Quaker Heritage Press > Online Texts > Isaac Penington's Works > A Touchstone or Trial of Faith
Printed for Giles Calvert at the Black Spread-Eagle, at the West end of Pauls, 1648
IF thou hast any leisure from partaking in, or exclaiming against the bitter contentions of this present age, which have eat out most men's content in themselves, and their pleasingness to others; Here are some serious considerations proposed to thee, as thou wilt one day acknowledge, when thine eyes come to be fully opened.
It is high time to look out after some other place and certainty of entertainment there, when this earth by its continual shaking and cracking under us, doth so often threaten that it will not long support us. There is no true security for us, but by faith in Christ; he is the only Rock, and there is no stepping thither but by faith: there is no <516> certainty, but by an assured knowledge of the truth of this faith; whereof there are so many and such accurate cheats, that it is not possible to discern the difference without thorough sifting and scanning. The Devil, that great cozening merchant, hath all kind of counterfeit wares which he paints and gilds, that he may put off for true. He hath grosser ware for the grosser sort, whom he can content with any thing; but more refined stuff for such as look more narrowly into things: Men that are openly vain and profane, yet can hardly be beaten off from it, but that they love God, and have such a faith as will carry them to heaven; though they do not live so strictly as others, yet they believe in Christ, and that is it God looks after.
This deceit thou seest through O stricter soul! but know withal, the Devil hath more curious counterfeits, wherein there is the exact proportion of the thing resembled, all but the life and power; yea, he is cunning also in imitating the life and power of every thing, he hath a resemblance of that too (for those that will not otherwise be content) to keep them from attaining the truth and substance which if they were not thus deceived by him, with the similitude of, they would not cease to pursue.
Thou art confident thou art not deceived, so are all that are deceived; the Devil could not deceive thee, with that which is false, if he did not withal work in thee a persuasion that it is true: What will it hurt thee to try and try thoroughly? Nay, surely it will much advantage thy very confidence: After trial, thou mayst be confident upon knowledge, now thou art confident but upon supposition; and if thou shouldest at last prove mistaken, thou wouldest have too much time to befool thy self, and bewail thy confidence; thou wilt be more angry that thou wert pressed no further to trial, than thou art now offended that thou art pressed so much to it. Thou art but a traveller in this world, and yet thou wilt look after a sure title in these transitory things; oh look that there be not a flaw in thy title to thy true inheritance: And if thy spirit be seriously bent towards this employment, here perhaps the Lord may administer to thee some help and direction, or furnish thee better some other way when he shall see good.
The way of trial here propounded, is certain, though somewhat difficult, yea, indeed altogether impossible without the help of God's Spirit: And yet, what sweeter, safer, truer direction can be given, to us poor, weak, empty creatures, who are nothing, who can do nothing, than to fly to him who is able to do all things, to issue out that power to us, and manage it in us, whereby the thing we desire may be effected; and to wait quietly upon him in our present uncertain condition till he shall please to do it, rather than patch up a satisfaction of our own?
And this way of trial is not any invention of mine, but it is plainly <517> represented in these Scriptures from the mouth of John and Christ, referring the trial of faith, to the birth, and of the birth to the Spirit, as thou mayst more fully see in the Discourse itself; to which I now leave thee to make what use of it, the Lord shall direct thee.
Thine in what the Lord pleaseth, Isaac Pennington
Which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
THis sweet and soaring evangelist having glanced at the excellency of our Lord Christ, in his relation to God (being his Word) his presence, and oneness with God, vers. 1. in his influence upon all things, he gave them their being, vers. 3. he gave them their life too (for it was first in him) and his life contains all that light that man at any time receiveth, either natural or spiritual, either from and through the creatures, in at the windows of his own sense and reason; or more immediately from the Spirit of God, into his own spirit, vers. 4.
Having thus given a general and pithy description of him, who was to be the main subject of his discourse; he comes in the next place to speak of his fore-runner, and what of Christ might be learned from him.
He describeth this fore-runner: 1. By his mission, he was sent from God; he did not go of his own head, but God bid him go: 2. By his name, His name was John, vers. 6. 3. By the end of his coming it was for to be a witness, to testify somewhat from God unto the world: 4. Concerning what he was to witness; It was concerning that light he had spoken of, that came into the world and shined in the darkness, uncomprehended by the darkness, that this was the light indeed: 5. To what end he was to witness this, that all through him might believe; that by his means men might universally come to acknowledge this light, and to cast themselves upon it to lead them unto life, vers. 7.
In vers. 8. he removes a mistake which might arise in men's minds, concerning this end; He was not that light, but to bear witness of that light; as if he had said, do not mistake, he was not this light himself, he came not to that end to be the light, but only to give in a testimony from God concerning the light, to tell men which was it, that men might not have recourse to him but to the light; he was to point <518> with the finger at Christ and to send men thither.
And he gives a reason why John could not be this light, vers 9. because he wanted the property of this light: This light is the original light as it was described before, who hath all light in him, who giveth out all light, who is the very light; The true light that lightneth every man that cometh into the world: It is he gives the light of reason to every man that comes into this outward world, it is he gives the light of the spirit to every man that enters by faith into the inner world. Now John was not this true light, this very light, but only had his candle lighted by it.
Vers. 10. The evangelist proceeds further to describe this light: He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not: He did not only enlighten the world from the beginning of it, but at length he himself came into the world; and the world had a near relation to him, for he gave it its being, it was the workmanship of his hands, and yet the world knew him not; though he had not forgotten the world, but came in due time to look after it, yet the world had forgotten him and knew not who he was.
Yea, he came to his own, vers. 11. his own people the Jews, whom he had selected out of the world; whom he had always cherished, to whom he had promised this coming of his, and who had long expected it, and yet they received him not.
All this seemeth to be the answer of an objection, such an objection as this:
Object. If Christ was the light, what need he have such an one as John to go and proclaim it? what need John come to bear witness of him? light discovers itself: The sun needs none to go and proclaim that there is light in it; If this were the fountain of light, the very light indeed; what need hath he of John's testimony, of John's finger to point at him?
