What does that mean?
“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and [of] the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:1-8)
Much has been said and written about Nicodemus, about him coming to the Lord Jesus by night, and about our Lord’s discourse with him on the new birth. Many debate about whether Nicodemus ever was born again. Much has been said and written about the meaning of the word “water” in verse 5. I will deliberately pass by all those things without comment, because I want to focus your attention on our Lord’s message to Nicodemus. His message to Nicodemus is his message to sinners today. It is plain and clear. We have it stated with utmost clarity and simplicity in verse 7. — “Ye must be born again!”
“Born again” — What does that mean? These days, almost everyone talks about being born again; but virtually no one knows what the Word of God teaches about the new birth. Therefore, I want to address the subject in simple, clear, unmistakable terms. I want all who read these pages to understand what the new birth is and how it is accomplished. More importantly, I want you to be born again. May God be pleased to make it so, for Christ’s sake.
The religious world around us, in its apostate rejection of the truth of God, has made the new birth to be nothing more than making a decision, walking an aisle, and saying a prayer. Because of their abuse and error regarding the new birth, our tendency might be to shy away from using the term “born again,” lest we be identified with those who deny the gospel of Christ. But, no matter how much men may pervert the language and the doctrine of Christ, our Lord’s admonition to Nicodemus still stands. It is as necessary and urgent today as it was when he first made it more than two thousand years ago. — “Ye must be born again!”
“Ye must be born again!” — You may have been in the church for years and yet be without Christ. You may have made a profession of faith a long time ago and still be without life before God. May God the Holy Spirit cause you to hear the Savior’s word to Nicodemus and grant you his grace. — “Ye must be born again!” Read those five words, and ask God to give you wisdom and grace to understand what they mean. — “Ye must be born again!”
Here is a personal word — “Ye.” This message is for you. I know you are moral. I know you are religious. I know that you are well instructed in doctrinal truth. So was Nicodemus. He was a well respected religious leader, a Pharisee, and a ruler among the Jews. Nicodemus was a teacher who taught the teachers. He was a preacher, but more. Nicodemus was a preacher who taught preachers. He was a theologian. This was a man of highest rank in the Jewish church. But he was spiritually dead. He was without life before God. He was totally ignorant of all things spiritual. He was a lost man. If you are yet without life toward God, I have this word from God for you — “You must be born again.”
Here is a pressing word — “Must.” “Time is short.” “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” This is not a good recommendation. This is not wholesome advice. This is imperative. This is vital. This is a necessity. “You must be born again!” Otherwise, you will perish in your sins. You will die under the wrath of God! Hell will be your portion forever!
Here is a passive word — “Be.” The new birth is not something you do. It is something done to you, something God does for you and in you. A man has no more to do with his spiritual birth than he does with his natural birth. In this matter of regeneration man is passive. He has nothing to do with the work (John 1:12-13). You cannot save yourself. You cannot give yourself life. You cannot be born again by something you do (Titus 3:4-6): not by moral reformation, not by baptism, not by religious fervor and devotion, not even by faith in Christ.
Faith in Christ is not the cause of the new birth. It is the result of the new birth. We believe according to the working of God’s mighty power, by the operation of his grace (Ephesians 1:19; 2:8; Colossians 2:11-12). The new birth is something done to you, for you, and in you by God’s sovereign, irresistible grace. It is not something you do. “You must BE born again!”
I fully agree with what Martin Luther had to say in this regard. — “If any man ascribes anything of salvation, even the very least thing, to the free will of man, he knows nothing of grace, and he has not learned Jesus Christ rightly.”
Here is a powerful word — “Born.” I am talking to you about a gift; but it is not just any ordinary gift. I am talking to you about the gift of life, eternal life. When our Lord declares, “Ye must be born again,” he is saying you must be the object and recipient of Divine power. Just as God created the world, God must create life in your soul. Just as God breathed into Adam and made him a living soul, so God must breathe into you the breath of life by his Spirit, or you will perish in your sins. This is what I am saying: — You are spiritually dead, helplessly lost by nature. Your only hope is that God the Holy Spirit will give you life. — “You must be born again!”
