might be the response, " but the heart was required; the regenerated affections of the soul were demanded. Where are the affections of that heart ?" Go plead your fidelity to your family; your kindness as a husband, and father, and neighbour; your honesty to men. " All this is well. But where is the heart for mef" the Saviour might reply; " where is the evidence of love to your God?" Go plead accomplishment, wit, learning, talent, beauty:—are these what are required to fit men for heaven ? Are these proposed to be substituted in the place of what is required ? Be not deceived. Nor rank, nor wealth, nor talent, nor learning, nor gracefulness of manners, nor eminence in your profession, nor oratory, nor the crown of victory won on the battle-field, nor any other thing, can be a substitute for the renovated heart. They will not answer the same purpose while men live here; they will not extend their influence to a future world when they die. A splendid steamer leaves the wharf to cross the ocean. Youth, and beauty, and rank, crowd on board; age, and middle age, are there; the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the bond, the free, the peasant, the prince, are there. She moves majestically on. Suddenly she strikes an iceberg, and in a moment goes down. There is a tremendous plunge; a heaving of the waves; a boiling, rolling sea for a few moments where she sank. But it is soon over. The sea is again smooth. The deep, dark, blue ocean rolls on ; and the ruffled deep becomes calm—
"A glorious mirror, where the Almighty's form
But those distinctions of age, and beauty, and rank—where are they ? Have they attended those who sank, as they went up to the bar of God? Vanished—all vanished—before the sea was made calm where they sank; and alike the prince and the peasant, the master and his slave, make their bed amidst the corals of the ocean. There was but one distinction that lived on. If there was piety in one heart and wickedness in another, they lived on. The distinction that survived the catastrophe, and the only one, was that which was made when the penitent heart yielded itself to God, and was born again.
IV. I suggest one other thought, which will require no time to prove or illustrate it: it is, that there will he of necessity no such change in death as to fit the soul for heaven. And if this is so; if man by nature is unfit for heaven; if no change which he ordinarily undergoes fits him for it; if he can substitute nothing in the place of a renovated heart to fit him for heaven ; and if death will make no such change as will adapt him to the employments of the skies,—then it follows that there is a necessity for man to be bom again. And that it is so, assuredly I need not now attempt to prove. What is the change at death ? The rose of health fades from the cheek ; the brow is "chill, and changeless;" the eye is closed, and in that lifeless form there is " a mild angelic air," .
" Before decay's effacing fingers
Have swept the lines where beauty lingers."
But there is no religion in that change. At death, we are borne away indeed from the world where we were tempted ; the objects that with idolatrous affection we loved; the allurements of wicked companionship ; the assembly-room, where, in festive mirth, we forgot God and provoked his wrath;—but there is no religion in that. All that is solemn, tender, affecting on the trying bed may be gone through, and still there be not a particle of religious emotion there. And is there some magic power— some potent charm in the grave—in the long slumberings there —in the solemn stillness—in the withdrawment from scenes of gaiety and temptation—to change the heart, to wean the soul from the world—to prepare even the body there for the resurrection of the just ? Or is there something in the solemn, lonely journey of the departed spirit up to God—some new efficacy of the blood of the atonement to be applied to the soul on its upward way to fit it for the skies ? Surely none of these tilings can be pretended :—and if none of these things are so, then there is a necessity that the sinner should be born again before he dies.
The argument which I proposed to submit to you is now before you. It is not an argument addressed to you as if there were any doubt about the meaning of what the Saviour says in the text, or as if his authority were not a sufficient ground for the truth of a doctrine ; or as if the truth of what he says could be confirmed by any reasonings of mine;—but an argument designed simply to show that what he says commends itself to every man's conscience and sober judgment.
The only thought which I would seek to hold before your minds in the application of this subject is, the indispensable necessity of this change for every one of you if you would be saved. Whether it is to be produced by a Divine or human agency; whether you can effect it yourselves or not; whether you can by your own efforts contribute to it, or whether those efforts would be fruitless, are not points which we shall now discuss; nor is their solution necessary in order that the force of the considerations suggested should be properly felt. The single point which is before us now is, that this change is indispensable if you would enter into heaven. Every one; every son and daughter of Adam; every prince and every peasant; every master and every slave; every profligate and every moral man; every one who outrages all the laws of decency and urbanity, and every one who is the charm and glory of the social circle, must experience this change, or he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. He must experience it, unless the Saviour was wrong in his estimate of the human character, and has uttered what is not based on truth. He must experience it, unless he can show that his heart is such by nature that he is fitted for the enjoyments and employments of heaven; or unless some of the transitions through which he passes in life will answer the purpose; or unless he can substitute something else for it at the bar of God; or unless there will be some mysterious process in the grave, or beyond it, by which the body and the spirit shall be fitted for the skies. The language of the Saviour to all is, " Ye must be born again." Reason gives her sanction to that declaration ; conscience echoes it in your ears; and pious kindred and friends seek to bear it to the heart. Every man feels and knows it to be true, when he will let conscience speak out, when he has any just view of his own heart, or when from a bed of death he looks out on eternity. The solemn declaration of God ouf Saviour on this subject, thus seconded by reason and conscience, is laid across the path of every aged man, of every one in middle life, of every youth, and of every child. Of the crowd that you meet in the thronged pathways of a great city, it is true that no one reaches heaven unless he is horn again ; aud of the solitary stroller in a summer's eve on the verge of a babbling stream, or the lonely traveller on the mighty prairie, it is no less true that unless he be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. It is equally true of each and every one of you that without this change you will never enter heaven. The heart must be changed. The impenitent soul must become contrite ; the proud man must be humbled; the unbelieving must put his trust in the Son of God. And if the course of argument now pursued is sound, the subject is one that demands your immediate attention. Few days remain in which this change can occur, and then all will be fixed for ever. Soon the time will come in which it will be said of each and all, " He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he that is holy, let him be holy still." God grant that before that time—not far distant— shall have arrived, each heart may be so changed that it may convey gladness to the bosom to hear it said that all hereafter is to be fixed and unchanging. The line once crossed, which divides time from eternity, all is over for ever; for in the world of despair no one is ever born again.