Date: January 15, 1931?
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. – John 3:8
IN the year 1789 the crew of the English government ship The Bounty mutinied, and those of the mutineers who escaped capture sought to evade punishment by settling on a rocky island in the South Seas. For ten years drunkenness, debauchery, and murder reigned in this settlement of fugitives, until, after an orgy of bloody quarrels, disease, and native uprisings, one single white man, Alexander Smith, remained alive on the island. Among the articles salvaged from the ship which they had stolen and then destroyed was a copy of the Bible. When that lone survivor, cut off from the rest of the world and surrounded by native and half-breed women and children, read that revelation of God and all the damning savagery of his past life loomed up before him with its appalling consequences, he found the Christ of forgiveness and love; he was converted to that Christ, and from that time on the reign of crime and lust was ended. And Pitcairn Island (for this is the name of that tiny, yet remarkable speck in the Southern Ocean), the island that had been a veritable hell on earth, by one of the most spectacular changes in history became a model community, which has attracted the attention and excited the admiration of all travelers who have visited it.
Now that particular Bible which was responsible for this startling change is preserved in the New York City Library. But the Bible that can bring to you who do not yet know Christ the same change and the same happiness is the Bible that may repose unopened and unread in your home, the Bible that you may neglect and belittle and ignore, the Bible that down through the ages has made men Christians. The change that shook Alexander Smith is the change that must revolutionize the heart and soul of every one who comes to Christ today. For this is the plain teaching of that word of Scripture which I present to you this evening, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.”
THE HISTORY AND MEANING OF THESE WORDS.
Now, who spoke these words, “Ye must be born again”? Remember that this is no personal or private opinion, no theory of mine, no hypothesis of the Church; it is rather the everlasting Word of our Lord that will outlive heaven and earth—Christ preaching into our very hearts tonight. And as Moses was commanded when God spoke to him, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground,” so I ask you to listen with reverence and awe as the Majesty of Love tells us tonight, “Ye must be born again.”
To whom were these words of our Lord spoken? If we have a mental picture of some reprobate or outcast whom Christ has lifted up out of the gutter, then let us immediately disabuse our minds of that error. For he who on that memorable night was privileged to see His Savior face to face and to learn from His own divine lips this foundation truth of life and eternity was notably preeminent in the religious and political circles of the Jewish capital—Nicodemus, a master, a leader, a pillar in Israel. But what Christ says to Nicodemus He repeats to every one of us, “Except a man” (that is, any man, every man) “be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” There is no exemption; the universal, unavoidable decree of God is this: “Ye MUST be born again.”
Let us not pass lightly over this unescapable “must.” I find that throughout His entire ministry our Lord, as far as His utterances have been recorded in the four gospels, used this word “must,” when giving His instructions to men, in only one other place, in a passage which stresses the spiritual nature of true religion. The importance of this is often overlooked; for it implies that in the temporal and perishable things of life Christ makes no conditions and does not concern Himself about the artificial distinctions which men are prone to prize so highly. He does not ask whether a man is an intellectual giant or a mental dwarf, but He does say, “Ye must be born again.” He does not inquire whether he is an American or a Canadian, whether he is a citizen or an alien, whether he is in the social register or on the police blotter, whether he is a Republican or a Democrat, whether he is white or black; but there is one common condition which completely levels all humanity, this injunction, “Ye must be born again.”
But what is the real meaning and intent of these words? Nicodemus entirely misunderstood His divine Instructor, because he asks, “How can a man be born when he is old?” And the mistake of this master in Israel, this despiritualizing of religion, this dragging down the truths of the soul to the level of things touchable and tangible, is one of the saddest, yet one of the most constant and prevalent, of all delusions. Jesus offers the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well the living water, and eagerly she begs, “Sir, give me this water that I thirst not.” He tells the Jews at Capernaum of the “true Bread from heaven,” and yearning for a return of the manna days, they beseech Him, “Lord, evermore give us of this Bread.” Nicodemus hears of a rebirth, and his literal, material mind objects, “How can these things be?”
Today people similarly forget that Christianity is spiritual, that it deals with the soul, that the worship of God, by the Savior’s own emphasized declaration, is only correct and effective when it is “in spirit and in truth,” but most assuredly not correct when it takes Christianity out of the heart or insists upon a slavishly literal interpretation of spiritual truths. So when people today think that they have been converted, “born again,” when they refrain from using profanity or sign a pledge to stop drinking, or put honesty and efficiency maxims in their offices; when they believe that mere outward membership in the Church, checks for the Church’s work, occasional attendance at church services, automatically involve conversions and Christianity, they have fallen hopelessly short of the first and fundamental requirement of Christian faith. Why, a heathen can use good language and be temperate; a man who denies the very existence of God and ridicules Christ can have a certain form of outward, civic morality.
No, the new birth is deeper than all this, for it is the new life of true faith in our hearts; it is the inner change that takes place when sin-laden human beings, even as you and I, “by nature the children of wrath,” as the Scriptures call all of us, become children of God. It is that wonderful spiritual process whereby, as soon as we believe in Jesus Christ as the divinely ordained Redeemer of sinful mankind in its totality, we come into a new spiritual existence, as new, twice-born creatures. “That which is born of the flesh,” our Lord assures us, “is flesh”; that is, man of himself and by himself not only lacks every bit of initiative and power to rise up above the carnal state of his existence, with its strife, hatred, impurities, envy, dishonesty, its base thoughts and motives, but he is also void of all hope in life and in death. Yet as soon as a man meets Jesus, as soon as his heart has been opened to this Friend of sinners, as soon as he finds in the Cross forgiveness and a release from the forces that have dragged him down, he is turned around, converted, his sins are removed. He who was spiritually dead becomes spiritually alive; the blindness of his soul is gone; the fog of unbelief that beclouded the Light of the world is dissipated; God becomes his Father, and he becomes God’s son; in short, he is born again.