Answ. Yes, saith he, need enough, for though he was in the world; yea, and was the great Architect of the world, yet the world knew him not; and though he came to his own people, who had all the light of God that was in the world, yet they received him not. The world, they did not know him; the Jews they would not own him; though they did partly know him, yet they did not like him. Surely, he who was thus unknown, who lay hid in the field of the world, to the world; who was thus rejected by his own, had great need of a witness, to declare to the world who he was, and to testify to the stubborn Jews, their rebellion against the light.
But then it may further be demanded, what did the Jews lose by not receiving, or what should the world gain by coming to this light, when they were pointed to it by John?
<519> Why very much, as verse the 12th holds out: But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God: They should gain this great dignity to be the sons of God, coming into union and fellowship with him, they should partake of his honor from and interest in the Father. Christ would give them this privilege, to become the sons of the most High; to go and call him Father, and desire any fatherly act of him; and if he be questioned for it, tell him Christ bid him do so; he gave him this right and privilege, to be a son: What means that? what is it to have a Father? what is it to be a son?
It includes these three things in it.
1. Careful education by the Father.
2. A sonlike spirit in himself from the Father.
3. A sonlike inheritance for himself with the Father.
Each of these is included in this prerogative of being a son.
1. Careful education by the Father. The Father is to nurture, and bring up his child, suitable to his own state and degree. This is a universal law of nature, and universally observed by every creature; every creature brings up, what it brings forth; and doubtless the substance of this law is written on God's heart, who hath written the image of it on every thing that comes from him. Now education hath these three things in it.
First, instruction in such literature, as becomes such a son: Thou mayest go to God, for such knowledge as becomes a son of God; thou art to be brought up in the knowledge of the most High, this is thy right; It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God; they shall all know me from the least to the greatest. The least of them shall not want suitable knowledge; They shall all know God who is the greatest thing to be known, and whom it requires the highest life to know: This is life eternal, to know thee the only true God.
Secondly, preservation from dangers. The Father is to provide tutors and governors to look to the child, that he do not wrong himself, nor that any else wrong him; When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burnt, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee: All things shall work together for good to them that love God: The stones of the field shall be at peace with thee. Creatures, men, devils, temptations, sins, corruption; nothing shall hurt them, nor they shall not hurt themselves; nothing can hurt them but departing from God, and their Father will look to that too; I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me, Jer. 32:40.
Thirdly, provision of meat, drink, clothes, recreations, and whatsoever else is needful for him, suitable to his degree: This God will take <520> care for too, he will take care of this for the body, He that feeds the ravens, and clothes the lilies shall he not much more feed and clothe you? but it is their spirit he is specially the Father of, that is his child, and spiritual meat, drink, clothes, recreations, &c. he will not fail to provide for it: He will give grace and glory, and no good thing will he withhold: The lions may suffer hunger, and want food for their bodies; but none of his shall want food for their spirits; as he promiseth the poor captive exile, who is banished from his presence and in captivity under Satan, bound in his pit; he promiseth him that he shall not die there, nor his bread fail there, Isa. 51:14. The words in the Hebrew are in the future tense, He shall not die in the pit, and his bread shall not fail.
2. A sonlike spirit: It is natural to the son, to be like the father; but why? because he hath it from his father. God also will put his Spirit into his Sons, I will put my Spirit within you; Indeed, it is the spirit of a son makes a son; and therefore those that want the spirit of sons, we say they are unnatural. God should beget unnatural children if he should not endue them with a sonlike Spirit: He could not be a true Father, beget a true child, unless he begat his own spirit in him: There can be no life of a son, no voice of a son, no motion of a son without the spirit, Rom. 8:9,26. Sonship and the spirit are knit together, Gal. 4:6. Because ye are Sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba Father. It belongs to the Father both to beget, and cherish a sonlike spirit in his son: God hath undertaken for his, as well that they shall be sons and daughters, as to be a Father to them, 2 Cor. 6:18. He will beget in them, and pour out upon them such a sonlike spirit, that neither he, nor they shall be ashamed of the relation.
3. A sonlike inheritance: Such an one as becomes such an heir: for what God now possesses, he must inherit; if he be his son, his heir, it is his privilege; what power, wisdom, goodness, glory, &c. God now enjoys, he must have when he is grown up to it, Rom. 8.
This all that receive Christ, must have from and with Christ, all this God hath given unto Christ, and he giveth it all with himself, so that take him and take all.
Quest. But what is this same receiving of Christ? who are those persons that receive him? how may we know them?
Answ. The next words tell you, It is them that believe on his Name? The name of Christ is his power to save, to bring men out of their misery and wretchedness unto this. This light comes to lighten men out of their darkness into itself and whoever lay hold on him he fetcheth them out; whoever is fastened unto him, cannot abide in darkness, but must come out with him: Now to believe on his name, is to fasten on this power of his; faith is that glue which makes the soul <521> in whom it is, stick and cleave to Christ; and any such souls he fetches them out of the clutches of the Devil presently, and from amidst that power of darkness under which they lay, and giveth them this privilege to become sons of God, Act. 26:18.
Quest. But how may we know those who believe? or how come these persons to believe and receive him before others? his own they receive him not; how comes it about that these receive him?
Answ. That is resolved in the following verse, (vers. 13); they have a new principle of life put into them, which inclines them so to do, Which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. These persons come to it by a new birth, they come not to faith by the powers of nature, but they are new born before they believe: They have a new seed of a new life put into them, out of which faith grows, and from which it fetcheth its ability to act. Now concerning this birth, that we may not be deceived about it, he shows first what it is not, whence it doth not proceed; and then what it is, whence it doth proceed: It is not a birth of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
Not of blood: Blood may import that instruction in religion and disposition towards religion, which a man receiveth from his parents; there is a vein of religion runs along with the blood, and there is a kind of natural inclination in all persons towards religion, both which meeting together with some addition of instruction, will carry a person very far in religious practices. This was the religion of the Jews generally; what they drank in from their parents, and were accustomed to by their education, that they were very strict in the observation of. And this is the root of most of the religion, at this day in the world; Turks, Papists, yea, Protestants generally suck in their religion with their blood; indeed, they all pretend to a power of God, and strive to make up a kind of satisfaction to themselves one way or other, whereas the groundwork whereupon they build is rotten. But this is not the true birth; man in the natural way of generation cannot convey it; Abraham did not thus convey it to Isaac, but he was a son by promise; it is not the blood of Abraham through which the faith of Abraham runs.
