By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached June 6, 1852
"Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again."-John iii. 5-7.
The Church of England has apparently selected this passage for the Gospel of Trinity Sunday, because the influences of the entire Godhead are named in different verses-the regenerating influence of the Spirit, the limitations of the Son of Man, and the illimitable nature of the Father.
It is a threefold way in which God has revealed Himself to man-as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. First, as a Father in opposition to that doctrine which taught that the whole universe is God, and every part of the universe is a portion of God. He is the Father who hath made this universe-God distinct from us: outside of us: the Creator distinguished from the creation.
Secondly, God has revealed Himself as a Son, as manifested in humanity, chiefly in Christ. Throughout the ages past there has been a mediatorial humanity. Man is in a way the reflection of God's nature-the father to the child. The prophets, the lawgivers, and especially Moses, are called mediators, through whom God's name was known. The mediatorial system culminated in Christ, attained the acme of perfection in One-the man Christ Jesus-the express image of His Father. The Son is the human side of the mind of God.
Thirdly, God has revealed himself as the Holy Spirit: not as a Father external to us, nor as reflected in humanity still outside us, but as God within us mingling with our being. The body of man is His temple. "In Him we live and move, and have our being." This is the dispensation of the Spirit: He has told us that every holy aspiration, every thought and act, that has been on the side of right against wrong, is a part of His holy essence, of His Spirit in us.
This is the threefold manifestation made of Himself to us by God. But this is not all, for this alone would not be the doctrine of the Trinity. It is quite conceivable that there might be one living force manifested in three different ways, without its being a trinity. Let us try and understand this by an illustration.
Conceive a circular thin plate of metal: above it you would see it such; at some yards' distance, as an oval, sideways, edgeways, a line. This might be the account of God's different aspects: in one relationship to us seen as the Father, in another as the Son, in another as the Spirit; but this is not the doctrine of the Trinity, it is a heresy, known in old times by the name of Sabellianism or modal Trinity, depending on our position in reference to Him.
Further. This is not merely the same part of His nature, seen in different aspects, but diverse parts of His complex being-persons: three causes of this manifestation. Just as our reason, our memory, our imagination, are not the same, but really ourselves.
Let us take another illustration. A single white ray of light, falling on a certain object, appears red; on another, blue; on another, yellow. That is, the red alone in one case is thrown out, the blue or yellow in another. So the different parts of the one ray by turns become visible; each is a complete ray, yet the original white ray is but one.
So we believe that in that Unity of Essence there are three living Powers which we call Persons, distinct from each other, It is in virtue of His own incommunicable Essence that God is the Father. It is the human side of His nature by which He is revealed as the Son, so that it was not, so to speak, a matter of choice whether the Son or the Father should redeem the world. We believe that from all eternity there was that in the mind of God which I have called its human side, which made it possible for Him to be imaged in humanity; and that again named the Spirit, by which He could mix and mingle Himself with us.
This is the doctrine of the Trinity, explained now, not to point the damnatory clause of the Athanasian creed, but only in order to seize joyfully the annual opportunity of professing a firm belief in the dogmatic truth of the Trinity.
We now pass on to notice more particularly the revelation to us of one mode in which that blessed Trinity works. This will divide itself into two subjects. First, we shall endeavor to understand what is meant by the kingdom of God; and secondly, we shall consider the entrance into that kingdom by regeneration.
Our blessed Lord says, "Except a man be born again, he can not enter into the kingdom of God." Now that expression-the kingdom of God-is a Jewish one. Nicodemus was a Jew; and we must therefore endeavor to comprehend how he would understand it.
By the kingdom of God, a Jew understood human society perfected-that domain on earth where God was visible and God ruled. The whole Jewish dispensation had trained Nicodemus to realize this. The Jewish kingdom was a theocracy, distinguished from an aristocracy and a democracy. There were two main things observable is this. First, it was a kingdom in which God's power was manifestly visible by miracles, marvels, the cloud and fire pillars, and by appearances direct from the King of kings. The second matter of importance in this conception of the Divine kingdom was that it was a society in which a person ruled. God was the ruler of this society; her laws all dated from God's will, and were right because the will of the Ruler was right. "Thus saith the Lord," was the preface to personal messages from their King.
