Not long ago i was visiting in a modern city hospital. Looking for the pathologist, an old friend of mine, I found him performing an autopsy. A little later I went to the surgical department, where, in various rooms, surgeons (most of them friends and former colleagues of mine) were performing operations.
What a vast difference in these two departments! The difference was evident in equipment, techniques, and objectives, but most of all in the persons central to the drama: those in the autopsy room were dead; those in the operating rooms were alive.
In the autopsy room the pathologist wore gown and gloves to protect himself. In the operating rooms the surgeons and nurses took every aseptic precaution possible to protect the patients. In the one room, all hope for life had been extinguished. In the others, life and hope still existed.
In all the world there are but two kinds of people, those who are spiritually dead and those who are spiritually alive. The spiritually dead have been born but once. Those who are spiritually alive have been born twice, the first time physically, the second time by the power of the Spirit.
In the autopsy room there were no vital signs—no pulse, respiration, blood pressure—and all efforts directed toward beautification of the body had long since ceased. In surgery, on the other hand, every effort was being made to maintain those bodily functions that are vital to life while the surgeon carried out his work of correction and restoration.
Jesus came into the world primarily to make it possible for the spiritually dead to become spiritually alive. He made it plain that the new birth is an absolute necessity if man is to enter his eternal Kingdom. The matter of this second birth, or regeneration, is the very heart of the Gospel.
Why, then, do we spend so much time trying to beautify the spiritual corpse? Why do we attempt to make non-Christians act like Christians?
The answer should be obvious. We either do not understand or do not accept the fact that until men have received new life through the Spirit of the living Christ, they are dead, “dead in trespasses and sins.” For physicians to spend their efforts on the dead would be to waste time and deny their primary calling. But much that goes on today in the name of “Christian” activity is simply an attempt to beautify and dress up the dead. For often the Church, called to proclaim new life in Christ, is proclaiming reformation instead of regeneration—a transformed society without transformed people. This cannot be achieved.
This is not the whole problem. The failure of Christians to grow and develop spiritually is the burden and heartbreak of conscientious ministers and a continual drag on the church. Regeneration is the first step, but sanctification (growth in grace, and knowledge of God, his Word, and his will) is a vitally important second step.
But the primary reason for this particular article is to stress that vast difference between the spiritually dead and those who have been born anew. Paul tells us that the spiritually dead drift with the world, conform to the world, obey Satan, do not respond to God’s truth, follow evil impulses and imaginations. They stand under the wrath and judgment of God, are dead in their sins, are aliens to God’s kingdom, and are the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:1–5).
For the spiritually dead there is but one hope: to be born again into a new life. This depends solely on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When the troubled women gazed in fear and perplexity at the empty tomb, they were asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Similarly we may well ask ourselves today, Why are we ignoring the one source of life, the living Christ? It is he who has defeated death. It is he who has the power to change the spiritually dead into living believers who can say with the Apostle Paul “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Why is this truth of a new life in Christ ignored by so many, even within the Church? Perhaps the answer is spiritual blindness—“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God” (2 Cor. 4:3, 4).
Life from the dead is the outcome of the Cross for all who believe. Regeneration is the objective of the gospel message. The new birth is an imperative, not an elective. If we reject or ignore it, the Gospel has no significance.
Let’s face it: without regeneration the world is at best a vast morgue with connecting autopsy rooms. Our Lord’s words, “Leave the dead to bury the dead,” has deep significance for us today when there is so much pressure to make the Gospel “relevant” by denying the necessity of the new birth and thereby denying the reason for the Cross and the validity of Christ’s death.
For every person there comes a time when death calls and loved ones are left behind. Confronted by death and the grief death carries in its wake, Jesus said to the sorrowing Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25, 26).
This is the same One who spoke to Nicodemus of the new birth, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). He is the One who again and again said that his mission was to give eternal life to repentant sinners. This truth of spiritual life from spiritual death, of a new and everlasting life to be found in Christ, is the very heart of the Gospel—and we are selling it for a mess of secular and materialistic pottage!
Jesus, soon to leave his disciples, prayed for them, “I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). They were to be in the world but not of it—salt amidst decay, light in the world’s darkness. It is to this task that Christians are called: to be men and women who show by their lives that something wonderful has happened to them, a supernatural transformation that brings life from the dead. The analogy between spiritual and physical death breaks down completely at the most important point. Those in the morgue are irrevocably dead, but for the spiritually dead there is the offer of life now and for eternity—life from the dead, life through Jesus Christ.
That is the gospel message!
L. NELSON BELL
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