The Miracle of Regeneration
February 15th, 1987 @ 8:15 AM
THE MIRACLE OF REGENERATION
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-15-87 8:15 a.m.
And once again welcome the great throngs of you who share this hour on radio. You are a part this morning of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing a message from the third chapter of the Book of John. It is an exposition of the word of our Lord to Nicodemus concerning the new birth, concerning regeneration, concerning being born again.
It begins with the presence of an unusually gifted teacher and rabbi. He is called by the Lord Himself ho didaskalos, “the teacher,” “the rabbi” [John 3:10]. What that means, I am not quite able to say; only that the Lord Himself recognized the academic stature of this unusually gifted and dedicated man. What amazes me is the words the Lord addressed to this marvelous member of the chosen family of God. He is described as a ruler, he is described as a Pharisee, he is described as a rabbi; this is no ordinary man [John 3:1-10]. Like Paul, he is a Hebrew of the Hebrews [Philippians 3:5]. Like Paul, concerning the law he was a Pharisee [John 3:1]: meticulously observing every jot and tittle that God had written to the people through Moses. Not only that, he was a member of the supreme court of Israel: he was a Sanhedrist; he was a member of the Sanhedrin [John 7:45, 50]. And, of course, as I have said, he was a recognized didaskalos, rabbi, teacher, among the people [John 3:10].
Had he been a murderer, or a terrorist, or a robber, or a vile and evil man, I could well understand why the Lord says to him, “You must be born again [John 3:3-7]. You must be regenerated. You must be converted. You must be changed.” I could understand that had Nicodemus been one of the vilest characters in Israel. It is the opposite: the man to whom the Lord is addressing this word is pristine, he’s exalted, he’s gifted, he’s recognized, he’s a teacher and master among his people.
That’s a remarkable thing about the preaching and the introduction of the Christian faith. John the Baptist began just like that: when those who came to hear him preach, members of the Sadducees, the ruling class of the temple, and of the Pharisees, these who meticulously observed the law of God, when they said, “We are the children of Abraham, we be the seed of Isaac and Jacob,” John the Baptist replied, saying, “God, out of these very stones, can raise up children to Abraham” [Matthew 3:9]. That is, national identification or personal achievement do not impress God. We are not members of the family of heaven because we are ritualistic, observe laws, are meticulous and punctilious in all of our efforts, or even who we are. John threw all of Israel outside of the covenant: they had to repent, they had to be saved, they had to be born again [Matthew 3:8-10].
That’s a remarkable thing: that not by national identification, not by birth, not by race, nor by social achievement or personal advancement are we ever commendable to God. We are not saved through rite, or ritual, or law, or the keeping of any order. There has to be something other and beside if we are to enter into the fellowship of God’s sainted people.
When you look at that carefully, you can understand why the Lord so spake concerning our being a part of the family of heaven. We are not brought into the fellowship of God because we are academicians, or because we are advanced in learning or in education. I looked at a cartoon yesterday: it’s the inside of a penitentiary, and some of these convicts are pointing to another one there who’s just been returned to the imprisonment. And they are saying, “He was in here for a stick-up some years ago, and gained a college degree. Now he’s back for embezzlement.” I say it sometimes like this: a bum will break into a freight train in order to steal a can of tomatoes because he’s hungry; dress him up, send him to Harvard, and he’ll steal the entire railway system and get away with it.
We are not saved because we are culturally advanced or academically educated. And, it fails personally. Isaiah says, “All of our righteousnesses in God’s sight are as filthy rags” [Isaiah 64:6]. We may commend ourselves to others, and sometimes take pride in our own exalted righteousness; but not in the sight of God. In His sight, all of our goodnesses are as evil thoughts and evil deeds.
That’s why our Lord speaks of something that God has to do. If we are not able in ourselves to save ourselves, or to commend ourselves, and if we are not born by natural birth into that kind of relationship with God, our only hope lies in the intervention of heaven itself. God has to do something for us. Paul speaks of that so traumatically, when, in the second chapter of the Book of Ephesians he speaks of our being “dead in trespasses and in sin,” dead, dead [Ephesians 2:1]. A dead man can’t see, and a dead man can’t hear, and a dead man has no heart to respond, and a dead man has no will to obey. We are dead before God: dead in trespasses and in sins [Ephesians 2:1].
