Why Regeneration is Necessary Before Repentance

Taken and adapted from, “THE OFFICE AND WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT”
Written by Dr. James Buchanan, Professor, and Minister of High Church, in Edinburgh.
Printed 1842.

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[Whenever you publish the works or writings of a very erudite and conservative minister or professor of theology, especially one who can see precisely and articulate the great depths of the riches and richness of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is easy to become lost in the thought of the writer.  Often this happens when we are looking for what a person is saying through words that we know but through a different context, or by an unusual choice of words, or even perhaps through a different use or meaning of those words used. One such thought with this essay, is that the author employs phrases which may cause the unwary to stumble, such as his concept of “the sanctified character.”  This is not the perfectionistic pietism, which many are used to, and are held to by some who are captured in the Arminian theological framework, but rather, this is talking about the spiritually “set apart” and regenerate heart, –who God has opened up to the Gospel.

While Buchanan’s writings are generally much more “dense” than what I like to post, this remarkable work I feel, deserve our attention today. And I would encourage each person who has the ability to understand this essay, to pick up his book, “THE OFFICE AND WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT” off the web, and read it. It is free.  –MWP]

There is a very remarkable difference between 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 for a 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 any wise 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.

Why that it is so will appear from the following considerations.

1    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 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, everyone 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.”

2    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 forever.” “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 bumbled 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, See 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, lie 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.”

3    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 them from suffering, who obstinately remain in a state of sin. “If ye believe not,” says the apostle, “God abideth faithful; he cannot deny himself” Even were God’s determination in this matter purely arbitrary, yet being formed by his supreme authority, and backed 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.

That a spiritual character is indispensably necessary, in order to our being admitted into the kingdom of God, may be inferred from the general laws of his moral government. In one sense, all men, however rebellious, and even devils themselves, are subjects of God’s kingdom—that is, they are under his government, and bound to obey his authority, and responsible to him as their Judge. That we are under a system of government, is the intuitive conviction of every thinking mind. We feel that we are subject to checks and restraints which are imposed upon us by some external authority, and which are altogether independent of our own will, —insomuch, that although free to act according to our own choice, we cannot alter the constitution under which we live, nor emancipate ourselves from the control of law, nor escape or avert the consequences of our own conduct. That the system of government under which we are placed is essentially a moral one, appears alike from the evidence of our own consciousness, and from our experience and observation of the world at large. There is a mysterious law written on the tablets of our own hearts which reveals God as a Lawgiver and a Judge; and our whole experience bears witness to the inseparable connection which he has established betwixt sin and misery on the one hand, and holiness and happiness on the other. This is the general constitution of God’s government; and from that government the wicked are not exempted; on the contrary, its reality is evinced by the very experience of those who do most resolutely resist it, —just as rebels, when they are punished for their crimes, are still treated as subjects, and become the most signal monuments of public justice.

When our Lord speaks of the “kingdom of God,” he does not refer to the moral government which is common to all men; but to that kingdom of grace and glory, into which it is his will to gather into one all his redeemed people, —a kingdom in which every subject should be alike safe and happy, being delivered from all evil, and defended by his almighty power. He speaks of the state into which the Savior brings his people—a state of perfect safety and peace; but still, you will observe, he speaks of it as “a kingdom” nay, as “the kingdom of God,” and this implies, that while in other respects it differs from the universal kingdom, which comprehends under it the righteous and the wicked, the fallen and the unfallen, and extends alike to heaven, earth, and hell, it agrees with it in this—that it implies a system of discipline and government, administered by God himself, according to such rules and principles as are consistent with the perfections of his nature, and sanctioned by his unchangeable will. He is represented as the head of this new kingdom, and his people as his subjects there; and although our Lord does not refer to God’s general government, but to this new kingdom of grace and glory, we may infer from his language that this kingdom will bear some resemblance to the former, in so far, at least, as to have a moral constitution, such as will make a holy character essential to the enjoyment of its privileges. It must be so, indeed, unless that kingdom be designed to supersede, or rather to reverse the whole moral constitution of the world, and to introduce another and an opposite system, which should make no account of character in the distribution of happiness, and secure exemption from suffering without effecting any deliverance from sin. How far this corresponds with God’s actual design as it is revealed in the Gospel, will fall to be considered in the sequel; but meanwhile there are two considerations that I would merely suggest as affording a strong presumption that Christ’s kingdom cannot materially differ in this respect from the general government of God: The first is, that this government is not an arbitrary constitution, arising, like the Jewish ritual, from his mere will, and capable, like that and every other positive ordinance, of being abrogated; but a constitution which, as it derives its authority from his supreme will, is itself derived from the essential and unchangeable perfections of his nature; so that, unless God himself were to change, or the relation betwixt God and his creatures to cease, the leading principles of that government must remain the same under every successive dispensation;—and the second is, that it is a government not confined to men, but comprehensive of all orders of his intelligent creatures,—applicable to all who are capable of knowing God and serving him, and extending to angels and seraphim, to whose society his people are to be united in the kingdom of glory; so that, unless the redeemed are to be governed by a different law, it is absolutely necessary that they should be spiritual and holy as the angels are in heaven. From these two considerations, it is manifest, that in setting up a new kingdom, God will adhere to those great principles which are involved in his universal moral government; and from its fundamental laws we may infer with certainty, that as they who are saved are said to be brought into a kingdom, nay, into the very kingdom of God, they must be endued with a holy character.

