Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-9-86 8:15 a.m.
And we welcome the multitudes of you who share this hour on radio and on television. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas delivering the message entitled Miracles Abounding, Abounding Miracles, Our Miracle-Working Lord God; and particularly and especially in the third chapter of John, the miracle of re-creation, of regeneration, of rebirth. If you would like to turn to the passage, if you would like to read it together, we will read it together, beginning at verse 5 through verse 12 in the third chapter of John, the Fourth Gospel. John 3, verses 5 through 12, let us read it together:
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water 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: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be?
Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that We do know, and testify that We have seen; and ye receive not Our witness.
If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
This is one of the most remarkable conversations ever recorded in literature. It arises around Nicodemus stumbling before the thought of a man being born again. In the fourth verse, “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?” [John 3:4]. If you and I had been introduced to that for the first time, we would have emulated the staggering question of Nicodemus: how could such a thing be? And the answer of Jesus is unusual. He says, “If I have told you epi gē,” g-e, that’s the Greek word for “earth”—geography, graphō, “to write,” gē, to write the topography of the world down, that’s called geography—“If I have told you epi gē things, things that are observable here in the world, and you stagger at it, what would you do if I told you of epi ouranios, things of heaven, things spiritually attendant to the marvelous presence and glory of God?” [John 3:12]. It just staggers our own thoughts to think about it. And that’s the sermon this morning.
These earthly things, much less the heavenly, these things epi gē that are all around us, that declare the marvelous regenerative power of God; and the Lord says they are everywhere, and we can observe them; they are demonstrable. They happen before our very eyes. Springtime: what a miracle of rebirth! The redbud, the dogwood, the peach flowers, and the apple blossoms, and the whole earth coming to life again; that’s demonstrable. That’s an epi gē; just look at it. It’s wonderful, and how much more so in the rebirth of the man? It’s a demonstrable fact; just look at it.
My genetics teacher in school spoke of the fact that every thousand years the Sierra Nevada Mountains lose four inches of their height, but the chromosomes and the genes of the human race continue on unabated. Isn’t it a remarkable thing that the genes and the chromosomes that were in Adam and Eve are in us? They divided by a mitotic process, and they divided, and those divided, and it divided and divided, but it’s still the same. Those chromosomes and genes that were in our first parents are in you, and they’re in your children. One of the most astonishing things I ever heard: all of the genetical characteristics of the whole human race could be placed in a thimble; they’re just that many and that’s all. And think of the continuing demonstrable rebirth of mankind.
I thought of that standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon. I was a mile above the course of the river. And the last one hundred eighty feet of that depth the river runs through solid black basalt. And the geologist will say that those great, black basalt bedrocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon were one time mountains sixteen thousand feet high; but they’ve been worn down, now are buried a miles beneath the canyon itself. And yet I’m standing there, and others are standing there. The mountains have been worn away, but the family of God, the human race, reborn, reborn, reborn.
I thought of that again standing at the Roman Forum in Rome. Hundreds and centuries ago that great center of political power was built; now it is in ruins. And as I looked at it, I saw children playing on those rocks; the great marble structures in disarray and disintegration; but the human family reborn, reborn, reborn, continuing on. It is a miracle of God, epi gē, the things just looking around you, the regenerative power of the Lord.
And how much is that pertinent when we apply it to the spiritual life and dedication and destiny of the human soul, the human family? All things living are determined by birth, not by training or education. We do not enter the kingdom of God by environment, or education, or civic betterment, or social amelioration; we enter the kingdom of God only by birth. You see that poignantly.
That’s one of the joys of being pastor of a downtown church. Oh my!
We see that poignantly in the character of Nicodemus. Had Nicodemus been a murderer or an insurrectionist or a terrorist, I could easily understand why the Lord would say to him, “You must be changed. You must be born again to enter the kingdom of God” [John 3:3]. But Nicodemus was a Hebrew of the Hebrews; he was a doctor of the law. He was in all of his religious pretentions and professions a Pharisee [John 3:1]. Yet the Lord said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again to be a member and a child of our heavenly Father” [John 3:3]. What an enormous difference in the teaching of our Lord and the teaching of the whole world beside! But as I think of what our Lord has said, is it not true that it is only in the prerogative of God, it is only in birth that we are ever actually changed?
The mole cannot soar into the face of the sun unless it is reborn. The eagle cannot burrow like the mole unless it were remade. The tortoise, the terrapin, is not as swift as the antelope unless God remade it. The antelope cannot attack with a fury and ferociousness of a lion or a panther or a jaguar unless it were remade. You cannot harness the great whale to the plow unless it was remade. You cannot take the oxen and plow in the depths of the sea unless it were remade. It is birth that determines the destiny of all human life; and that is the prerogative of God.
Butterflies are twice born. The caterpillar has a life of its own; it is complete in itself. But all the training and education in the earth could not change a caterpillar into a butterfly. That is the prerogative of God; that is rebirth. So it is, our Lord says, in the spirit, and heart, and life, and soul of a man. Training, and education, and amelioration, and betterment, and instruction will not bring us into the kingdom of our Lord: we must be born into the kingdom; we must be remade; we must be regenerated. And only God can do that.
