BIRTH AND VICTORY.
"And His commandments are not grievous. For whatsoever is born of God overcomes, the world: and this is the victory that overcomes, the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcomes, the world, but he that believes, that Jesus is the Son of God?" --- 1 John v. 3, 4, 5.
St. John here connects the Christian birth with victory. He tells us that of the supernatural life the destined and (so to speak) natural end is conquest.
Now in this there is a contrast between the law of nature and the law of grace. No doubt the first is marvellous. It may even, if we will, in one sense be termed a victory; for it is the proof of a successful contest with the blind fatalities of natural environment. It is in itself the conquest of a something which has conquered a world below it. The first faint cry of the baby is a wail no doubt; but in its very utterance there is a half triumphant undertone. Boyhood, youth, opening manhood --- at least in those who are physically and intellectually gifted --- generally possess some share of "the rapture of the strife" with nature and with their contemporaries.
"Youth has triumphal mornings; its days bound From night as from a victory."
But sooner or later that which pessimists style "the martyrdom of life" sets in. However brightly the[Pg 224] drama opens, the last scene is always tragic. Our natural birth inevitably ends in defeat.
A birth and a defeat is thus the epitome of each life which is naturally brought into the field of our present human existence. The defeat is sighed over, sometimes consummated, in every cradle; it is attested by every grave.
But if birth and defeat is the motto of the natural life, birth and victory is the motto of every one born into the city of God.
This victory is spoken of in our verses as a victory along the whole line. It is the conquest of the collective Church, of the whole mass of regenerate humanity, so far as it has been true to the principle of its birth --- the conquest of the Faith which is "The Faith of us," who are knit together in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of the Son of God, Christ our Lord. But it is something more than that. The general victory is also a victory in detail. Every true individual believer shares in it. The battle is a battle of soldiers. The abstract ideal victory is realised and made concrete in each life of struggle which is a life of enduring faith. The triumph is not merely one of a school, or of a party. The question rings with a triumphant challenge down the ranks --- "who is the ever-conqueror of the world, but the ever-believer that Jesus is the Son of God?"
We are thus brought to two of St. John's great master-conceptions, both of which came to him from hearing the Lord who is the Life --- both of which are[Pg 225] to be read in connection with the fourth Gospel --- the Christian's Birth and his victory.
The Apostle introduces the idea of the birth which has its origin from God precisely by the same process to which attention has already been more than once directed.
St. John frequently mentions some great subject; at first like a musician who with perfect command of his instrument, touches what seems to be an almost random key, faintly, as if incidentally and half wandering from his theme. But just as the sound appears to be absorbed by the purpose of the composition, or all but lost in the distance, the same chord is struck again more decidedly; and then, after more or less interval, is brought out with a music so full and sonorous, that we perceive that it has been one of the master's leading ideas from the very first. So, when the subject is first spoken of, we hear --- "every one that does, righteousness is born of Him." The subject is suspended for a while; then comes a somewhat more marked reference. "Whosoever is born of God is not a doer of sin; and he cannot continue sinning, because of God he is born." There is yet one more tender recurrence to the favourite theme --- "every one that loves is born of God." Then, finally here at last the chord, so often struck, grown bolder since the prelude, gathers all the music round it. It interweaves with itself another strain which has similarly been gaining amplitude of volume in its course, until we have a great Te Deum, dominated by two chords of[Pg 226] Birth and Victory. "This is the conquest that has conquered the world --- the Faith which is of us."
We shall never come to any adequate notion of St. John's conception of the Birth of God, without tracing the place in his Gospel to which his asterisk in this place refers. To one passage only can we turn --- our Lord's conversation with Nicodemus. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God --- except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." The germ of the idea of entrance into the city, the kingdom of God, by means of a new birth, is in that storehouse of theological conceptions, the psalter. There is one psalm of a Korahite seer, enigmatical it may be, shadowed with the darkness of a divine compression, obscure from the glory that rings it round, and from the gush of joy in its few and broken words. The 87th Psalm is the psalm of the font, the hymn of regeneration. The nations once of the world are mentioned among them that know the Lord. They are counted when He writes, up the peoples. Glorious things are spoken of the City of God. Three times over the burden of the song is the new birth by which the aliens were made free of Sion.
