Ezekiel 36:24-29a; John 3:1-8 (text)
November 8, 2015 (BSCC) • Download this sermon (PDF)
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.
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! The word “born again” has become so trivialized that it has become a derogatory term for televangelist hucksters and people who go to churches where there is loud music, extreme emotions, and humorous sermons.
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, our theme is: “Brother, Are You Born Again?” under three headings: (1) Necessary for Entering God’s Kingdom; (2) God-Centered Regeneration; and (3) The Spirit as Sole Agent.
Necessary for Entering God’s Kingdom
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 Biblical evidence that Nicodemus eventually believed in Jesus: In 7:50-51, where he seems to be defending Jesus among the Pharisaical community; and in 19:39, where he helped prepare the body of Christ for burial after his crucifixion.
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. 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. The third view is that washing with water is a symbol of regeneration, as when Paul says, “God our Savior … saved us… by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit…” (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 our reading of Ezekiel’s prophecy of an endtime pouring of the Spirit on God’s people in the new covenant. 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 (Matt 5:3).
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” (v. 6).
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, 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 accept the things of God, or even 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. Also, Ezekiel 37 tells us about dry bones being given flesh and the breath of life by the Spirit of God, because it is impossible for skeletons to resurrect themselves. 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 and the 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; see also Eph 2:1, 5; 1 Pet 1:3, 23).
The third analogy used for regeneration is 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, Christ enlightens 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). Those who have been resurrected in Christ will live a new life (Rom 6:4).
Most 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 many of them think they are born again, when many of them will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 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 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 tells him about the work of the Holy Spirit through an analogy with the wind. 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. 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.
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.
Dear Friends in Christ, 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.