‘You must be born again’ (John 3:7)
The conversation between the Lord Christ and Nicodemus is one of the most important passages in Scripture. To be ignorant of the truths in this chapter is to be ignorant of Christ. There is no going to heaven without experiential knowledge of the new birth. This man Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night (v.2). He comes at a time when he can speak with Jesus in private. We are told that he was a man of the Pharisees and a ruler of the Jews (v.1). He was a religious man and a politician; a theologian and a statesman. Here is someone of immense importance in society and he comes to speak with the Lord Jesus Christ. Consider the man himself. He is a Jew, a son of Abraham, a child of the covenant. He has the blood of God’s people running in his veins. If ever a man was born into the right family, then it was Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, a man of religion, a man of morality. He took the Law of God seriously. He studied the Scriptures and taught others to live according to Word of God. He was a man of great learning and education. He was the teacher in Israel, the most prominent theologian of his day. He even recognised that the Lord Jesus worked His miracles by the power of God, ‘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’ (v. 2). Yet, the Lord Christ says to this man, ‘You must be born again’. It’s audacious. It’s outrageous. If ever a man deserved a seat in heaven because of his good works, surely it was Nicodemus? ‘No’, says the Lord Jesus, ‘You must be born again’ (v.7).
There were not many Jews in Israel with the credentials and qualifications of Nicodemus. Here is a cultured, an educated, a sophisticated, moral man. Yet, Jesus tells him that he needs to be born again. If it is true that a man like Nicodemus needs this new birth, how much more is it true for us all? You may have a great education, you may have been born into the right family, you may have Christian parents, you may have great wealth and privileges, you may have been baptised and attended Church all your life, but unless you are born again, it is impossible for you to see and enter the kingdom of God. The Lord Christ insists that being born again is absolutely necessary for anyone to even have a glimpse the kingdom of heaven: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (v. 3). Heaven may be reached without money, without learning, without Christian parents. It may be reached by the most wretched sinner in the universe. But, you will never reach heaven without a ‘new birth’.
Oh, you who would enter that glorious rest,
And sing with the ransomed the song of the blest;
The life everlasting if you would obtain,
‘You must be born again’.
It is therefore fundamental that we consider this doctrine with utmost seriousness. It is vital that we chew over what the Bible has to teach us about this all-important truth. ‘Truly, truly’, says Jesus. In other words, listen up! Pay attention! This is the true truth you need to hear.
1] Firstly, the New Birth is an Old Testament doctrine. And so Nicodemus was a man who should have known better. The Lord Christ is amazed at his sheer ignorance. He says to him, ‘Are you not the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ (v.10). You see, the new birth is not exclusive to the New Testament. The new birth is not a new doctrine. On the contrary, it is a doctrine as old as Adam. The Old Testament consistently speaks of this work as absolutely essential for true and vital religion. Nicodemus, a teacher of the Law, should have known these things. We read in the Law of Moses, ‘Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff-necked’ (Deuteronomy 10:16). Outward circumcision, outward religiosity, was never enough for Jehovah God. Only a work of God in the heart of man would suffice. The Law spoke of this inward circumcision – a circumcision of the heart. This was not something which man could cause. It was a work of God alone. This is what Moses says, ‘The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live’ (Deuteronomy 30:6). God does this. It is His work. It is His prerogative. And it is impossible for man to know and love God as he ought without this divine operation. The outward form of religion is never enough. Going to chapel, professing to be a Christian, attending ceremonies and sacraments, being baptised, having Christian parents, reading your bible, praying twice a day, are all empty and vain without a new birth. Nicodemus has all the outward religion he could ever need. The Pharisees were the masters of externalised religiosity. But such religion has never saved anybody. It is the way of certain death. The only hope for men and women is the supernatural power of God. Nicodemus should have known better.
This mysterious work, this new birth, is ascribed wholly to God by the prophets. He is spoken of as the divine and supernatural cardiologist. Speaking through Jeremiah God says, ‘I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the Lord’ (Jeremiah 24:7). Or again, speaking through Ezekiel, the Lord says, ‘ A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the stony heart out of 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 you shall keep my judgements and do them (Ezekiel 36:25–27). If men and women are to love God and keep His commandments, they need a new heart with new desires. Now Nicodemus was a professor of the Law and the Prophets. Here is a man who should have known these things. And yet, we find that this man of religion has no experiential acquaintance with the living God. Often the men who make a great show of religion and spirituality have no true acquaintance with the living God. They know nothing of experiential religion. They know nothing of heart religion. They have no experience of the life of God in the soul of man. But without this, there is no salvation. If you are not born again, you are not saved. If you are not born again, you are not a Christian. If you don’t have a new heart, you don’t truly love God. If you despise this doctrine, you despise the only way of salvation. There is no going to glory without a new birth. You may be the most religious man on the planet, but if you are not born again then you are dead in sin and on the road to eternal ruin. There is no true Christianity where men and women are not born of the Spirit.
