“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 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'” (John 3:1-8).
(This one is a bit longer than others, but I promise it’s worth the read. Grab a cup of coffee and let’s dive into God’s word!)
Consider a couple of statistics with me if you will: 51 percent of Americans believe that gay marriage is an acceptable alternative lifestyle. Also, 45 percent of Americans believe themselves to be born-again (statistics taken from the Barna Group’s study, see bottom of page for reference).
Considering a round number of 300 million as the population of the United States, that would mean 153 million Americans approve of gay marriage (or at least they do not disapprove of it), and 135 million Americans would claim they are born-again.
Furthermore, considering the overlap of these statistics, that means 18 million Americans that claim to be born-again do not disapprove of gay marriage.
This is shocking.
You can change the issue to any majority-approved (over 50 percent approval) immoral/unbiblical issue: 71 percent (213 million) do not oppose abortion; 66 percent (198 million) do not believe pre-marital sex is wrong; 69 percent (207 million) do not believe divorce is immoral. And the list could go on, but the conclusion is still the same: there are millions of Americans that claim to be born-again that hold to the same morals as unbelievers. Again, this is shocking.
Barna and the Biblical New Birth
This should be shocking, not because the church is as worldly as it is (we aren’t perfect people), but it should be shocking because it is clear that individuals that claim to be born-again actually have no idea what that term means. I am going through John Piper’s book Finally Alive with a high school student in my church’s student ministry and this is exactly Piper’s argument. He observes that the definition Barna gives for the New Birth/Regeneration/being “born-again” is so unlike the Bible’s, that it only makes sense that these people claiming to be born-again are mistaken in their conclusion. According to the Barna Group,
Born again Christians were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
As Piper points out, their basic definition of what being born-again really is “refers to people who say things”. So, for them, being born again is just a personal decision, not something that produces life and change in the human heart and soul. This goes against the biblical weight and definition of what the New Birth is, and why it is needed.
I encourage you to purchase Piper’s book and read it yourself, or you can download it in PDF format for free on DesiringGod.org, as Piper spends 192 pages describing the New Birth, but for the purposes of this post, I merely want to make a few brief observations of what being born again really is as the biblical authors describe it. I thoroughly believe that describing what something is, in turn, shows what something isn’t. So here it goes:
The New Birth Is Necessary
This is Jesus’ main point in the beginning passage of John 3. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3), and “…You must be born again” (v. 7). Not, “You might be able to see the kingdom of God if you aren’t born again”, nor “I suppose it would be preferable for you to be born again. Jesus uses the words cannot and must to indicate that being born again is a necessity. Not an option. Not a preference. The New Birth is a necessity to be saved. More on this in the net post, but at this point I think it would be helpful to see what the New Birth actually is.
The New Birth Happens to Us
Again, this is the Lord’s point in John 3:7-8. After Jesus describes the necessity of the New Birth in order to be saved, Nicodemus apparently is shocked, worried, and concerned about this reality. Rather than giving him a list of “Five Easy Steps to Being Born Again”, Jesus says, “Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘You must be born again'” (John 3:7). What I think Jesus means by “do not marvel” is “Do not worry that you have to be born again and try to make yourself born again because it is something that happens to you, not by you.”
My conclusion is supported by how Jesus continues in verse 8: “The wind (or Spirit) blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus is not trying to make a meteorological observation about the nature of the source of wind.
He is trying to illustrate the freedom and invisibility of the wind/Spirit in the New Birth (πνεῦμα, or pneuma in Greek can mean both wind and Spirit): the pneuma is free because it blows where it wants; the pneuma is invisible because you can’t actually see it happen. Interestingly, the Greek word for “born” in “born again” (γεγγηθῆναι, or gennēthēnai) is a passive verb, which means that the person who is gennēthēnai-ed has that verb happen to them. Or to use linguistic terms, Nicodemus (and everyone who is born of the Spirit) are passive in agency, and the Spirit that performs the action is active in agency.
