Chapter 5 - New Birth - What Is It?


There has doubtless been so much said of late with regard to new birth and eternal life that many will wish that controversy as to these could stop; and many will think that all has been said that can be said about them. One can surely sympathise with those who think so, and what is said may be the briefer on that account: still these subjects are so central in their importance in relation to Christian truth, and the novel doctrines concerning them have so central a place also in connection with the system which we are reviewing, that it would be impossible to treat this in any satisfactory way without looking at what is in question here. So far also as we are individually concerned, whatever might be the purpose of God with regard to us, and whatever the blessed work upon the basis of which that purpose can alone be justified and take effect, yet where it begins to take effect is in new birth. Thus our review may well begin here, although as to the system before us it is rather in this case a blank than a doctrine - a denial than an affirmation. Yet a denial may have all the importance of an affirmation, and the meeting it be absolutely necessary in order to laying securely the foundations of truth. If we do not know what new birth is, we cannot rightly know what eternal life is either, and much else will become uncertain as the result of this. Amid this uncertainty many suppositions may assume the character of truth and be accepted for it which will for ever prevent the truth being received. If Scripture can clear up this cloud-land for us, it will not only be in itself a gain, but it may prove a way made clear to further progress. Let us inquire at least.

Not merely has the confession been made, "I cannot tell you what new birth is, but it has been openly challenged that no one has any better ability. This is the ignorance of the agnostic, which requires more knowledge than anything that knowledge would pretend to. For in this case one has to be sure that the level of one's own capacity is at least as high as any other whatever can possibly be; and with such knowledge as this, every humble mind would readily concede the palm of superiority to its happy possessor.

Such an one will naturally teach, or at least tell his thoughts; and safely, where no one has better knowledge. Thus it is not thought that there is in new birth a communication of anything, but simply an effect produced. It is the man that is born again: whatever may be the extent of it; it is I myself, the individuality. That is how Scripture speaks of new birth. It is a human idea that something is imparted, but Scripture says, I am born again. Then the Lord puts it more abstractly -"That which is born of the flesh is flesh," for it would go too far to say, "he who is born of the Spirit is spirit": it would make me spirit and nothing else. Yet if the wick of a lamp may represent the individual, it is as though a thread of another description were introduced into the texture of the wick! The result is a collapse of the man,- of all that makes him a man of the world, of all his self-importance. Then there is a cry, a very feeble cry! the first sign of life in a babe is a cry of want or pain; yet Scripture does not apply the term "life" to such a state!

One feels so often as if one needed to make apology for such statements, and as if it must certainly be thought that there is some misrepresentation here; but while the putting together is indeed my own, every statement made is an actual quotation. New birth makes a man appear alive, but he is not alive. In it there is no communication of anything at all, but only an introduction of something; with very important consequences, no doubt; but still there is as yet no link in the soul with God.

I am not responsible for the contradiction that appears in these things, either among themselves or with scripture. Scripture says,- yea, the Lord Jesus Himself,- that that which is born of the Spirit is spirit; and to say that here nevertheless there is no link with God, seems as near a direct denial of the divine word as could be uttered, if we are not to assert that it is that. And again there is a similar thing when the Lord speaks of the man as being born again, and we are assured notwithstanding that he is not alive! What kind of birth are we to call it, when although the "renewing of the mind is the outcome" of it, yet there is no life! one is born of God and yet not His; yea, has no link with Him as yet at all!

Is it necessary to go further in the examination of these statements! There should be no need. But let us look at the Lord's words themselves, and see if they leave us so much in the dark as is supposed, as to what new birth is. There is nothing imparted, says this teaching; because it is I who am born again. Scripture says, we are born again, not of "corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God which liveth and abideth" (i Pet. i. 23); and it adds, "and this is the word which in the gospel is preached unto you." The word of the gospel then, brought home by the power of the Spirit of God, is that by which the man is born again.

But here again the truth as Scripture gives it to us comes right up against the theories; which as usual also clash with each other. For we have already seen that it is denied the Scripture is of any use to souls away from God, without the voice of the living preacher. It is conceded indeed that God is sovereign, and may be pleased to use it, in the same way that He could by an exceptional miracle make use of the speech of Balaam's ass. It is useless to send Bibles to the heathen, because this is so very exceptional. God's way is undoubtedly by preaching! And yet, strangely enough (if anything is strange here) in connection with this theme of new birth we are informed that the work of the evangelist is to enlighten the new born soul. When by the power of God's Spirit a man has been born again, the next thing is that the soul has to be enlightened.

