What Man Does in the New Birth

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. 22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, 25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you.

I am reading the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir. He had been raised as a Roman Catholic and attended Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. But while there, he parted ways with the church, though not forever. Here is what he said:

During my second week on campus, I went to Mass for the first and last time at Holy Cross. I don’t know why I bothered—probably habit, or guilt—but whatever the reasons, I got up and walked out midway through the homily. It was all about Church dogma, not the social problems with which I was obsessed, and seemed to me hopelessly irrelevant. (51)

True Relevance—Whether You Know It or Not

As a preacher, I think a lot about relevance. That is, why should anyone listen to what I have to say? Why should anybody care? Relevance is an ambiguous word. It could mean more than one thing. It might mean that a sermon is relevant if it feels to the listeners that it will make a significant difference in their lives. Or it might mean that a sermon is relevant if it will make a significant difference in their lives whether they feel it or not. That second kind of relevance is what guides my sermons. In other words, I want to say things that are really significant for your life whether you know they are or not. My way of doing that is to stay as close as I can to what God says is important in his word, not what we think is important apart God’s word.

So in any given service—like this one—a dozen young, idealistic Clarence Thomases might be present, full of anger about racism, or global warming, or abortion, or limited health care for children, or homelessness, or poverty, or the war in Iraq, or white-collar crime, or human trafficking, or the global AIDS crisis, or rampant fatherlessness, or the greed behind the subprime mortgage crisis, or the treatment of illegal aliens, or the plight of Christians just coming out of prison. And then they hear me announce that today we are going to talk about the way a person can be born again. And they might react like Clarence Thomas did and simply walk out and say, That has nothing to do with the real problems this world is facing.

The Supreme Relevance of the New Birth

They would be wrong—doubly wrong. They would be wrong, in the first place, in failing to see that what Jesus meant by the new birth is supremely relevant for racism and global warming and abortion and health care and all the other issues of our day. We will see in the coming weeks what the necessary fruit of the new birth looks like.

And they would be wrong, secondly, in thinking that those issues are the most important issues in life. They aren’t. They are life-and-death issues. But they are not the most important, because they deal with the relief of suffering during this brief earthly life, not the relief of suffering during the eternity that follows. Or to put it positively, they deal with how to maximize well-being now for eighty years or so, but not with how to maximize well-being in the presence of God for eighty trillion years or so.

My job as a spokesman for God week after week is to deal in what matters most, and to stay close to the revealed will of God in the Bible (so you can see it for yourselves), and to pray that, by God’s grace, the young, idealistic, angry Clarence Thomases in the crowd, and everyone else, will see and feel the magnitude of what God says is important.

Seeing and Savoring the Magnificence of Jesus

Jesus says in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Not to see the kingdom of God is to be excluded from the kingdom of God. Jesus said in Matthew 8:11-12 that outside the kingdom is “outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” He called it “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). The alternative to that is to be in the kingdom of God and spend eternity in everlasting joy with the greatest person in the universe (John 17:24).

Nothing is more important than the glory of Christ personally seen and savored in the kingdom of God with as many people as we can gather in his name. And it will one day fill the earth with peace and justice as the waters fill the sea. So I hope you don’t leave—for the sake of your soul and the sake of the world.

Our Part in the New Birth: Faith

The question in this tenth message on the new birth is: What is our part? What do we do in the act of new birth? How do we participate in bringing it about? Let me give you the answer first that I see in the Bible, and then we will go back and show where it’s found.

Your part in the act of new birth is faith—faith in the crucified and risen Son of God, Jesus Christ, as the Savior and Lord and Treasure of your life. What you do in the act of new birth is believe on Christ. The way you participate in bringing the new birth about is by receiving Christ for who he really is, the supremely valuable Savior, Lord, and Treasure of the universe.

The Simultaneity of the New Birth and Faith

The answer continues like this: Your act of believing and God’s act of begetting are simultaneous. You do the one and he does the other at the same instant. And—this is very important—his doing is the decisive cause of your doing. His begetting is the decisive cause of your believing.

If you have a hard time thinking of one thing causing another thing if they are simultaneous, think of fire and heat or fire and light. The instant there is fire, there is heat. The instant there is fire, there is light. But we would not say that the heat caused the fire, or the light caused the fire. We say that the fire caused the heat and the light.

So that’s the answer I see in the Bible to the question What is our part in the new birth? So now let’s look at some passages of Scripture.

“Obedience to the Truth”

We will start here in our text at 1 Peter 1:22-23: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”

Notice several things here. One is that the aim of what is happening is love. “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love.” For—or unto—a sincere brotherly love. So the purifying of the soul is not itself the presence of brotherly love—not yet. The purifying of the soul is “for brotherly love.” It is “to the end of brotherly love.” Love is a very basic fruit of the Spirit. So verse 22 means that something more basic than brotherly love is happening when it says “having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth.”

“Obedience” here is not the obedience of love. It leads to the obedience of love. What is it then? It is the right response to “the truth.” It is called the “obedience to the truth” (verse 22). And what is that truth? In the context, the truth is very likely the word of God, as it’s called in verse 23 (“through the living and abiding word of God”). And that word of God is called in verse 25 the good news, the gospel: “This word is the good news that was preached to you.” So obeying the truth in verse 22 means obeying the gospel.