2. Nor of the will of the flesh: The will of the flesh being distinguished from the will of man denoteth the corrupt part with the desires thereof, which also doth operate and has a power to produce a birth in religion though not the true birth. This will of the flesh may work a twofold way; either in oneself, or in others; and either way may effect a great change in the person, in the reference to religion, though not the true one.
First, There is the will of the flesh working in a man's self; when <522> a man for by-ends, as vain-glory, profit, quietness sake, or any such like thing, taketh up the profession and practice of religion; this is from the flesh, from a corrupt principle; when a man takes up religion, not from a pure conviction of conscience, not for religion's sake, but because it suits with such and such by-ends of his, tends to advantage him in this or that respect. Thus the Pharisees took up most of their practices, out of a desire of honor and gain; and it hath been observed, and known of many in former times, that they have been Puritans on such terms as these, to obtain a wife, to please their friends, to increase their custom and the like; And thus are many things maintained among us at this day, which the light that is abroad would quickly and clearly dispel, only corrupt ends keep them alive. And thus a man may be born anew as it were, a great change may be made in him, and he appear a new man to all that behold him; when as it is indeed but the working of the flesh, his prosecuting some corrupt ends of his own which maketh him thus forward and zealous in religion.
Secondly, There is this corrupt part, or will of the flesh, not only working in a man's self but in others also; and that is, when other men for corrupt ends of their own, strive to bring on persons (specially such as may be more easily led) to such and such practices in religion, and to zeal in such and such particular things: Thus the Pharisees did bring the people into many practices, for their own corrupt ends; and thus were the poor proselytes born, they were brought into a way of religion by the Jews, who took great pains to effect it, but made them ten times more the children of hell than they were before: And this we shall see, will be the case of many poor souls at last, who have followed such guides as have had glorious pretenses in view, but corrupt ends in their hearts; they become ten times worse at present, and will be ten times more miserable at last than if they had never known such and such ways of religion, or had not been so zealous in them. But this is not the true birth neither whence true faith doth flow; all the changes that are made in us, from any corrupt end or desire of our own, or of any others whatsoever, will be of little value to us.
3. Nor of the will of man: The will of man being distinguished from the will of the flesh, notes the purest and most ingenuous part; and that either in a man's self or any other; It notes, that desire that is naturally in man, to find out God and his will, and to worship and please him, and so to use the best means the soul can meet with in reference thereunto, as seeking into his word, hearing, conferring, praying, and observing what it finds to be his will; This indeed is noble, ingenuous, and acceptable in the sight of God in its kind and degree; but yet it doth not rise so high as this birth that is here spoken <523> of: All this prosecuted by the soul, yet will never bring it to God, though God doth ordinarily (if not always) bring such persons to himself, whom he thus seriously and constantly inclines.
Nor will this desire in others, with all the means they can use accomplish it; though they themselves be new born, yet this will not beget another; though the most precious saint that is, should never so earnestly desire the begetting of a soul to God, out of the purest ends that might be, and should use all spiritual means towards it, pray hard to God, diligently spread the knowledge of Christ before the person and beg on him day after day with tears, to pity his poor perishing soul, yet all this will not do; Abraham did as much for Ishmael as could be done, if the will of man would have done it; he was careful to instruct his whole family, but in a special manner very fain would he have had grace breathed into him, Oh that Ishmael might live before thee! How fain would Isaac have had the blessing run to Esau! how much did Christ do for the Jews, how large were his affections; Oh that thou hadst known at least in this thy day the things that belong unto thy peace! how vast his pains! All the day long have I stretched out my hands to a foolish and gain-saying people. So Paul for the Jews, Rom. 9:2-3. The apostles of Christ though they did travel with men, yet they could not beget or bring forth whom they would; and those persons that were born of this will of theirs, yet that birth came to nothing, they fell away from the faith afterwards, both from Christ while he was alive, (as this book abundantly testifies) and from the churches after his ascension. So that here are the three great engines of religion, which turn all the world upside down, and make almost all the changes in religion among men, tradition, corruption, reason and ingenuity, they are all here discarded, as not being able to convey the true birth whence true faith proceeds.
Then at last, the evangelist having shewn whence it did not proceed, sheweth also whence it did proceed, both the birth and the faith; but of God, the birth comes from God, the faith from the birth or from the new-born child: God by his spirit, breathes a breath of life into him, puts a new principle within him, and by virtue of this he comes to believe on Christ: God by the power of his grace, changeth him and maketh him a new creature, and then he comes to put forth this new act of true and spiritual faith: God soweth a seed in him, causeth this seed to grow and at length bringeth it forth, so that the child is born; and then faith naturally, after the law and manner of the divine nature sprouts from it: The first act of the living child, is to exercise the power of faith, which before lay hid in him. And this is done, this birth is brought about, not from a man's own will, whether corrupt or ingenuous, nor from the will of any else, but from God, from his will, of his <524> own will begat he us, Jam. 1:18. This, and this alone is the true birth.
For a close to these two verses, take notice of these four great truths, wherein much of the gospel doth lie; three of them are contained in these two verses, the first of them in the fore-going part of the chapter.
1. That Christ is the light come into the world to lighten men out of their darkness; there is no getting out of spiritual darkness, but by Christ the true and only spiritual light.
2. The persons for whom he doth this, must believe, must receive him by faith for their light.
3. Faith proceeds from the new birth, a man must be new born that he may believe.
4. The great privilege Christ bestows on those that believe, which is this, he gives them Authority to become the sons of God.
Those that will be the sons of God, must believe on his Christ.
Those that will believe on God's Christ, must be born of God.
Those that are born of God, cannot but believe on Christ, and Christ cannot but lighten them out of their darkness, for that end he came.
2. The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
3. Jesus answered, and said unto him, Verily, verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.
4. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?
