The Miracle of Regeneration
August 1st, 1982 @ 10:50 AM
Birth, Holy Spirit, Power, Regeneration, Trust, Great Doctrines of the Bible: Soteriology, 1982, John
THE MIRACLE OF REGENERATION
Dr. W. A. Criswell
John 3:1- 8
8-1-82 10:50 a.m.
God bless the multitude of you who on radio and on television are sharing this hour with us in the First Baptist Church of Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Miracle of Regeneration. It is one in a series of doctrinal messages on soteriology, on salvation, and our reading from the Word of the Lord is in the third chapter of John. John, chapter 3, and, we shall read the first eight verses. One of the most familiar of all the stories of the Bible, John, chapter 3:
There came a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews—
he was a ruler in a synagogue—
The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that Thou doest, except God be with him.
Jesus answered and said unto him—
In Hebrew, in Greek, it’s the same, amen, amen, translated here, “Verily, verily”—
Truly, truly, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
Jesus answered, Truly, truly; Verily, verily—
When He emphasized a word He begins it like that: “Verily,” truly—
I say unto thee, Except one be born of water—
the cleansing of the Word of God—
And of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh;
and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth—
you can’t even see it—
so is every one that it is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be?
Jesus answered and said . . . Art thou a master of Israel—a teacher—
and knowest not these things? Truly, truly—“verily”—
I say unto thee, We speak what We do know, and testify what We have seen; but you do not receive Our witness.
If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how shall you believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
The astonishment of this teacher and rabbi is hardly less than our own astonishment today; the miracle of change, of resurrection, of regeneration.
This man Nicodemus had every right to be proud of his heritage. He was a son of Abraham; as the apostle Paul described himself, a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” [Philippians 3:5]. As touching the law, he was a zealous Pharisee [John 3:1]. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest supreme court in Israel. He was a leader and a teacher, a rabbi among the Jews [John 3:10]; therefore, he was saved: “I am a child of Abraham, a son of the patriarchs, I am therefore saved. I am a Jew, I am therefore in the kingdom of God” [Matthew 3:7-12, John 8:39]]. That was the thinking of Nicodemus. It was the thinking of all Israel. It is the thinking of Israel today. Can you imagine therefore the stunning shock when Nicodemus, this leader and rabbi and supreme court justice, heard the Lord say, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” [John 3:3]. Apart from personal regeneration, no man is ever saved.
All Israel was like that. That’s why they repudiated the baptism of John the Baptist. In the proclamation of his message, he threw all Israel into the same melting pot of all the rest of humanity [Matthew 3:7-10; John 1:19-25]. They were lost alike, and must repent and believe the gospel [Mark 1:15]. And as John the Baptist stood in the wilderness of Judea on the banks of the Jordan River, and said to the leadership of the nation, “Say not within yourself, ‘We are the children of Abraham and therefore saved, for I declare unto you,” said the Baptist preacher, “except a man be born again, except ye be converted, God is able of these stones to raise children unto Abraham. By virtue of your descendency from the patriarchs you’re not saved! [Matthew 3:9]. You’re not in the kingdom! You must enter the kingdom by faith, by repentance, by acceptance, by conversion, by regeneration” [Matthew 5:3]. The announcement to Israel on the part of that great prophet, John the Baptist, was a stunning and a shocking proclamation.
Thus it was in the ears of Nicodemus: “I am already in the kingdom of God. By virtue of my fleshly birth, I am already saved.” But the Lord says, “Except one be regenerated, anyone, except he be born again, he will never see the kingdom of God” [John 3:3]. When we look at that, stunning as it may be, how true the words of our blessed Lord. A natural born kind of religion, a national kind of religion, a code kind of religion, a law kind of religion, a ceremonial kind of religion can never deliver. It can never save. It fails religiously.
In the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, the prophet said that the coming Messiah shall grow up as a tender plant, as a root out of a dry ground, a dry ground [Isaiah 53:2]. Never, among any people, was there a religion more barren and sterile than Pharisaic legalism. In the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew our Lord says of them, these leaders in Israel:
You devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers…
You encompass sea and land to make a convert, and when he is proselyted, you make him twofold more a child of hell than yourselves…
You are like a whited sepulcher, ornate on the outside but full of dead men’s bones…
[Matthew 23:14-15, 27]
Pharisaic legalism, ceremonial religion, may be beautiful, embellished, ornate, but it never regenerates the hearts and souls of men. It fails religiously. Nor are we delivered by its educational and cultural processes, we’re not saved and regenerated educationally.
