Arthur W. Pink
When the Lord Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6), He not only intimated that every man born into this world inherits a corrupt and fallen nature and therefore is unfit for the kingdom of God, but also that this corrupt nature can never be anything else but corrupt, so that no culture can fit it for the kingdom of God. Its tendencies may be restricted, its manifestations modified by education and circumstances, but its sinful tendencies and affections are still there. A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit, prune and trim it as you may. For good fruit, you must have a good tree or graft from one. Therefore did our Lord go on to say, “And that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” This brings us to consider the nature of regeneration.
We have now arrived at the most difficult part of our subject. Necessarily so, for we are about to contemplate the workings of God. These are ever mysterious, and nothing whatever can really be known about them, save what He Himself has revealed thereon in His Word. In endeavoring to ponder what He has said on His work of regeneration two dangers need to be guarded against: first, limiting our thoughts to any isolated statement thereon or any single figure the Spirit has employed to describe it. Second, reasoning from what He has said by carnalizing the figures He has employed. When referring to spiritual things, God has used terms which were originally intended (by man) to express material objects, hence we need to be constantly on our guard against transferring to the former erroneous ideas carried over from the latter. From this we shall be preserved if we diligently compare all that has been said on each subject.
In treating of the nature of regeneration much damage has been wrought, especially in recent years, by men confining their attention to a single figure, namely, that of the “new birth,” which is only one of many expressions used in the Scriptures to denote that mighty and miraculous work of God within His people which fits them for communion with Him. Thus, in Colossians 1:12-13, the same vital experience is spoken of as God’s having “made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.” Regeneration is the commencement of a new experience, which is so real and revolutionizing that the one who is the subject of this divine begetting is spoken of as “a new creature: old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new” (II Cor. 5:17). A new spiritual life has been imparted to the soul by God, so that the one receiving it is vitally implanted into Christ.
The nature of regeneration can, perhaps, be best perceived by comparing and contrasting it with what took place at the Fall, for though the person who is renewed by the Spirit receives more than what Adam lost by his rebellion, yet, the one is, really, God’s answer to the former. Now it is most important that we should clearly recognize that no faculty was lost by man when he fell. When he was created, God gave unto man a spirit, a soul, and a body. Thus, man was a tripartite being. When man fell, the divine threat “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die” was duly executed, and man died spiritually. But that does not mean that either his spirit or soul, or any part thereof, ceased to be, for in Scripture “death” never signifies annihilation, but is a state of separation. The prodigal son was “dead” while he was in the far country (Luke 15:24), because he was separated from his father. “Alienated from the life of God,” (Eph. 4:18) describes the fearful state of one who is unregenerated; so does “she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth” (I Tim. 5:6): that is, dead spiritually, dead Godward, while alive in sin—the spirit, soul, and body, each being active against God.
That which took place at the Fall was not the destruction of either portion of man’s threefold being, but the vitiating or corrupting of them. And that, by the introduction of a new principle within him, namely, sin, which is more of a quality than a substance. By the Fall man became possessed of a sinful “nature.” But let it be stated very emphatically that a “nature” is not a concrete entity, but rather that which characterizes and impells an entity or creature. It is the nature of gravitation to attract, it is the nature of the wind to blow, and it is the nature of fire to burn. A “nature” is not a tangible thing, but a principle of operation, a power impelling to action. Thus, when we say that fallen man possesses a “sinful nature,” it must not be understood that something as substantial as his soul or spirit was added to his being, but instead, that a principle of evil entered into him, which polluted and defiled every part of his constitution, as frost entering fruit spoils it.
At the Fall, man lost none of the faculties with which the Creator had originally endowed him, but he lost the power to use his faculties God-ward. All desire Godward; all love for his Maker, all real knowledge of Him, was lost. Sin possessed him: sin as a principle of evil, as a power of operation, as a defiling influence, took complete charge of his spirit and soul and body, so that he became the “servant” or slave “of sin” (John 8:34). As such, man is no more capable of producing that which is good, spiritual, and acceptable to God, than frost can burn or fire freeze: “they that are in the flesh [remain in their natural and fallen condition] cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). They have no power to do so, for all their faculties, every part of their being is completely under the dominion of sin. So completely is fallen man beneath the power of sin and spiritual death, that the things of the Spirit of God are “foolishness” unto him, “neither can he know them” (I Cor. 2:14).
