The Life of the Spirit

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 5 - The Necessity of New Birth by the Spirit

"Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came unto him by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew." (John 3:1-7).

That statement, so very well known to us, is at once the despair and the hope of the situation. The Lord Jesus making that statement and Himself being the very embodiment of it is, in the one direction, making a statement of despair, of complete hopelessness. The situation is an entirely negative one - the repeated "cannot", "except". But, in the other direction, it is the hope; it does represent a prospect and possibility. That is just the position which obtains in the case of every man and every woman when first confronted with the matter of a living relationship with God. It is a hopeless thing on the one hand, utterly hopeless, but there is a way of possibility. You know how it is when we speak to people who do not know this experience of new birth; how hopeless it is, with what despair we have to meet them when they argue and reason about this whole matter of God and relationship with God, and the religious life.

If you know the real situation and are experienced, you just come very quickly to the position that the Lord Jesus came to; that is, you realize the utter futility of discussing or arguing, of taking up any point with a view to clarifying their position and getting them through along that line. The Lord Jesus recognized the utter hopelessness of that situation and did not for one instant engage in discussion with Nicodemus. Nicodemus wanted to open up the subject of God, the kingdom and the things of God and discuss them as a well-trained religious man could. He wanted to embark upon religious discussion; the Lord Jesus would have none of it at all, not a sentence. He cut the whole thing short and said, "Ye must be born again. There is not one single step that we can take together until we belong to the same kingdom. We will be talking at cross-purposes, we will be talking a different language; we may be using the same words, but will be meaning different things. Our phraseology may sound identical, but the meaning will be altogether different. We shall not be moving together at all because we belong to two different kingdoms, two different realms. You belong to this - it may be a very religious one but it is a kingdom of its own. I belong to that other kingdom, the kingdom of God. The kingdom of man may be a very religious kingdom, a very devout kingdom, full of all sorts of intensive religious activities and observances, but it is still the kingdom of man. The kingdom of God is other. I belong to that from above; you belong to this from below, and we cannot take a single step together in harmony, understanding, oneness or fellowship until we are both of the same constitution. You are born of the flesh; that is, you are born a natural man. I am born of the Spirit, and you must be born in a spiritual way before we can even talk together about things". That is a very hopeless situation viewed from one standpoint.

Recently I was sitting in my boat and I had a man there who was a very red hot Communist and who was pouring out deluges of how he was going to solve the problems of this world war and all the industrial troubles, going to make a new order and a new world and all the rest of it, and I had to sit and listen and let him go on. At last I said, "Well, I have listened to all that you have had to say; I suppose I could argue with you on your level, but this is the sort of thing that men have been saying for a long time. A good many men have said this sort of thing, they are saying it all over the world, and what you say represents a very wide system of opinion and conviction, but the fact remains that the world is in an awful mess and that the thing is not really being touched, and today the manifestation of the human heart is more terrible than ever it has been in the history of the world; you are not really doing very much with all your gospel!" He wanted to argue. I said, "Well, you see, the point is this, that you can never understand for one moment Jesus Christ and His gospel until you are constituted on the same basis as Jesus Christ. So the whole thing is quite a hopeless one. You and I cannot do more than argue. We can argue but we will not get anywhere. You must be born again, and if that happens you would see altogether differently, your whole outlook would be changed. You would be so differently constituted that you would at once be changed in your entire conception of things, but until that happens, the situation is quite hopeless and your gospel is not going to get anywhere. It never has, and it never will." Well, of course, he could not see it, but that is just the despair of it all. It is the hopelessness of it. It does not matter in what realm you meet it; it is the same thing. It is Nicodemus in principle again. "You must be born again."

What is the difference? Well, that which is born of the flesh is flesh, after all. It does not matter whether it is the Communist flesh or the Nicodemus flesh, the high Israelite flesh - it is still flesh. It may be most burningly devout in its religious engagements, activities and observances. You may be of the strictest sect of the Pharisees, but it is still the flesh. That is a kingdom of its own. What is of the Spirit is spirit, and that is another kingdom, another constitution, another species, another kind of being altogether, and these two do not understand one another.

Well, that is the despair side of it all, and that has an application of degrees. First of all, it is utter. As to the saved and the unsaved or the born again and the not born again, it is utter and universal and all-comprehending. There is not one point in which there is likeness or oneness between a born-again and a not born-again person.

