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NATURE AND NECESSITY OF REGENERATION;
JOHN iii. 5.
JESUS ANSWERED, VERILY, VÉRILY, I SAY UNTO THEE, EXCEPT A MAN BE BORN OF WATER AND OF THE SPIRIT, HE CANNOT ENTER INTO THE KINGDOM OF GOD:
THE former part of this chapter, in which division these words fall, reports the conference that passed betwixt Christ and Nicodemus. Their discourse is concerning the great mystery of the New-Birth; of which this night-disciple had but a dark and midnight conception. In the third verse, our Saviour startles him and asserts, as he doth again in the text, the absolute necessity of this great change: Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. In the verse following, Nicodemus objects against it; and thinks to refute the Second Birth, by such pitiful doting arguments, as might alone prove him twice a child: Can a man, says he, be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? No doubt but this learned Rabbi thought he had brought a gra velling instance against this new doctrine of the New-Birth. Such ignorant pieces are the most wise and learned, when they attempt by reason to search out those mysterious effects of God's Spirit, which cannot be known otherwise than by illumination and experience. Our Saviour, therefore, in the words of the text, takes off this gross and ill-conceited objection: and tells him, that he speaks not of a carnal, but of a spiritual regeneration and birth; whereby we are begotten again to a lively hope, and are made the children of God: and so silenceth those im. pertinent impossibilities, on which Nicodemus insisted: Excepta man be born of water and of the Spirit, he can in no wise enter into the kingdom of God.
These words are a description of a Christian's New-Birth: which is here set forth both by the Efficient Cause of it, Water and the Spirit: and also by the absolute Necessity of it unto eternal life; without this no man can enter into the kingdom of God, that is, into heaven, the place where the throne of God's kingdom is established.
To be born of water and of the Spirit, may admit of a double interpretation: for either,
First. By Water is meant Baptism; the element being put for the ordinance, which is the sacrament of our regeneration : and thus you have it in Eph. v. 26. where the Church is said to be sanctified and cleansed, through the washing of water. There is, indeed, a Baptismal Regeneration, whereby all, that are made partakers of that ordinance, are, acccording to Scripture language, sanctified, renewed, and made the children of God, and brought within the bond of the covenant: but all this is but after an external manner; as being, in this ordinance, entered members of the Visible Church. This external regeneration by water entitles none to eternal life; but, as the Spirit moves upon the face of these waters, and doth sometimes secretly convey quickening virtue through them.
Now if you take this being born of water to signify external regeneration in the ordinance of Baptism, the question will be, how it can be verified, that, without this, none can enter into the kingdom of God.
It was a mistake of some of the Fathers, and among them of St. Austin, who excluded all, both infants and adult, out of heaven, that died without Baptism; although by no default of their own, but by an insuperable necessity; unless they were such as died martyrs, their being baptized with their own blood, as St. Austin speaks, serving them instead of baptism by water. But this opinion is unwarrantable, and contrary to the most received judgment of the Church in the Primitive Times: who, if they had thought this Baptismal Regeneration was indispensibly necessary to salvation, would not certainly have stinted and confined the administration of it only to two times of the year, Easter and Pentecost; thereby to bring upon themselves the blood of their souls, that should in that interim have died without Baptism. Therefore that opinion was rather private, than the public judgment of the Church, though learned men were of it.
Therefore, if you will understand Baptism by being born of water, if it be true that none are saved that are not born of water;
we must distinguish of being unavoidably and inevitably deprived of the opportunity of Baptism, and a wilful contempt of it and, in this latter sense, must our Saviour's assertion be understood. He, that contemns being born by Baptism, and out of that contempt finally neglects being baptized, shall never enter into the kingdom of God: but, for others, whom not contempt, but necessity, deprives of this ordinance, the want of it shall not in the least prejudice their salvation.
Secondly. To be born of water and of the Spirit, may denote to us the manner of the Spirit's proceeding in the work of regeneration. Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit: that is, except he be renewed by the Holy Ghost, working as water; leaving the same effect upon the soul in cleansing and purifying it from sinful defilements, as water doth upon the body in washing off contracted dirt and filth. Nor, indeed, is this manner of expression strange to the Holy Scripture: for John Baptist, St. Mat. iii. 11. speaking of Christ, tells them, that he should baptize them with the Holy Ghost and with fire; that is, he should baptize them with the Holy Ghost, working as fire: for, as fire eats out and consumes the rust and dross of metals; so those, that are baptized with the Spirit, are as it were plunged into that heavenly flame, whose searching energy devours all their dross, tin, and base alloy. So then, here also, to be born of water and of the Spirit, may be no more than to be born of the Spirit, pu rifying the soul, even as water purifies the body. So variously is the efficiency of the Holy Ghost, in the work of regeneration, expressed in Scripture language: it consumes our dross as fire, and washeth off our filth as water.
These two interpretations may be given of the text, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit: that is, except he be externally regenerated by Baptism, when he hath such an opportunity to receive that ordinance, that nothing but his own wilful contempt of it can hinder it; and be also internally regenerated by the Spirit of God working a mighty and thorough change upon his heart; he shall never be saved. Or, again, it may be understood thus: Except a man be renewed by the efficacy of the Holy Ghost, cleansing the inward man from sin, as water cleanseth the outward man from filth, he shall never enter into heaven. In either of which senses you take it, the words will well bear it.