Ye Must Be Born Again Because Ye Must Be Born Again
A SERMON PREACHED AT ST. MARY’S CASTLE STREET, READING,18TH JUNE 2000.
BY MAURICE ROBERTS
Let us now hear the Word of God as we have it written in the Gospel according to John and in chapter 3:
I wish to draw your attention today to words which you will find in verses 3, 5 and 7 of this chapter. John 3 verse 3: “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.” At verse 5, “Jesus answered, Verily, Verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” And again at verse 7, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again.”
If I may, I should like to bring the greetings of my brethren in the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) and in a word express my deep gratitude for the privilege of being invited to address you on this occasion. We seek God’s richest blessing upon the ministry of Mr. Richard Mortimer, now begun. May God anoint him and bless him in all time coming.
The subject before us, as you see, is that of the new birth. Nicodemus was a man of great religious knowledge and experience. He was, if you like, an expert and a scholar in the things concerning the Old Testament. But there was clearly one thing he did not know. He did not know the way into the spiritual experience which is known as the new birth. We are told here and indeed elsewhere in the Gospel of John, that he came to Jesus ‘by night’. It is, as it were, a label which is attached to him all through this Gospel. He was the man who came to Jesus, we are told, ‘by night’. Why should he come ‘by night’ and why should the Scriptures repeatedly draw attention to the fact that it was ‘by night’ that he came? I suppose that he came to Christ by night under cover of darkness as being ashamed to come by day. He was, after all, a religious expert and a ruler in Israel, as this portion of the Word of God informs us. But, in spite of that, there was something that he did not know and at this point in his experience had not understood. So our blessed Lord and Saviour brings to him this supremely important theme of the new birth.
Every minister beginning his work engages upon it with the overwhelming concern to be instrumental in the blessing of men, women and children. That’s why God instituted the ministry at all. And of all the ways in which a minister might be a blessing to the people to whom he ministers in time to come, none is greater than that he should have the joy of seeing them come to this experience of new birth, whereby they become the sons and daughters of Almighty God. Allow me, therefore, on this occasion, if I may, to bring this theme before you and to look at it under three simple and brief headings.
I. Our Lord and Saviour first of all brings before us the necessity for the new birth.
He does this in the words, ‘ye must be born again’. Now there are many things that you and I can live in this world without. We do not need to have great riches, fame or popularity to live a happy and a fulfilled existence here in this world. There are many things we can do without and these things that I have listed come to few in this world. But our Saviour tells us all here in this passage, that there is one thing that we dare not live without. He calls it by this term, ‘the new birth’. He emphasises the necessity of it in these words, ‘ye must be born again’. Other things may be optional but the new birth is a matter of absolute necessity, he says.
Now let us raise the question, Why is it a matter of necessity? Why is this new birth so much insisted on by the glorious, eternal Son of God in the days of his ministry upon earth? Why does he press so repeatedly the necessity for this experience of new birth?
Allow me to give you one or two reasons at this point. First of all because our first birth did not give us any spiritual life. He tells us in his own words, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit”. He clearly shows, therefore, that there are two kinds of life. There is natural life and there is spiritual life. By natural life, he means that as we are born from our mother’s womb into this world, we enjoy a certain quality of life. That is so common-place that it hardly needs to be said. But what does need to be said is that our first birth from our mother’s womb does not make us partakers of spiritual life. We are born spiritually dead according to the teaching of the Word of God. We are dead by nature in trespasses and sins. And the necessity of the new birth arises from this consideration, that if we are to have spiritual life, then there must be in our own experience this wonderful work of God whereby we are given a second birth, a new beginning in this life.
I come to a second reason why we need new birth. It is because we must all die and we must all face the judgement. The supreme question therefore in life is, Am I prepared for death, and am I prepared to face my Maker and my Judge in that awesome day in which every knee must bow before him and every tongue confess him? The only way in which we can prepare for death, judgement and eternity, according to the words of Christ here himself, is by having this new birth take place in this life and in our own experience here in this world.
