Doctrine of the Rebirth and Regeneration Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Out of the Depths—Restoring Fellowship with God.” The sermon was preached at Westminister Chapel, London, in October 1949 and subsequently published in 1950 and re-published in 1995.
Create in me a clean heart, O God (Psalm 51:10a)
I would remind you again that I am calling attention to this Psalm not only because it is the great classic statement on the whole doctrine of repentance, but because at the same time it reminds us in a very clear and forcible manner of some of the steps and stages through which anyone must of necessity pass who is to become truly Christian. There are certain things which are essential to the Christian position. I make no apology for making such a statement. I think one of the greatest tragedies of the hour is that an idea of vagueness should have entered into the average person’s conception as to what constitutes a Christian. There is no difficulty in the New Testament in discovering what made one a Christian. Certain people were called Christians for a very specific reason, and it was such a definite thing that it was dangerous to be a Christian at times. There is no doubt or vagueness in the New Testament, and there have been other times in the history of the church when the position of the Christian has been perfectly clear and perfectly definite. I say it is one of the major tragedies of this twentieth century that a loose conception as to what constitutes Christianity, and what makes a man a Christian, has crept in. We need not be concerned about the causes of that at this point. We know that ultimately it is to be traced back to a denial of the unique authority of this Book, and to the substitution of human ideas for divine revelation.
Here in this Psalm, in a very definite form, are gathered together for us some of these essential things which are always part and parcel of the true Christian experience. I say again that unless we are aware of these things in ourselves in a certain measure or to a certain extent, we are in no sense entitled to apply the designation Christian to ourselves. Here we have at one and the same time a somewhat terrifying exposure of the need of mankind in sin, and the provision that is made for us in the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. You do not get that in its fulness in this Psalm, but you get an introduction in a most extraordinary manner. Here is expressed in embryo what we have in greater fulness in the New Testament. We are looking at it in this way because the nature of man apart from Christ is expressed here in such a clear and striking manner.
Let me summarize the point at which we have arrived in our previous studies of this Psalm. There are certain steps before one ever becomes a Christian, and the first is that a man has got to stop and think. I say it is impossible to be a Christian without thinking. Now I know there are many people who think a man is Christian because he does not think and that those who are outside Christ have a monopoly of thought. Yet the whole case of the Bible is that a man does not even begin to become a Christian until he thinks. What does he think about? He thinks about himself. David had committed a terrible sin, a terrible crime. He was guilty of murder, he was guilty of adultery, and yet he went on as if he had done nothing at all. And he had to be pulled up by the prophet Nathan, who showed him what he had done and made him face himself. It was then he realized what exactly he had done. That is always the first step. If you are a person who has not sat down and looked at himself, whatever else is true of you, I can tell you that you are not a Christian. It is impossible to be a Christian without facing yourself and looking at your own life. The world does its best to prevent us doing that. With its organized pleasures and all its suggestive attractions it is doing everything it can to prevent people sitting down and thinking and facing themselves and their own lives. But the man who is a Christian has passed all that. He has stopped and has looked, he has examined, he has recognized certain things about himself, he has made a certain confession. You will find that in the first verse of the Psalm.
Then the second step is that a man who becomes a Christian is a man who has come to realize his own utter helplessness. He has come to realize his need of mercy, his need of forgiveness. He is the man who has said, `Have mercy upon me, 0 God, according to thy lovingkindness; according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.’ He is a man who has come to see that he cannot get rid of the sense of guilt himself, he cannot find peace and rest for his heart and mind as the result of anything he does. In desperation he turns to God, the God whom he has offended, and says to himself, `My only hope is in God. The only one who can give me peace is the one I have offended most of all.’ So he casts himself upon that one’s love and compassion and mercy.
And so the point at which we have arrived is that the man who does not realize that he needs forgiveness is not a Christian. You can call him a moral man if you like, call him an ethical person, call him anything you like. I do not deny he may be all those things; but I say a man literally cannot be a Christian unless he realizes he is a sinner and needs forgiveness and mercy and compassion from God, and cries out for it. It is one of those essential things without which one has no right whatsoever to the great and exalted name of Christian.
But you notice David did not stop there. He went beyond that. And I want to emphasize that every true Christian invariably and of necessity must always go beyond that point. The first thing a man becomes conscious of is the need of forgiveness. We all know something about an accusing, tormenting conscience, I am sure—the feeling that we have done wrong and that we want to get rid of that sense of guilt, that unhappiness. We want to feel at rest and at peace. That is the first thing the convicted sinner always feels. The man who has stopped and looked at himself and seen what he has done is a man who is unhappy and who wants to get out of that state of unhappiness. But the true Christian does not stop there. The next step is to see and to hate that terrible thing within us that ever makes us capable of sin.