Now that which takes place at regeneration is the reversing of what happened at the Fall. The one born again is, through Christ and by the Spirit’s operation, restored to union and communion with God; the one who before was spiritually dead, is now spiritually alive (John 5:24). Just as spiritual death was brought about by the entrance into man’s being of a principle of evil, so spiritual life is the introduction of a principle of holiness. God communicates a new principle, as real and as potent as sin. Divine grace is now imparted. A holy disposition is wrought in the soul. A new temper of spirit is bestowed upon the inner man. But no new faculties are created within him, rather are his original faculties enriched, ennobled, and empowered. Just as man did not become less than a threefold being when he fell, so he does not become more than a threefold being when he is renewed. Nor will he in heaven itself; his spirit and soul and body will simply be glorified, i.e., completely delivered from every taint of sin, and perfectly conformed to the image of God’s Son.
At regeneration a “new nature” is imparted by God. But again we need to be closely on our guard lest we carnalize our conception of what is denoted by that expression. Much confusion has been caused through failure to recognize that it is a person, and not merely a “nature,” which is born of the Spirit: “ye must be born again” (John 3:7), not merely something in you must be; “he which is born of God” (I John 3:9). The same person who was spiritually dead—his whole being, alienated from God—is now made spiritually alive: his whole being, reconciled to God. This must be so, or otherwise there would be no preservation of the identity of the individual. It is the person, and not simply a nature which is born of God: “Of his own will begat he us” (James 1:18). It is a new birth of the individual himself, and not of something in him. The nature is never changed, but the person is—relatively, but not absolutely.
The person of the regenerate man is essentially the same as the person of the unregenerate: each having spirit and soul and body. But just as in fallen man there is also a principle of evil which has corrupted every part of his threefold being, which “principle” is his “sinful nature” (so called because it expresses his evil disposition and character, as it is the “nature” of swine to be filthy), so when a person is born again another and new “principle” is introduced into his being, a new “nature” or disposition, a disposition which propels him Godward. Thus, in both cases “nature” is a quality rather than a substance. “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” must not be conceived of as something substantial, distinct from the soul of the regenerate, like one portion of matter added to another; rather is it that which spiritualizes all his inward faculties, as the “flesh” had carnalized them.
Again, “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” is to be carefully distinguished from that “spirit” which every man has in addition to his soul and body (see Num. 16:22; Eccles. 12:7; Zech. 12:1). That which is born of the Spirit is not something tangible, but that which is spiritual and holy, and that is a quality rather than a substance. In proof of this, compare the use of the word “spirit” in these passages: in James 4:5 the inclination and disposition to envy is called “the spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy.” In Luke 9:55 Christ said to His disciples, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of,” thereby signifying, ye are ignorant of what a fiery disposition is in your hearts. (See also Num. 5:14; Hos. 4:12; II Tim. 1:7.) That which is born of the Spirit is a principle of spiritual life, which renovates all the faculties of the soul.
Some help upon this mysterious part of our subject is to be obtained by noting that in such passages as John 3:6, etc., “spirit” is contrasted with “flesh.” Now it should scarcely need saying that “the flesh” is not a concrete entity, being quite distinct from the body. When the term “flesh” is used in a moral sense the reference is always to the corruption of fallen man’s nature. In Galatians 5:19-21 the “works of the flesh” are described, among them being “hatred” and “envyings,” in connection with which the body (as distinguished from the mind) is not implicated—clear proof that the “flesh” and the “body” are not synonymous terms. In Galatians 5 the “flesh” is used to designate those evil tendencies and affections which result in the sins there mentioned. Thus, the “flesh” refers to the degenerate state of man’s spirit and soul and body, as the “spirit” refers to the regenerate state of the spirit and soul—the regeneration of the body being yet future.
The privative (darkness is the privative of light) or negative side of regeneration is that divine grace gives a mortal wound to indwelling sin. Sin is not then eradicated nor totally slain in the believer, but it is divested of its reigning power over his faculties. The Christian is no longer the helpless slave of sin, for he resists it, fights against it, and to speak of a helpless victim “fighting,” is a contradiction in terms. At the new birth sin receives its deathblow, though its dying struggles within us are yet powerful, and acutely felt. Proof of what we have said is found in the fact that while sin’s solicitations were once agreeable to us, they are now hated. This aspect of regeneration is presented in Scripture under a variety of figures, such as the taking away of the heart of stone (Ezek. 36:26), the binding of the strong man (Matt. 12:29), etc. The absolute dominion of sin over us is destroyed by God (Rom. 6:14).
The positive side of regeneration is that divine grace effects a complete change in the state of the soul by infusing a principle of spiritual life, which renovates all its faculties. It is this which constitutes its subject a “new creature,” not in respect of his essence, but of his views, his desires, his aspirations, and his habits. Regeneration or the new birth is the divine communication of a powerful and revolutionizing principle into the soul and spirit, under the influence of which all their native faculties are exercised in a different manner from that in which they were formerly employed, and in this sense “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (II Cor. 5:17). His thoughts are “new,” the objects of his choice are “new,” his aims and motives are “new,” and thereby the whole of his external deportment is changed.
