By John Wesley (1703 – 1791)
“Ye must be born again.” John 3:7.
1. If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two, — the doctrine of justification, and that of the new birth: The former relating to that great work which God does for us, in forgiving our sins; the latter, to the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature. In order of time, neither of these is before the other: in the moment we are justified by the grace of God, through the redemption that is in Jesus, we are also “born of the Spirit;” but in order of thinking, as it is termed, justification precedes the new birth. We first conceive his wrath to be turned away, and then his Spirit to work in our hearts.
2. How great importance then must it be of, to every child of man, thoroughly to understand these fundamental doctrines! From a full conviction of this, many excellent men have wrote very largely concerning justification, explaining every point relating thereto, and opening the Scriptures which treat upon it. Many likewise have wrote on the new birth: And some of them largely enough; but yet not so clearly as might have been desired, nor so deeply and accurately; having either given a dark, abstruse account of it, or a slight and superficial one. Therefore a full, and at the same time a clear, account of the new birth, seems to be wanting still; such as may enable us to give a satisfactory answer to these three questions: First, Why must we be born again? What is the foundation of this doctrine of the new birth? Secondly, How must we be born again? What is the nature of the new birth? And, Thirdly, Wherefore must we be born again? To what end is it necessary? These questions, by the assistance of God, I shall briefly and plainly answer; and then subjoin a few inferences which will naturally follow.
I. 1. And, First, Why must we be born again? What is the foundation of this doctrine? The foundation of it lies near as deep as the creation of the world; in the scriptural account whereof we read, “And God,” the three-one God, “said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him:” (Gen. 1:26, 27:) — Not barely in his natural image, a picture of his own immortality; a spiritual being, endued with understanding, freedom of will, and various affections; — nor merely in his political image, the governor of this lower world, having “dominion over the fishes of the sea, and over all the earth;” — but chiefly in his moral image; which, according to the Apostle, is “righteousness and true holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24) in this image of God was man made. “God is love:” Accordingly, man at his creation was full of love; which was the sole principle of all his tempers, thoughts, words, and actions. God is full of justice, mercy, and truth; so was man as he came from the hands of his Creator. God is spotless purity; and so man was in the beginning pure from every sinful blot; otherwise God could not have pronounced him, as well as all the other work of his hands, “very good” (Genesis 1:31) This he could not have been, had he not been pure from sin, and filled with righteousness and true holiness. For there is no medium: If we suppose and intelligent creature not to love God, not to be righteous and holy, we necessarily suppose him not to be good at all; much less to be “very good.”
2. But, although man was made in the image of God, yet he was not made immutable. This would have been inconsistent with the state of trial in which God was pleased to place him. He was therefore created able to stand, and yet liable to fall. And this God himself apprised him of, and gave him a solemn warning against it. Nevertheless, man did not abide in honor: He fell from his high estate. He “ate of the tree whereof the Lord had commanded him, Thou shalt not eat thereof.” By this willful act of disobedience to his Creator, this flat rebellion against his Sovereign, he openly declared that he would no longer have God to rule over him; That he would be governed by his own will, and not the will of Him that created him; and that he would not seek his happiness in God, but in the world, in the works of his hands. Now, God had told him before, “In the day that thou eatest” of that fruit, “thou shalt surely die.” And the word of the Lord cannot be broken. Accordingly, in that day he did die: He died to God, — the most dreadful of all deaths. He lost the life of God: He was separated from Him, in union with whom his spiritual life consisted. The body dies when it is separated from the soul; the soul, when it is separated from God. But this separation from God, Adam sustained in the day, the hour, he ate of the forbidden fruit. And of this he gave immediate proof; presently showing by his behavior, that the love of God was extinguished in his soul, which was now “alienated from the life of God.” Instead of this, he was now under the power of servile fear, so that he fled from the presence of the Lord. Yea, so little did he retain even of the knowledge of Him who filleth heaven and earth, that he endeavored to “hide himself from the Lord God among the trees of the garden:” (Gen. 3:8:) So had he lost both the knowledge and the love of God, without which the image of God could not subsist. Of this, therefore, he was deprived at the same time, and became unholy as well as unhappy. In the room of this, he had sunk into pride and self-will, the very image of the devil; and into sensual appetites and desires, the image of the beasts that perish.