I have here in my hand a cartoon that I cut out of a daily newspaper. Assembled over here on the left-hand side is a bunch of convicts in the penitentiary. And over here, seated and looking abysmally dejected, is another convict. And underneath is this caption, “While he was here for a stick-up, he earned a college degree. Now he’s back for embezzling.” As an uneducated and ignorant thug, he held up the bank with a gun. Now that he’s educated and learned, with a business degree from Harvard University, he almost steals the entire bank as an executive. Religiously, educationally, culturally, a code kind of religion doesn’t save.
Nor does it save us theologically. Our self-efforts for regeneration, amelioration, never change us. In the sixty-fourth chapter of Isaiah, the great prophet said that our righteousnesses before God are as filthy rags [Isaiah 64:6]. I can’t translate the Hebrew of that in nice company; you might look it up sometime. When a man tries to present himself before God in his own goodness, and morality, and merit, and worth, and righteousness before the bright, brilliant, shining, holiness of God, he is a filthy and dirty suppliant: “Except a man be born again”—regenerated, changed—“he cannot see the kingdom of God” [John 3:3].
There will never be a new order, or a new culture, or a new society, or a new nation without new men, new women. We never get beyond that individual, whether it is in government, or in school, or in state, or in council, or in family, or in home, or in assembly; whether it be the president of the United States, or the governor of the state, or the justice in the Supreme Court, or the father and mother in the home, we never go beyond the character of that individual.
If we’re going to have new homes, we must have new fathers and mothers. If we’re going to have a new state, we must have new citizens. And if we’re going to have a changed world, we must have changed people. That’s what Jesus said: “Except ye be born again, regenerated, changed; you cannot see the kingdom of God” [John 3:3].
All of us find ourselves helpless before fallen human nature. The apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2: “You, who were dead in trespasses and in sins” [Ephesians 2:1]. And in that same chapter in Ephesians, chapter 2, he repeats it again in verse 5: “We were dead in sins” [Ephesians 2:5]. How can a dead corpse raise himself? How can he change himself? He is corrupting, he is dead; he doesn’t have eyes to see, he doesn’t have ears to hear, and he doesn’t have a heart to feel, and he doesn’t have a will to respond. How can a dead man change himself? We were dead in trespasses and in sins [Ephesians 2:1]. All of the human efforts at our command cannot regenerate the soul, change the life.
A preacher, however earnest he preaches, cannot present a soul to God regenerated. A parent who prays for the child, however faithfully he prays, cannot change and regenerate the life of that little soul. The teacher, however splendidly and learnedly and scholarly he teaches he cannot present a soul before God in regeneration. Nor can a man, however astute he may be, find himself able to change himself, to regenerate himself, to resurrect himself from the dead.
And not only does the apostle speak of our being dead in trespasses and in sins [Ephesians 2:1], but he says that we are without Christ [Ephesians 2:12]. What an abysmal poverty: in sorrow, in age, in death, without a Savior. He says we are without hope [Ephesians 2:12]. Look up to heaven, see nothing but the fires of the burning sun. Look beneath us, downward, and see nothing but corruption, and decay, and death. And look around us and see nothing but darkness and despair. And we are without God in the world [Ephesians 2:12]; separated, judged, condemned, damned. Thus, the apostle says, we are by nature the children of wrath [Ephesians 2:3], facing condemnation and judgment and despair and decay and corruption and death and an eternity separated from God. How can a man ever be saved? How can he ever present himself before the Lord? Somehow, if he’s dead, and without Christ, and without hope, and without God, somehow God must lift him up. God must intervene; God must do a miraculous work, we have to be changed if we are ever able to stand in the great presence of the Lord God Almighty and live. By nature we are shut out: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” [John 3:3]. We have to be changed—our natures, our souls, our hearts, our lives have to be changed, regenerated, born again [John 3:3,5].
A mole could never soar into the face of the sun like an eagle. He would have to be changed, his nature has to be changed. A tortoise, a terrapin, could never race fleet and swift like a deer; it would have to be changed, its nature has to be changed. A dog could never be strong like a horse; its nature would have to be changed. You could never, whatever harness you devise, you could never harness a whale to a plow. Nor could an ox live in the deep; its nature has to be changed. So it is with us who are children of wrath, who are dead in trespasses and in sins [Ephesians 2:1]. If we are to live, God must do something, God must change us! He must regenerate us! We must be born again [John 3:3,5,7].