5. Jesus answered, Verily, verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.
6. That which is born of the flesh, is flesh; and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.
Here is an excellent dispute between Christ and Nicodemus concerning true faith; John had described it before in the twelfth and thirteenth verses of the first chapter, where he had shewed that those that did indeed believe, were born of God: This act of faith in them, which did entitle them unto Christ, and whereupon they did receive the right of sonship in and from him, did not proceed from any light set before them by men; nor from any inclination of heart which man could work in them; but from a new principle of life breathed into their souls by God.
Here the case is more fully argued between Christ and Nicodemus. Nicodemus a Pharisee, and ruler of the Jews, comes to Christ by night, acknowledging him to be a teacher from God, one who had the will of <525> God revealed unto him by God himself, and came to make it known unto the sons of men: He giveth Christ the ground which induced him thus to believe, which was, because of the signs he shewed, the wonders he did, which no man could do unless God were with him. Those things he did were beyond the working of any human power, therefore God must needs be with that person who doth them; he comes as one that would be a disciple (though he comes not so openly as others did) and at his first salute, he acknowledgeth Christ to be a teacher sent from heaven by God, rendering his reason withal, whereby he could not choose but so judge, which was no mean one neither, but drawn from the mighty things Christ did, wherein the very power of God did appear to the eye of reason evidencing unto it that living spring from whence he came, and the presence of that living spring with him: This is expressed in the first and second verses.
In the third verse, Christ applieth himself to his particular state, wishing him to consider the ground whence this acknowledgment of his did arise; telling him plainly that true faith must arise from another root than sight of his miracles; Jesus answered, and said unto him, verily, verily, &c. as if he had said, Mark what I say, I know what I speak, Verily, verily, it is most certainly so, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
What is the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is that state of life and blessedness, which God hath brought to light by Jesus Christ. As the kingdom of the Devil is that state of death and misery man lies in by nature; so the kingdom of God is that state of life and glory man is advanced to by grace: Philip preached the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, Act. 8:12. He opened the life and blessedness that belongs to this kingdom, and the name of Christ who is to bring us into it.
To see this Kingdom, is an act of faith, which is the eye wherewith we behold every spiritual thing; this eye no man hath, but he that is born again, he that is born from above: This eye doth not lie hid in nature, and so only wants somewhat to clear it, and draw forth the act of it; but it belongs to a new birth; he that is begotten and born of God, he hath this eye in him, and none else: Therefore Nicodemus consider thy mistake, Thou thinkest because thou seest by an eye of reason that I am come from God, and art drawn by thy reason and ingenuity to acknowledge and own it, that therefore thou believest: No, no, Nicodemus, if thou hast faith, it ariseth from another ground than the sight of my miracles, it comes from a new birth in thee, though God may make this useful to thee also to help thee to believe; but if thy faith have no better ground-work than this, it is like the fore-mentioned faith of those in the former <526> chapter, vers. 23. whom I dare not, I cannot own as disciples. Oh weigh and consider this, all wise and ingenuous men, behold your snare, and take notice of this also, which may help to enervate the force of it.
That sight and acknowledgement of any spiritual thing which we are drawn to by a power of reason, by such evidences as reason itself cannot withstand (as miracles were) we have just cause to suspect as not true and spiritual: It is the sight of reason not of faith; it is such an act of faith as proceeds from the natural man, not from the spiritual man; it is that act the eye that was in us before puts forth, not the new eye. Oh see, how men are quite out in seeking after the truths of God in every kind: They call for reason, for evidences to have it brought by such hands as no man could justly refuse. Ah! they should call for new eyes, or least for God's discovering his truths in a spiritual way to their eyes which all the miracles in the world cannot do: They may by miracles be brought to a rational sight, and so to a present acknowledgment of truths; but never to a spiritual sight, which alone's satisfactory, and which alone will be lasting.
Verse 4. Nicodemus apprehends this spiritual truth very carnally and grossly, of a fleshly birth of the fleshly part; and it seemeth a direct absurdity to him, what Christ had now affirmed: He thinks he hath caught the great Master (whom he acknowledged just now a teacher come from God) in a trap, and he so expresseth it, as if Christ had overshot himself, and could not tell how to make good what he had laid down; How can a man be born again when he is old? is there any possibility of this? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born?
Verse 5. Christ doth not abate any thing of what he hath said, but affirmeth it again with the same vehemency, further opening, and confirming it, Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
Dost thou come to be a disciple to learn the way to happiness? wouldst thou enter into that state of blessedness, that I come to preach? thou must be born again; and not carnally, nor of carnal things; but of water and of the spirit.
For the better apprehending of this, let us enquire a little into these ensuing particulars.
1. What is meant by water?
2. What it is to be born of water?
3. What it is to be born of the Spirit?
4. What this entering into the kingdom of God is, which none can do, but that person which is born of water and of the Spirit?
1. What is meant by water? By water is meant, the knowledge of <527> God in Christ, the sight of God in the face of Christ; wherein eternal life consists. If thou hadst known the gift of God, &c. thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water, Joh. 4:10. What is this living water? Why, this is life eternal, to know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent? Joh. 17:3. The heavenly doctrine of life and salvation, is often expressed in Scripture, by this term of water, My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, Deut. 32:2. & Is. 55:10. Heb. 6:7. As God is the fountain whence all the life and sweetness of the creature flows, whether natural (Is. 65:9.) or spiritual (Jer. 2:13) so those beams of eternal light, those streamings forth of life, which issue out from God in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, they are waters from this fountain.
2. What it is to be born of water? It notes that fundamental and radical change which is made in the heart by the power of the truths of Christ conveyed thither, and working there.
There are three great effects of this water.
