Part 2: The First Step to True Spirituality

by Pastor Cornelius R. Stam

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(The following is the second in a series of excerpts from Pastor Stam’s classic work on true spirituality. Since this book never appeared as a series in the Searchlight, many of even our long-time readers may not be familiar with these selections.)

THE NEED OF A NEW NATURE

What man needs first of all, to become truly spiritual, then, is a new nature, begotten of the Spirit of God. Our Lord put it very plainly when He said to Nicodemus:

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).

In this passage again the term flesh cannot refer merely to the physical body, for at birth a spirit and a soul, as well as a body, are brought forth. Thus the flesh here refers to the fallen Adamic nature.

Similarly, the spirit which is born of the Spirit, here, cannot be man’s own spirit, for we have already seen that the whole natural man, body, soul and spirit, is “born of the flesh,” and the very point of this passage in John 3 is that therefore men need to be born, or begotten, again—this time “of the Spirit,” i.e., the Spirit of God (Vers. 6-8).

So much is involved, however, in the impartation of spiritual life to the believer—especially as related to the present dispensation—that God uses three metaphors to describe it: birth, resurrection and creation. No one of these could adequately set it forth; all three are necessary.

Let us begin, then, with the elementary figure of the new birth.

THE NEW BIRTH

“Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again [anew] he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

It is not surprising that the unsaved do not see their need of the new birth apart from the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. Even among those who have themselves been born anew, however, there are those who hold that the figure of the new birth applies only to Israel, not to those who live under the present dispensation. They base this conclusion on the premise that our Lord spoke to a Jew about the Jews regarding the new birth, and that Paul does not mention the subject in his epistles. This premise is wrong, however, and so are the conclusions drawn from it.

First, it should be noted that our Lord spoke to Nicodemus in broad terms about seeing and entering into the “kingdom of God.” He did not use the narrower phrase “kingdom of heaven,” which has to do with the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth (See Dan. 2:44; Matt. 5:3-5; 6:10). This is because He was referring to something which involved more than entrance into the millennial kingdom.

That believers today enter into the kingdom of God as surely as do believers in any other age is made abundantly clear in the Pauline epistles (See Rom. 14:17; I Cor. 4:20; 6:9,10; 15:50; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5; Col. 4:11; I Thes. 2:12; II Thes. 1:5).

It should further be noted that our Lord also spoke in broad terms when He said that it was necessary for “a man” to be born anew to enter into the kingdom of God.

We have no right to assume that our Lord meant that it was necessary only for a Jew to be born anew to enter into the kingdom of heaven, when He said it was necessary for a man to be born anew to enter into the kingdom of God.

Does a reader object that our Lord must have had only Jews in mind since He was at that time ministering only to Jews and was here addressing a Jew? Then we must insist that our Lord’s discussion with this prominent Jew is here recorded especially to show that all men in every age need to be born anew to enter into the kingdom of God.

An unfortunate chapter division has obscured this important fact, for the story of Nicodemus in John 3 is but a demonstration of an important assertion made at the close of Chapter 2. We link the two together here to show the connection.

“Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in His name, when they saw the miracles which He did.

“But Jesus did not commit Himself unto them; because He knew all men,

“And needed not that any should testify of man; for He knew what was in man.

“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

“The same came to Jesus by night…” (John 2:23-3:2).

To demonstrate the universal need of regeneration, God chooses this outstanding character: a ruler of the Jews, highly intellectual, rigidly moral, profoundly religious and utterly sincere in his inquiry concerning Christ.

It must have been an impressive sight: a venerable Pharisee coming to a young man (as it appeared) of thirty, respectfully addressing Him: “Rabbi,” and acknowledging Him at the outset as “a teacher come from God.”

Yet this was one of those to whom the Lord would not commit Himself; one of those who had “believed” on Him because of His miracles. As Nicodemus himself put it: “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” (John 3:2).

But this does not, nor did it ever, save a man. Thus, sweeping the ground from under Nicodemus’ feet, the Lord replies that what he needs—what any man needs—is a new life. Regardless of all his intellect, morality and religion, he must be born again—of God.