Why then should our Lord make this point so strongly to Nicodemus? Did he not know these things? Was not all his religious learning sufficient to have taught him this already? And the answer is, No. My dearest friends, it is possible for us to spend many years under faithful preaching and many years under the influence of godly men and women and yet ourselves to remain without this experience. It is possible for us to be as ignorant of the new birth as Nicodemus was in his day.
Let me illustrate it briefly before I must move on. The famous John Wesley, two hundred and so many years ago, believed it was his calling to be a missionary to the Indians of America and he travelled the long sea voyage to the eastern seaboard of America to embark upon his life’s work, as he supposed, of preaching the Gospel to the Indians. But he came back to England a disappointed man. And this is what he commented on himself. He said, “I went to America to convert the people to Christ, not realising that I was still unconverted myself.” The great man he became was the result of his experience in Aldersgate Street, London. This famous experience was the outcome of the new birth and of it he said, “My heart is strangely warmed.” May I ask you this question, Have you seriously faced the claims of Christ upon your life? Do you know that we must be born again?
II. The second thing we look at here briefly is this. What happens in the new birth?
What exactly is this experience? Well, it is a ‘birth’. That is what our Lord intends by this figure of speech. A birth brings something into the world which was not there before. A young man and a young woman fall in love and marry and a year or two pass by and God then blesses them with a child. It is a very common-place experience and one that many of us have seen and witnessed and perhaps experienced for ourselves. If so, we all know that the coming of a child into this world changes everything. The pattern of the family’s life immediately alters. Birth brings something into the world which changes everything. So, my dearly beloved, it is with the new birth. It brings spiritual life into the soul of a man, woman or child which was not there before and the consequence of this spiritual life is that a person who is the subject of it is changed in every way. I use this illustration as it may help the young. Imagine an old book such as, let us say, Pilgrim’s Progress. You go into a shop selling old books and there you see a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. The spine is torn, the pages are mildewed, and some of the pages are dog-eared. The whole book, though wonderful in itself, is old and unappealing. But, let us suppose that a printer comes along and issues a new edition of the old book, which now appears in new dress. The book has not changed but the appearance of the book has changed dramatically. So it is when the new birth occurs in the life of anyone.
You will know the name of the great C. H. Spurgeon who preached in London in the last century, perhaps the greatest preacher of his age, or of the world, indeed. You may know how he experienced new birth. It was a snowy morning and he came not to his usual church but the only one the family could conveniently reach in the snowy weather. The preacher was not there and did not come, no doubt snowed in. It was one of the office-bearers who stood in to preach the sermon at short notice. Spurgeon came in to the church and sat under the gallery and it was clear from his very face that he was miserable. He was miserable because he had a sense of sin. He was miserable because his conscience told him he was not right with God. The preacher was not eloquent but he did his best and God blessed his message. The young Spurgeon was so transformed in that service that when he went home, his family who saw him said, You have undergone a wonderful change. It was, of course, the ‘new birth’. ‘Old things had passed away.’ ‘All things had become new.’
Jesus tells us that this new birth is something which happens from above. When the Word of God here tells us that we need to be born ‘again’, it is equivalent to saying, we need to be born ‘from above’, from heaven. Our first birth, of course, is from earthly parents. Our second birth must be from God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And Christ describes it with a rather remarkable expression. He says, “Except a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter God’s Kingdom.” What can he mean by these expressions, water and spirit? It is very tempting to suppose that he means baptism. But I have to say to you that although baptism has its place and is important, he cannot be referring to baptism on this occasion for one very obvious reason. There was no such thing at this time as Christian baptism. Our Lord had as yet not instituted Christian baptism. And so what, then, is this ‘water’? And what would Nicodemus understand by reference here to ‘water’? The answer, my dear friends, is that it refers to the washing of Old Testament rituals, and the inward cleansing which was symbolised by those ritual washings. Ezekiel puts it like this: “God says, I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh and I will give you an heart of flesh. From all your idols and from all your filthiness will I cleanse you, a new heart also will I give you.”