You see these steps in the case of King David. First of all he is thoughtless. Then he is arrested, he sees his transgression and iniquity and sin. Then the feeling of guilt and the desire to be rid of this and the cry, `Have mercy upon me, 0 God.’ But he did not stop at that. He went further and he said, `The terrible thing is this, that I was ever capable of that adultery and murder.’ Now that is of the very essence of the Christian position. The Christian never stops merely at the desire to be forgiven; he always accuses and examines himself to such an extent that he becomes troubled and concerned more about the thing within him which renders him capable of such an action than the action itself. Forgiveness is no longer to him the great question; it is the thing within him that ever put him in the position of needing forgiveness. I trust I am making this plain and clear. I am afraid it is a very superficial evangelism which seems to stop at forgiveness as if that is the only problem. No, no, there is something more terrible than the need of forgiveness, it is that there is something in me that puts me in such a position that I need it. That is the position to which David advances, and that is the thing he expresses so poignantly in this tenth verse: `Create in me a clean heart, 0 God.’ ‘That is my real trouble,’ he seems to say, `it is my heart that is wrong.’ And here he is crying out for God—`God, create in me a clean heart.’ This is something which is always present in every true Christian. He realizes his need of a new nature, he realizes the need of a rebirth—of regeneration. The true Christian is a man who realizes that it is not enough to be forgiven and to decide to live a better life; he comes to see that he must be made anew, that unless God does something in the depth of his being he is altogether lost. He realizes the need of being born again and being created anew.
Now that is the subject to which I am drawing your attention in this third study. It is a very great subject, a subject about which volumes have been written, and obviously I cannot pretend to deal with it exhaustively here. But I am going to show you the doctrine of regeneration as it is taught in the fifty-first psalm. It does not tell us everything about it. I am simply confining myself to the exposition of it that is given here by David in his agony and in his prayer.
However, let me say in passing that nothing, it seems to me, is quite so strange as the way in which man by nature always objects to this doctrine of regeneration. There is nothing also, I sometimes think, that so demonstrates the depth of sin in the human heart as this objection to the doctrine of the rebirth or being born again. Read the New Testament Scriptures and you will find that men objected to it in those days. When our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ spoke about it, He was always persecuted. People disliked Him for mentioning it. When He began to expose the depth of iniquity in the human heart and to talk about a rebirth they invariably misunderstood Him. They disliked it then and it has always been the same ever since. When John Wesley was truly converted he went back to his university at Oxford and preached a sermon on this very subject; and he was hated for it. Those respectable religious people there in Oxford disliked this doctrine, and they made it impossible for him to continue preaching there. The natural man, the natural, unregenerate human heart, objected to this great and wondrous biblical doctrine of the rebirth and regeneration. And it is equally true today. People sit and listen to an address or sermon on what is called the fatherhood of God or the brotherhood of man and they never object to it. When they are exhorted to live a better life they never express any objection at all. They say it is perfectly right, and even though they are reprimanded for not living better lives, they say that it is perfectly true and quite fair and that they could be better. But if a preacher stands before the natural man and says, `You must be born again— you must have a new life from God,’ they ask, `What is this strange doctrine?’ I remember very well on one occasion I was preaching in the heart of England in a farming community, and I had the pleasure of being entertained by a farmer and his wife. I remember that evening at supper the farmer’s wife began speaking of another farmer’s wife and she said something like this: `Yes, she is a very nice woman, a most excellent farmer’s wife, and she is a very religious person; but, you know, she keeps on talking about being born again.’ This good woman felt somehow or other that that was some kind of defect in the character of this other person. It was all right to be religious, but to keep talking about a new life and being born again was something she could not quite understand and she obviously regarded as almost a mental aberration.