It begets, it washeth, it nourisheth; It begets a dead man to life, it begets a man unto God; for it is a living and active water; or rather it is the seed whereof a man is begotten and born; or at least the vessel, that living vessel which contains it: It is that also wherewith he is washed after he is born (though there be a washing with blood too.) And it nourisheth him after he is both born and washed, he lives upon the very same water that he was born of and with: It is the first of these effects that is here spoken of, that stroke that water hath in the generation and birth of the new creature, He is born of it. It is by letting in these waters upon the soul and into the soul that God changeth it, and maketh it anew. Our change in our spirits, and our conversion to God proceedeth from, and is to be attributed to that power of truth that God lets in upon us; and to that the apostle ascribeth it (as in many other places) Rom 6:17. Jam. 1:18. As our first change from God, was by drinking of the devil's waters, which were waters of darkness and death, waters of error and deceit; so this great change to God again, is wrought by drinking of God's waters, his spiritual waters of life, which are his truths which he holds out unto us, wherein there is no darkness nor deceit at all, but they are clear, living, and substantial.
3. What is it to be born of the Spirit? It is to have this change from these waters wrought in us by the spirit. A man can never change his own heart, by any of the truths of God; but it must be the spirit that must do it. This water is too spiritual a seed for any man to sow in his own heart: No man, no creature can sow another's seed; this is the spirit's seed, and he must sow it if it be sown: Christ himself openeth and illustrateth this further in the eighth verse of the third chapter, The <528> wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, nor whither it goeth: So is every one that is born of the Spirit. The Spirit breathes his own breath, blows his own blast, makes his own sound of life himself in our spirits, and thus are we born of him. It is not all the changes a man can make by the light of natural truths, nay by the light of spiritual truths, working them upon his heart with never so much pains, that will amount to a new birth; but it must be the spirit of Christ breathing this seed into him, and forming him into a new creature by this seed. As it is water or the word of truth, whereby we are begotten; So it is God alone who begets, and that he doth of his own inclination too, Jam. 1:18. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth.
4. What is it to enter into the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God, is his spiritual dominion in Christ, to which every spiritual thing belongs, and in which all spiritual excellencies and blessednesses are laid up: To enter into this kingdom, is by a spiritual act of the soul to come within the verge and bounds of it, even that very act which Nicodemus was speaking of, vers. 2. namely, an act of true faith; by laying hold on Jesus Christ and becoming one with him, a man presently hath right unto, and entrance into this kingdom.
Now saith Christ, it is impossible for any man to do this who is not first new born; he can never truly mount upward, whose earthly nature is not first changed.
A man may talk of spiritual glories and his right unto them, but of a truth he is not entered into the kingdom, nor cannot by true faith, who is not born again, and that both of water and the spirit. To partake of the privileges of Christ, to have life and blessedness from him, requires a birth of water, and of the spirit: There must a new birth of water and the spirit precede there, without which the person is not in a capacity of it; he must be made up again of water, and that not of his own forming neither, but of the spirit's forming, and then by faith he enters into the kingdom, and becomes entitled to all the privileges of the kingdom, which without this birth foregoing cannot be done.
Vers. 6. In this verse, Christ layeth down a position, to confirm the truth he had spoken in the former verse: There is a necessity of being born of water and the spirit, or else a man cannot enter into the kingdom; for that is a spiritual act, and a man can act no higher than he is, and he is not spiritual, he is but flesh, if he be born but of flesh, That which is born of flesh is flesh.
Flesh here is not to be taken in its latitude, but for that part of it which is powerful in spiritual generation and production; for that power of man, together with the means and engines that he can come by <529> (whether natural or spiritual) whereby he works a change in his own heart or upon others, in imitation of that change which God alone doth, and can work, by his Spirit: nature, reason, art, with all the advantages they can possibly desire or have; nature enlightened and purified by reason and art; nature furnished as much as may be with the knowledge of God, with desires to be like God, to recover his image, to obey him &c. This is here meant by flesh, and doth more directly thus reach the state of Nicodemus, to whom Christ spake (whose present conviction was wrought by Christ's miracles meeting with his reason and ingenuity) than if it were understood in a more gross sense.
To be born of the flesh, denotes the greatest change that possibly can be made in a man by this power with all the means that it can use: The change is so great, that a man is new born, becomes a new man, is changed inside and outside, both to his own appearance, and in the thoughts of others. It is an imitation of that work whereby God brings a man forth a new man. The flesh will take his tools, set about his work and seem to produce the same effect, bring forth the new birth; but, in truth and substance, it falls short of it, for it is but flesh: This birth, when a man hath done all he can, used all the spiritual means he can, yet it is but flesh. The fruit can have no more virtue or strength and spirituality than the root from whence it did proceed, which was but flesh; and though there were never so many spiritual engines in the hand of flesh, yet this will not alter the case; for those engines cannot work of themselves, and the flesh cannot make them work spiritually: So that all the births produced by man, are but fleshly, all the changes man can make in his own heart, or any else, is but from flesh to flesh, from grosser flesh to flesh somewhat more refined. Conversion by miracles and strong arguments, is but a fleshly conversion; all the ways that man can take to bring his own heart to believe, to close in with Christ, to love Christ, can produce but a fleshly faith, a fleshly love; all the ways man can take to kill and subdue sin in him, it is but a fleshly mortifying of sin; sin is truly alive for all this, and will discover its life again, when it sees its time. Christ doth especially allude to the miracles that were in Nicodemus's eye; wer't thou born of these? thy birth is but fleshly; how spiritual soever such a person may seem, how spiritually soever he may seem to act, yet at the root he is but fleshly; The change is made but by flesh, and the thing changed is still but flesh, how glorious soever the change may seem. Think well of it, it cannot be said too often; all the ways and means man can use, to bring up his heart to God, they are but fleshly, and can produce but fleshly operations in him; all this faith and holiness, though raised to never so great an height, it is but that his heart must be mortified to, if ever he live spiritually.
<530> Oh! it would be sweet and profitable to consider the abundance of fleshly changes, wherewith the Devil cozens men: They see a real change in themselves and so think they are sure, whereas it is but a real fleshly change, not a real spiritual change, and so indeed not real in the true sense; a change from natural unbelief to natural faith, (for there is a power in nature to believe, which may either be affrighted or persuaded to put forth itself, for its own preservation. (Nature being convinced of its present danger, and that there is no way of safety, but by believing on Christ, which faith must be accompanied with love to Christ, the truths of Christ, the people of Christ; and that this love must shew itself in obedience: Nature I say, being convinced of this, does presently muster up all its forces of faith, love, obedience, laying them at Christs feet to dispose of; it will trust him, love what he will have it love, obey what he will command it, hate what he will have it hate, deny itself, its own ends, interests &c. there is nothing so spiritual, but it will undertake and go through after its manner rather than perish: and alas! what is this? All this is but nature working from its own principle, with its own power, to its own end. There is no new birth necessary to all this, though all this doth also proceed from a new birth (where it is) after more a excellent manner than nature can attain to.
