Volume 2, Issue 3:
You Must be Born on High
Regeneration is a universal change of the whole man . . . it is as large in renewing as sin was in defacing.
- Stephen Charnock
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
- John 1:12-13
Regeneration is a spiritual change, conversion is a spiritual motion. In regeneration there is a power conferred; conversion is the exercise of this power. In regeneration there is given us a principle to turn; conversion is our actual turning; that is the principle whereby we are brought out of a state of nature, into a state of grace: and conversion the actual fixing on God. Conversion is related to regeneration, as the effect to the cause. Life precedes motion, and is the cause of motion.
- Stephen Charnock
Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
- John 3:3
Every regeneration is really instantaneous. Its evidences, its outward manifestations may be gradual, but there must be a time when the man begins to live. There must be a period when the first ray of light darts on the opened eye. There must be a time when the man is condemned, and a period when he is not condemned. And there must be an instant when the change takes place.
- Charles Spurgeon
As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity, I would now honestly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mysteries of the new birth.
- George Whitefield (in a letter to Benjamin Franklin)
Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.
- James 1:18
Do I address one here who imagines that an orthodox creed will save him? I suppose that no one is more orthodox than the devil, yet no one is more surely lost than he is. You may get a clear head, but if you have not a clean heart, it will not avail you at the last. You may know the Westminster Assembly's Catechism by heart, but unless you are born again, it will not benefit you. Did you say that you believed the thirty-nine articles? There is one article that is essential--"Ye must be born again" (John 3:7). And woe to that man who has not passed through that all-important change.
- Charles Spurgeon
To know (in the full sense of the word) the doctrine of new birth means to have experienced the new birth and to be living as a new creature. Regrettably, it is possible (in fact too easy) to know much about the doctrine and not have had the experience of birth from above.
- Peter Toon
How can he live to God that hath no spiritual life?
- Stephen Charnock
Easy Chairs, Hard Words, Part 2
By Douglas Wilson
I had thought of a question during the week which I thought would bring
our conversation back to some evangelical "basics." My sessions
with Pastor Spencer were unsettling and fascinating both; on the one hand
I was attracted by his approach to the Scriptures, but on the other I was
concerned about the danger of "too much theology" getting in the
way of basic Christianity. After we had settled in our chairs, I presented
"Why should Christians discuss the sorts of doctrines we have been
discussing? Shouldn't we just stick to the gospel? Sinful men need to be
told that they must be born again, and here we sit, week after week, splitting
Pastor Spencer chuckled. "To be sure, sinful men need to be told
that they must be born again. What would you say if one of them asked you
what on earth that meant?"
I stared at him. "Isn't that obvious? It means that men must become
Pastor Spencer took a sip of his coffee. "How does one do that?"
I thought for a moment. "Well, the person must repent of his sins,
and must put his faith in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for sinners."
Pastor Spenser smiled. "Very good--so far. Most Christians would
leave the cross out of it altogether--they would say something like `ask
Jesus into your heart,' or `make a commitment to Christ.' Now what happens
after he repents and believes?"
"He is born again."
"Now are you aware that this order--`Repent, believe, and then
you will be born again'--is not in the Bible?
I was actually aware of no such thing, so I shook my head. "What
do you mean?"
"How do you know that the biblical order is not, `You must be born
again, in order to repent and believe?'"
I think my mouth was hanging open. I had never heard anything like this
"You mean that the new birth is first?"
Pastor Spencer nodded.
"In the order you have assumed, man makes a choice, and then he
is born again. But the Bible places the choice regarding the new birth in
God's hands, not man's."
"Where?" I asked.
"There are three basic arguments from Scripture for this. The first
is how the Spirit's work is described; the second is the nature of birth;
and the third would be express statements of Scripture to this effect.
I nodded. "OK, let's start with the first."
He had me turn to John 3:7-8, and I read. "Do not marvel that
I said to you, `You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes,
and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where
it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit." I looked up.
Pastor Spencer said, "Would you agree that it is fairly common for
Christians to evangelize by telling people how to be born again?"
"Certainly. Isn't that what evangelism is?"
"No. Evangelism is preaching the death of Christ for sinners, and
the necessity of repentance and belief. Telling people how to be born again
is like telling people how to understand where the wind comes from, and
where it is going. The new birth is mysterious - it is the work of
the Spirit of God, not the work of man."
"So you are saying that the new birth can not be controlled by men."
"Yes. I am saying that the wind blows where He pleases."
"What must men do then?"
"They must repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ."
"So repentance and belief are what the man contributes?"
"In a way. It is the man who repents and believes, but the
Spirit has made that repentance and belief possible by giving the sinner
a new heart through regeneration. So, for example, repentance is described
as something men do (Acts 26:20), but it is also seen as a gift from God
(2 Tim. 2:25). In contrast, the new birth is never described as anything
done by man. It is always shown as the imperial work of God."
"You mentioned the nature of birth. What did you mean by that?"
"Jesus taught that the new birth is necessary. From this, many have
falsely concluded that it is a command to be obeyed by us. But `be born'
is a passive verb, not active. `Repent' and `believe' are active."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that those who are born again are recipients. A
birth is not something one volunteers for; it is something that happens
"Can you illustrate?"
"Sure. I was in the Navy for four years, and I am a Spencer. I joined
the Navy (voluntarily) and my family (not voluntarily). When Jesus compared
the start of the Christian life to a birth, which type of `joining' did
He have in mind?"
"The second, I guess," I said reluctantly.
"And which type of joining is presented in most modern evangelism?"
"The first." I didn't know why I felt so miserable.
"Exactly. One of the major problems we have in the church today
is the result of well-meaning but unbiblical recruiters, instead
of biblical evangelists. We have even fallen to the point where we
have borrowed, on a large scale, techniques of recruitment from the world."
