Posted by: stpowen | July 12, 2010

The New Birth (4) Its Nature

The New Birth (4)

What  is  the  New  Birth?

         “Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

 When we come to look at the nature of the New Birth we arrive at another controversial portion of our text.   The words, ‘born of water and the Spirit’ have been, and still are, a battleground of interpretation.   The main question is this;  what, if anything, has the expression to do with baptism?   The Church of Rome, along with ‘High Church’ Anglicans and others, believe that our Lord is saying in effect to Nicodemus, “Unless you are prepared to submit to Christian baptism, you will never experience spiritual rebirth”.   The reformed section of the Protestant Church has usually opposed this view (1), but recently, a section of the American Presbyterian church known as Federal Vision, and also certain leaders of the Charismatic movement (2) seem to have returned to it.

 To the Roman Catholic, regeneration is effected ex opere operato by the sacrament of Baptism.   Once baptized, even as a tiny baby, one is regarded by the Church of Rome as having been born again.   This state can be lost by the committing of ‘mortal sins’, which may then be expiated by the sacraments of Confession and Penance.   The  Anglican Church appears to be divided on this issue.   The 1662 Book of Common Prayer has the Minister saying, after baptizing an infant; “Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits, and with one accord make our prayers unto Him that this child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning”.   These words, taken by themselves, surely indicate that Anglicans not only believe in Baptismal Regeneration, but also that it can be lost through sin.   However, reformed Anglicans have never been of this opinion.   Bishop J. C. Ryle, in his Expository Thoughts on John (vol. 1;  Banner of Truth 1987), gives a great deal of space to showing that the phrase Water and Spirit does not refer to baptism. 

 Reformed Presbyterians and Episcopalians believe in infant baptism, but see it as a New Covenant sign equivalent to circumcision in the Old Testament.   They believe that the children of believers are members of God’s covenant and should therefore receive the covenant sign.   They do not baptize a baby in order to save it, nor on the assumption that it is saved by having Christian parents, but rather to bring it into the Christian family.   They note that when Lydia and the Philippian jailer were baptized, their households were baptized with them (Acts 16:14-15, 31-33), though of course it by no means necessarily follows that their households included infant children.   This is a far more respectable view than the Church of Rome’s position, but I do not believe that it is correct.   According to Jeremiah 31:31ff, the New Covenant was to be different from the Old.   Specifically, everyone in the New Covenant would know the Lord (v34).   Therefore the baptism of infants is not appropriate as a covenant sign as babies cannot exercise faith in the Lord Jesus.

 There is another view that many Episcopalians and Presbyterians hold;  that of Presumptive Regeneration.  They presume that the children of Christian parents are regenerate from birth and that therefore they should treated as such by receiving Christian baptism (3).  To me, this is absolutely wretched and scarcely better than the Roman Catholic position.  I hope to write a critique of this position as part of this series.

 Reformed Baptists believe that only those who profess repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are suitable candidates for baptism and this obviously excludes infants.   However, they do not suppose that baptism by itself brings about the New Birth.   Rather it is, ‘To the person who is baptized, a sign of his fellowship with Christ in His death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into Christ  (Rom. 6:3-5;  Col. 2:12);  of remission of sins; and of that person’s giving up of himself to God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life’ (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith 29:1).   In other words it is an outward sign of something which has already happened inwardly;  a public statement, both by the party baptized and by his church that God has given him New Birth;  that he has died to his old self and risen again a new creation in Christ Jesus.   Now it happened, even in New Testament times that mistakes were made and unregenerate people were baptized (cf. Simon Magus in Acts 8), but since baptism is only the sign of the New Birth, and not the New Birth itself, it has no effect in itself upon the one who is baptized.

 There are two main reasons why I do not believe that the phrase Water and Spirit can refer to baptism, and why I support the Reformed Baptist position given above.   Firstly, if baptism is intended by this phrase then that ordinance is absolutely necessary for salvation.   ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’.   On that basis, the thief on the cross is damned;  likewise such groups as the Quakers and the Salvation Army, who do not practise water baptism, are, every single one of them, utterly lost.   Yet there is no other Bible text that teaches this.   On the contrary, two verses (1Peter 1:23;  James 1:18) ascribe the New Birth not to baptism, but to the Word.   Moreover Paul (1Cor. 1:17) wrote that, ‘Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel’, a strange thing to say if baptism is so very necessary to salvation.  