3. If it be said, “Nay, but that threatening, ‘ In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die,’ refers to temporal death, and that alone, to the death of the body only;” the answer is plain: To affirm this is flatly and palpably to make God a liar; to aver that the God of truth positively affirmed a thing contrary to truth. For it is evident, Adam did not die in this sense, “in the day that he ate thereof.” He lived, in the sense opposite to this death, above nine hundred years after. So that this cannot possibly be understood of the death of the body, without impeaching the veracity of God. It must therefore be understood of spiritual death, the loss of the life and image of God.
4. And in Adam all died, all human kind, all the children of men who were then in Adam’s loins. The natural consequence of this is, that every one descended from him comes into the world spiritually dead, dead to God, wholly dead in sin; entirely void of the life of God; void of the image of God, of all that righteousness and holiness wherein Adam was created. Instead of this, every man born into the world now bears the image of the devil in pride and self-will; the image of the beast, in sensual appetites and desires. This, then, is the foundation of the new birth, — the entire corruption of our nature. Hence it is, that, being born in sin, we must be “born again.” Hence every one that is born of a woman must be born of the Spirit of God.
II. 1. But how must a man be born again? What is the nature of the new birth? This is the Second question. And a question it is of the highest moment that can be conceived. We ought not, therefore, in so weighty a concern, to be content with a slight inquiry; but to examine it with all possible care, and to ponder it in our hearts, till we fully understand this important point, and clearly see how we are to be born again.
2. Not that we are to expect any minute, philosophical account of the manner how this is done. Our Lord sufficiently guards us against any such expectation, by the words immediately following the text; wherein he reminds Nicodemus of as indisputable a fact as any in the whole compass of nature, which, notwithstanding, the wisest man under the sun is not able fully to explain. “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” — not by thy power or wisdom; “and thou hearest the sound thereof;” — thou art absolutely assured, beyond all doubt, that it doth blow; “but thou canst not tell whence it cometh, nor whither it goeth;” — the precise manner how it begins and ends, rises and falls, no man can tell. “So is every one that is born of the Spirit:” — Thou mayest be as absolutely assured of the fact, as of the blowing of the wind; but the precise manner how it is done, how the Holy Spirit works this in the soul, neither thou nor the wisest of the children of men is able to explain.
3. However, it suffices for every rational and Christian purpose, that, without descending into curious, critical inquiries, we can give a plain scriptural account of the nature of the new birth. This will satisfy every reasonable man, who desires only the salvation of his soul. The expression, “being born again,” was not first used by our Lord in his conversation with Nicodemus: It was well known before that time, and was in common use among the Jews when our Savior appeared among them. When an adult Heathen was convinced that the Jewish religion was of God, and desired to join therein, it was the custom to baptize him first, before he was admitted to circumcision. And when he was baptized, he was said to be born again; by which they meant, that he who was before a child of the devil was now adopted into the family of God, and accounted one of his children. This expression, therefore, which Nicodemus, being “a Teacher in Israel,” ought to have understood well, our Lord uses in conversing with him; only in a stronger sense than he was accustomed to. And this might be the reason of his asking, “How can these things be?” They cannot be literally: — A man cannot “enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born:” — But they may spiritually: A man may be born from above, born of God, born of the Spirit, in a manner which bears a very near analogy to the natural birth.