Thus here again we seem to be in a dilemma. It is of no use to send Bibles to the heathen: God's way is undoubtedly by preaching. And yet the preachers' work is only to enlighten those already new born! Scripture however declares that men are born again by the incorruptible seed of the word of God in the gospel, and that the Scriptures are able to make one wise unto salvation; while the preacher is God's great instrumentality for getting the saving truth before unwilling men. There is here no semblance of contradiction, the word of God being in all cases that by which new birth is effected in the soul,- whether it be in the page of the inspired Word or by the mouth of the evangelist. In either case the Spirit of God must act: as the Lord puts it in His pregnant figure, "water" and "Spirit" must go together.

The incorruptible seed is thus imparted. The seed is not the mere word, but as nature itself teaches, the word with the life in it. Every fruitful seed carries in it that mystery of life, which we may be little able to analyse, but which we cannot reason away: it is there, reason as we will; and without it there would be no growth or good whatever. Thus there is that which is born of the Spirit, and what is born is "spirit." Will any one say that that does not convey the thought of a new nature, akin to that from which it has originated? And "the Spirit is life" (Rom. viii. ro); everything here speaks of the communication of life; look through Scripture as you will, there is no dead spirit anywhere. "The Spirit quickeneth" (2 Cor. iii. 6): "the spirit is life;" dead spirit, dead spiritual birth, dead child of God, or new born child with yet no link with Him,- these are all thoughts so foreign to Scripture, so contrary to it, that nothing but the exigency of an untenable theory could ever suggest them to one even tolerably acquainted with it. As for the argument that the man being born again is in contradiction to the idea of something being imparted in this, the answer has been given by the one who uses it. "The Scripture teaches that I am born again, whatever may be the extent of it." There is the whole difficulty, such as it is; and it is no very great one. The man is born again, and yet he is not new in all that he is. His body does not partake in this transformation; and he has yet the old nature - the flesh in that sense. The moment you say, The man is born again, whatever may be the extent of it, you state the difficulty, and admit it to be one that you must recognize, as well as the person you are arguing with. But it is no more a difficulty than abundance of fully admitted things. The man is born again; and yet, when you come to define more closely, you speak of "that which is born again," and could not say of the man what you say of this. You can say, "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit," while you cannot say, "The man who is born of the Spirit is spirit." It argues nothing whatever in the way desired. Let us only change the figure, as Scripture itself enables us, so as now to take into consideration what was before omitted, that this is a yet incomplete change in a moral being, the figure of grafting furnishes you with the needed means of tracing in, as before you could not, all the facts. The tree which is grafted yet retains enough of its old nature to need care lest, by allowing shoots from below the graft, it should become practically wild again. Yet we speak of it rightly enough as a grafted tree. In a figure taken from the human sphere, which alone fits with the Lord's application for Nicodemus, one cannot find what will fit all round; no unusual thing in figures constantly made use of. The Lord's purpose does not contemplate the old nature,- that is all; and therefore the figure of birth, in other respects so perfect, is thoroughly suited.

But the man is born again; and the thought of a new life imparted is inherent in this. This life, moreover, is all that counts for life before God. The man was dead previously; now he lives; there is but one death in this sense, and but one coming to life; and if a man is no longer dead, lie is alive: there is no intermediate state between the two, and therefore no interval. The one born of God is a child of God, and He has no dead children. Spirit from the Spirit is the nature of that which is born; the child partakes of the father's nature. If life is communicated, as despite all protests it most surely is, then the life so derived is necessarily eternal life. Whether or not you allow that it is what Scripture designates under that term, (and as to this we shall have to inquire directly,) yet it is impossible to deny that life attaching to a spiritual nature originating in a new birth of the Spirit must be in the fullest sense eternal life.

How important then, in connection with questions that lie before us, is this doctrine of new birth! and how significant that the system which is sought to be imposed upon us as the truth of God has to begin with a confession of blank ignorance, which is really a denial of Scripture testimony upon so important a matter! According to the system, to be born of God is somewhat that involves neither life, nature, nor relationship,- no link in the soul with God at all! It is no wonder, but a necessity of this, that those born of Him should be denied to be His children. Thus it is asked, "Is it so that 'children 'speaks of descent" And the answer is,-"I do not think that is quite just. It is not the scriptural thought of children. The Spirit bears witness with our spirit: it is by the Spirit we understand that we are children. . . . You ought not to take that place, except as born of God; but the place is given you of the Father "!-an argument quite as inconsequent as anything we have listened to on the same side. Naturally, eternal life is something far beyond, and although you are born of God, if that is all, you have yet to pass from death unto life!

