THE NEW BIRTH

This entry is part of 21 in the series article 27

" Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of 
God." JOHN iii. 3. 

It is impossible, I think, for any one to read or 
hear these words of Jesus Christ without remember- 
ing what solemn words they have been to multitudes 
of our fellow-men. There are hardly any words 
which Christ ever spoke which have more fascinated 
and held the hearts of earnest men. They have 
seemed to describe so truly a great mysterious 
necessity to which the heart itself, conscious of its 
own needs, has given its assent, without half know- 
ing what it was that was required. "Ye must be 
born again." "Yes, I know I must be born again. 
My life must make a fresh start, on a new plan " ; 
the heart, aware how wrong it was, has answered, 
and then sat wondering with itself what the New 
Birth might be. The words have opened a gateway 
of possible escape to many a soul that had seemed 
utterly imprisoned. They have provoked and 
eluded many a self-satisfied and easy heart, and set 
it for the first time to thinking, and wakened its 
deeper consciousness. And to hearts which God 
had led through the richest experiences and fully 
introduced into the new life, these words have come 
as the interpretation of their own wonderful history ; 
and nothing has told their own story to themselves 
so clearly as the words of Jesus when they took 
them up and said, "I have been born again." 

Such sacred associations, such hopes and mem 
ories gather around this verse ; but still its mystery 
distresses us. Still, when we hear it, we find our- 
selves saying with Nicodemus, who heard it first : 
"How can these things be? " Men are tempted by 
the sound of thoroughness and authority and hope- 
fulness in it, but still it is very vague to them. I 
wish that I could make it plainer. I know of course 
that all descriptions of a spiritual experience must 
be vague, except to those who have experienced it. 
No man can intelligibly tell what life is, save to the 
living. But the very fact that Jesus Christ chose 
this common life of ours, with its beginnings and its 
endings, to represent the soul's deeper existence, 
seems to imply that all men who live the physical 
life may, to some extent at least, understand the 
spiritual life. At any rate I want to try to make it 
clearer than it has been to some of us what Jesus 
meant when He said that men must be born again. 

The fundamental difficulty in understanding the 
truth of the new birth and the new life lies in at- 
tempting to grasp it as a whole, and not in its special 
activities. All life grows vague if you try to under- 
stand its central essence. All life is clear, if you 
look at its special exhibitions. Ask me what life is 
in the most commonplace of living men who stands 
before me, and I utterly fail to tell what it is in its 
unfound essence, or where it lurks among the hiding- 
places of the wondrous body ; but when he lifts his 
hand and strikes, when he opens his mouth and 
talks, then in a moment I know unmistakably the 
living man. Now, so it is with the spiritual life. It 
is hard to tell just what the essence of the new 
Christian life is in any man. Theologians may con- 
tend over that, just as the physiologists contend 
over the essence of life in the body; but the new 
functions of the new existence, the way in which 
each separate power works differently, and each 
separate act is done differently, in the Christian's 
experience this is not hard to trace. 

For there are different ways of doing every act, 
and undergoing every experience of life. There is 
the superficial and the profound way of doing and 
being everything. We will start with that. I want 
you to recognize that, for every deed you do and 
for every state in which you live, there are two 
levels ; one on which the deed is done or the state 
is lived in lightly and frivolously ; the other, deeper 
down, in which the same deed is done or the same 
state lived in, only seriously, profoundly, spiritually. 
A very large part of the discipline of life consists of 
crowding men down from the lighter upper level to 
the deeper lower level. As men are thus transferred 
from the shallow to the profound form of an ex- 
perience, it seems at first as if they passed out of 
the experience altogether; but in the end they find 
that they are entering into it more completely. 
There is what we may call a first life and a second 
life of everything. As the soul passes on from the 
first life of anything into the second life of that same 
thing, it seems to lose it, but only to recover it 
again. It is born into a certain life, lives that life 
in its first and shallower form, then dies to it, and 
afterwards is born to it again in its profounder shape. 
The first birth, the death, and then the second birth, 
are everywhere. 

This sounds, I doubt not, unintelligible enough, 
stated thus abstractly ; but I want to point you to a 
series of illustrations and examples of it, which may 
make it clear. Let them not seem too fragmentary 
and scattered. They shall come together as the 
illustrations of one single principle before we close. 

