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Observations on John iii. 6. in connexion with some other passages in the New Testament.
Those words of Christ, giving a reason to Nicodemus, why we must be born again, John iii. 6. “That which is born of the flesh, is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” have not without good reason been produced by divines, as a proof of the doctrine of original sin: supposing, that by flesh here is meant the human nature in a debased and corrupt state. Yet Dr. T. (p. 144) thus explains these words, that which is born of the flesh, is flesh; “that which is born by natural descent and propagation, is a man consisting of body and soul, or the mere constitution and powers of a man in their natural state.” But the constant use of these terms, flesh and spirit, in 191 other parts of the New Testament, when thus set in opposition, and the latter said to be produced by the Spirit of God, as here—and when expressive of the same thing, which Christ is here speaking of to Nicodemus, viz. the requisite qualifications to salvation—will fully vindicate the sense, of our divines. Thus in the 7th and 8th chapters of Romans, where these terms flesh and spirit (NOT ENGLISH and NOT ENGLISH) are abundantly repeated, and set in opposition, as here. So Rom. vii. 14. The law is (NOT ENGLISH) spiritual, but I am (NOT ENGLISH) carnal, sold under sin. He cannot only mean, “I am a man consisting of body and soul, and having the powers of a man.“ Rom. vii. 18. “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” He does not mean to condemn his frame, as consisting of body and soul; and to assert, that in his human constitution, with the powers of a man, dwells no good thing. And when he says in the last verse of the chapter, “With the mind, I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh, the law of sin;” he cannot mean, ”I myself serve the law of God; but with my innocent human constitution, as having the powers of a man, I serve the law of sin.” And when he says in the next words, the beginning of the 8th chapter, “there is no condemnation to them,—that walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit;” and Rom. viii. 4., “The righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh;” he cannot mean, “there is no condemnation to them that walk not according to the powers of a man,“ &c. And when he says (Rom. viii. 5, 6.) “They that are after the flesh, do mind the things of the flesh; and to be carnally minded is death;” he does not intend, “they that are according to the human constitution, and the powers of a man, do mind the things of the human constitution and powers; and to mind these is death.” And when he says, (Rom. viii. 7, 8.) “The carnal (or fleshly) mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be: so that they that are in the flesh, cannot please God;” he cannot mean, that to mind the things which are agreeable to “the powers and constitution of a man,“ who as our author says, is constituted or made right, is enmity against God; and that a mind which is agreeable to this right human constitution, as God hath made it, is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be; and that they who are according to such a constitution, cannot please God. And when it is said, Rom. viii. 9. “Ye are not in the flesh, but in the spirit;” the apostle cannot mean, “ye are not in the human nature, as constituted of body and soul, and with the powers of a man.” It is most manifest, that by the flesh here the apostle means a nature that is corrupt, of an evil tendency, and directly opposite to the law and holy nature of God; so that to walk according to it, and to have a mind so conformed, is to be an utter enemy to God and his law; in a state of perfect inconsistency with subjection to God, and of being pleasing to him; and in a sure and infallible tendency to death, and utter destruction. And it is plain, that here by walking after, or according to, the flesh, is meant the same thing as walking according to a corrupt and sinful nature; and to walk according to the spirit, is to walk according to a holy and divine nature, or principle: and to be carnally minded, is the same as being viciously and corruptly minded; and to be spiritually minded, is to be of a virtuous and holy disposition.