Thus I repeat it, the doctrine is that one that is simply born of God is not a child of God, has not life, nature, nor relationship. To put it in the dreariest form of the negation made, he has no link in his soul with God at all!

In considering the subject which is now before us, there are two questions which lie at the foundation: first, is there any spiritual life which is not eternal life? And then what is eternal life? I shall as usual state the view from which I dissent, and then give as clearly as possible the reason for my dissent.

1. Is there any life for the Christian which is not eternal life?
As to this we are told: In Romans you see life, but not eternal life. The two and a half tribes typically had life; they stopped this side of Jordan, but they had life. Everybody who has the Spirit has life, because the Spirit is life. In Rom. viii. life is the consequence of the presence of the Spirit in a believer; that is, "The body is dead on account of sin, but the Spirit is life on account of righteousness." But that is connected with the wilderness and practice, and is connected with your pathway, which will come to an end. You can very well understand that the experience of Romans viii. comes to an end. It is not eternal life, and yet life is there; life comes out morally, in view of righteousness; the evidence of life in the Christian is that he does righteousness; he proves that he is born of God. The Spirit takes that place in the Christian till he is quickened. You are not said to be quickened in Romans; but in our state down here the Spirit displaces the flesh, and takes the place of life in the Christian, in order that practical righteousness should be accomplished. In Colossians and Ephesians we get a step further, and that is, "you hath He quickened," but you must understand that in a limited, not in an absolute way. It is at the coming of Christ we are quickened; only it is anticipated in Colossians and Ephesians in a limited way as the work of God fitting us for the assembly. At the coming of the Lord we shall be quickened and raised up together, and made to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (?) In that chapter it is viewed as anticipated.

2. What then is eternal life?
The answer given is: It involves a state of blessing consequent on the setting aside of death. "Life for evermore" (Ps. cxxxiii.), in regard to Israel is in the public setting aside of death. We come to that on resurrection ground, that makes the difference between us and Israel: they don't come into resurrection, we do. A person cannot say that he has actually eternal life, unless lie is clear of death. If he is going to die, how can he say he has actually got eternal life? For us, eternal life is the heavenly condition and blessedness in which in the Son man is now placed, and lives before the Father. It is a sphere and order of blessing. It is to live in the blessed consciousness of the love of God, in the out-of-the-world, heavenly condition in which Christ lives.

I believe persons have made great mistakes with regard to eternal life in viewing it as a something substantive which is communicated to us. I can understand life in God, because God is eternal; He lives, He is. But I live, and so does every saint, simply by the quickening power of God. I am made alive now in my soul together with Christ, after His order, and eventually I shall be made alive in body after His order. People have looked at it as if it were a kind of material thing given to a person. People think they have life in themselves instead of in Christ. It is life in Christ Jesus, yet the Spirit being in me, it is practically my life.

It used to be commonly said, I know that I have got eternal life. Why? Because the scripture says, "he that believeth hath everlasting life." I say that you have thus the faith of eternal life, but that does not prove that you have the thing itself. Many a person has had a promise, but not the thing promised; that was the case largely with the Old Testament saints. It is the mind of God for every Christian, and God has put it there in His Son, and the whole question is as to reaching the Son. In the last chap-ter of John's epistle it says, "that ye may know that ye have eternal life"; because you are come to it; you are conscious of it, but not as a possession. If I talk about having the Son, the Son is not a possession, and yet I am said to have the Son, I have appropriated Him; affection has really reached Him: you cannot make the word "have" always mean possession. In scripture eternal life is not a subjective thought as a possession, but it is placed in the Son, and the whole point is reaching the Son.

This will probably be sufficient for quotation, at least for the present; we can see that there is an ap-parently careful grading and measurement of the spiritual life, supported by a few texts which, if we can overlook others, and accept the positiveness of an assertion as proof of its reliability, may be held for a success. Let us examine it, however, and see what may be the effect of introducing some omitted texts.