4. Before a child is born into the world he has eyes, but sees not; he has ears, but does not hear. He has a very imperfect use of any other sense. He has no knowledge of any of the things of the world, or any natural understanding. To that manner of existence which he then has, we do not even give the name of life. It is then only when a man is born, that we say he begins to live. For as soon as he is born, be begins to see the light, and the various objects with which he is encompassed. His ears are then opened, and he hears the sounds which successively strike upon them. At the same time, all the other organs of sense begin to be exercised upon their proper objects. He likewise breathes, and lives in a manner wholly different from what he did before. How exactly doth the parallel hold in all these instances! While a man is in a mere natural state, before he is born of God, he has, in a spiritual sense, eyes and sees not; a thick impenetrable veil lies upon them; he has ears, but hears not; he is utterly deaf to what he is most of all concerned to hear. His other spiritual senses are all locked up: He is in the same condition as if he had them not. Hence he has no knowledge of God; no intercourse with him; he is not at all acquainted with him. He has no true knowledge of the things of God, either of spiritual or eternal things; therefore, though he is a living man, he is a dead Christian. But as soon as he is born of God, there is a total change in all these particulars. The “eyes of his understanding are opened;” (such is the language of the great Apostle;) and, He who of old “commanded light to shine out of darkness shining on his heart, he sees the light of the glory of God,” his glorious love, “in the face of Jesus Christ.” His ears being opened, he is now capable of hearing the inward voice of God, saying, “Be of good cheer; thy sins are forgiven thee;” “go and sin no more.” This is the purport of what God speaks to his heart; although perhaps not in these very words. He is now ready to hear whatsoever “He that teacheth man knowledge” is pleased, from time to time, to reveal to him. He “feels in his heart,” to use the language of our Church, “the mighty working of the Spirit of God;” not in a gross, carnal sense as the men of the world stupidly and willfully misunderstand the expression; though they have been told again and again, we mean thereby neither more nor less than this: He feels, is inwardly sensible of, the graces which the Spirit of god works in his heart. He feels, he is conscious of, a “peace which passeth all understanding.” He many times feels such a joy in God as is “unspeakable, and full of glory.” He feels “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto him;” and all his spiritual senses are then exercised to discern spiritual good and evil. By the use of these, he is daily increasing in the knowledge of God, of Jesus Christ whom he hath sent and to all the things pertaining to his inward kingdom. And now he may be properly said to live: God having quickened him by his Spirit, he is alive to God through Jesus Christ. He lives a life which the world knoweth not of, a “life which is hid with Christ in God.” God is continually breathing, as it were, upon the soul; and his soul is breathing unto God. Grace is descending into his heart; and prayer and praise ascending to heaven: And by this intercourse between God and man, this fellowship with the Father and the Son, as by a kind of spiritual respiration, the life of God in the soul is sustained; and the child of God grows up, till he comes to the “full measure of the stature of Christ.”
5. From hence it manifestly appears, what is the nature of the new birth. It is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is “created anew in Christ Jesus;” when it is “renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness;” when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all mankind. In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the “mind which was in Christ Jesus.” This is the nature of the new birth: “So is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
III. 1. It is not difficult for any who has considered these things, to see the necessity of the new birth, and to answer the Third question, Wherefore, to what end, is it necessary that we should be born again? It is very easily discerned, that this is necessary, First, in order to holiness. For what is holiness according to the oracles of God? Not a bare external religion, a round of outward duties, how many soever they be, and how exactly soever performed. No: Gospel holiness is no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart; it is no other than the whole mind which was in Christ Jesus; it consists of all heavenly affections and tempers mingled together in one. It implies such a continual, thankful love to Him who hath not withheld from us his Son, his only son, as makes it natural, and in a manner necessary to us, to love every child of man; as fills us “with bowels of mercies, kindness, gentleness, long-suffering:” It is such a love of God as teaches us to be blameless in all manner of conversation; as enables us to present our souls and bodies, all we are and all we have, all our thoughts, words, and actions, a continual sacrifice to God, acceptable through Christ Jesus. Now, this holiness can have no existence till we are renewed in the image of our mind. It cannot commence in the soul till that change be wrought; till, by the power of the Highest overshadowing us, we are “brought from darkness to light, from the power of Satan unto God;” that is, till we are born again; which, therefore, is absolutely necessary in order to holiness.
2. But “without holiness no man shall see the Lord,” shall see the face of God in glory. Of consequence, the new birth is absolutely necessary in order to eternal salvation. Men may indeed flatter themselves (so desperately wicked and so deceitful is the heart of man!) that they may live in their sins till they come to the last gasp, and yet afterwards live with God; and thousands do really believe, that they have found a broad way which leadeth not to destruction. “What danger,” say they, “can a woman be in that is so harmless and so virtuous? What fear is there that so honest a man, one of so strict morality, should miss of heaven; especially if, over and above all this, they constantly attend on church and sacrament?” One of these will ask with all assurance, “What! Shall not I do as well as my neighbors?” Yes as well as your unholy neighbors; as well as your neighbors that die in their sins! For you will all drop into the pit together, into the nethermost hell! You will all lie together in the lake of fire; “the lake of fire burning with brimstone.” Then, at length, you will see (but God grant you may see it before!) the necessity of holiness in order to glory; and, consequently, of the new birth, since none can be holy, except he be born again.
