THERE is a progress of Divine truth and of Christian experience. All God's works, whether in creation or redemption, have a beginning, a development, and a completion. Of the spiritual world, as well as of the natural world, the law is: "First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear." (Mark iv. 28.)
Holiness is not the first step in Christian experience. The new birth is the starting point. Before we can know Christ as our Sanctifier, we must know Him as our Saviour. Before spiritual life can be deepened, it must be received.
There is no fact more clearly revealed in the Scriptures than that man is a wanderer from God. Like the prodigal son he has left his Father's house. This is the first scene in the drama of redemption:-the race of Adam is lost. Man is a sinner-a rebel against God; and as the result of sin his mind is darkened, his heart degraded, and his will depraved.
"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was evil continually." (Genesis vi. 5.)
"Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one." (Job xiv. 4.)
"What is man that he should be clean? and he that is born of woman, that he should be righteous?" (Job xv. 14.)
"Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." (Psalm Ii. 5.)
"The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies." (Psalm lviii. 3.)
"There is not a just man on earth, that doeth good and sinneth not." (Ecclesiastes vii. 20.)
"Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, blasphemies." (Matthew xv. 19.)
"As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one.
"There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one." (Romans iii. 10-12.)
"All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." (Romans iii. 23.)
"Wherefore, as by one man sin came into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. (Romans v. 12.)
"Among whom also we all had our conversation, in times past, in the lusts of the flesh; fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature the children of wrath even as others." (Ephesians ii. 3.)
"Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their hearts." (Ephesians iv. 18.)
But, saddest of all, the world does not know its doom. Sinners are blinded to their lost estate. Like the wretched prodigal, they are in a "far country," wasting their substance "with riotous living." They have no sense of impending peril, and are giving themselves up to the engrossing pressure of business or the gay pursuit of pleasure.
The sinner is like a little girl, who was found crying on the street of a great city.
"My child," said a kind-hearted policeman, who found her, "you are lost; come with me."
"No," replied the little one, "I am not lost. I am all right; but my mamma is lost."
So today sinners are wondering where God is: some are doubting His existence; others are questioning His love and providential care. Yet men and women are lost; and Jesus Christ "came to seek and save that which was lost." In the ear of every poor sinner rings the question which God asked His first wandering child, "Adam, where art thou?" Sinner, you are lost, lost! LOST!! Do you realize that you are "without Christ *** having no hope, and without God in the world?" (Ephesians ii. 12.)
The next scene in the working out of redemption is the Father's love. Man forsook God: God did not forsake man. The father in the parable of the prodigal son represents God. It grieved the father to have his boy leave home and go out alone in the world. Yet he did not forcibly detain his son. Contrary to his father's wishes the young man made his choice, and had to abide by the consequences, disastrous as they were, Although grief filled his heart, yet the father ceased not to love his son. He did more: He saw to it that on his own part there was no obstacle in the way of the wanderer's return at any time. He kept the latch-string out and a light always burning in the window. Every morning and evening he climbed the hilltop in front of the house, and shading his eyes with his hands looked eagerly and anxiously for any sign of his wandering boy's return.
This is a picture of the heart of God. Although man disobeyed God, yet God did not cease to love him. He grieved over his rebellion and yearned for his return. But God went farther than the father in the parable. He took active measures toward the sinner's return. His heart prompted, His wisdom devised, and His power provided a way of redemption. This brings us to the third picture of salvation-the cross. We are apt to get the matter wrong. We think that God loves us, because Christ died for us. Whereas it is just the other way: Christ died for us, because God loves us. Listen!
"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." (John iii. 16.)
"For God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans v. 8.)
The cross of Christ tells the story of the love of God for a lost race. Christ died for sinners. This is the heart of the Gospel. The innocent Son of God took the place of the guilty son of Adam. Christ took the place of the sinner in judgment and Himself bore the penalty of his sin. This is the meaning of the blood.
Sinner, have you had a vision of the cross? Do you realize that Christ died for you and on the "cruel tree" bore your sins? More than this; do you see that in the person of your substitute, if you accept Jesus Christ as your Substitute, you have been executed, and that now the law of God has no claim against you? Do you know that by His death the Lord Jesus has reconciled you to God? Do you know that by simple faith the Saviour may be yours, and that you may have peace with God? Only sin can blind you to these glorious truths. Oh, look to Jesus and live!
"There is life for a look at the Crucified One."
The next picture in the pilgrim's progress is the wanderer's decision to return to his Father's house. It was while he was tending swine and feeding on husks that the prodigal "came to himself," remembered the abundance of his father's house, and resolved to go back. He exclaimed: "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, 'Father I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy servants.'"