Moral reformation, turning over a new leaf, a change of manners, or the outward alteration of behaviour is not enough. John Murray puts it like this:
No external privilege, no hereditary quality, no birthright, no amount of good works, no self discipline, no amount of adherence to rules, no degree of human effort, will make [us] members of the kingdom of God. Membership [in God’s kingdom] is not an attainment, not a reward, not a prize ... There is no appreciation of, no entrance into, no life in, the kingdom of God except by a change as radical and momentous as birth.
The Gospel demands such a radical change. The new birth is a majestic and powerful work of God in the heart of man. It is a monumental event. It is a resurrection, a new creation. The formation of stars, planets, and galaxies is nothing compared with the splendour of new birth. It is the passing from a state of sin and death into a state of life and salvation. God creates a new principle in our hearts. The Spirit of God comes upon us in such a way so as to infallibly, eternally, and unchangeably create a new vital principle, a new habit, a new spirit, within our hearts. It is a revolution in the heart of man where the citadel of self and sin is dethroned and the righteousness of Christ begins to reign. Now let me ask, what do you know of such things by experience? Have you been born again? Have you a new heart with new desires? What do you know of this new birth? These are serious questions. Don’t go to sleep tonight without a new birth! ‘A day will come when those who are not born again will wish that they had never been born at all’ (J. C. Ryle).
2] Secondly, what are the reasons for the new birth? Why must we be born again? Why do we need the new birth? Nicodemus doesn't understand what Jesus is saying. He doesn't understand the nature of new birth because he doesn't feel his need for a new birth. ‘How can a man be born again when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ (v.4). Nicodemus simply doesn't get it. He is blind to the truth. The Lord Christ has already said, ‘Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (v.3). Nicodemus can’t see it. He can’t even see the need for the new birth itself. He doesn't grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words. He takes them in a crassly literal way. The Lord Christ is speaking directly to Nicodemus about his spiritual standing before God. He says to him: ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (v.3). He says it again in verse five, ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’ (v.5). He says it a third time, ‘Marvel not that I say unto thee, ye must be born again’ (v. 7). But Nicodemus is still scratching his head. He’s completely flummoxed. And that is the very reason why men and women need a new birth. Nicodemus himself illustrates what the Lord Christ is trying to tell him. Unless men and women are born of God, they will not see and understand these truths in their hearts.
Nicodemus thought the Lord Jesus was talking about a physical rebirth. His mind was set in earthly ways. So Jesus says to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ (v.5). The Lord Christ is speaking of spiritual things. The new birth is a supernatural change. It concerns the kingdom of God. It is the work of the Spirit. It is the real transition from the state of wrath and sin to a state of grace and favour. There must be this transition. We are not born as Christians. Having Christian family, Christian parents, attending Church on Sundays, being baptised are wonderful things, but they don’t make us real Christians. The only thing that makes someone a real Christian is the new birth. You must be converted. You must be born again.
The problem is sin. We need to be born again because we are sinners. We have been utterly ruined by the fall. The Lord Christ tells us, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh’ (v.6a). In other words, the guilt and corruption of our first parents has passed down from generation to generation. There’s no escaping it. Man is rebellious and sinful by nature. Even the best of men, the most heroic men, the most moral men, are nothing more than splendid sinners. Even Nicodemus is a man ruined by the fall. ‘All that the flesh can produce is a sinful and fallen nature’ (Geoff Thomas). Flesh produces flesh. Man’s heart is evil (Mark 7:21–23; Matthew 15:19). He is spiritually sick (Jeremiah 17:9). He is a slave to sin (Romans 6:20). He does not seek for God (Romans 3:11). He is not able to understand Spiritual things (Romans 3:11; 1 Corinthians 2:14). He is an enemy of God (Ephesians 2:15). He is by nature a child of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). He is dead to God in sin (Ephesians 2: 1–2). His mind is hostile to God and cannot please God (Romans 8:7). He is accustomed to evil and can do no saving good (Jeremiah 13:23). He is born in sin (Psalm 51:5; 58:3). His heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure (Jeremiah 17:9). This is how the Bible speaks of fallen man. It is only when we consider something of the exceeding sinfulness of our own hearts that we begin to see the absolute necessity for a new birth. A miracle of grace is most necessary if ever we should see and enter the kingdom of God.
