Ask another question first: When Jesus commanded Lazarus to rise from the dead, how did he obey that command? In John 11:43 it says, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’” That was a command to a dead man. The next verse says, “He who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings.”
How did Lazarus do that? How does a dead man obey a command to live again? The answer seems to be: The command carries the power to create new life. Obedience to the command means doing what living people do. This is extremely important. The command of God, “Rise from the dead!’ carries in it the power we need to obey it. We do not obey it by creating that life. We obey it by doing what living people do—Lazarus came forth. He rose. He walked out to Jesus. The call of God creates life. We respond in the power of what the call created.
In Ephesians 5:14 Paul says, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” How do you obey a command to wake up from sleep? If your house has carbon monoxide in it and someone cries out, “Wake up! Save yourself! Get out!” you don’t obey by waking yourself up. The loud powerful command itself wakes you up. You obey by doing what wakeful people do in the face of danger. You get up and leave the house. The call creates the waking. You respond in the power of what the call created.
I believe this is the explanation for why the Bible says paradoxical things about new birth: namely, that we must get ourselves new hearts, but that it is God who creates the new heart. For example:
Deuteronomy 10:16, “Circumcise your heart!”
Deuteronomy 30:6, “The Lord will circumcise your heart.”
Ezekiel 18:31, “Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”
Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.”
John 3:6, “You must be born again.”
1 Peter 3:3, “[God] caused us to be born again.”
The way to obey the command to be born is to first experience the divine gift of life and breath, and then to do what living, breathing people do—cry out to God in faith and gratitude and love. When the command of God comes with the creating, converting power of the Holy Spirit, it gives life. The evidence that it has come in this life-creating way is that we respond in life and faith and hope and joy. If that response is in us, we are born of God, and we have obeyed the command.