We have all heard of the great Augustine of Hippo in North Africa in the 4th Century AD., one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known, and one of the most outstanding theologians the church has ever known. There was a time in his life before he had had the new birth in which he was groping his way towards God. It is a very touching story. He was in a garden, I suppose we would call it a park or a public place today, and he was groaning in his spirit, saying, ‘O why always tomorrow? Why not today?’ He meant, ‘Lord, when shall I know the blessing in my own soul?’ Then he heard a child’s voice or something crying, ‘Take up and read, take up and read’. And reaching for his New Testament, he opened the book at random and found these words, “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof.” Casting the book aside, he cried out to his dear companion, Alepius, ‘I have found it, Alepius, I have found it!’ And Alepius, running to his side with great affection, asked what he had found? He had found the secret of life. He had found Christ for himself. And Alepius, looking at the same passage and seeing the very next verse, found the same experience. These two men were born again almost in an instant of time. Augustine indeed was born to change the current of the world.
The new birth, says Christ, is that work of the Spirit of God within our hearts whereby we become a new edition of our former self. What changes, then, are to be seen in the life of those who become a new edition of their former self? I give you one or two examples.
First, we come to see how sinful our own hearts are. We come to see how great is our need of the grace and mercy of God. We come to realise that this world, however attractive, is not our home. We are but pilgrims and strangers here and we discover we have a soul that needs to be fed with the word of God. It is for that reason that Jesus Christ speaks of the born again in this way, ‘Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness’. Am I speaking to someone to whom these things could be a strange story? Am I speaking to someone today who is fascinated as Nicodemus was by the subject but is still at this time a stranger to it?
III. Let me turn to my third and final point which is this: How would I know if I had experienced this new birth?
What good fruits would I expect to see within myself or others? The new birth makes a man a lover of God. The Ten Commandments require of you and me that we should ‘love’ God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. These same commandments show us the way in which we are to love our neighbour as ourself; honour thy father and thy mother; thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet. O what a blessed country this would be if these things were taken seriously again! O what a happy town this would be if even a fraction of the people took these commandments of God seriously! Yet the Word of God informs us that we cannot keep these commandments until we are born again. Only when the grace of God brings a change into our innermost soul, so that we are washed and purified and renewed in righteousness in the image of God – only then have we a sincere wish to live to the glory of God and in obedience to his Word.
The good fruits of the new birth are obedience to God’s Word. It is for this reason that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in the course of his remarks to Nicodemus, brings before him, and before us, these most famous and wonderful words with which I close today. At verse 16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” My very dear friends, if you would know what it means to be born again, then seek God. Consider how great is His love in not sparing His dear Son, Jesus Christ. Consider again that He gave Him for a sacrifice upon the cross. Repent of sin, believe in Christ crucified and live the life which he commands us to live, of holy obedience to his will in this world. If you do all will be well. When we come to the end of our brief life, as soon we shall all, we shall enter into that everlasting kingdom of which Our Lord has here spoken. So I bid you on this occasion of the ordination of our beloved friend, Mr. Mortimer, consider the words of Christ which are so vital to every true ministry, “Ye must be born again.”
The Rev. Maurice J. Roberts is minister of Greyfriars Free Church, Inverness, a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), and editor of the ‘Banner of Truth’ magazine. This sermon was preached on the occasion of the ordination of Mr. Richard Mortimer to the diaconate, Trinity Sunday (18 June), 2000.
In what points the true ornaments of the Church or Temple of God do consist and stand, hath been declared in the two last Homilies, entreating of the right use of the Temple or house of God, and of the due reverence that all true Christian people are bound to give unto the same.
Almighty GOD, to the intent his most holy Name should be had in honour, and evermore be magnified of the people, commandeth that no man should take his Name vainly in his mouth, threatening punishment unto him that irreverently abuseth it by swearing, forswearing, andblasphemy. To the intent therefore that this commandment may be the better known and kept, it shall bee declared unto you, both how it is lawful for Christian people to swear, and also what peril and danger it is vainly to swear, or to be forsworn.