Bear in mind, then, that this was Nicodemus's conception of the kingdom, and we shall understand the conversation. He had seen in the works of Christ the assertion of a living Will ruling over the laws of nature. He had seen wonders and signs. Therefore he said, "We know that Thou art a teacher come from God:" he saw that Christ in these two senses fulfilled the two requisites of a Divine mission. He had seen a society growing up in acknowledgment of the rule of a person: but Christ told him that something more was needful than this: it was necessary that the subject should be prepared for the kingdom. It was not enough that God should draw nigh to man; but that man must draw near to God. There must be an alteration in the man. "Except a man be born again he can not enter the kingdom of God."
In other words, he distinguished between a kingdom that is visible and a kingdom that is invisible. He distinguished between that presence of God which man can see, and that which man can only feel. This will explain apparent contradictions in Christ's language.
To the Pharisee, on one occasion, He said, "If I by the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come unto you." But again He said, "It is not lo here, nor lo there. For the kingdom of God is within you." There is a kingdom, therefore, in which the Eternal spirit moves, whereof the senses take cognizance. Nicodemus saw that kingdom when he gazed on the miracles and outward signs, and felt that they were evidences, and from these and from the gathering society around the Lord, drew the conclusion that no man could do these things except God were with him.
There was the outward manifestation. But there is another kingdom which is the peculiar domain of the Spirit, which "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive," into which flesh and blood can not enter. Of this kingdom Jesus said to Peter, "Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it." And of this St. Paul said, "Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood can not inherit the kingdom of God."
Unless an inward change takes place, though surrounded by God's kingdom, we can not enter into it. The eye, the ear, can take no cognizance of this; it must be revealed by the Spirit to the spirit.
Pass we on, secondly, to consider the entrance into this kingdom by regeneration. As there is a twofold kingdom, so is there a twofold entrance.
1. By the baptism of water. 2. By the baptism of the Spirit. Now, respecting the first of these, commentators have been greatly at variance. A large number of Protestant commentators have endeavored to explain this passage away, as if it did not apply to baptism at all. But by all the laws of correct interpretation, we are compelled to admit that "born of water" has here a reference to baptism.
Into God's universe or kingdom we penetrate by a double nature-by our senses and by our spirit. To this double nature God has made a twofold revelation. God's witness to our senses is baptism; God's witness to our spirit is His Spirit. "He that believeth hath the witness in himself." Now let us observe the strength of that expression of Christ, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he can not enter into the kingdom of God." A very strong expression, but not more so than the baptismal service of the Church of England. "Born of water" is equivalent to regeneration by baptism.
There are those who object to this formulary of our Church, because it seems to them to tell of a magical or miraculous power in the hands of the priest. In answer to them, we point to this passage of the inspired Word of God: let us try and understand in what sense it is true that a man is born of water. Now we hold baptism to be the sign, or proof, or evidence, of a spiritual fact. It is not the fact, but it substantiates the fact.
The spiritual fact is God's covenant. Let us take an illustration. The right of a man to his property is in right of his ancestor's will; it is in virtue of that or intention that the man inherits that property. But because that will is invisible, it is necessary that it should be made manifest in visible symbols; and therefore there is a piece of parchment by which it is made tangible, and that, though only the manifestation of the will, is called "the will" itself. Nay, so strongly is this word with its associations rooted in our language, that it may never have occurred to us that it is but a figurative expression; and the law might, if it had been so chosen, have demanded another expression of the will.
There have been cases in which a high-minded heir-at-law has accepted the verbal testimony of another to the intentions of his ancestor, where there has been no outward manifestation whatever, and so has given away the property because the inward will of his ancestor was to him all in all.
Similarly, baptism is the revealed will of God: that is, it is the instrument that declares God's will. God's will is a thing invisible; verbally, the will runs thus-"Fear not, little flock, it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
And just as the instrument which declares a will is called by a figure of speech "the will" itself, although it is but the manifestation of it, so the ecclesiastical instrument which declares regeneration is called regeneration in the Bible and in our Church service. Baptism is "regeneration" as a parchment is a "will;" and, therefore it is that we read in this passage, "Born of water;" and therefore it is that St. Peter says, "Baptism saves us;" and St. Paul says, "Buried with Christ in baptism."
Lastly, we pass on to consider the entrance into this kingdom by a spiritual change.
