That Which Is Born of the Spirit Is Spirit
The Role of the Holy Spirit in Conversion
Unless God gives me a clear indication to go another way I will be preaching during these last four Sundays of winter on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I feel a great yearning in my own heart to know more of the Spirit's power for holiness and power for witness. I feel a tremendous need to learn to rely more fully on his guidance as the Spirit of wisdom and truth. The life-giving, renewing Wind of spring is blowing through this church, and my great desire is to unfurl the sail of my heart and watch it fill up with the Holy Wind of God and be drawn in his direction, at his speed, in his power.
The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. (James 4:8)
We will see the paradox in that statement today, because we can't even begin to draw near to God without the Spirit's help. Which means that in our very effort to draw near to him, he has already drawn near to us. But that does not negate the promise at all: it remains true that if we draw near to God, he will draw near to us! Lift your sails into the Holy Wind of God, and he will fill them.
Our Need for the Holy Spirit
We need the Holy Spirit at Bethlehem in these next weeks. Things are happening; and my great concern and expectation is that they happen under the guidance and in the power of the Spirit. For example, we have our sights set on doubling the number of Laotian and Hmong people to whom we minister on Sunday morning and through the week. You will be hearing more about how that can be done. In four weeks we will enter an Income Expansion Program by which I pray the Lord will supply the money needed, for example, to vacate and enlarge 13th Avenue for parking, and to raze 1212 Eighth Street for parking, and to secure and beautify the campus so that we will be ready for the opening of the stadium in the spring of 1982.
I plan to propose to the deacon council this Wednesday that we move to two Sunday morning services the first Sunday of spring and that we call an all-church forum Wednesday, March 4, to pray and think together about this proposal. I hope on April 4 to lead all the church boards in a retreat where we can pray and plan for our future. And I anticipate that there will begin to emerge this spring small groups of people gathering for prayer and mutual upbuilding in faith and outreach. And on top of these structured changes, there is the supremely important transformation of individual lives from week to week as the Word of God from classrooms, from conversations, and from the pulpit begets faith and stirs up love and joy in our midst.
We need the Holy Spirit in these times so that we can say in days to come, "We planned and we worked, yet not us but the Spirit of God in us, willing and doing his good pleasure." And we will be able to say this if we draw near to God and raise our sails into the Holy Wind blowing on us. Open your hearts wide to God, go hard after God in your prayers, wrestle with him till dawn, till he gives you the blessing of his fullness. Take Paul's prayer in Ephesians 3:14–19 and pray it for yourself every day in these weeks:
I bow my knee before you, O Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of your glory you may grant me to be strengthened with might through your Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in my heart through faith; that, being rooted and grounded in love, I might have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge, that I might be filled with all the fullness of God.
We'll come back to that prayer in the weeks to come, but the very least it means is this: there is more of God to be had than we now experience! Conversion to Christ is the end of one quest: we have found the Savior of our souls; we have found fellowship and peace with God; we have all drunk of the same Spirit. But conversion is the beginning of another quest, "that we might be filled with all the fullness of God"—a quest which I think will never end to all eternity, because no matter how much is poured into our hearts from the ocean of God's love, it will always be replenished from the springs of infinity. Come with me as we go hard after "the fullness of God" in these next four weeks.
Our Need for Conversion
But there must be a beginning. Nobody by nature delights so much in the character of God that he hungers after the true God. We are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). As David said in Psalm 51:5, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me." We come into the world bent on being independent from God and loving the things of the world. Something has to happen to us if we are to be saved from the wrath of God (1 Thessalonians 1:10). We must be profoundly changed.
The Bible speaks of this change in many different ways. I'll mention a few. 1) We must change slave masters; we must cease from being slaves of sin and become slaves of God (Romans 6:17–23). 2) We must die with Christ and rise to newness of life (Romans 6:3, 4; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 2:12). 3) We must put off the old man and put on the new man created after the likeness of God (Ephesians 4:22–24; Colossians 3:9, 10). 4) We must repent, that is, we must experience a change of mind that causes us to turn from trusting man to trusting God's mercy (Acts 2:38; Luke 3:3, 8). 5) We must get a new heart according to Ezekiel's prophecy:
I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26)
6) We must become a new creation. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). 7) We must become like children: "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). 8) And we must be born again (John 3:3). From cover to cover the Bible declares that human beings must change. If we do not change, we will not be saved: no peace with God, no hope for eternal life, but only wrath and fury (Romans 2:8). So there is nothing more important for any individual than that he experience this change, this new birth, as Jesus called it.
