V. A Discourse delivered at the Church of the Annunciation, on the First Sunday in Advent, 1846. REGENERATION. I. N. D. P. F. et S. S. Amen. "But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: "Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." --ST. JOHN i. 12, 13.
THE person and ministry of our blessed Lord, His miracles and doctrines, His resurrection and ascension, are not dependent on the faith of those who receive Him. On the contrary, our faith is dependent on Him. Suppose Him never to have existed, and our faith in Him could never exist; suppose our faith in Him not to exist, yet He abideth forever.
And not only our Lord's existence, but His presence, also, is independent on the faith of those who receive Him. When He came on earth, and made Himself present to the Jewish people, and wrought miracles in the midst of them, and proclaimed to them the words of eternal life, we read that some received and others rejected Him. Both the one and the other, however, saw His person and actions, and heard His words. He was, therefore, equally present to both; nor, indeed, is it easy to conceive how the one could have received and the other rejected Him, unless He had been present to both.
We may lay it down, then, as an incontrovertible fact, that the presence of our blessed Lord is not dependent on the faith of those who receive Him. To deny this is virtually to deny the reality of His presence.
If our Lord had been merely a teacher, or the founder of a society, He could not be said to be really present with us after His death. His presence in this case would be imaginary, and not real; and we could not be said to receive Him, except in a metaphorical sense, meaning that we received His doctrines. But our blessed Lord is not merely a teacher or the founder of a society; He is the head of the new creation, and He does not merely teach us and give us laws, but He changes our nature, takes from us the corrupt and perishable human nature, which we inherit from the first Adam, and communicates to us the holy and immortal human nature, as it exists in Himself, the second Adam. Hence our union with Christ is set forth in the Holy Scriptures under such analogies as show it to be not merely a moral and political union, like that which may subsist between a teacher and his disciples, or among the members of a society, but also a natural or vital union; like that, for example, which subsists between a vine and its branches, or between the head of a body and its members.
When, therefore, our blessed Lord promised to come again after His departure in the flesh, and abide with His Church; when He promised to be present wherever two or three of His members were assembled in His name; when He promised to communicate in a mystery, His body and blood, and when He promised that to as many as received Him, would He give power to become the sons of God, I can not think it either safe or wise or reasonable to limit His meaning by such rules of interpretation as may and ought to be applied to a merely human teacher, or the founder of a merely human association. I remember that He who hath thus spoken is God, as well as man, and that my Christianity, if it be anything more than a name, must consist not only in my receiving the doctrines of Christ, but in my being partaker of that heavenly and immortal nature which He holds in union with His divine person. I therefore believe in Christ as really present; I adore Him as really present, and believe that in receiving Him, I receive power to become like Him, a son of God; to be holy in this life, as He is holy, and to rise again to immortal blessedness with Him, when this life is ended.
To us, then, brethren, our Lord is as truly and really present as He was to them who saw and conversed with Him in the flesh--present not in His divinity only, but in His humanity also; for in His one person, the divine and human natures are inseparably united. When we receive Him, if we be so blessed as to receive Him, we receive not His divinity only, nor His humanity only, but we receive whole Christ; so that when we receive Him we are made partakers in such way as we are capable of partaking of the divine and human natures, as they are united in His person. Only the manner of Christ's presence then and now is different. Then He was present after the manner of a body limited to a certain place, and submitting to the laws and conditions of body. Now He is not present after the manner of a body, not so present as to be confined in a certain space, or to be subject to the laws and conditions of organized bodies. And this is what we mean when we deny the corporeal presence of Christ, viz., that He is not present after the manner of a body, and that we do not receive His humanity after the manner that we would receive an organized body--a thought which would be unspeakably gross and shocking--but that Christ, both God and man, is present after a heavenly and spiritual manner; that in the same heavenly manner, and not after any earthly fashion, He communicates and we receive that body and blood, that new and sacred humanity which He holds in unison with His divine nature. On this subject there are two opposite errors to be avoided. The one is the denial of the real presence of Christ; this degrades the Christian religion to the level of a philosophical system, and shuts out of view, or fritters to nothing, the change of man from the corrupt and mortal nature inherited from Adam to the spiritual and immortal nature derived from Christ. The other error is that which affirms that this great change takes place in the bread and wine of the sacrament, that they are transubstantiated, and made to be the natural body and blood of Christ. This error leads, of necessity, to superstition and idolatry.