Is there a spiritual life which is not eternal life? Scripture emphatically denies this. The passages have been so often quoted, that one may fairly ask why they are not considered; especially as they used to be quite familiar texts, and face us in very familiar parts of Scripture. Here is one that will bear every effort that can be made to induce it to speak the doctrine that is being commended to us as truth, and will not do it,- one that is sufficient in itself to destroy the whole system down to the roots :-" Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you; whoso eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood hath eternal life" (Jno. V~. 53, 54).

Notice how many things fundamental to the views we have been listening to are swept away for ever by words so plain as these. First, we have either no life or eternal life; if you eat not you have no life; if you eat, you have eternal life. Is there any possible middle ground between these alternatives? If there be, why not let us know it; if there be not, why not be candid enough to own that there is not.

But again, look at the alternatives: "ye have no life in you "; ''hath eternal life." If eternal life is not really in you, then you may eat His flesh and drink His blood, and have no life in you still! Otherwise there is no antithesis, as is most plainly in-tended: whether you eat or do not eat, it is one and the same thing! Who can accredit the words with such absolute want of meaning?

Still again, it is the flesh and blood of the Son of man, of which the Lord speaks: if you eat the flesh of the Son of man, you have eternal life; but in what we have been looking at a distinction is made between apprehension of the Son of man, and reaching the Son (of God); and it is only this last that gives eternal life. The Lord speaks quite differently here. What remains of these subtle theories, if the words of the Lord are allowed any real force? John supplements them with the remark, simple as it is, that "ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him" (m John iii. is); a strange sentence, acccording to this system, with all its self-evidence! For why speak of eternal life in this connection, when "many a good Christian" even has not eternal life? Would you not expect the apostle rather to say simply that he has not life? or, still better, that he is not born again? How strange a thing to associate a murderer, even by a negative, with the thought of eternal life, if this be an advanced condition, even for a Christian! What would you think if I asserted of a murderer, that he was not completely sanctified? But again, he "hath not eternal life abiding in him !" Did not John know that there is not so much as a single Christian who has eternal life abiding in him? Did he not knowthat eternal life is a "sphere," of which you could not speak in such a way? If he did, how could he pen such an unmeaning sentence?

Once more :- it is the Lord who says, and in His strongest style of affirmation, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that heareth My words, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but is passed from death unto life" (John v. 24). These words are actually used in the interests of the system we are reviewing, to show that it is the Christian that has to pass from death unto life, which here as elsewhere is not distinguished from eternal life! The Lord, we are told, is here speaking as the Son of God, and it is an advanced attainment to hear the words of the Son of God, and to believe on the Father as having sent His Son! Consequently a large number of Christians are dead and not alive. They may be born again, have the Spirit, have learned deliverance, and yet not have passed from death unto life. And this too although in having the Spirit, you have life "practically," because the Spirit is life! Yet this life is in Christ, and not in you, things which even seem to be considered in opposition to one another. But this we must look at elsewhere.

Now Scripture does indeed say that, "if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin ;" and it never speaks of the body being quickened before the Lord comes. It speaks also of the believer being dead with Christ to sin: a very different thing, of course, from that of which we are now speaking; but I am not aware that it ever speaks of the Christian being "dead" in any other sense. Most certainly, it never puts forward such a contradiction as that a man can be "practically" alive without being really so, nor makes in this way the blessed influence of the Spirit of God in such to be an effect produced upon a dead man - a life which does not make alive! Here it is no wonder if the things said should be in apparent conflict with one another, when practical life is yet taught not to be life, and he who is working righteousness in the power of the Spirit of God may yet, as we are assured, be waiting to be quickened!

Here is an argument we must not pass over: "It used to be commonly said, I know that I have got eternal life. Why? Because the scripture says, He that believeth hath everlasting life." Well; is not that a straightforward conclusion, for one who knows himself to be a true believer? It seems not: we are to be taught a new logic, as all else. "I say that you have thus the faith of eternal life; but that does not prove that you have the thing itself. Many a person has had a promise, but not the thing promised." Truly! I suppose we shall all at once acquiesce in that; the misfortune is that it does not apply. The Lord's statement here is not a promise, but a direct assurance of the simplest kind. The believer has eternal life; I am a believer; I therefore have eternal life. If the premises are sure, how can the conclusion fail? If that may be doubted, how can any assurance be given, which cannot?