Now Nicodemus staggered at that. “How could such a thing be?” [John 3:3-4]. I stagger at it too, and I’ve been reading it over a half a century. I also stagger before it. Nicodemus answered and said unto Him: “How can these things be?” [John 3:9]. How could such a thing be? And the reply of our Lord is no less astonishing: “If I have told you earthly things . . . what would you do if I told you of heavenly things?” [John 3:12]. The astonishment, Jesus says, “This that I have just said to you, ‘You must be born again, you must be changed, you must be regenerated’, these are just earthly things” [John 3:12]. They are observable things; they are things down here in this world that you see every day, the power of God to resurrect, to regenerate, to make new.
So I think of that: Lord, You say that is an observable, everyday, common, earthly phenomenon, and it is. The springtime brings to us resurrection: the rosebuds, the dogwood trails, the apple blossoms; the power of God to resurrect, to bring to life in glory. Dead seed that I hold in my hand, they look like little rocks, little pebbles, but inside of them is the power of God! Earthly things change; the omnipotence, the ableness of the Almighty. A butterfly: it’s a hairy caterpillar, but it has in it the gift from heaven of change, of a different life; not an ameliorated caterpillar, not an improved species of color and kind, but change; different, reborn, from the worm to the beautiful flying butterfly. Jesus said this is an earthly phenomenon that we can observe. He says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh” [John 3:6]. That’s a miracle of God.
I had someone in this congregation this week, say to me, “Pastor, I don’t know what to think about you. You get down there on your knees” and he says, “I’ve heard you several times. You get down there on your knees when these babies are brought to be dedicated to the Lord, you get down there on your knees and this is what you pray: you pray, ‘O Lord, what a miraculous, and marvelous, and wonderful thing, this little baby with two eyes, and with two feet, and with two hands, and with a nose, and a mouth, and two ears.’ And, you just thank God for the little baby’s eyes, and nose, and mouth, and feet, and toes.”
Well, I answered to him and I said, “That’s the way I feel. Those two little eyes were made, created by the omnipotent hand of God. That heart that beats, those little hands that reach up toward heaven, God did it! It’s a miracle of heaven; it’s an observable phenomenon of the omnipotence of the Almighty, what God can do.”
And the Lord says that, “born of the flesh”; “so,” He says, “is every one that is born of the Spirit” [John 3:8]. Then He used an illustration: “The wind blows. You hear the sound, but you do not see it and you do not explain it. So is every one that is born of the Spirit” [John 3:8]. You know, it’s unusual. In Greek, those are the same words. “The wind bloweth,” pneuma, and then, “so is everyone that is born of the Spirit”, pneuma; the breath of God [John 3:8]. The breath of God: what God is able to do, recreating us. As Paul avows in 2 Corinthian 5:17, “If any one be in Christ, he is a new creation”; it’s a work of God, and it’s observable, he says; it’s an earthly phenomenon.
A man said, “The whole world is changed, or I have changed. Something has changed.” Another said, “I’ve been living fifty years and never thought anything about Christ. Now, I don’t live fifty seconds without thinking of Him as the great fact of my life.” An observable phenomenon: the power of God to regenerate, to recreate, to change.
I don’t think in all of my life I have ever read a sermon more dynamically meaningful than B.H. Carroll’s sermon “My Infidelity and What Became of It.” He, in his later years, was head of the Bible Department at Baylor University, and he took the Bible Department to Fort Worth and founded and organized and launched the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: Dr. B.H. Carroll, great big giant of a man with a long beard like Moses.
He fought through the Civil War, the War Between the States, an infidel, a blatant, forensic, argumentative infidel. But he had a godly mother who prayed for him. And in a revival meeting, attending it mostly to scoff and to scorn and to ridicule the preacher—attending the meeting, God did something. And when he came home, walking through the house, a little nephew there looked at him. B. H. Carroll went upstairs and lay down on the bed and covered his face with his hands like this. But the little nephew went to his mother, to B. H. Carroll’s mother, and said, “You know, Uncle B.H. is doing such a strange thing. He’s crying and he’s singing at the same time.” The mother ran upstairs and opened the door, and saw her big son lying there on the bed with his hands over his face. She pulled his hands away from his face and looked long and earnestly into his eyes, and then exclaimed, “Son, you have been saved! You have found the Lord!” Change! That’s the prerogative of God, regeneration, resurrection; it’s an observable phenomenon.
Like Paul said, “The churches of Judea did not know me by face, they just heard that he that once persecuted us now preaches the faith he once destroyed” [Galatians 1:22-23]. Change: a new man, a new creation, the power of God, like these beautiful flowers; muck, and fertilizer, and mud, and dirt. God raises them up, recreates them, fashions them after His own glorious image, beautiful; that’s God!