This one was born there, This one and that one was born in her, This one was born there.
All joyous life is thus brought into the city of the new-born. "The singers, the solemn dances, the fresh[Pg 227] and glancing springs, are in you." Hence, from the notification of men being born again in order to see and enter into the kingdom, our Lord, as if in surprise, meets the Pharisee's question --- "how can these things be?" --- with another --- "art you that teacher in Israel, and understandest not these things?" Jesus tells His Church for ever that every one of His disciples must be brought into contact with two worlds, with two influences --- one outward, the other inward; one material, the other spiritual; one earthly, the other heavenly; one visible and sacramental, the other invisible and divine. Out of these he must come forth new-born.
Of course it may be said that "the water" here coupled with the Spirit is figurative. But let it be observed first, that from the very constitution of St. John's intellectual and moral being things outward and visible were not annihilated by the spiritual transparency which he imparted to them. Water, literal water, is everywhere in his writings. In his Gospel more especially he seems to be ever seeing, ever hearing it. He loved it from the associations of his own early life, and from the mention made of it by his Master. And as in the Gospel water is, so to speak, one of the three great factors and centres of the book; so now in the Epistle, it still seems to glance and murmur before him. "The water" is one of the three abiding[Pg 228] witnesses in the Epistle also. Surely, then, our Apostle would be eminently unlikely to express "the Spirit of God" without the outward water by "water and the Spirit." But above all, Christians should beware of a "licentious and deluding alchemy of interpretation which makes, of anything whatsoever it lists." In immortal words --- "when the letter of the law has two things plainly and expressly specified, water and the Spirit; water, as a duty required on our part, the Spirit, as a gift which God bestows,; there is danger in so presuming to interpret it, as if the clause which concerns ourselves were more than needed. We may by such rare expositions attain perhaps in the end to be thought witty, but with ill advice."
But, it will further be asked, whether we bring the Saviour's saying --- "except any one be born again of water and the Spirit" --- into direct connection with the baptism of infants? Above all, whether we are not encouraging every baptised person to hold that somehow or other he will have a part in the victory of the regenerate?
We need no other answer than that which is implied in the very force of the word here used by St. John --- "all that is born of God conquers, the world." "That is born" is the participle perfect. The force of the perfect is not simply past action, but such action lasting on in its effects. Our text, then, speaks only[Pg 229] of those who having been born again into the kingdom continue in a corresponding condition, and unfold the life which they have received. The Saviour spoke first and chiefly of the initial act. The Apostle's circumstances, now in his old age, naturally led him to look on from that. St. John is no "idolater of the immediate." Has the gift received by his spiritual children worn long and lasted well? What of the new life which should have issued from the New Birth? Regenerate in the past, are they renewed in the present?
