“So is every one that is born of the Spirit” -- John 3:8
What does it mean to be born of the Spirit, born again, born of God? What is implied in being a child of God and having the “spirit of adoption?” What are the privileges that come with this gift? I propose to lay down the marks of this gift in the plainest language possible.
The first mark, and the foundation of all the rest, is faith. As the Apostle Paul says, “We are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26). The Apostle John says, “To them he gave the power (The Greek word is “exosian” which can be translated as “right” or “privilege.”) to become children of God, even to those who believe on his name, who are born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, but of God.” (John 1:12-13). And again in a letter from John we read, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” (I John 5:1).
But this faith is so much more than “intellectual” or “speculative” faith. It is not an assent to a proposition that Jesus is the Christ. Even devils have this kind of faith – believe that Jesus is God’s son, that scripture is inspired, that God is present. With this kind of faith we are still “bound in chains of darkness.” This is dead faith. The true and living faith is more than “believing that;” it is “believing in”. It is not only an assent or a claim to understand; it is a disposition, which God works in the heart. It is a sure trust and confidence in God, that, through the merits of Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God. This faith leads to new birth, to a new way of living in the world and into eternity.
In this faith, we come to God as lost and helpless sinners, “having nothing to pay.” We do not have the resources within ourselves to affect our salvation in any way. And yet we come to God, not in despair, but with a spiritual knowledge, which no words can fully express, that Christ meets us with grace and opens the way of life, a gift flowing from pure and perfect love. This gift precedes a living faith. We first come to know God within and then are able to trust in him and to place our confidence in his mercy.
In this faith, we know, deep within, that we are children of God. We may struggle mightily as we grow from an infant into maturity as children of God, but in Christ, the seed of life remains and God’s love, as the love of a good parent, is steadfast and eternal. As children of God we are able to live in that peace that passes all human understanding, that peace that no power on earth or hell can take from those who are born of God.
A second mark of those who are born of God is hope. As we read, “By his great mercy, God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Quote 1 Peter 1:3. Peter calls it a living hope because there is also a dead hope, just as there is a dead faith. Dead hope flows from pride and personal desire, putting its trust in things that will pass away. A living hope in Christ illuminates the great privilege of being God’s children and joint heirs with Christ in an inheritance that is eternal. This inheritance leads to even a willingness to suffer, to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily, to cheerfully endure persecution, because we know we will be “glorified with him.” (Rom 8:16-17).
When talking about our hope as children of God, the Apostle Paul makes a subtle distinction between “you” and “we.” He says “You,” as an individual, have received the Spirit of Adoption. And then he says that when “we” cry, ‘Abba Father,’ it is the same Spirit bearing witness that we are children of God. By this blessing you are incorporated into the Body of Christ and join all “ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The vision before us is the day when “God shall wipe away all tears, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4). Together, this is our living hope. To all who may feel that you are “without hope and without God in the world,” open your heart to this vision. Let it bring joy to your life, even now. May you know the joy that is “unspeakable” that comes when this hope is written upon our hearts. (I Peter 1:5).
The third scriptural mark of those who are born of God, and the greatest of all, is love, even “the love of God shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 5:5). Those born of God love God. God is the joy of their heart. The fruit of this love of God is the love of neighbor, indeed of every soul whom God has made, even those we might have called enemies. We love others as a part of ourselves for we are joined together as to be one spirit. This love is written in our hearts and is the heart of true religion.
This love is more than an outward service; it is an affection of the soul. This love is more than outwards good works; it is a disposition of the transformed heart. When this love is born within us it produces a desire to conform to God’s Will, in every temperament, in all conversations, and in all encounters with others.
Perhaps a way to phrase it is to say that “God’s love comes to us on its way to someone else.” As Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you love another.” And again, we read “we love because God first loved us.” God gives to us the fruits of this love – patience, kindness, forgiveness, steadfast commitment – and we in turn share these same blessings in the world. This love that comes to us grows only as it is shared. If we try to hoard it, or keep it in ourselves, it grows stale within us and does not bring life.
Above all else, we know that we are born of God when this love is at work in us and through us. As the scripture says, “Love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7).
Who then are you who are born of God? We might first need to say that this question is not the same as “are you baptized?” or a member of the church? The question is, “Is the Spirit now in your heart?” Don’t evade this encounter with God by saying, “I was once baptized” or “I belong to this church.” How many are the baptized gluttons, or baptized liars, or baptized extortioners, baptized gossips or baptized party zealots (“railers”)?
How can you escape the powers of hell? There is no other way except to be born again. None of us deserve heaven, or have gained it by our outward acts of faith. We are better off to face our sin before God than to try to hide it under religious practice. In heartfelt confession, we discover pure mercy and the free, undeserved grace of God. To rely on things esteemed by the world is so dangerous, for we start to think that we can cast the first stone on those deemed not fit to live upon the earth. And Jesus shouts the warning, if you hate this person and put them down, you are no different from a murderer (I John 3:15) or if you even look upon another in lust, or see them as a possible object of your pleasure, even in your dreams, you have committed adultery in your heart (Matt 5:28). In other words, you have not escaped guilt. You too need the transformation of heart that can only come from above. Except you be born from above, you cannot see and know the kingdom of God that is there for you.
So we pray: “Lord Jesus. May all who prepare their hearts to seek your face, receive that Spirit of adoption and cry out ‘Abba, Father!’ Let them have power, even daily, to believe in your name and to know that they are your beloved child, to know and feel the redemption in your blood and the forgiveness of their sins.” May this be your prayer in this burning hour. Amen.