Secondly, I cannot believe that our Lord would be reinforcing what is the chief error of Pharisaism;  the idea that outward purification can bring about inward cleansing.   As we have seen, Pharisees like Nicodemus spent all their time in ritual washings and cleansings.   Is it really likely that the Lord Jesus would be saying to him, “What you need, Nicodemus, more than anything else, is another ritual washing”?   If that was our Lord’s meaning, then why was Nicodemus so dumbfounded by it?   More ceremonial, outward cleansings would have been right up his street, water off a duck’s back in more ways than one!   No, Nicodemus’ problem was not on the outside but the inside.   “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness” Mark 7:21f).   Can an external washing purify a man from inward sin and depravity?   Of course not!   “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!   For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.   Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. …….. For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.   Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:25ff).   In the Shakespeare play, Lady Macbeth cries out, “Will these hands ne’er be cleansed?”   No matter how many times she washed them, the blood of her sin still seemed to stain her hands.   No outward washing could make her inwardly clean.   The cleansing she needed would have had to deal with her guilt within.

 So if the expression Water and Spirit does not mean baptism, what does it mean?  Two views are generally put forward.  The first, and probably the most popular is that the ‘water’ refers to the normal birth process in which the infant is surrounded by amniotic fluid in the womb.  Therefore, according to this view, the Lord Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, a natural birth such as every human has is not sufficient for you.  You also need a Spiritual rebirth if you are to enter the kingdom of heaven.”   There is nothing wrong with this view, save that nowhere else in the Bible is human birth ever associated with water.  One needs to be cautious in adopting an interpretation of one text of the Bible which cannot be corroborated by at least one other.  Scripture must always interpret Scripture.

 I am therefore inclined to support the second view, which is supported by many exegetes, including Bishop Ryle and John Murray.  As usual, our clue lies in our text:  ‘Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do you not know these things?”’ (John 3:10).   What our Lord is saying is that if Nicodemus was such a great Old Testament teacher, he would know what He was talking about instead of being so totally confused and dumbfounded.   Therefore there must be some reference in the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Birth and to Water and Spirit which would have helped Nicodemus to understand;  otherwise our Lord’s rebuke would have been unfair.  With this in mind let us consider the following verses:-

 ‘For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land.   Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean;  I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from your idols.   I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take your heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.   I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them’ (Ezek 36:24ff).

 “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.   Purge [N.I.V., ‘cleanse’] me with hyssop and I shall be clean;  wash me and I shall be whiter than snow ……..Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out my iniquities.   Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me (Psalm 51:6,7,9,10).

Here, in these two texts, we surely get a preview of the work of God, the Holy Spirit, in the New Birth.   It is a two-fold work of water and Spirit:  an inward cleansing from sin and idolatry, and a renewal of the heart and spirit for future obedience.   That it is a spiritual cleansing rather than baptism that is meant in these passages is indicated by the mention of hyssop in Psalm 51.   This is not some ancient Hebrew soap, as I first thought when I read the Psalm as a very young Christian, but rather the sprig of a plant.   On the day of the Passover, the Israelites were instructed (Exod.12:22) to dip the hyssop in the blood of the slain Passover lamb and sprinkle it on the lintel and the doorposts of their houses.   Therefore, to be cleansed with hyssop is to be washed in the blood of the Lamb (Heb.9:11ff;  Rev. 7:14).   No outward ablution could ever cleanse us from moral ‘filthiness and idolatry’.   We need a cleansing which works from within.

In the New Testament, one gets an inkling of this two-fold process in verses such as 1Cor. 6:11 or Eph. 5:26, but the clearest expression is found in Titus 3:3-5.  Here Paul has been telling Titus not to be too harsh to the Cretan converts, but to show a little gentleness and humility.    ‘For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another…..’  that’s what Paul and Titus were like before they were born again.  ‘…..But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.   What is the nature of the New Birth?   It is a birth of Water and Spirit;  the washing away of indwelling sin and corruption, and renewal by God, the Holy Spirit.