Obey the Gospel: Believe in Jesus

And what does obeying the gospel mean? It means believing in Jesus, because the free offer of the gospel is “believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2). The first and basic command of the gospel is not love your brother. What the gospel requires first is faith. So obeying the gospel at this basic level is having faith. You can see that’s the way Peter talks in chapter three, where the husbands without faith in Christ are described as “disobeying the word”—“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word” (1 Peter 3:1). Not obeying the word means they are not believers. The same thing turns up in 1 Peter 2:8 (“they disobey the word”) and 4:17 (“who do not obey the gospel of God”). So, not obeying the word means not obeying the gospel, that is, not believing.

Paul talked the same way in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 where he says that God will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” In other words, the gospel of the Lord Jesus calls for faith, and these people did not obey. They did not believe. They rejected “the word of truth, the gospel” (Eph. 1:13, Col. 1:5).

So when 1 Peter 1:22 says that you have “purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love,” he means “you have purified your souls by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ and this faith leads to brotherly love.” Faith works through love (Galatians 5:6). Love comes from sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).

Believing: Acting Out the New Birth

Now remember that in John 3:5 and Titus 3:5, the new birth involves purifying—the imagery of water and washing. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And Paul said that God “saved us . . . by the washing of regeneration.” So when Peter says that our souls have been purified by obedience to the truth—that is, by faith in the gospel—and says that this purification leads to love, and is not the same as love, I take him to mean that this purification is the purification of the new birth. It’s the purification spoken of in the water of John 3:5 and the washing of Titus 3:5. This is the new birth.

Which means that the new birth is “by obedience to the truth.” That is, the new birth is by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s why I say our part in the new birth is believing. In believing we are acting out the new birth.

God’s Begetting Causes Our Believing

Now in verse 23, Peter explains this in the very language of being born again. Let’s read both verses (22-23) so you can see the connection: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again [literally: having been born again], not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” The connection between our action in new birth (verse 22) and God’s action in new birth (verse 23) is a relationship of effect and cause. God’s action is underneath our action. We purify our hearts in obedience to the gospel, that is, we act out regeneration; and we are able to do that because God regenerates us.

There are three clues in this text that God’s action in new birth is the cause of our action in the new birth. That is, his begetting causes our believing.

1) The Order: New Birth, Faith, Love

First is simply the order of the statements: Verse 22 contains a command: “Love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” And verse 22 contains a prerequisite to that love, namely, that we have purified our hearts by faith in the gospel. Then coming last, as it does, verse 23 seems to be a prerequisite of both of those. Because of God’s work in begetting, you are able to believe the gospel, which purifies your heart and then love each other. So God’s begetting is underneath our believing and loving. It makes the believing and loving possible.

2) The Instrument: The Gospel

The second clue that God’s begetting is the cause of our believing is that God makes the word the instrument of the new birth in verse 23: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” Some take the imperishable seed of verse 23 to be the Holy Spirit, and it may well be (see 1 John 3:9). But I’m inclined to take the “imperishable seed” to be “the word of God.” The seed is described as “imperishable.” And the word is described as “living and abiding.” Those are virtually the same. So I take “born . . . of imperishable seed” to be synonymous with “[born] through the living and abiding word.” This is confirmed by the fact that in verses 24-25 the entire focus is on the word, not the Spirit.

So the point is that God makes the word his instrument in the new birth and the way the word works in the new birth is by awakening faith. That’s what Paul says in Romans 10:17: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” So if our part in the new birth is believing, and if the word causes believing (and verse 24 says that God causes the new birth “through the word”), then behind the word and behind our believing is the decisive hand of God. This is what James says in James 1:18: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth.”

3) The Ultimate Actor: God

The third clue that God’s begetting is the cause of our believing is that Peter says at the Jerusalem council in Acts that Gentiles and Jews are both being saved, not just Jews. And the way he says it is this: “[God] made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). Here he speaks the same way he does in 1 Peter 1:22. “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth . . .” That is, “having purified your souls by faith . . .” Only in Acts 15:9 he says something very significant: He says that ultimately God does it through our faith. “[God] made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” God cleansed their hearts through their faith. This shows us that our faith is crucial and instrumental in the act of new birth. But it is not ultimate. It is not its own cause. God is.

What This Means for Us

What then does this mean for you? It means four things, and I pray you will receive them with joy.

1) It means you must believe in order to be saved. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). The new birth does not take the place of faith; the new birth includes faith. The new birth is the birth of faith.

2) It means that left to yourself you will not believe. There is no hope that the dead will breathe by themselves.

3) God who is in rich mercy and great love and sovereign grace is the decisive cause of your faith.

4) According verse 22, the fruit of the born-again heart is love. Which means that nothing in life is untouched by the new birth: racism, global warming, abortion, limited health care for children, homelessness, poverty, the war in Iraq, white-collar crime, human trafficking, the global AIDS crisis, rampant fatherlessness, the greed behind the subprime mortgage crisis, the treatment of illegal aliens, or the plight of Christians just coming out of prison. Nothing is untouched. And most important, you enter the kingdom of God, and see the face of Jesus, forever.

Believe and Receive

Therefore, I plead with you on behalf of Christ, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Receive him as the Savior and Lord and Treasure of your life. And, Christian, humble yourself under the gracious hand of God, and as an everlasting, invincible child of God, give yourself to relieve suffering, especially eternal suffering.

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