Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
If you go to the Barna Group online—it’s an organization that specializes in religious research and statistics—you’ll read things like this: “Born Again Christians Just As Likely to Divorce As Are Non-Christians.” The same kind of statistics are given by Ron Sider in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? and by Mark Regnerus in his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.
American Church Not Unlike the World
What I am picking up on here is precisely the term “born again.” The Barna Group in particular uses it in reporting their research. So that report is titled “Born Again Christians Just As Likely to Divorce As Are Non-Christians.” Sider uses the word “evangelicals” but points out the same kind of thing: “Only 9 percent of evangelicals tithe. Of 12,000 teenagers who took the pledge to wait for marriage, 80% had sex outside marriage in the next 7 years. Twenty-six percent of traditional evangelicals do not think premarital sex is wrong. White evangelicals are more likely than Catholics and mainline Protestants to object to having black neighbors.”
In other words, the evangelical church as a whole in America is apparently not very unlike the world. It goes to church on Sunday and has a veneer of religion, but its religion is basically an add-on to the same way of life the world lives, not a radically transforming power.
A Profound Mistake
Now I want to say loud and clear that when the Barna Group uses term “born again” to describe American church-goers whose lives are indistinguishable from the world, and who sin as much as the world, and sacrifice for others as little as the world, and embrace injustice as readily as the world, and covet things as greedily as the world, and enjoy God-ignoring entertainment as enthusiastically as the world—when the term “born again” is used to describe these professing Christians, the Barna Group is making a profound mistake. It is using the biblical term “born again” in a way that would make it unrecognizable by Jesus and the biblical writers.
Here is the way the researchers defined “born again” in their research:
“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.
In other words, in this research the term “born again” refers to people who say things. They say, “I have a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. It’s important to me.” They say, “I believe that I will go to heaven when I die. I have confessed my sins and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior.” Then the Barna Group takes them at their word, ascribes to them the infinitely important reality of the new birth, and then blasphemes that precious biblical reality by saying that regenerate hearts have no more victory over sin than unregenerate hearts.
The New Testament Moves the Opposite Direction
I’m not saying their research is wrong. It appears to be appallingly right. I am not saying that the church is not as worldly as they say it is. I am saying that the writers of the New Testament think in exactly the opposite direction about being born again. Instead of moving from a profession of faith, to the label “born again,” to the worldliness of these so-called born again people, to the conclusion that the new birth does not radically change people, the New Testament moves the other direction. It moves from the absolute certainty that the new birth radically changes people, to the observation that many professing Christians are indeed (as the Barna Group says) not radically changed, to the conclusion that they are not born again. The New Testament, unlike the Barna Group, does not defile the new birth with the worldliness of unregenerate, professing American Christians.
For example, one of the main points of the first epistle of John is to drive home this very truth:
- 1 John 2:29: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.”
- 1 John 3:9: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.”
- 1 John 4:7: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”
- 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.”
- 1 John 5:18: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.”
We will come back to texts like these in the weeks to come as this series develops. There are many questions to answer and we will distance ourselves plainly from perfectionism and deal realistically with the failures of genuine Christians. But for now, is it not true that these statements appear to be written with the very claims of the Barna Group in mind, namely, that born again people are morally indistinguishable from the world? The Bible is profoundly aware of such people in the church. That is one reason why 1 John was written. But instead of following the Barna Group, the Bible says that the research is not finding that born again people are permeated with worldliness; the research is finding that the church is permeated by people who are not born again.
Today we begin a series of messages about the new birth. What does the Bible teach about being born again? Another word for the event of being born again is “regeneration.” It is helpful to use that word from time to time. Would you be willing to add it to your vocabulary? Children would you help your parents with this? They have probably never used the word “regeneration” in talking to you. So they may not know what it is. Would you tell them when you get home, “Mommy and Daddy, did you know that ‘regeneration’ means being born again? And did you know that the word ‘regenerate’ is how you describe somebody who is born again? You say, ‘That person is regenerate.’ That means he’s born again”? If you could coach your parents with this, it will help me very much. Then we can all use words in the same way and not get confused.
1) The Desecration of the Term “Born Again”
Today’s message will be an introductory overview of where we are going and why. You can already see one of the reasons I want to focus on this issue. The term “born again” is desecrated when it is used the way the Barna Group uses it. And, of course, that kind of misuse of the biblical term is not the only kind. The term in our day simply means that someone or something got a new lease on life. So the internet says that Cisco Systems, the communications company, has been born again, and the Green Movement has been born again, the Davie Shipyard in Montreal has been born again, the west end in Boston has been born again, Kosher foods for Orthodox Jews have been born again, and so on. So it’s not surprising that we have to be careful when we read that 45% of Americans say they have been religiously “born again.”