1. First, then, as simplest of all, I take the matter 
of happiness. It is easy to recognize the two levels 
of happiness, and the way in which men pass from 
the upper and lighter into the profounder and more 
serious one. Is this man happy, whom I see in the 
first flush of youth, just feeling his new powers, the 
red blood strong and swift in all his veins, the ex- 
quisite delight of trying his just-discovered faculties 
of taste and thought and skill filling each day with 
interest up to the brim? Is he happy, he with his 
countless friends, his easy home, the tools and toys 
of life both lying ready at his hand? Most certainly 
he is. His days sing as they go, and sparkle with a 
bright delight that makes the generous observer re- 
joice for him, and makes the jealous envy him. 

But then you lose sight of him for a while, and 
years after you come on him again. The man is 
changed. All is so altered ! Everything is sobered. 
Is he happy still? As you look into his face you 
cannot doubt his happiness a moment, but neither 
can you fail to see that this new happiness is some- 
thing very different from that which sparkled there 
before. This is serene and steady, and as you look 
at it you see that its newness lies in this : that it is 
a happiness in principles and character, while the 
other was a happiness in circumstances. The man 
whom you used to know was happy because every- 
thing was right about him, because his self was 
thoroughly indulged, because the sun shone and he 
was strong. The man whom you know now is happy 
because there is goodness in the world, because God 
is governing it, because in his own character the 
discipline of God is going on. The first sort of 
happiness was self-indulgent ; the new sort is built 
on and around self-sacrifice. The man you left was 
"enjoying himself," as we say; the man you find is 
at peace in God. And to reach that peace in God, 
in principles, he must have lost his old self-enjoy 
ment. The loss may have been violent, or it may 
have been easy. He may have been torn and wrung 
away from his selfishness, or the strings that bound 
him to it may have been gently untwisted; but, 
however it has come, he has died to his superficial 
enjoyment of self and entered into a deeper happi- 
ness, which could have come only through that death. 
Can we not see the three levels as they lie under 
one another the surface-life of enjoyment in which 
men are frolicking or basking; the middle-life of dis- 
appointment in which souls are struggling, as they 
let go the old to take the new; and the under-life of 
peace, where men and women are at rest in God? 

When we make ourselves spectators in the world, 
how often as we look at some man whom we know 
we can seem to see him enter the uppermost of these 
layers of life, and then pass down as if a great hand 
pressed him, till he rests in the profoundest ; be- 
ginning with selfish enjoyment, passing thence into 
disappointment, and then into godly peace; born 
into superficial pleasure, dying to that in discontent, 
and born again into profound and peaceful joy. 

2. Or take another point, the point of knowledge. 
There is a shallow and a deep, an upper and a lower 
knowledge. The quick perception that catches the 
mere outside of things, and, recognizing the current 
condition of affairs, is able to throw itself in with 
them and so achieve a certain cheap success ; and 
the calm, philosophic wisdom which looks down to 
the roots of things and sees their causes, and really 
helps to govern them those are the two. Many a 
young man, in politics or in business or in the 
church, starts with the first of these. He knows all 
the outside of things. People's small ways and 
habits, their superficial symptoms, he is familiar 
with them all. He prides himself upon his knowl- 
edge. But what happens, by and by? Something 
occurs that teaches him his ignorance; and then, 
baffled, confused, dismayed, his old knowledge lying 
dead at his feet, he is born again into a profounder 
knowledge of the heart of things, into a wisdom 
which is moral and spiritual as well as intellectual, 
of the heart and conscience as well as of the head. 

Have you never heard a man talking flippantly 
to-day of the world's system, of the government of 
life, of the secrets of existence? and to-morrow 
some blow, some surprise has come right into the 
midst of his knowledge and killed it. Things have 
gone entirely different from what he expected, from 
what he prophesied. He has found how ignorant 
he is, and has been driven to the deeper understand- 
ing of a Will that works under everything, to that 
fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. 
Knowledge, ignorance, wisdom here are the strata 
of life again ; the first birth into one, death through 
the second, and a new birth into the third. 

3. Our doctrine applies perhaps nowhere more 
clearly than in the matter of religious faith. There 
is a first faith and a second faith. The first faith is 
the easy, traditional belief of childhood, taken from 
other people, believed because it belongs to the time 
and land. The second faith is the personal convic- 
tion of the soul. It is the heart knowing, because 
God has spoken to it, the things of God, the after- 
faith that means communion. The first faith has a 
certain regulative force, but it has no real, life-giving 
power in it. The second faith is full of life. It, 
and it alone, is the belief which brings salvation. 
What comes between the two, many of you can tell 
out of your own experience. Between the shallow 
faith and the profound, between the faith of tradi- 
tion and conviction, comes so often doubt. Not 
always. Sometimes the old faith dies into the new 
as gently as the morning opens into noon, or the 
spring spreads its full life abroad and is the summer. 
That is the best and noblest way. But often be- 
tween the seasons comes the equinoctial storm. The 
old traditional faith is shaken with the wind of doubt. 
The tempest lasts through a long night, perhaps, 
before the morning dawns in sunshine, and the soul 
knows what it believes and why, and is filled with 
the energy and peace of the deeper faith. Mere faith 
of tradition does not save a man, or bring him unto 
God. Except he be "born again " into a faith of 
personal conviction, he cannot see God's kingdom. 
Faith of tradition doubt, faith of conviction, so 
lie the strata of the deepening life through which 
many of the best and ripest souls have passed. 