3. For the same reason, except he be born again, none can be happy even in this world. For it is not possible, in the nature of things, that a man should be happy who is not holy. Even the poor, ungodly poet could tell us, _Nemo malus felix_: “no wicked man is happy.” The reason is plain: All unholy tempers are uneasy tempers: Not only malice, hatred, envy jealousy, revenge, create a present hell in the breast; but even the softer passions, if not kept within due bounds, give a thousand times more pain than pleasure. Even “hope,” when “deferred,” (and how often must this be the case!) “maketh the heart sick;” and every desire which is not according to the will of God is liable to “pierce” us “through with many sorrows:” And all those general sources of sin — pride, self-will, and idolatry — are, in the same proportion as they prevail, general sources of misery. Therefore, as long as these reign in any soul, happiness has no place there. But they must reign till the bent of our nature is changed, that is, till we are born again; consequently, the new birth is absolutely necessary in order to happiness in this world, as well as in the world to come.
IV. I proposed in the Last place to subjoin a few inferences, which naturally follow from the preceding observations.
1. And, First, it follows, that baptism is not the new birth: They are not one and the same thing. Many indeed seem to imagine that they are just the same; at least, they speak as if they thought so; but I do not know that this opinion is publicly avowed by any denomination of Christians whatever. Certainly it is not by any within these kingdoms, whether of the established Church, or dissenting from it. The judgment of the latter is clearly declared in the large Catechism: [Q. 163, 165. — Ed.] — Q. “What are the parts of a sacrament? A. The parts of a sacrament are two: The one an outward and sensible sign; the other, and inward and spiritual grace, thereby signified. — Q. What is baptism? A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water, to be a sign and seal of regeneration by his Spirit.” Here it is manifest, baptism, the sign, is spoken of as distinct from regeneration, the thing signified.
In the Church Catechism likewise, the judgment of our Church is declared with the utmost clearness: “What meanest thou by this word, sacrament? A. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Q. What is the outward part or form in baptism? A. Water, wherein the person is baptized, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Q. What is the inward part, or thing signified? A. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness.” Nothing, therefore, is plainer than that, according to the Church of England, baptism is not the new birth.
But indeed the reason of the thing is so clear and evident, as not to need any other authority. For what can be more plain, than the one is a visible, the and invisible thing, and therefore wholly different from each other? — the one being an act of man, purifying the body; the other a change wrought by God in the soul: So that the former is just as distinguishable from the latter, as the soul from the body, or water from the Holy Ghost.
2. From the preceding reflections we may, Secondly, observe, that as the new birth is not the same thing with baptism, so it does not always accompany baptism: They do not constantly go together. A man my possibly be “born of water,” and yet not be “born of the Spirit.” There may sometimes be the outward sign, where there is not the inward grace. I do not now speak with regard to infants: It is certain our Church supposes that all who are baptized in their infancy are at the same time born again; and it is allowed that the whole Office for the Baptism of Infants proceeds upon this supposition. Nor is it an objection of any weight against this, that we cannot comprehend how this work can be wrought I infants. For neither can we comprehend how it is wrought in a person of riper years. But whatever be the case with infants, it is sure all of riper years who are baptized are not at the same time born again. “The tree is known by its fruits:” And hereby it appears too plain to be denied, that divers of those who were children of the devil before they were baptized continue the same after baptism: “for the works of their father they do:” They continue servants of sin, without any pretense either to inward or outward holiness.
3. A Third inference which we may draw from what has been observed, is, that the new birth is not the same with sanctification. This is indeed taken for granted by many; particularly by an eminent writer, in his late treatise on “The Nature and Grounds of Christian Regeneration.” To wave several other weighty objections which might be made to that tract, this is a palpable one: It all along speaks of regeneration as a progressive work, carried on in the soul by slow degrees, from the time of our first turning to God. This is undeniably true of sanctification; but of regeneration, the new birth, it is not true. This is a part of sanctification, not the whole; it is the gate to it, the entrance into it. When we are born again, then our sanctification, our inward and outward holiness, begins; and thenceforward we are gradually to “grow up in Him who is our Head.” This expression of the Apostle admirably illustrates the difference between one and the other, and farther points out the exact analogy there is between natural and spiritual things. A child is born of a woman in a moment, or at least in a very short time: Afterward he gradually and slowly grows, till he attains to the stature of a man. In like manner, a child is born of God in a short time, if not in a moment. But it is by slow degrees that he afterward grows up to the measure of the full stature of Christ. The same relation, therefore, which there is between our natural birth and our growth, there is also between our new birth and our sanctification.
