We end week number 500 on the podcast today, and we end it with a sharp Bible question from a listener named Derek, who lives in Seattle. “Pastor John, hello! I have a Bible question for you about the new birth. Peter wrote that believers are born again ‘not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God’ (1 Peter 1:23). In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5). Can you help me understand the truth that these verses are totally compatible? Romans 10:17 and James 1:21 also mention the saving power of the word heard and implanted, but surely not in a way that minimizes the work of the Holy Spirit. The question then follows: How do the Holy Spirit and the word of God collaborate in the new birth?”
Great question. Well, let’s start by reminding ourselves that the reason we must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God, like Jesus says, is because by nature, by birth, we are all spiritually dead. This is the way Paul describes it in Ephesians 2:5: “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ.” Now, that making alive is the same as the new birth, said in different language.
Every human being has fallen in Adam and comes into the world without any saving spiritual life at all. We are dead. We are by nature resistant to God. We do not submit to him by nature. We value things that he has made more than him by nature. And we do not have the spiritual capacities to see Christ as supremely valuable and true and better than anything in the world. Nothing of that do we have by nature.
Unless we feel the weight of the lostness and fallenness and deadness of all humans, especially ourselves, nothing about the new birth is going to make sense in the New Testament. So, all of that means that if we’re going to live, if we’re going to know God, if we’re going to be happy forever, we must have new life — that is, new birth, new creation.
Born of the Spirit
So what Derek is asking now is how the Spirit of God and the word of God function together to bring us out of this deadness into the new, eternal life of knowing and enjoying God forever. And Derek refers to the words of Jesus in John 3:3, 6–8. Jesus said to Nicodemus,
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see 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 say 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.
So, to be born of the flesh is the first birth that we’ve all experienced. If you are alive, you were born. And he says that to be born first in that way is to be no more than a fallen human being. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” That’s all it is. Something more must happen for us if we are to enter the kingdom of God, and Jesus describes that more as a birth by the Spirit.
And then he compares the work of the Spirit in the new birth to the blowing of the wind (John 6:8) , which means the Spirit is as free and as mysterious in his regenerating new-birth work as the unseen wind. You don’t control the wind. You don’t make the wind come. You don’t make the wind go. It just comes. It goes. It does what it does, and that’s the way it is with God’s sovereign Spirit in whom he makes alive and gives new birth.
“We didn’t make our first birth. We don’t make our second birth.”
We didn’t make our first birth. We don’t make our second birth. We don’t raise ourselves from the dead. We don’t create new life in our souls. It is a gift. It’s a miracle of God. We don’t initiate it. We don’t control it. It’s the sovereign mysterious work of the Holy Spirit of God.
First Cry of Faith
Our first conscious experience of this new birth is the arising in our hearts of faith in Christ. You might say that the first cry of the newborn Christian infant is the cry of faith. Instead of “waa, waa,” the heart feels, “I see him; he’s beautiful. I love him, I want him, I need him. He’s my Savior!” That’s the cry of the new birth. And Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). So that baby cries, “Jesus is my Lord!” And he says that the evidence of the Holy Spirit coming into our lives is that we cry, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
So, even though the work of the Holy Spirit is unseen and outside our control, the evidence of his work is manifest. We see the glory of Christ as desirable and believable, and we embrace him as our Savior, our Lord, our treasure. That’s the evidence of the new birth in our life. Christ is now real, and precious, and trustworthy to us, and authoritative for us. We have been made alive, born again. That’s the work of the Spirit.
“Even though the work of the Holy Spirit is unseen and outside our control, the evidence of his work is manifest.”
But now you can see right away, by the very nature of what’s happened, that this implies something about the word. If we are now believing in Jesus because of our new birth, and that’s the first cry of the newborn, and we are seeing him as true and real and valuable, where do we see him?
Born Through the Word
The Holy Spirit does not whisper the gospel in our ear. We have to hear about him in the gospel. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” What we learn then is that faith is a work of the Holy Spirit in new birth (Ephesians 2:8–9), and faith is the effect of hearing the word of God. Faith comes from the new birth by the Spirit, and faith comes from the word.
And that’s where 1 Peter 1:23 comes in to connect word and Spirit in the new birth. Peter says, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable [that’s the Spirit of God], through the living and abiding word of God.” Born of the Spirit, born through the word. So, what we see is that the sovereign Spirit of God binds himself to the word of God because his primary work (as Jesus said in John 16:14) is to glorify the Son of God, who is manifest in the preaching of the word of God.
The Holy Spirit does not move willy-nilly, randomly, through the world, touching random people with the new birth who have never heard the gospel, without any reference to the word of God at all. No, he doesn’t do that. He moves in tandem with the preaching of the gospel. And the reason he does is that his primary mission, according to John 16:14, is to glorify the Son of God. And if he just made people alive who’ve never heard of the Son of God, they wouldn’t be glorifying the Son of God with their new life. New life is bound to the word of God because new life is meant to glorify the Son of God, and we hear about the Son of God in the word of God, the gospel.
We see an example of this in Acts 16:14, where Paul is preaching to Lydia and the other women there by the river. It says, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” So, you have the word spoken, preached by a human being (Paul), and you have the divine work of God opening the heart to give heed and to give new life so that she can understand and receive the preciousness of the gospel.
Speak the Word Faithfully
So, the implication for us is that our essential role in salvation is to speak the word of God and then trust the Spirit of God to do the work, the heart-work called the new birth. We don’t cause the new birth in ourselves or in anybody else, and we don’t cause it in those we are preaching the gospel to. The role we have — and it is an absolutely essential role — is to speak faithfully the word of God.
Paul asks in Romans 10:14, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” He answers, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). So, my prayer for us is this: may the Lord give us great boldness and faithfulness and confidence that when we speak the word of God, the Spirit of God will give life and glorify the Son of God through the awakening of faith.