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Regeneration the Work of God.
“The hearing ear, and the
seeing eye, the Lord hath even made both of
them.”—Prov. xx. 12.
“The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath even made both of them.” This testimony of the Holy Spirit contains the whole mystery of regeneration.
An unregenerate person is deaf and blind; not only as a stock or block, but worse. For neither stock nor block is corrupt or ruined, but an unregenerate person is wholly dead and a prey to the most fearful dissolution.
This rigid, uncompromising, and absolute confession must be our starting-point in this discussion, else we shall fail to understand the claims of regeneration. This is the reason why every heresy that has conceded in one way or other that man has a share, most generally a lion’s share, in the work of redemption, has always begun by calling in question the nature of sin. “Undoubtedly,” they said, “sin is very bad—a terrible and abominable evil; but there is surely some remnant of good in man. That noble, virtuous, and amiable being, man, can not be dead in trespasses and sin. That may be true of some scoundrel or knave behind the bars, or of robbers and unscrupulous murderers; but really, it can not be applied to our honorable ladies and gentlemen, to our lovely girls, roguish boys, and attractive children. These are not prone to hate God and their neighbors, but disposed, with all their heart, to love all men, and render unto God the reverence due unto Him.”
Therefore away with all ambiguity in this matter! This method of smoothing over unpalatable truths, now so much in vogue among the affable people, we can not indorse. Our confession is, and ever shall be, that by nature man is dead in trespasses and sin, lying under the curse, ripe for the just judgment of God, and still ripening for an eternal condemnation. Surely his being, as man, is unimpaired; wherefore we protest against the presentation that 305 the sinner is in this respect as a stock or block. No; as man he is unimpaired, his being is intact; but his nature is corrupt, and in that corrupt nature he is dead.
We compare him to the body of a person who has died of an ordinary disease. Such a body retains all the members of the human organism intact. There is the eye with its muscles, and the ear with its organs of hearing; in the post-mortem examination heart, spleen, liver, and kidneys appear to be perfectly normal. A dead body may sometimes appear so natural that one is tempted to say: “He is not dead, but sleeping.” And yet, however perfect and natural, its nature is corrupt with the corruption of death. And the same is true of the sinner. His being remains intact and whole, containing all that which constitutes a man; but his nature is corrupt, yea, so corrupt that he is dead; not only apparently, but actually dead; dead in all the variations which can be played upon the term “dead.”
Hence without regeneration the sinner is utterly unprofitable. What is the use of an ear except it hear, or of an eye except it see? Therefore the Holy Ghost testifies: “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made even both of them.”2828 [Prov. xx. 12] And since in the world of spiritual things deaf ears and blind eyes do not avail anything, the Church of Christ confesses that every operation of saving grace must be preceded by a quickening of the sinner, by an opening of blind eyes, an unstopping of deaf ears—in short, by the implanting of the faculty of faith.
And as the man that sat in darkness can see as soon as his eyes are opened, so we, without moving a hair’s breadth, are translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. “Translated” does not denote here an actual going, nor does “to be translated” denote an actual change of place, but simply life entering into the dead, so that he that was blind can now see.
This wonderful act of regeneration may be examined in two classes of persons: in the infant and in the adult.
It is the safest way to examine it in the infant: not because this work of grace is different in an infant from what it is in an adult, for it is the same in all persons thus favored; but to the conscious observation of an adult the workings of regeneration are so mingled with those of conversion that it is difficult to distinguish the two.
But this difficulty does not exist in the case of an unconscious 306 child, as, e.g., in John the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth. Such infant has no consciousness to create confusion. The matter appears in a pure and unmixed form. And thus we are enabled to distinguish between regeneration and conversion in an adult. It is evident that in the case of an infant which, like John, is still unborn, there can be nothing but mere passivity—i.e., the child underwent something, but himself did nothing; something was done to him, and in him, but not by him; and every idea of cooperation is absolutely excluded.
Hence, in regeneration, man is neither worker nor coworker; he is merely wrought upon; and the only Worker in this matter is God. And, for this very reason, because God is the sole Worker in regeneration, it must be thoroughly understood that His work does not begin only with regeneration.
No; while the sinner is still dead in trespasses and sins, before the work of God has begun in him, he is already chosen and ordained, justified and sanctified, adopted as God’s child and glorified. This is what filled St. Paul with such ecstasy of joy when he said: “For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate; and whom He did predestinate, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified” (Rom. viii. 29, 30). And this is not the recital of what took place in the regenerate, but the glad summing up of the things which God accomplished for us before we existed. Hence our election, foreordination, justification, and glorification precede the new birth. It is true that, in the hour of love when regeneration was to be effected in us, the things accomplished outside of our consciousness were to be revealed to the consciousness of faith; but so far as God was concerned all things were ready and prepared. The dead sinner whom God regenerates is to the divine consciousness a beloved, elect, justified, and adopted child already. God quickens only His dear children.
