The Bible is an old book. Most of its writers lived over two thousand years ago, but its message is still fresh and up-to-date. "Ye must be born again," applies as much to us as it did to people back then. But what exactly is the new birth and how can a person know if they have experienced it?
The Bible is an old book. Many of its writers lived more than two thousand years ago. Yet the message of the Bible is as new and up-to-date as the morning newspaper. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Ye must be born again”—and human hearts are still the same today. The new birth experience needs to occur in each life.
Many who use the term “born again” are not aware of the biblical meaning of the new birth. Some think one is born again if he has a renewed spiritual interest. Others view the new birth as joining the church and receiving baptism. Some think one is born again if he quits gambling and drinking and begins to read the Bible. Others describe the new birth in terms of some glaring religious experience. A famous movie personality says that one night he was depressed, so he walked out on the porch and looked up at the moon. He says, “Suddenly I felt warm and good inside; I knew it right then; I was born again.” Another noted personality says, “Something began to flow into me. It was a kind of energy, and I felt the strange sensation of water running down my cheeks and surging through my whole body, cleansing and cooling as it went.” Such “new birth experiences” described in the secular news media often do not mention one word about repenting, making things right, turning from sin, and sincerely trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ on Calvary.
Many today are asking some vital questions: What does the new birth mean? What does the Bible say about being “born again”? How can a person be born when he is old? Must one feel something like cooling water surging through his body in order to be born again?
Jesus told Nicodemus (a man who was highly respected and a person of clean morals), “You must be born again.” The word “must” makes it clear that the new birth is not optional. The new birth is an absolute necessity.
The new birth is necessary because of our own inability to please God. The first man Adam (through the sin of disobedience) acquired a sinful nature, and this nature has been transmitted by birth to each of his descendants. Each of us has a sin-nature. It is described in Romans 8 as a nature which is at enmity with God, not obedient to the laws of God, and thus incapable of pleasing God. In other words, we do not (by natural birth) automatically possess a spiritual capacity which enables us to desire, and to understand, and to enjoy the things of God. It is not in us. Jeremiah says that our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). And thus man’s sinful nature makes the new birth a glaring necessity. The very words “born again,” imply that we have been born wrong the first time, and that another birth is necessary.
The new birth is necessary because of the absolute purity and holiness of God. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. God is absolutely pure, and without any trace of evil. He inhabits eternity and His name is “Holy” (Isaiah 57:15). He remains always and forever the absolute and eternal enemy of sin. Holiness means to be clean and pure and free from defilement. Each of us must constantly live in the white light of God’s holiness. We are to be holy because God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). And yet when we think of the sinful attitudes and desires and inclinations which have characterized our lives in the past, we know that we have not met the standard. The holiness of God demands a radical change within us, and unless we are born again, there is going to be a gulf fixed between us and God.
The new birth is necessary because of the certainty of death and of judgment. One of the direct consequences of sin is universal death. In spite of advances in science and progress in the field of medicine, human beings still die after an average lifespan of approximately 70 years. And not only is physical death a very real thing, but unless we are right with God, the second death will become a tragic reality. The words which Jesus used when speaking to Nicodemus let no room for argument: “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
If the new birth is such a tremendous necessity, what is it all about? What is the new birth? How do we explain it? Where can we go to find it? The new birth is a mighty spiritual change which can be brought about only by the intervention of God. The term “born again” speaks of an inner moral transformation that leads to an outward change in one’s way of living. The Apostle Paul calls it “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). The Apostle Peter speaks of it as becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The Apostle John says it is “passing from death unto life” (1 John 3:14).
The new birth is an inward change of heart. It is being “born of the Spirit.” When a person believes the message of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit imparts to that person a new life—the life of God. It is described in Titus 3:5 as “a washing of regeneration; a renewing which comes by the Holy Spirit.” And so the new birth is a tremendous spiritual change accomplished in the human heart by the Holy Spirit. It is not just being forgiven for past sins. It is being made over again! The new birth is a mystery you cannot really explain; but at the same time it is a reality that no person can explain away!