Now that is a very common attitude. There is in the human heart by nature a rooted objection to the doctrine of the rebirth. What is the cause of it? It is not at all difficult to discover the answer to that question. When I am confronted by this doctrine, I deduce from it that I am in such a thoroughly bad state and condition that nothing less than being born again can put me right. And by nature I do not like that suggestion. The natural man is prepared to admit he is not one hundred per cent a saint; but if you tell him that he is absolutely rotten, and that not only is he not one hundred per cent a saint, but that unless he is born again he is hopeless, he will take umbrage and ask `What are you suggesting?’ He will feel that you are insulting him. Man as the result of sin and the Fall has certainly not lost his capacity to draw a right deduction from statements that are made; and that is precisely the implication of the doctrine of the rebirth. You remember how our Lord put it to Nicodemus, who went to Him one night. Nicodemus said, `Master, I have watched you, and observed your miracles, and have listened to you, and it is evident to me that you are a Teacher come from God, for no man could do these miracles except God be with him.’ Then our Lord interrupted him and said, `Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3). You remember the conversation that followed. Clearly Nicodemus’s thought was something like this: `I have been watching and listening to you, and I have come to the conclusion that you have something which I lack. I am a master in Israel, I have a good deal, but I am quite clear that you have more than I have. What have I to do in order to become like you?’ Our Lord said to him, `It is not a question of adding to what you have got; you must be born again, you have to go right back to the foundation not addition, but regeneration.’ But we do not like that, we do not by nature like a doctrine that tells us we are hopeless, that we are so sinful or rotten that we cannot be improved but must be literally created anew.
Or let me put it in this way. We object to the doctrine of the rebirth because it is a doctrine that tells us very clearly, by implication, that we really cannot put ourselves right. Now, there again is something to which the natural man always objects. That is why he never objects to an appeal which is made to him to live a better life. He rather likes that, for in a sense it is paying him a compliment. If I should say, `Now this is the sort of life you ought to live, I appeal to you to rise to it’, we would all by nature like it because I would be implying that we are capable of it. We always like a doctrine which suggests that we have the capacity. What the natural man dislikes is a doctrine that tells him that he can do nothing about it; that all his efforts and endeavours will land him nowhere; that he can fast and sweat and pray, but that he will find it to be as useless as Martin Luther did. He had been a monk fasting and praying in his cell, he had gone to Rome on a pilgrimage, and he had done everything a man could do to save himself, but he was as far away at the end as at the beginning. It cannot be done! But man by nature does not like that, and that is why we all fight against this doctrine of the rebirth which tells us at the outset that we can do nothing, that we must wait upon God and ask Him to do this for us.
Or let me put it in another way. These are the obvious explanations of the oppositition to the doctrine, but the real cause of the trouble is to be found at a deeper level. Why should I object when I am told in the gospel that I am so rotten that I must be born again? Why should I object when I am told that all my efforts and endeavours will not be adequate? Surely this is the answer: it is my failure to realize that I am face to face with God. We are so accustomed to looking at ourselves and to comparing ourselves with one another. We are all in competition with one another. Look at the professions, look at men in business; they are all vying with one another. Men say that you can only get on in this world by applying yourself—that is the whole idea of life which we have by nature; and we can satisfy one another and human standards up to a point. But in this matter which we are considering we are not concerned with man; we are face to face with God. David has already expressed it in the sixth verse: `Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts.’ If we realize for a moment that we are concerned with God and not with man, we very soon realize how lost we are and how helpless.
The other explanation, of course, is our failure to realize the truth about ourselves. David has already expressed that in the fifth verse: `Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ A man who has realized that about himself does not object to a gospel which tells him he must be born again. It is the man who thinks that on the whole he is very good, and that the occasional black speck in his character can be removed very easily, who is opposed to this gospel. The man who sees he is shapen in iniquity and that in sin did his mother conceive him, when told that he is rotten and that he must be born again, says, `I entirely agree. I know that my heart is in this rotten condition.’
There, then, are the reasons and explanations of this objection to the doctrine. But it is also true to say that it is a humiliating doctrine. Let us admit it, that no man by nature likes to be told he must be born again. It is true of all of us. Our ultimate trouble is our pride, our self-satisfaction, our self-esteem and our self-confidence. The gospel comes and deals a mortal blow to that self, and we do not like it. People have never liked it and they dislike it still. It is an uncomfortable and a humiliating doctrine, and yet it is of the very essence of the Christian position. It is all put perfectly in these two verses: `Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts … Create in me a clean heart, 0 God’ (verses 6 and 10).
Why must we be born again? That is the question. What is it that makes the rebirth an absolute necessity if we are truly to become Christian? The first answer is this—the treachery and the insincerity of our natures. David admits that in these words: `Behold, thou desirest truth [or sincerity] in the inward parts.’ That is the trouble. You see the steps through which David has gone. He has been examining himself, he has come to recognize his sins, the things he has done. Then he goes a step further and says, `There is something rotten within me, within my heart, and in a sense I can do nothing about it, because I have come to see that I cannot trust myself. I lack sincerity in the depths of my very nature and being.’ What a terrible confession for a man to make about himself! And yet it is something that every Christian must of necessity have come to see. Jeremiah put it in these words, `The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked’ (Jeremiah 17:9). A great saint put it in a hymn in these words,
I dare not trust the sweetest frame.
