Ye Must be Born Anew
When Nicodemus went to the Lord for instruction, he was met at once by the solemn word, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God”, (John 3: 3). It is imperative then that every anxious soul considers this searching divine word; because we see immediately that whatever the anxiety of soul—earnest desires, profession of faith—if there has not been this great change, this “new birth,” there is no life in the soul, and consequently no salvation.
Who was it then to whom the Lord addressed these words? We learn very little if we answer, “Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews”; for this tells us nothing beyond his name and official rank—things that have no weight before God. We shall find the real answer to our question at the end of the previous chapter: “And when he (Jesus) was in Jerusalem, at the passover, at the feast, many believed on his name, beholding his signs which he wrought. But Jesus himself did not trust himself to them, because He knew all [men], and that he had not need that any should testify of man, for himself knew what was in man. But there was a man from among the Pharisees, his name Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews,” (John 2: 23–3: 1). There were thus a number of Jews who believed when they saw His miracles. Jesus did not commit Himself to them however, since their faith was nothing more than a natural conviction, wrought by the evidence of the miracles, of the truth of His claims. There was no bowing of heart before God: It was nothing more than a natural or intellectual belief in the name of Christ. Nicodemus, by contrast, came to Jesus in search of something more. Was natural conviction enough? When then he expressed this belief: “Rabbi, we know that thou art come a teacher from God, for none can do these signs that thou doest unless God be with him”, Jesus answered him at once by stating the necessity of being born again. It was as if He had said, “You may believe in me as a divine teacher, and yet be lost. You must be born anew before you can enter the kingdom of God.”
We thus get a most solemn warning: Beware of being satisfied with a profession of belief in Christ! Never forget that all is useless if you have not been born again. You may be most earnest, most religious, a model of activity, and yet be lost; for unless you are born anew, you cannot even see the kingdom of God.
What then is new birth? Of course the term “born again Christian” is familiar to all: It refers to persons who claim to have experienced “new birth”—they are “born again”, “born of God”. But what does this really mean? What do the Scriptures of Truth have to say on this momentous issue?
To begin with, it must be said that the term “born again Christian”, though widely used, is not Scriptural. It’s origin lies in a reaction against the claims of obviously unconverted persons that they are Christians: “Born again” is reckoned to imply reality in one’s faith, as over against the lifeless profession of so many. One hardly needs to look far however, to see that the name has failed in it’s objective: many so called “born again” Christians, U.S. presidents included, having little title, if any, to the claim!
Nevertheless, new birth as such is a Scriptural truth. I read in Phil. 1: 6 that “he who has begun in you a good work will complete it unto Jesus Christ’s day”. This working of God in the soul, whereby he forms there what is pleasurable to himself, has its commencement in new birth. New birth is a new beginning. Note that word “new”. It is not a reconstruction of the old nature, nor is it the same kind being born again. It is “born anew”, (John 3: 3, my emphasis), an entirely new and fresh beginning, the beginning of everything that is for God in a soul. Now if new birth is to be “born of God” (see John 1: 13; 1 John 2: 29), then it must be according to His sovereignty. The work of the Spirit of God in new birth is based on nothing but His choosing: “The wind blows where it will, and thou hearest its voice, but knowest not whence it comes and where it goes: thus is every one that is born of the Spirit”,.(John 3: 8). I cannot say who will be born anew, for I know “not whence it comes and where it goes”, neither can I make myself to be born again, since “the wind blows where it will”. It is a completely sovereign work of God.
Why must a man be born again? None can deny that all men are sinners; but it is not only that they are sinners, but that they have an evil, depraved nature; and this incurably corrupt nature is the tree which produces all the evil fruits of sin. The acts of sin reveal the character of the nature; and this nature is totally unfit for God’s presence. This is the thrust of verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh”. All, therefore, that we are as natural men, as children of Adam, is flesh, and in this flesh good does not dwell (see Rom. 7: 18). Are we to understand then that all men, without exception, are totally corrupt, hopelessly evil? Yes. Such is the verdict of God upon human nature. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh”. Yet is it possible, for example, that all the noble deeds recorded in history, or all the kind and generous actions which we meet in daily life, are done by those who have a totally depraved nature? Surely there must be a difference—degrees in our natural condition; for how is it possible to class such actions with open and flagrant sins?
It matters not what may be the outward character of men’s actions, whether such as will elicit the applause or provoke the condemnation of their fellows; for as long as they come from men who are not born again, they are nothing but evil in the sight of God, for a corrupt tree cannot produce good fruit. “For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor grapes vintaged from a bramble”, (Luke 6: 44). The word of God is most explicit on this issue. “Because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God : for it is not subject to the law of God; for neither indeed can it be: and they that are in flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8: 7, 8). It is not a question of doing, but of being; not a question of the character of actions, but of nature, and this nature God declares to be flesh, and the flesh is nothing but evil in His sight. Hence: “flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom, nor does corruption inherit incorruptibility”, (1 Cor. 15: 50).