May I close with the observation: we also stagger before that, this word of Nicodemus to the Lord, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” [John 3:4]. How can a man be a new creation, a new soul, a new life, a new spirit, a new heart, a new dedication? How can such a thing be?
For by grace are we saved through faith; and that not of ourselves: it is a gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast—
then, look at the next word—
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.
“We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” [Ephesians 2:10]. If a man tries to remake himself, he faces ultimate discouragement and despair. God has to do it. We cast ourselves upon His grace [Ephesians 2:8] and mercy [Titus 3:5], and it is God who does it. As Isaiah cried, “Thus saith the Lord, Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all ye ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none other’” [Isaiah 45:22]. Or as Simon Peter preached in Acts 4:12, “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” It is God’s prerogative to create, it is God’s omnipotence that regenerates, God does it.
And when a man says to the pastor, “But pastor, I have obstacles and discouragements! When I think about coming to the Lord, accepting Him, believing in Him, regenerated by Him, born again in Him, becoming a Christian in Him, I have discouragements and obstacles. Pastor, I have a withered hand, I have a withered hand.” What is that, when the Lord God says, “Stretch forth thine hand.” And he stretched it forth; and it was whole like the other [Matthew 12:13]. What is a problem in the face of God’s omnipotence?
“But pastor, you don’t understand. I cannot walk.” What is inability to walk in the presence of Him who can say, “Arise, take up thy bed. And he arose and took up his bed and went home” [Mark 2:11-12]. In the face of the omnipotence of God, what He can do for us!
“But pastor, I have no man to place me in the pool, in the troubling of the water” [John 5:7]. What is that when Jesus passes by and speaks life and the joy of healing: “Arise, walk” [John 5:8].
“Why trouble ye the Master?” [Mark 5:35]. Jairus’ daughter has been dead these hours, dead. What is that in the presence of the Prince of Life, who turns to her and says, Talitha kumi, “Damsel, arise!” [Mark 5:41]. The dead rise from the grave. “But pastor, you don’t understand, this Lazarus has been dead four days, and by now he corrupts, he stinketh” [John 11:39]. What is that in the presence of Him who says, “I am the resurrection, and the life” [John 11:25]. “Lazarus, come forth!” And he that was dead came forth, bound in his graveclothes [John 11:43-44].
There’s no problem we face, there’s no discouragement we know, there’s no handicap we possess that is too great for God’s omnipotence. He glorifies Himself in our weakness [2 Corinthians 12:9]; He saves us out of our abysmal despair. It is He that commands the light to shine out of darkness by fiat, by His word [Genesis 1:3]. It is He that creates this world [John 1:3; Colossians 1:16]; it is He that created us [Genesis 1:27], and the same omnipotent God who made us can remake us, regenerate us, born again into the spiritual kingdom of our heavenly Father [John 3:3,5].
Oh my brother, my sister, to give your life to Him who can make it preciously meaningful, beautifully remade in the glorious image of our wonderful Lord, let Him do it. He can; He will. He has promised and He would never deceive us. Trust Him. May we stand together?
Our able, and mighty, and resurrected, and risen, and immortalized, and ascended Lord, who knows the power of Thy own Almighty, omnipotent hands? These are observable. We see them everywhere; the ableness of God to regenerate, to remake, to give life for death, light for darkness, immortality for the grave, O Christ, how able, and mighty, and wonderful to save, to resurrect, to remake, Thou art. And our Lord, in this appeal we make to this great throng this morning, may there be somehow a wonderful, yielded, surrendered, willingness to let God do it. No longer shall I try to remake myself, or regenerate myself, or reborn myself. I will cast myself upon the strong, able, omnipotent arms of God. And what I cannot do, He can. O Lord, give us faith thus to commit and to trust in Thy mercy and goodness toward us.
While our people pray and wait, somebody you, “Today, pastor, I am opening my heart Christ-ward, and God-ward, and heavenward, and I am coming” [Ephesians 2:8]. A family you, and welcome; a couple you, father and mother, husband and wife, two friends, as God shall press the appeal, make the decision now in your heart. And in this moment when we pray, answer with your life [Romans 10:8-13]. In the balcony round, down one of those stairways, there is time and to spare. In the throng on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “Pastor, today is God’s day for us and we are coming.”
And our Lord, thank Thee for the sweet harvest You give us, in Thy saving, keeping, wonderful name, amen. Welcome, while we sing.