God’s Gracious Gift of the New Birth
What did Jesus mean in John 3 when he spoke to Nicodemus of being born again? The best way to answer that question is by taking note of what Jesus did not mean. And it is, somewhat surprisingly, Nicodemus himself who supplies us with the answer.
(1) We know, first of all, that being religious is not the same as being born again. We know this because Jesus was speaking to one of the most religious men in Israel, a Pharisee, and to that man he says, “You, Mr. Pharisee, you, Nicodemus, must be born again.”
(2) Being well-trained in the Bible and able to instruct others in what it says is not the same as being born again. Nicodemus was “a ruler of the Jews” and one of the primary teachers of Israel (John 3:10, but he wasn’t born again. An intimate knowledge of the Scriptures and the ability to communicate it clearly does not always mean you are born again.
(3) Attending religious services regularly and being highly respected by your peers does not mean you are born again. Once more, Nicodemus was the paragon of virtue, but needed to be born again.
(4) The fact that you believe true things about Jesus and speak highly of him to others does not mean you are born again. Nicodemus acknowledged that in some sense Jesus had “come from God” (v. 2) and that God was “with him” (v. 2) and that God had enabled him to perform many miraculous “signs” (v. 2). But to this man Jesus said in no uncertain terms: “you must be born again” (v. 7). How many people do you know who admire Jesus and even confess that he is in some sense divine? Probably a lot. But that isn’t the same as being born again.
(5) Experiencing in your personal life some sort of moral makeover such that you abandon bad habits and cultivate good habits does not mean you are born again. Experiencing some form of emotional healing and joining a specific political party and always voting for the right candidate does not mean you are born again.
(6) The fact that you are trying harder in life to honor your commitments and to spend time with your family and to give more generously to the church does not mean you are born again. The fact that you believe in God and have memorized numerous worship songs does not mean you are born again. The fact that you have abandoned a theologically liberal belief system and have embraced a more conservative, biblically-based belief system does not mean you are born again.
So, if being born again isn’t about changing religions or political party affiliation or doing more things and better things; if it isn’t about building a reputation in the community or turning over a new leaf or rearranging one’s moral values or showing up at church on a more consistent basis, what is it?
Then there are numerous other verses in the NT that speak of the new birth, such as:
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
“even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5).
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5).
“Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18).
“According to his great mercy, he [the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ] has caused us to be born again to a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
“since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
“If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29).
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 John 5:1).
“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4).
“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” (1 John 5:18a).
From these many texts we may say that when a person is born again the Holy Spirit sovereignly, freely, and graciously imparts new life to the human soul. He invades a person who is otherwise spiritually dead and causes them to come spiritually alive. He renews the mind so that we can understand the things of God. He renews the heart so that we will love the things of God. He renews the will so that we can choose the things of God. And he renews our affections so that we will treasure and cherish the things of God.
The new birth, then, is not a moral makeover of the old but a supernatural creation of something altogether new. Nicodemus didn’t so much need a new religion as he needed a new life! And the same is true of you and me. To be born again does not mean that you affirm something true about spiritual realities, but that you experience the work of the Holy Spirit in your own soul. The new birth does not mean the improvement of your old human nature but the creation of a new human nature. It is still you. But it is a new you, recreated and regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God.
As clearly as Nicodemus saw Jesus and engaged with in conversation, he was spiritually dead: insensible to transcendent truths, unresponsive to the beauty of Christ, and enslaved to his fallen nature. It wasn’t until such time as the sovereign Spirit invaded his soul and made all things new that he saw the majesty and irresistible splendor of Jesus.
And what about you?