The Gospel and the Necessity of New Birth
Conversion is first and foremost a supernatural activity of God.
It is important that Christians understand and remember both elements of this truth. Conversion is a supernatural event. It is God who works the miracle of salvation.
The truth is that Christians, regardless of our theological stance on such issues, profess this truth with our mouths without fully understanding and believing it in our hearts. This is why our efforts in evangelism are so often half-hearted and ineffective. We easily find ourselves looking at unbelievers through very human eyes, thinking to ourselves that this or that person will surely never turn to Christ. In so thinking, we find ourselves going for the safe and easy option either missing or scorning opportunities God brings our way to share the gospel of Christ.
The flipside to this misunderstanding of how salvation is affected is that it can result in a distorted view of ourselves, believing that we are in someway deserving of our salvation. This runs contrary to the very idea of grace and is a path which leads to self-centredness, self-righteousness and, ultimately, disaster.
The truth of Scripture is the antidote to such wrong thinking. Consider, for example, the way in which Jesus describes the salvation experience in John’s Gospel,
…”Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3-8)
Seeing and entering the kingdom
Although he does not specifically use the word, Jesus’ concern is salvation. How do we know this? Consider the outcome that Jesus has in view, his concern is that we see and enter the kingdom of God.
The New Testament (and the synoptic Gospels in particular) has much to say with regards to the kingdom of God. The first thing apparent is that the kingdom of God is unlike Israel (which, in many ways foreshadows the kingdom) in that this kingdom is neither a territorial or spatial entity.
We might visit Spain, Italy, Portugal or, if we are particularly unfortunate (!?!), France. You will not, however, find the kingdom of God on any map or in any travel guide. The kingdom of God is not of this world (John 18:36).
This kind of kingdom confounds earthly expectations.
In Luke’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. It is difficult to know what the Pharisees intended by this question, it is fairly certain, however, that they expected two things.
Firstly, it is likely that they conceived of the kingdom in terms of a liberated and dominant Israel. Certainly they would have expected an overturning of Roman occupation and it is likely that they would have been looking for a king in the Davidic mould.
Secondly, it is certain that they expected that they would be incorporated within this kingdom whenever and however it might come.
Jesus dismantles both expectations,
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
Jesus’ point is this: the kingdom is not visible in advancing armies, political and military domination or geographical expansiveness. Rather this kingdom, the kingdom of God, is most clearly seen in a person. Jesus is clear, the kingdom centres on and around King Jesus.
We see the kingdom wherever Christ is at work in advancing the gospel.
To be a part of the kingdom is to submit to the rule of the King. In this present age, the kingdom advance is partially veiled, but there will come a day when the King will arrive on the clouds, visible, majestic and glorious and, on that day, his kingdom will reign supreme (Matthew 16:28).
And so, if the Pharisees are wrong in thinking that incorporation into the kingdom is achieved through ethnic or religious allegiances and practices, how then is one to see and enter this kingdom without geographical boundaries? Jesus says that it is only possible to see, much less enter, this kingdom if one has been born again, ‘unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3).
How can a man be born again?
It is unclear as to whether Nicodemus struggles with the same misunderstandings and false expectations of the Pharisees encountered in Luke’s Gospel, but it is clear that he does not grasp the terms under which this kingdom must be entered. Nicodemus’ response is curt and sarcastic, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ (v. 4).
Jesus responds by explaining how this new birth is effected,
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8)
The answer to how this thing, this new birth, is possible is found in verse 8; Jesus speaks of those who are ‘born of the Spirit’. The imagery of verse 5 is also significant and underlies Jesus’ stinging rebuke, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ (v. 10).
But what does Jesus mean when he says that one must be born of water and the Spirit? The key to understanding this is found in Ezekiel 36, but, before we go there, I want to unpack the context in which Ezekiel finds himself prophesying.
The kingdom of Israel has rebelled against and turned from the God who has rescued, protected and blessed them. God has, therefore, used Israel’s enemies to punish his people in the hope that they might return to him. Ezekiel warns that further calamity is imminent.
As we read, it becomes clear the most serious issue is that Israel’s rebellion has resulted in the Lord’s name being profaned among the nations.
This should give us pause to reflect. It is important that Christians feel the weight of this. If you bear the name of Christ Jesus and continue to live in disobedience and rebellion, this results in the name of Jesus being maligned by those around you.
This should be no great surprise to any of us.
Sadly we have all sadly witnessed occasions where high profile Christian figures suffer an equally high profile fall from grace. Perhaps they have fallen into sexual sin or perhaps some financial misconduct has been exposed. Now consider the response of the media or unbelieving friends at work. Invariably the criticism is directed towards Christianity as a whole and, by extension, God himself.
This is natural. As believers in Christ we bear the name of Christ. We are, as Paul puts it, ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). If an ambassador appears at an official function drunk and hitting on the wives of the dignitaries, it reflects most shamefully upon the nation he represents.
This is why Peter urges believers to live such good lives among unbelievers that they might see our good deeds and glorify God (1 Peter 2:12).
It is, therefore, most surprising that, in the midst of this stark rebuke and impending disaster, Ezekiel also looks towards the day that the Lord will vindicate his name and his holiness (Ezekiel 36:22-24).