But after we are born again, our moving together with Christ depends entirely upon whether we are moving on the ground of being born again or on the old ground of not being born again. You can, even after you are born again, still move largely on the old ground. You can still allow your own old man to have a place; you can still allow your own will and feelings to have a place. Going on with the Lord depends entirely upon whether you are going on on the basis of that which is born of the flesh or that which is born of the Spirit. So that walking with the Lord is a comparative matter, and real fellowship, real oneness, real progress as a child of God, as we have been saying so much in this conference, is after all a matter of how much we are keeping clear of that old unborn again realm and keeping on the line of that new constitution, that new and altogether different nature. You must be born again because what is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Now, Nicodemus was trying to make an impossible transition, the kind of transition that many people have tried to make and it never succeeds - that is, to bring over in a religious way the life of nature into the kingdom of God, and that does not sound so elementary as I have put it. But putting it more simply, it is this, that whereas you may have had interests, zeal, enthusiasm, energy and activity in one realm, you are now simply going to put your enthusiasms and energy and interests into another realm, and they are the same enthusiasms and energies and basic interests, but you are now putting them to the account of Christianity whereas before they were put to the account of self and the world. Now you are giving your own enthusiasms and energies, religious or Christian, and that is an impossible transition. It really is a bypassing of the real issue. No man or woman has ever yet got through to the kingdom of God by means of their own zeal and enthusiasm and interest, by a transference of their interest from one realm to another. That simply glosses over this question of "Ye must be born again." It goes round it.

The resources of the Christian life are different, just as the ideas and thoughts of God are different in essence from ours, and we shall be constantly coming up against that difference, that God thinks differently, although our thinking may be very devout and religious thinking.

Here is Paul the apostle who, speaking of his earlier life as a devout Pharisee, a very devout Jew, a leader of the Jews, could say of himself with regard to the righteousness which is in the law that he was found blameless - a terrific thing for any man to say, to stand up to that whole law and say in front of that law, the law of Moses, "I am found blameless!" - a man who could say that, but nevertheless said "I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth" (Acts 26:9). What he did, he did out of the profoundest religious conviction and devotion and he did it before God. He was being tremendously conscientious so far as his apprehension of Divine requirements was concerned, and yet was ever a man more wrong that he should persecute the way and the Name of Jesus and the followers of Jesus, even unto the death? Was ever a man more wrong, and yet this man is found doing this in a most downright religious devotion, showing that we can be in two different worlds even with our religious passion.

Until a reconstituting of us has taken place, something basic has happened, a new kind of constitution which produces a new consciousness, a new standard, a new concept, an entirely new order of things from within, until that happens, even our devoutest religion may be in another realm altogether from God. Even while we may think we are serving God, we may be unconsciously violating the very thoughts of God. It is possible.

Now, all this is intended to focus upon this one simple thing, that a child of God is not one who has become interested in Christianity and devoted to Christian things, but one whose innermost constitution has been changed; something has happened which has introduced something which was never there before, and that something has made them of a different order. There may be a crust round the old creation, but right at the very centre there is something that is altogether new, that has come out of heaven, that belongs to another kingdom, and that is the deepest reality of their being and they are different in the deepest reality of their being from the old order and the old species of being to which they belong by natural birth. It is a hopeless thing until that has happened, but that is the hope.

Once that happens, oh, the changes that take place! They may not be far-reaching, they may not go a long way, but they are very radical. A person who has really been born anew of the Spirit and in their deepest being become spirit because born of the Spirit, will begin at once to say, "Now I see what you meant, I could never grasp your meaning, but I see now!" It is a new apprehension altogether.

I am quite sure that even the most mature of you need to recognize that this is the basic reality of a life in union with God and it is the thing that has got to grow and increase as we go on, so that we are being continually reconstituted by the new nature that has been introduced. We are constantly being changed, transformed, passing through this transition all the time, coming to see more and more what we could never see and understand before, coming to be capable in spiritual understanding and in spiritual enactments of what was altogether outside of our realm before. That is the new birth in its outworking. It is something constitutional. Ye must be born anew.

It represents the utter and vast difference between God's kingdom and ours. We talk about the kingdom of God and here it is; the kingdom of God, and its alternative corresponding phrase, the kingdom of heaven. What do you mean by - you cannot see the kingdom of God, you cannot enter the kingdom of God? Well, it is not as so many people have imagined it. It is a realm to which you are going, going to heaven, some place; you will never get to heaven unless you are born again. What do you mean by getting to heaven, entering the kingdom of God? This is a kingdom order of beings.

You know how it works out in the physical. You go up in a machine, and when you get beyond a certain altitude, this human order cannot stand it. It wants another order of being to endure those higher altitudes. Some artificial means will tide you over for a little while, but if you are going to live there, you will have to be reconstituted. You would have to dispose of the blood system altogether, and have another principle of life. Your very arteries would burst if you stayed there too long, they could not stand it. So you would have to dispose of this whole system of blood circulation and be another kind of creature that lives on the basis of a system without arteries and blood vessels. You would have to be reconstituted for another kingdom. We are not made for that.

And it is just as radical. Here are two people next to each other, touching one another, and those two people may be as different in their kingdom and constitution as the man who is constituted to walk on the earth and the other being who has been reconstituted to live up there in those excessively high altitudes. The difference is as great as that. The kingdoms are two different kingdoms, two different species. One is born again and one is not, and they belong to two realms. You discover that, they both know it. The man who is not born again, he knows this one next to him is some different species. There is a consciousness that there is something different here and something that he cannot get on with, he cannot understand. And the other one who is born again goes back to the office, the home, the worldly situation, and they know they are a different order, belong to another kingdom. They are out of things.