4. Or take another region of our life. Think of 
our friendships and the way they deepen. There is 
the first friendship of mere sentiment, the easy 
liking by which boys and girls are drawn together 
at school, or men in the same street or hotel. Such 
intimacies usually depend upon indulgence. Your 
friend must flatter and agree with you ; he must 
think like you and be like you ; that is the bond 
that fastens you to one another. The pleasure of a 
kindred spirit who will treat you well, and fall in 
with your wishes, and keep alive your self-esteem, 
that is what draws you to him, and makes you 
haunt the places where you know that he will be. 
But, by and by, that bond breaks. Some jar comes 
in, some incongruity appears. You do not think 
alike. He will not bend to all your whims; and in 
some disappointment at his non-compliance, the 
easy sentimental friendship of your moral childhood 
dies. 

And what then? Do we not know? The ques- 
tion is whether you are man enough to substitute 
a man's friendship for that mere childish intimacy. 
Can you give up the shallow pleasure of hearing 
your opinions echoed, and having all your fancies 
indulged, and like a man meet another manly soul, 
and submit to the rebukes of his example, yield to 
him where he is a better man than you, mount with 
a strain and effort up to his level, or forgive and try 
to help him where he fails and disappoints you? 
A boy's fondness and a man's friendship! Have 
you not friends with whom you began superficially, 
but with whom you are now living profoundly? 
Think of John and James, leaving the boat and fol- 
lowing Jesus Christ because His voice charmed 
them; then disappointed in Him because he did not 
set up the kingdom they desired ; at last, drinking 
of His cup and being baptized with the baptism of 
martyrdom for Him. Easy fondness, discovered 
differences, deep friendship, these are the levels in 
the life which we live with one another. 

5. Take another illustration from man's tendency 
to be self-satisfied. There is a bad and a good self- 
satisfaction. The bad self-satisfaction is only too 
common. It is what we call self-conceit. A man 
seems to himself sufficient for everything. There is 
no task that he will not accept. He does not look 
outside himself. The strength is in his own arm, 
which he can make strong as iron to subdue his 
foes ; in his own heart, which he can make hard as 
a rock to bear his troubles. For doing or enduring 
he needs nothing but himself. He can do anything. 
That self-conceit must die, or the man is a failure. 
Somehow or other, the man must learn that in 
himself he can do nothing. Then comes humility ; 
and when in his humility he casts himself upon an- 
other strength, and expects to do nothing save in the 
power of God, then he is born again into a new self- 
satisfaction. To find himself taken by God ; to feel 
that God is giving him His strength; to say, "I can 
do anything through Christ " ; to face the world not 
in his own power, but in his Master's that is the 
new, the deeper self-satisfaction. He has fallen 
from the old, through self-contempt, into this new. 
Self-contempt is not the permanent place for any 
human soul. The man despises himself only that 
he may find a new self which he cannot despise, the 
self which God made, the self for which Christ died, 
the self which has great, solemn duties here and the 
heritage of eternity awaiting it. That is a self that 
he must honor and respect. He has fallen out of 
self-conceit through the vast void of self-contempt, 
only to be caught in the great hands of God, who 
knows the value of his soul. Oh, prone as we are 
to sink and not to rise, let us be thankful that God 
is under us to catch us when we fall, as well as over 
us to receive us when we rise to Him. 

6. One more illustration, and let it be the solemnest 
of all the history of the fall and the recovery of the 
moral life ; that account which is written for us in 
the endlessly appealing story of the first chapters of 
the Book of Genesis. There is a first and second 
goodness. Man is born into a garden, as that story 
runs. Right impulses, perceptions that the good is 
better and more beautiful than the bad these are 
not wanting in the early, the unregenerate life. 