Herein then lies the necessity of being born again. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh ... Do not wonder that I said to thee, It is needful that ye should be born anew” (John 3: 6, 7). This necessity is universal in its application: It concerns every one born into this world, the obedient child, as much as the prodigal son; the zealous philanthropist as well as the convict. For the flesh is flesh, and cannot enter God’s kingdom. There must, therefore, be a new nature and a new life; for without these, whatever a man’s moral repute, he will be for ever outside the kingdom of God.
(Note that I said every one born into this world. The term “born again Christian” might imply that new birth is something exclusive to the Christian era, but this is not so. Ezek. 36: 25–27 certainly suggests new birth, and not in connection with Christians, but the “house of Israel”, (v32). John 3, the very chapter before us was addressed to a Jew, and that at a time when the Church was not even in existence. No, new birth has been a necessity for every saved person from creation onwards—God’s work in the soul is essential.)
So how must a man be born anew? This, in substance was the question of Nicodemus. “How can a man be born being old? can he enter a second time into the womb of his mother and be born?”, (John 3: 4.). His question, rigidly construed, means undoubtedly, How is it possible for a man to be born again? The Lord, however, does not take it up in this form, but points out the way in which a man is born again. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (v5).
Firstly “of water”: Much difficulty has been created by attempts to wrest the meaning of this symbol. Ritualists have persistently tried to support their false teaching of baptismal regeneration from this passage, yet if we confine ourselves to Scripture, we shall find that the difficulty will disappear. Now it is evident that Nicodemus should have understood what Jesus meant; and if he did not, that he was expected to. For when he replied, “How can these things be? Jesus answered and said to him, Thou art the teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things!?” (John 3: 9, 10). If we turn to the chapter in Ezekiel already alluded to, we shall find a distinct foreshadowing of this teaching of Christ. Speaking of Israel’s future restoration, the prophet says, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your uncleanesses and from all your idols will I cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and keep mine ordinances, and ye shall do them” (Ezek. 36: 25–27). Here we have the same conjunction of the water and the Spirit, and a radical change following upon its application; for nothing less than this can be implied by “a new heart.” Not only so, but the water in this passage is used in the most familiar of all senses to the Israelites: in connection with cleansing.
With this passage before us, what then, we ask, is the import of the water? Turn to Psalm 119: 9 and we get this question: “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his path? by taking heed according to thy word” (my emphasis). We read also in the NT of the “washing of water by [the] word” (Eph. 5: 26); again, “Ye are already clean by reason of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15: 3; read also John 13: 5–11). Water therefore is a symbol for the Word of God. Hence we find the Word constantly associated in other passages with new birth. “According to his own will begat he us by the word of truth” (James 1: 18), “being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by [the] living and abiding word of God ... But this is the word which in the glad tidings [is] preached to you” (1 Peter 1: 23, 25) and “in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the glad tidings”, (1 Cor. 4: 15). The Word of God preached in the gospel, is thus the first means of the new birth which our Lord here sets forth under the figure of water.
Secondly “And [of] Spirit”: It is the Spirit which quickens” (John 6: 63). “For the letter kills, but the Spirit quickens” (2 Cor. 3: 6). The Spirit acting in and through God’s Word quickens dead souls, and they are born again. The Word cannot do this by itself; nor does the Spirit of God act alone, but He wields the Word as the instrument, so that by it He may bring souls out of death into life. Many illustrations of this might be collected from the Scriptures. Take the most prominent of all—the day of Pentecost. Peter proclaimed the Word of God in the power of the Spirit, and the effect was that a multitude were born again, the change wrought upon them being indicated by the fact that “they were pricked in heart, and said to Peter and the other apostles, What shall we do, brethren?” (Acts 2: 37). Peter was then able to explain what they had to do to be saved.
This leads us on to another point, for in many minds new birth is equated with believing the gospel as if they were one and the same thing, the term “born again Christian” lending credence to this idea. (It assumes that new birth makes you a believer.) Scripture, however, sharply distinguishes the two thoughts. John 3: 5 declares that “Except any one be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (my emphasis) but verse three of the same chapter goes even further: “Except any one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God” (my emphasis)! In simple language there is not only the impossibility of being saved, but of even seeing the way of salvation! From this I deduce that new birth must precede salvation, be it by months or just moments—they are not one and the same thing. New birth enables me to see the way, but it is not the same as being in the way. For an example of this, look at Paul. In Acts 26 he relates how, prior to his conversion, he kicked against the goads, indicating that God had begun a work in his soul, yet it was not until he was struck down on the Damascus road, that his resistance finally melted and he became a believer. If being born anew and conversion were one and the same thing, we would be forced to admit that God’s work is dependant on my believing, and that could never be. It would make God dependant on my actions whereas it is all of himself. (Read John 1: 12, 13).
Still I am responsible to believe the gospel that God has given. New birth is God’s side, believing is mine. Dear reader do you believe? Do you know that you are born anew? Have you life in your soul? It is no good sheltering beneath the label “born again Christian” if there has been no new birth with you! Men you may delude, God never. May your portion be that of Nicodemus, a man who at the end of this gospel richly displays the work of God in his soul: “and Nicodemus also, who at first came to Jesus by night, came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds [weight]. They took therefore the body of Jesus and bound it up in linen with the spices, as it is the custom with the Jews to prepare for burial” (John 19: 39, 40).