That is elementary, but I do feel it should be said for those who are right at the beginning of things so that we get clear of those entanglements, those false ideas about what it is to be a Christian, and see that it is not just turning over our zeal and our activities to another side of things; we are the same, but we have a new sphere of interest now, a new sphere of activity. It is not just that. It is a new constitution. That is what the Lord Jesus meant by saying to Nicodemus, "You must be born anew". This is basic to this whole conference, this law of the tremendous difference that is made by becoming spiritual. "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit" and it is something other.

"God is spirit" (John 4:24). There is no article in the original. So often it is quoted "God is a spirit". It says, "God is spirit". Spiritual things are of one order, and you and I can really not understand God until we are spiritual. We cannot have fellowship with God until we are spiritual, that is, until we belong to God's kingdom. Until you are born of the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God because God is Spirit and God's kingdom is spiritual. It does not mean it is theoretical, abstract. It is very real. There is nothing more real to a Christian than spiritual things. They are tremendously real. They are not abstract; they are personal. It is the Spirit of God Himself. The Spirit of God is a very real person and He keeps very short accounts with the children of God.

I am not going to add much more to this. It is an emphasis that I feel in my heart the Lord wants made and wants brought more and more clearly to us, this tremendous difference between what we are by nature in ourselves as born of the flesh, and what we are when this thing has happened called being born anew, born from above. It is a tremendous difference. It is so different that one realm is the realm of utter impossibility where God is concerned and the other realm is the realm of every possibility where God is concerned, because we have become partakers of the very Divine nature, the spiritual nature of God.

There is a grave that divides these two. It will not be long before in John 3 Nicodemus is brought right up against it. He is still arguing on the natural line, he cannot see. The Lord Jesus heads him up to the issue. The issue is death. In effect He says, "Nicodemus, you are smitten with an incurable and hopeless, fatal disease, and the only way for you is to die and to have a new life. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness..." That is an awful thing to say to Nicodemus. What does it mean? Well, man is bitten, he is poisoned, fatally poisoned; his is a hopeless position; by being bitten by this venomous serpent, he is doomed, he is going to die, unless there can be open to him a fountain of new life, a life which is more powerful than that death and its cause, a life which is more powerful than that venom of the serpent, a life which is altogether free from those elements which work out death and doom. Unless that life can be provided, the situation is hopeless. "That is where you are, Nicodemus, religion and all, Israelite and all, master in Israel, ruler of the Jews: that is where you are, as hopeless as that, doomed". But, "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of men be lifted up. Here is your life which is another life. There is no trace or taint of the serpent's venom in this Life from above, nothing there that works out to death and doom and destruction." It is a Life in which there is no element of death at all, upon which death has no power, in which death has no place. It is in God's Son from above.

It is this new life of the new birth by faith in the Lord Jesus, and as they looked in faith, people in the wilderness did one of two things when that serpent was elevated. They either said, "What is the good of looking at that? I do not believe there is any advantage in it, I do not believe in your serpent; I will not look at it!" - and they perished. Or they believed when it was said, "If you look, there is your hope!" Their look was their expression of faith. "They looked unto him and were lightened" or saved (Psa. 34:5). Here is your new life in the Lord Jesus. Doom in your condition, hopelessness and despair, but another Life by a new birth, a new constitution, that makes everything possible for a new day, a new prospect. That is the gospel. It is on that basis that every Christian has to live and learn to live more and more upon a Life which is not their own natural life, which is another Life, free from all the seeds and taints of death, a Life which has a new day, a new prospect, an immortal hope. It is here that immortality is.

The Bible does not teach the immortality of the soul. We hear a lot about it, but the Bible does not teach immortality of the soul. That is a failure to discriminate between continuous endurance and immortality. Immortality is a kind of life, not just an extent of life. You might go on enduring, existing, forever and ever, but you cannot call that immortality. "Who only has immortality" (1 Tim. 6:16). Immortality is glory. It is the nature of God's Life, and that is given us in Christ. I am not saying we are going to be made extinct when I say that the Bible does not teach the immortality of the soul. The Bible teaches that we go on, but God forbid we should go on without immortality. Immortality is the glory of God which comes in with the Life of God and it is unto that we are called and this Life which we receive by faith in the Lord Jesus is immortal Life. It is a kind of Life in which, rather than seeds of doom and death, are found the seeds of glory, and that is going to be wrought out in every part of our being.

It begins in our spirit. "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit". It finishes up in our body. "This corruptible must put on incorruption" (1 Cor. 15:53). "Who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory" (Phil. 3:21). The basis of it is this new Life which is ours by new birth. But let us remember the grave lies between. We have to acknowledge that we are doomed by nature. There is no hope even for religious man by nature. Our only hope is in resurrection union with the Lord Jesus.

In keeping with T. Austin-Sparks' wishes that what was freely received should be freely given and not sold for profit, and that his messages be reproduced word for word, we ask if you choose to share these messages with others, to please respect his wishes and offer them freely - free of any changes, free of any charge (except necessary distribution costs) and with this statement included.