During the early ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, a Pharisee, whose name was Nicodemus, came to the Lord and engaged him in conversation.
After Nicodemus had acknowledged that Christ was a true teacher and that he had come from God, the Lord began to speak about the necessity of the new birth. Jesus told Nicodemus, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again’ (John 3:3).
There are two Greek words in this text that can carry a double meaning when translated into English. These two words are usually translated ‘born again’ but can be rendered as ‘begotten’ and ‘above’. The phrase could, therefore, be translated this way: ‘Unless a man is begotten [that is, given life] from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God’.
We must have new life. This new life must come from above, that is, from God. And God must beget this life in us. Without the new birth we cannot see God’s kingdom. The Lord Jesus impressed upon Nicodemus the truth that unless God acts to save us, we cannot be saved.
He taught Nicodemus that nothing less than our becoming new creatures will do. We cannot see God as we are. There must be a radical change, described in the Bible as a new birth.
God’s work alone
As sinners before God, all of us lie dead in our trespasses and sins. Nothing less than the intervention of God can cause us to come to life spiritually. And it is the special work of the Spirit of God to visit undeserving sinners and speak the word of life to them.
Nicodemus thought the Lord was talking about a strange miracle that must take place. Somehow, a grown man must return to his mother’s womb and be born a second time! Our Lord acknowledged that we must be born of woman (he describes this as being born of ‘water’ or of the ‘flesh’), but he also insisted that we must be born of the Spirit of God.
What can we do to bring about this new birth from God? The answer is: ‘Nothing!’ Books have been written by well-meaning people which claim to instruct people how to be born again.
But if we are to be true to the Word of God, we must acknowledge that we cannot tell anyone how to be born again. That is not what the apostles of Christ did when they evangelised. They never went into a city and announced that ‘How to be born again’ would be the subject of the sermon for the day. Instead, they called people to turn from their sins and believe in Christ.
We can certainly tell people how to come to Christ for salvation. They must repent of their sins and put their faith in Christ to save them. But repentance and faith proceed from the new birth.
In other words, when a person is born again that person is enabled, by the new life that has been imparted to him or her, to repent and believe in Christ. Repenting and believing are what we do. But the new birth is something that only God can do. And God must do his work first.
The Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians and the 1689 Confession of the Baptists both describe the new birth as the Spirit of God ‘enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh: renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace’.
New birth comes first
Which comes first – the new birth or repentance? First comes regeneration, or the new birth, by the Spirit. Then repentance and faith in Christ follow as the result of the work of God.
The Baptist Faith and Message (the confession of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention) puts it this way: ‘Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace’.
If you have been born again, you will repent. If you have been born again, you will believe in Christ. He has given us the ability to repent when others do not. He has given us faith in Christ when others do not believe. The Lord told some of his enemies that they did not believe in him because the Father had not enabled them to do so (John 6:60-65).
Control the wind?
One might say, ‘But I thought that God gives us new life because we repent. Isn’t repentance the condition for being born again?’ Not according to the Lord Jesus Christ. He told Nicodemus: ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8).
Can you and I control the wind? Do we get up each day and decide how fast the wind will blow, or from what direction it will come? Can we stop a tornado from creating havoc as it passes through a defenceless town? Of course not. The wind blows where it pleases.
Neither can we control or direct the Spirit of God in his work of imparting new life to sinners. He regenerates. He resurrects to new life. He causes us to be ‘born again’. The wind of the Spirit must blow.
That is why we pray for the Holy Spirit to come to our friends and relatives who do not know the Lord. We ask God to save them. We know that if they are to come to Christ they must be drawn to him by the work of God.
The Lord Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live’ (John 5:24-25).
The work of the Spirit
We are dead in our sins. We cannot help ourselves. God must come to our rescue. He has done that by sending his Son to die in the place of sinners on the cross. But that atoning work must be applied to us individually, and that is the work of God’s Holy Spirit.
The Father chose us in eternity. The Son died for his people in time and history. And the Holy Spirit brings the benefits of Christ’s death to us. He brings with him the resurrection life of Christ.
With the same power that raised the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, he touches us as we lie spiritually helpless, dead before God. Suddenly we rise from our spiritual grave. We believe the gospel. We believe in Christ. We depend on him to save us.
In our dead state we did not love God. Now we love him because he first loved us. We did not love our fellow man. Now we love even those that we once hated. All this is the miraculous result of the new birth. The Lord has touched us with resurrection power. We are truly alive for the first time. We have been born again!
We must make clear that the Holy Spirit, in accomplishing this work of God, uses the Word of God. The preaching of the gospel is an essential part of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work: ‘For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God'(1 Peter 1:23).
There must be a presentation of the truths of the gospel if a sinner is to come to Christ for salvation. But the external call to receive Christ as Lord and Saviour cannot save if it stands alone. There must also be an internal work of God.
Just as the voice of God said, ‘Let there be light!’ so the Holy Spirit brings light to our dark world. He says to each of our dead souls, ‘Arise!’
It is like the Lord Jesus Christ appearing before the tomb of Lazarus and shouting for the dead man to come forth. And, just as Lazarus was called from death to life by the power of God, so we are raised by God’s powerful work for us.
Of course, physically, Lazarus died again. But it is not so with those who are born again spiritually. The eternal life that begins with the new birth will never end.