The necessity of a change of moral character in man, arises from the fact, that by nature all men are “dead in trespasses and sins,” and, therefore, if any of the human race are ever saved, they must be regenerated ; for, even if a man could be justified and yet remain under the power of sin, he could not be happy, because sin contains in itself the seeds of misery, and such an one would certainly be incapable of participating in the joys of heaven, which require a holy nature to perceive or relish them. Therefore, our Lord said to Nicodemus, ” except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
It is not necessary to be very exact in distinguishing between regeneration and conversion, especially as the Scriptures appear to speak of both together. But, it may not be amiss to remark, that regeneration, which is the communication of spiritual life, is the act of God; conversion, which is a turning from sin to God, is our act, in consequence of the divine influence exerted on our minds.
That God is the author of regeneration is evident from Scripture, and from the nature of the case. The same power that caused light to shine out of darkness must shine into our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of God. “Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” And, as this work in the economy of salvation belongs to the Holy Spirit, it is said, ” Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That man cannot regenerate himself is too evident to need a remark. Life, in all cases, is the gift of God. If spiritual life be extinct in man, none but the power of God is adequate to rekindle it. It would be as reasonable to suppose that the human body, when deprived of animal life, could restore itself to activity and animation, as that a soul dead in sin should be able to perform the acts which appertain to spiritual life.
It is said that we are ” born again by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever,” and, that God, of his own will, ” begets us again by the word of truth.” But the word, in this case, must be considered as an instrument in the hands of the Spirit; it can have no saving efficacy without a divine energy accompanying it. But how is the word a means of regeneration? To this two answers may be given, accordingly as we use the word regeneration in a stricter or wider sense. As the operation of God in the communication of life to the soul is an instantaneous act, there is no place for any instrumentality in producing the effect; and, as the word only produces a saving effect, when the heart is prepared by grace, the word is the means of regeneration only as God has connected the influences of the Spirit with the preaching and reading of the word. But, if we take the new birth in a wider sense, to include not merely the operation of God on the soul, but also the effects produced in the changed views and feelings of the soul, then we can easily understand how the word is a means of giving knowledge to the mind and of exciting those exercises and affections, in which the spiritual life essentially consists. The word, alone, can never generate a true faith; but, when the Spirit of God has operated on the blind mind, the glorious truths of the gospel begin to appear in their true light, and become the object of a saving faith. So, also, when the beauty of holiness is perceived by means of the word, love is excited; and, when sin is viewed as exhibited in the word of God, as odious and abominable, true repentance is enkindled; and thus of every other exercise of the renewed nature. It may, therefore, be truly said, that in every act of the spiritual life, the word of truth is concerned; it presents the proper object and supplies the persuasive motive. Indeed, if the mind were in a state free from blindness and corruption, the mere objective presentation of the truth, without any supernatural influences, would bring into exercise all holy acts and affections.
In regeneration there is no new faculty created, understanding by the word faculty some constituent power of the soul; for, as by the fall man did not cease to be a moral agent, but retained all the faculties which belonged to him as man; so in regeneration, no new faculty is produced. The loss was not of any physical power, but of the moral excellence in which man was created. The same soul may be in ignorance, or filled with knowledge; actuated by holy desires and affections, or the contrary. The moral character is a kind of clothing of the soul, which may be essentially changed, while the essence of the soul, and its natural faculties, remain un changed.
Although Almighty power is exerted in the regeneration of a sinner, yet man is only conscious of the effects, as they appear in the exercises of the renewed mind. And as the end accomplished in this change is the partial restoration of the lost image of God, or “knowledge” and “true holiness,” the evidences of regeneration are the same as the evidences of a holy nature. And as spiritual or holy exercises are specifically different from all others, there would be no difficulty in discerning the characteristics of piety in ourselves, were it not for the feebleness of these exercises, and the sad mixture of feelings of an opposite nature. The best way, therefore, to obtain a comfortable assurance that we are regenerated, is, to press on with assiduity and alacrity in the divine life. That which is obscure in itself will not become clear by poring over it ever so long; but, if we emerge from our darkness, and come forth into the light, we shall be able to discern clearly, what was before involved in obscurity. If we would know whether our faith and love and hope are genuine, we must seek to bring these graces into lively exercise, and then we cannot avoid perceiving their true character. But as faith is really the apprehension and reception of offered mercy, it is by directly believing in Christ, or actually rolling our burdens on him, that we experience peace and confidence. Where a good work is begun, it will be carried on. None but they who persevere to the end shall be saved. In concluding this article, we may adopt the language of the beloved disciple, ” Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God! Beloved, now are we the sons of God; and it doth not yet appear what we shall be ; but we know that when he shall appear, we shall be ‘like him; for we shall see him as he is.”