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Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.-JOHN iii. 3.*
THE corruption that has overspread the Christian world as a flood, and the lukewarmness of those who distinguish themselves by some degree of seriousness, make it next to impossible to preach many of the most important doctrines of Christianity, without giving offence to some. We love to lie down as if our spiritual race was run, even before we set out in earnest. And if any one attempts to shew us plainly our danger in so doing, we look upon him in general as a troublesome person, who endeavours to make us uneasy without necessity. This is one of the reasons why those who are appointed to shew unto others the way of salvation, dare hardly mention what Christ said of the narrowness of the way that leads to life, and the few that walk therein.
We fear to be thought uncharitable, or suspected of preaching new doctrines: And this fear makes us soften, if not conceal, those parts of the gospel which Christ and his apostles insisted upon in the plainest manner.
Nevertheless, as we are commanded to declare the whole counsel of God, without respect of persons, or fear of men, I shall now discourse on one of those points of doctrine which worldly Christians seldom make the subject of their meditations: I mean, the doctrine of our regeneration, or new birth in Christ Jesus. And to do it in order, I shall consider,
First, On what occasion, and to whom our blessed Lord spoke the words of the text, 'Except a man be born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.' In the
* Although the subject of this Discourse is nearly the same with that of the preceding Sermon, the reader will perceive they are two entirely different Sermons. The latter is supposed to have been preached soon after Mr. Fletcher's entrance into the ministry.
Second place, I shall shew the absolute necessity of a new birth to enter into life eternal. And,
Thirdly, I shall conclude by pointing out the way to that regeneration, without which no man can see the kingdom of heaven.—And may the Lord, who has promised to be with his servants to the end of the world, manifest his presence among us, and apply by his Spirit to all our hearts the important doctrine of the text which he taught himself in the days of his flesh.
And First, I am to consider on what occasion, and to whom our blessed Lord spoke of regeneration.
1. Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, and no doubt one of the best of them, having heard of the miracles of Jesus, concluded that he was no mere man, but a teacher sent from God: Therefore he came by night to ask him some questions concerning the kingdom of God, which every sincere Jew expected at that time. Our Lord, knowing that he (as well as the rest of the nation) entertained wrong notions of his kingdom, which is wholly spiritual, began by assuring him that no one unconverted could see that kingdom: Much less enter into it-Verily, verily I say unto thee, that except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'
2. As if he had said, "Be not mistaken, Nicodemus, my kingdom is not such as thou thinkest, nor can all men enter therein, since thou art yet unprepared for it thyself. Neither thy honesty, nor sobriety, nor all thy zeal for the religion of thy fathers, with thy great profession of all the external duties of it, can fit thee for the presence of God. If thou restest there, know that thy soul will remain in as thick darkness as that which surrounds a child yet unborn. For though thou enjoyest an animal life, as other creatures on earth, yet hast thou lost in Adam a spiritual life; the life of angels in thy soul; and thou must receive it again by a new and spiritual birth; or else thou shalt be as little capable of seeing and enjoying God as a child unborn is to see and enjoy the light of the sun."
3. Though this doctrine of the new birth surprises every natural man, and seems foolishness to him, our
blessed Lord did not first deliver it: Moses had said two thousand years before him, The Lord your God shall circumcise,' or so change your heart, that you shall be enabled to love him with all your soul. The Lord will take away your heart of stone, and give you an heart of flesh.' David had prayed, Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.' Ezekiel had cried aloud to all the people of God, Cast sway from you all your transgressions, and make yourselves new hearts and new spirits, for why will ye die, O house of Israel?' As if he had said, "In vain do you boast of being the house of Israel, and God's chosen people; unless you get new hearts and new spirits, you shall surely die."
4. These, and many more passages of the Old Testament, should make us think that no sincere Jew could be a stranger to the doctrine of the new birth. But as there are now many serious people who have a great form of religion, and notwithstanding know nothing of regeneration experimentally, supposing themselves to be of those just men who need no repentance, and consequently no spiritual change; so it was in the days of our Lord; and Nicodemus, with all his profession of religion, zeal, morality, and desire of being instructed, was one of the number.