It’s the difference between “I threw a ball” and “I was hit by a ball”. Thus, Jesus tells us, when someone is born again, it is solely an act of God the Holy Spirit that we cannot control, but only see its effects. The New Birth happens to us, not by us, but it is experienced by us and witnessed by others.
The New Birth Changes Us
Although implicit in the John 3 passage, the effects of the New Birth are made in another Johannine document, 1 John. The apostle makes it clear in the beginning as to why he is writing when he says, “Beloved, I am writing these things so you may not sin” (1 John 2:1). We will see that this statement is the same as saying “I am writing these things so you will know you are born again.” The following texts are pretty obvious in their meaning in this regard, so I just want to list them for now and make a few comments afterward:
- “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).
- “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).
- “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that overcomes the world: our faith” (1 John 5:4).
- “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18).
To make a few concluding comments from the above texts:
The New Birth is a Past Event
What I mean by this is that the New Birth is an event that happened to us in the past. This is an event, not a process. People often refer to being born again as a lifestyle change, or to describe the result of the whole process of salvation. This is just not accurate according to 1 John. Notice how John says in 2:29 “…[E]veryone who practices [present tense] righteousness has been [past tense] born of him”. This is the case in every usage of the term ‘born again’ in 1 John. The New Birth is a past event.
The New Birth is a Past Event With Present Effects
The fact that the New Birth is a past event does not mean it does not have present effects.This act of God that happens to us in the past obviously does something in us with present effects. What does it do in us according to 1 John John says that those who have been born again “do not make a practice of sinning”, “loves”, “knows God”, and “overcomes the world”. It is important to note that John, and I, are not suggesting perfectionism and total sinlessness is a result of the New Birth, or the fact that we have an “advocate with the father” (1 John 2:1) who “is faithful and just to forgive us or sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), would not make much sense.
The New Birth Creates Faith
The last observation I want to make is that the New Birth creates, awakens, and enables faith. I will go into more detail on this in the next post, but I would like to make a few comments here. Look at two verses with me. The first is 1 John 5:1 (which you can read by hovering over the highlighted reference). John says that “everyone who believes [present]…has been [past] born of God”, indicating that being born again precedes believing in Jesus. This will become more obvious in the next post, but for now it is important to notice this.
In this verse, John says that our being born again precedes and is the cause of our believing. Or in other words, when he says that “everyone who believes…has been born of God”, he is saying that the New Birth happens before we believe and belief is the result of it. To put it negatively, anyone who has not been born of God cannot believe (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4).
If this is confusing, maybe one of the verses I listed above will help. “Everyone who has been [past] born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that overcomes [present] the world: our faith” (1 John 5:4). John lists two things as “victories” that “overcome the world”, namely the New Birth and our faith. He doesn’t seem to indicate these are two different realities, but two sides of the same coin.
He is making the same point I made earlier: the New Birth is a past reality that has present effects, which in this verse is overcoming the sinful pleasures of the world (cf. 1 John 2:16). Thus, synthesizing both of these verses, we can conclude that the New Birth precedes faith and immediately creates, awakens, and enables faith.
Comfort and Call
What can we take from these passages. Well for one, those that see and experience true faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord, Savior, and Treasure can be comforted and know that they are really God’s children. Furthermore, we should change the way we evangelize to our lost world and lost family members. This doctrine makes it obvious that we have no ability to save ourselves, as well as others, but this does not mean that God does not use means.
All we can do is preach the Good News of Jesus Christ with our words and our lives because we are “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever…the seed by which he does this is the word of God, the gospel that we preach” (1 Pet. 1:23, 25). God uses the sermons of our mouths and the sermon of our lives to be testimonies of the living and active Word of God and the gospel it proclaims. Let your words and life lead people to see that they must be born again, and the beauty of the new life it creates. But more on that next time.
Piper, John. Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2009. 1-15.
For further reading:
John Piper, Finally Alive
John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied
Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will