Posted by: stpowen | July 8, 2010

The New Birth (3). The Source of the New Birth

What  Is  The  Source  Of  The  New  Birth?

              That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3v6).

 Once the necessity of being born again has been proved, the next question is, “How do I get this new birth?   Where does it come from?   Is it something I can get for myself, or does someone else have to give it to me?   If I lack it, where should I look for it, and if I have it, to whom do I give thanks?”   These questions have led to some of the most heated theological arguments throughout the centuries;  it was the issue between Augustine of Hippo and the followers of Pelagius in the Fifth Century;  it was at the heart of the doctrine of the Reformers when they split from the Church of Rome; it cropped up again at the Synod of Dort in Holland in 1618;  it divided the General and Particular Baptists in the Seventeenth Century,  Whitefield and Wesley in the Eighteenth, and ‘Old School’ and ‘New School’ theology in America in the Nineteenth.   It rumbles on between the ‘neo-evangelical’ and ‘Reformed’ churches in Britain today.   More importantly, it was the question that Paul threshed out with the Galatians (eg. Gal. 3:3), and the point of division between our Lord and the Pharisees (eg. Matt. 23:4;  John 6 :28f).   The question is this:  is the New Birth monergistic or synergistic?  Is it attributable solely to God, or is it something in which Man must also take a part?

 The teaching of the Lord Jesus as He spoke to Nicodemus could hardly be more clear;  the mighty power that gives new life to sinners comes from God, the Holy Spirit, and from Him alone.   We see this first of all in the very term, born again.   Our Lord could have used a variety of terms for this which Nicodemus might have found easier to understand;  “You must start again….”,  “…..take a new path”, “…..make a new beginning”.   But all these terms involve things that we can do for ourselves.   The one event in our lives over which we have no control is our birth.   The time, the place, our gender (1), our weight and so forth are absolutely nothing that we can influence.   The time simply comes for us to arrive and we are born.

 We can then go on to look at the Greek word translated here as ‘again.’   This word, anothen, can also mean’ from above’ (2).   Indeed, that is its meaning in every other instance where it appears in John’s Gospel.   For example, later in this very chapter (v31) John uses the word when he says, ‘He who comes from above is above all’.   

 Anothen appears in Matthew 27:51 when, as Jesus died, ‘The veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom’, and in James 1:17 where we are told, ‘…..every perfect gift is from above’.    Only in Galatians 4:9 does anothen clearly mean again.   Here in John 3:3, most translations have rightly rendered the word as again because of the context.   Nicodemus obviously understood it to mean that since he replied (v4), “How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?”   Now it may well be that the conversation took place in Aramaic, not Greek, but it seems to me that the Apostle John chose the word (under the influence of the Holy Spirit) deliberately to bring out this second meaning.   “Nicodemus”, our Lord seems to be saying, “You need a birth that all your learning and religious observance cannot give you;  you need a birth that comes from above”.

 The same point can be seen in our key verse,  ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’.   As we have seen, the word flesh (Gk. sarx), when it is contrasted with Spirit (Gk. pneuma)  usually refers to sinful human nature (eg. Rom. 8:4ff).   What this verse tells us is that anything that comes from Man, from the flesh, is flawed at source, and to suggest that there can be any human agency in the New Birth is to say that the flesh can give birth to spirit.   Why is this?   Why is Man so helpless to do anything to make himself right with God?   Consider Ephesians 2:1;  ‘And you [God] made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins’.   Mankind’s condition is one of spiritual death.   Now, it is all very well calling on men and women to put their trust in Christ;  it is all very well to tell them how wonderful it is to be a Christian, to warn them of the perils of Hell and to entice them with the blessings of Heaven- all these things are right and proper-  but if they are dead, then unless Almighty God breathes new life into their hearts, all your efforts will ultimately be in vain because dead people can’t hear.  Gospel preaching is certainly of the utmost importance (1Cor 1:21) as we shall see when we come to look at the instrumental means of the New Birth, but only as God uses the preached word to bring sinners to salvation.

 Just in case not everyone is convinced by the evidence presented so far, consider John 1:11-13;  ‘He came to His own (i.e. His Jewish compatriots, God’s chosen people under the Old Covenant), and His own did not receive him.   But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe on His name:  who were born, not of blood, nor of   the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’.   Do you see what this is saying?   Coming from a Christian family (“blood”) cannot make you born again;  nor your own fallen will (“the flesh”);  nor being called to the front and having some minister or evangelist pouring water over you, laying hands on you or praying over you (“the will of man”).   It is God, and God alone who saves.  Look at Romans 9:16;  ‘So then, it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God Who shows mercy’, or James 1:18;  Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth.’.   Finally, to see how the New Birth comes about in practice, let us turn to a few verses in Acts:-

 Acts 2:47b:  ‘And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved’.   Who added people to the church?   Was it the Apostles, with their signs and wonders (v43), or the people themselves making ‘decisions for Christ’?   No, it was God Himself drawing men and women to the Lord Jesus (John 6:44). 