Do you trust yourself? If you do, you do not know yourself. Have you not yet discovered the twists and the turns and the perversion in your own heart? Have you not come to see the insincerity that is down in the centre? We are all hypocrites, we are all playing at make-believe, we are all pretending to be something we are not. Am I romancing or am I stating the simple truth? Should we all be perfectly happy if our imaginations and secret thoughts could be flashed on a screen for everybody to look at? No, these verses are perfectly true, and in that state and condition we are utterly helpless because we are concerned with God. We can pretend with one another, we can say we are sorry in order to be forgiven and yet not really mean it in our hearts, but the other person does not know. We want to get out of a difficulty, we want to avoid the pain, so we say we are sorry. But when we are dealing with God, all that is utterly useless. `I am face to face with you, 0 God,’ says David, `and you desire truth and sincerity in the inward parts. I cannot get away from you.’ ‘The word of God’, says the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, `is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’ and `all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do’ (Hebrews 4:12,13). Ah, if you are simply concerned about getting rid of your feeling of guilt and unhappiness and nothing more, I say you are not yet in the truly Christian position. The Christian goes further than that: he realizes this fundamental need of a central sincerity. He sees himself through the eyes of God. He knows he is being read as an open book, and whatever other people may see in him and think of him, he knows that God is reading the thoughts and intents of his heart and everything about him in the very recesses of his life. He knows that his nakedness is open to the eye of Almighty God.
But further, I know that I cannot make myself sincere. I resolve to be sincere, but I find I am still playing with myself, I fool myself. I keep my ledger with my profit and loss account and I am very successful in balancing my account. I am always on good terms with myself, I am an expert, to use the modern word, at rationalizing myself and my actions. I can explain what I do to myself, and it is all right for me to do it, though I condemn it in others. That is what I find about myself. I am not honest and sincere in the very centre of my life—but ‘thou desirest truth in the inward parts’. And, try as I will, I am aware of this fundamental dishonesty, this insincerity down at the very centre of it all, and I cry out to God that He must do something about it. I see there the need of the rebirth. The thoughts and intents of my heart are of vital importance. I realize that there I am in a realm which I cannot control, and I fall back upon God and His omnipotence.
The second need of the rebirth I can put in this form. It is due to my ignorance and lack of wisdom. Listen again to verse 6: `Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.’ Oh! David knew his own heart so perfectly. You see the steps through which a man passes. First of all I have gone on heedlessly. I am then pulled up and arrested. Ah, yes, I say, I should not have done that. Then I go on to ask what made me do it and then I ask, How can it be put right? I am so insincere, I can do nothing. What can I do, then? I do not know what to do, I am helpless, I admit it. What do I need? `Well,’ said David, `what I need above everything else is wisdom, I need light and illumination. I confess quite frankly that as I try to handle my own case I come up against this blank wall. I cannot get right. I need some light from the outside.’ Every Christian knows what I am talking about. You come to that desperate point at which you say, `Well, what can I do? I cannot trust my own thoughts and ideas. I must have something outside myself. I need light to be thrown upon myself.’ That is what these verses mean. David is crying out for wisdom in the hidden part. In other words, no man is truly a Christian until he realizes that human knowledge and wisdom and understanding are not enough; until he has come to see with Pascal, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, that the supreme achievement of reason is to bring a man to see the limits of reason and to make him cry out for revelation. I need wisdom. I need light. I need light upon my own heart. I am a very bad physician of myself because I know that I am not honest with myself. I do not face things squarely, I always want to defend myself, so I cannot treat myself. I need light on myself from the outside. I need more wisdom with respect to my true condition. I need light about holiness, how to live a holy life. I need light on God, I need the wisdom that I cannot provide for myself. I search but I cannot find it. I read biographies of the great men of the world who have not been Christian and I know that they have failed in life. They could not find happiness; I cannot find it. What can I do? I must ask God for it. Have you cried out for wisdom, have you sought for knowledge? If you have gotten to that point, then you are on the high road to salvation. Have you reached the stage of saying, `I cannot think any more, I have thought until I cannot think any longer. What can I do? 0 God, cast light upon my condition!’? If you offer that prayer you will get the light. The man who cries out for this revelation and divine illumination never does so in vain. I need wisdom in the hidden part; I believe God can supply it.