When I came home from church last Wednesday night, Noël told me she had been shaken because Karsten and Benjamin, our two older sons, had almost run out in front of a car on 11th Avenue on the way home. As I lay there in bed trying to go to sleep, I shivered at the scene in my mind of my sons being killed by a speeding car. But then my mind shifted to the long view, to eternity, and the last thing I prayed as I went off to sleep was, "O God, I would rather lose all my sons now than that one of them fail to be born again. If, God forbid, it were a choice between life with me now and life with you forever, then take them. But don't let one be lost! Don't let one of them fail to be born again!" There is no more important event in anyone's life than being born again.
What I want for all of us in this church and what I pray that we will want for all our neighbors is to be "filled with all the fullness of God," which fullness is found in his Holy Spirit. But before a person can experience or even desire such fullness, he must become a new kind of person. And the specific question I posed for my message this morning is, "What is the role of the Holy Spirit in that change?" The reason I am zeroing in on the image of "new birth" instead of one of the other biblical images is that in John 3 the Spirit is so closely related to "new birth." The question for now is not, "What becomes of us in the new birth?" but, "Who brings this about?" The next three weeks will all be devoted to the results of the new birth and our quest for God's fullness, but today I want us to think about the cause of the new birth.
Conversion Only Happens by the Holy Spirit
The teaching that I want to try to persuade you is biblical and, therefore, true and precious is that the new birth is the result of the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit preceding and enabling our first act of saving faith. We do not cause our new birth by an act of faith. Just the reverse: the cry of faith is the first sound that a newborn babe in Christ makes. Regeneration, as we sometimes call it, is all of God. We do not get God to do it by trusting Christ; we trust Christ because he has done it to us already. The theological catch phrases which are sometimes used to designate this beautiful doctrine are "prevenient grace" (grace which precedes and enables our faith) or "irresistible grace" (grace which overcomes the resistance of man's perverted will by transforming his nature) or "effectual calling" (a divine call which not only offers but effects transformation).
Turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 3. Jesus says to Nicodemus in verse 5, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." Whether we refer the water of this verse to the bag of waters which breaks at a person's first birth, or to baptism, or to spiritual cleansing, the main point of the verse is the same. Being born once or being baptized is no guarantee of salvation; you must be born of the Spirit, you must experience a spiritual cleansing and re-creation.
Then verse 6 gives the reason for why a second spiritual birth is necessary: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." "Flesh" in John's gospel simply means human. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). "The Father has given the Son power over all flesh" (John 17:2). So Jesus is saying here, your human birth makes you merely human. But when you are born of the Spirit, then a new dimension of supernatural life enters in, spiritual life. New loves, new inclinations, new allegiance. A new person is born. Paul's terms for the person before and after new birth are "natural man" and "spiritual man." He says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, 15,
The natural man does not welcome the gifts of the Spirit of God for they are folly to him . . . The spiritual man judges all things but is himself to be judged by no one.
So Jesus and Paul are saying essentially the same thing: that which is born of the flesh is a natural man (a person with no spiritual inclinations or receptivity to the things of God), and that which is born of the Spirit is a spiritual man (who loves the things of God).
The connection, then, between verses 5 and 6 of John 3 is this: We have to be born of the Spirit, because until we are, we are unfit for the kingdom of heaven. We are mere natural persons who do not welcome the things of God. Before a person is born of the Spirit, he has no inclination to trust Christ for salvation, and therefore he cannot enter God's kingdom. Faith is the most beautiful, God-honoring, and humble act that a human can perform, and therefore we must not imagine that it can be performed by a "natural man" who "does not welcome the things of the Spirit of God." Before a person can perform the best of all acts, he must become a new person. Thorn bushes don't produce figs, apple trees don't produce olives, and a "natural man" does not produce faith. He cannot. Here is the way Paul put it in Romans 8:5–7,
Those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, and those according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind of the flesh is at enmity toward God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it submit.
Fallen human nature is so hostile to God and his demands that it cannot submit to God in faith. We must be born again, born of the Spirit, before we can approve of God's Word and trust Christ. Faith is not the means or the cause of the new birth; it is the result, the fruit of new birth.
The Spirit's Free and Sovereign Work
Jesus uses the analogy of the wind in John 3:8,
The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
What is this verse trying to teach? I believe Jesus was trying to drive home the freedom and sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in the act of regeneration. "The wind, that is, the Spirit, blows wherever it wills." The will of man is impotent at this point. We cannot start the wind blowing, and we cannot change the direction of the wind and make it blow when we want it to. The Spirit blows where he wills and, therefore, everyone born of the Spirit has been acted upon by the free Spirit and has been born anew, as John 1:13 says, "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." The new birth is not a result of our decision or our act of will. It precedes and enables the heart's decision to trust Christ.
