Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
I. Consider THE WORK OF GOD'S GRACE AMONG MEN IN ITS ORIGIN, This is ascribed to the absolute will of God. Has He not a right to do what He will with His own? and are not all things His own? Is He not absolute, uncontrolled, and sovereign, upholding all things at every moment, managing all creatures infallibly, from the hosts of angels that surround His throne down to the smallest particle of inanimate matter? Men talk of "the laws of nature," and if it be rightly understood, we need not object to that phrase. But let it be rightly understood. There can be no laws without a law-maker; there can be no administration of laws without a constant, living executive. Uniform, indeed, they are, but that arises from His perfection. The first time that God did anything He did it in the best way: He would not do it worse, and He could not do it better; therefore He always does it in the best way. These agencies are, then, to be depended on as regards uniformity. But they are not less the agencies of a living, present, acting Being. So it is also in the affairs of men. Men are as thoroughly under His power as matter, though not in the same way. It were to limit His power to say that He can only manage matter and must leave mind to itself. He manages mind in all its liberty as infallibly as He does matter in all its inertness. And so is it, too, in the smaller matters of private life. Health, sickness, wealth, poverty, happy homes or bitter afflictions, these are all under the sovereign arrangement of God, and according to "His own will." So, again, in the matter referred to in the text — the changing of the minds and hearts of fallen men — one is taken, and another left, according to God's will. "Many are called, and few are chosen": "of His own free Will." Is there danger in this high truth? Undoubtedly. There is danger to fallen man in every truth, arising not from the truth itself, but from the perverseness with which it is treated. Man, living to himself, either neglects or abuses truth, so that it becomes "a savour or death unto death." To say, then, that there is danger in truth, is to say nothing against the truth. Is there difficulty connected with the truth of which I have been speaking? Undoubtedly there is. Why should there not be? Does it reveal anything of God? Then it inevitably involves a difficulty. With a finite understanding either there must be absolute ignorance of God, or difficulty must be involved where the understanding fails. The slightest glimpse of God involves man in a horizon of knowledge. The extent of the horizon may vary a little between man and man; but to the highest created intellect there must still be a horizon, and in the horizon difficulty; and if that which presents the difficulty now were cleared away by some greater truth being exhibited at a greater distance, that new revelation would but occupy the place of the present one, and still leave a horizon to created intellect to all eternity. We do not pretend, then, to divest the truth of difficulty, in asking man to submit his intellect, as well as his will, to the majesty of God. Is there practical perplexity in the truth before us? Yes, there is, through the perverseness of man, who is ready to take advantage of any imaginary excuse for himself, and to throw the blame of his own sin upon God's sovereignty. But "let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death." There is the pedigree of everlasting death, which man is charged with bringing upon himself. But does it follow, that as man is the author of this evil, he may originate good? "Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of His own will begat He us." It is thus, then, that the apostle treats this subject. He declares, but explains not.
II. Consider THE NATURE OF IT. "Begat He us." The phrase is figurative, and the figure is very expressive. It describes a great moral change; a change as complete as that which takes place physically in the state of an infant between the period before and the period after its birth. All things have become new. The element in which it lives is new; the mode in which life is communicated is new. There is a direct exercise of God's power upon the man's spirit, an immediate agency of the Holy Ghost operating on his mind. Therefore it is that we say "you must be born again." "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." Man propagates his likeness, but man born again is brought into the likeness of God. It is not the effect of moral suasion or education, or of outward circumstances; it is not produced by the fear of consequences, or by the love of approbation amongst men, or by any of the thousand motives which actuate men in society, but it is wrought by the immediate agency of God upon the spirit of man, without which no man of the race of Adam can be pure or happy. We are all so thoroughly estranged from Him, so thoroughly taken up with creatures to the practical neglect of Him, and when we are compelled to think of Him we think of Him so unworthily and so selfishly, that without this change no man living can have worthy notions of God, or be happy even if admitted into His presence. Now how simply this accounts for the facts of the case as discovered when you look around you in the world i The unconverted men of this world are, as touching God and the things of God, like a man in a deep sleep as touching the things of the world around him. Imagine a man in a deep sleep; dreaming, possibly speaking in his dream; attentive to the visions of the mind on his bed, but quite unconscious of all that is