Turn with me to John 3. I’m talking here, not this time about the doctrine of justification but the doctrine of regeneration. This is about Preaching Regeneration (or the new birth) Undiminished. We’ll begin with reading John 3:1–10, which are the verses that come most quickly to mind when we think about the new birth. The passage says:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 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?”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter 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 said 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.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?
There were so many things in Alistair’s message that made me want to jump on my desk that I’m going to comment on. I’ll mention one or two things and make the second one a bridge into the message. The first one was him talking about short, little messages that are 17 minutes long. The day before yesterday, I began my message talking about little messages like that. And I said to the people, “If you come here and you’re used to a 20 minute, immediately practical, relaxed talk, you’re not going to get it. I preach at least twice that long. And I do not aim to be immediately practical, but eternally helpful, and I am not relaxed. I feel myself standing on the brink of eternity and any one of you could go over the edge before we meet next time.”
So amen to urgency, and amen to a certain spirit about this thing called preaching. I am sick of short chatty, chipper, feel-good, little talks. What do we think the world needs? They have so much of that already. They don’t need any more. They’re desperate to hear God, and they don’t know it. They don’t know it. You have to persuade them that God’s word is more important than being a little friendly, chatty, feel-good, get-a-tip-and-go-out-and-come-back kind of talk. It just is so pointless. It doesn’t matter how many thousands come to hear you do it. That was number one. I just loved it. I wish he had jumped on his desk. It doesn’t matter how messy the desk is.
Sent to Open Their Eyes
The second one is the free offer of the gospel, which was that seven or eight minute portion of his message where he was getting on the case of Hyper-Calvinists who’ve lost their way and don’t know how to preach John 3:16 because they believe in John 3:8. That was also my message this weekend. I preached two messages on John 3:16 in the last two weeks.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
We talked about the meaning of the love of God in John 3:16, which is right here in the context, right? We just stopped too early to get to it. It’s six verses later. It’s very relevant to what we’re going to be talking about. We’ll get there at the end. We’re talking about the new birth. We can say to every single human being on the planet, “God loves you.” And what we mean by that, we’ll just unpack it. We will say to them, “God loves you. He sent his Son to die in your place, such that if you would just come and believe, you would have it. So come and know yourself chosen; come and find yourself particularly loved. Come and believe, and you will know yourself to be born of God.”
This is not hard to do, brothers. I’m a seven-point Calvinist. I want people to come. I am sent to open their eyes, that they might turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. That’s my job. And only God can do it.
Preaching the New Birth
Here we are in John 3. My goal in the second sermon that I did on John 3:16 was to argue that John 3:16 is not controversial, unless you use John 3:16 to cancel out John 3:8. Now Allistair was going in exactly the reverse direction. He’s been bumping into people who use the freedom of the Holy Spirit awakening from the dead those whom he chooses to cancel out John 3:16.
I am just as concerned, maybe more — because I think they’re way more people making the mistake I’m addressing than what he was addressing, and they’re both bad mistakes — about those who’ve been born and bred on John 3:16, who love that word with all their heart, use it and win people to Christ, and use it to cancel out whole swaths of the Bible — namely, the doctrine of the new birth as it’s taught in Scripture. So that’s what we’re going to talk about. We’re going to talk about the doctrine of the new birth.
I have a burden for my people, and my people are always in flux. Who are they anyway? I hardly recognize anybody. I have a burden for these people that come and go kind of like a tide in my church, that they know themselves loved with a love that is greater than the love of John 3:16.
That, of course, causes question marks all over their faces because they think, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” John 3:16 is the amazing love of God. It’s him loving a mass of sinful humanity — all fallen and all perishing — such that he sends Christ into the world to cancel the sins of all who believe so that you can say to everybody on the planet, “Believe and your sins will be canceled. Just believe and your sins will be canceled.” That’s a great love, but it isn’t the greatest love.
A Love That Raises the Dead
Turn with me to Ephesians 2. I’m going to be like Allistair Begg here. On my way to John 3, let’s go to Ephesians 2:4–5. If you knew this by heart you wouldn’t even have to go there, but just to make sure we get it exactly right it might help to look at it. What I’m after here is for you to see with your own eyes what I mean by a greater love than John 3:16. That’s what I’m after, just to set the stage for unpacking the new birth. I know the new birth is not mentioned here, but the reality is here. I think you will agree. The passage says:
But God, being rich in mercy (we’ll see that again, but here’s the phrase), because of the great love with which he loved us . . .
And I just asked my people on Sunday. I said, “Now you want you to know what this is. I want you to know yourself to be loved like this. I don’t want you to use John 3:16 to cancel this. Because if you use John 3:16 to cancel this, you will miss out on being loved the way you should know yourself to be loved. You’ll only know yourself to be partly loved, and you’ll be fragile all your life wondering if you’re doing enough to qualify for the love of John 3:16, because it is conditional.”
This love is called great love. Do you see that?
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . . (Ephesians 2:4–5).
You were dead, brothers. I’m presuming now that virtually everybody in this room is alive. I don’t know that and it may not be the case, but once you were dead, and now you are alive. How did that happen?
You did not raise yourself from the dead. And if you were taught that you did, you won’t know yourself loved like this. He came to you as a vertical corpse. I just heard that phrase this morning in the prayer room. John Lennox said “the corpse is vertical this morning.” Well, that’s good, if you’re lost. We were all vertical corpses, and he came to us, just like Jesus came to Lazarus, and he spoke to us.