This term “born again” is very precious and very crucial in the Bible. So I hope to make sure that we know what God intends when the Bible uses this language. What does being born again mean?
2) I Want You to Know What Happened to You
Another reason I am eager to focus on the new birth is to help you know what really happened to you when you were born again. It is far more glorious than you think it is. It is also more glorious than I think it is. It is wonderful beyond all human comprehension. But that mystery is not because there is little about it in the Bible. There is much about it in the Bible. It’s because when all is comprehended there is still more. So I hope that you will know more and know better what happened to you when you were born again.
3) I Want to Help People Be Born Again
Another reason for this series is that there are others that I want to help be born again. I want to show them what must happen to them. And I, with your prayers, would like to be a means of many being born again in these weeks. The new birth, we will see, is not a work of man. You don’t make the new birth happen, and I don’t make the new birth happen. God makes it happen. It happens to us, not by us.
Being Born Again Happens Through the Gospel
But it always happens through the word of God. Listen to1 Peter 1:23 and 25: “Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. . . . And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” So even though God is the one who begets his children, the seed by which he does it is the word of God, the gospel that we preach. So pray with me that one of the great effects of this series will be that miracle. And bring your friends and family who need to hear about the necessity of the new birth. I will try to explain it clearly and show it from the Bible so people can see it for themselves.
And the reason I want you to know what happened to you in your new birth and others to know what must yet happen to them is threefold. 1) When you are truly born again and grow in the grace and knowledge of what the Lord has done for you, your fellowship with God will be sweet, and your assurance that he is your Father will be deep. I want that for you. 2) If God would be pleased to bring this kind of awakening to his church, then the world will get the real deal of radical love and sacrifice and courage from the church and not all these fake Christians that live just like the world. 3) If you know what really happened to you in your new birth, you will treasure God and his Spirit and his Son and his word more highly than you ever have. And he will be glorified. So those are some of the reasons why we are focusing on the new birth.
Crucial Questions About Being Born Again
There are several crucial questions we will be asking. One is: What is the new birth? That is, what actually happens? What is it like? What changes? What comes into being that wasn’t there before?
Another question is: How does it relate to other things that the Bible says God does to bring us to himself and save us? For example, how does being born again relate to
- God’s effectual calling (“Those whom he called he justified” Romans 8:30),
- The new creation (“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” 2 Corinthians 5:17),
- God’s drawing us to Christ (“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” John 6:44),
- God’s giving people to his Son (“All that the Father gives me will come to me,” John 6:37),
- God’s opening our hearts (“The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul,” Acts 16:14),
- God’s illumining our hearts (“God . . . has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” 2 Corinthians 4:6),
- God’s taking the heart of stone out and giving us a heart of flesh (“I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh,” Ezekiel 36:26),
- God’s making us alive (“even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ,” Ephesians 2:5),
- God’s adopting us into his family (“You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Romans 8:15).
How does God’s act of regeneration relate to all these wonderful ways of describing what happened to us when God saved us?
Another question we will ask is: Why is the new birth necessary? Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:7, “You must be born again.” Not, “I suggest it,” or, “Your life would improve if you added this experience.” Why is it that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3)? This is one of the great reasons for dealing with this. Until we realize that we must be born again, and why we must be born again, we probably will not realize what our condition really is without salvation. Most people do not know what is really wrong with them. One way to help them make a true and terrible and hopeful diagnosis is to show them the kind of remedy God has provided, namely, the new birth. If you have a sore on your ankle and after the doctor does his test, he comes in and says, “I have hard news: We have to take your leg off just below the knee,” that remedy would tell you more about the sore than many fancy words. So it is with the remedy “you must be born again.”
Another question we will tackle is how the new birth happens. If it is the work of God, which it is, how do I experience it? Is there anything I can do to make it happen?
And a final question we must deal with is: What are the effects of being born again? What changes? What is it like to live as a born-again person?
Millions in Church Not Born Again
Which brings us back to where we started, namely, the claim that “born again” Christians have lifestyles of worldliness and sin that are indistinguishable from the unregenerate. I don’t think so. First 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.” But my conviction is not rosy news for the church. It implies that there are millions of church attenders who are not born again.
Would those of you who are born again, and have the Holy Spirit in you, and love God and care about lost people, pray with me that the effect of these messages will be to awaken the spiritually dead—both the ones who never go to church, and those who have been there all their lives?