And yet that life is unregenerate. It must be born 
again. Those good impulses, that mere sense of the 
beauty of goodness, that ignorance of vice, are not 
the true strength of the moral man, in which he can 
resist temptation and really grow to God. That 
fails. He dies out of that ; and, once out of that, 
he never can go back to it again. The angels and 
the flaming sword are at the gate, to keep any man 
who has been innocent, and sinned, from ever re- 
turning to innocence again. 

You who read the strange first pages of your 
Bible, and wonder whether in their strangeness they 
be true or not, would it not be well if you could 
turn the current of your thoughts, and think how 
wonderfully true those pages are to you and to the 
life that you have lived? Do you remember when 
you were pure, when no foul thought had ever 
crossed your mind, when no wind from any quarter 
stirred one passionate desire? What a garden life 
was then! How God Himself walked with you 
among its trees ! 

And then the devil came. One day you lusted 
for impurity. Some temptation, no bigger than an 
apple, was too strong for you. Have you ever gone 
back? Has there been one moment since which is 
like what all the moments and the months were be- 
fore? Has not a flaming sword been at the gate out 
of which you passed with that first lustful thought 
or deed? Has not your life, like all the Bible his- 
tory, thenceforth strained and reached forward to a 
second goodness, to be gained only by forgiveness 
and by struggle? a holiness that knows wickedness 
and has escaped from it, not a garden into which 
man was born at first, but a heaven into which he 
has been brought past the very mouth of hell. In- 
nocence, Sin, Redemption these are the birth, the 
death, and the new birth of the moral life. It was 
all written first in the Bible, and it is written anew 
in the experience of every man who comes to God. 
I will not multiply our illustrations. Here are 
more than enough. And now, what have we reached ? 
What is our doctrine? Here, everywhere, in every- 
thing we do and are, there is a first and second way 
of doing or of being it ; the first a shallow, light, un- 
spiritual way of being happy, of knowing things, of 
believing truth, of knowing people, of valuing our- 
selves, or of doing right; the second, a profound 
and serious and spiritual way of doing those same 
things. Here are the two clear strata of life. One 
lies under the other. The parts correspond; the 
actions are the same ; but every act has grown pro- 
found and rich and earnest, as you pass from the 
first into the second. Now take those acts; com- 
bine them, and they make a life ; they make a man. 
Combine them in the upper, lighter level, and they 
make a light and superficial man ; combine them in 
the deeper level and they make a strong, profound 
man. For it is these acts and states which make up 
a man's manhood. As a man enjoys, knows, be- 
lieves, makes his friends, values his life, attains to 
goodness, so he is. These are the constituent ele- 
ments of life. Their aggregate makes up the man. 
Let him do all these lightly, and the man is light. If 
he does all these profoundly, then he is profound. 

Now, where is the first man to be found, the man 
who does all these life-actions in the first, the lightest 
way? Need I tell you? Is he not all about you? 
Here, in the world that sparkles all over with mere 
gayety, that rings with superficial information, shal- 
low belief, the noisy intimacies of an hour; in the 
world full of men tumid with self-conceit, men who 
know no higher law of right than impulse, is not our 
first man everywhere in this world? Bright, pleas- 
ant, quick, friendly, we meet him at every turn the 
man who, intellectually, morally, spiritually, lives 
on the surface always. There is no suggestion of 
eternity or of the other world in anything he says 
or does or is. He belongs entirely to time and earth. 
He enjoys and knows and believes and loves in the 
first way. He is the man of the first creation, what 
the Bible calls the "natural man." He has only 
entered into the upper layer of life. He has been 
born only once. The Bible has just the account of 
him which we have tried to give, when it says that 
he is the "first Adam." 

And then, where is the second kind of man? the 
man who does all these great life-actions in the second 
way, who is profound in his happiness, his wisdom, 
his belief, his friendship, his self-respect, his holi- 
ness ; the man in whom each of these acts is done at 
its fullest and richest? Ah, there is one Life whose 
happiness goes so deep that the world loses it and 
calls it misery, whose wisdom is so profound that 
the world loses sight of it and calls it folly, whose 
faith is the constant witness of its own nature, 
whose friendship is the perfection of sympathy, 
whose self-respect is the self-consciousness of the 
Son of God, whose holiness is perfection. Can you 
feel, as you read the life of Jesus Christ, that He 
was truly human, and yet that He carried every 
human action and experience down to its profoundest 
and filled it full of richness? Can you understand 
that you are happy and Jesus Christ was happy, 
and yet that His happiness lies far down under 
yours, His peace under your gayety, as a deeper 
and profounder thing; that all the things which you 
do lightly He does seriously, what you do carnally 
He does spiritually? If you can see that, then you 
understand what I mean by saying that Jesus Christ 
lived in the second way, what St. Paul meant 
when he said that in Him we have the "second 
Adam".