 Acts 14:48b:  ‘And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed’.   Not one more nor one fewer, but exactly those to whom God gave new birth. 

 Acts 16:14:  ‘Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us.   She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God’.   Lydia was a God-fearer, a Gentile who attended the Jewish synagogue and tried to follow the moral teaching of the Old Testament, but she still needed to be born again, so did Paul open her heart to respond to God?    Or did she open her own heart as she listened to Paul?    Not at all.  ‘The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken to her by Paul’.

 Perhaps someone is thinking to himself, “Just a moment!   This can’t be right.   It is I who has to repent and to believe in Jesus (Mark 1:15), so being born again must depend on me to some extent”.   This is perfectly true as far as it goes.   Repentance and faith are, as it were, the two legs on which we enter the Kingdom of God, but it is the Lord Himself Who enables us to turn from sin, and to put our trust in the shed blood of Christ upon the cross to make us right with God.   Look at Acts 11:18;  ‘When they heard these things they ….glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life”’ and then at Eph. 2:8;  ‘For  by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves;  it is the gift of God’.   So both repentance and faith have their origin not in sinful Man, but in Almighty God.   As an old hymn goes:-

 ‘Not the labour of my hands

Can fulfil Thy law’s demands;

Could my zeal no respite know,

Could my tears for ever flow,

All for sin could not atone;

Thou must save, and Thou alone.

 Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to Thy cross I cling;

Naked, come to Thee for dress,

Helpless, look to Thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

                                                                                                 Augustus Toplady

 The reader may feel that I have laboured this point rather, but there are a number of important issues which flow from this, the Doctrine of Free Grace.   The first is that of assurance;  if anything relating to my salvation depends on me, then I cannot be completely sure that I have done it properly, or perhaps there may still be something I still need to do of which I am unaware;  but when I have seen myself as a helpless sinner who can do nothing in his own strength to make himself right with God and when I put my trust completely in the Lord Jesus Christ and in Him alone, I can be absolutely sure that I am saved, because, ‘He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to Him, since He ever lives to make intercession for them’ (Heb. 7:25).  

 The second issue that flows from the Doctrine of Grace is the supremacy and sufficiency of the Bible.   If it is God, and God alone who saves, then why listen to the opinions of men when you have the very words of the Lord before you?   Every preacher and every writer must be judged against the Scriptures.   ‘To the law and to the testimony!   If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’ (Isaiah 8:20).   Far too many Christians are being led astray by un-biblical teaching because they do not know their Bible well enough to detect it, or because they are over-awed by the reputation of some famous evangelist or Bible teacher.   Yet, ‘God respecteth no man’s person’ (Gal. 2:6 A.V.).   Also, if the New Birth comes from God alone, and if the Bible is the word of God, then why listen to those who speak of miracles, dreams or prophesies?   Take a few moments now to read through Jeremiah 23, and perhaps to pray about it.

 The same principle should apply to the churches’ evangelistic outreaches.   If we believe salvation comes only from God, then we are completely dependent upon Him for conversions and church growth.   Therefore we will seek above all to be faithful and obedient to His word in all our activities and avoid the gimmickry that is increasingly common today.   We will also refrain from pressurizing seekers into making false professions of faith, but rather present the Gospel clearly, truthfully and earnestly, yes and winsomely too, and trust God to bless our work.   Nowhere in the Bible are we called to be successful, but rather to be faithful;  the success of the Gospel is ultimately God’s business (Psalm 127:1; Matt. 16:18b).   How precious therefore will be the church prayer meeting, when the whole congregation comes together to seek God’s blessing upon its work, in humble reliance upon Him (cf. Acts 4:24ff).   I am deeply concerned that much of what passes for evangelism today involves seeing how little Gospel truth can be conveyed in persuading people to ‘accept Christ’ more as a lifestyle accessory than as Lord and Saviour.   Accepting Christ.   What a ghastly phrase!   It conjures up in my mind the sort of letter that employers write to job applicants:-

 Dear Mr. J. Christ,

                  I am pleased to inform you that your application for the post of saviour has been accepted, on a trial basis, subject to the usual terms and conditions.