But now, that which is born (or begotten) of the Spirit; that which the spirit begets, which the spirit produceth is spirit: That faith, that love to God which he breathes into a man, that is truly spiritual. If a man's heart be changed, not by reason, not by the power of miracles, but by him, by his immediate power, then the change is true and sound: As it is the spirit who begets, so that which is begotten by him, with that water which he useth in his act of generation, is a true and spiritual birth.
There are three particulars which discover the reality of spiritual things, as well as of other things.
1 The original from whence they come, 2 the nature whereof they are, and 3 the effects which they produce. Every spiritual thing it cometh from the spirit, it is spiritual itself, and it worketh spiritually, there is a true tincture of its nature, and of its original in every effect it produceth: As every natural man is begotten by a man, hath the nature of a man in himself, and acteth like a man, worketh the operations of a man: So every new man, every spiritual man is begotten by the spirit, hath the nature of the spirit in him, and discovereth his nature and original, in every one of his spiritual motions and actions. His faith, his love, every thing in him proceeds from the spirit, partakes of the nature of the spirit, moveth and acteth spiritually.
The former of these, Christ argues the truth of the new birth from, in this place, its coming from the spirit, that which is born of the spirit <531> is spirit. What ever the spirit worketh in a man, is truly spiritual; that light he shews, is true spiritual light; that grace he gives, is true spiritual grace; that change he makes, is a true spiritual change: but all other changes are but counterfeits of that true spiritual one, which he alone can make.
And this may shew us the reason why there are so many changes in this flitting age; it is because most men are changed by the flesh, the greatest power of flesh still changeth them: A strong objection which they cannot answer, will startle any man that is changed by a power of flesh. Hence men take up one practice today, another tomorrow; now acknowledge this or that for a truth, by and by it is false, then true again; why? because they see not things by the light of the spirit which never varies, but by a force of argument, by a power of reason which sometimes appears stronger, sometimes weaker, sometimes greater, sometimes lesser; but a soul whose light is changed, whose practices are changed by the spirit, that change remaineth good, let all the winds and gusts of arguments blow never so strongly.
Take heed therefore of changing your apprehensions or practices about any thing, till you can say the spirit changeth them, else it will be but a fleshly change.
What further remains, but that every one that loveth his soul should lay this to heart, and consider thoroughly according to the weightiness and importance of it, how it is with him? what that religion is, whereupon he groundeth his hopes, what oil feeds his lamp, whence his faith, his love came, and of what rank and kind they are. And not to do this slightly, or determine suddenly (as is most usual with men in matters of religion;) but, as on the one hand, to be thankful unto God for, and make much of the least hope (which is not everyone's lot;) so on the other hand, not to rest satisfied or let God alone, till he hath brought us to an absolute certainty; then and not till then we may safely without hazard give over the debate of this question. And though we may perhaps be a long while before we attain it, yet if God carry on our hearts in the pursuit, we may meet with sweet pledges and refreshings in the way, as may much mitigate God's seeming tediousness in deferring our full satisfaction herein. And indeed, though God leads his people in such harsh and difficult ways to the eye of sense and reason, as would affright any carnal heart; yet he hath withal such sweetenings to mingle with them, as maketh them very passable to all whom he leads through them: Egypt, the bondage of it he can make tolerable; The Wilderness, the intricacies of it he can make a plain way through; Canaan, the high Walls and strong enemies thereof, even the children of Anak, whose very sight strikes terror, he can make conquerable to his Christ and to his seed.
<532> Only take heed of suddenness, of sudden judgment. Men that are apt to be sudden, are as liable to deceit, and commonly are deceived, especially in abstruse and difficult cases; he that will give sentence at first dash, without weighing the matter thoroughly, and the several circumstances of it, may easily err in judgment; and an error herein is of no small concernment; there cannot be a worse and more dangerous mistake.
There are two sorts of persons very prone to be sudden in the judgment they pass on spiritual things, and their own estate in spiritual things.
The weak and dark Christian, who is ready still through his fear which ever accompanies weakness, & darkness to conclude all against himself: and the slight and superficial Christian, who never thoroughly looked into spiritual things, nor hath been well versed in the deceits about them, he is apt to take the likeness and appearance of every thing for the thing itself; and to conclude all for himself with as great confidence, as the other thrusts all from himself with over-much diffidence.
The former, lay any promise before him; he will say it belongs not to him: bring him to any trial, he is presently cast: Try his faith; alas! there is nothing but unbelief to be found in him: Try his love, it is but a natural affection: Try his obedience, it is but forced by the command: Try his uprightness, why, there is nothing more deceitful than his heart.
The latter, he is in a clean contrary posture: Mention any promise, he can presently lay hold of it, it belongs to him, and he can suck a great deal of sweetness out of it: Speak of faith, why he hath it; he knows that he is undone without Christ, and that he is the only way to life, such as believe on him shall be saved, and him hath he trusted with his soul: Tell him this faith must be wrought by God, why he knows that no man can work it himself, it is the gift of God: Tell him it must be a spiritual faith, he knows that too, every grace is spiritual. Name any thing else, so soon as you have spoke it, he hath it; Speak of love, either to God or the brethren, his heart will presently witness to him that he doth love both God and the brethren, and it is a sincere love, not for any by-ends in one kind or other: Come to obedience, he holds sound there too, he obeys the will of God, at least in desire and endeavor; he performs duties, he strives against his corruptions; nay, and he doth not this in a legal way, as thinking to be saved hereby, he knows he must be saved by Christ alone, by faith in him: and for his heart, though he fail in many things, yet he blesseth God that it is upright and he knows God is merciful to pardon his failings, and accept of his integrity: So that he hath no cause to fear or trouble himself about any thing; for he is sure what ever may befall him here, it will be well at last, and so he is at rest.