That a spiritual character is indispensably necessary in order to our being admitted into the kingdom of God, appears from his declared design in the scheme of redemption itself. So far from being intended to reverse or supersede the moral government of God, or to release us from the operation of those laws which connect sin with suffering, the scheme of redemption was designed to secure our happiness by restoring us to a state of holy conformity to God’s will. Its design in relation to the law is declared, when our Lord himself said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law: I am not come to destroy but to fulfil;” and the apostle, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid. Yea, we establish the law.” And its design in relation to ourselves is intimated, when we read that it was alike the purpose of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to deliver us from sin as well as from suffering, and to restore us to the image as well as the favor of God. I solicit your attention to the declared purpose of each of the Three Persons in the Godhead, in that scheme of grace and redemption which is the only provision that has been made, or that ever will be made, for your salvation.

The design of God the Father is thus expressed: “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our Gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And the design of Christ the Savior is thus declared: “Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish;”—” He gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” And the design of the Holy Spirit is not only implied in his very office, as the renewer and sanctifier of God’s people, and evinced by the whole scope and tendency of the Word, which is the Spirit’s message, and a declaration of his will; but it is expressly declared, when it is said, “When he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment;” and that he will “guide his people into all truth,” so as to fulfil the Lord’s prayer on their behalf, “Sanctify them through thy truth, thy Word is truth.”

From these passages it is manifest, that in the scheme of redemption itself, God proceeds on the principle that a spiritual character is indispensably necessary in order to our admission into his kingdom. The very salvation which he has provided is spiritual; it includes various blessings of unspeakable value, such as the pardon of sin, peace of conscience, assurance of God’s love, exemption from hell and admission into heaven; but these blessings, so necessary to our safety, and so conducive to our happiness, are inseparably connected, by God’s appointment, as well as in their own nature, with a new spiritual character, and cannot be enjoyed without it,—for the promise runs in these terms: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

If such be God’s design in the scheme of redemption—the declared design of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit—how can you expect to be saved without undergoing a great spiritual change? If you hope to be saved without being born again, your hope must rest, either on the supposition that you are not naturally fallen and depraved, or on the idea, that a holy and spiritual character is not indispensably necessary in order to your admission into the kingdom. On one or other of these two suppositions your hope must be built, if you expect salvation without a change of heart; for, if the fact be certain, that you are naturally fallen and depraved, and if the principle be correct, that “without holiness no man can see the Lord,” the absolute necessity of regeneration is at once established. Now, on whichever of these two suppositions you may take your stand, there is enough in God’s declared design in the work of redemption to convince you that they are both alike false and dangerous; for if, on the one hand, you flatter yourselves that you are not so utterly fallen as to require to be renewed, or as to be unable to effect your own restoration, should not your fond confidence in this opinion be shaken, when you find that in the scheme which God himself has revealed for the recovery of men, he proceeds uniformly on the contrary supposition, and makes provision for their regeneration by his own Spirit, and speaks to all in the same language, as sinners that have fallen, and that need to be restored ?— and if, on the other hand, you flatter yourselves that, although you may be partially sinful, you may yet enter into the kingdom without undergoing any great spiritual change, oh! should not this presumptuous expectation be utterly extirpated and destroyed, when you find that it is in direct opposition to God’s whole design, and cannot be fulfilled without subverting the scheme of grace? For what does your expectation imply? Does it not imply that God will depart from his purpose of saving sinners “through sanctification of the Spirit,” and save them without being sanctified —thereby reversing the constitution of the scheme of grace, and violating the principle on which it is based? In other words, does it not imply that God must set aside the great scheme of redemption—a scheme on which he has already exercised all the riches of his omniscient wisdom, and expended the blood of his Son with that immutable wisdom, and inflexible justice, and unfailing truth, must all bend and bow down before the sinner, and suffer him to enter into the kingdom unrenewed? and do you not see, that the whole design of God in the redemption of the world must be abandoned, before your hope can be fulfilled? Does it not imply that the Savior himself must relinquish the object which he had in view, when “he came to save his people from their sins;” that he must adopt a new design, and throw open the door of his kingdom to the unholy and the unclean—not to the unholy that they may be renewed, or the unclean that they may be washed—for in that sense the door is always open, and open for all —but to such as seek to remain in their natural state “dead in trespasses and in sins;” and that he must assume a new character, as the Savior of those who refuse the only salvation he has yet procured, and who are “neither washed, nor sanctified, nor justified by the Spirit of God?” And does it not imply that the Holy Spirit must relinquish his offices as the Sanctifier and Comforter of his people, —or that his functions and operations are unnecessary and superfluous? for why is he revealed as the “Spirit that quickeneth,” if there be no need of a new birth? —why, as the Spirit of sanctification, if without sanctification you can enter into the kingdom? —and why as the Comforter of the Church? Can it be, that he is to comfort men while they continue in their natural state, and to pour his blessed consolations into unsanctified hearts, and to make them happy while they remain unholy? All this, and much more, is implied in the presumptuous expectation that any of us can enter into the kingdom without undergoing a great spiritual change: it implies that the scheme of redemption itself must be changed, and that, too, after it has been accomplished by the incarnation, and sufferings, and death of God’s own Son; for that scheme proceeds from first to last on the supposition that we are fallen, and that we must be renewed, if we would enter into the kingdom. That a spiritual character is indispensably necessary in order to our being admitted into the kingdom of God, appears from the actual constitution of our own nature, which is essentially a moral one, and renders it impossible for us to enjoy heaven, even were we admitted into it, unless our character be brought into conformity with the will of God. We have already seen that the general government of God is a moral government, and that a holy character must be necessary in his kingdom, so long as God is God. We now add, for the purpose of evincing the certainty of this great truth, that the constitution of our own nature is essentially a moral constitution, and that a holy character must be essential to our happiness, so long as man is man. The principles of our own nature, the very constitution of our being must be reversed, before we could be happy in God’s kingdom without a holy and spiritual character. Let me advert to some of these principles; and, viewing them in connection with the character of God’s kingdom, you will at once perceive that we must be holy if we would be happy there.