Man by his fall thought that he could think and do as he pleased. He made himself a false idea of knowledge and morality. He made himself and not God the final point of reference. What man thinks and what man does became far more important to him than what God thinks and what God does. Man now sees himself as self sufficient and purely autonomous being. He chooses to live and act as he pleases. He is a law unto Himself. Everything in his mind and will is askew. Instead of aiming for the glory and honour of God, he aims only to glorify and gratify self. He is like a man with a crooked ruler. He’ll never draw a straight line. He’ll always get it wrong. John Murray explains it like this:
Man is totally corrupt; sin has taken possession of his whole being. The inmost springs of desire, disposition and motive are corrupted and depraved: the source of intellectual, emotional and volitional activity is enmity against God. Man is under the dominion of sin.
In the new birth, the Spirit of Christ comes upon a man so as to realign all the faculties of the soul and direct them to a living faith in Christ. His mind, his will, his affections are resorted and healed. His heart is directed to love and adore his God.
Now it is true that the Lord Christ accomplished our redemption in full upon Calvary, but it will do us no saving good until the Spirit comes upon us and applies this redemption to us. I can’t say it better than Charles Wesley:
Spirit of faith, come down,
Reveal the things of God,
And make to us the Godhead known,
And witness with the blood.
'Tis thine the blood to apply
And give us eyes to see,
Who did for guilty sinners die
Hath surely died for me.
Let me put it like this. Here is a dead man in a coffin. He is completely and utterly dead. His lips are blue. His skin is white. There’s no pulse from the heart. There’s no life in the brain. He is as dead as dead can be. Now suppose I have a life-giving potion. On the label it says, ‘A tea spoon for any corpse, guarantees new life’. Wonderful stuff! Now it would be no good to place the bottle on top of the man’s coffin. There is life in the bottle but it’s not doing him any good. He needs someone to administer it. ‘Inasmuch as we are dead in trespasses and sins, it would do us no good to have a wonderful life-giving potion laid next to us in our coffin. It would do us good only if someone administered the potion to us’ (Van Til). That is what the Spirit of God does. Christ’s has procured the remedy by His death for us; the Spirit takes the work of Christ and applies it to God’s elect. If the Spirit didn't do this, nobody would ever be saved. John 3:16 makes no sense whatsoever without John 3:7. That is how vital the work of the Holy Spirit is for our salvation. Unless He administers the life giving potion, we would all remain dead in our trespasses and sins.
Paul puts it like this: ‘The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 2:14). Here is the madness of sin. There is salvation freely offered in Christ but without the work of the Spirit no one wants it. They would rather perish in sin than seek after God. ‘Left to himself, no child of Adam would ever turn to God’ (J. C. Ryle). That is why the new birth is so necessary, because it opens our eyes to the seriousness of sin and creates true faith in Christ who alone can save us. Jesus teaches us something remarkable. He says to Nicodemus, ‘Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ (John 3:7). The new birth is a matter of eternal significance. It is not something from below. It is not something that man can do for himself. It is from above. You must be born of the Spirit. Without this, there is no going to heaven. There is no entrance into the kingdom of God without a new birth. ‘Be convinced, then, that you must be born again; put a high value on the new birth, and eagerly desire it’ (Thomas Boston). It is only by being born again that we see the kingdom of heaven at last. Only the free and sovereign grace of the Spirit in regeneration will save sinners of mankind lost. It is only by the work of the Spirit that you enter the kingdom of heaven. It is only by His power that you can be brought into the state of grace.
