“Brother, are you born again?”

 

To our surprise, all those who raised their hands were herded into a room where there were some other people waiting. After a few friendly questions about who we are and where we came from, they asked us, “Are you born again?” I was shocked and offended, and wanted to retort back, “What is it that you mean by ‘born again’”?

Ezekiel 36:24-29 a; John 3:1-8 (text)
August 21, 2011 • Download PDF sermon

jesus_nicodemus_tissot

Interview Between Jesus and Nicodemus by James Tissot (1886-94) (click to enlarge)

R. C. Sproul tells of an incident in his life when he was walking on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia. He was alone on the way to the School of Theology, when suddenly a man stood in front of him blocking his way. Then, the man asked him, “Brother, are you saved?” Sproul, probably annoyed and offended, snapped back, “Saved from what?” The man, not knowing how to answer, hurriedly left him, probably thinking that he should have picked an easier target.

I had a similar experience when we visited a Baptist church in the Philippines. Right before the end of the worship service, the pastor asked all the first time visitors to raise their hands to be acknowledged. Being polite, my whole family did, and to our surprise, all those who raised their hands were herded into a room where there were some other people waiting. We were seated at the tables, and after a few friendly questions about who we are and where we came from, they asked us, “Are you born again?” Like R. C. Sproul, I was also shocked and offended, and wanted to retort back, “What is it that you mean by ‘born again’”?

Rick Ritchie, in an article for Modern Reformation magazine, asked, “Was Martin Luther a born-again Christian?” Yes! Jesus said in our text that no one can enter the kingdom of God if he is not born again. No! Not if Luther is a “born-again” Christian the way evangelicals today conceive of Jesus’ words.

In recent surveys, almost half of Americans identified themselves as “born again.” But when asked if they regularly attended church, only about half of these “born again” people said yes! In the Philippines, the word “born again” has also become trivialized, even a derogatory term for televangelist hucksters and people who go to churches where there is loud music, extreme emotions, and humorous sermons. It has also become one of the choices as to religion when filling up forms: Catholic, Protestant, or Born Again.

The term “born again” has become a cheap buzzword among evangelicals so that its true meaning and significance have been lost. Because evangelicalism is so shallow, I suspect that most evangelicals will answer yes to the question, “Are you born again?”, but many will be dumbfounded if asked what being “born again” means and how one is “born again.” For many, being born again means that they walked to the front, raised their hands, prayed the “sinner’s prayer,” signed a commitment card, or shed buckets of a sinner’s tears. But is this really how a person is “born again”?

Today, we will consider the theme: “Brother, Are You Born Again?” under three headings: (1) Necessary for Entering the Kingdom of God; (2) God-Centered; and (3) The Holy Spirit as Sole Agent.

Necessity for Entering the Kingdom of God

John 2:23 is the setting of our text. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast, undoubtedly when the city was full of people celebrating the feast. Jesus performed many miracles on this occasion, and many believed, even though many of them had only superficial faith (vv. 24-25). Jesus knew the hearts of men, and many were only there to see his spectacular miracles. Many Pharisees even equated the miracles of Jesus to demonic power.

But in the night, when no one can see, “a man” named Nicodemus came to Jesus to ask questions. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, well-educated, belonged to the upper classes of society, has a Greek name which means “conqueror of the people,” and was a member of the powerful Jewish Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:49), because he was also called “a ruler of the Jews.” Nicodemus addressed Jesus with great respect as “Rabbi,” and was humble enough to acknowledge that (1) Jesus is a teacher, and (2) he is from God. Nicodemus confirms that the signs that Jesus did are evidence that he is from God.

We have hints that Nicodemus eventually believed in Jesus: John 7:50-51, where he seems to be defending Jesus among the Pharisaical community; and in John 19:39, where he helped prepare the body of Christ for burial after his crucifixion. But Nicodemus also reminds us of another Pharisee: well-educated, belonged to the upper classes of society, a Roman citizen, and has the Law in memory. But all of these, he considered a loss, even dung, compared with knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3:4-6, 10). The apostle Paul shed all his former qualifications after the Spirit of Christ gave him a new birth, a new nature.

Born Again, Born of Water and the Spirit
What does Jesus mean by “born again” and “seeing the kingdom of God?”

The Greek words translated “born again” can also be read “born from above.” There are two Greek words usually translated “again”: both refer to the repetition of an action, as in John 4:46 “So Jesus came again to Cana of Galilee, where he made the water wine.” But the Greek word used here has the added meaning of an action repeated by the same source of the first action. Thus, to be born again is to be born by the Spirit of God, since the first birth, the physical birth, is also by the Spirit of God (read Gen 2:7; Luke 1:35).

Nicodemus, an intellectual, a well-educated Pharisee like Paul, could not comprehend Jesus’ teaching. “Do you really mean I have to go back to my mother’s womb to be able to see the kingdom of God?” Later, in verse 5, Jesus expands on his point, again with emphasis: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” This is parallel to the earlier verse 3: “born again” becomes “born of water and the Spirit,” and “see the kingdom of God” becomes “enter the kingdom of God.