The ground on which Christ states it is our human nature. We have a twofold nature-the nature of the animal and the nature of God, and in the order of God's providence we begin with the animal. "Howbeit," says St. Paul "that is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural." Now the moment when these natures are exchanged is the moment of spiritual regeneration.
A man is to be born of water, but far rather of the Spirit. Of this expression there are several interpretations: first, the fanatical one. Men of enthusiastic temperamemts, chiefly men whose lives have been irregular, whose religion has come to them suddenly, interpreting all cases by their own experiences, have said that the exercise of God's Spirit is ever sudden and supernatural, and it has seemed to them that to try and bring up a child for God, in the way of education, is to bid defiance to that Spirit which is like the wind, blowing "where it listeth;" and if a man can not tell the day or hour when he was converted, to those persons he does not seem to be a Christian at all. He may be holy, humble, loving, but unless there is that visible manifestation of how and when he was changed, lie must be still ranked as unregenerate.
Another class of persons, of cold, calm temperament, to whom fanaticism is a crime and enthusiasm a thing to be avoided, are perpetually rationalizing with Scripture, and explaining away in some low and commonplace way the highest manifestation of the Spirit of God. Thus Paley tells us that this passage belongs to the Jews, who had forgotten the Messiah's kingdom; but to speak of a spiritual, reggenerative change as necessary for a man brought up in the Church of England, is to open the door to all fanaticism.
There is a third class, who confound the regeneration of baptism with that of the Spirit, who identify, in point of time, the being born of water and of the Spirit. And it seems to them that regeneration after that is a word without meaning. Of this class there are two divisions: those who hold it openly in the Church of Rome, and those who do not go to the full extent of Romish doctrine on this subject. These will not say that a miracle has taken place, but they say that a seed of grace has thus been planted. Whichever of these views be taken, for all practical purposes the result must be the same. If this inward spiritual change has taken I place at baptism, then to talk of regeneration after that must an impertinence. But, brethren, looking at this passage, we can not be persuaded that it belongs to the Jew alone, nor can we believe that the strength of that expression is mere baptism by water. Here is recorded that which is true not for the Jew or heathen only, but for all the human race, without exception. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he can not enter the kingdom of God."
In our life there is a time in which our spirit has gained the mastery over the flesh; it is not important to know when, but whether it has taken place.
The first years of our existence are simply animal; then the life of a young man is not that of mere instinct, it is a life of passion, with mighty indignations, strong aversions. And then passing on through life we sometimes see a person in whom these things are merged; the instincts are there only for the support of existence; the passions are so ruled that they have become gentleness, and meekness, and love. Between these two extremes there must have been a middle point, when the life of sense, appetite, and passion, which had ruled, ceased to rule, and was ruled over by the life of the spirit: that moment, whether it be long or short, whether it be done suddenly or gradually, whether it come like the rushing mighty wind, or as the slow, gentle zephyr of the spring-whenever that moment was, there was the moment of spiritual regeneration. There are cases in which this never takes place at all; there are grown men and old men merely children still-still having the animal appetites, and living in the base, and conscious, and vicious indulgence of those appetites which in the child were harmless. These are they who have not yet been born again. Born of water they may have been, born of God's eternal Spirit they have not been; before such men can enter into the eternal kingdom of their Father, that word is as true to them as to Nicodemus of old, "Marvel not that I said unto you, Ye must be born again." Oh! it is an awful thing to see a spectacle such as that; an awful thing to see the blossom still upon the tree when the autumn is passed and the winter is at hand. An awful thing to see a man, who ought to be clothed in Christ, still living the life of the flesh and of passion: the summer is past, the harvest is ended, and he is not saved.
Now let us briefly apply what has been said.
1. Do not attempt to date too accurately the transition moment.
2. Understand that the flesh," or natural state, is wrong only when out of place. In its place it is imperfection, not evil. There is no harm in leaves or blossoms in spring-but in autumn! There is no harm in the appetites of childhood, or the passions of youth, but great harm when these are still unsubdued in ace. Observe, therefore, the flesh is not to be exercised, but the spirit strengthened. This I say then, "Walk in the spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh."
3. Do not mistake the figurative for the literal.
Baptism is regeneration figuratively, "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
The things to be anxious about are not baptism, not confirmation; but the spiritual facts for which baptism and confirmation stand.