How can you reason or speak to a dead man? If you want to know the reality of that, pick out any lost man in the city of Dallas and try to talk to him about spiritual things. He doesn’t have eyes to see, or ears to hear, or heart to feel, or will to obey; he is dead. And all of the earnest preaching in the world will not raise a dead man to life. And all of the gifted teaching of any professor or teacher in the Sunday school or church cannot bring to life a dead pupil. God has to do something.
In this same unusual second chapter of Ephesians, not only does he say that we are dead, dead before God [Ephesians 2:1], but we are, without Christ, we are in spiritual poverty and illimitable need without Christ. We are without hope [Ephesians 2:12]: we raise our faces to heaven to see the burning sun of condemnation. We look around us and see nothing but death and decay. We look beneath us and see nothing but damnation. We are not only without Christ, we’re not only without hope, we are without God in the world. Instead of God being our friend and helper, God is our judge and our great condemnatory [1 Peter 4:5]. Not only that, but by nature, by nature we are the children of wrath [Ephesians 2:3]. God has to do something: we cannot save ourselves, lift up ourselves, commend ourselves. God has to do something [Ephesians 2:4-6]. Our nature has to be changed.
I think of how by birth, by nature, we are so and so. When I look at a tortoise, a tortoise could never run like a deer; the nature would have to be changed. I look at a mole: a mole could never rise into the face of the sun; its nature would have to be changed. A rabbit could never be strong like an ox; the nature has to be changed. Nor could a man who is born in depravity and lives in sin rise to be a child of God in himself: his nature has to be changed. You could never yoke the whale in the sea to pull a plow, nor could an ox ever descend into the depths of the sea; the nature has to be changed. God has to do something with us and for us if we are ever spiritually acceptable in His sight. The nature has to be changed. God has to do something.
And that occasioned the amazing and astonishing and shocking reply of Nicodemus. When the Lord said to him, “You have to be born again [John 3:3, 7], you have to be regenerated, your nature has to be changed,” he staggered at it. Well he might; I do, we do. How are we remade? How can our natures be changed? How can we be born again? As Nicodemus says, logically, “How can a man enter again into his mother’s womb and be born?” [John 3:4]. We feel that way. How can a man be born again, regenerated, remade, his nature changed? How can he?
And the Lord replies in a very, very plain and down-to-earth way:“I tell you of earthly things, and you stagger at it; why would I think that you would do otherwise when I tell you of spiritual things, things of God? I tell you earthly things, and you stagger at it” [John 3:12].
I look around me and I see the ableness of God to remake, to reborn, to bring to birth. I see it on every hand. We are entering a season of the year now when you’re going to see the ableness of God to re-create, to rebirth, to bring to life. There will be the redbud, there will be the dogwood, there will be the apple blossom, and they burst in their beauty and glory out of dead sticks—they look dead to me. It’s a marvel. There will be in my hands seeds that look like little pebbles and rocks. At the springtime they burst into flower and fruit. That’s God! God does that!
These things that Jesus says, “earthly things” that we observe, phenomena all around us. A butterfly is twice born. A butterfly is not an improved caterpillar; its nature is changed. It is something else and other. These things we observe almost every day of our lives, the ableness of God to change nature, to bring to life, to fruition and beauty, earthly things. No less so do we see the ableness and power of God in spiritual things: things of the heart, things of the life, things of the soul. God is able and God does it; it’s His almightiness that re-creates us.
You had might as well tell a fish there’s no such thing as water, or to tell a man who breathes there’s no such thing as air, as to tell a man who has come into the knowledge of Christ that there’s no such thing as being born again, being regenerated, being remade, being somebody else. It was a miracle, your first birth. Every time—and you’ve heard me world without end—every time a mother and a father bring to me a baby for dedication, I marvel both in prayer and in word, the workmanship of almightiness in God to create such a life. It’s a miracle. You are a miracle. Where did you come from? Who made you? Whose all-wise and omnipotent hands created you, and breathed into you the breath of life? [Genesis 2:7]. The same almightiness and the same omnipotence is the hand of God that re-creates you, that makes you born anew [John 3:3, 7]; and it is a marvel, it’s a wonder.