Since the Son of God assumed our nature, and in it was delivered for our offenses, and rose again for our justification, it is plain that our faith in Him or our reception of Him can not be the first spring of our spiritual life. He took us before we could take Him, and in order that we might take Him; He assumed our nature into union with His divine person, and so effected an atonement between us and God, and gave us the quickening spirit procured by this atonement before we could, and in order that we might receive Him by faith. He has redeemed us and not we ourselves, and as in the earthly, so in the heavenly existence, we must be new created before we can, and in order that we may, live and breathe the spiritual life. Thus we read in our text, that as many as received Him were born, i. e., received their first spring or principle of life, not of blood, or Jewish circumcision, nor from their fleshly and sensual nature, nor yet from the reasonable nature, by any exercise of will, or attainment in morality of which our unregenerate nature is capable, but solely from God.
Hence it is, that the Church, following her Lord, refers our regeneration to baptism, to show us that the new birth is not the work of our faith, but the work of God. It is required, indeed, of adults, L e., grown persons, that they have repentance and faith before they come to baptism. But even this repentance and faith are the work in us of that Holy Spirit, which is procured for us by the atonement of Christ, and communicated to us as the first spring of the new and heavenly life. Now, if we were taught that our regeneration were complete directly on our repentance and faith, we should say that it was the work of our repentance and faith. Some, indeed, there are, who make regeneration to be immediately consequent on faith, and who have thus unduly exalted human power, and taught that we are regenerated by an act of our own will, thus contradicting St. John, who says, that they who receive Christ are born "not of the will of man but of God." Hence we see the wisdom and goodness of our Lord's appointment, and the truthfulness of His Church's teaching, in referring the gift of regeneration to baptism. For baptism is not our own act, but the act of God through His ambassadors, and when we are taught that the Holy Spirit, and, indeed, all the blessings of the Christian covenant are given and sealed to us in baptism, we are constrained to refer our regeneration to God, and to believe that even the repentance and faith which fit us for baptism, have been the work of that Holy Spirit, and the purchase of that Christian covenant which are bestowed and sealed in the holy sacrament.
Only this we are to remember, that what is done on God's part is a gift, and that gifts, in the nature of the thing, may fail of their end unless we husband and improve them when it is in our power so to do. The gifts of God through Christ are both outward and inward; outward, as putting us in a new capacity of salvation, and inward, as quickening us from death to life, and so enabling us to use the aids which His grace and goodness impart. The atonement between God and man, effected by the union of the divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ, and the procurement of the Holy Spirit through this atonement, are gifts which precede all others, and create in us the capacity and first quickening of the heavenly life. When there is no bar on our part, i. e., when, as in infancy, there is no actual sin, or when, us in our riper years, the bar of actual sin has been removed by such repentance and faith as is suited to our state, then those gifts which have been procured for our nature may be applied to our persons. This is done in baptism, which applies to us severally and individually those rights and privileges of adoption which have been procured by Christ for all mankind, to be bestowed upon them under such conditions as He prescribes. But observe that what is bestowed is the power to become the sons of God, the outward atonement and the inward spirit, while our actually being and continuing the sons of God is made to depend on faith in all who are capable of faith. As many as received Him, to them gave He power, or as the margin expresses it, the right or privilege to become the sons of God, even to those who believe on His name.
