Posted by: stpowen | July 1, 2010

The New Birth (1) – Introduction: ‘You must be Born Again.’

The New Birth (1) – Introduction: ‘You must be Born Again.’

 “ There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews”    (John 3v1)

 I have been wanting for some time to write something on the doctrine of the New Birth.  It seems to me to be one of the most basic and important doctrines of Christianity and at the same time one of the most abused and neglected.  Modern evangelicalism seems to be based on encouraging people to make ‘decisions for Christ’ without regard for their spiritual state, while many Presbyterian or Anglican churches that would call themselves ‘reformed’ follow a doctrine of ‘Presumptive Regeneration’ which states that Christian parents may ‘presume’ that their child is or will be born again.  The most extreme form of this doctrine suggests that it is normal for the unborn offspring of Christians to be, as it were, born again before they have been born the first time! (1)

It is the case that the Church of Christ has prospered most when the New Birth has been widely preached.  This was most clearly seen during the Great Awakening of the 18th Century.  The evangelist George Whitefield was asked why he preached so many sermons on the text, ‘Ye must be born again.’  “Because,” he replied, “Ye must be born again.”  During every other period of revival also, the doctrine of the New Birth has been exalted in preaching.  We need to pray for a new generation of preachers who will have the courage to go the length and breadth of the country as Wesley and Whitefield did, preaching the fallenness of man and his inability to save himself, the substitutary atonement for sin of Christ upon the cross and the New Birth.  Without such preaching, we shall not see revival.  

 My intention is to give an extended exposition of John 3:1-15 and associated verses.  A commentary on John’s Gospel will normally have something to say about the New Birth (2) and books about the Holy Spirit will surely give at least one chapter to it (3).  Books wholly devoted to the doctrine of Regeneration seem to be rare however (4), and I am not aware of any that adopt the approach that I intend to follow, so I hope that this series of articles (there will be at least six, God willing) will be of help and information to some.

 Which do you think might be the most important conversation in the whole Bible?   Surely there can be none more vital than that which took place one night between the Lord Jesus Christ and the Pharisee, Nicodemus?   Here, more fully than in any other place in the Bible, is explained the doctrine of the New Birth.   If anyone wishes to attain Heaven and avoid Hell, it is vital that this teaching, perhaps above all others, is clearly understood.

 The man who came to see the Lord Jesus that night was no ordinary Israelite;  we are told that he was a ‘ruler of the Jews’ which means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, or ruling Council.   Moreover, since our Lord asked him (v10), “are you the teacher of Israel?”, we may suppose not only that Nicodemus was a scribe or teacher of the Law of Moses, but also that he was a foremost authority on that Law, a man of considerable prestige within the religious hierarchy of Jerusalem.   We are also told that Nicodemus belonged to the sect of the Pharisees, or “separated ones.”   The Pharisees were a sect that had grown up during the period between the Old and New Testaments.   They believed that all the woes that had befallen the Jewish nation were due to its failure to observe the Law.   They therefore taught a minute and fastidious observance of all the rules laid down by Moses in the first five books of the Bible, and then added to these regulations with many traditions which they believed Moses had passed on verbally to their forefathers (cf. Mark 7:5; Gal.1:14 etc.).   Our Lord came into conflict with the Pharisees on several occasions, notably over their over-precise practice of tithing (Matt. 23:23) and the question of ceremonial washing.   For the Pharisees practised their separation by continually washing themselves, their clothes, their cooking utensils and anything else they felt might have become ceremonially unclean.   The reader might do well to pause here and read Mark 7:1-16.

 What, then, led this eminent and fastidious man to sneak into the Lord Jesus’ lodging place in the dead of night to consult with this relatively unknown and untrained rabbi?   For we may be sure that the reason he came by night was to avoid being seen by his fellow-clerics.   If we look back at John 2, we can see that our Lord must already have upset the chief priests and Pharisees by throwing the merchants and money-changers out of the Temple area, and they would have been further incensed by His prophetic words of verse 19.   Here was the start of the implacable opposition of the religious authorities to Christ’s ministry, which, in the providence of God, would culminate in His death at Calvary.

 Yet something attracted Nicodemus to Jesus.   The first thing, no doubt, was the miracles.   John tells us (2:23) that the Lord performed many miracles whilst He was in Jerusalem.   Nicodemus must surely have witnessed some of them, and they made an impression on him.   “No one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (3:2).   But there must have been something else that drew Nicodemus.   After all, the other Pharisees saw these same miracles and were only hardened in their opposition (12:37).   No, there was a power that brought Nicodemus to Jesus, reluctantly, furtively, shyly- the power of God through the Holy Spirit (6:44).   It is this power and God’s way of saving sinners that form the substance of this book.