Now both these are commonly mistaken: The former, for the <533> promises many times belong to such a soul, though he cannot apply them; and he may have true faith, and true love, and true obedience, though he cannot see it: The seed may be sown in him, and grow up in him, though he know not how, and so cannot acknowledge it; and he is not to be blamed for not acknowledging it (for how can he till he know it) nor for suspecting it; but only for such a sudden and positive determining of the contrary, which he hath as little if not less ground for, than for his suspicion.
And for the latter. The promises do seldom belong to such a person: The promises do not so easily meet with and melt into our spirits, as such kind of language implies; and for his faith, his love, his obedience, his uprightness, they may be but of the stamp of nature; and if they should meet with such trials and blasts as God hath generally appointed, and doth usually prepare for his, they would soon discover themselves.
Now mark the danger of each: The former loseth his peace, his comfort; The latter his soul, if he be deceived; and both by the same miscarriage, their forwardness and suddenness in judgment; the one determines for himself, the other against himself, upon their own imagination and apprehension, before they have the thing laid before them, and opened to them, which they should judge; or the light held to them, by which they should judge; The one determines against his faith, The other for his faith; and yet neither knows what faith is, and they both do it by their own reason, which is no true light to discern or judge spiritual things by.
It were a more modest and suitable action for either, to bewail their own ignorance with a sense of their need of understanding and determining this thing, and to pray and wait for light and help from him by whom it is clearly discerned, and who can make it discernable unto them.
1 To suck in the sweetness of the gospel.
2 To admire God and Christ who have been at the great cost to purchase and prepare this feast of fatness and sweetness for the soul.
3 To walk worthy of this his goodness: And
4 To stand upon our guard that we be not driven from it, from enjoying the sweetness of it, from honoring God with it: This is the path whereinto Christians then were led, and wherein they walked.
1. To suck in the sweetness of the gospel, to be ever feeding upon Christ; to be ever delighting in that glorious state, and in those glorious privileges God hath bestowed upon us in Christ; and this is to be done two ways.
I. By considering the mercies and privileges we have in Christ: As
First, we have redemption, pardon of sin in him, we are bought from our captivity and misery by his blood, we are washed from our sinfulness, from our filthiness by the same blood, Eph. 1:7.
Secondly, we are made sons and have a son-like inheritance; we are made God's portion, and God is made our portion, Eph. 1:5, 11.
Thirdly, we have all we can desire in this life, we have access to God for any thing (Eph. 2:18. & 3.12.) who will be sure to do every thing for us we need, freely, and to put us upon praying for every thing we need, and also upon believing and waiting, that we may miss of no mercy his grace hath designed us; God will take care of us as of his own household, 2:19. He will be as sure of our growing up, as he is of the foundation he has laid to bottom us upon, 20:21.
II. We further suck in, and better relish the sweetness of the gospel by comparing our present state with our former: We were dead, but are alive; We were darkness but now are light; We were cursed with all spiritual curses in Adam, but now are blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ; We were without God, without hope, strangers to life and blessedness; but now we are in God and full of hope, and every way nigh unto him, and every excellency in him, 2:1-3,6,12-13. and 1:3.
2. To admire that God and that Christ who have done this for us, who have made such a sweet change in our condition.
1 Admire that great love wherewith they loved us, which was working from all eternity to effect that for us, which now they are carrying on amain, 2:4. 3:19.
2 Admire that abundant free-grace that has made no spare of any thing for us, but has acted fully according to the strength of love, 1:7. 2:5,7. There were but two precious lives, The life of God, and the life of Christ; and grace hath given us them both: To recover us from <535> death, the life of Christ was given for us; and to keep us in life, the life of God is given to us.
3 Admire that rich mercy wherein all our former sins, and every day's unkindnesses even against Christ and his precious gospel, and God our Father and the sweet Spirit, are continually buried. 2:4.
4 Admire that various, that manifold, that (3:10) which laid all the plot of love, and which worketh us up daily more and more into the heart of God, and nearer and nearer to our happiness, notwithstanding all the pull-backs in our selves, in the world, in our spiritual enemies, in the varieties of our conditions, which all almost distemper us; that though we are untoward under every thing, and in danger by every thing, yet we lose nothing.
5 Admire the mighty power which hath thus translated us from darkness to light, which daily preserves us from falling back again, and is often mightily working in us to raise us up to further degrees of perfection, 1:19-20. 3:20.
3. To walk worthy of this blessed gospel state (4:1) (wherein God is our Father, and Christ our head; wherein we have so many precious privileges at present, and hopes for the future; wherein we profess ourselves broken to the world, and to all the powers of nature in ourselves too,) to live like men that live upon a new principle, from God, and in God, and to God.
Walking, it notes our whole course, all the service we are now to perform to Christ, whose we are, and whom alone we are now to serve; in care over our own hearts, in all duties of worship, in our callings, in our converse, in every thing.
This walking worthy, principally appears in our manner of acting towards men, whereof there are three sorts: 1) Our fellow-Christians, 2) the world, and 3) persons that stand in outward relations to us.
First, Our fellow-Christians, and specially those in church communion with us, for they are those God hath more specially set us to walk with, they are those with whom we are chiefly to worship, and whom we must especially love, and of whom we must especially take care, and watch over.
Now the manner of our acting towards them, must be:
1. With all humbleness and meekness with low thoughts of ourselves, and in a meet manner, 4:2.
2. With long suffering, forbearing one another in love, 4:2. We must not be apt to apprehend injuries, or seek recompense for injuries, but suffer long, and forbear one another; and not simply because it is the will of Christ (who hath forborne us much, and forgiven us much) that we should so do, but from the love we bear one to another, from <536> a tender brotherly affection, and in a tender brotherly manner.
3. The apostle tells us what should be our great aim and endeavor in our actings one towards another, 4:3. To keep up unity, the unity of the spirit, to keep it in the bond of peace, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; we must not keep a sinful unity, a carnal unity in the bond of peace; no, the bond of peace must bind up no such unity in it, but there must be war with, and opposition against, all such unity; but the unity of the spirit, that unity the foundation whereof God hath laid among us, (who hath made us perfectly one in spirituals) being all of the same body, having all the same spirit of life running in us, having all the same hope to attain the same end, all the same Lord to serve, all the same way of union with him, subjection to him, and owning of him, all the same God and Father who begat us all, 4:5-6. to which might be added, we have all also the same enemies and the same dangers.
