Marvel not that I said to you, You must be born again.
The difficulties connected with the regenerating operation of the Spirit of God are —
I. ITS SUPERNATURALNESS. There is a certain shrinking from the supernatural, which renders such doctrines as this peculiarly distasteful.
1. If, for the ignorant and superstitious, the invisible world possess a strange attraction, there is an opposite class of minds in which the tendency is equally strong to explain everything by natural causes. It is the tendency of the religion of an unenlightened age to translate every unexplained fact or phenomenon into the immediate interposition of the Deity. But as society advances in knowledge, and as many of those events, formerly attributed to supernatural agency, are discovered to be the result of natural causes, it too often happens that, with the superstitious recognition, all practical acknowledgment of the Divine presence and agency is lost. The voice of God is no longer heard in the thunder when the laws of electricity begin to be known. The old gods of heathenism have long vanished from the woods and meadows and fountains; but it is not that the one living and true God, but only gravitation, light, heat, magnetism, may be recognized as reigning in their forsaken haunts.
2. And we carry the same tendency into the moral world. To the power of motives, the influence of education, etc., we are apt to trace changes of character, h child grows up gentle, amiable, pious; and when we say that he had the benefit of a careful and religious education, we seem to ourselves to have given the whole account of the matter. An irreligious man becomes devout, and the severe affliction, or the influence of a Christian friend, has made him a wiser and a better man. Seldom does the mind naturally turn to the thought — "the finger of God is here." The idea of a mysterious Holy Spirit working in the man's mind is too often regarded as a strange mystical notion, having nothing in common with the plain realities of every-day life.
3. It is to this habit of mind that the text suggests a most striking corrective. For it brings before us the consideration that the supernatural is not confined to religion; it bids us see in the most familiar processes of nature the proofs of a Divine agency as inexplicable as any to which religion appeals. Science, with all its triumphs, is compelled to admit the immediate presence of a supernatural power in the most ordinary movements of nature. Gravitation, light, heat, chemical affinity, are only abstractions; they are nothing without a living agent, whose mode of working they express. Dead matter, however arranged, can never act of itself. A human machinist may leave his machine to work alone, because when he leaves it God's laws take it up, and by their aid the materials retain their characteristics, the vapour keeps its expansive power. But when God has constructed His machine of the universe, He cannot so leave it; for, if He retire, there is no second God to take care of it. The signs of an all pervading supernatural energy meets us wherever we turn. If every echoing wind bespeak a-present Deity, shall it seem strange to appeal to His power in the regeneration of a soul? Each time the sail of the vessel expands the breeze, we call in the aid of a mysterious agency, without which human efforts were vain. Can it be a matter of surprise that the same mysterious agency must be invoked to communicate to the dull and moveless spirit an impulse towards a nobler than earthly destiny?
II. ITS SOVEREIGNTY.
1. How very much, to the human eye, have the relations of God with man, as a religious being, been characterized by an aspect of strange uncertainty! Religion has not been communicated indiscriminately. While a few favoured regions have felt its reviving presence, others, unvisited by its quickening power, remain from age to age moral wastes. Nor can human research discover any law by which this inequality is ordered. And as little in the case of individuals as of nations can we explain on what principle it is that the gracious influences of the Spirit are vouchsafed. In equal possession of the outward means of improvement some are benefited whilst others continue unaffected. A word, a mere look, will fly straight to the core of some human spirit; whilst, on others, all the strength of reason and the power of eloquence may be spent, only to recoil ineffective as arrows from proof-mail. From the furnace of affliction one heart will come forth softened, whilst others cool down into hardness and insensibility. Is the hand of Jehovah ever shortened that it cannot save? Or can we ascribe to Infinite Love the wayward fitfulness of earthly beneficence — to Infinite Wisdom the unreasoning favouritism of erring men? If grace be necessary to conversion, why — are we not tempted to ask — is not the Spirit of God poured forth without measure wherever unconverted souls are to be found? To all such questions we must reply in the words of the text.