going on around him. His house takes fire, but he knows nothing of it; he is asleep. The fire gains upon a part of the house which is distant from him; some of his children, perhaps, are burnt; but he knows nothing of it, he is still asleep. The fire approaches his own chamber; his wife, lying by his side, convulsed with terror, expires from suffocation; still he is asleep. The fire, however, at length reaches his own person. Now the spell is broken! he starts into sudden consciousness of what has been taking place. But it is too late: the house, the room, the bed, all are gone, and he sinks amid the ruin. Here is a history, in very few words, of the mass of mankind, as touching the things of God. They are dreaming busily of the affairs of this world; money, pleasure, ambition — these are the visions of their minds, and in the affairs of God they feel no more concern than the sleeping man in the state of his house. The hand of God is stretched out. Some of their enjoyments are cut off; some of their friends taken from them: their children are, it may be, snatched away and laid in an early grave, or a wife removed from their sight. Still the unconverted man dreams on, and he continues dreaming, until the Word of God touches himself. Then it is too late, and he sinks into a ruined eternity. Now this sounds very sad, but it is common, and in the course of the world there is nothing peculiar about it. It is, in a few words, I repeat, the history of the mass of mankind, the mass of the community around. I could not add truly the majority of yourselves; yet I cannot doubt that there are many in this congregation who are still in that position, and to whom God is saying, "Arise, ye that sleep; awake, and Christ shall give you light." You must be born again, or else be ruined. I know that it is of God's sovereign will that the new birth is brought about; but He constantly uses means, and I am now using the means which He has appointed for this end, namely, the Word of truth.
III. THE INSTRUMENT BY WHICH THIS GREAT CHANGE IS PRODUCED IN MAN. It is wrought, not by any charm, but by the secret power of God, using a suitable instrument for the purpose. "The Word of truth" is God's instrument. "Hear," says the prophet, "and your souls shall live." "Faith," says the apostle, "cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." The work, in virtue of which this change takes place — the work of Christ — is done. All that was necessary has been done; the Word of God proclaims it as done. And the Word of God further addresses itself to man as requiring this finished work. It addresses itself to him in the condition in which he is found as a fallen creature. It comes to him with light for his understanding, and with love for his affections. These are precisely what he requires; light in his understanding to rescue him from false estimates of things, love in his heart to deliver him from idolatry — the idolatry of creatures. Thus we discover the suitability of the instrument provided by God. Man's understanding is so darkened that he is constantly making false estimates. One grand item is constantly left out of his calculations; and you know that if any item be improperly left out of a calculation, the result must inevitably be erroneous. The grand item which is omitted in all the calculations of man is eternity. He makes calculations in which are included the things of this world only. I do not say that he takes into account only the brief space during which he himself will be in the world. Many worldly men have a posthumous ambition, and desire to benefit society, present and future. Still their views are confined to this world, and the things of this world, either in the present generation or in the persons of children and children's children. Improvement in political and social institutions, advances in civilisation, and the amelioration of the condition of the various classes of society, occupy man's attention; and his calculations, so far as these things are concerned, are often most accurate and valuable. Still the grand item is omitted. When society shall be reaping the benefit of such designs, in the persons of children and children's children, the fathers and the grandfathers, where are they? Eternity was not in their plans. They planned for the advantage of posterity, and posterity have obtained the benefit. But they planned nothing for their own salvation; and where are they? What did they value most? Let their history speak.
IV. After having stated the origin, nature and instrument of this work in the Church of God, the apostle adds a few words descriptive of THE PRESENT POSITION OF THE CHURCH RELATIVELY TO THE REST OF THE WORLD" "That we should be," he says, "a kind of first-fruits of His creatures." The creation is described in Scripture as in a groaning state. Man himself is described as "waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God." It is for the resurrection of the Church that the world is waiting and must wait. No scheme of man can regenerate, because no scheme of man can get rid of sin; no superstructure can stand which has sin at the foundation. The present state of things was intended to take people out of mankind — "a kind of first-fruits." Why is it said, "a kind of first-fruits?" Because the parallel is not exact. Christ is the first-fruits of the Church. The Church, as the first objects of His care, are to be brought to see what He is. "We shall be like Him when we see Him as He is." As the harvest is like the first sheaf, so shall the Church be like Christ.
(H. McNeile, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.