Good News: You Can’t Do It

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Professor, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

It’s common practice among some Christians to say, “You must be born again,” in such a way that it is equivalent to the command to repent and trust in Christ. However, as Sinclair Ferguson reminds us, these Christians wrongly assume that the new birth “is something we must do.” It’s not.

“In the New Testament,” says Ferguson, “new birth is something God gives. The point of the metaphor lies in the fact that the new birth is not something we can do.”

The new birth is not a work conditioned on our will, but rather any spiritual activity by our will is conditioned upon God’s sovereign decision to grant us new life by the Spirit. One passage that beautifully and powerfully testifies to God’s sovereignty in the new birth is John 3:3–8.

This Birth Is from Above

In John 2, we learn that, though Jesus performed miracles, many who watched did not believe. Jesus, therefore, did not entrust himself to them as he knew what was within them, namely, unbelief and wickedness (John 2:25). Jesus recognized that the fundamental problem was not only what was within man (unbelief), but what was not within man (a new heart or spirit).

So, when Jesus responds to Nicodemus in John 3, he pinpoints the central issue: unless you are born again, by the Spirit, you will never believe in who I say that I am, nor enter my Father’s kingdom.

But what does Jesus mean by the phrase “born again,” which also can be translated “born from above”?

Perplexed and confused, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, believing he is referring to being physically born a second time (John 3:4). However, Jesus is not referring to a second birth from the flesh, but one from heaven, from the Spirit (John 3:5–6).

The emphasis on “water” and “Spirit” (John 3:5) is an important one. Jesus is using water to picture the Spirit’s work in cleansing the sinner. In other words, water represents the spiritual washing that occurs in the new birth (Ezekiel 36:25–27). Water and Spirit are used in tandem, referring to the reality of being cleansed, purified, renewed, and washed by the Spirit in regeneration.

This Birth Is God’s Work

The key question for our purpose, however, is whether or not the new birth described in John 3 is monergistic in nature — which means, is it the work of one person alone (God), as opposed to synergistic (the work of us and God together)? In other words, does the Spirit work effectually on a passive sinner to bring about new life? Our answer comes in verses 7 and 8 where any type of cooperation (synergism) with God in the new birth is precluded by the imagery of “birth” itself.

Human birth is unilateral in every way. No infant has a say in being born, nor does he do anything to be born. Being born is not conditioned upon the infant’s will to accept it or reject it. To the contrary, the infant is passive. Likewise, the same applies in spiritual birth.

In the new birth, the sinner is passive. He does not work to be born. God alone acts to bring about life. The sinner’s working plays no part whatsoever, and he only receives by faith the action God initiates. D. A. Carson writes, “Jesus’s reply is not framed in terms of what Nicodemus must do to see the kingdom, but in terms of what must happen to him. The point is made both by the nature of the demanded transformation (a man neither begets nor bears himself) and by the passive mood of the verb.”

But not only does the imagery of birth display God’s sovereignty and man’s passivity in regeneration, so also does the imagery of the wind. Jesus’s reference to the wind highlights the power of the Holy Spirit in bringing about the new birth. Jesus says, “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” (John 3:8).

Jesus is drawing a clear parallel between wind and Spirit, so that when he speaks of one, he is speaking of the other. He is comparing the effects of the wind to the effects of the Spirit.

It is important to note that the phrase the “wind blows where it wishes” conveys the sovereignty of the Spirit. The Spirit is not controlled by the human will but works as God pleases to bring about new life. As Thomas Schreiner explains, “The Spirit grants new life sovereignly and unexpectedly, producing new life where humans least expect it to occur. New life comes not from human effort or human accomplishment but from the miraculous work of God’s Spirit.”

Don’t Recoil Against Christ

It may be that the Spirit’s sovereignty in regeneration makes you uncomfortable. Why? Because it means that you are totally helpless apart from God’s regenerating grace. Offended by the bitter taste Jesus’s words leave in your mouth, you may be tempted to dismiss Jesus’s teaching in John 3. If that is you, I leave you with these sobering, yet liberating, words from the pen of John Murray:

It has often been said that we are passive in regeneration. This is a true and proper statement. For it is simply the precipitate of what our Lord has taught us here. We may not like it. We may recoil against it. It may not fit into our way of thinking, and it may not accord with the time-worn expressions which are the coin of our evangelism.

But if we recoil against it, we do well to remember that this recoil is recoil against Christ. And what shall we answer when we appear before him whose truth we rejected and with whose gospel we tampered?

But blessed be God that the gospel of Christ is one of sovereign, efficacious, irresistible regeneration. If it were not the case that in regeneration we are passive, the subjects of an action of which God alone is the agent, there would be no gospel at all. For unless God by sovereign, operative grace had turned our enmity to love and our disbelief to faith, we would never yield the response of faith and love.