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?
We have begun a series of messages on the new birth. Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He was speaking to all of us when he said that. Nicodemus was not a special case. You and I must be born again, or we will not see the kingdom of God. That means we will not be saved; we will not be part of God’s family, and not go to heaven, but instead will go to hell.
Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees, the most religious Jewish leaders. Jesus said to them in Matthew 23:15 and 33, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. . . . You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” So the series we have begun is not marginal. It is central. Eternity hangs in the balance when we are talking about the new birth. “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The New Birth Is Unsettling
In the first message last time we focused on the reasons for this series and the kinds of questions we would be asking. Today’s question is: What happens in the new birth? Before I try to answer that question, let me mention a very earnest concern that I have about the way these messages will be heard. I am aware that this series of messages will be unsettling to many of you — just like the words of Jesus are unsettling to us again and again if we take them seriously. There are at least three reasons for this:
Our Hopeless Condition
Jesus’s teaching about the new birth confronts us with our hopeless spiritual and moral and legal condition apart from God’s regenerating grace. Before the new birth happens to us, we are spiritually dead. We are morally selfish and rebellious. And we are legally guilty before God’s law and under his wrath. When Jesus tells us that we must be born again he is telling us that our present condition is hopelessly unresponsive, corrupt, and guilty. Apart from amazing grace in our lives, we don’t like to hear that about ourselves. So it is unsettling when Jesus tells us that we must be born again.
We Cannot Cause the New Birth
Teaching about the new birth is unsettling because it refers to something that is done to us, not something we do. John 1:13 emphasizes this. It refers to the children of God as those who “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Peter stresses the same thing: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). We do not cause the new birth. God causes the new birth. Any good thing that we do is a result of the new birth, not a cause of the new birth. This means that the new birth is taken out of our hands. It is not in our control. And so it confronts us with our helplessness and our absolute dependence on Someone outside ourselves.
This is unsettling. We are told that we won’t see the kingdom of God if we’re not born again. And we’re told that we can’t make ourselves to be born again. This is unsettling.
The Absolute Freedom of God Confronts Us
And the third reason Jesus’s teaching about the new birth is unsettling, therefore, is that it confronts us with the absolute freedom of God. Apart from God, we are spiritually dead in our selfishness and rebellion. We are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). Our rebellion is so deep that we cannot detect or desire the glory of Christ in the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4). Therefore, we if we are going to be born again, it will rely decisively and ultimately on God. His decision to make us alive will not be a response to what we as spiritual corpses do, but what we do will be a response to his making us alive. For most people, at least at first, this is unsettling.
My Hope: Stabilize and Save, Not Just Unsettle
So, as I begin this series, I am aware of how unsettling this teaching on the new birth can be. And oh how careful I want to be. I do not want to cause tender souls any unnecessary distress. And I do not want to give false hope to those who have confused morality or religion for spiritual life. Please pray for me. I feel like I am taking eternal souls in my hands in these days. And yet I know that I have no power in myself to give them life. But God does. And I am very hopeful that he will do what he says in Ephesians 2:4–5, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved.” God loves to magnify the riches of his life-giving grace where Christ is lifted up in truth. That is my hope: that this series will not just unsettle but stabilize and save.
What Happens in the New Birth?
So let’s turn now to the question: What happens in the new birth? I will try to put the answer in three statements. The first two we will deal with today, and the third we will deal with (Lord willing) next week. (1) What happens in the new birth is not getting new religion but getting new life. (2) What happens in the new birth is not merely affirming the supernatural in Jesus but experiencing the supernatural in yourself. (3) What happens in the new birth is not the improvement of your old human nature but the creation of a new human nature — a nature that is really you, and is forgiven and cleansed; and a nature that is really new, and is being formed by the indwelling Spirit of God. Let’s take those one at a time.
1. New Life, Not New Religion
What happens in the new birth is not getting new religion but getting new life. Read with me the first three verses of John 3: “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.’
John makes sure that we know that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews. The Pharisees were the most rigorously religious of all the Jewish groups. To this one, Jesus says (in verse 3), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And even more personally in verse 7: “You must be born again.” So one of John’s points is: All of Nicodemus’ religion, all of his amazing Pharisaic study and discipline and law-keeping, cannot replace the need for the new birth. In fact, they may well make more obvious the need for the new birth.
What Nicodemus needs, and what you and I need, is not religion but life. The point of referring to new birth is that birth brings a new life into the world. In one sense, of course, Nicodemus is alive. He is breathing, thinking, feeling, acting. He is human, created in God’s image. But evidently, Jesus thinks he’s dead. There is no spiritual life in Nicodemus. Spiritually, he is unborn. He needs life, not more religious activities or more religious zeal. He has plenty of that.