5. Accordingly, struck with amazement at the saying of our Lord, and mistaking quite the meaning of his words, How can a man be born (cried he) when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?' Our Lord told him, if a man could enter into his mother's womb and be born again, that would not help him, for he would still be sinful flesh, and of the same corrupted nature as that from which he was born. But to enter into his kingdom, which is spiritual, he must be born of water and of the Holy Ghost, he must have a spiritual birth, be begotten of incorruptible seed, and become an adopted son of God.
6. Then, to prevent all doubts of the absolute necessity of submitting to this doctrine, as if it were not enough to have affirmed it necessary twice, and to have enforced it by the solemn word 'indeed, indeed ;' lest any
one, like Nicodemus, should question the truth of it, because he never experienced it, our Saviour added for the third time, (turning himself, no doubt, to all that were present,) Ye must be born again.' As if he had said, "What I say to Nicodemus, I say unto all, Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.""
7. Here the Jewish ruler, not daring to object any more to the truth of our Lord's doctrine, only expressed his wonder at hearing it. Our Lord, who (if we are sincere before him) always removes rather than punishes our stupidity in the things of.God, would not discourage him; but with an admirable patience endeavoured to make him understand the impossibility of explaining by what operation of God's grace a man is born again.
8. How short, and yet how powerful was his argument!- When, the wind bloweth,' saith he, thou canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth. So is every one that is born of the Spirit.' As if he had said, "How can one describe the wind to him who has not felt or heard it? Or how account whence it cometh ? Yet we know and feel there is such a thing as wind. So one that is born again, into whose soul the Lord has breathed the breath of spiritual life, knows that the Holy Ghost has dispelled the darkness of his soul, and made him pass from death unto life: He feels in his heart the happy change; he experiences that he is a child of God, because God has given him of his Spirit, and refreshes him with the spiritual breezes of his consolation. Though he is conscious of all this, yet he cannot reveal or describe it to another; nor can he make one whose eyes the Lord has not yet opened, see the kingdom and taste the happiness to which he is restored, because it is what no man knows but he that receiveth it: Here every one must experience for himself."
9. This plain answer should have satisfied Nicodemus, but unbelief made him cry out again, How can these things be?' Then did our Lord silence him. • What, (said he) art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things? If I have told you of earthly things,' of
the wind which is earthly, and you are not able to comprehend or account for its blowing, how can you pretend to understand spiritual and heavenly things, which are past finding out? Thus did our Lord reprove the ignorance and incredulity of that master in Israel, who had not learned himself what he should have taught others long before: And at the same time gave him and us to understand, that this mystery of the new birth is not to be defined or described, but felt, experienced, and enjoyed in the heart; and that every one who believes the word of God to be true, instead of inquiring, 'How can this be?' must immediately beg of God to make him feel in his heart the want of a new birth; and then he will receive power to seek it with tears, prayer, and repentance, till he find it for himself. This was the case of Nicodemus: For notwithstanding the unwillingness he shewed at first to believe the doctrine of regeneration true, he was convinced by the words of our Lord: And we hear that he proved at last a bold confessor of Christ and his doctrine. Would to God we were as ready to imitate him in his faith, as worldly Christians are ready to imitate his crying out, "How can it be?"
10. Having thus explained how and to whom our Saviour preached regeneration, I proceed now to shew the absolute necessity of a new birth.. And in order to this, it seems that, in addressing Christians, it should be sufficient to say, that Christ has solemnly declared it necessary; for besides what he said to Nicodemus, he told his disciples that unless they were converted, and became as little children, they could not enter into the kingdom of heaven,'-which was enforced after his death by the apostles, when they said, Put on the new man, which, after God, is created in righteousness and true holiness-and be ye renewed in the spirit of your minds; for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.' And to add the last degree of evidence to these Scripture proofs, I could bring in the testimony of our Church, which declares in her Catechism," A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness necessary to salvation," and