Grace For The Journey
Years ago I overheard a few ladies talking to each other at a table next to me. The volume of their conversation was such that it became impossible not to listen. While talking about some other person who was not presently with them, one of the ladies said rather scornfully, “Well, you know, she’s a born again Christian.” And right after she said that, everyone else was like, “Ugh!” A born again Christian!” Then one of the ladies responded glibly: “If you get it right the first time, you don’t have to do it again.”
There is some confusion about this term “born again Christian.” The Barna Research firm doesn’t help us any when they classify a segment of polled Christians as those who are “born again.” It suggests there is some distinction between one kind of Christian and another kind of Christian, if not a hierarchy among believers.
The Bible identifies all true Christians as those who have been “born again,” born from above, reborn in a spiritual sense. This term then, strictly speaking, is not a term invented by Baptists or Pentecostals or even evangelicals at large. It is a Bible term. If anything, this term “born again” is a term invented by Jesus Christ.
We find it spoken by Jesus in John 3:1-21. Jesus uses the term while talking with a religious person, a religious teacher of the Old Testament, named Nicodemus. It seems clear that Nicodemus is a good man; outwardly upright and morally straight. But Jesus minces no words while talking to this respectable, religious man: “You must be born again.” As we seek to understand this concept, the Bible teaches us several things:
1) The Necessity of the New Birth.
Nicodemus is described in the passage as “a ruler of the Jews.” We are told further that he had come to Jesus during the night. Perhaps he came under the cover of darkness because he was seeking more information about Jesus, but didn’t want others to know. It is also possible that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night as something of a representative of the Jewish ruling class. He had said in verse 2, “Rabbi, we know (we Jewish leaders know) that You are a teacher come from God.”
This approach would be similar to the way a powerful politician might meet with an opposing colleague for dinner to see whether the person may be “won over” to the other side. It is at least possible Nicodemus wanted to see whether Jesus was willing to be part of “their team” and thus under their control.
In any case, Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter by making this provocative statement in verse 3, “Jesus answered and said to him, “Verily, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” Here is the necessity of the new birth. Unless one is born again, born from above, born a second time, he cannot – not he may not, nor even will not, but that he cannot – see the kingdom of God.
Apart from the new birth, a person cannot see. He or she is blind to spiritual truth. The Bible teaches that every person without Christ is “dead,” dead “in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). We need rebirth. We need God to birth us so that we can see.
Most are familiar with John Newton’s famous hymn:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind, but now I see
New birth is necessary
Because without it,
We remain in spiritual darkness
And blindness and therefore
Outside of the realm and reign of God.
Verse 4 tells us, “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’” Nicodemus is confused. He’s thinking of the new birth in terms of age or stage. He thinks Jesus is talking about his physical birthday when Jesus is talking about the need for a spiritual birthday.
Nicodemus must have thought, “How can a guy be born again when he’s in his 40s? Does he enter a second time in his mother’s womb? What in the world are you talking about, Jesus?!”
Verses 5 and 6 explain to us that, “Jesus answered, “Verily, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’” This is Jesus’ way of explaining that He is not talking about physical birth, but about spiritual birth. Unless one is born of the water “and the Spirit,” he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh (physical birth), and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (spiritual birth).
Jesus is drawing upon the imagery in the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel. Speaking on the matter of renewing His people, God says through the prophet in Ezekiel 36:25-27, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes . . .” The point is that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that if he hopes to see and enter in the Kingdom of God, including receiving the benefits of heaven, then he must be born again, born not just physically, but spiritually, too.
Verse 7 makes this clear, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” Jesus uses the plural pronoun here. Literally, He says, “Do not marvel that I said to you all, that you all must be born again.” If Nicodemus was, in fact, speaking on behalf of the Jewish Sanhedrin, Jesus essentially says, “Look, you all may be religious, you all may be good and respected, and you all may have power, but you all need to be born again.” And what is true of the “you all” back then is true of the “you all” of today – you must be born again.
Many people have the wrong idea
About how to gain entrance
Into the kingdom of God.
- Some are counting on their family’s being religious.
- Some are counting on their own goodness.
- Some are counting on the money they give to charitable causes.
- Some are counting on their acts of kindness, doing good to others and so forth.
But Jesus is talking here to a man who very likely did all of those things, a guy who was very religious, a faithful member of the Pharisees. Nicodemus practiced good deeds and did things for other people, yet he hears Jesus of Nazareth say to him, “You must be born again.”
2) The Mystery of the New Birth.
There is mystery in the rebirthing of a person.
The new birth is
Something God does.
He brings it about.
We don’t make
Ourselves “born again.”
God does it.
Strictly speaking, the term “born again” is best understood as God’s work of regeneration, a term that simply means that God takes out that old heart of stone, as Ezekiel called it, and replaces it with a heart of flesh.
