Posted by: stpowen | July 3, 2010

The New Birth (2) – The Necessity of being Born Again

Chapter  Two

So  Who  Needs  A  New  Birth?

      “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.   Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘you must be born again.’” (John 3vs6-7)

                “You must be born again”.   What do these words conjure up in your mind as you read them?   Is it perhaps a picture of some bewigged eighteenth century evangelist calling out to an open-air meeting on Clapham Common, or is it,  perhaps, of a “blood and thunder” preacher in the deep South of the U.S.A. during the 1920s scaring the life out of his congregation?   But surely no one would use such a term today?   There seems to be something in the statement rather against the spirit of the age;  something too uncompromising, too final for most people.   Surely religion should be comforting, comfortable even, not harsh, unyielding and dogmatic?   Surely there must be some way of evading the urgency and pointed nature of our Lord’s words?   In the majority of churches in Britain, one hears this doctrine preached so seldom that it is not unreasonable to ask, “Just how important is this new birth business?”   The Lord Jesus, however, does not leave us without a very clear answer.  We shall see from our Lord’s own words that the New Birth is a three-fold necessity.  It is an absolute and vital necessity; it is a universal necessity, and it is an inevitable and a consequential necessity.  We need a second birth because of our first.

 Firstly then, the New Birth is an absolute necessity for two reasons:  because of who says it, and because of the way He says it.  It is the Lord Jesus Christ who is speaking here, the Lord of lords and King of kings.  It is He who tells us with all His absolute authority, ‘You must be born again!’  Moreover, we saw in the last chapter that Jesus appeared to interrupt Nicodemus as he was about to ask his question;  “What is the special something You have, and how can I attain to it?”.   Our Lord cut him short and declared (v3), “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God”.   Now, in the normal run of conversation, no one says, “Most assuredly I say to you”, we just go ahead and say it;  so what does this phrase mean?   Well, a literal translation would be, “Amen, amen, I say to you….”.   The word, amen means, ‘so be it’ or ‘truly’, or indeed, ‘assuredly’.   When we say, ‘amen’ at the end of a prayer, we are saying that we are serious about our prayer and also that we have faith that God will bring it to pass.   Throughout the Gospels, the Lord Jesus uses the term to underline the importance of what He is about to say, as we might say, “Look, I’m telling you….”, or, “take my word for it…..”, or, “believe me….”.   Or as a scholar or a businessman, when he receives a long but important document, uses an outline pen to pick out the key phrases that he needs to commit to memory, so this phrase is our Lord’s way of drawing attention to a particularly important point.   As if that does not attach sufficient importance to what He is saying, He repeats the whole formula in verse five and sums it up again in verse seven.   All the words of our Lord are true and trustworthy and to be obeyed, but here He exhausts human language as He stresses this vital doctrine.

 Secondly, it is a universal necessity.  If we are agreed on the importance of the text, the next question that arises is, “Who is it important for?”   Who actually needs this New Birth?   Is it just for humanists and atheists, who are so totally blind to spiritual matters that only something as radical as a new birth will set them on the right track?   Not at all;  the Lord Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, a man steeped in religion and the Scriptures since childhood, the foremost teacher in all Israel.   Surely, if anyone could do without this New Birth, it is he?   Yet it is to him that our Lord says, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God”.   Notice the way that Jesus drives the point home here;  He starts with the general statement, “Unless one is born….”.   That is completely universal.   “One” (Greek.  tis) means anyone.   How many people get into the Kingdom without being born again?   None!   But just in case Nicodemus thinks that he is some sort of special case being a Pharisee and a Bible teacher and all, our Lord personalizes the whole thing in verse seven, before opening it out again;  “You, Nicodemus”, He is saying;  “You, with your knowledge of the Scriptures and your spiritual background are the last person who should be surprised when I say, ‘you (and everyone else) must be born again’”.   The old Authorized Version with its Seventeenth Century language is helpful here;  “Marvel not that I said unto thee, ‘Ye must be born again’”.   You, the reader of this article, whoever you may be, however outwardly decent and righteous you are, unless you experience a spiritual change so radical that it can only be described as a new birth, you will remain forever outside of God’s Kingdom, outside of His mercy and under His righteous anger against sin.  The New Birth is a universal necessity, for you and for everyone.