4. One point more we may learn from the preceding observations. But it is a point of so great importance, as my excuse the considering it the more carefully, and prosecuting it at some length. What must one who loves the souls of men, and is grieved that any of them should perish, say to one whom he sees living in sabbath-breaking, drunkenness, or any other willful sin? What can he say, if the foregoing observations are true, but, “You must be born again?” “No,” says a zealous man, “that cannot be. How can you talk so uncharitably to the man? Has he not been baptized already? He cannot be born again now.” Can he not be born again? Do you affirm this? Then he cannot be saved. Though he be as old as Nicodemus was, yet “except he be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Therefore in saying, “He cannot be born again,” you in effect deliver him over to damnation. And where lies the uncharitableness now? — on my side, or on yours? I say, he may be born again, and so become an heir of salvation. You say, “He cannot be born again:” And if so, he must inevitably perish! So you utterly block up his way to salvation, and send him to hell, out of mere charity!
But perhaps the sinner himself, to whom in real charity we say, “You must be born again,” has been taught to say, “I defy your new doctrine; I need not be born again: I was born again when I was baptized. What! Would you have me deny my baptism?” I answer, First, There is nothing under heaven which can excuse a lie; otherwise I should say to an open sinner, If you have been baptized, do not own it. For how highly does this aggravate your guilt! How will it increase your damnation! Was you devoted to God at eight days old, and have you been all these years devoting yourself to the devil? Was you, even before you had the use of reason, consecrated to God the Father, the son, and the Holy Ghost? And have you, ever since you had the use of it, been flying in the face of God, and consecrating yourself to Satan? Does the abomination of desolation — the love of the word, pride, anger, lust, foolish desire, and a whole train of vile affections — stand where it ought not? Have you set up all the accursed things in that soul which was once a temple of the Holy Ghost; set apart for an “habitation of God, through the Spirit;” yea, solemnly given up to him? And do you glory in this, that you once belonged to God? O be ashamed ! blush ! hide yourself in the earth ! Never boast more of what ought to fill you with confusion, to make you ashamed before God and man! I answer, Secondly, You have already denied your baptism; and that in the most effectual manner. You have denied it a thousand and a thousand times; and you do so still, day by day. For in your baptism you renounced the devil and all his works. Whenever, therefore, you give place to him again, whenever you do any of the works of the devil, then you deny your baptism. Therefore you deny it by every willful sin; by every act of uncleanness, drunkenness, or revenge; by every obscene or profane word; by every oath that comes out of your mouth. Every time you profane the day of the Lord, you thereby deny your baptism; yea, every time you do any thing to another which you would not he should do to you. I answer, Thirdly, Be you baptized or unbaptized, “you must be born again;” otherwise it is not possible you should be inwardly holy; and without inward as well as outward holiness, you cannot be happy, even in this world, much less in the world to come. Do you say, “Nay, but I do no harm to any man; I am honest and just in all my dealings; I do not curse, or take the Lord’s name in vain; I do not profane the Lord’s day; I am no drunkard; I do not slander my neighbor, nor live in any willful sin?” If this be so, it were much to be wished that all men went as far as you do. But you must go farther yet, or you cannot be saved: Still, “you must be born again.” Do you add, “I do go farther yet; for I not only do no harm, but do all the good I can?” I doubt that fact; I fear you have had a thousand opportunities of doing good which you have suffered to pass by unimproved, and for which therefore you are accountable to God. But if you had improved them all, if you really had done all the good you possibly could to all men, yet this does not at all alter the case; still, “you must be born again.” Without this nothing will do any good to your poor, sinful, polluted soul. “Nay, but I constantly attend all the ordinances of God: I keep to my church and sacrament.” It is well you do: But all this will not keep you from hell, except you be born again. Go to church twice a day; go to the Lord’s table every week; say ever so many prayers in private; hear ever so many good sermons; read ever so many good books; still, “you must be born again:” None of these things will stand in the place of the new birth; no, nor any thing under heaven. Let this therefore, if you have not already experienced this inward work of God, be your continual prayer: “Lord, add this to all thy blessings, — let me be born again! Deny whatever thou pleasest, but deny not this; let me be ‘born from above!’ Take away whatsoever seemeth thee good, — reputation, fortune, friends, health, — only give me this, to be born of the Spirit, to be received among the children of God! Let me be born, ‘not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever;’ and then let be daily ‘grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!'”