God takes the initiative
By way of the Holy Spirit.
It’s not something we do,
Though we do respond to the work.
It is first, however, a work of God.
It’s very similar to physical birth. No one has caused his or her own physical birth. Somebody else made that happen. Similarly, no one can cause the Holy Spirit to move upon himself and birth himself. God alone takes the initiative.
John makes this especially clear in the opening chapter of his Gospel where in John 1:13 he refers to children of God as those “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Peter also stresses the regenerative work of God by the Spirit in 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
So God takes the initiative in causing this new birth. And, at the same time, He also brings about a willing response on our part to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. Admittedly this is a mystery; the sovereign work of God’s Spirit enabling and effectuating a willing response from man. I believe that’s what Jesus is addressing in verses 8 and following when He says, “’The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’” That must have humiliated Nicodemus! Are you the teacher of Israel he should have know this! Nicodemus “came by night” and he’s still “in the dark!”
But there is an aspect of the new birth that is mysterious. Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
As the wind blows, you really can’t determine the wind’s precise origin or its ultimate destination. You can, however, see the effects of the wind. You hear it and you may also see the way things are affected by it. Jesus says that this is all a bit like the mysterious nature of the new birth. The Holy Spirit does the work. Much of His work is mysterious and invisible to us, but one can see the visible effects of His work in the response of a changed person.
Just as you can tell when the wind is moving upon a tree, seeing the leaves move this way and that, so you can observe change in a person who has been born again. You can tell the Holy Spirit has visited him and is filling him with His presence.
The hymn-writer alludes to this mysterious work in the classic hymn, “I know Whom I Have Believed.”
I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.
The next line is:
“But I know whom I have believed!”
Essentially, the writer is saying, “There’s a lot I don’t know about the mysterious work of God in regeneration and conversion, but this much I do know: I know Him! I know whom I have believed!”
3) The Simplicity of the New Birth.
While there is much mystery in the new birth, there is also simplicity in the new birth. Becoming a Christian calls for simple trust.
We have noted that . . .
We do not enter the kingdom of God
By being “religious,”
By being a good person,
By doing a bunch of good deeds,
Or giving our money to good causes.
The way we enter the kingdom
Is through simple faith and trust, a look to Christ.
Jesus explains in verse 13, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” Jesus refers to Himself here. He is referring to the incarnation. He is the One who has “come down” from heaven. His being “lifted up” illustrates the crucifixion as verses 14-15 state, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus refers to the sin of Israel recorded in Numbers 21:4-9. God’s people had complained and spoken against Him so God judged them by sending serpents to them. Many were bitten by the serpents and died. Moses prayed for the Israelites and God answered by instructing Moses to make a bronze serpent and hold it up on a staff. Whoever looked upon the bronze serpent was healed from the judgment and, rather than dying, lived.
Jesus makes a connection: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent so that others could look upon it and live, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that whoever looks upon Him will live.” The Son of Man is lifted up on the cross. The Son of Man is the One who takes the judgment of sin upon Himself so that the judged may go free. We look upon Him by believing.
This is the context of a well-known Bible verse (John 3:16), “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” We must look upon Jesus. We must believe in Him, believing what the Bible teaches about Him, believing that He took the judgment for our sin. If we believe, then we have eternal life. That’s the simplicity of the new birth experience: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
This simple belief, however, includes a turning away from sin that results in condemnation. This truth becomes clearer as we read on in verse 17, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” The reason God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world is because the world is condemned already. Verse 18 states, “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Remember that we are born into this world with a problem and the problem is sin. We inherited the problem from our first parents, Adam and Eve. Because of sin man, in his natural state, is under condemnation. Man is under the judgment of God. He is “condemned already.” In fact, the very last verse of this chapter, John 3:36, states the matter succinctly: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe in the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” If the wrath of God “abides on him,” then it must have been there already.
Some years ago I saw an ironic bumper sticker on a car. Instead of the words “Born again,” it read: “Born against.” I assume the owner of the sticker meant this phrase as a humorous parody of the phrase “born again.” That bumper sticker, however, illustrated more truth than is likely the driver realized. We are all “born against,” born into the world naturally against the things of God. We have a sin nature and we are under God’s judgment. Mankind is under the judgment of God. We all are “condemned already.”
Jesus Christ came into the world
To take care of this
Condemnation because of sin.
He didn’t come to condemn us.
He didn’t come to add to our condemnation,
He came to fix our condemnation.
He came to fix our sin problem.
If we fail to turn to Christ, we remain under condemnation, a state Jesus explains further in verses 19 through 21, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
Belief in the Lord Jesus Christ includes a turning away from evil deeds, turning away from sin. This is repentance; leaving the darkness and stepping into the light. This is the only way we may be saved. We must leave the darkness and step into the light by looking upon the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is no other way to enter into the kingdom of God – You must be born again.
This is God’s Word …
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”