You recall what Jesus said in Luke 9:60 to the man who wanted to put off following Jesus so he could bury his father? Jesus said, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.” That means there are physically dead people who need burying. And there are spiritually dead people who can bury them. In other words, Jesus thought in terms of people who walk around with much apparent life, and are dead. In his parable about the prodigal son, the Father says, “This my son was dead, and is alive again.” (Luke 15:24).
Nicodemus did not need religion; he needed life — spiritual life. What happens in the new birth is that life comes into being that was not there before. New life happens at new birth. This is not religious activity or discipline or decision. This is the coming into being of life. That’s the first way of describing what happens in the new birth.
2. Experiencing the Supernatural, Not Just Affirming It
What happens in the new birth is not merely affirming the supernatural in Jesus but experiencing the supernatural in yourself. In verse 2, Nicodemus says, “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.” In other words, Nicodemus sees in Jesus a genuine divine activity. He admits that Jesus is from God. Jesus does the works of God. To this, Jesus does not respond by saying, “I wish everyone in Palestine could see the truth that you see about me.” Instead, he says, “You must be born again or you will never see the kingdom of God.”
Seeing signs and wonders, and being amazed at them, and giving the miracle worker credit for them that he is from God, saves nobody. This is one of the great dangers of signs and wonders: You don’t need a new heart to be amazed at them. The old, fallen human nature is all that’s needed to be amazed at signs and wonders. And the old, fallen human nature is willing to say that the miracle worker is from God. The devil himself knows that Jesus is the Son of God and works miracles (Mark 1:24). No, Nicodemus, seeing me as a miracle worker sent from God is not the key to the kingdom of God. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
In other words, what matters is not merely affirming the supernatural in Jesus but experiencing the supernatural in yourself. The new birth is supernatural, not natural. It cannot be accounted by things that are already found in this world. Verse 6 emphasizes the supernatural nature of the new birth: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The flesh is what we are naturally. The Spirit of God is the supernatural Person who brings about the new birth. Jesus says this again in verse 8: “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.” The Spirit is not a part of this natural world. He is above nature. He is supernatural. Indeed, he is God. He is the immediate cause of the new birth.
“New birth is not getting new religion but getting new life.”
So Nicodemus, Jesus says, what happens in the new birth is not merely affirming the supernatural in me, but experiencing the supernatural in yourself. You must be born again. And not in any metaphorical natural way, but in a supernatural way. God the Holy Spirit must come upon you and bring new life into existence.
We will look next time at the words 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.” What does water and Spirit refer to here? And how does that help us understand what is happening in the new birth?
Jesus Is the Life
But today I want to close by making a crucial connection between being born again by the Spirit and having eternal life through faith in Jesus. What we have seen so far is that what happens in the new birth is a supernatural work by the Holy Spirit to bring spiritual life into being where it did not exist. Jesus says it again in John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”
But the Gospel of John makes something else clear as well: Jesus is the life that the Holy Spirit gives. Or we could say: The spiritual life that he gives, he only gives in connection with Jesus. Union with Jesus is where we experience supernatural, spiritual life. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. In John 6:35, he said, “I am the bread of life.” And in 20:31, John says, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
No Life Apart from Jesus
So there is no spiritual life — no eternal life — apart from connection with Jesus and belief in Jesus. We will have lots more to say about the relationship between the new birth and faith in Jesus. But let’s put it this way for now: In the new birth, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ in a living union. Christ is life. Christ is the vine where life flows. We are the branches (John 15:1–11). What happens in the new birth is the supernatural creation of new spiritual life, and it is created through union with Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit brings us into vital connection with Christ who is the way, the truth, and life. That is the objective reality of what happens in the new birth.
And from our side — the way we experience this — is that faith in Jesus is awakened in our hearts. Spiritual life and faith in Jesus come into being together. The new life makes the faith possible, and since spiritual life always awakens faith and expresses itself in faith, there is no life without faith in Jesus. Therefore, we should never separate the new birth from faith in Jesus. From God’s side, we are united to Christ in the new birth. That’s what the Holy Spirit does. From our side, we experience this union by faith in Jesus.
Never Separate the New Birth and Faith in Jesus
Listen to how John puts them together in 1 John 5:4: “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith.” Born of God — the key to victory. Faith — the key to victory. Because faith is the way we experience being born of God.
Or listen to how John says it in 1 John 5:11-12: “This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Therefore, when Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63), and when he says, “You must be born of the Spirit” in order to have life, he means: In the new birth, the Holy Spirit supernaturally gives us new spiritual life by connecting us with Jesus Christ through faith. For Jesus is life.
So never separate these two sayings of Jesus in John 3: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (verse 3) and “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (verse 36).