Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 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. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’”John 3:3-8
For a dramatized reading of John 3, go to this link
Reading through Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, it becomes quickly reminiscent of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:13-15: “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man 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. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one.”
A question we ought to ask as we see Jesus speak of being “born again” is, “Why did he respond this way to Nicodemus’ claim in v. 2?” You see, most of the time we think of the conversation on being born again in John 3, it’s easy to overlook that this was a response to Nicodemus’ observation. The observation he made was this: “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.”
Notice that one of the first things Christ says in response is “unless.” What does the word “unless” mean? It’s a condition being given; a line in the sand, if you will. Any message of acceptance with God that bypasses conditions whatsoever is a false gospel. Beyond that, any message of acceptance with God on the basis of any other stipulation than faith alone through grace alone is a false gospel, too. If we add any rite of passage to the script or take any condition away, we have abolished the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Unless” has left many people on the outside looking in and will continue to do so as long as “unless” is ignored.
“Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” So why would Jesus respond this way to Nicodemus’ observation? Quite simply, it’s not enough to observe that Christ is Lord; you must entrust yourself to Him. In a conversation found in Mark 12, a scribe speaks to Jesus and says, “‘Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ But after that no one dared question Him.” (Mark 12:32-34) An old saying from a source unknown goes like this: “Eighteen inches is often what separates a person from heaven.” Eighteen inches is about the distance from the brain to the heart and the point is that it’s not enough to agree with the Bible; you must entrust your life to God by placing your faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross. Without new birth, there is no entry into the kingdom of God; no place to be found in Heaven.
Now, having said all that, we must be careful in this passage not to equate being born again with believing. “Born again” is alluded to the work of the Holy Spirit in these verses, not the individual that might believe. Given the fact that “born again” is treated in a synonymous fashion in our culture, it is necessary to draw a distinction between the two.
Nicodemus’ response to Jesus still speaks to a spiritual disconnect: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” I have underlined the word “born” because it comes up eight times in their conversation: the concept is clearly the stumbling block. The word born comes from the Greek word “gennao” and it generally means “to cause something (or someone) to come into existence, primarily through procreation or parturition (childbirth)” (BDAG Lexicon, Bibleworks).
Perhaps the difficulty we sometimes get perplexed over is why Jesus doesn’t just say it more clearly; why does He speak in ways that will cause confusion? The answer would seem to be in Paul’s words to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:14): spiritual discernment. “Discernment,” from anakrino, literally breaks down into two words: through (ana) judgment (krino). “Through judgement” is how discrepancies are drawn, but it is spiritual judgement, a result of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. It is the process of examination and separation. I read years ago that those who dealt with counterfeit currency were trained to discern the counterfeit by the close, careful examination of legitimate currency. In like fashion, the Holy Spirit functions in some sense within the believer like a spiritual decoder: He gives us the discernment to recognize truth, appropriate it, and to perceive that which is not true as well. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:9-13:
“But as it is written: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.’ But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.”
Nicodemus drew a connection that certainly seems spiritual in nature as to whom Jesus was on the basis of the miracles, as well as where He came from, in v. 2. We never do see how this conversation ends, only that Jesus will move on into belief and the fact that people are condemned already without salvation; Christ came not to condemn but to reveal condemnation and to offer justification. Nicodemus did not get chased off by this conversation, but it was what he needed to hear.
There is a line in the sand, and it is new birth and belief. This poses a deep concept that is often debated, much like the chicken and the egg: which came first? Personally, when I look at Scripture, believing in God’s predestination and the Spirit’s operation, in a near-same timing (like the chicken and the egg) it may legitimately be that regeneration precedes faith; faith, then, is the first breath of life in the new believer in response to the message of the gospel.
How do we reconcile “whoever believes” with a passage like Ephesians 2:4-10:
“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
The answer, in part, is that we are not the cause of our salvation, nor are we the cause of our belief. It is born in us as we are born again as God makes us alive under the hearing of His word and His special calling (Rom. 8:30).
Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus is first firmly founded on being born again of the Spirit, secondly but in the same timing is belief. R.C. Sproul, from the book “The Mystery of the Holy Spirit,” writes:
No man has the power to raise himself from spiritual death. Divine assistance is necessary. This grace, according to Rome, comes in the form of what is called prevenient grace. “Prevenient” means that which comes from something else. Rome adds to this prevenient grace the requirement that we must “cooperate with it and assent to it” before it can take hold in our hearts.
This concept of cooperation is at best a half-truth. Yes, the faith we exercise is our faith. God does not do the believing for us. When I respond to Christ, it is my response, my faith, my trust that is being exercised. The issue, however, goes deeper. The question still remains: “Do I cooperate with God’s grace before I am born again, or does the cooperation occur after?” Another way of asking this question is to ask if regeneration is monergistic or synergistic. Is it operative or cooperative? Is it effectual or dependent? Some of these words are theological terms that require further explanation.
A monergistic work is a work produced singly, by one person. The prefix mono means one. The word erg refers to a unit of work. Words like energy are built upon this root. A synergistic work is one that involves cooperation between two or more persons or things. The prefix syn -means “together with.” I labor this distinction for a reason. The debate between Rome and Luther hung on this single point. At issue was this: Is regeneration a monergistic work of God or a synergistic work that requires cooperation between man and God? When my professor wrote “Regeneration precedes faith” on the blackboard, he was clearly siding with the monergistic answer. After a person is regenerated, that person cooperates by exercising faith and trust. But the first step is the work of God and of God alone.
The reason we do not cooperate with regenerating grace before it acts upon us and in us is because we cannot. We cannot because we are spiritually dead. We can no more assist the Holy Spirit in the quickening of our souls to spiritual life than Lazarus could help Jesus raise him for the dead.”
This conversation all moves into a verse that forms the pivotal place of John 3: verse 8. After verse 8, we will move into belief, but verse 8 will form the culmination of the verses on spiritual birth. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
How is this verse to be understood? Look out your window, and if there’s any wind at all, you will see the effect of the wind on the trees, the grass, the leaves, etc. They are not the cause of the movement that you see; rather, they are being affected by the wind that is not visible and the noise that we hear is only the sound of the wind against those objects. Everyone born of the Holy Spirit hears the word, responds to it in faith (their own), becomes convicted, is drawn to God, pursues righteousness and wrestles with sin. The signs of life are the wind of the Spirit moving upon a person from within. Belief itself is a result of the wind of the Holy Spirit; it is not causative; it is the effect. Calling someone to believe in Christ is in actuality to rest in the Holy Spirit to bring them to Him. It is akin to flipping a light switch and observing light emanating from a light bulb; the light bulb is not the source of the power, but it is where we see the power at work.
Having said all this, I say to you today that if you have believed, there is a miraculous nature to your faith that ought not be minimized. Unless you are born of the Spirit, you will by no means see the kingdom of God. The greatest hope I have in seeing people change as a result of any Scripture I present to them is not in being manipulative or persuasive; it is in relying upon God to work that which I cannot do as I preach or teach the word of God. I hope you find great hope in the presentation of God’s word, whether that’s evangelism, teaching, preaching, or even in casual conversation, that change is never something you or I are in control of, nor is the person to whom we speak. It rests in God’s work; we are called to summon forth the miracle that only God can bring to pass when we call others to believe or to any spiritual change for that matter.
For further exploration, I recommend this excerpt from D.A. Carson’s commentary on John 3:5 at this link. The goal of this devotional is to draw attention to a very important issue, which is the nature of salvation itself. If you must be discerning on a biblical topic, let it be the topic of salvation. I wish you God’s best today!
Prayer by Pastor Sam:
God, we need Your grace so desperately today as we do every day. Help us to trust You and to cling tightly to Your word. Help us to rely upon You and to give You the glory. Lord, we pray for our world and pray that You’d enable us to be lights shining brightly for You today wherever You’d have us, however You’d have us to shine. Help us to embrace Your will for us in this moment and to live with graciousness and gratitude. Magnify Jesus in us, to us and through us. In Christ’s name I pray, Amen.