On the necessity of regeneration, and the impossibility of salvation without it

Excerpt taken and Adapted from, “The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit”
Written by James Buchanan


‘Except a man be born from above,
he cannot see the kingdom of God.’

–John 3:3

In affirming the necessity of regeneration, and the impossibility of salvation without it, our Lord proceeds on the supposition, that in our natural state we are fallen and depraved, a supposition which is uniformly assumed in Scripture, and abundantly verified by experience and observation.

It is implied in our Lord’s words, for unconverted men are there spoken of as being out of the kingdom of God, and incapable of entering into it unless they be born again; and it is clearly stated in the 6th verse: ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ In this comprehensive sentence, he places in vivid contrast the two great classes into which all men are divided in Scripture, I mean the regenerate and the unregenerate; but he does so in such a way as to intimate that all men belong naturally to the same class, and that if any have been restored, it was by their being born again. When he speaks of the flesh, he does not refer to the body, but to the soul; for, although the term is sometimes used to denote our corporeal frame, as when the apostle speaks of his ‘living or abiding in the flesh,’ it is more frequently, and always when contra-distinguished as it is here from the Spirit, employed to denote our whole nature, as naturally fallen and yet unrenewed; as when the apostle says, ‘So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God; but ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.’ In this sense it corresponds to the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts,’ and to the natural man, which receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God;’ and is distinguished from the ‘new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.’

Hence we read of ‘sinful flesh,’ and ‘the fleshly mind,’ of which it is said that the ‘carnal mind is enmity against God.’ When he says, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh,’ he intimates that every human being, as he is born of the flesh or of fallen parents, is himself flesh, fallen, corrupted, and depraved; that is his natural state, his state as he is born, and in which he remains until he is born again; so that every man, without any exception, may say with David, ‘Behold I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ And when he adds, ‘That which is born of the Spirit is spirit,’ he intimates, indeed, that there are now two classes of men in the world, the one natural, the other spiritual, the one regenerate, the other unregenerate; but that this arises not from any original difference, still less from any spontaneous separation, but from a change which has been wrought on some, while the rest remain as they were, a change which is directly ascribed to the regenerating grace of the Spirit of God. But naturally all belong to the same class and partake of the same character; and although there may be, and doubtless there are, manifold diversities of disposition and innumerable degrees of guilt among unconverted men, yet in the one, the only point of essential importance, ‘there is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.’

Such is the supposition on which our Lord’s statement rests, the supposition of the universally fallen and corrupted state of human nature; and did we really believe this truth, did we receive it in its full scriptural import, and in its application to our own souls individually, we should have little difficulty in perceiving the necessity of a great spiritual change, and the impossibility of our being saved without being born again.

But this doctrine of natural depravity, although uniformly assumed in the Bible, and frequently asserted in express terms, and abundantly verified by the experience of our own hearts, as well as by the universal history of the world, is so offensive and alarming to every unconverted man, that he is prone, if not to deny its general truth, at least to mitigate and soften its meaning, in so far as it applies to his own case; and hence many a one who admits in general terms, because he cannot decently deny, that he is a sinner, shows by his whole spirit and conversation that he has no idea of what is implied in this confession, and no heartfelt conviction that he needs to be born again. He admits that he has some imperfections, some natural frailties, some human infirmities; he may even charge himself with a few occasional delinquencies, with the omission or careless discharge of duty, and perhaps with certain acts of positive transgression. But while he admits his imperfection to this extent, he is unwilling to believe that he is so utterly fallen as to be unable to restore himself, or to stand in need of so great a change as is implied in being ‘born again!’