When Christ says,John iii. 6.“That which is born of the flesh, is flesh,“ he represents the flesh not merely as a quality; for it would be incongruous to speak of a quality as a thing born. Therefore man, as in his whole nature corrupt, is called flesh; which is agreeable to other scripture representations, where the corrupt nature is called the old man, the body of sin, and the body of death. Agreeable to this are those representations in the 7th and 8th chapters of Romans. There, flesh is figuratively represented as a person, according to the apostle’s manner. This is observed by Mr. Locke, and after him by Dr. T. who takes notice, that the apostle, in the 6th and 7th of Romans, represents sin as a person; and that he figuratively distinguishes in himself two persons, speaking of flesh as his person. For I know that in ME, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing. And it may be observed, that in the 8th chapter he still continues this representation, speaking of the flesh as a person. Accordingly, in the Rom. viii. 6, 7 , he speaks of the mind of the flesh NOT ENGLISH) and of the mind of the spirit (NOT ENGLISH) as if the flesh and spirit were two opposite persons, each having a mind contrary to that of the other. Dr. T. interprets this mind of the flesh, and mind of the spirit, as though the flesh and the spirit were the different objects, about which the mind is conversant. But this is plainly beside the apostle’s meaning; who speaks of the flesh and spirit as the subjects in which the mind is; and in a sense the agents, but not the objects, about which it acts. We have the same phrase again. Rom. viii. 27.“He that searcheth the hearts, knoweth what is the mind of the spirit“ (NOT ENGLISH). The mind of the spiritual nature in the saints is the same with the mind of the Spirit of God himself, who imparts and actuates that spiritual nature; and here the spirit is the subject and agent; but not the object. The same apostle, in a similar manner, uses the word (NOT ENGLISH) mind. Col. ii. 18.“Vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind (NOT ENGLISH) by the mind of his flesh.” And this agent so often called flesh, represented by the apostle as altogether evil, without any good thing dwelling in it, or belonging to it—yea perfectly contrary to God and his law, and tending only to death and ruin, and directly opposite to the spirit—is what Christ speaks of to Nicodemus as born in the first birth, and furnishing a reason why there is a necessity of a new birth, in order to a better production.
One thing is particularly observable in that discourse of the apostle—in which he so often uses the term flesh, as opposite to spirit—that he expressly calls it sinful flesh, Rom. viii. 3. It is manifest, that by sinful flesh he means the same thing with that flesh spoken of in all the context: and that when it is said, Christ was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, the expression is equipollent with those that speak of Christ as made sin, and made a curse for us.
Flesh and spirit are opposed to one another in Gal. v. in the same manner as in the 8th of Romans. And there, assuredly, by flesh cannot be meant only the human nature of body and soul, or the mere constitution and powers of a man, as in its natural state, innocent and right. In Gal. v. 16 the apostle says, “Walk in the spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh:” the flesh, is something of an evil inclination, desire, or lust. But this is more strongly signified in the next words; “For the flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other.” What could have been said more plainly, to show that what the apostle means by flesh, is something very evil in its nature, and an irreconcilable enemy to all goodness? And it may be observed, that in these words, and those that follow, the apostle still figuratively represents the flesh as a person or agent, desiring, acting, having lusts, and performing works. And by works of the flesh, and fruits of the spirit, which are opposed to each other (from Gal. v.19-26., to the end), are plainly meant the same as works of a sinful nature, and fruits of a holy renewed nature. “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,” &c. “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, ” &c. The apostle, by flesh, does not mean anything that is innocent and good in itself, which only needs to be restrained, and kept in proper bounds; but something altogether evil, which is to be destroyed. 1 Cor. v. 5. “To deliver such an one to Satan, for the destruction of the flesh.“ We must have no mercy on it; we cannot be too cruel to it; it must even be crucified. Gal. v. 24. “They that are Christ’s, have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.”
The apostle John—the same apostle that writes the account of what Christ said to Nicodemus—by the spirit means the same thing as a new, divine, and holy nature, exerting itself in a principle of divine love, which is the sum of all christian holiness. 1 John iii. 23, 24. “And that we should love one another, as he gave us commandment; and he that keepeth his commandments, dwelleth in him, and he in him: and hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the spirit that he hath given us. 1 John. iv. 12, 13 “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us: hereby know we, that we dwell in him, because he hath given us of his Spirit.“ 192 The spiritual principle in us being as it were a communication of the Spirit of God to us.
And as by (NOT ENGLISH) spirit, is meant a holy nature, so by the epithet (NOT ENGLISH) spiritual, is meant the same as truly virtuous and holy. Gal. vi. 1. “Ye that are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness.” The apostle refers to what he had just said at the end of the foregoing chapter, where he had mentioned meekness as a fruit of the spirit. And so by carnal, or fleshly (NOT ENGLISH) is meant the same as sinful. Rom. vii. 14. “The law is spiritual (i.e. holy), but I am carnal, sold under sin.”
