John 3:3-8 Jesus answered him, “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.”
The term “born again” is not used very often in churches these days. Christians tend to favor terms like “personal relationship with Jesus” rather than “born again.” You are much more likely to hear the term used in the secular world, referring to a fresh start in a career, or in the name of a business. “Born again” IS a term Jesus used and He said we “MUST be born again!”
What happens in the new birth? Before I try to answer that question, let me mention a very earnest concern that I have about the way these messages will be heard. I am aware that this series of messages will be unsettling to many of you—just like the words of Jesus are unsettling to us again and again if we take them seriously. There are at least three reasons for this:
1) Because of Our Hopeless Condition
Jesus’ teaching about the new birth confronts us with our hopeless spiritual and moral and legal condition apart from God’s regenerating grace. Before the new birth happens to us, we are spiritually dead. We are morally selfish and rebellious. And we are legally guilty before God’s law and under his wrath. When Jesus tells us that we must be born again he is telling us that our present condition is hopelessly unresponsive, corrupt, and guilty. Apart from amazing grace in our lives, we don’t like to hear that about ourselves. So it is unsettling when Jesus tells us that we must be born again.
2) Because We Cannot Cause the New Birth
Teaching about the new birth is unsettling because it refers to something that is done to us, not something we do. John 1:13 emphasizes this. It refers to the children of God as those who “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Peter stresses the same thing: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). We do not cause the new birth. God causes the new birth. Any good thing that we do is a result of the new birth, not a cause of the new birth. This means that the new birth is taken out of our hands. It is not in our control. And so it confronts us with our helplessness and our absolute dependence on Someone outside ourselves.
This is unsettling. We are told that we won’t see the kingdom of God if we’re not born again. And we’re told that we can’t make ourselves to be born again. This is unsettling.
3) Because the Absolute Freedom of God Confronts Us
And the third reason Jesus’ teaching about the new birth is unsettling, therefore, is that it confronts us with the absolute freedom of God. Apart from God, we are spiritually dead in our selfishness and rebellion. We are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). Our rebellion is so deep that we cannot detect or desire the glory of Christ in the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4). Therefore, we if we are going to be born again, it will rely decisively and ultimately on God. His decision to make us alive will not be a response to what we as spiritual corpses do, but what we do will be a response to his making us alive. For most people, at least at first, this is unsettling.
My Hope: Stabilize and Save, Not Just Unsettle
So, as I begin this series, I am aware of how unsettling this teaching on the new birth can be. And O how careful I want to be. I do not want to cause tender souls any unnecessary distress. And I do not want to give false hope to those who have confused morality or religion for spiritual life. Please pray for me. I feel like I am taking eternal souls in my hands in these days. And yet I know that I have no power in myself to give them life. But God does. And I am very hopeful that he will do what he says in Ephesians 2:4-5, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” God loves to magnify the riches of his life-giving grace where Christ is lifted up in truth. That is my hope: that this series will not just unsettle but stabilize and save.