This simple piece of exegesis lets us at once perceive that another verse in this Epistle, often considered of almost hopeless perplexity, is in truth only the perfection of sanctified (no, it may be said, of moral) common-sense; an intuition of moral and spiritual instinct. "Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin: for his seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." We have just seen the real significance of the words "he that is born of God" --- he for whom his past birth lasts on in its effects. "He does, not sin," is not a sin-doer, makes it not his "trade," as an old commentator says. No, "he is not able to be" (to keep on) "sinning." "He cannot sin." He cannot! There is no physical impossibility. Angels will not sweep him away upon their resistless pinions. The Spirit will not hold him by the hand as if with a mailed grasp, until the blood spirts from his finger-tips, that he may not take the wine-cup, or walk out to the guilty assignation. The compulsion of God is like that which is exercised upon us by some pathetic wounded-looking face that gazes after us with a sweet reproach. Tell the honest poor man with a large family of some safe and expeditious way of transferring his neighbour's money to his own pocket. He will answer, "I cannot steal:"[Pg 230] that is, "I cannot steal, however much it may physically be within my capacity, without a burning shame, an agony to my nature worse than death." On some day of fierce heat, hold a draughing of iced wine to a total abstainer, and invite him to drink. "I cannot," will be his reply. Cannot! He can, so far as his hand goes; he cannot, without doing violence to a conviction, to a promise, to his own sense of truth. And he who continues in the fulness of his God-given Birth "does not do sin," "cannot be sinning." Not that he is sinless, not that he never fails, or does not sometimes fall; not that sin ceases to be sin to him, because he thinks that he has a standing in Christ. But he cannot go on in sin without being untrue to his birth; without a stain upon that finer, whiter, more sensitive conscience, which is called "spirit" in a son of God; without a convulsion in his whole being which is the precursor of death, or an insensibility which is death actually begun.
How many such texts as these are practically useless to most of us! The armoury of God is full of keen swords which we refrain from handling, because they have been misused by others. None is more neglected than this. The fanatic has shrieked out --- "sin in my case! I cannot sin. I may hold a sin in my bosom; and God may hold me in His arms for all that. At least, I may hold that which would be a sin in you and most others; but to me it is not sin." On the other hand, stupid goodness maunders out some unintelligible paraphrase, until pew and reader yawn from very weariness. Divine truth in its purity and plainness is thus discredited by the exaggeration of the one, or buried in the leaden winding-sheet of the stupidity of the other.
In leaving this portion of our subject we may compare[Pg 231] the view latent in the very idea of infant baptism with that of the leader of a well-known sect upon the beginnings of the spiritual life in children.
"May not children grow up into salvation, without knowing the exact moment of their conversion?" asks "General" Booth. His answer is --- "yes, it may be so; and we trust that in the future this will be the usual way in which children may be brought to Christ." The writer goes on to tell us how the New Birth will take place in future. "When the conditions named in the first pages of this volume are complied with --- when the parents are godly, and the children are surrounded by holy influences and examples from their birth, and trained up in the spirit of their early dedication --- they will doubtless come to know and love and trust their Saviour in the ordinary course of things. The Holy Ghost will take possession of them from the first. Mothers and fathers will, as it were, put them into the Saviour's arms in their swaddling clothes, and He will take them, and bless them, and sanctify them from the very womb, and make them His own, without their knowing the hour or the place when they pass from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. In fact, with such little ones it shall never be very dark, for their natural birth shall be, as it were, in the spiritual twilight, which begins with the dim dawn, and increases gradually until the noonday brightness is reached; so answering to the prophetic description, 'The path of the just is as the shining light, that shines, more and more to the perfect day.'"
No one will deny that this is tenderly and beautifully[Pg 232] written. But objections to its teaching will crowd upon the mind of thoughtful Christians. It seems to defer to a period in the future, to a new era incalculably distant, when Christendom shall be absorbed in Salvationism, that which St. John in his day contemplated as the normal condition of believers, which the Church has always held to be capable of realization, which has been actually realized in no few whom most of us must have known. Further; the fountain-heads of thought, like those of the Nile, are wrapped in obscurity. By what process grace may work with the very young is an insoluble problem in psychology, which Christianity has not revealed. We know nothing further than that Christ blessed little children. That blessing was impartial, for it was communicated to all who were brought to Him; it was real, otherwise He would not have blessed them at all. That He conveys to them such grace as they are capable of receiving is all that we can know. And yet again; the Salvationist theory exalts parents and surroundings into the place of Christ. It deposes His sacrament, which lies at the root of St. John's language, and boasts that it will secure Christ's end, apparently without any recognition of Christ's means.
The second great idea in the verses at the head of this discourse is Victory. The intended issue of the new birth is conquest --- "all that is born of God conquers the world."