And it is evident, that by flesh, as the word is used in the New Testament, and opposed to spirit, when speaking of the qualifications for eternal salvation, is meant— not only what is now vulgarly called the sins of the flesh, consisting in inordinate appetites of the body, and their indulgence; but—the whole body of sin, implying those lusts that are most subtle, and farthest from any relation to the body; such as pride, malice, envy, &c. When the works of the flesh are enumerated, Gal. v.19-21. they are vices of the latter kind chiefly that are mentioned; “idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings.” So, pride of heart is the effect or operation of the flesh. Col. ii. 18. “Vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind:” in the Greek (as before observed), by the mind of the flesh. So, pride, envying, and strife, and division, are spoken of as works of the flesh, 1 Cor. iii. 3, 4. “For ye are yet carnal (NOT ENGLISH, fleshly). For whereas there is envying, and strife, and division, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul, and another, I am of Apollos, are ye not carnal?” Such kind of lusts do not depend on the body, or external senses; for the devil himself has them in the highest degree, who has not, nor ever had, any body or external senses to gratify.
Here, if it should be inquired, how corruption or depravity in general, or the nature of man as corrupt and sinful, came to be called flesh, and not only that corruption which consists in inordinate bodily appetites? I think, what the apostle says in the last cited place, “Are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” leads us to the true reason. It is because a corrupt and sinful nature is what properly belongs to mankind, or the race of Adam, as they are in themselves, and as they are by nature. The word flesh is often used in both the Old and the New Testament to signify mankind in their present state. To enumerate all the places, would be very tedious; I shall therefore only mention a few in the New Testament. Matt. xxiv. 22. “Except those days should be shortened, no flesh should be saved.” Luke iii. 6. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” John xvii. 2. “Thou hast given him power over all flesh.“ 286286 See also Acts ii.17. Rom iii. 20. 1 Cor. i. 29. Gal. ii.16. Man’s nature, being left to itself, forsaken of the Spirit of God, as it was when man fell, and consequently forsaken of divine and holy principles, of itself became exceeding corrupt, utterly depraved and ruined: and so the word flesh, which signifies man, came to be used to signify man as he is in himself, in his natural state, debased, corrupt, and ruined. On the other hand, the word spirit came to be used to signify a divine and holy principle, or new nature; because that is not of man, but of God, by the indwelling and vital influence of his Spirit. And thus to be corrupt ,and to be carnal, or fleshly, and to walk as men, are the same thing. And so in other parts of Scripture, to savour the things that be of man, and to savour things which are corrupt, are the same; and, sons of men, and wicked men, also are the same, as observed before. And on the other hand, to savour the things that be of God, and to receive the things of the Spirit of God, are phrases that signify as much as relishing and embracing true holiness or divine virtue.
All these things confirm what we have supposed to be Christ’s meaning in saying, “That which is born of the flesh, is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit, is spirit.” His speech implies, that what is born in the first birth of man, is nothing but man as he is of himself, without anything divine in him; depraved, debased, sinful, ruined man, utterly unfit to enter into the kingdom of God, and incapable of the spiritual divine happiness of that kingdom. But that which is born, in the new birth, of the Spirit of God, is a spiritual principle, a holy and divine nature, meet for the heavenly kingdom. It is no small confirmation of this being the true meaning, that the words understood in this sense, contain the proper and true reason, why a man must be born again, in order to enter into the kingdom of God; the reason given every where in other parts of Scripture for the necessity of a renovation, a change of mind, a new heart, &c. in order to salvation: to give a reason of which to Nicodemus, is plainly Christ’s design in the words which have been insisted on.—Before I proceed, I would observe one thing as a corollary from what has been said.