 This is obviously a most profound change.   Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;  old things have passed away;  behold, all things have become new (2Cor. 5:17).   What has happened?   A new principle of life has taken hold.   The Holy Spirit’s work has often been likened to that of a horticulturalist who wishes to grow cultured pears on a wild pear tree.   What he does (4) is to make a cut in the stem of the wild tree and bind into the cut, a shoot of a cultured pear, such as a Conference.   He then finds that the tree will start to produce both wild and cultured pears, but if he is diligent to cut off every wild shoot that grows, he will eventually have a pear tree that produces nothing but delicious cultured pears.   The principle is somewhat the same for new Christians;  they have this new life within them, but this competes with the remnant of their old selves and they have to suppress that old nature whenever it rears its ugly head so that the new nature which the Holy Spirit has implanted may flourish.   Pause for a moment and read Colossians 3, reflecting particularly upon verse 5.

 So how does this work out practically?   We have seen that being born again has a most profound effect upon one’s inmost being, but that does not mean that it alters one’s personality.   The person who is intellectual by nature will remain an intellectual after being saved;  the practical person will remain practical.   Shy people will not lose their fundamental shyness, though zeal for the Lord may lead them to overcome their timidity when witnessing to their unsaved friends, and the impetuous do not lose their impetuosity, though now it will be channelled to the service of the Saviour.   No, the new birth affects men and women at the level of their disposition.   “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit”(Rom. 8:5).   In other words, men and women who are not born again have worldly tastes and interests and they indulge them;  if they are interested in religion, as they may well be, it is usually of a formal, ritualistic or worldly kind.   True Christians, on the other hand, still have to live in the world.   They must earn their living, feed their families and meet with their neighbours.   But their attitude to the world has changed utterly.   ‘Old things have passed away;  behold all things have become new’ (2Cor. 5:17).   Those innate talents and abilities that were once used solely for worldly purposes are now employed in the service of the Saviour.   That same energy and dedication, with which Paul had once persecuted the Church (Acts 26:9-11), was soon used in spreading the Gospel all through the Roman Empire.   Same man, same abilities, different disposition!   

Now we have seen that, ‘those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh’, but obviously there are degrees to which unconverted people give themselves over to the flesh.   Some are drunks, criminals, perverts or wife-beaters, but the majority lead outwardly decent and respectable lives.   Likewise, there are degrees to which God’s people give them over to the gracious influence of the Spirit.   Some of us grieve the Spirit more or less than others (Eph. 4v30);  some quench the Spirit more or less than others (1Thess. 5:19); some walk in the Spirit more or less consistently or precisely than others (Gal. 5:16), and certainly none of us is perfect;  but there is no overlapping, no third realm, no half-way house between flesh and Spirit.   We are either in the Kingdom of God or outside it;  we are either born again or we’re not; We are either saved, or we’re lost.  

We shall look at proofs of the New Birth in a later chapter, but let me pose this question:  if  ‘that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ what shall we say of those who take the name of Christian to themselves, but in whose lives nothing is to be seen but fleshliness and carnality?   Surely, to say that such a person is born again is to say that something born of the Spirit can be still flesh?   ‘Examine yourselves’, says Paul (2Cor. 13:5, N.I.V.), to see whether you are in the faith.   Test yourselves.   Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you- unless of course you fail the test?’   There must be something within the true Christian for which the only possible explanation is that God, the Holy Spirit, has done a profound work upon his or her heart.   If you, the reader, can examine yourself in this way and then say, “yes, there is a change in me since I became a believer, slight though it may be’, then give God the thanks- and ask Him for more grace.

 Notes.

 (1) Bishop J. C. Ryle lists Wyclif, Calvin, Zwingli and a host of other worthies who do not believe that ‘born of water’ refers to baptism.  I reckon that most evangelical writers since his day would take the same view.

 (2) Notably The Normal Christian Birth by David Pawson who sees regeneration as a four-fold process of which baptism is a constituent part.  Thankfully his book seems to have entered a well-deserved oblivion, so I shall not address his arguments in this article.

 (3) In another of his books, Ryle ties himself into such knots in trying to explain away the obvious meaning of the Prayer Book that he ends up supporting Presumptive Regeneration which is very sad in someone who was a great champion of the Faith in many other respects.

 (4) So I have read.  Let the reader be warned that I know absolutely nothing about horticulture.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. Marprelate, for a several hundred year old chap you seem to be quite productive lately. I’m serious impressed and glad to have your writings to recommend as a handy online resource!


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