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
The point of this is that God will act in order to vindicate his name and display his holiness. And, we must ask, how will this God who has been maligned and profaned by the very people to whom he has shown mercy, generosity and kindness respond? Will he act in anger and wrath and wipe out the very people that have caused his name to be thus regarded?
God’s response to the situation is far more shocking that this. God promises rescue. He will bring this rebellious people out of the nations and back into the land he has promised. More than this and before this, however, he will sprinkle this people with clean water and cleanse them from idolatry (v. 25).
This is the reference point for John 3, when Jesus speaks of being ‘born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5) he has the promise in Ezekiel in mind that this God will bring rescue and forgiveness to the very people who have treated him with such disdain. As Christians, we understand that this prophesy of New Covenant and forgiveness is fulfilled in the cross and the death of King Jesus. We have now been sprinkled with his spilt blood by which we are washed clean (Hebrews 12:22-24).
Ezekiel’s prophecy and the promise of the cross go further than cleansing. Ezekiel speaks of a new heart of flesh and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:26). The meaning is plain, God will cleanse his people and then give them a heart and spirit which actually work (note the contrast between the living, effective ‘heart of flesh’ and the former dead, lifeless heart of stone). This is what Jesus means when he speaks of being born again and this is why his rebuke of Nicodemus is so stinging. He is in effect challenging Nicodemus, ‘You claim to be a religious leader and yet you do not even understand the Scriptures?’
The necessity of new birth
But why is new birth necessary? Is it not enough that in Jesus we receive forgiveness?
The problem with this is that forgiveness in and of itself is not sufficient. Indeed, forgiveness alone could leave us in an even worse state than before. Forgiveness alone will lead us into overwhelming guilt and despair in which we recognise our sin, receive forgiveness but continue to live the same sin-enslaved lives. Alternatively, forgiveness alone will eventually lead us to become numb to sin, pondering the horrendous question, ‘Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?’ (Romans 6:1).
New birth is necessary that we might receive forgiveness and then live a new life. This is the glory of the gospel.
Consider the effects of this new birth as described by the Prophet Ezekiel,
And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:27)
We will return to this next time, but firstly note that in both John’s Gospel and in the promise in Ezekiel, it is the Holy Spirit who affects this new birth; those who are born again are ‘born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8). What we see promised in Ezekiel is made possible by the cross and received in all its fullness at Pentecost: Spirit-birthed, Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered lives.
The effects of this Spirit-enabled new birth are astounding, new birth causes us to walk in obedience, ‘I will […] cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.’
If you are a believer, consider the evidence of this in your own life.
There will have been a time in your life where you would never have considered voluntarily sitting down and reading the Bible or praying and attending church and small groups would have seemed one of the least appealing places to be. On receiving Christ, however, these things suddenly seemed delightful to you.
Again, before you became a Christian, the things of the world, sin and immorality were appealing to you, but having received Christ you now find yourself increasingly hating and fleeing from such things and rather instead pursuing Christ.
You now find that, as you come to know Christ more deeply, your love for him, your brothers and sisters, the lost and your love of righteousness increases and deepens.
This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (John 3:6). Without new birth we are flesh fixated and flesh driven creatures, capable only of fleshy deeds. The result of this is that even our good deeds are flesh-compromised. We do what is good in order to massage our own egos, inflate our own reputations or to make us feel better about ourselves.
Spirit-enabled new birth, however, enables us to live Spirit-led lives and this change works itself out at the core of who we are. As we become more alive to him, we become more like him. As we grow in our knowledge of him, we grow in our love of him.
This is what new birth looks like.
But Jesus goes further and his primary interest is that men and women would be able to both see and enter the kingdom of God. Jesus says that this seeing and entering is impossible without new birth.
But why should this be?
The Apostle Paul, I think, helps us understand this in writing to the church in Corinth,
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)
The truth is this, conversion, our acceptance of Christ, is made possible by new birth. Let me explain what I mean by introducing the theological term, ‘regeneration’.
Regeneration is the process effected by the Holy Spirit which results in our dead heart coming alive, our dead lifeless spirit being quickened by the Holy Spirit and our closed hostile mind becoming awakened to the things of God. This, quite literally, changes the way that we see and awakens our capacity to feel.
Without regeneration we remain dead, blind and hostile to Christ. The result of this is that even if we were to see him, we would hate him. John deals with this reality later in this passage,
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)
This blindness and hostility is a result of sin (we love evil and this causes us to hate Jesus) and a result of the consequences of sin (we are spiritually dead and unreceptive to the things of God). In order to see the kingdom and enter the kingdom we must receive Christ. In order to receive Christ, change must happen.
It is reported that Augustine of Hippo (a leader in the early church) was confronted by an unbeliever who showed him his idol and challenged Augustine to show him his God. Augustine replied, ‘I cannot show you my God; not because there is no God to show but because you have no eyes to see Him.’ Augustine understood the depth of our depravity and the extent of our insensitivity to the things of God.
The good news of the gospel is this, while we were hostile, rebellious God-haters, God sent rescue. While we were blind, insensitive flesh-obsessed creatures, God effected change. While we were dead, sin-loving, holiness-hating idolaters, God effected new life.
The result is that God receives maximum glory, our Saviour, our Rescuer, our Lord,
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour 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, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)
 I talk about this at greater length elsewhere, to listen or read, click here.