John 3:3: unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.
John 3:5: unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

 
Today, there are also many misconceptions of the term “born again.” Its meaning is of great dispute. Here are some of the most common views, some of which are easily disproved.

First, it means physical birth, accompanied by the release of embryonic fluid from the womb of the mother. This is similar to Nicodemus’ understanding. But the word “water” is never used in relation to physical birth in Scripture. Also, it is too obvious that physical birth must come before spiritual birth, that Jesus will never waste words in this way. The second view is that this refers to water baptism, the view advocated by the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and other denominations. But the text nowhere discusses water baptism. Nor does Scripture allow for baptismal regeneration. The third view is that washing with water is a symbol of regeneration, as when Paul says, “God our Savior … saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Tit 3:5-6; cf 1 Pet 3:21).

The last view is the classic Reformed view. Water is often used as a metaphor of the Holy Spirit, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’. Now this he said about the Spirit” (John 7:37-39; see also John 4:14; Isa 44:3; 55:1). Jesus clearly hearkens back to Ezekiel’s prophecy of an endtime pouring of the Spirit on God’s people in the new covenant,

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from 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 be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek 36:24-28).

Ezekiel sees a time when God will redeem his people who will come from all nations by sprinkling clean water on them—the Holy Spirit—purifying them from all their uncleannesses. This is why Jesus chides Nicodemus for not knowing this, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:9). As a rabbi, he should know what Ezekiel says.

When the Spirit is poured on them, God will make them new creatures by giving them a new heart, soft and pliable, able to be molded according to God’s will. By the indwelling Spirit, they are able to walk and obey God’s commandments. This was inaugurated on the day of Pentecost when God began pouring out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17). Finally, Jesus will return to gather all the elect to himself and take them to the promised heavenly city, where they will be God’s people forever.

Seeing or Entering the Kingdom of God
And what does “seeing the kingdom of God” mean? Both John the Baptist and Jesus inaugurated their ministries with the call, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt 3:2; 4:17). In the New Testament, “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are used interchangeably. By the kingdom of God, Jesus is not talking about an earthly kingdom, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). It is not a visible kingdom, but it is the covenant people of God (Luke 17:20-21). The kingdom is already here, with us—when the Gospel is preached, and the sacraments are administered.

The Holy Scriptures tell us that those who are not born from above, those who are still in their fleshly, natural state, cannot see, cannot understand, and cannot even desire the kingdom of God. They’re actually enemies of the kingdom of heaven (1 Cor. 1:18; 2:14). Matthew tells us that those who are unrighteous (Matt 5:20), those who do not do the will of God (Matt 7:21), those who do not have faith like little children (Matt 18:3), those whose priority is the world’s riches (Matt 19:23), and those who do not share in Christ’s sufferings (Matt 5:10) will not enter the kingdom of God. Only those who have been born of the Spirit can see and enter the kingdom. Those whose spirits are poor, because they admit to their sinful nature, and repent, will see kingdom of heaven (Matt5:3).

God-Centered

Have you ever thought whether you have participated in your own physical conception, development, and birth? No, no one has ever participated in his or her own conception, development, and birth. Only the Spirit of God can create life. This is also what John is pointing out after Nicodemus correctly says in verse 4 that it is impossible for a person to enter the mother’s womb and be born again. This is also what Jesus is arguing when he says, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.”

To be born again, like the first physical birth, is not something that anyone can do. All of us are born with a sinful nature, and slaves to sin. There is nothing we can do by our own will, our own religious efforts, no matter how diligent, no matter how devoted, to change this natural condition. Jeremiah makes this plain, “Can the Ethiopian his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do no good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jer 13:23). John echoes what Jeremiah said centuries before him, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). He cannot please God (Rom. 8:8). He cannot accept the things of God, or understand them (1 Cor. 2:14).

Rebirth is not the only analogy that the Bible uses for explaining a sinner’s regeneration. A second analogy is resurrection. The raising of Lazarus by Jesus is a picture of salvation. How did Lazarus hear Jesus’ call to come out of the tomb when he had been dead for four days? He was given life first! Then he heard the voice of Jesus. From the Old Testament, we read about dry bones being given flesh and the breath of life by the Spirit of God, “And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek 37:6). The giving of the “breath”—same word used for Spirit in Hebrew— of life to the dry bones is a picture of man’s salvation.

If the Spirit of God can give life to Lazarus, Jesus and dry bones when they were dead, our souls can also be resurrected from deadness. So those who believe in Christ “has passed from death to life” (John 5:24-26). This is why Paul says, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:1, 5). In 1 Peter 1, being “born again” is connected to Christ’s resurrection (verse 3) and to the Word of God (verse 23).

The third analogy used for regeneration is new creation. Creatures cannot participate in the work of creation, because only God has the power to create. In the same way that God created light on the first day of the creation week, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” shines in our darkened hearts (2 Cor 4:6). Those who are in Christ are new creations; the old has passed away, and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). Not only are believers new creations; they were created in Christ for good works (Eph 2:10).

