Continued from You must be born again (1)
Few people would grudge admitting they are less than perfect, that they make mistakes now and again, and could use help to do better next time. But say ‘sinner’ and mention ‘born again’, and their mood darkens.
Nicodemus needed to be persuaded that he must be born again (John 3). Jesus answered by setting out the ‘why’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ of the new birth. In this way, he outlines for us all the biblical doctrine of regeneration.
Why is this new birth necessary? Jesus expands on his earlier assertion, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5).
The addition of the word ‘water’ ties the new birth to what the various washings (baptisms) signified in the life of God’s people, in the Old Testament period, as well as to the work of the Holy Spirit.
In this way, Jesus connects the sign (water) with the substance (Holy Spirit). Perhaps Nicodemus remembered Ezekiel 36:25-27, ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws’.
Perhaps he remembered John’s baptisms in the Jordan, in which the baptiser pointed to Christ’s coming, and to the future baptism of the Holy Spirit? (John 1:33). The point is that a new birth is necessary, because we cannot change ourselves. It requires a Spirit-driven change. Otherwise, sinners will stay as spiritually blind and dead as ever they were.
Who makes this new birth happen? Nicodemus is correct to suggest that we cannot birth ourselves. Jesus agrees: ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (John 3:6).
Flesh can only effect a fleshly change, but the kingdom of God is ‘not of this world’ (John 18:36); nothing that defiles can enter his kingdom (Revelation 12:17); the ‘natural man’ does not receive the things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14), and ‘the mind that is set on the flesh is enmity with God’ (Romans 8:7). How then can we ever be born again?
Only the Spirit of God can make this essential spiritual change happen. So, Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again. 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’ (John 3:7-8).
Spiritual death is a curable condition. But first they must be ‘born again’. And the snag is, who wants to admit he needs a Saviour?
How does the new birth come about? Jesus uses the illustration of a zephyr: ‘The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes’ (3:8). Like a light breath of wind on a summer’s day, it comes from nowhere. It has a life all its own. This is how the Holy Spirit regenerates a dead soul.
This is greatly misunderstood in our day. Regeneration is often confused with conversion, with consciously coming to Christ in repentance and faith. But being ‘born again’ is not something you consciously do. You cannot decide to be ‘born again’. It is, rather, a work of God’s Spirit, at the subconscious level.
The initiative is utterly the Lord’s: ‘The wind blows where it wishes’. It is, however, something of which you become aware in your consciousness, for, if John 3:3-8 is about regeneration, then John 3:14ff. is about conversion, turning to and trusting in Christ.
Being ‘born again’ is God’s sovereign act, while coming to Christ in faith is our responsible activity, although it too is itself ‘the gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:8).
We do not choose to be ‘born again’, but we do choose Christ because we are already born again. We do not feel the ‘new birth’ itself, but we do feel the new life that flows from it as we close with Jesus Christ in saving faith, receiving him as he is offered to us in the gospel.
The Pharisee can only expostulate with a third question, ‘How can these things be?’ (3:9). He neither knows what to say or think, but he is ready to listen to Jesus.
Jesus answers first from God’s Word. Scripture is what Jesus is talking about when he challenges Nicodemus, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’ (3:10).
Should a theologian, after all, not be expected to know his Bible and its doctrine? Old Testament passages like Psalm 51:1-12, Jeremiah 31:31-33 and Ezekiel 36:25-27 deal with the regeneration of our deepest human nature. Bible knowledge should have been enough, but Nicodemus just could not, or would not, join the dots and get the picture.
Jesus drives his point home by emphasising that, ‘We speak what we know and testify what we have seen, and you do not receive our witness’ (3:11). The ‘we’ here are the Father and the Son — who is the Word ‘become flesh’ (John 1).
The ‘you’ (who will not receive this witness) is plural, which means Jesus is indicting the Jewish teachers as a whole. The witness of God’s Word has stared Nicodemus and his compatriots in the face all their lives. Jesus calls Nicodemus to faith in the Son of Man (3:12-15).
It is as though Jesus is saying, ‘You ask, “How can there be such a thing as a new birth?”
‘Look, Nicodemus, there is nothing mysterious about this doctrine. These are “earthly things”, that is, things revealed already by God in his Word (v.12). The only problem is that, in spite of you supposedly believing that Scripture is from God, you still don’t believe!’
So, adds Jesus, ‘How will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’ namely, new revelation, never before heard in this world. To drive this point home, Jesus gives Nicodemus a preview of some things to come.
Nicodemus needs to grasp that God has spoken through his Son (v.13), and that Jesus teaches ‘heavenly things’.
Who has ‘ascended to heaven’, to read the mind of God? The answer is no-one, other than ‘he who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven’.
Nicodemus’ mind may be reeling, but he is not stupid. He knows that Jesus is saying that the Son of Man, the promised Messiah, is standing right in front of him, that the Logos (Word) of God has come into the world.
Nicodemus also needs to grasp that the Son of Man came to give eternal life to people like him, to all who believe in Christ (vv. 14-15). Jesus refers to Numbers 21, a Scripture passage Nicodemus would have known well.
Israel rebelled against God, who punished their unbelief by sending poisonous snakes among them. But there was a way of escape, since the Lord provided that, if they looked to a brass snake on a pole, they would be healed.
Obviously they had to believe that looking to the brass snake would save them from the poisonous snakes. And that required taking God at his word. In other words, they had to believe God from the heart, with a true and abiding faith in him. It required genuine belief and trust in God who reveals his grace to sinners.
This, says Jesus, is a picture of the way of salvation, for, ‘Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up’.
In other words, the brass snake in the wilderness, far from being some weird talisman that magically cures deadly snake-bites, is a picture of sinners’ need of salvation, and of the necessity of a Saviour who dies to save those who will believe in him.
Why does Jesus tell us that we need to be ‘born again’ and then go on to tell us this is a mysterious work of the Holy Spirit we cannot do for ourselves? Does Jesus mean to send us away feeling hopeless?
Quite the opposite! He means to bring us to an end of ourselves — our righteousness, merits, decisions and plans — so that we cast ourselves upon the Lord. He tells what is impossible for us, so that we might see what is possible with God. He cuts us down in order to lift us up.
What we are to do is turn to the Son of Man lifted up, to Christ the crucified Saviour.
Ask yourself, what sinner will ever look to Christ and his cross unless he feels totally helpless to save himself? Jesus makes us feel our desperate helplessness, in order that we flee to him for salvation.
Here is the arena in which the Holy Spirit works. This is why John immediately says that, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).
Put yourself in Nicodemus’ shoes. Jesus has told you that you cannot save yourself, whether by your best efforts or most pious intentions. You must be born again, and you cannot birth yourself. But, if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved!
Gordon Keddie served for 40 years in pastoral ministry with Reformed Presbyterian churches in Pittsburgh (PA); Wishaw, Scotland; State College (PA); and Southside, Indianapolis. He is a well known writer and conference speaker.