But then, you see, David goes on to the next step. He realizes now, as the result of this wisdom that God has given him, that he needs a clean heart, that he needs a new nature. I need not keep you with this. There is a passage in the seventh chapter of the Gospel according to Mark that really puts the whole thing perfectly (Mark 7:14-23). `Look,’ said our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in effect to those people, `do not blame your circumstances and conditions and surroundings for what you are. It is not that which goes in that defiles a man, it is that which comes out. You are paying attention to the washing of hands and the washing of the platters and things like that; you are blaming your difficult position, the things that are around and about you. You say, “I am in this filthy world and it takes me all my time to try to keep myself clean.” `No,’ said Christ, `that is not the trouble; the trouble is in your own heart. It is not that which enters in which defiles the man, it is that which comes out; it is out of the heart that come evil thoughts, murders, fornications, adulteries and all the evil things that he lusts after.’ Now we all know that that in some shape or form is true of every one of us. The trouble is in us. You see how David came to that conclusion at long last; he has faced himself and he says, `I am a murderer, I am an adulterer, I am rotten, I have been responsible for the death of innocent people—ah, the terrible question that confronts me is this, What made me do it? Was it Bathsheba or the other people? No, it is something foul and cankerous in me, in my heart, that made me lust. It is not what I see that is the trouble. It is this within me that makes me interpret things as I do. It is I myself—“Create in me a clean heart, 0 God.”‘ Have you come to that position about yourself? Have you come to see that all your problems and difficulties arise from that central cause? That, I say, is something that happens to every true Christian. `Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ The trouble with man is not that he does certain things that he should not do; it is that he ever has a heart to do them. It is this thing within us that makes us desire; though our conscience tells us that we should not do these things, yet we do them. That is the curse, this thing in the heart. We need a clean heart.
But David goes further: he realizes he can never produce it. He knows perfectly well that all the resolutions in the world can never change the heart. They can only control a man’s actions up to a point. There is a value in the idea of New Year resolutions; as far as they go they may make you a better man. You can control your actions up to a point, but when you try to cleanse the heart, I assure you that the more you try, the blacker you will find it becomes. Read the lives of the saints and find how those wonderful men who tried to cleanse this foul heart always discovered increasing foulness, and at the end found it to be utterly hopeless. That was why David cried out with this great word, `Create in me’—God alone can give me a clean heart, God alone can give me a new nature. `My only hope’, said David, `is that He who created the world out of nothing and made man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life, will create within me a clean heart and give me a new nature.’ That is the cry of the Old Testament. David had seen it in its essence, he had seen that that was his fundamental need. And the fundamental need of every man is an operation of God in the centre of life. 0, do you know, my friend, that that is the very essence of the New Testament gospel and its wonderful message? Why did the Lord Jesus Christ come into this world? Why did He live, and die that death upon the cross and rise again? What is it all for? Was it that you and I might be forgiven and go on sinning, and then come back, and having lived somehow from sin to repentance and repentance to sin, just slink into heaven and avoid the punishment of hell and its terrible consequences? That is a blasphemous thought! He did it all, as Paul says in writing to Titus, `that he might … purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works’ (Titus 2:14). No, the glorious message of the gospel is not only that I am forgiven. Thank God, I am forgiven; the first statement is that my sins are blotted out like a thick cloud—God forgives me. But I am not satisfied with that. I do not want to go on sinning. I want to tackle this central problem. I want to live a life that is worthy. I want to get rid of this thing within me that makes me sin and makes me lust to sin. And this is the answer of the gospel—this wondrous doctrine of the rebirth and the new creation, being born again, becoming a partaker of the divine nature. The Son of God came down to earth and took upon Him human nature in order that He might start a new humanity, a new race of people to form a new kingdom. And what He does is this: to those who come to Him and realize they need a clean nature within themselves He gives His own nature. `If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). I should be very unhappy for anybody to think that the gospel tells men, `Yes, God is love, and because God is love He has forgiven you in Jesus Christ. Very well, because of that, turn over a new leaf and start living a new life.’ That would be to me a negation of the gospel. No, the gospel does not just forgive you and urge you to go back and live a better life. It gives a new life. It offers to make us sons of God, it offers to make us partakers of the divine nature. Its message is that God comes to dwell in us. As Paul puts it, `I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’ (Galatians 2:20). You are not left to yourself, you are not sent back to the hopeless task of trying to improve yourself. God gives you a new life, a new start, a new beginning. You become a new man, you will find yourself in a new world with a new power and a new hope.
`Create in me a clean heart, 0 God.’ Any man, I say, who offers that prayer with sincerity will always be answered. ‘Ye must be born again,’ said Jesus Christ; and a man who realizes that and who submits himself to Christ is born again. He has new life, the life of God in him; the centre of the trouble is cleansed by God, and he finds within himself a new outlook, a new power, a new hope, a new man.(65-86)