Our redemption, we should remember, in its full sense comprises the transformation of the whole man, body and soul, from the state of ruin by the disobedience of the first Adam, to the state of final blessedness in the second Adam. The Holy Ghost, or Spirit of holiness whom Christ sends from the Father, is the agent in this work, and He carries it forward, by communicating to us the fullness of Christ, according to our capacity to receive it, even more and more in proportion as we husband and improve the precious gift. First, the Spirit quickens us, opens and inclines our heart to receive Christ; and if we follow His holy motions so as to receive Christ, and to believe on His name, then He confers on us in baptism, the rights and privileges of adoption, and we are said to be the sons of God. When we arrive at the stage in which the dangers and temptations of life are the most urgent, then He confers on us in confirmation, strength to settle us in our Christian state, and arm us for the Christian warfare. When we are so unfortunate as to relapse into sin, if we repent and confess and forsake, our sin, then He bestows oil us in absolution, the gift of pardon, and makes us again just before God. When we improve these previous graces, and are qualified by penitence, faith and charity for a higher gift, then He gives us Christ to be our spiritual food and sustenance in the Holy Eucharist. And when, sustained by this heavenly food, we reach the end of our pilgrimage, and depart this life in the true faith of Christ,, and in unity with His Church, then He comforts and refreshes our soul in paradise, with the hope of eternal glory. When the hour comes in which all who are in their graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and come forth, then the same Holy Spirit who dwelt in Jesus, and raised Him from the dead, shall quicken our mortal bodies; raise them from the dust, and reunite them with our souls. And when we shall have been delivered in the awful judgment, if we have that unspeakable blessedness, then the same Holy Spirit who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, and who hath quickened, regenerated, confirmed, sanctified and nourished its in this life; who has preserved our souls in paradise, and raised our bodies from the grave, will complete our redemption by glorifying us, or inducting us into the state of immortal glory and blessedness. In all these different stages and gradations, the Holy Spirit takes of Christ's fullness and imparts to us; imputes to us the merits of Christ's death and passion, works within us, through our faith and obedience, the same righteousness which shone in Christ, refreshes us with the same hope which Christ enjoyed and diffused when He left His body in the grave, and descended into the place of departed spirits, and finally communicates to us the same glory which Christ had when He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. And this new nature which is continuously and progressively communicated to us from Christ, the Head of the new creation, makes us, like Him, the sons of God; more and more the sons of God in proportion as we receive Him. The very coming of the Son of God into the world, and His assumption of our nature, gives us the capacity of His divine sonship; and then, to as many as actually receive Him, to them gives He power to become actually the sons of God; first, by regeneration, and then, after being confirmed and nourished in this divine sonship, by resurrection to immortal glory.
At this season, the Church represents to us Christ coming to His own, and thus leads us to inquire whether we be indeed prepared to receive Him. To as many as reject Him, His gifts are of no avail; but to as many as receive Him, He gives the power, the right and privilege to become the sons of God. Dreadful is the condition of those whom Christ, coming, find-eth in fellowship with the works of darkness, or so absorbed in the concerns of the world as to be neglectful of the divine life. Brethren, if this be your condition, cast off the works of darkness, and put on that armor of light which was given to you in your baptism. Your sensual indulgences, your secret sins, your envious and uncharitable tempers, unhated and unforsaken, obstruct the rays of the divine light, and shut them out from your soul. Renounce them all, therefore; and as the Son of God has put on your nature, that He might make you pure and clean, so "put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof," that thus ye may become in fact as well as of right, in deed as well as in power, the sons of God.
And ye who are thus the sons of God by regeneration, living in hearty and sincere repentance, allowing yourselves in no sin, but steadfastly purposed to lead a new life in all godliness and honesty, come and receive in the appointed way that body and blood, that new and heavenly nature, which the Son of God holds in union with His divine person. This new and heavenly nature nourishes on the ruins of the old and earthly; it casts out pride, envy, detraction and malice, and superinduces in their place humility, brotherly kindness, charity and all Christian graces. Blessed be God, who hath given His Son not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance in this holy sacrament. Come, then, ye who have put on Christ in baptism, and receive the same Christ present in the Eucharist, that as He has given you power to become the sons of God by regeneration, He may also give you power, while you continue to receive Him, to become the sons of God by resurrection at the last day, in His image, to the life of immortality and glory.