Hence, when his conscience is at any time impressed, he thinks of nothing more than a mere outward reformation, a little more attention to duty, a little more circumspection in his ordinary conduct; and thus ‘cleansing the outside of the cup and platter,’ he looks for acceptance with God, and admission into his kingdom, although, inwardly, no change has been wrought, none that can, even in his own estimation, correspond with, or deserve to be called, a new spiritual birth. If any such shall read these lines, it should be a very solemn reflection to them, that the Lord Jesus, when he spake to a self-righteous Pharisee, a master in Israel, made no account of his exterior decency, but insisted on the necessity of his being born again; and that, too, in terms which declare that this necessity is alike absolute and universal, there being no man of whom it is not true, that he must be converted or condemned. If you imagine, then, that you may enter into the kingdom in some other way, and that you have no need to undergo that great preparatory change, I beseech you to remember that the Lord Jesus is of a different mind, that he makes no exception in your behalf, but affirms, without qualification or reserve, that ‘except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ That solemn statement rests on the fact of our universal depravity; and even were it more difficult than it is to discover the grounds and reasons on which it is founded, such a declaration, coming from him who is at once the only Saviour and the unerring judge, should impress our minds with the conviction, that the matter is finally settled and determined by an authority which no power in heaven or on earth can challenge or resist. His authority in this matter is supreme, and one distinct statement of his will should be received as a final and irreversible decision; but the same testimony is often repeated, and in great variety of language. At one time he tells you, ‘Except you repent, ye shall all likewise perish;’ at another, ‘If ye believe not, ye shall die in your sins;’ at a third, ‘Unless ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of God.’ But in his words to Nicodemus there is a remarkable peculiarity; he does not merely declare that no unregenerate man shall be admitted; he affirms that he cannot – that it is impossible he should be; and it is to the grounds on which this impossibility is affirmed that I now proceed to speak.

In the Scriptures, we read of some things that are impossible with men, but which are not impossible with God; and of other things that are impossible both with God and man. Some things that are impossible with men are possible with God, and to these the angel referred, when he said to Mary, ‘With God nothing shall be impossible;’ and our Lord himself when he said to the disciples, ‘With God all things are possible.’ But while, in respect to any mere natural difficulty, God’s almighty power is more than sufficient to overcome it, there are certain things which may be said to be impossible with God himself – not from any defect of power on his part, but from their repugnance to his essential attributes, and their opposition to his unchangeable will. Hence we read, that ‘it is impossible for God to lie,’ that he ‘cannot deny himself,’ and that ‘without faith it is impossible to please him,’ the things supposed being in their own nature contrary to the essential character of God, so that he cannot be as he is – he must cease to be God before these things can come to pass. It will be found, that to this class of moral impossibilities, the salvation of an unregenerate man belongs.

There is a very remarkable difference betwixt the statement of our Lord to Nicodemus, and the deliverance, which he pronounced on another case of great difficulty. In reference to rich men, and the difficulty of their entrance into the kingdom, he had said, when the young man mentioned in the gospel ‘went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions,’ ‘I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven: and again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than fora rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’ But when the disciples said, ‘Who then can be saved?’ he answered, ‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,’ thereby intimating, that although naturally impossible, by reason of the manifold obstructions with which a rich man has to contend, it was not impossible for him to remove these obstructions, nor anywise inconsistent with his character to put forth his power for that end; and accordingly, although ‘not many rich and not many noble are called,’ yet some in every age have been converted, and made signal monuments of the efficacy of his grace.

But mark the difference when he speaks of an unregenerate man; he does not say that his entrance into the kingdom, although impossible with men, is possible with God; but he pronounces absolutely, that remaining in that condition, he cannot see the kingdom of God, thereby representing it as one of those things which are impossible with God himself, and which would be alike inconsistent with his declared will, opposed to the essential perfections of his nature, and subversive of the unchangeable principles of his government.

It is possible, indeed, – oh! it is very possible – that an unconverted man may be converted, that an unregenerate man may be renewed, for this, so far from being opposed to God’s will, or character, or government, is in unison with them all, and a fit object for the interposition of his grace and power; but that a sinner remaining unconverted should be saved, that a man ‘born of the flesh’ should enter the kingdom without being ‘born again’ of the Spirit, – this is an impossibility, and must be so, so long as God is God. That it is so will appear from the following considerations.

No unregenerate man can see the kingdom of God, because it is impossible for God himself to do what implies a manifest contradiction; and there is a manifest contradiction in the idea that a fleshly mind can, without any radical change of character, become a subject of God’s spiritual kingdom. The expression here used to denote the state of safety and happiness into which God brings his people is deeply significant and instructive. It is not spoken of, you will observe, as a state of mere safety – mere exemption from punishment, or immunity from wrath – but as a kingdom, a kingdom in which they are safe, because they are protected by his almighty power, and happy, because they are cherished by his infinite love, but still a kingdom, in which, besides being safe and happy, they are placed under rule and government, and expected to yield submission and service, as his obedient subjects.