Here is a profound word — “Again.” The new birth is a mystery of grace. It cannot be explained; neither can it be fully understood. It is a work of God beyond our comprehension. When our Lord says, “Ye must be born again,” his meaning is twofold. The word again has two meanings. First, it means, “You must be born from above.” James tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”— Then he tells us what he is teaching in the next verse. — “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth” (James 1:17-18).
Second, it means, “You must be born a second time.” Your first birth was of sinful parents, and you were born in their image. The second birth is of God, and we are born in his image. — The first birth was of corruptible seed. The second birth is of incorruptible seed. — Our first birth is in sin. Our second birth is in righteousness. — By our first birth we were polluted and unclean. By our second birth we become holy. — Our first birth was fleshly and carnal. Our second birth is spiritual and makes us spiritual. — By the first birth all men are foolish and ignorant. By our second birth we become wise unto salvation. — By our first birth we were slaves to sin and the lusts of the flesh. By our second birth we are made free from the dominion of sin. — By our first birth we are all children of wrath. By our second birth we are children of promise. Our Lord says, “Ye must be born again,” because we were all born wrong the first time.
Our Lord said, “Ye must be born again,” because none shall ever enter into glory except those who are born again by the power and grace of God the Holy Spirit and made to live in and by the Lord Jesus Christ.
In order for God to save a sinner two things must be done. God must do something for you. And God must do something in you. Redemption is the work of God for sinners. Regeneration is the work of God in sinners. Both are the works of God. Man has nothing more to do with regeneration than he has to do with redemption. — “Salvation is of the Lord!”
“Not all the outward forms on earth,
Nor rites that God has given,
Nor will of man, nor blood, nor birth,
Can raise a soul to heaven.
The sovereign will of God alone
Creates us heirs of grace;
Born in the image of His Son,
A new peculiar race.”
Why must we be born again? There are many answers to that question in the Word of God. But we will stay with our text. Our Lord gave Nicodemus three reasons why he must be born again. These three things make it imperative that you must be born again.
1st Unless you are born again you cannot understand anything spiritual. — “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3). The natural man is totally void of spiritual understanding. You may be a logical, reasonable, rational, and well educated person among men, but with regard to the things of God you are as ignorant, foolish, and unreasonable as a madman, unless you are born again. You have no capacity for spiritual knowledge (Romans 8:5; 1 Corinthians 2:14). The heart of stone is hard, cold, unbending, unaffected.
You cannot see the spiritual nature of God’s law (Matthew 5:21, 27, 38, 43, 48). You cannot see the spiritual nature of sin (Matthew 15:17-19). You cannot see the glory of God in redemption (Romans 3:24-26). You cannot see the spiritual condition of your own heart (Jeremiah 17:9). You cannot see the spiritual nature of salvation. It is a heart work (Ezekiel 36:25-27). You cannot see the spiritual nature of obedience to God (1 Samuel 16:7; Romans 14:17). (All human religion is carnal. It has to do with carnal things.) You cannot see the spiritual nature of faith and worship (Philippians 3:3). You cannot see the true character of God (Exodus 33:18-34:7). You cannot see the glory of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). You cannot see the gospel of the grace of God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
2nd Unless you are born again by almighty grace, you can never enter into the kingdom of God. — “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (v. 5). You can reform your life without the new birth. You can be baptized without the new birth. You can join the church, be zealous in religion, teach a Bible class, serve as a deacon or elder, you can even preach with great success without being born again. But unless you are born again, you will never enter the kingdom of God. You will never be a part of the church and family of God. You will never have eternal life. You will never enter into the worship and fellowship of God’s saints. You will never be admitted into the presence of God’s glory in the bliss of heaven (Revelation 20:6; 21:27).