And then, what next? If Christ really has the 
power of bringing men to be like His manhood; if, 
as St. Paul says, the second Adam "was made a 
quickening spirit"; not merely a "living soul," 
subsisting for Himself, but a "quickening spirit," 
enlivening others into His likeness; then it is He 
that draws men down and transfers them from the 
superficialness of the first to the depth of the second 
life. He takes them, living superficially, and, fasten- 
ing them to Himself by His love awakening theirs, 
makes them live profoundly. He takes them, living 
the first life, and makes them live the second life. 
The beginning of life is birth. The beginning of a 
new life is the new birth; and so the coming by 
Christ into that deeper world where Christ lives, 
into that Kingdom of God which is His home, is 
being "born again " ; and except one is born again 
he cannot enter there. 

That seems so plain. That is as plain as we can 
make it to ourselves, until it becomes part of our 
own experience; and then a flood of perfect light 
runs over all of it, and we grow impatient at the 
startling imperfectness of any description of that 
which has become so gloriously clear to us. Christ 
takes us to Himself. That is, by the power of love 
we gradually grow more and more like Him. As 
that change slowly goes on in us our life slowly 
deepens. Down from the surface to the soul of 
things He draws us. "Where I am, there shall also 
my servant be" ; He is fulfilling that promise in our 
lives. We used to be happy when circumstances 
were prosperous ; He makes us incapable of any real 
happiness without the sense of goodness. He makes 
us impatient of any knowledge that does not go 
back and find His intention. The soul which He 
has called gives up merely traditional belief, and 
holds to its own personal assurance of Him. It 
learns from His friendship to count no friendship 
real save heart-communion. Losing its self-conceit, 
it acquires a deep, daily, self-satisfaction in His ser- 
vice. Learning its sinfulness, it enters on the obe- 
dient and grateful holiness of the forgiven soul. 
Everywhere the strong power of Christ draws it 
down from the shallow into the profound. The 
deeper life of everything is evident to it. It is satis- 
fied with nothing but the roots of things. It passes 
from the weak life to the strong life, from the shal- 
low life to the deep life, by Christ. It is "born 
again" by the power of Christ. "He that hath the 
Son hath life." 

Born again! The new birth! Oh, these old 
words which so many souls have puzzled over and 
could not understand, and yet have been fascinated 
by so that they could not let them go ! In silent 
chambers souls have agonized and wondered, "What 
is it to be born again?" In silent chambers, souls, 
conscious of a richer and fuller life, have dreamed 
and questioned timidly: "Is it possible, then, that 
this is the new birth? Have we come any nearer 
to an answer to it all to-day? Have we passed from 
the shallow life to the profound, from the unspiritual 
to the spiritual, from the first life to the second? " 

My dear friends, do not believe that that change 
can ever come to a man by any mere course of 
nature. As you grow older you become mature 
and sober; your first excitements chill, your follies 
grow less flagrant. It is easy for you to think that 
tameness wisdom, and cheat yourself into believing 
that because the pool of life grows stagnant it grows 
deep. The profoundness and spirituality of the 
new man is not the mere result of age. Old men 
and women may be very shallow, and little children 
may be already drawn by the Saviour whom they 
love down into the deepness of His life. Not by 
mere growing old, not by piling years upon years, 
not by continuing the shallow life forever does life 
grow deep ; but by beginning a new life, by having 
our whole nature taken possession of by the strong 
new power of gratitude to Him who died for us; 
by being born again through love of Him into like- 
ness of Him. So only does the life deepen as we 
look deeper into it ; its petty waves grow still and 
there is peace ; its noisy feebleness is swallowed up 
and folded into a calm strength. The bed on which 
it flows sinks away from us till we lose sight of it 
altogether, and when we gaze down into it we see 
Eternity. 

As we enter into Christ these great things come 
to us. Oh, I plead with you for a profounder life ! 
It will not come to you with the mere lapse of 
events and years. You may grow old, and your 
white hair will cover as vacant laughter and as un- 
meaning tears, as idle thoughts and trivial fancies, 
as you carry about now. You must take Christ 
you must let Christ take you and draw you down 
into Him, that you may see everything in Him. 
Then everything will be new to you, and you will 
be new to everything. The life that you then live 
in the flesh, you will live by the faith of the Son of 
God. You will have been born again; you will 
have entered into the kingdom of God.
print
Series Navigation
Spread God's love