"How would you summarize this point about the verb `be born'?"
"By saying that if the new birth is what many describe it to be,
there is no way to express in the language of birth what is happening. Birth
would be an extremely clumsy metaphor for what is happening. How does one
I turned to the next point. "You said that there were several verses
that make your point about the new birth."
Pastor Spencer nodded. "Turn to James 1:18. Why don't you read it
"Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that
we might be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures."
"Notice it does not say, `Of our own will He brought us forth
by the word of truth. . . ."
"Where is the other passage you had in mind?"
I turned the pages slowly, thinking hard.
"But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become
children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not
of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."
I looked at Pastor Spencer. "Do you believe there are no
legitimate questions about what you are saying?"
He laughed. "I would have to be an insufferable coxcomb to say something
like that. Someone could say, for example, that some passive verbs can be
obeyed by us--`be filled with the Spirit'--and he could point out that
God gives the right to become His children to those who received Him because
they received Him. But of course I believe such objections, while valid,
can still be answered."
"There is one thing I still don't understand," I said. "I
began by asking whether or not we are splitting theological hairs in our
discussions. What practical difference does this all make? I mean, an average
non-Christian isn't going to know whether the man preaching to him believes
what you are saying or not. So why bother with it? Why don't we just preach
"To say that the non-Christian could not tell the difference is
not to say there is no difference."
"What does that mean?"
"Does this make any difference to the evangelist? How he
prays, prepares, preaches?"
"What difference could it make?"
"The two preachers have a completely different understanding of
their respective tasks. The one believes himself to be going to the sick,
supplied by God with the proper medicine, and his task is to persuade the
patients to take the medicine. The other man is going, like Ezekiel, to
preach in a graveyard."
"The Lord told him to prophesy to a valley full of dry bones. I
dare say that Ezekiel did so with the full knowledge that if something were
to happen it would have to be the result of the Spirit's work. It certainly
would not be because of anything Ezekiel did in his own power."
"But all evangelists know that God must empower them. . . ."
"Yes, but to do what? The one seeks to raise consciousness,
while the other seeks to raise the dead. All godly evangelists seek to be
dependent upon God in the performance of their task; but their respective
theologies will determine their understanding of that task. Believe me,
I have preached the gospel both ways, and I know the difference it makes."
I scratched my chin thoughtfully. "So you are saying that Calvinism
will result in powerful evangelism. . . ."
"No. And please don't call it Calvinism."
I laughed. "I can't talk about it without words. What do you want
me to call it?"
"Well, we are talking about the new birth. Let's call it the new
"OK, OK. Why did you say `No'?"
"There have been many Christians with an accurate understanding
of the gospel who have done little or nothing with it. There have been others
who, like Apollos, have done a lot with a deficient understanding."
"So this means. . . ."
"It means that if a man is empowered by the Spirit of God, more
use will be made of him if he has an accurate understanding of the new birth."
Pastor Spencer grinned. "People who compare George Whitefield with
John Wesley are being, shall we say, unscientific? The real question is
whether Wesley would have been more powerful had he understood this, and
whether Whitefield would have been less powerful had he not. And these questions
cannot be answered through historical study; half of the comparision you
must make didn't happen. Consequently we are driven to the Scriptures to
settle the matter."
"Right," I said, "Back to the Scriptures."
But, as soon as the soul is born again of the Spirit of God, as soon as it sees his light and his beauty, repentance (turning from his former sins) and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as a perfect Savior well up in that soul as natural expressions of the new creation. . . . It is impossible that man, who is in darkness, could ever of himself repent of his sins. `Can an evil tree bring forth good fruit?' No--as soon as the heart of stone has been removed, and the heart of flesh implanted, repentance and faith follow, for the man has been made a partaker of the divine nature.
- Cheeseman, Gardner, Sadgrove, & Wright
My friends, we mistake a historical faith for a true faith, wrought in the heart by the Spirit of God. You fancy you believe, because you believe there is such a book as we call the Bible--because you go to church; all this you may do, and have no true faith in Christ. Merely to believe there was such a person as Christ . . . will do you no good, more than to believe there was such a man as Caesar or Alexander the Great. . . . My dear friends, there must be a principle wrought in the heart by the Spirit of the living God.
- George Whitefield
There is as real a resurrection of the soul, by the trumpet of the gospel, accompanied with the vigorous efficacy of the Holy Ghost, as there shall be of bodies by the voice of the Son of God, at the sound of the trumpet of the archangel.
- Stephen Charnock
Therefore the Scripture doth not represent men in a trance or sleep, but dead; and so it is not only an awakening, but a quickening, a resurrection. . . . Add what you will, without introducing another form, it will be of no more efficacy, than flowers and perfumes strewed upon a dead carcass, to restore it to life, and remove the rottenness. . . . It is called a new creature, a new man; not an improved creature, or a new dressed man. . . . Put the most delicious meat into the mouth of a dead man, you do not nourish him, because he wants a principle of life to concoct and digest it.
- Stephen Charnock
Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever. . . .
- 1 Peter 1:22-23
When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own;
When I see Thee as Thou art,
Love Thee with unsinning heart;
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe.
If this privilege is ours it is because the Holy Spirit willed it and here all rests upon the Holy Spirit's decision and action. He begets or bears when and where he pleases. Is this not the burden of verse 8? [of John 3 -- ed.] Jesus there compares the action of the Spirit to the action of the wind. The wind blows--this serves to illustrate the factuality, the certainty, the efficacy of the Spirit's action. The wind blows where it wills--this enforces the sovereignty of the Spirit's action. The wind is not at our beck and call; neither is the regenerative operation of the Spirit.
- John Murray