The New Birth
“You must be born again.” John 3:7
In terms of fundamental doctrines, these two would be at the top of the list – the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of new birth. Justification relates to the great work that God does FOR us by forgiving our sins. Regeneration, or New Birth, refers to the great work that God does IN us, by renewing our fallen nature. In terms of time, neither of these doctrines come before the other, but in order of thinking, justification precedes the new birth. We first become aware of our need for forgiveness and then this gift opens the way for the Spirit to work in our hearts.
The first blessing of justification, or pardon or forgiveness, comes through the cross where Christ took all sin within himself and paid all penalties with his blood. As the perfect sacrifice, Jesus conquered sin and death for us and opened the way of new life. This second blessing of new life comes through the resurrection and the truth that nothing, in life or in death, can separate us from God’s love. God is bigger than sin and death. On the cross we see what God does FOR us. Through the resurrection and the life-giving and eternal presence of Christ, the great work of what God does IN us is revealed.
We have looked at the doctrine of justification, today we will focus on the doctrine of New Birth with three big questions. Why must we be born anew? What is the nature of this new birth? And, what is the purpose of being born in the Spirit?
First, why must we be born anew or born in the Spirit? The foundation of this doctrine lies near the creation of the world where the triune God said, “Let us make humankind in our image.” We can describe what it means to be made in the image of God in at least three ways. We are made in the “natural” image of God as a “reflection of God’s own spiritual nature, endued with understanding, conscience, and freedom of will. We are made in the “political” image of God, as the stewards and governors of this world with dominion over land and seas. Primarily, we are made in the “moral” image of God, as a reflection of God’s “righteousness and true holiness,” manifested through the virtues of love, justice, mercy, and truth, as beings whom God declares as “very good.”
In God’s image, we are created free and thus able to reflect a different way to live. In the story of creation, meant to reveal our own condition, God gave a strong warning, but humanity still engaged in a willful act of disobedience, a complete rebellion, declaring that God would no longer rule. We (not just “they”) sought to govern by our own will and to seek happiness in places other than God. The consequence of this rebellion was death – death to God – the most dreadful death of all. We became estranged from God, at least from our perspective. Fear, Struggle, and Death become our reality. Examine yourself, and your own journey, and see if this is not the case.
As the Apostle Paul summed it up, “In Adam all die.” Everyone who comes into the world is spiritually dead in sin. And by sin, we mean more than actions; at the core, sin is living by our own will and desire, and bearing the fruits of self-will, lust, envy, and greed, rather than the fruits of the Spirit, the fruits of holy love. It is because of this condition that we need new birth. Being born first in sin, we must be “born again.” “In Adam all die.” All! So what is our hope?” “In Christ shall all be made alive.”
This expression of “new birth” was not new with Jesus. It was common among Jews, and used for converts who were baptized as a sign of being born into this new faith. In looking at the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, it would seem that Nicodemus would have gotten this, but Jesus is speaking of something much bigger and more mysterious than some symbolic gesture or change of religion. And so Nicodemus asks, “How can this be?” “How can we be born a second time?” Jesus lets it be known that he is not talking literally but spiritually. Since our first birth leads to death, if we are to have any hope in life beyond death, we must be “born from above,” which is the literal translation of this word. We must be born of God, born of the Spirit, and set on this path of life.
We cannot give this life to ourselves. It must come as a gift. It is God, by the power of love, who gives new life. In the providence and character of God, the forces of fear and death do not have the last word.
We can use our first birth as an analogy. Before we come into the world, we have eyes, but do not see, ears, but do not hear. We have no knowledge of the things of the world. It is only when we are born that we begin to live and experience life. For as soon as we are born, light reveals, sounds inform, and understanding begins. We are given the breath of life, and live in a manner wholly different than before.
The same is true of our spiritual birth. With new birth, spiritual senses come to life. Our spiritual eyes are opened and we begin to see the glory of the Lord. Our spiritual ears are opened and we hear the good news. Our hearts are opened, and we begin to feel the mighty working of the Spirit of God. We begin to understand that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves and able to live from an eternal perspective, knowing that God is with us and that God will see us through.
With a new-found vision before us, of the “full measure of the stature of Christ,” we discover a deep desire to grow.
As Jesus says to Nicodemus, we cannot “see” the kingdom of God except by being born from above. And, to be clear, this is more than “being baptized” or “joining a church,” or thinking that being born of God is little more than a “ticket to heaven” or a heavenly declaration with little effect on us as we live in this world. Some actually pervert this statement from Jesus as a license to devote yourself to the devil, allowing greed, anger, lust, and the like to continue to rule. The new birth to which Jesus speaks opens up the kingdom of God to us. This new birth leads us into sanctification, that progressive work of the Spirit where God works “in us, transforming us from one degree of glory to another, in the image of Christ.” As with physical birth, our being born-from-above can happen in an instant, but then the transformation begins. The image of God is renewed within us. “The love of the world is transformed into love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender love for all. In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the mind that was in Christ Jesus.” This is the nature of the new birth. “So it is for everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The purpose of this “new birth” is “holiness,” by which we mean much more than a commitment to external religion and outward duties. Gospel Holiness is no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart; it is no other than the whole mind which was in Christ Jesus; it consists of all heavenly affections and tempers, full of mercy, kindness, gentleness, and patience. It is a continual sacrifice to God. This holiness can have no existence until we are renewed in the image of God.
Without holiness, no one shall see the Lord, or desire to know this glory. Therefore, new birth is absolutely necessary for eternal salvation. We may flatter ourselves and think that “being good” is enough and that God will reward our efforts and our attendance at church (our baptism…) After all, we are better than “those people” out there. Such self-justifications come so naturally to us, while, in fact, it leads us to the brink of hell itself. For in this “spirit,” we see no need to be born again. We think we’ve got it. But in this narrow human arrogance, we are blinded to the truth that heaven requires holiness and holiness necessitates new birth. We can’t get it on our own.
And next this holiness then leads to true happiness. The reason is plain. All unholy tempers --malice, hatred, envy, jealousy, revenge – all create a present hell within us. Even the softer passions – leisure and worldly desires -- if not kept within due bounds, give a thousand times more pain than pleasure. As long as these tempers and passions reign in the soul, true happiness cannot be found. Again, new birth is absolutely necessary in order to be happy in this world, as well as in the world to come.
We must be born again. Otherwise, it is not possible for us to know inward holiness or express outward holiness, and without this we cannot be happy – in this world and much less in the world to come. Don’t start trying to justify yourself. Do not say, “I do no harm to others.” “I am basically a good person.” “I pray, go to worship, read scripture, engage in works of love,” (or to use our theological language, attend to the Ordinances of God or the Means of Grace). This is all good, but none of these things stand in the place of new birth. While we hope that all would do such things, and be able to claim such character, we must still go farther or you cannot be “saved” or “made whole,” (not understood as a legal declaration from God, a ticket to heaven, but in the sense of a relationship where we are whole and happy in God in this life and into eternity). For this, we must be born from above.
If this is not happening in your life then you are in spiritual danger. You must ask: are you allowing sin to make a home in the place that is called a temple to the Holy Spirit? If so, don’t boast in your baptism, or a one-time personal profession, or church membership, but instead let this word fill you with confusion, open a new perspective, and make you ashamed before God. If you have not already experienced this inward work of God, let it be your continual prayer. “Lord, take away whatever you deem good to take away – reputation, fortune, friends, health – only give me this, to be born of the Spirit and to be received among the children of God. And let me grow in grace daily and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” May this be the deeper desire of your heart. Amen.