And so is it with every one who really enters that kingdom, whether on earth or in heaven; he cannot so much as enter into the outer sanctuary here, and far less obtain admission into the holy place there, without laying down at its threshold the weapons of rebellion, and returning to his allegiance and duty. There is indeed an external kingdom of grace in which many an unregenerate man may be placed; but the true spiritual kingdom is ‘not in word but in power.’ ‘The kingdom of God,’ says Christ himself, ‘is within you;’ and, says the apostle, ‘The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ It mainly consists in the setting up of God’s throne in the sinner’s heart, subduing his will to God’s authority, and winning over his affections to God’s service; and to say that any man remaining in an unregenerate state can be a member of that kingdom, were to affirm that he might be at one and the same time both an alien and a citizen, a friend and an enemy, alive and dead. Everyone must see, that if, when God saves men, he brings them into his kingdom, and places them under his own holy government, it is impossible, in the very nature of things, that they can enter it without undergoing a great change; and in this light, there is a self-evident truth and certainty in the words of our Lord, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’

No unregenerate man can see the kingdom of God, because it is impossible for God to lie; and he has expressly said, nay he has sworn, that we must be converted or condemned. ‘The word of the Lord endureth for ever.’ ‘Heaven and earth may pass away, but one jot or tittle of that word shall not fail.’ ‘God is not a man that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?

It is very true that we read in Scripture of many occasions on which his ‘repentings were kindled together,’ and he refrained from the execution of his threatened judgments; but if we consider these cases we shall find that they are perfectly consistent with the general doctrine, that he can neither change, nor lie, nor repent, so as to leave his word unfulfilled, or to depart from the principles of his righteous government; and that they afford no ground of hope to an unconverted sinner that he may enter into the kingdom without being born again.

God is said to repent when, in consequence of the repentance of his people, his dispensations towards them are changed; but this change in his dealings with them is only a consistent and suitable manifestation of the unchangeable and eternal principles on which he conducts his holy administration.

Thus, when Rehoboam ‘forsook the law of the Lord, and all Israel with him,’ the king of Egypt was sent up to Jerusalem with his army to chasten them: and ‘the Lord said, Ye have forsaken me, therefore have I also left you in the hand of Shishak. Whereupon the princes of Israel and the king humbled themselves; and they said, The Lord is righteous. And when the Lord saw that they humbled themselves, the word of the Lord came to Shemaiah, saying, They have humbled themselves; therefore I will not destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance.’ Again, when wicked Ahab, of whom it is said, ‘There was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord,’ ‘rent his clothes, and put sackcloth on his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly: the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days.’ And when the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah, and proclaimed a fast, saying, ‘Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?, ‘God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way, and God repented of the evil that he had said he would do unto them, and he did it not.’

These, and many other instances which might be mentioned, are so many proofs of the precious doctrine, that, under the scheme of grace and redemption, it is perfectly consistent with the truth and faithfulness of God, and the unchangeable principles of his government, to refrain from the infliction of threatened judgments, when ‘the sinner forsakes his way, and returns unto the Lord;’ but they afford no evidence that a man may be saved without being changed, or that God’s threatenings against the impenitent will not be carried into effect. He will repent of the evil only when we repent of the sin; for otherwise, he must falsify his word, and act in direct violation of those eternal principles which make it ‘impossible for God to lie.’

No unregenerate man can see the kingdom of God, because it is impossible for God to ‘deny himself,’ or to act in manifest opposition to the infinite perfections of his own nature, in order to save those from suffering who obstinately remain in a state of sin. ‘If we believe not,’ says the apostle, ‘God abideth faithful; he cannot deny himself.’ Even were God’s determination in this matter purely arbitrary, yet being framed by his omniscient wisdom, sanctioned by his supreme authority, supported by his almighty power, and declared by his unchangeable truth, it should command our reverential attention; but it is not arbitrary; it flows, like every other part of his counsel or procedure, from the essential and immutable attributes of his divine nature. There are some things that cannot be otherwise while God is God, and this is one of them: he cannot admit an unregenerate man into his kingdom, for this were to ‘deny himself,’ and to act in direct opposition to every principle which regulates his procedure as the Governor of the world.

The supposition that a sinful man may enter into his kingdom without being born again implies that God must deny himself in three respects: that he must rescind the law of his moral government; that he must depart from his declared design in the scheme of redemption itself; and, that he must reverse the moral constitution of man, or, in other words, alter the whole character of his kingdom.