Yours sincerely,

 A. Sinner.

 Another term which one hears today is, “I gave my heart to Jesus”.   Oh, really?   According to the Bible, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked’ (Jer. 17:9) and, ‘From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit……’(Mark 7:21f).   Hardly an acceptable gift to offer to the Lord!   Salvation is not, ‘giving one’s heart to the Lord,’ but Almighty God saying, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you’ (Ezek. 36:26).   The man or woman who really knows his or her heart despairs of it, and cries out, ‘O wretched man that I am!   Who will deliver me from this body of death?’

     I believe that there are literally thousands of men and women in Britain today who might describe themselves as ‘committed Christians’ who are no more born again than the devil himself.   They have gone along to some outreach or Alpha Course, and have been made to feel good about Christianity without ever really knowing what it means.   They are led into repeating a ‘sinner’s prayer,’ and then told that they are ‘saved.’   Some of them wake up the next morning and wonder what they have done, but others get baptized and join a church which they then proceed to undermine by demanding less preaching, shorter prayers and more entertainment to appeal to their unregenerate tastes.   Still others end up wandering from one church to another, forever seeking some sort of religious thrill.   They are man-made Christians, lulled into a false sense of security by a false conversion, and unless they are confronted by the true Gospel, they will one day hear those awful words, “I never knew you;  depart from Me, you who practise lawlessness!” (Matt. 7:23).

 Someone may be thinking at this point, “Well, if this New Birth comes only from God, isn’t that rather depressing?   Doesn’t it mean that there is nothing we can do to bring our friends, our family and our children to be born again?   We shall deal with this question in more depth in Chapter Seven.   Suffice it to say here that there are two things we can do;  firstly, we can point them to Christ;  to Him Who said, “The one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37);  to the One Who said, “Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth!” (Isaiah 45:22);  to the One of whom Moses said, “You will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 4:29).   Secondly, and even more importantly, we can pray.   If God is sovereign in these matters then whom else should we approach on behalf of our loved ones?   And since He is sovereign, then may we not approach with confidence?   After all, ‘The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much’ (James 5:16).   When all our arguments and pleadings with our children have fallen on deaf ears;  when it seems that they are determined to spurn all the teaching they heard at Sunday school or at family prayers and to turn away from God for good, should we despair?   Not at all!   Maybe soon, maybe even tomorrow, God Himself will turn their hearts towards Him;  perhaps a portion of a sermon they once heard, or a prayer, or even a fragment of a hymn will come into their minds and set them on a path back to their Heavenly Father.   In the meantime, we can besiege God’s throne with our prayers (Luke 18:1), knowing that, in His own good time, He can melt the most stubborn heart and bring our loved ones home to Him.

 Another objection which is made against God’s sovereignty in the New Birth runs along these lines:  “I want to become a Christian, but perhaps I am not one of the Elect, one of those whom God is going to save?   Then surely it doesn’t matter what I do, I won’t be born again and I shall inevitably end up in hell?”   This may seem to be a logical conclusion from all that has been said in this chapter, but it could not be more mistaken.   For who has actually gone up to Heaven and inspected the Book of Life to find his name missing there?   No, what the Pharisees said of our Lord in derision is gloriously true for us;  “This Man receives sinners” (Luke 15:2).  

 Therefore, all those who have seen themselves as sinners before God, who realize that they themselves can do nothing to make themselves right with Him, but who truly repent of their sins and place their trust in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, shed for sinners on the cross, can be quite sure of being saved;   “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me……’  Here is Particular Redemption writ large.  The Father has given a people to the Son to redeem and He will not fail to save them all.  But there’s more.  ‘…… and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37).  The worst sinner, the grossest sinner- adulterer, thief, pervert or murderer-  who comes to the Lord Jesus in true repentance and faith will not be turned away.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).  People must not look to themselves to see if they are chosen; they must look to Christ who has done everything necessary for their salvation.  He will not turn them away.  

 Does this contradict what has been said earlier?   Not at all!   We must come willingly to Christ, but the reason we come willingly is that God, before even time began, set His love upon us, and determined to save us from the consequences of our own sinfulness.   ‘He [God] chose us in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will’ (Eph. 1:4f;  compare Titus 1:2 & Rev. 13:8).  Hardened sinners who once declared, “We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14) are suddenly found crying out, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).   What brings about this mighty change?   Nothing but the power of God.   ‘Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power’ (Psalm 110:3 A.V.).   What this power is and how it is exercised is the subject of the next chapter.  

 Notes.

(1)  With the advances in modern obstetrics, it is true that parents may now have control over the sex of their unborn child;  the baby itself, of course, has none.

 (2) Or ‘from the beginning’ (Luke 1:3; Acts 26:5).           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. Dear ‘Martin’,

    Thank you for the New Birth Articles. They are much appreciated.

    Yours in Grace,

    George

  2. Thank you, George.
    Your encouragement is much appreciated.


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