Do I hear some one tonight asking in hopeful anticipation, How does this stupendous change take place? How can I be born again? I need not stop in answering to emphasize that you and I ourselves, with all the resources of human ingenuity: education, law, surgery, psychology, and similar methods, cannot convert ourselves. “Can a leopard change his spots?” is the unanswered question of Scripture which makes men look to God as the Source of every spiritual power and to plead with assurance, “Turn Thou me, and I shall be turned.”
Now, those who expect some tremendous outward change and convulsion may be destined to the same experience with which the prophet Elijah met when God came in a still, small voice, after a whirlwind and an earthquake and a fire had passed without revealing Him. For Christ says, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” This rebirth, then, is the miracle-working power of the Spirit of God in Baptism and in the Word of God. Remember, that Spirit operates in your heart and in mine through every passage of Scripture that you read and hear, through every word of God that addresses itself to you, even as these words of truth go out to you tonight. Every time you hear of Christ, every time you read of Christ, indeed, every time you see Christ represented in His grace and truth and love and understand what Christ means to you, you have God’s invitation, God’s means of rebirth and conversion.
Think of slaughtering Saul on the Damascus road, reborn and renamed Paul the Apostle. By what process? The Word of God came to him from heaven. Think of the jailer at Philippi, converted to the worship of the same Christ whom the two captive apostles served. Again, we ask, By what process? Simply by the Gospel of Jesus which those two prisoners preached to him. Think of the Ethiopian court official whom Philip brought to Christ. By what process? we repeat. By the working of “the Spirit and the water,” the Gospel promises of Isaiah, interpreted to him by Philip, and the regenerative washing of Baptism. Think of Martin Luther torturing himself in the depth of agonizing despair, but converted to that happy, radiant, confident Christianity that characterized his remarkable life. By what process? By searching the Scriptures, through which the Spirit gave him this surpassing truth, “The just shall live by faith.” Think of Lord Littleton and Sir Gilbert West, two cultured and scholarly gentlemen, who, believing that the Bible was out of date, set about to show, among other things, that the Biblical account of the conversion and rebirth of St. Paul could not be true, but who emerged from their painstaking and minute investigation only to vindicate the Bible and to be converted themselves. Once more we ask, By what process? And again we answer, By the Spirit of God.
THE PROFOUND AND PERSONAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THESE WORDS.
Now, if the Spirit of God can overcome such predisposed hatred, if He can enlighten ignorance, if He can defeat despair, surely He can come to all of you tonight and give you this happy and wonder-working assurance that, if you will but believe the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and humbly and penitently, yet confidently and triumphantly acknowledge that Christ died for your sins, you, whoever you are and wherever you may he, are twiceborn persons, children of God. No conditions, no requirements, no limitations, no qualifications, simply this pure and priceless promise of a new birth that passes all power to understand and to explain!
And just because we cannot fathom the depth of God’s divine working in our hearts, Jesus says, “Marvel not.” He tells us not to rationalize, but simply to realize, this wondrous love. What a rebuke this “marvel not” affords to our proof-seeking, skeptical age when we are challenged, “Explain it, and we will accept it”! But “explain a blade of grass,” we respond. “Tell us how a little seed that is sown into the black earth slumbers in the ground and decays and then in its season brings forth its stalks of grass. Explain the human body with its marvelous cells or even one of the intricate subdivisions of the cells.” For, if we believe and accept only those things which we can understand and explain, what is there in life that we can truly believe and accept? A distinguished American scientist, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for his revolutionary discovery in electricity, states very candidly, “I cannot explain why I am alive rather than dead. Physiologists can tell me a great deal about the mechanical and chemical processes of my body, but they cannot say why I am alive. But would it not be utterly absurd for me to deny that I am alive?” These words of Dr. Millikan simply reecho the classic argument of our Lord, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.” And yet there is no one who denies that the wind exists simply because he and no one else can explain its nature and movements. And so when a radio friend in Los Angeles writes us, “It has been years since I have been inside of a church of any kind, but since I heard your radio program, I am coming back to the blessed fold. I shall have to make my confession complete. Every Saturday afternoon when I finished my work, I went on a drunk. But a week ago tonight the Word went right home. I found salvation in my own home in front of my own radio. That was the deciding point in my life,”—when our mail brings us letters of this kind, showing the divine blessings that have rested on this radio crusade for Christ, we cannot analyze the change with the help of test tubes and crucibles and microscopes and X-rays, but we know that it is there because Christ tells us it is, because we can feel it and see its demonstration in the new life. “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself.”
Are you converted? If you have never known what it means to have the blessed assurance of a Savior for time and for eternity; if you have never felt the happiness of having your conscience cleared with God; if you have never experienced the joy of faith in Christ, then the same Lord who tonight has told you, “Ye must be born again,” calls out to you now, “Come to Me! Believe in Me! Trust in Me!” May God grant that you heed this invitation of grace to the newness of a Christ-conscious, Christ-centered life! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.