Now God having laid such a foundation of unity in all our spirits, we must endeavor to keep up unity so far as it is spiritual, and not to rent one from another, in that wherein God hath made us one.
Humbleness, takes away the root of contention, (which is the bane of all societies, quickly eating out both the sweetness and benefit of them) for that still flows from pride; pride begets, pride feeds contention; A man that has low thoughts of himself, has little mind to contend; It is height of spirit that blows up the fire of contention.
Meekness, takes away the occasion of contention, which arises much from a rough harsh manner of expression; a meek spirit as it seldom takes occasion of contention, but quietly lets it pass, so it seldom gives others occasion to contend with it.
Long-suffering and forbearance, puts a stop to the breaking forth of contention, when occasions are given.
But besides all these; there must be an endeavor, an industry used to keep up true and spiritual unity.
4. The apostle directs us how to make use of our several gifts profitably, according to the end for which they were given, which is, not to set up ourselves by them, but to perfect this unity, to build up one another in faith, in knowledge, and that so we may in all things grow up into Christ the head, 4:7-16.
Secondly, The world; towards them we must walk wisely, 5:15. First, taking heed of partaking with them in any evil, nay, of countenancing the least evil in them, 4:17. 5:7-11. Secondly, redeeming the time from them as much as may be for converse with God. Thirdly, doing as much good as we can to them while we are with them; both which are included in that phrase of redeeming the time, 5:16.
<537> Thirdly, those in near relations to us, whether brought home to Christ, or in their natural condition, we are to observe the strict laws of that relation we stand debtors to them in, which we are not to fail in towards them, be they superior or inferior, however they act towards us, 5:23. to the end of the chapter, and 6:1-10. Our engagement to Christ does not set us free from our relations and duties in any kind to men, but only lays a bond on him to furnish us with free spirits, and power to fill up what we owe in every relation; Christ gives us not freedom from, but freedom unto every thing that is of God.
4. To stand upon our guard, not to be driven from the sweetness of the gospel, nor from acknowledging and admiring God in every step of his love, mercy, wisdom, power and grace; nor from this walking worthy of the gospel, by any enemy, any temptation, or any thing that befalls us in any kind, 6:10-11. but to stand armed against our enemies, who are spiritually mighty, and lay the sorest temptations and baits in spiritual things, 6:12. We are to stand armed thus:
1. With an understanding having its light clear about it, and with a will having an holy disposition ready to act in any kind God shall please to call it out unto, 6:14. To have an understanding ready to put forth itself, knowing how to carry itself; how to obey, how to suffer; how to embrace, how to resist; and a will graciously disposed to either, whensoever God shall call it forth: Our loins commonly are ungirt, our light is to seek, our grace hangs loose about us, that we are unfit to act for God at all, much more unfit to do it in the face of that opposition which we are still likely to meet with in every spiritual undertaking: And for want of this piece of armor, we lie open to our spiritual enemies.
2. With an holy resolution to act for Christ, according to that light he shall give in to the conscience; to meddle with no evil, to omit no duty of any kind; this is that breast-plate that keeps the heart or conscience pure and safe, 6:14. when the Devil does not find us resolved against sin, or resolved for duties, (be it how it will with us) he commonly takes us in his snare.
3. With affections taken with the sweet truths of the gospel (as pardon of sin, &c.) and ready to hold out these truths for the gospel to make out its way into men's hearts, 6:15. Troubles and afflictions we meet with within and without, will quickly damp our affections, if they be not well fenced with these.
4. With faith over all these, defending even these as well as our selves in other respects by faith; by faith interposing the power of Christ between us and every enemy that may come to assault us in these or in any other respects; that may come to ungird us and make us unfit to act, to damp our holy resolution for God, to deaden our <538> affections towards the sweet truths of the gospel which prepare the way for Christ, or to wound us with any temptation whatsoever; faith is a true shield, it defends both the person and the rest of his armor, as we know a shield does: the Devil cannot prevail in any point against a believing soul, 6:16. Alas! we can do nothing ourselves; do no good, avoid no evil; all our strength lies in trusting God with our selves in every condition, and with every spiritual advantage and help he hath given us to manage it as he pleaseth for us.
5. With hope of salvation by grace, both for eternity and from any present distress in GOD's time: Because many seeming miseries may befall the believing soul, contradictions to his prayers, desires, faith, yea, to all the motions of GOD's Spirit in him; he must have an helmet of hope, (6:17) as well as a shield of faith: And this will keep up his spirit, that he shall not fear looking up to GOD what ever befalls him.
6. With the sword of the Spirit, the Word of GOD, the living Word, the Word which is Spirit and Life; This will kill all false reasonings, and every thing that exalts itself against CHRIST; this will make enemies fly from the soul (for they hate the word of life, they know it is their death) and it will also make the soul itself subject unto CHRIST, 6:17.
And all this and every thing else must be done by prayer, 6:18. we can do nothing, not gain this armor, nor put it on, nor use it; all must be done by prayer, by intreating another to do it for us; we cannot believe, we must pray for faith; neither can we pray, we must believe for prayer; we cannot do either, both must flow from the spirit, and be done in the spirit, praying always with all prayer and supplication in the spirit: Oh, how are we stripped! when every motion sends us out of ourselves to another, and yet withal tells us, we are altogether unable to go out of ourselves, or step the least step towards that other.
And we must watch unto prayer, catch opportunities to breathe out our hearts to GOD to do that in us which he bids us do; not being discouraged with any difficulties, but persevering in our requests for ourselves, and all the people of God, 6:18.
Behold O Christian thy spiritual employment, thine easy, and painful employment, easy to thy spirit, painful to thy flesh; and as yet, somewhat painful to thy spirit also, by reason of the cumbrance of thy flesh, the weakness of thy spirit, the power and fury of thine adversaries.