Of course, God justifies the ungodly and not the righteous; He calls sinners to repentance and not just persons; but it should be remembered that this is spoken from the point of view of our own consciousness of sin. The still unregenerate does not feel himself God’s child, nor that he is justified; does not believe his own election, yea, often gainsays it; yet he can not alter the things divinely wrought in his behalf, viz., that before the supreme bar of justice God declared him just and free, long before he was so declared 307 before the bar of his own conscience. Long before he believed, he was justified before God’s tribunal, by and by to be justified by faith before his own consciousness.
But, however wonderful and unfathomable the mystery of election may be—and none of us shall ever be able to answer the question why one was chosen to be a vessel of honor, and another was left as a vessel of wrath—in the matter of regeneration we do not face that mystery at all. That God regenerates one and not another is according to a fixed and unalterable rule. He comes with regeneration to all the elect; and the non-elect He passes by. Hence this act of God is irresistible. No man has the power to say, “I will not be born again,” or to prevent God’s work or to put obstacles in His way, or to make it so difficult that it can not be performed.
God effects this gracious work in His own way, i.e., He so royally perseveres that all creatures together could not rob Him of one of His elect. If all men and devils should conspire to pluck a brutal man, belonging to the elect, from His saving power, all their efforts would be mere vanity. As we brush away a spider’s web, so would God laugh at all their commotion. The powerful steam borer pierces the iron plate not more noiselessly and with less effort than silently and majestically God penetrates the heart of whomsoever He will, and changes the nature of His chosen. Isaiah’s word concerning the starry heavens—“Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their hosts by number; He calleth them all by name, by the greatness of His might, for that He is strong in power; not one faileth ”2929[Isa. xl. 26] may be applied to the firmament in which God’s elect shine as stars: “Because of the greatness of His might, and that He is strong in power, not one faileth.” All that are ordained to eternal life are quickened at the divinely appointed hour.
And this implies that the work of regeneration is not a moral work; that is, it is not accomplished by means of advice or exhortation. Even taken in its wider sense, including conversion, as, e.g., the canons of Dort use it now and then, regeneration is not a moral working in the soul.
It is not simply a case of misunderstanding, the sinner’s will being still uncorrupt, so that it requires only instruction and advice to induce it to choose rightly. No; such advice and admonition 308 are wholly out of the question regarding the unborn son of Zacharias; and the thousands of infants of believing parents, of whom at Dort it was correctly confessed that they may be supposed to have died in the Lord, i.e., being born again; and regarding those regenerated before Baptism but converted later in life.
For this reason it is so necessary to examine regeneration (in its limited sense) in an infant, and not in an adult, in whom it necessarily includes conversion.
The following reasoning can not be disputed:
1. All men, infants included, are born dead in trespasses and sins.
2. Of these infants many die before they come to self-consciousness.
3. Of these gathered flowers the Church confesses that many are saved.
4. Being dead in sin, they can not be saved without being born again.
5. Hence regeneration does actually take place in persons that are not self-conscious.
These statements being indisputable, it is evident, therefore, that the nature and character of regeneration can be determined most correctly by examining it in these still unconscious persons.
Such an unborn infant is totally ignorant of human language; it has no ideas, has never heard the Gospel preached, can not receive instruction, warning, or exhortation. Hence moral influence is out of the question; and this convinces us that regeneration is not a moral, but a metaphysical act of God, just as much as the creation of the soul of an unborn child, which is effected independently of the mother. God regenerates a man wholly without his foreknowledge.
What it is that constitutes the act of regeneration can not be told. Jesus Himself tells us so, for He says: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou Nearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”3030[John iii. 8] And, therefore, it is befitting to investigate this mystery with the utmost discretion. Even in the natural kingdom the mystery of life and its origin is almost entirely beyond our knowledge. The most learned physician is entirely ignorant concerning the manner in which a human life comes into existence. 309 Once existing, he can explain its deveopment, but of the inception that preceeds all else he knows absolutely nothing. In this respect he is just as ignorant as the most innocent peasant boy. The mystery can not be penetrated, simply because it lies beyond our observation; it is perceptible only that life exists.
And this applies in stronger sense to the mystery of our second birth. Post-mortem examination can detect the embryo and its locality, but spiritually even this is impossible. Subsequent manifestations are instructive to a certain extent, but even then much is uncertain and unsettled. By what infallible standard can it be determined how much of the old nature enters into the expressions of the new life? Is there no hypocrisy? Are there no conditions unexplained? Are there no obstacles to spiritual development? Hence experience in this respect can not avail; tho pure and simple, it can reveal only the development of that which is, and not the origin of the life unborn.
The only source of truth on this subject is the Word of God; and in that Word the mystery remains not only unrevealed, but veiled. And for good reasons. If we were to effect regeneration, if we could add to or take from it, if we could advance or hinder it, then Scripture would surely have sufficiently instructed us concerning it. But since God has reserved this work altogether to Himself, man need not solve this mystery any more than that of his first creation, or that of the creation of his soul.
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