“By the grace of God I am what I am” (I Cor. 15:10). The reference here is to subjective grace. There is an objective grace, inherent in God, which is His love, favor, and goodwill for His elect. There is also a subjective grace which terminates on them, whereby a change is wrought in them. This is by the infusion of a principle of spiritual life, which is the spring of the Christian’s actions. This “principle” is called “a new heart” and a “new spirit” (Ezek. 36:26). It is a supernatural habit, residing in every faculty and power of the soul, as a principle of holy and spiritual operation. Some have spoken of this supernatural experience as a “change of heart.” If by this expression be meant that there is a change wrought in the fallen nature itself, as though that which is natural is transformed into that which is spiritual, as though that which was born of the flesh ceased to be “flesh,” and became that which is born of the Spirit, then the term is to be rejected. But if by this expression be meant an acknowledgment of the reality of the divine work which is wrought in those whom God regenerates, it is quite permissible.
When treating of regeneration under the figure of the new birth, some writers have introduced analogies from natural birth which Scripture by no means warrants, in fact disallows. Physical birth is the bringing forth into this world of a creature, a complete personality, which before conception had no existence whatever. But the one who is regenerated had a complete personality before he was born again. To this statement it may be objected, Not a spiritual personality! What is meant by this? Spirit and matter are opposites, and we only create confusion if we speak or think of that which is spiritual as being something concrete. Regeneration is not the creating of a person which hitherto had no existence, but the renewing and restoring of a person whom sin had unfitted for communion with God, and this by the communication of a nature or principle or life, which gives a new and different bias to all his old faculties. It is an altogether erroneous view to regard a Christian as made up of two distinct personalities.
As “justification” describes the change in the Christian’s objective relationship to God, so “regeneration” denotes that intrinsic subjective change which is wrought in the inclinations and tendencies of his soul Godward. This saving work of God within His people is likened unto a “birth” because it is the gateway into a new world, the beginning of an entirely new experience, and also because as the natural birth is an issuing from a place of darkness and confinement (the womb) into a state of light and liberty, so is the experience of the soul when the Spirit quickens us. But the very fact that this revolutionizing experience is also likened unto a resurrection (I John 3:14) should deliver us from forming a one-sided conception of what is meant by the “new birth” and the “new creature,” for resurrection is not the absolute creation of a new body, but the restoration and glorification of the old body. Regeneration is also called a divine “begetting” (I Peter 1:3), because the image or likeness of the Begetter is conveyed and stamped upon the soul. As the first Adam begat a son in his own image and likeness (Gen. 5:3), so the last Adam has an “image” (Rom. 8:29) to convey to His sons (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
It has often been said that in the Christian there are two distinct and diverse “natures,” namely, the “flesh” and the “spirit” (Gal. 5:17). This is true; yet care must be taken to avoid regarding these two “natures” as anything more than two principles of action. Thus, in Romans 7:23 the two “natures” or “principles” in the Christian are spoken of as, “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind.” The flesh and the spirit in the believer must be conceived of as something very different from the “two natures” in the blessed person of our Redeemer, the God-man. Both the Deity and humanity were substantial entities in Him. Moreover, the “two natures” in the saint result in a necessary conflict (Gal. 5:17), whereas in Christ there was not only complete harmony, but “one Lord.”
The faculties of the Christian’s soul remain the same in their essence, substance, and natural powers as before he was “renewed,” but these faculties are changed in their properties, qualities, and inclinations. It may help us to obtain a clearer conception of this if we illustrate by a reference to the waters at Marah (Exod. 15:25-26). Those “waters” were the same waters still, both before and after their cure. Of themselves, in their own nature, they were “bitter,” so the people could not drink of them; but in the casting of a tree into them, they were made sweet and useful. So too with the waters at Jericho (II Kings 19:20-21), which were cured by the casting of salt (emblem of grace: Colossians 4:6) into them. In like manner the Christian’s affections continue the same as they were in their nature and essence, but they are cured or healed by grace, so that their properties, qualities, and inclinations are renewed (Titus 3:5), the love of God now being shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5).
What man lost by the fall was his original relation to God, which kept all his faculties and affections within the proper exercise of that relation. At regeneration the Christian received a new life, which gave a new direction to his faculties, presenting new objects before them. Yet, let it be said emphatically, it is not merely the restoration of the life which Adam lost, but one of unspeakably higher relations: he received the life which the Son of God has in Himself, even “eternal life.” But the old personality still remains. This is clear from Romans 6:13, “But yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.” The members of the same individual are now to serve a new Master.