Jesus says, “apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Without his Spirit, you cannot bear any spiritually good fruit. Yes, to the eyes of the carnal person and to the eyes of the world, his works may be good and worthy of praise. But in the sight of God, they are as filthy rags. Because without faith in Christ, it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). In this condition of no spiritual rebirth, we cannot see or enter the kingdom of God. Those who have been resurrected in Christ will live a new life (Rom 6:4).

Many evangelicals believe that we can enter the kingdom of God by our own free will. They tell the unregenerate – if you just pray the sinner’s prayer, if you just make a decision to follow Christ, if you just raise your hands and walk down the aisle, if you just do this or that thing – then you will be born again. What a tragedy! No one can make his own decision to cause his own new birth. This is tragic because almost half of Americans think they’re born again, when many of them will not enter the kingdom of heaven, and will be rejected by Jesus on Judgment Day: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt 7:23). They were not born of the Spirit of God from above, but depended on their own free will or righteousness—a false assurance.

But you might be thinking, If I don’t make my own decision to be saved, how can I be born again? This brings us to our third and last heading: the new birth depends, not on human will or exertion (Rom. 9:16), but only on the Spirit of God.

The Holy Spirit as Sole Agent

After these sayings, Nicodemus is confused, dumbfounded, and astonished. “How can these things be? If it’s not my own will, my own obedience to the Law of Moses, then how else can I enter the kingdom of heaven?” So Jesus says to him in verses 7-8,

“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.”

What does Jesus mean when he says, “The wind blows where it wishes”? It is God’s good pleasure to give rebirth to anyone he pleases to give it to. Unconditional election is God’s basis for giving new birth—he gives new life to those whom he had chosen before the foundation of the world, according to the purpose of his will (Eph 1:4, 6). He sends his Spirit to give saving faith and repentance to his chosen ones. Yes, even the faith and repentance that we think we have—through our own free will—are not from us! They are gifts of God, so that we cannot boast (Eph 2:8-9; 2 Tim 2:25). The Spirit gives us new hearts that are not hostile to God, hearts that seek after God, hearts that acknowledges our hopelessly sinful condition, and hearts that asks mercy and forgiveness from God. The Spirit is the one who draws us to the Father so we can come to Christ (John 6:44). The Holy Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to our hearts.

Because we don’t know where the wind is coming from or where it is going, we will never know whom God will choose to breathe his life-giving Spirit. There is a play on the word for “wind” and “spirit” in both the Greek and Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “wind” (or “breath”) is the same word for “spirit” (Gen. 1:2; Ezek. 36:26, 27; 37:9-10, 14). The Greek word for “wind” is also used for “spirit.” Jesus is using this play on words to illustrate the work of the Holy Spirit on his chosen people. We can’t see the wind. We know it’s there because we could feel it blowing, and we can see flags fluttering, and leaves rustling. We can only know in which direction it is blowing by the direction of the waving flag.

Against this Biblical truth of the mystery of a sinner’s regeneration is a common practice in evangelical youth ministry. On the last night of camp, the youth sit around a bonfire, singing romantic, sentimental songs. Moving testimonies are told. The youth leader gives a touching message. And finally, when the emotions are all high, he gently asks all those crying teens one by one, “Have you been born again? Have you accepted Christ in all your heart? If anyone cannot pinpoint the exact date when he or she was born again, everyone assumes that this person is not yet a Christian. What a perversion of Jesus’ teaching on the mystery of spiritual rebirth!

In the same way, we do not see the Spirit giving new birth to a person. We don’t see it replacing our hard hearts with soft hearts, or changing our sinful wills to Christ-seeking wills. What we can see are brothers and sisters walking in the Spirit. People who used to be sexually immoral, enemies of God, angry, envious, divisive, drunkards, addicts, and criminals are now full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. What happened to them? They have been born again by the Spirit of God, and the fruits of the Spirit show in their lives.

Conclusion

Beloved people of God, no labor of your hands could atone for your sins and save you. Even the faith that enabled us to trust in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was given to us by the Spirit of God. This is how you are born of God or born from above: God gives you a new spirit and a new heart, and you become a new creation. And the evidence of this new birth is the saving faith by which God enables you to believe in his only begotten Son that you may have eternal life.

But you may be saying, “This is all well and good. But how do I know I am born again and born from God by the Holy Spirit?” Scripture also tells us. The apostle John, writing later in his first epistle, lists five different ways in which you can know:

First, “everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29). Earlier, the fruits of the Spirit were mentioned as evidence of being born again.

Second, “no one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:9). We’re still sinners, but this is no excuse to continually sin.

Third, “everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1). Belief on the humanity and the deity of Jesus is a necessary fruit of the new birth.

Fourth, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4), because friendship with the world is enmity with God.

Fifth, “he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18). Those who are born again are careful to protect themselves from temptations.

Do you have these evidences that assure you that you have been born again, born from above, born of water and the Spirit? If so, be assured that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. But if you don’t have these evidences in your life, continue to ask God for mercy on your soul, that he may grant you the new birth in the Spirit. And when you find yourself believing that God has forgiven you of all your sins through the righteousness of Christ, and not your own, then you may be assured that you have been born again.

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