3rd All flesh is defiled. — “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6). All flesh is corrupt. All flesh is sinful. All flesh is condemned. All flesh must die. The flesh is your natural, sinful self (Psalm 51:5; 58:3; Romans 5:12; Revelation 20:11-15). Unless you are born of the Spirit, you will die in your sins, and your flesh shall be justly damned.
What is the new birth? I cannot explain the mystery of the new birth. It is one of God’s incomprehensible works. But there are several things in the Word of God which identify God’s regenerating grace.
To be born again is to be raised from the dead (Ephesians 2:1-5). To be born again is to be made a partaker of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). In regeneration a new nature is created in our souls, so that men and women upon the earth are born in the image of God (Galatians 5:22). Christ is formed in us (Colossians 1:27). To be born again is to have Christ formed in us (Galatians 4:19). To have eternal life is to have the Lord Jesus Christ living in you (Galatians 2:20). To be born again is to have a good seed implanted in you by grace (1 John 3:9-10). By nature we are all sprung from bad seed — Adam. But in regeneration we are sprung from good Seed — The Lord Jesus Christ.
In a word, to be born again is to be made a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). In the new birth God gives chosen, redeemed sinners a new heart to know and love God, a new will to bow to the rule of Christ, a new mind to understand the things of God, a new, spiritual nature to know, enjoy, and live upon spiritual things, new eyes, eyes of faith, with which to see Christ, new ears with which to hear his voice, new hands, hands of faith, with which to lay hold of Christ and do his will, new feet, with which to flee to Christ and walk with him in the newness of life.
Here is the great difference between the law and the gospel. The law demands everything, but gives nothing. The gospel demands nothing, and gives everything!
“’Run, run and work,’ the law demands,
Yet gives me neither feet nor hands;
But sweet, good news the gospel brings.
It bids me fly, and gives me wings!
With these my heavy soul may fly
Away to Christ and reach the sky,
Nor faint, nor falter in the race,
But work with cheer and sing of grace!”
How are sinners born again by the Spirit of God? Anyone who understands the nature of man and the nature of the new birth realizes that Divine, sovereign power and grace is required to give dead sinners life. Moral reason cannot give sinners life. Eloquence and logic cannot do it. Emotional stirrings cannot regenerate. A mere exercise of the will cannot give the dead life. — “Ye must be born again.”
Regeneration is the sovereign, irresistible work of God the Holy Spirit. — “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (v. 8). At the time appointed by God, the Holy Spirit comes to the sinner who was chosen by grace in eternal election and redeemed by Christ at Calvary, and creates life in that sinner by his sovereign, irresistible, effectual grace (Galatians 4:4-7).
The instrument by which the Holy Spirit causes men and women to be born again is the gospel of Christ (vv. 12-16).
“If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (vv. 12-16)
“It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” — “Of his own will begat he us with the Word of Truth.” — Sinners are “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God which liveth and abideth forever…And this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you.”
In preaching the gospel we call upon dead sinners to arise (Ephesians 5:14), knowing full well that the dead cannot hear and obey the command of the gospel. But if God the Holy Spirit will be pleased to speak through his Word, the dead shall hear and live (John 5:25; Revelation 20:6).
How are lost, dead, helpless sinners born again? If one picture is worth a thousand words, let me point you to four thousand words of explanation given in Holy Scripture. How are sinners born again? You must be born again in the same way and by the same power displayed when…
Poor, lost, dead sinners are born again by the will of God, by sovereign operations of God the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the gospel (1 Peter 23-25).
When is a sinner born again? I have no interest in answering the foolish questions of men about the chronological sequence of events in a man’s salvation. But I do want to show you when a person may with confidence say, “I am born again by the grace of God.” When you know Christ, you are born again (John 17:3). When you believe on Christ, you are born again (John 3:15, 36; Isaiah 45:22). — “He that believeth on the Son of God hath everlasting life.” When you have Christ, you are born again (1 John 5:10-13). Get Christ and you get life. Miss Christ and you miss life.
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