Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, 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, “Truly, truly, 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 its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”
I am going to focus on one verse, namely, verse 8, and talk about the free will of the wind — or the free will of the Holy Spirit in the way he brings about the new birth. The reason for this narrow focus, when we have 10 verses, is that I preached 2 sermons on these verses 17 months ago during our series on the new birth. But I did not linger long over verse 8 with its huge implications for how we understand free will, and why God’s free will in our conversion is such good news and makes such a great difference in how we live.
In verse 8, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes [that is the free will of the wind], and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” That’s what we are going to focus on. But we should see it in context, and so I’m going to give 6 summary statements based on those 2 other sermons to help us get our bearings in this passage. You can find the arguments for these summary statements in those sermons, or in the book Finally Alive.
Six Summary Statements
First, verses 1–3: Nicodemus was a religious man but not born again. So you can be religious and not born again. Even though Nicodemus says in verse 2, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God,” Jesus says in verse 7, “You must be born again.” So it is possible that you see God at work in Jesus without God being at work in you. You can be religiously impressed without being born again.
Second, verses 3, 5, and 7: We must be born again in order to see and enter the kingdom of God, that is, in order to be rescued from God’s judgment (John 3:36) and brought to eternal life. Verse 3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” It is not an optional religious experience. It is absolutely necessary if we would be saved.
Third, verse 5: When Jesus says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” (verse 5) he’s not referring to baptism, as many take it. Rather, it’s an allusion to Ezekiel 36:24–28, and the point is that we need both new spiritual life (worked by the Spirit) and cleansing (signified by water). (See especially the message on this verse.)
Fourth, verse 6: When Jesus says in verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” he means that we are merely flesh, that is, merely human and spiritually dead at our first birth, but are made spiritually alive by our second birth.
Fifth, verses 7 and 10: When Jesus says, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (verse 10), he shows that his teaching is not completely new but that someone who knows the Old Testament well should understand what Jesus is saying better than Nicodemus does.
Sixth, when we were working on this passage 17 months ago, we went to John’s first letter to see very clearly how the new birth related to Jesus himself and to faith. In 1 John 5:11, John says, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” So the life we get in the new birth from the Spirit, we get because the Spirit unites us to the Son of God who is life. And in 1 John 5:1, he says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” In other words, we know we have been born of God — born again by the Spirit in union with Jesus — if we are now believing. When the Holy Spirit creates new spiritual life in us, the simultaneous effect is seeing Jesus as beautiful, receiving him for who he is, and believing on him for his promises.
To confirm this in John’s Gospel, look back at John 1:12–13. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born [this is the new birth], not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” In other words, God causes us to be born again with new spiritual life, and the simultaneous effect is that we see and receive Jesus for who he is and trust him with our lives.
The Wind of the Spirit
That’s the context. And now we come to verse 8. Jesus is comparing the work of the Spirit of God in the new birth to the way the wind moves, and the way the wind causes effects in the world without being seen and without being controlled by us. In verse 6, Jesus has just said, “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” So he is making clear that the new birth is the work of Holy Spirit. When you are born again, you are born by the Spirit. The new spiritual life that comes in the new birth comes through the Holy Spirit. This is really clear in John 6:63. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” So the new birth — and the new life that comes with it — is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Now, having made that plain, Jesus teaches in verse 8 how the Holy Spirit does this work of regeneration. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” There is a play on words here because in Greek the word for wind and the word for Spirit are the same. So the wind is being treated as a picture of the Spirit.
The Work of the Wind
He says four things about the work of the wind which is a picture of the work of the Spirit. 1) “The wind blows where it wishes” — where it wills. So the wind — the Spirit — is free. He — I will use the masculine pronoun because the Spirit is a person, not just a force, and because John uses the masculine pronoun in John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13 — he is not constrained by us. The emphasis falls on the will of the Spirit, not ours.
Then Jesus says, 2) “. . . and you hear its sound . . .” This means that there are perceptible effects of the invisible wind. You can’t see the wind, but you know there is wind because there is sound, or pressure against your skin, or branches and leaves and dust flying in the air. So it is with the Spirit in the work of regeneration: You can’t see him, but you can see his effects.
3) Jesus says, “. . . but you do not know where it comes from . . .” This emphasizes that you did not do not originate the movement of the Spirit, and you do not control the movement of the Spirit. “You do not know.” These words mean there is a mystery here. The Spirit works in ways we do not fully understand.
This is like what Jesus said in Mark 4:26–27: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” The kingdom of God is like that. And Jesus says in John 3:5 that you can’t enter the kingdom of God unless you are born again. That’s why Jesus says: We scatter the seed of the word, and God causes new birth, we know not how.
Then 4) Jesus says at the end of that first sentence in verse 8, “. . . [you do not know] where it goes.” You can’t determine its origin, and you can’t determine his destination. The Spirit is free. He goes where he wills.
So the point so far is that the wind is mysterious. It has a will of its own, so to speak. It comes and it goes by its own laws. We don’t control it. We didn’t then. And we don’t now 2,000 years later. The wind is free. We do not decide what the wind does. The wind does what the wind does.
