YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN?
Written by Doug Ponder on January 2, 2013
Riddles in the Dark
He walked along the corridors of the back-street alleys as easily as he moved through the hallways of his home. Indeed, Jerusalem had been his home for some time now. Very little changed in this dusty old city, a city full of history and tradition and rituals. But Nicodemus liked it that way. He was very old now, and quite fond of all that was familiar to him.
But something had changed—something so surprising that it enticed this old man to wander the streets in the middle of the night. He was looking for someone. He’d heard rumors about a gifted teacher, someone completely unlike all the other teachers that had passed through Jerusalem before. His friends on the city’s ruling council had told him not to go near this teacher, but Nicodemus had to see whether the rumors were true.
“Almost there,” he thought to himself. He peered through the narrow opening at the end of the alley, and there, sitting calmly next to a fountain, was Jesus.
He crept quietly up to where Jesus sat, and he whispered, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, a bit more loudly than Nicodemus would have liked, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Nicodemus was puzzled. “Surely we cannot enter a second time into our mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus smiled and restated his point, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus was beginning to think he’d walked all that way and risked the reproach of his friends for nothing. But Jesus’ reply changed his life forever.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “yet you do not understand these things?”
It wasn’t really a question. Nicodemus felt the sting of the rebuke, and he wondered why he didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. Was it some kind of riddle?
You see, Nicodemus was very familiar with the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. Like many Jewish leaders in his day, he had probably memorized most of them in childhood. He knew the Scriptures by heart, but he had missed the point. As Jesus would later tell some of Nicodemus’ friends, the Scriptures were always about him (John 5:39).
You Must Be Born Again?
What did Jesus mean about being “born again”?
That phrase gets thrown around quite a bit in our own time, sometimes by people who have pretty nasty things to say about it. “You’re not one of those ‘born again’ Christians, are you?” they ask, hoping the answer is a good strong ‘no’. What does this phrase mean, and why did Jesus say that you can’t enter into his kingdom—the place where the eternal kind of life is found—unless you are born again?
Jesus’ response to Nicodemus gives us a clue about its meaning. He equated being “born again” with being “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Remember, Jesus said that Nicodemus should have already understood this teaching based on his knowledge of the “Hebrew Scriptures,”or what we call the Old Testament.
He was right (of course). A prophet named Ezekiel had written about this a long time ago: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezek. 36:25-27).
Salvation: Forgiveness and Regeneration
Why didn’t Nicodemus understand what Jesus was saying? Perhaps, like so many Christians today, he thought that salvation was simply a matter of having your sins forgiven. But Jesus (and Ezekiel) knew that wasn’t the full picture. The kind of salvation that God brings does not just forgive people of their sins; it also works to free them from their slavery to sin. How does this happen? God tells us, “I will give you a new heart… and I will put my Spirit in you to move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
The theological term for this is regeneration, which means ‘to renew, restore, or revive.’ In other words, it means a new birth, a second birth, born again. Paul the apostle describes how this happens: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:3-7).
Do you see what Paul is saying? Once we were the kind of people who were disobedient, deceived, and enslaved by all kinds of sin. But now we’re not the way anymore, because the grace of God our Savior has appeared in Jesus. He rescued us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit—just as God had promised he would do long ago through the prophet Ezekiel. This kind of change is a complete reorientation of the deepest part of ourselves, away from idolatrous pursuits and toward God himself. It’s such a radical change, in fact, that Jesus calls it being “born again.”
Looking for Faith in All the Wrong Places
Where is the evidence that this has happened to us? How can we know if we’ve been born again? The Scriptures say that the new birth gives us a “new heart,” which means that we have new desires. Where once we had only desires to please ourselves, now we have new desires to please God and listen to what he says. (Some of our old selfish desires still hang around, which is why the Scriptures say that we have to “put them to death” every day.)
What if someone says, “I know I’m forgiven of my sins, but I don’t have any desire to please God or do what he says.” According to Jesus, that person doesn’t really know him (1 John 2:4) or love him (John 14:15). In other words, that person hasn’t been born again.
To put it bluntly, there is no such thing as forgiven sinner who does not also have a new heart. That truth is meant to protect us, not scare us. After all, you cannot “test” or “see” whether or not your sins have been forgiven (it’s an invisible act). But you can “test” or “see” whether or not your life gives evidence of a heart that loves God and trusts in Jesus. This evidence is the “fruit” of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives to make us more like Jesus himself (Gal. 5:16-24). It’s not our own doing, as if we somehow did something to make ourselves “born again.” Rather, these things are the sign that the Spirit is at work in our lives because of our trust in Jesus. That’s why Paul says, “Examine yourselves to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves!” (2 Cor. 13:5). Or, as Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
The Good News
Often people wonder, “If I still sin, is that evidence that I’ve never been born again?” The answer is No! God doesn’t expect perfection from you, but he does expect repentance. Repentance actually flows from the new desires that comes with a new heart. The word “repentance” means that when Christians mess up (and they will), they now have the desire to turn away from their sin and turn back to God. The good news is that we don’t do any of this on our own. The Holy Spirit indwells all those who trust Jesus, guiding us, instructing us, equipping us, and empowering us to live and serve like Jesus—which is exactly what new hearts want to do at the deepest level. The result of the Spirit’s work in our lives is an ever-growing, never-ending, ever-worshiping kind of passionate joy.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.