Corol. If by flesh and spirit, when spoken of in the New Testament, and opposed to each other, in discourses on the necessary qualifications for salvation, we are to understand what has been now supposed, it will not only follow, that men by nature are corrupt, but wholly corrupt, without any good thing. If by flesh is meant man’s nature, as he receives it in his first birth, then therein dwelleth no good thing; as appears by Rom. vii. 18. It is wholly opposite to God, and to subjection to his law, as appears by Rom. viii. 7, 8. It is directly contrary to true holiness, and wholly opposes it, as appears by Gal. v.17. So long as men are in their natural state, they not only have no good thing, but it is impossible they should have or do any good thing; as appears by Rom. viii. 8. There is nothing in their nature, as they have it by the first birth, whence should arise any true subjection of God; as appears by Rom. viii. 7. If there were any thing truly good in the flesh, or in man’s nature, or natural disposition, under a moral view, then it should only be amended; but the Scripture represents as though we were to be enemies to it, and were to seek nothing short of its entire destruction, as before observed. And elsewhere the apostle directs not to the amending of the old man, but putting it off, and putting on the new man; and seeks not to have the body of death made better, but to be delivered from it; and says, “that if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (which doubtless means the same as a man new born), old things are (not amended, but) passed away, and all things are become new.”
But this will be further evident, if we particularly consider the apostle’s discourse in the latter part of the second chapter and the beginning of the third. There the apostle speaks of the natural man, and the spiritual man; where natural and spiritual are opposed just in the same manner as carnal and spiritual often are. In 1 Cor. ii. 14, 15. he says, “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual, judgeth all things.” And not only does the apostle here oppose natural and spiritual, just as he elsewhere does carnal and spiritual, but his following discourse evidently shows, that he means the very same distinction, the same two distinct and opposite things. For immediately on his thus speaking of the difference between the natural and the spiritual man, he says, 1 Cor. iii. 1 “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal.“ Referring manifestly to what he had been saying, in the immediately preceding discourse, about spiritual and natural men, and evidently using the word, carnal, as synonymous with natural. By which it is put out of all reasonable dispute, that the apostle by natural men means the same as men in that carnal, sinful state, that they are in by their first birth;—notwithstanding all the glosses and criticisms, by which modern writers have endeavored to palm upon us another sense of this phrase; and so to deprive us of the clear instruction the apostle gives in that 14th verse, concerning the sinful miserable state of man by nature. Dr. T. says, by NOT ENGLISH, is meant the animal man, the man who maketh sense and appetite the law of his action. If he aims to limit the meaning of the word to external sense, and bodily appetite, his meaning is certainly not the apostle’s. For the apostle in his sense includes the more spiritual vices of envy, strife, &c. as appears by the four first verses of the next chapter; where, as I have observed, he substitutes the word carnal in the place of NOT ENGLISH . So the 93 apostle Jude used the word in like manner, opposing it to spiritual, or having the Spirit, Jude 19 “These are they that separate themselves, sensual (NOT ENGLISH),not having the Spirit.“ The vices he had been just speaking of, were chiefly of the more spiritual kind, Jude 16. “These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration, because of advantage.” The vices mentioned are much of the same kind with those of the Corinthians, for which he calls them carnal; envy, strife, divisions, saying, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos; and being puffed up for one against another. We have the same word again, James iii. 14, 15 “If ye have bitter envying and strife, glory not, and lie not against the truth: this wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual (NOT ENGLISH) and devilish;” where also the vices the apostle speaks of are of the more spiritual kind.
So that on the whole, there is sufficient reason to understand the apostle, when he speaks of the natural man, in 1 Cor. ii. 14. as meaning man in his native corrupt state. And his words represent him as totally corrupt, wholly a stranger and enemy to true virtue or holiness, and things appertaining to it, which it appears are commonly intended in the New Testament by things spiritual, and are doubtless here meant by things of the Spirit of God. These words also represent, that it is impossible man should be otherwise, while in his natural state. The expressions are very strong: The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, is not susceptible of things of that kind, neither can he know them, can have no true sense or relish of them, or notion of their real nature and true excellency; because they are spiritually discerned; they are not discerned by means of any principle in nature, but altogether by a principle that is divine, something introduced by the grace of God’s Holy Spirit, which is above all that is natural. The words are in a considerable degree parallel with those of our Savior, John xiv. 16, 17.“He shall give you the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.”
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