The Decisive Act — The Wind’s, Not Ours
Then Jesus makes the comparison with the Spirit’s work explicit. Verse 8: You have heard how the wind works . . . “so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Literally: “In this way is everyone who is born for the Spirit.” You have heard how the wind works . . . “in this way everyone who is born of the Spirit comes into being.” The point of emphasizing the freedom of the wind in producing its effects is to make plain the freedom of the Spirit in producing people who are born again.
So what verse 8 is teaching is this: We don’t cause the Spirit to bring about the new birth any more than we make the wind blow. Or to be more specific, the decisive act of will in the new birth is not ours. The Spirit’s will is decisive. To be sure, our will moves in the moment of the new birth. Change happens in us. There are perceptible effects of the wind — “ you hear its sound.”
The main effect of the wind — the Spirit — is that we are made alive spiritually — born again — and now our wills move. They move to receive Christ and believe on Christ. But our wills move because the wind is blowing, not the other way around. We don’t move first. Our wills are awakened and moved toward Christ because the Spirit blows where he wills and gives life to whom he wills.
Sovereign, Irresistible Grace
This is what we mean when we use terms like sovereign grace or irresistible grace. We mean that the Holy Spirit is God’s Spirit, and therefore he is omnipotent and sovereign. And therefore, he is irresistible and infallibly effective in his regenerating work. Which doesn’t mean that we don’t resist him. We do. The Bible is plain about that (Acts 7:51). What the sovereignty of grace and the sovereignty of the Spirit mean is that when God chooses, he can overcome the rebellion and resistance of our wills. He can make Christ look so compelling that our resistance is broken and we freely come to him and receive him and believe him.
And when he does that, the Spirit of God is gracious and sovereign. Here’s the way other parts of the Bible say it:
- Jesus says in John 6:44 and 65, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. . . . No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
- In Acts 13:48, Luke says, “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
- In Romans 9:15–16 Paul quotes God, “‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” In other words, the wind blows where it wills in the work of regeneration.
- In Philippians 2:12–13, Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” In other words, our indispensable willing is owing to God’s decisive working.
- Or the very familiar Ephesians 2:8–9: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The wind blows where it wills and gives life and faith.
So John 3:8 is teaching, along many other parts of Scripture, that being born again is decisively, ultimately, the work of the Spirit’s will, and secondarily and dependently the acting of our will.
How Will You Respond?
Let’s close by asking: How will you respond to this? Nicodemus in verse 9 responded by saying, “How can these things be?” He could not grasp it. It was mystifying. But by the end of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus (John 19:39) risks his life and spends his money to show his love for Jesus. I pray that is what happens to you as well.
Today there are two basic responses to what Jesus says in John 3:8. One is threatened by it. And the other is thrilled by it. To some it feels threatening because it takes the new birth out of our control and makes us feel helpless. But to others this is thrilling, because they have already discovered they are helpless.
One group says, “Don’t take away from me the power of my will to make the wind blow. Don’t tell me that I am utterly dependent on God’s free and sovereign grace to see Christ as my supreme treasure and receive him for all that he is.” The person who feels he must have the decisive power of will, the final say, to move the Spirit — to make the wind blow — that person will be threatened by John 3:8. For that person, it is bad news. What they would prefer to hear is a message confirming their own ultimate self-determination. That would be the good news they want.
But there is another group of people. These are the desperate ones who know that they are utterly helpless. They know they are dead in trespasses and sins. They are hard and rebellious and resistant. They know that if God leaves them to themselves and their own willpower, or if God only nudges them instead of giving them new life, they will not see Christ or believe on him. It does no good to nudge a corpse. You might get it to church, but that doesn’t make it live.
For this group, John 3:8 is very good news: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” This group hears John 3:8 and says: “There’s hope for me. It’s not threatening to me that I have no power in myself to constrain the Spirit to bring about the new birth. I knew that already. I have lived in this helplessness for many years. But it is thrilling to me to be told that God is free and sovereign in his grace. Because it means that all my helplessness, and all my deadness, and all my rebellion, and all my spiritual hardness, and all my moral inability, and all the years of my sin are no hindrance to God’s omnipotent Spirit when he wills to give me life through his crucified and risen Son. He blows where he wills, not where we deserve his blowing, and not where we constrain his blowing. His grace is free and sovereign. He does not depend on me in this work.”
Jesus Shifts Our Focus
And just at this point where we feel utterly helpless, Jesus stops describing the sovereign work of the Spirit in the new birth inside Nicodemus (and us) and shifts our focus off of our inner selves and onto the Son of Man. Verses 13–15:
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Look to the Crucified Christ
When, in your helplessness and deadness, you say, “What shall I do?” Jesus says, “Look away from yourself to the Son of Man, lifted up on a cross to die for your sins.” The work of the Spirit in the new birth is to make us alive so that we see the glory of Christ crucified and risen. So look to him. Look to the Son of Man.
And when you hear Jesus say, “The Spirit blows where it wills,” don’t hear him taking from you the will that you treasure, but hear him giving to you eyes to see Christ as your treasure.