The inward spiritual change (the new birth) is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit only performs the change when there is a human response. There is at least a three-fold human response:
(1) We must realize our sinful and lost condition. One Bible teacher says that if he were talking to a man about his soul and knew that he had just 60 minutes to do the job, he would spend the first 55 minutes trying to impress upon him how lost and sinful he really is—and then spend the last 5 minutes telling him about Jesus. I agree. Our definitions of sin are so shallow that we often fail to realize how seriously we have offended God.
(2) There must be repentance for the past life. Repentance is a reversal of one’s whole attitude toward God, toward sin, toward the world, and toward himself. One who repents reverses his attitude toward sin: He hangs his head in shame and sorrow for having indulged in obscene stories, foolish talking, desecration of the Lord’s Day, illicit sexual attitudes, etc. He reverses his attitude toward God: He is grieved especially at the particular sin of having rejected Christ for so many years. He reverses his attitude toward himself: Instead of justifying his wrongdoing, one who repents, becomes overwhelmed with a sense of his own unworthiness.
(3) We must voluntarily believe in the work of Jesus on the Cross. When Jesus told Nicodemus about the new birth, He explained how He would hang upon a Cross (see John 3:14), and then concluded with the words, “Whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:15). The tense of the word “believe” expresses a continuous action. It means to keep on believing. The emphasis is not on one isolated moment of faith, but on a continuous attitude of faith in Jesus Christ and of submission to Him. The individual follows the Lord in water baptism, seeks fellowship in a Bible-teaching church, and makes a commitment to walk day by day with the Lord.
Concerning the nature of the new birth then; it is an inner moral transformation accomplished by the Holy Spirit, but in order to experience that transformation, there must be a human response. The individual must recognize his sinful condition, manifest a sincere sorrow for sin, believe deeply in the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, and make a commitment to walk obediently with the Lord.
Remember that people do not necessarily weep, or shout, or tremble—when the new birth occurs. Jesus says that the new birth is in many ways like the wind (John 3:8), and all of us know that a wind does not always blow the same way. Sometimes it blows up a severe storm (a tornado, cyclone, or hurricane), but more often the wind settles down to a gentle evening breeze. Just so, our experiences of conversion vary a great deal. There are those whose conversions are almost cyclonic; they are born again in thunder and lightning and storm. The Apostle Paul was such a man (and so was St. Augustine and John Bunyan). But others have a much less dramatic experience. Nevertheless it can be real and meaningful all the same. The conversion of children in young and tender years is often a gentle experience. They have daily gathered around the family altar. They have never known anything else but to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. They have been born with sinful tendencies and they need to be saved—but their conversion is often as simple and as natural as the gentle blowing of a summer breeze. Such a conversion can be just as genuine as the conversion of one who for many years lived in the depths of sin and then had an explosive conversion experience.
The new birth is something that no one can hide. If a person is really born again, there is going to be a radical change in life and character. And evidences of the change will be seen in a number of areas.
There will be a new love for fellow human beings, even for enemies. 1 John 4:7 says, “Everyone that loveth is born of God.” This does not mean that every mother that loves her child is born of God, or that every young man who loves his sweetheart is born of God. There are special Greek words to describe those kinds of love. The word used in 1 John 4:7 is the word “agape.” It is the 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love—the love that suffers long and is kind and is not easily provoked. Everyone who loves with this kind of love is born of God.
The real test of whether or not we have agape love is our attitude toward those who misuse us. That is the test. Jesus manifested this kind of love from the Cross. He looked down on the blood-spattered hands of those who crucified Him and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Stephen (in Acts 7) showed this kind of agape love when he prayed for those who were stoning him, and said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
At the Berlin Congress on Evangelism in Europe in the late 1960s, two of the Auca Indians from Ecuador were present. One of them was to speak to the audience. The Aucas were the people who murdered five missionaries in December, 1956. One of the five was a man named Jim Elliot. His wife (Elizabeth Elliot) wrote the book Through the Gates of Splendor. She wrote several other books describing the event. She and her daughter Valerie and another missionary were later able to go and live with the Aucas. They learned the language, established friendships, and shared the Gospel with the tribe. A number of the Aucas were converted. Some of them became teachers and ministers of the Word. Elizabeth Elliot was at the Berlin Congress and was to introduce the Auca (named Quemo) who was about to speak. Elizabeth Elliot displayed a large amount of agape love when she appeared before the microphone and said: “Quemo is the man who killed my husband; he is also the man who baptized my daughter into the church of Christ.” One of the evidences of the new birth is a new love even for those who mistreat us.