There is another place in John's gospel where Jesus declares this truth with even greater clarity. In John 6:41 the Jews murmur because Jesus said, "I am the bread which came from heaven." In both cases Jesus was up against a resistant and imperceptive listener. So he says in John 6:43, 44, "Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him." No one can come to Jesus unless drawn by God. The natural man cannot submit himself to God until a supernatural work of grace is done in his life, called "new birth" in John 3 and the "drawing of God" in John 6.
But someone may say, "You can't equate the new birth with this drawing by God because God draws all men to Christ." My answer is, "Yes, there is a drawing of all men in the sense that the enticing revelation of God in nature or in the gospel goes out to all men beckoning them to repent. But that is not the sort of drawing Jesus has in mind here." And this can be easily shown by looking at John 6:61–65. Again some of his disciples murmur and he says,
"Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe and who it was that would betray him. And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by my Father."
Here Jesus repeats verse 44 with only a slight change, but the connection here between verses 64 and 65 makes his meaning unmistakable: "There are some of you here that do not believe . . . That is why I said no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father." Why do I say to you that no one can come to me without the Father's enablement? I say it to explain why there are some who do not believe. Those do not believe because it has not been given to them by my Father. He has not drawn them like he has drawn the others.
Therefore it follows that saving faith does not precede and cause the new birth. But rather God the Father, by the agency of his Holy Spirit, regenerates freely whomever he pleases and by this draws a person to the Son enabling him to believe in the Son and be saved. This is "prevenient grace"—the gracious work of God preceding and enabling the act of faith. It is "irresistible grace." There are divine influences which can be resisted, but there are also those which cannot be. The new birth is one of those that is irresistible, because it operates beneath a person's consciousness transforming the root of his affections and thus removing his hostility to God. And finally, this is God's "effectual calling"—not the general call that goes out to all, but the creative call of God that brings into being something new by its own power (1 Corinthians 1:24; 2 Corinthians 4:6).
What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the new beginning we must all make in order to be saved and filled with all the fullness of God? What is his role in the new birth? The answer Jesus gives (and it could be confirmed from many other texts) is that the new birth is the result of the free and sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, preceding and enabling our first act of saving faith. We do not bring about the new birth by faith. On the contrary, the Spirit must first create a new person who then, according to his new and spiritual nature, has the desire to believe in Christ.
Four Reasons to Love This Doctrine
Let me close by giving you four reasons why I love this teaching of our Lord and why I think believing it is essential to Christian living.
1) First, it gives all glory to God and keeps me humble before him. It prevents me from robbing God of any of his majesty by crediting myself with something that he alone has achieved. It reminds me that I am so corrupt and hostile in mind that never in a million years would I have called upon the name of the Lord except for the sovereign grace that created in me a new heart of faith. It keeps before my mind the truth that all the benefits and rewards of obedience are not earned by me because all obedience comes from faith which is a free gift of God. Therefore, I cannot boast in any virtue or achievement because it is all of God. And, therefore, he gets the glory.
2) Secondly, I love the doctrine of the Spirit's sovereign freedom in regeneration because it enables me to pray for the lost who are "dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1). I do not know what I could ask God to do for a hard-hearted, resistant neighbor or loved one if I didn't believe the doctrine of irresistible grace. Any prayer I can think of sounds like a joke: "Dear God, provide my neighbor with some allurements to believe, but don't make them so strong they are irresistible; work in his heart, but not so thoroughly that he feels an overwhelming urge to believe." O, no, I will not pray like that. On the authority of God's Word I pray: "Overcome his resistance, dear God! Take out of his flesh that heart of stone, and give him a new heart of flesh! Placard your love irresistibly before his face, and open the eyes of his heart so that he cannot help believing for joy. Don't keep your distance; ravish him with your glory." I love this doctrine because I cannot pray for the lost without it.
3) Thirdly, I cherish the doctrine of the Spirit's sovereignty because it gives me the encouragement I need to witness to unbelievers. What could be more encouraging in our daily witness, especially among people who seem hard, than the confidence that nothing can stop the Holy Spirit from making a new creature out of anybody he pleases? Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:24–25,
The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome, but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance unto a knowledge of the truth.
Ours is to witness by life and word; God's is to give repentance. And therein is great freedom and encouragement for witness.
4) Finally, I love this doctrine because it gives to you who are not yet born again strong encouragement to close in with Christ. You do not need any other witness of the Spirit's work within you than the desire you feel to come to God. If there is one spark of longing in you to trust Christ, it is of God, and you may take heart that he is at work in you to draw you to the Son. He has not left you to yourself. Go forward with him. Confirm his work by your faith. Make your calling and election sure: cleave to Jesus, and he will never let you go.
And so I commend to you all this blessed work of the Holy Spirit. And I urge that none of you take any credit for your new birth, nor for your faith. It is all of God. I am persuaded that if we miss this note here, all our thinking about the work of the Spirit in the next weeks will be off-key. May God root us deeply in the glory of his sovereign grace.