6.That which is born of the flesh. By reasoning from contraries, he argues that the kingdom of God is shut against us, unless an entrance be opened to us by a new birth, (
παλιγγενεσία) For he takes for granted, that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God unless we are spiritual. But we bring nothing from the womb but a carnal nature. Therefore it follows, that we are naturally banished from the kingdom of God, and, having been deprived of the heavenly life, remain under the yoke of death. Besides, when Christ argues here, that men must be born again, because they are only flesh, he undoubtedly comprehends all mankind under the term flesh. By the flesh, therefore, is meant in this place not the body, but the soul also, and consequently every part of it. When the Popish divines restrict the word to that part which they call sensual, they do so in utter ignorance of its meaning; (59) for Christ must in that case have used an inconclusive argument, that we need a second birth, because part of us is corrupt. But if the flesh is contrasted with the Spirit, as a corrupt thing is contrasted with what is uncorrupted, a crooked thing with what is straight, a polluted thing with what is holy, a contaminated thing with what is pure, we may readily conclude that the whole nature of man is condemned by a single word. Christ therefore declares that our understanding and reason is corrupted, because it is carnal, and that all the affections of the heart are wicked and reprobate, because they too are carnal.
But here it may be objected, that since the soul is not begotten by human generation, we are notborn of the flesh, as to the chief part of our nature. This led many persons to imagine that not only our bodies, but our souls also, descend to us from our parents; for they thought it absurd that original sin, which has its peculiar habitation in the soul, should be conveyed from one man to all his posterity, unless all our souls proceeded from his soul as their source. And certainly, at first sight, the words of Christ appear to convey the idea, that we are flesh, because we are born of flesh. I answer, so far as relates to the words of Christ, they mean nothing else than that we are all carnal when we are born; and that as we come into this world mortal men, our nature relishes nothing but what is flesh. He simply distinguishes here between nature and the supernatural gift; for the corruption of all mankind in the person of Adam alone did not proceed from generation, but from the appointment of God, who in one man had adorned us all, and who has in him also deprived us of his gifts. Instead of saying, therefore, that each of us draws vice and corruption from his parents, it would be more correct to say that we are all alike corrupted in Adam alone, because immediately after his revolt God took away from human nature what He had bestowed upon it.
Here another question arises; for it is certain that in this degenerate and corrupted nature some remnant of the gifts of God still lingers; and hence it follows that we are not in every respect corrupted. The reply is easy. The gifts which God hath left to us since the fall, if they are judged by themselves, are indeed worthy of praise; but as the contagion of wickedness is spread through every part, there will be found in us nothing that is pure and free from every defilement. That we naturally possess some knowledge of God, that some distinction between good and evil is engraven on our conscience, that our faculties are sufficient for the maintenance of the present life, that — in short — we are in so many ways superior to the brute beasts, that is excellent in itself, so far as it proceeds from God; but in us all these things are completely polluted, in the same manner as the wine which has been wholly infected and corrupted by the offensive taste of the vessel loses the pleasantness of its good flavor, and acquires a bitter and pernicious taste. For such knowledge of God as now remains in men is nothing else than a frightful source of idolatry and of all superstitions; the judgment exercised in choosing and distinguishing things is partly blind and foolish, partly imperfect and confused; all the industry that we possess flows into vanity and trifles; and the will itself, with furious impetuosity, rushes headlong to what is evil. Thus in the whole of our nature there remains not a drop of uprightness. Hence it is evident that we must be formed by the second birth, that we may be fitted for the kingdom of God; and the meaning of Christ’ words is, that as a man is born only carnal from the womb of his mother; he must be formed anew by the Spirit, that he may begin to be spiritual.
The word Spirit is used here in two senses, namely, for grace, and the effect of grace. For in the first place, Christ informs us that the Spirit of God is the only Author of a pure and upright nature, and afterwards he states, that we are spiritual, because we have been renewed by his power.