Jesus answered and said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.…
The expression "born again" was political. Gentiles were unclean, and to become Jewish citizens had to be baptized, and so cleansed became sons of Abraham by a new birth. "Naturalization "means the same thing. Finding the ceremony on foot, Christ takes advantage of it to represent the naturalization of a soul in the Kingdom of Heaven; taking water as the symbol, and the Spirit as the real cleansing power.
I. CHRIST REQUIRES OF ALL SOME GREAT AND IMPORTANT CHANGE AS THE NECESSARY CONDITION OF THEIR SALVATION.
1. Not, of course, of those who are already subjects of it, and many are so from their earliest infancy, having grown up into Christ by the preventing grace of their nurture in the Lord. But this is no real exception. Intelligence is not more necessary to our humanity than is second birth to salvation.
2. Many cannot admit this. It savours of hardness, and does not correspond with what they see of natural character. How can moral and lovely persons need to be radically changed? That depends upon whether the one thing is lacking or not. If it be Christ's love will not modify His requirement.
3. Christianity is based upon the fact of this necessity. It is not any doctrine of development or self-culture, but a salvation. The very name Jesus is a false pretence, unless He has something to do for the race which the race cannot do for itself.
4. But how can we imagine that God will stand on any such rigid terms? He is very good and very great; may we not risk the consequences?
(1) It is sufficient to answer that Christ understood what was necessary, and there is no harshness in Him.
(2) Such arguments are a plea for looseness, which is not the manner of God. He is the exactest of beings. Is character a matter that God will treat more loosely than the facts and forces of nature? If He undertakes to construct a beatific state, will He gather in a jumble of good and bad and call it heaven?
(3) We can ourselves see that a very large class of men are not in a condition to enter into the Kingdom of God. They have no purity or sympathy with it. Who can think of these as melting into a celestial society? And if not, there must be a line drawn somewhere, and those who are on one side will not be on the other: which is the same as saying that there must be exact terms of salvation.
(4) We feel in our own consciousness, while living a mere life of nature, that we are not fit to enjoy the felicities of a perfectly spotless world. Our heart is not there.
(5) When we give ourselves to some new purpose of amendment, we do it by constraint. What we want is inclination to duty, and this is the being born of God.
II. THE NATURE OF THE CHANGE.
1. Let some things which confuse the mind be excluded.
(1) There is a great deal of debate over its supposed instantaneousness. But a change from bad in kind to good in kind implies a beginning, and therefore instantaneous, but not necessarily conscious.
(2) Some people regard it as gradual. But this is to make it a matter of degrees.,
(3) Much is said of previous states of conviction and distress, then of light and peace bursting suddenly on the soul. Something of this may be among the causes and consequences, but has nothing to do with the radical idea.
2. Observe how the Scriptures speak of it. Never as a change of degrees, an amendment of life, but a being born again, a spiritual reproduction, passing from death unto life, putting off the old man, transformation, all of which imply a change of kind. Had redemption been a mere making of us better, it would have been easy to say so. The gospel says the contrary. Growth comes, but there can be no growth without birth.
3. Try and accurately conceive the interior nature of the change.
(1) Every man is conscious that when he sins there is something besides the mere words or acts — viz., the reason for them.
(2) Sometimes the difficulty back of the wrong action is conceived to be the man himself, constitutionally evil who needs to have the evil taken out of him and something new inserted. But this would destroy personal identity, and be the generation of another man.
(3) Sometimes the change is regarded only as the change of the governing purpose. But it is not this that we find to be the seat of the disorder, but a false, weary, downward, selfish love. We have only to will to change our purpose, but to change our love is a different matter.
(4) Every man's life is shaped by his love. If it be downward, all his life will be downward. Hence, so much is said about change of heart.
(5) Still, this cannot be effected without another change of which it is only an incident. In his unregenerate state man is separated from God and centred in himself. He was not made for this, but to, live in and be governed by God. When, then, he is restored to the living connection with God he is born again. His soul now enters into rest, rest in love, rest in God.
III. THE MANNER IN WHICH THE CHANGE IS EFFECTED.
(1) To maintain that it can be manipulated by a priest in baptism is solemn trifling.
(2) Equally plain is it that this is not to be effected by waiting for some new creative act. The change passes only by free concurrence with God.
(3) Nor is it accomplished by mere willing apart from God. A man can as little drag himself up into a reigning love as drag a Judas into Paradise.
(1) You must give up every purpose, etc., which takes you away from God.
(2) There must be reaching after God, an offering up of the soul to Him, which is faith.
(3) Let Christ be your help in this acting of faith to receive God (see vers. 14-16).
(H. Bushnell, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.