The argument fails so badly, that it is no wonder if another has to reinforce it. So we are told "have" does not always mean possession; "if I talk about having the Son, the Son is not a possession"(!) That is not argued, it is supposed not to need it; but is it the truth? Is not the Son ours in any sense now? Who will say so? Is having the Son a promise that we shall have Him? Clearly not. But it says, "He that hath the Son hath life;" does that mean, "He that bath the Son is going to have life ?" True, the Son is not ours now in all the fulness of what eternity will give to this; and life too is not ours in such fulness either; for the body is still a mortal body, and will be quickened then. But there is a present "having" in both cases.

A false definition of eternal life is at the bottom of much of the confusion. Rightly enough connected with the Old Testament "life for evermore," it is forgotten that life and incorruption are brought to light through the gospel (2 Tim. i. io), and that therefore we must not expect their definition to be gained from the Old Testament scriptures. New birth is not found in doctrinal statement in the Old Testament; and it is in new birth that we shall find what underlies the New Testament doctrine. One born of God is a child of God; the child derives its life from its father, and partakes of its father's nature. "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit;" and the life given is eternal life. Here is the fulness found of this expression: it is a life which not only has no end, but had no beginning either, being divine life. It is eternal in the full meaning of eternal, though in us, of course, beginning. This has been dismissed with the strange, curt remark, that "the life of divine Persons is themselves;" they cannot, therefore, it is meant, communicate themselves! But the statement and the reasoning are as crude as elsewhere, and are confuted at once by those facts of nature which God has given us as parables of spiritual things. The parents' life and nature in the child are not the parents; they have a power of communicating life which, mystery as it is, is undeniable; and God has adopted our human language, based upon the facts of creation which He Himself has created, to give us at least such thoughts as we are capable of in regard to all these things, which the strange sys-tem before us rudely cuts across. It gives us birth without life, children who are not such by descent, a practical life in those that are still dead, and similar absurdities, against which nature protests absolutely, and Scripture no less.

In life, we are assured, nothing substantive is communicated; that there is nothing material, will not be disputed; nor that when we speak of life, we may be unable to define it. Infidel scientists have mocked at a vital principle on this account, and told us that we might as well talk of "aquosity" as the principle of water. Yet we believe in a vital force, as well as in vital phenomena. Spiritual life will be naturally still more difficult to define, but that is no reason for denying it to be more than phenomenal, and certainly not for defining it as a sphere, etc. Personality it is not; it is not a ''self"; yet there is that which is born of the Spirit, which is spirit, and which gives character to the new-born soul. There is that which is communicated to us, and abides in us, an incorruptible seed that abides in us, and be-cause of this, "whosoever is born of God doth not commit," or better, ''practise," ''sin" (i Jno. iii. 9). The phenomenal life is just the display of this in its activities; in other words, there is a life by which we live, as well as a life we live: without the former there cannot be the latter. So Scripture, in harmony with nature, speaks; and in both ways of eternal life. That in eternal life,.according to its very nature, there is the setting aside of death, is too plain to be denied: yet here also, strange mistakes are possible; though to any one who has grasp of the doctrine they should not be possible. First, we are told, and rightly,-" I am made alive now in my soul together with Christ, after His order, and eventually I shall be made alive in body after His order." And yet with the most entire forgetfulness of this limitation, we are told elsewhere: "A person cannot say that he has actually eternal life, unless he is clear of death. If he is going to die, how can he say that he has actually got eternal life?" And this is made the ground for saying that while in Rom. viii. life is the consequence of the Spirit in the believer, yet the experience of Rom. viii. comes to an did. "It is not eternal life, and yet life is there!" and much doctrine is built upon this ;-a mere and extraordinary piece of forgetfulness: for the experience is not the life, but the result of the life in the present circumstances. The death of the body brings this to an end, and the life is transferred to another sphere; but how does this prove that the life so transferred is not eternal life? Yet he must not say, it seems, that he has actually got eternal life (in his soul), because he has not yet got it in his body! A pebble indeed, to turn one from the path of truth!

Let us remember the words of Him who said, in the consciousness of what He is for men as the Resurrection and the Life, "He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and he that liveth and believeth in Me, shall never die" (Jno. Xi. 25, 26). Against the life, then, that He gives, which is eternal life, death has no claim,- over it no sovereignty. The body still awaits its change and its redemption; none the less is it true for the present partaker of His resurrection life, that death is behind, and not before him. For him, Christ has abolished death, and brought life and incorruption to light through the gospel.