Unto a Christian man, there can be nothing either more necessary or profitable, than the knowledge of Holy Scripture; forasmuch as in it is contained God’s true word, setting forth his glory, and also man’s duty. And there is no truth nor doctrine, necessary for our justification and everlasting salvation, but that is, or may be, drawn out of that fountain and well of truth. Therefore, as many as be desirous to enter into the right and perfect way unto God, must apply their minds to know Holy Scripture; without the which, they can neither sufficiently known God and his will, neither their office and duty. And as drink is pleasant to them that be dry, and meat to them that be hungry; so is the reading, hearing, searching, and studying of Holy Scripture, to them that be desirous to know God, or themselves, and to do his will. And their stomachs only do loathe and abhor the heavenly knowledge and food of God’s word, that be so drowned in worldly vanities, that they neither saviour God, nor any godliness: for that is the cause why they desire such vanities, rather than the true knowledge of God. As they that are sick of an ague, whatsoever they eat and drink, though it be never so pleasant, yet it is as bitter to them as wormwood; not for the bitterness of the meat, but for the corrupt and bitter humour that is in their own tongue and mouth; even is the sweetness of God’s word bitter, not of itself, but only unto them that have their minds corrupted with long custom of sin and love of this world.
Of all things that be good to be taught unto Christian people, there is nothing more necessary to be spoken of, and daily called upon, then charity: as well for that all manner of works of righteousness be contained in it, as also that the decay thereof is the ruin or fall of the world, the banishment of virtue, and the cause of all vice. And for so much as almost every man, maketh and frameth to himself charity after his own appetite, and how detestable soever his life be, both unto God and man, yet he persuadeth himself still that he hath charity: therefore you shall hear now a true and plain description or setting forth of charity, not of men’s imagination, but of the very words and example of our Saviour Jesus Christ. In which description or setting forth, every man (as it were in a glass) may consider himself, and see plainly without error, whether he be in the true charity, or not.
Among all the creatures that God made in the beginning of the world most excellent and wonderful in their kind, there was none (as the Scripture beareth witness) to be compared almost in any point unto man, who as well in body and soul exceeded all other no less, then the Sun in brightness and light exceedeth every small and little star in the firmament. He was made according to the image and similitude of God, he was endued with all kind of heavenly gifts, he had no spot of uncleanness in him, he was found and perfect in all parts, both outwardly and inwardly, his reason was incorrupt, his understanding was pure and good, his will was obedient and godly, he was made altogether like unto God, in righteousness, in holiness, in wisdom, in truth, to be short in all kind of perfection.
In the last Sermon was declared unto you, what the lively and true faith of a Christian man is, that it causeth not a man to be idle, but to be occupied in bringing forth good works, as occasion serveth.
Of our going from God, the wise man saith, that pride was the first beginning: for by it mans heart was turned from God his maker. For pride (saith he) is the fountain of all sin: he that hath it, shall be full of cursings, and at the end it shall overthrow him. (Ecclus 10) And as by pride and sin we go from God, so shall God and all goodness with him go from us. And the Prophet Hosea doth plainly affirm (Hos 5), that they which go a way still from God by vicious living, and yet would go about to pacify him otherwise by sacrifice, and entertain him thereby, they labour in vain. For, notwithstanding all their sacrifice, yet he goeth still away from them. For so much (saith the Prophet) as they do not apply their minds to return to God, although they go about with whole flocks and herds to seek the Lord, yet they shall not find him: for he is gone away from them.
A Sermon of the Misery of all Mankind and of his Condemnation to Death Everlasting, by his own Sin.
Because all men be sinners and offenders against God, and breakers of his law and commandments, therefore can no man by his own acts, works, and deeds (seem they never so good) be justified, and made righteous before God: but every man of necessity is constrained to seek for another righteousness or justification, to be received at God’s own hands, that is to say, the forgiveness of his sins and trespasses, in such things as he hath offended. And this justification or righteousness, which we so receive of God’s mercy and Christ’s merits. embraced by faith, is taken, accepted and allowed of God, for our perfect and full justification.
The first coming unto God (good Christian people) is through Faith, whereby (as it is declared in the last Sermon) we be justified before God. And lest any man should be deceived, for lack of right understanding thereof, it is diligently to be noted, that Faith is taken in the Scripture two manner of ways.