3] Thirdly, what is the nature of the New Birth? The Lord Jesus takes Nicodemus back to the Old Testament to explain the mechanics of the new birth. He says that we must be born of water and the spirit. That is a reference to the prophecy of Ezekiel: ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:25–26). Jesus, following Ezekiel’s teaching, sets to aspects of the new birth plainly before Nicodemus:
i. You must be born of water. That’s not a reference to water baptism. Jesus is speaking of the washing, the inward cleansing of the Spirit. Our hearts must be cleansed from the sin within. They must be washed and made clean. The Spirit of God does this. That’s incredible, isn't it? The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, comes personally into such filthy and polluted hearts as ours to scrub them clean. He comes into the sewage works of my heart to make me clean, pure, sanctified, and holy. Only God can wash away your sins. Only the Spirit of God has the power to wash away my iniquity. Have you been washed like this? Have you been born of water? What do you know of such a cleansing? Without this, there is no entering the kingdom of God. Nothing impure will ever enter it (Revelation 21:27). So you must be washed. I must be washed. We must be cleansed from our sin. We must cry out to God for such things and say with David, ‘Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin ... wash me and I shall be whiter than snow’ (Psalm 51:2, 7).
ii. You must be born of the Spirit. This miracle of grace, this new birth, is specifically ascribed to the person of the Spirit. It is His special prerogative, agreed upon by the three persons in the depths of eternity past. The Father lovingly elects, the son redeems, and the Spirit sanctifies. Economically speaking, regeneration and sanctification are His peculiar roles in the management and plan of God. He is the special agent of the new birth. He brings about spiritual life in dead and sinful hearts. When a baby is born, new conscious life has come into the universe. It is remarkable. Something totally new has come into being. The new birth as a radical and dramatic as this. New life is formed in the heart of the sinner by the power of the Spirit. Only the Spirit can do this. The flesh gives birth to flesh. Sin gives birth to sin. Only the Spirit can give birth to spiritual life (v.6b). A person does not cause his natural birth; he is the passive subject. You didn't whisper into the cosmos, ‘I want to have blue eyes, dark black hair, muscles like Hercules, and born to rich parents living in sunny Australia’. ‘We were not born because we decided to be born. We were simply born’ (John Murray). If we are Christians, we were born of the Spirit, according to His will and by His power. The new birth is not a work of man. It is not a work of human decision. It is a work of God. John says in the prologue, we were born ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (John 1:13). Without this, it is impossible to ‘see’ and ‘enter’ the kingdom of God. There is no salvation, no eternal happiness, no home in heaven, no peace with God, without a new birth of the Spirit’s power.
4] Finally, the new birth is a work of divine sovereignty. It would seem that Nicodemus was amazed by the teaching of Christ: ‘Marvel not that I said, you must be born again’. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, was depending upon his good works and law keeping to earn a place in the kingdom of God. His religion was based upon a system of merit and human effort. Jesus blows that teaching out of the water. It seems to have come as a shock to Nicodemus. ‘Don’t look so surprised Nicodemus when I say you must be born again’. The Lord Jesus says that salvation is a work of the Spirit of God. Nicodemus thought it was a work of the freedom of man, but the Lord Jesus compares the work of the Spirit with the freedom of the wind: ‘The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (v.8). Jonathan Edwards said that ‘You cannot fix the work of the Spirit to an inflexible series of stages’. You can’t say, ‘If I do x, y, and z, then the Spirit gives me a new birth’. There is no magical prayer or formula for salvation. Salvation will not inevitably follow from following a course or programme. You cannot manufacture conversion. The Holy Spirit is free to do as He pleases. He is in no way beholden to or constrained by the whims and methodologies of men. He is completely sovereign, free, and autonomous in the work of salvation. Like the wind, the work of the Spirit is invisible, secret, and mysterious. Solomon said, ‘As thou knowest not the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child, even so thou knowest not the works of God that maketh all’ (Ecclesiastes 11:5). Like the wind, the work of the Spirit is irresistible and effectual. If the wind decides to blow the roof off your house, there is little you can do about it. It blows where it wills. If the Spirit decides to convert a man, it is His sovereign right and prerogative. The hymn writer puts it like this:
I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.
No one can restrain the wind. No one knows what the wind shall decide upon next. Meteorology is a most inexact science. The wind is unpredictable. So it is with the work of the Spirit. It is impossible to constrict the work of the Spirit into a man-made methodological box. He chooses each one that is born from above. This is why some are saved and others are not. This is also why, though the Gospel remains eternal and unchanging, individual experiences of conversion vary from person to person. Some experience sudden, stormy, and dramatic conversions like the Apostle Paul (Acts 9:1 – 19), whereas others, like Lydia (Acts 16:11 – 15), experience the power of the Spirit like a gentle breeze as He opened her heart to believe. Neither experience is more important than the other. Both are majestic, glorious, and sublime works of the Holy Ghost.