Spiritually, this means that at last the eyes of the sinner are open; he sees his lost condition; and he decides to return to Christ. Two steps will bring the sinner to the Saviour. One is repentance; and the other is faith. The result of taking these two steps is conversion. Strictly speaking, conversion is a human process rather than a Divine work; the word means, literally, "a turning around." The sinner performs the military evolution of "right about face." Instead of facing the world he now faces God.
The first step in conversion is repentance. The Greek word, metanoia, signifies, literally, "a change of mind." Thus Jesus said, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the Gospel." (Mark i. 15.) There are three things in repentance, namely: First, a recognition of sin. This is an intellectual process. Second, a godly sorrow for sin. This is an emotional element. It is deep, sincere contrition of heart. Yet of itself it does not save. There is needed the third factor: A forsaking of sin. This is a decision of the will. It is the actual turning away from sin. Sam Jones expresses it:
"Quit your meanness." Repentance is the fruit of conviction of sin. No one can produce conviction of sin in his own heart; it is the work of the Holy Spirit. "And when He is come, He will convince (convict) the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment." (John xvi. 8.)
Just as repentance is a turning from sin, so faith is a turning towards God. In nature faith is, in part, certainty and, in part, trust. In one aspect it is a kind of sixth sense-a spiritual sense, taking the place of evidence in material things.
"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews xi. 1.)
It is commonly said "Seeing is believing." But in reality the opposite of this is the truth:
"Believing is seeing." That is, believing is spiritual sight. One who believes requires no other proof: his faith is his proof. But in another aspect faith is trust; a reliance of the soul upon God.
"Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass" (literally, He worketh.) (Psalm xxxvii. 5.)
As to its source, faith is both human and Divine. By the mysterious and gracious working of the Holy Spirit the sinner can believe upon Christ for salvation, and God requires him to do it. Thus, the Philippian jailer inquired of Paul and Silas:
"Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." (Acts xvi. 31.)
In the decision of his will to believe, God meets the sinner with the gracious power to believe. Thus faith is the gift of God and the fruit of the Spirit.
"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God." (Ephesians ii. 8.)
"But the fruit of the Spirit is......faith. (Galatians v. 22.)
There is a point, however, where our faith breaks down; and we have to receive the faith of God. Yea, more; we must take Christ to believe in us. Paul exclaimed, "the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me." (Galatians ii. 20.)
Now, conversion must be sound and thorough. Along with repentance must go, when necessary, reparation and restitution. Reparation means the repairing of an injury. For example, if anything unkind or unjust has been said or done, it must be rectified by confession and reconciliation. Restitution means the restoring of that which does not belong to one. For example, if before conversion, a fraud has been practised or a theft committed, the matter must be made right by confession and restoration. Confession alone is not sufficient; the stolen goods must be returned; or if that be impossible, the just equivalent must be given. In similar circumstances Zaccheus restored fourfold. (Luke xix. 8.)
The final picture of the sinner's return is one of reconciliation and restoration. The prodigal son "arose, and came to his father." And when he reached his father's house he found a welcome in his father's heart. The old man ran to meet the returning wanderer, and fell on his neck and kissed him. The boy had a set speech ready; but he either forgot the latter part or was not permitted to finish it. The father had the best robe put upon his son, and a ring placed on his hand, and shoes on his feet. The fatted calf was killed, and the whole household began to eat and be merry. The father's heart was bursting with joy, as he exclaimed:
"For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." Sinner, may you like the prodigal son, not only "come to yourself," but also "arise and go to your Father." God has come far more than half way. One step, and one step only, will bring you to His heart. This is the choice of your will. God pleads with you, but will not coerce you. "Turn ye, turn ye; for why will ye die." Sinner, backslider, this is the hour of mercy. Oh, sinner, close in with God! Take Christ as your Saviour. Oh, backslider, return now unto your Father's house! Then God will clothe you with the garment of salvation-the robe of Christ's righteousness; give you the kiss of reconciliation; put on your hand the ring of restored fellowship; clad your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; and there will be joy in heaven among the angels over the sinner that repenteth and over the backslider that returneth to his Father's house.
This transformation of a sinner into a believer is known in doctrinal language as justification and regeneration. These terms may be separated in thought but not in experience.
At the same time that God justifies He also regenerates. Let us look a little at these two things.
First, justification. The sinner is a law breaker and under sentence of punishment. In the act of justification God pardons him. But He does more than that; He treats the sinner as if he had never done wrong. In the Scriptures to justify means not to make righteous, but to declare righteous. It is a term taken from the usages of law, and describes a change in the standing of a person and not in his character. When justified, the sinner stands before the law of God, not merely as a guilty man who has been pardoned, but as an innocent man who never has done wrong. Understand clearly, it is not that the sinner is not guilty and deserving of punishment, but rather that because of Christ's death in his stead and because of his faith in Christ as his substitute the sinner is treated as if he were innocent. Thus, justification is obtained in a two-fold way, namely: first, by the blood of Christ; and second, by the faith of the sinner.
"Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." (Romans iii. 24.)
"Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans v. 1.)
Of course the blood of Christ means not only His death but His resurrection as well.
"Who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification." (Romans iv. 25.)
Second, regeneration. But now, what is regeneration? We have said that at the time God justifies He also regenerates. Well, justification changes the sinner's standing, but regeneration changes his character. Justification gives a new relationship to God, but regeneration gives a new life in God. In other words, justification is the legal transformation of a sinner into a believer, while regeneration is the actual transformation. There are quite a number of Scriptural descriptions of the change wrought in regeneration. Let us notice a few of them:
I. A new heart and a new spirit.
"A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel xxxvi. 26.)
Now, we must recognize that this verse is part of a passage which refers primarily to Israel, and is yet to be literally fulfilled in the future. But at the same time this section, chapter xxxvi. 25-38, has a deeply spiritual significance; and this verse may properly be taken as a promise of new life in Christ. The reader will notice that the thought of substitution is presented: the old is set aside, and the new is imparted. For the "stony heart" a "heart of flesh" or a "new heart" is given; and a "new spirit" is implanted.
II. Born again, or born "from above."
"Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again (literally from above), he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John iii. 3.)
Our Lord's conversation with Nicodemus in the third chapter of John may be regarded as a succession of contrasts. There is, first, the contrast between natural birth and spiritual birth. (verses 3-5.) Then there is, second, the contrast between the flesh and the spirit. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (v. 6.) And then there is, third, the contrast between "earthly things" and "heavenly things." (v. 12.) Now the point to be especially noted in this connection is that the new life in God, here described as "born again" and "born of the Spirit" is not of the earth, nor of the flesh; it is "from above" and "of the Spirit."
"Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." (John i. 13.)
III. A passing from death unto life.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation (literally, judgment); but is passed from death unto life." (John v. 24.)
Death is not only the separation of the soul from the body but also the separation of the soul from God. To be cut off from contact with God is death-moral death. Death is one of the terms used in the Scriptures to describe the condition of the sinner. And the imparting of spiritual life is described as a quickening from death.
"But God who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace are ye saved;)
"And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians ii. 4-6.)
IV. A new creation.
"Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (literally, creation); old things are passed away; behold all things are become new." (II. Corinthians v. 17.)
"For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature (literally, creation). (Galatians vi. 15.)
Here a radical distinction is made between natural life and spiritual life, between the old creation and the new creation. In Romans vi. 4, we read that we are to walk "in newness of life." In the New Testament there are two Greek adjectives, translated "new;" one is neos, denoting what is new in time; the other is kainos, signifying what is new in nature. The word "newness" in the phrase "newness of life" is a noun formed from the latter adjective, and denotes a new kind or quality of life. The only other occurrence of this Greek noun in the New Testament is in Romans vii. 6-"that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter,"-where the meaning is the same, viz., the new kind of life which we receive from the Holy Spirit.
"And He that sat upon the throne said: Behold, I make all things new." (Revelation xxi. 5.)
V. A partaking of the Divine nature.
"Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises; that by these ye might be partakers of the Divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust." (II. Peter i. 4.)
This is perhaps the nearest approach to a definition of any of the descriptions of regeneration which we have examined. Almost exclusively in the words of Scripture we may say, "to be born from above is to become a partaker of the Divine nature." Dr. A. J. Gordon says: "Regeneration is the communication of the Divine nature to man by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the Word." In the new birth there is both an operation of the Spirit of God and an agency of the Word of God.
"Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (John iii. 5.)
"Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever." (I. Peter I. 23.)
Mysterious in all its varied forms is the nature of life. All we know is something of its characteristics. We know, for example, that there are different grades of life, each grade separate and distinct from all the others. Thus, a product of the vegetable kingdom can never become a product of the animal kingdom. Between the two kingdoms there is an impassable gulf. Again, an animal can never develop into a man. The theory of evolution is now being abandoned by some of its former ablest supporters. To borrow a figure, your pet dog can never be as one of the children. It has the nature and mind of a dog; and no amount of petting or training can make it anything else but a dog. It cannot enter intelligently into the sympathies and interests of the family circle. In like manner, a sinner cannot grow into a Christian. The mightiest philosopher that ever lived can never by natural process become a child of God. Jesus said:
"That which is born of flesh is flesh: and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (John iii. 6.) An amiable disposition, a gentle spirit, a courteous manner, personal charm, and sterling worth-all these things are desirable and perhaps essential qualities of moral character, but of themselves they do not furnish evidence of the possession of spiritual life. The new birth is not education, nor culture, nor character. It is life, a new life, eternal life, the very life of God in the soul of man. As someone has said, "The Christian life is a Christ-life."