I had in a church that I pastored; I had one of the noblest, most dedicated, consecrated, devoted Christian deacons and leaders that I could ever have known in my life. You know, that man, he was blasphemous and insulting. His wife, dear, dear wonderful Christian woman, his wife was seated in the home, reading the Bible. And in his fury and blasphemous wrath, he went over where she was seated there reading the Bible, and he took it out of her hand, and with an oath and a curse he threw it down at her feet; and still wrathfully denouncing God and Christ and all things precious, he turned and stormed out of the house. As he left, he heard her sobbing; and somehow in an inexplicable way—this is God, you don’t explain God—somehow in an inexplicable way, the sound of her crying and the wrath and blasphemous insulting of his attitude toward God, somehow there came upon him a spirit of indescribable conviction. And he turned and went back, knelt at her side, asked how he might be saved. I baptized him. You cannot describe the marvelous turn of life: it was glorious to behold—seemingly, to redeem the time, doubly given to the work of the Lord. That’s God; and it’s the hand of the Lord. And that is our entrance into heaven: never by all of the things of betterment or achievement or human striving, but always by the ableness of the hand of God.
Nicodemus asked, “How is it that these things can be? How can a man be born when he is old?” [John 3:4]. And the Lord replies, “Born of water and of Spirit; except a man be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” [John 3:5]. We must be born of water and of Spirit. What that means, as I read the New Testament, what that means is very plain to me: born of water, born of the cleansing, refreshing, sanctifying word of God, born of the gospel message. As Paul wrote in Romans, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing the word of God” [Romans 10:17]. Born of the gospel: in Ephesians 5:26, “We are cleansed, we are sanctified with the washing of water by the word.” In 1 Peter 1:23 and 25, “We are born again by the word of God. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.” In James 1:18, “Of His own will beget He us by the word of God.” In John 15:3, “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.” No man is ever saved apart from the word of God. No man is ever regenerated apart from the power of the gospel of Christ. That’s why we need these Orville Rogers, and these missionaries, and these preachers to proclaim the message of Christ. We can never be saved apart from it [John 14:6; Acts 4:12].
And it is a marvel to me how the Spirit of God will work and use a message of the gospel to change a man. Here will be a man who will hear and hear and hear and hear and hear, and then one day he hears! It’s inexplicable. He’s heard it and heard it and heard it and heard it and heard it, and it had no effect upon him whatsoever. Then one day, he hears, and there’s a great opening of his soul heavenward and God-ward, and he is born into the kingdom of Christ; saved by the word of the Lord, born of water, and born of Spirit; born of Spirit [John 3:5].
Dear people, I don’t want to give the impression that everybody has to have the same kind of an experience, we don’t. There are as many introductions to the blessed Saviorhood of our wonderful Lord as there are differences of people. You have a testimony, and you, and I; we were all introduced to the Lord in a different way. So when I tell you this, I don’t mean to say that we all have to have this experience; I just want to illustrate if I can, I want to illustrate what it is being born of the Spirit.
I was invited, years ago, when I was much younger, I was invited to speak to a youth conference in the Adirondack Mountains of the state of New York. Well, it was a different world from any I’d ever been in or preached through. So, the man who headed the conference—large, large, large group of young people—the man who headed the conference said to me, “When you get through preaching, this is the way that I want you to extend the invitation: I want you to preach your message; then I want you to have a benediction. You lead a closing prayer, and dismiss the people, dismiss all those young people. Then in that dismissal, you tell them that if any one of them wants to give his life to Christ or to answer the appeal of the Spirit in his heart, to stay, and you’ll visit with them and you’ll talk to them.”
Well, I’d never done anything like that in my life. It was such a different kind of an invitation, to have a benediction and to dismiss them, then if anybody felt moved by the Spirit of God to give his heart and life to Jesus, why, you stay and I’ll visit with you. But I was his guest, and I did it exactly as he had said. I stood up there, I delivered the message of Christ, the gospel of Jesus, the best that I could. Then I said, “We’re going to pray and have a benediction. And you are to leave, everyone is to leave. And if you want to remain to give your heart to life, I’ll visit with you and pray with you.” Well, the first service, the first service I did just that. And having given the invitation as he instructed me, and having prayed, and asked everybody to leave, and all of those young people stood up and walked out the door; they all left. And as I stood there and watched them, there was a young man, seemingly just like all the rest of those young people: he was smiling and laughing and enjoying being with all the rest of them, and walking out. And suddenly, suddenly, suddenly he broke down and began to cry, just lament, weep aloud, and turned around and came to me as I was standing down there at the front, and said to me, “I want to know how I can be saved.”
Well, I looked at that: how do you explain such a response as that? Just walking out with the rest of the young people, laughing, having a good time, and just suddenly, just suddenly stop and break down in tears? You don’t explain things like that. And that is exactly with all the rest of us: however turn it might be, just going along, just making our way, with all of the rest of the flow of mankind, and then something happens, something happens. God uses the voice of a mother or a friend, or a time of thoughtful meditation, some experience; something happens, and you find yourself inquiring the way to heaven. “What must I do to be saved?” Born of the Spirit of God! [John 3:5].
And that is the marvelous prerogative of our blessed Lord and Redeemer. He is the One who created the world out of nothing [John 1:3; Colossians 1:16]. He is the One that brought life out of death and light out of darkness [2 Timothy 1:10]. And He is the One that speaks to our hearts. God does it.
And that is our appeal to you this solemn precious morning hour. “God has spoken, the Lord has opened the door, the Spirit has made appeal, and pastor, this is God’s day for me. I’m answering with my life.” In this moment when we sing our hymn of appeal, to accept the Lord as Savior, to bring your family into the circle of this dear church, to give your life to a cause precious to Christ, as the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, God is in it, “And, Lord, here I stand, so help me and bless me.” A thousand times welcome as you come, while we stand and while we sing.