 It is possible that Nicodemus was not alone among the Pharisees in his attraction to Jesus.  He declares, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God.”  It seems likely that there was a little group of Pharisees and teachers of the Law who wanted to know more about our Lord, and they elected Nicodemus to be their spokesman.  Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea was one of them (John 19:38-39).

 When Nicodemus came face to face with Jesus, something very remarkable happened;  our Lord did not allow him to ask his question- He interrupted him and answered it before he could ask it.  Nicodemus starts by saying, “Rabbi, 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”.   Clearly, he has a question to ask and is working up to it, but Jesus already knew the answer before Nicodemus ever spoke.   ‘[He] had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man’ (2:25).   He looked into Nicodemus’ heart, saw his need and ministered to it. 

 What was the question that Nicodemus came to ask but never did?    We cannot know for certain, but perhaps it was along these lines;   “Jesus, I am a successful man.   I am acknowledged to be the foremost authority on the Hebrew Scriptures.   I minister to the whole nation of Israel.   Yet Your teaching has a certain authority which mine lacks (Matt. 7:29).   Moreover, Your ministry is clearly approved by God as You are able to perform these astounding miracles.   What I want to know is this;  what is lacking in my ministry?   What do I need to add to my teaching to make it like Yours?”   But the Lord Jesus cuts him short, saying, in effect, “Nicodemus, in the eyes of God, all your piety, all your book-learning, all your outward obedience are so much dross because your heart is all wrong  (cf. Luke 16:15).   Far from being close to God, you are actually spiritually dead in trespasses and sin and under His wrath and judgment.   There is no question of adding on something to make you more acceptable to God.   You need a new heart, a new nature, a new spiritual life;  a change so radical that it can only be described as a new birth.   Without it, you will never so much as see the Kingdom of God, let alone enter it.”   Nicodemus needed to be stripped of all confidence in himself, whether in his ancestry (Phil. 3:3ff), his erudition (John 5:39), his piety (Luke 18:9ff) or any other hope he might have had of making himself right with God.   And what was true of Nicodemus is true of everyone.   Nothing short of a new birth can make us acceptable to God and bring us into His Kingdom.  

 Notes

 1. This is part of the doctrine put forward by the adherents of Federal Vision.  See for example, Paedofaith by Rich Lusk (Athanasius Press, 2005).   I hope, God willing, to attach a critique of this pernicious doctrine as part of my teaching.

 2. Notably J. C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on John Vol. I (Banner of Truth, 1987. ISBN 0 85151 504 5).

 3. I particularly recommend The Holy Spirit by A. W. Pink (Baker Book House, 1978. ISBN 0 8010 7041 4).  Chapters 9-20 are very helpful on the work of the Spirit in the New Birth.

 4.  The last half of Redemption, Accomplished & Applied by John Murray (Banner of Truth, 1961. ISBN 0 85151 040 X) is very good.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

 

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Responses

  1. Marprelate wrote:
    while many Presbyterian or Anglican churches that would call themselves ‘reformed’ follow a doctrine of ‘Presumptive Regeneration’ which states that Christian parents may ‘presume’ that their child is or will be born again. The most extreme form of this doctrine suggests that it is normal for the unborn offspring of Christians to be, as it were, born again before they have been born the first time!

    That was the impression too that I got from reading Baxter’s Catholick Theologie where he discusses the meaning of the Baptismal Covenant (for infants) and speaks how that relates to the Covenant of Grace. He does presume the children to be Christians, unless otherwise shown to be not Christians. You know in the same vein as “assumed innocent unless otherwise proven guilty”. Dangerous theology …. but from my understanding with talking to some Presbyterians … they don’t follow that understanding. Maybe it is only with the Federal Vision, though I must admit I have not met one yet …

  2. Hello Jade,
    I think that if you browse some of the posts on the Puritan Board and elsewhere you will find that a worryingly large number of Presbyterians believe in either Presumptive Regeneration or Presumptive Election. Practically, there’s not much difference between them.

    Even the famous Anglican Bishop Ryle, when trying to explain away some of the words in the 1662 Anglican Prayer Book, declared that Anglicans ‘presumed’ that the children of believers were regenerate. this view can be fatal for young children when their parents assume that they are saved and tell them so, when in fact they are actually nothing of the sort. It makes them Gospel-proof. Why should they listen to a preacher telling them to repent and trust in Christ when their minister and their parents are telling them that they’re Christians already?


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