The idea of victory is almost exclusively confined[Pg 233] to St. John's writings. The idea is first expressed by Jesus --- "be of good cheer: I have conquered the world." The first prelusive touch in the Epistle, hints at the fulfilment of the Saviour's comfortable word in one class of the Apostle's spiritual children. "I write to you, young men, because you have conquered the wicked one. I have written to you, young men, because you have conquered the wicked one." Next, a bolder and ampler strain --- "you are of God, little children, and have conquered them: because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world." Then with a magnificent persistence, the trumpet of Christ wakens echoes to its music all down and round the defile through which the host is passing --- "all that is born of God conquers, the world: and this is the conquest that has conquered the world --- the Faith which is ours." When, in St. John's other great book, we pass with the seer into Patmos, the air is, indeed, "full of noises and sweet sounds." But dominant over all is a storm of triumph, a passionate exultation of victory. Thus each epistle to each of the seven Churches closes with a promise "to him that conquers,."
The text promises two forms of victory.
- A victory is promised to the Church universal. "All that is born of God conquers, the world." This conquest is concentrated in, almost identified with "the Faith." Primarily, in this place, the term (here alone[Pg 234] found in our Epistle) is not the faith by which we believe, but the Faith which is believed --- as in some other places; not faith subjective, but The Faith objectively. Here is the dogmatic principle. The Faith involves definite knowledge of definite principles. The religious knowledge, which is not capable of being put into definite propositions, we need not trouble ourselves greatly about. But we are guarded from over-dogmatism. The word "of us" which follows "the Faith" is a mediating link between the objective and the subjective. First, we possess this Faith as a common heritage. Then, as in the Apostle's creed we begin to individualise this common possession by prefixing "I believe" to every article of it. Then the victory contained in the creed, the victory which the creed is (for more truly again than of Duty may it be said of Faith, "you who art victory"), is made over to each who believes. Each, and each alone, who in soul is ever believing, in practice is ever victorious.
This declaration is full of promise for missionary work. There is no system of error, however ancient, subtle, or highly organised, which must not go down before the strong collective life of the regenerate. No less encouraging is it at home. No form of sin is incapable of being overthrown. No school of anti-Christian thought is invulnerable or invincible. There are other apostates besides Julian who will cry --- "Galilæe, vicisti!"
- The second victory promised is individual, for each of us. Not only where cathedral-spires lift high the triumphant cross; on battle-fields which have added kingdoms to Christendom; by the martyr's stake, or in the arena of the Coliseum, have these words proved[Pg 235] true. The victory comes down to us. In hospitals, in shops, in courts, in ships, in sick-rooms, they are fulfilled for us. We see their truth in the patience, sweetness, resignation, of little children, of old men, of weak women. They give a high consecration and a glorious meaning to much of the suffering that we see. What, we are sometimes tempted to cry --- is this Christ's Army? are these His soldiers, who can go anywhere and do anything? Poor weary ones! with white lips, and the beads of death-sweat on their faces, and the thorns of pain ringed like a crown round their foreheads; so wan, so worn, so tired, so suffering, that even our love dares not pray for them to live a little longer yet. Are these the elect of the elect, the vanguard of the regenerate, who carry the flag of the cross where its folds are waved by the storm of battle; whom St. John sees advancing up the slope with such a burst of cheers and such a swell of music that the words --- "this is the conquest" --- spring spontaneously from his lips? Perhaps the angels answer with a voice which we cannot hear --- "whatsoever is born of God conquers, the world." May we fight so manfully that each may render if not his "pure" yet his purified
"soul to his captain Christ, Under whose colours he has fought so long:"
--- that we may know something of the great text in the Epistle to the Romans, with its matchless translation --- "we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us" --- that arrogance of victory which is at once so splendid and so saintly.
From The Epistles Of St. John by WILLIAM ALEXANDER, D.D., D.C.L. Oxon., Hon. LL.D. Dublin, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 27, Paternoster Row, MDCCCXCVI Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Epistles of John 2/2 - W. Alexander
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.