2. The force of this illustration it will need little reflection to perceive.
(1) For what so fitful, wayward, incalculable, as the operations of the wind? Who can for a single hour foresee what its course will be? And the argument is — If even this simple agent so baffle man's highest wisdom, shall it he thought strange that the ways of the unsearchable Spirit of God are governed by no rules which finite minds can discern?
(2) But the illustration may suggest that the arbitrariness which characterizes the Spirit's work is, after all, only apparent, and that, beneath seeming irregularity, there is real and unvarying law. It is so with the material agent. The wind never does really act at random. Its unaccountable changes are the result of material laws as fixed and stable as that by which the planets revolve. Science has made hut slight progress in the attempt to trace out the laws of winds; but it is only because of the limits of our faculties. So, too, it is with that of which the wind is set forth as the type. In His most mysterious dealings with the souls of men God never acts without a reason. Where, to us, there seems inconstancy, to Him all is order. A time was when the firmament presented only the aspect of a maze of luminous points, scattered hap-hazard; but at length the great thought was struck out which evolved from all this seeming confusion the most perfect order and harmony. And so, perhaps, a time may come when light shall be thrown on many things that seem mysterious in the dispensation of grace. But meanwhile, in presence of the inscrutable order of God's government, it is the befitting attitude of a creature so weak and ignorant as man not to criticize, but to submit and to adore.
III. ITS SECRECY.
1. Momentous though the change be in regeneration, it is one of which we have no immediate evidence. We are accustomed to associate great events in man's history with outward stir and show, and we can scarcely divest ourselves of the notion that external significance is inseparable from real importance. When the heir to earthly wealth or grandeur is born, the earliest cry is the signal for loud and universal gratulation. How strange to be told that an event, infinitely more momentous than these in man's history, that a Child of the living God — the heir of an inheritance, before which earthly splendours pale — has been born, and yet the event been unnoticed and unknown!
2. But let us turn to the simple argument of the text; for here we are taught that the association on which all such incredulity is based is an altogether fallacious one. For the proof that visibility and greatness are far from inseparable we are pointed to one out of many similar phenomena which daily meet our observation. In nature greatest powers are invisible. When the magnet draws the iron, who sees the strange influence by which the attraction is effected? What keenest optics can see gravitation? So, too, the wind, visible in its manifold influences, it is in its essence and operation imperceptible. So it is with every one that is born of the Spirit. You cannot see this mysterious agent any more than those natural agents. But, as in the one case, so in the other, though the agent is invisible, the effects of his operation are manifest. You do not see the gale from heaven, wafted over any sinner's soul, but ever and anon, if you watch carefully the moral history of your fellow-men, you may perceive the visible witness of a hidden and invisible work. Conclusion: This is a doctrine fraught with many obvious practical lessons.
1. If the agency of the Spirit be supernatural, how urgent the necessity for securing the Spirit's intervention! What an arrest would be laid upon many of the works of man if that natural agent were suspended! If the wind of heaven ceased to blow, conceive how abortive, in many cases, would be all human industry and skill. But equally fatal, in the spiritual world, to the success of all human endeavours, would be the withholding of the supernatural grace of the Spirit of God. Pray, then, for the Spirit. Despair of success apart from it; rest not till you have obtained it. The wind comes not at the sailor's or the husbandman's call; but the believer is possessed of a spell that can summon the gracious aid of the Spirit in every time of need. And if the doctrine of the text furnishes us with a motive to prayer, not less suggestive is it of encouragement to effort. For whilst our natural powers soon reach their limit, to the supernatural aid on which we are encouraged to depend there is none. Self-reformation soon proves a vain attempt; but the effort to repent and turn to God cannot fail, when the very Power that fashioned our mysterious being prompts and aids in the work of restoration.
2. If the agency of the Spirit is sovereign, too, the subject is replete with practical significance, nor does not the very uncertainty of nature's influences act as a stimulus to the exertions of man? The fair wind that has long been waited for, and may speedily die away. And so if there is any similar variableness in the times and seasons of religious influence, how urgent the motive thus presented to Christian vigilance in waiting for every favourable opportunity, and to diligence in improving it!
3. If the Spirit's work be secret in itself, yet manifest by its effects, it suggests the important inquiry, Can I discern in my character and life the signs of the Spirit's presence?
(J. Caird, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.