1] What does this mean for the Church? One commentator has put it like this:
Becoming a Christian is always a miracle ... Churches which engage in evangelism with integrity will inevitably be prayerful Churches, beseeching God for His intervention to enable dead people to be reborn. Salvation is of God, and no advance in Christian evangelistic methodology will ever eliminate or replace this. As truly today as in the first century, the key to effective mission for the living God is prayer to the living God. Only God can save (Bruce Milne).
The Church must recognise and give honour to the sovereignty of the Spirit in convincing men of sin and creating new life in their hearts. That is why the prayer meeting is so important. ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the people labour in vain’ (Psalm 127:1). We meet to pray for God to do just that – build His Church. The sovereignty of the Spirit is also the reason why we evangelise and preach the Gospel. It is by His power alone that men are truly saved. Don’t we want His power on our side? God has ordained that the preaching of the Gospel is the sole means whereby the Spirit in sovereignty, if it pleases Him, grants newness of life in dead and unbelieving hearts. The main focus in anything which claims to be evangelism must be the Gospel, the Word of God. For this is the only message which the Spirit is pleased to use in working salvation. You remember what Peter says, ‘You have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring Word of God’ (1 Peter 1:23). It pleases God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe (1 Corinthians 1:21). It is precisely because we know that the Spirit has the power to break the chains of sin and bring salvation to dead sinners that we preach the Gospel. It is precisely because God is at the back of evangelism that we ‘go forth and tell’. It is because we know the Spirit will irresistibly and effectively call and regenerate the elect that we evangelise with confidence. The sovereignty of God is no excuse for the apathy of His Church. The point of contact with the unbeliever (in evangelism and apologetics) lies in the fact that deep down inside every man knows he is a creature made in the image of God and yet a sinner under God’s wrath and curse. We must not hesitate to tell men that they are sinners in need of the Saviour, even Christ our Lord. It is our duty, our responsibility and our highest privilege. But, we must leave the work of salvation itself to the Spirit of God.
2] What does all of this mean for the unbeliever? If you would be saved, you must listen to the preaching of God’s word. You must listen and believe. There is no other way of salvation. For in as much as verse eight tells us to be born of the Spirit, verse sixteen reminds us that God so loved the world, His heart beat with so much love for sinners of mankind lost, that He gave His one and only Son, the son of His love, the Son He had cherished from eternity, He gave Him to die in the place of sinners, to bear the punishment and curse their sin deserved, so that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. The duty and responsibly of the sinner is not to cause his own new birth, but to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. You must cry out to God and entrust yourself to His Son. The promise is sure. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved’ (Acts 16:31). Those who truly believe have surely been born of God.
All of this means that the difference between the believer and the unbeliever is a canyon as vast as the cosmos itself. You are either born again, or you are dead in sin. You are either saved or remain condemned. We are either living in the light of the Gospel or walking in the darkness of sin. There is no middle ground. There is no neutrality. Van Til would say that ‘the unbeliever is the man with yellow tinted glasses cemented on his face. He sees himself and his world through these glasses. He cannot remove them. His interpretation of himself and of every fact in the universe relating to himself is, unavoidably, a false interpretation [because he does not see and refuses to acknowledge that God, His Creator and Lord, is at the back of all things]’. Such is the radical distinction between the believer and the unbeliever. It is only when the Spirit of God comes upon such a man in life giving and regenerating power that he at last can see and sing,
Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen
The Spirit alone has the power to remove your sin cemented spectacles. You must cry out to God for such a work. You must plead with Him for newness of life. You must ask that His Spirit would reveal the things of God to you. In short, you must be born again. You cannot see, you cannot enter the kingdom of God, without a new birth. Happy is the man who truly knows he has been born of water and the Spirit. May God grant you the grace to find this newness of life and a living faith in His Son!
References & Further Reading
Commentaries: John Calvin, Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, J. C. Ryle, William Hendriksen, Bruce Milne and D. A. Carson.
Collected Writings of John Murray: Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Banner of Truth), pp. 167–201.
Geoffrey Thomas, The Holy Spirit (RHB), pp. 69–80.
Joel Beeke, ‘The Puritans on Regeneration’, A Puritan Theology (RHB), pp. 463–80.
John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (P&R), pp. 187 – 213. The chapter on the antithesis is useful for understanding the chasm between the regenerate and the unregenerate.
John Murray, ‘Regeneration’, in Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (Banner of Truth), pp. 91–100.
Sinclair Ferguson, ‘Born Again’, in The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Banner of Truth), pp. 47–60.
Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 2nd edition (P&R). The first chapter is a helpful and concise summary of Christian truth.