Another evidence of the new birth is a devoted obedience to God’s commandments. The Apostle John says that for one who is born of God, the commands of Christ “are not grievous” (1 John 5:3)—that is, His commandments will not seem burdensome.
In some circles today, “obedience” is almost a dirty word. If you talk about obedience to the detailed commandments of the New Testament, they say, “Why it sounds like you are trying to work your way to heaven.” But friend, that is not it at all! We are saved by grace through faith—not by our good works. But there is a difference between “good works” and “obedience.” Good works are warm deeds of love springing from a right attitude toward God (speaks of service). Obedience is the act of earnestly carrying out the instructions of another (speaks of compliance). To escape the error of salvation by works, some have fallen into the heresy of teaching salvation without obedience. But there is no saving faith without obedience. The Bible does not recognize faith as a valid faith unless that faith leads to obedience (see Hebrews 5:9). If you think you are saved, but don’t care about obeying the specific instructions of the New Testament, you had better take another look at your ticket!
The Great Commission makes it clear that we are not only to preach, and to baptize, but we are to “teach them to observe all things” whatever the Lord has commanded us. It is not he who says “Lord, Lord” that shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). One who is born again is one who earnestly desires not only to hear—but also to do—the will of God.
A third evidence of the new birth is a deliberate refusal to practice sin. 1 John 5:18 says, “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not.” The Greek tense clearly refers to the continual practice of sin. Thus, for one who is born again, sin is not a regular habit. One who is born of God does not live in sin. He has received a new nature (a divine nature)—a nature that hates sin. What he formerly relished, he now abhors. What he previously loved, he now hates. The pleasures that he used to enjoy, he now finds meaningless. This is not to say the Christian will never fall into sin, but the born-again person does not love sin. He will despise every form of it. Instead, he finds himself loving the Scriptures more, and eager to pray more often, and becoming a warm, gracious person instead of a hard, railing blasphemer.
These have been evidences of the new birth: Love for our fellow man; obedience to God’s commandments; refusal to practice sin.
A group of atheists were criticizing the Bible. One of them spoke about creation. He said, “What man with any common sense could believe that several thousand years ago, God stooped down and picked up a piece of mud, breathed on it, and changed it into a human being?” A Christian man standing by overheard the conversation and responded by saying: “I cannot answer all the questions about creation, but this I know: One night God stooped down and picked up the dirtiest piece of mud in this City, breathed upon it by His Spirit, and changed a gambling, drinking, thieving wretch into a peace-loving man of God. I was that man.” And just so, my friend, whoever you may be, what God has done for others, He will do for you!
Each person reading this message has within his power the capacity to open the door of his heart to Jesus, or to lock the door of his heart against Him forever. It is an act of the will. You decide with your mind. You are going to make a choice within the next few moments—as you come to the close of this printed message. Jesus says (Revelation 3:20), “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him and (fellowship) with him.”
Opening the door of your heart to Jesus is a very significant act:
It is an individual act. Each person must make his own decision. Nobody else can do it for you. “If any man will hear my voice.”
It is a deliberate act. You don’t have to wait for a flash of lightning to come. You don’t have to look for some emotional experience. Jesus died for your sins. He shed His blood for you. He is knocking on the door of your heart. He can’t do any more than that. He does not force the issue. The next move is yours!
It is an urgent act. The future is uncertain. The time is quickly passing. You may never have another opportunity like you have right now—today. My friend—the day will surely come—when those who are not born again will wish that they had never been born at all.
We urge each reader to consider seriously the ABCs of salvation:
BIBLE HELPS | Robert Lehigh, Editor | PO Box 391, Hanover, PA 17331 United States of America