But what about the argument that the phrase “born anew” is not found in the Pauline epistles?

The answer is, first, that arguments from silence are often treacherous and, standing alone, prove nothing. Even if the Pauline epistles did not refer to the new birth, the new birth would still be a basic necessity for entrance into the kingdom of God according to the words of our Lord. But, secondly, while the exact phrase “born anew” does not occur in the Pauline epistles, the doctrine of the new birth is taught there as clearly as in any other part of the Bible.

First, it is taught by clear implication. Referring to believers, the apostle uses the words nepios: a babe, or small child, and huios: a fullgrown son. Moreover, he looks for spiritual growth in believers.

Positionally, to be sure, all believers are recognized as fullgrown sons of God from the moment they are saved, with all the rights and privileges of sonship (See Gal. 4:1-7). But in these studies we are not dealing basically with position; we are dealing with experience—the impartation of spiritual life to the sinner, and the enjoyment of it by the saint.

The righteous standing before God, which Christ purchased for all men, is of no avail to the sinner until it is accepted by faith. In the same way, the position of sonship which is ours in Christ, and the blessings that go with it, are appropriated and enjoyed only by faith. Hence the apostle rebuked the Corinthians for their carnality, calling them babes who had to be fed with milk because they could not yet digest solid food (I Cor. 3:1,2). The Hebrew believers, too, were reproved because they were still spiritual babes, when, for the length of time they had been saved, they should have been teachers of the Word (Heb. 5:12-14).

Similarly, we are told in Ephesians 4:12-15 that God gave to the Church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, “for the perfecting of the saints…

“That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine…

“But speaking [holding] the truth in love, may grow up….”

Further, Paul writes in I Corinthians 16:13:

“Watch ye, stand fast in the faith; quit you [conduct yourselves] like MEN [i.e., seasoned men] be strong.”

Surely the apostle does not refer, in these passages, to the infancy, growth and maturity of the natural man. He refers to the new life which was, to begin with, begotten of the Spirit.

The words men, sons, babes, used of the spiritual life, clearly imply spiritual birth. The seasoned man had at some time in his experience come to a place of spiritual maturity. Before that he was a babe. And this, in turn, implies that he was born, for there was a specific time when the babe came into being.

In addition to all this there are two passages in Paul’s epistles which teach the new birth in a most positive manner. The first is Romans 8:16,17, where the apostle employs the word teknon: born-one.

“The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children [born-ones] of God:

“And if children [born-ones] then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ….”

Could anything bear clearer testimony to the fact that believers under the dispensation of Grace are born anew? Surely we did not become born-ones of God by natural birth.

The other passage is Titus 3:5, where we read:

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration [Gr., palingenesia] and renewing of the Holy Ghost.”

Out of the twenty-four versions of the New Testament which we have at hand, this word palingenesia is rendered regeneration by twenty, new birth by three and renaissance by one. Not one of them departs from the basic idea of new birth.

Finally, we would emphasize the fact that in the nature of the case men born of Adam must be born or begotten again to be saved. A new and different life must be imparted and begun. It is true that the life which the believer receives is Christ’s life—eternal life—which has no beginning; that in Christ the believer is immediately considered an adult. But this is a deeper truth which must be considered later. Spiritual life does have a beginning in the experience of every believer, and the need for this is given as much emphasis in the epistles of Paul as it is in the recorded words of Christ on earth.

As our Lord impressed upon Nicodemus the fact that man at his best cannot enter into the kingdom of God, since “that which is born of the flesh is flesh,” so Paul, by the Spirit, also insists:

“Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption” (I Cor. 15:50).1

Thus, while it is true that our Lord taught the new birth during His earthly ministry to Israel, it does not follow from this that this subject concerns only the nation Israel. What our Lord said concerned mankind, as such, without respect to race or time.

Notes:

  1. It is true that the apostle here contends particularly for the necessity of a new body for physical entrance into God’s presence, but does not this strengthen the argument that man in his natural state is unfit for the presence of God?