 The next question that comes to mind is, “Why must I be born again?”.   If someone goes to church, does his best to live a good life and to help other people, why does he need to be born again?   Simply because, without a second birth, he will neither see the Kingdom of God, nor enter it.   Now, the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew’s Gospel describes it) deserves a book on its own, but very briefly it is the Kingdom ushered in by the Lord Jesus (Mark 1v15).   It rules now in the hearts of believers who worship Him as their King (Psalm 110:1-3;  Luke 17:21), and it will reach fulfillment when He comes again to reign in glory.   So what does it mean not to see the Kingdom of God?   How is that different from not entering it?   Well, the verb ‘to see’ can mean more than to make visual contact.   If someone is explaining a difficult concept to you, he or she might ask, “Do you see it?”, and you might reply, “Yes, I see what you mean,”  indicating that you understand or comprehend what has been said to you.

  So, unless someone is born again, not only will he or she not enter the Kingdom of God and experience its joys and blessings in this world and the next, but he cannot even understand fully what it is all about.   We need no better example of this than Nicodemus himself;  he doesn’t see the kingdom because he doesn’t recognize the King.   “You are a teacher come from God,” he says.   He sees Jesus only as a man;  a very remarkable one, certainly, and one with special powers and a special mission, but just a man and a teacher like himself.   So when our Lord starts to talk to him about the New Birth, he totally misses the point.   “How can a man be born when he is old?” he asks (v4).   “You’re talking riddles, Jesus”, and later on, he just throws up his hands in bewilderment;  “How can these things be?”, he cries (v9);  “I just don’t know what you’re talking about!”.   This leads us to the key verse of the whole doctrine;  ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (v6).   When the New Tsetament speaks of ‘the flesh,’ it is ususally speaking of unredeemed, sinful human nature.  ‘Without being born again by the Holy Spirit, one simply cannot understand spiritual matters. The Apostle Paul explains this in more detail (Rom. 8:7); ‘……..because the carnal (or ‘fleshly’) mind is enmity against God;  for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can it be’;  and again in 1Cor. 2:14, he says, ‘….the natural man (that is, anyone not born again) does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him;  nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’.   The situation of men and women before God is desperate;  they are fallen and lost- ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Eph. 2:1).   It is a position from which no one can raise or improve himself by his own efforts, nor by any human aid.   Only a new birth can save us.  

The doctrine being taught here is that of Original Sin.   Genesis 2 tells us that God created the first man and woman sinless and perfect and placed them in a perfect environment in a close relationship with Himself.   Everything was provided for them and death was unknown.   There was only one restriction:-

 ‘And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree in the garden you may freely eat;  but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”’   (Gen. 2:16f).

  This is what theologians call the Covenant of Works.   God promised Adam eternal life in a perfect environment in return for simple obedience.   “Do this and live!”, but Adam fell and we fell with him and we die.   ‘Therefore, through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all men sinned’ (Rom. 5:12).   Sinfulness is something we are born with (Psalm 51:5).   As has often been noted, a little baby needs to be taught just about everything in life, except how to disobey or to be bad.  You have to teach them to be clean, to hold a knife and fork, but not how to be naughty.  No one ever has to say to a little child, “Now Johnny, this is how you tell a lie; you have to think of something that isn’t true and say that it is.”  Or, “This is how you can be selfish, Janet; you keep your toys to yourself and don’t let your sister play with them.”  No, children discover these things for themselves without any help at all!  Willfulness and disobedience come to a child as naturally as eating or breathing.   Parents can and should teach their children to adopt reasonable standards of behaviour, but they can do nothing to deal with indwelling sin. 

The Bible tells us that this sin pervades all of us (Eccl. 7:20), every part of us (Isaiah 1vs5-6), and that we cannot, by our own efforts, do anything to change our condition.   ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?   Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil’ (Jer. 13:23).   Sin is not just something which affects axe-murderers or rapists, it is a falling short of the just standards which God has set for us and it pervades us all, the Pharisee as well as the tax collector (Luke 18:9ff);  and as we have seen, sin does not only affect man’s conduct, it pollutes his mind, heart and will, preventing him from understanding and responding to the things of God.   As a result of sin, the whole of mankind lies under the righteous anger of God.   Pause now, and read Romans 1:18-32.   As His creatures, we owe God a debt of obedience, which, by our very nature, we are by no means able to pay.   Yet, in His mercy, He has provided for us a way of salvation which reaches our helpless condition without offending His standard of righteousness:-

  ‘For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another.   But when the kindness and the love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, Whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Saviour’ (Titus 3:3-6).   Christ upon the cross paid the penalty for His people’s sins;  His perfect obedience and sinless life have been credited to those who repent and place their trust in Him as their personal Lord and Saviour.   But the believer also needs a new nature to enable him or her to live a life worthy of so wonderful a Redeemer.   This is the essence of being born again.   Faith to believe and the New Birth are essentially gifts of God.   Do you know anything of the New Birth?   Have you experienced it?   If so, take some time now to give Him thanks.                                                                

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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