I heard a man one time say, “The whole world is changed, and I cannot explain it. Either the whole world is changed, or I have changed. But the thing is changed; the whole world is changed.”
You will not read in all literature a sermon more pertinently dynamic than B. H. Carroll’s sermon “My Infidelity and What Became of It.” A blatant infidel, and in a revival meeting wonderfully changed, wonderfully changed. As they said of the apostle Paul, he now preaches the faith that he once destroyed [Galatians 1:23]. It’s a miracle! It’s something God does:to be born again, to be changed, our natures revolutionized, our whole visions and prayers and hopes in a new era, in a new way, in a new world.
And how does that come to me, to me? Lord, how could I be changed, and my nature remade? How can I be born again? As Nicodemus, “How do I, older as I am, return into my mother’s womb and be born again? How can I be born again?” [John 3:4]. All of us have our doubts, and our difficulties, and our hesitancies; all of us do, all of us do. What we are invited to do by the Lord is to bring our doubts and difficulties to the Lord Jesus. He is the one that borns us again. I don’t do it, we don’t do it, it is something God does. We take our poor, doubting hearts to the Lord Jesus.
“Pastor, I am enmeshed in the world, and I don’t know how to unmesh myself out of it.” Take it to the Lord Jesus. Ask Him for the ableness to come out of doubt, and out of unbelief, and out of the world, and into the kingdom of God.
“Pastor, I am hesitant. I am hesitant. Could such a thing be, that if I just trusted the Lord, if I just came to the Savior, if I just cast myself at His feet, could it be that God would reach down and in my soul breathe life into my dead unspiritual being?” Try it, and see.
“Lord, I have a withered hand.” What is that if the Lord says, “Stretch forth your hand”? [Mark 3:5]. “Lord, I can’t walk.” What is that, if the Lord says, “Arise”? [Mark 2:9-11]. “Lord, I am deaf in my ears and dumb in my mouth.” What is that, if the Lord says, “Ephphatha, be opened, speak”? [Mark 7:34]. “Lord, this child is dead.” What is that if the Lord says, “Talitha cumi, maiden, Arise”? [Mark 5:41]. “But Lord, he has been dead four days; and by now he is disintegrated.” What is that, if the Lord says, “Lazarus, come forth”? [John 11:43].
There is no doubt, or no problem, or no hardness of heart, or no entanglement in the world that baffles God. The One that made you can remake you; He is the author of all things new, of all creation [Revelation 21:5]. He made the world out of nothing [Hebrews 11:3]. He brought light out of darkness [Genesis]. He brings life out of death [John 5:24]. And He can “born again” us; He can remake us—and He does, and He will. And that’s the appeal of the Holy Spirit to your heart [John 3:3, 5]; always pointing to the Lord [John 16:13-15]. He is able. He is able:
There is life for a look at the Crucified One,
There is life at this moment for thee;
Then look, sinner, look unto Him and be saved,
Unto Him who was nailed to the tree.
[“There is Life for a Look at the Crucified One,” Amelia M. Hull]
Jesus can do it. Jesus does do it. He has done it. And He will do it for you [John 10:10].
In the spirit of that appeal, that God is able, the messenger who stands before Him this hour lifts up his hand and his voice, and bids come, come, come. “Pastor, I bring my doubting heart to Jesus. He has to save me”; and He will. “I bring my hesitant soul to the Lord. He has to save me”; He will. “And this day is a day of salvation for me because I am looking to the ableness of God; and here I stand.” To give your heart thus to the Lord [Romans 10:9-13], or to come into the fellowship of His church, bringing your family, or answering the call of the Lord in your own soul, in this moment when we stand and sing our appeal, on that first note, that first stanza, that first step will be the most precious you’ll ever make in your life. Down one of these stairways from the balcony, down one of these aisles in the press of people on this lower floor, “Pastor, this is God’s day for me, and here I stand.” May angels attend you in the way while you come, while all of us rise before the Lord and sing our hymn of appeal. “This is God’s day and God’s time for me, and here I stand.” God bless you as you come.