I mean, some people say, “You can’t speak to dead people.” Of course you can speak to dead people. Jesus did it. And he said, “Lazarus, come out,” and his word created life. That’s what preaching is — “Come out, come out, in the name of God, I say to you, ‘Awake!’” That’s what a preaching does. It raises the dead. And then, when the dead are quickened, they move. And the first move they make is to believe in Jesus.
Security Rooted in God’s Great Mercy
Now that’s the love that I love for you to know. Know yourself to be loved like that. The security that comes from it, the rooting and depth that comes from it, the steel that comes into your spine, the expansiveness of spiritual breath that comes into your lungs, the capacities for joy that flow into your life, when you know yourself everlastingly elected and loved and irresistibly conquered by Christ!
It is so sad when people only know themselves to be only fractionally and conditionally loved by God. And it’s all hanging on them. It’s just hanging day after day on them. So the new birth is what I want you to see, because the new birth is the act of being greatly loved.
I could take you to one of the other texts on the way. We’ll make one other stop. 1 Peter 1:3 goes like this:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again . . .
Now that’s almost like “riches of mercy” in Ephesians 2:4. It’s the same idea. The biblical writers, when they contemplate what happened to them in their dead condition — their totally alienated, dead, hard, dark, blind, and hopeless condition — they say things like, “Great love,” “Rich mercy,” and, “Great mercy.” That’s the way they talk. So if you don’t think that happened to you, it will be so sad that you know yourself only loved with the John 3:16 love and not the John 3:8 love.
The Doctrine of the New Birth
Here’s my outline. I want to talk about what happens in the new birth; I want to talk about why it’s so necessary; and I want to talk about how it happens. The how is the tricky one, isn’t it? Because if it’s so lopsided that God raises the dead, what did Lazarus have to do with it? That is where the analogy starts to break down, doesn’t it? Because we’re all walking around, we’re thinking, we’re talking, we’re feeling, and we’re willing. We’re not exactly like Lazarus.
That’s where we’re going. I’ll try to go quickly because I know our time is short.
What Happens in the New Birth?
Number one: what happens in the new birth? Let’s read the first three verses of the text:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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” (John 3:1–2).
Now, Jesus’s answer just seems like such an out-of-the-blue comment. Let’s picture this. He’s just paid him a compliment. Let’s look at what he does here:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Well, why did he say that? I think the fact that it’s pointed out here that Nicodemus is a Pharisee is significant. He was the most religious, right? He was the most rigorous. In John 3:7, the fact that “you must be born again” is even more pointed. All of Nicodemus’s religion, he’s saying, isn’t what he needs. He is saying, “You don’t need new religion; you need new life.” So I’m arguing first that what happens in new birth is life. He is saying, “You need life, Nicodemus, supernatural life, not new religion, but new life.”
The Living Dead
Now, I’m assuming Jesus is operating with a category here of living dead people. I know that from Luke 9:60, which goes like this:
And Jesus said to [the man who followed him], “Leave the dead to bury their own dead . . .”
I take that to mean that there are physically dead people who need burying and there are spiritually dead people who bury them. Jesus has the category of Ephesians 2:5. Paul probably got it from him. You don’t have to choose between Jesus and Paul. Jesus knows there are living dead people and Nicodemus is one of them. And what happens at birth is life. Life comes into the world. That’s the point of the analogy. It’s life. He’s saying, “You need life. You need to be born. You’re dead. You need to be born. That’s the way you come into being.” I could use the word “new creation” but I don’t because he uses the word “birth” here. So Jesus is telling him he has to be born.
You can see this again. Jesus has this category in the parable of the prodigal son. He comes home and he’s out there and talking to the elder brother saying, “Come on, this my son that was dead is alive again” (Luke 15:24). So there are two places — Luke 9:60 and Luke 15:24 — where Jesus is thinking in terms of dead people who come alive. That’s the problem with all people in the world, Nicodemus types or more Libertine types. They’re all dead.
Then here in John 3:6–8, he says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” So what does that mean? When you’re born into the flesh, all you are is flesh. And that’s very much like the Pauline category of “flesh”. It’s just humanity minus God, humanity minus new birth, humanity minus the Holy Spirit, and humanity minus life. And he says, “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” What does that mean? That’s kind of a strange phrase. I think it means — as he is talking to Nicodemus — “You don’t have a living spirit now. You’re dead. You don’t have a living spirit.”
So what needs to happen is for the Holy Spirit to breathe on you and do something to you, and then the spirit is living. It’s alive. I think “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” means. We were dead and we had no living spirit when the Spirit moved and did his regenerating work. Now, we have a living spirit. We are spiritually alive. Once we were just humanity, now we are supernaturally living humanity.
This is the second thing I would say, though I’ve already said it. The first is that what happens in the new birth is that life happens. I would simply underline now that it’s supernatural life. This is not a moral awakening. This is not turning over a new leaf.
The whole world talks about new birth, right? You can go online and type in “new birth”, and you’ll find that Boston Commons has experienced a new birth. You know, that sort of thing. It’s all over the place. People will say, “The industry had a new birth,” or, “Our marriage had a new birth,” or, “I’ve known a new birth.” So the concept of new birth is everywhere. And I’m just setting this aside and saying that the divine, supernatural, Holy Spirit comes upon a person and awakens, creates, and causes supernatural life that wasn’t there before.
I’m saying those two things. And there’s more that I could say about what happens in the new birth, but life happens in the new birth.
The Sovereign Spirit
Let’s look at John 3:8. It 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.
So what’s the comparison there in verse 8 — wind and Spirit? Of course, it’s the same word in Greek. You know that. Wind and Spirit are being compared. And he’s saying, “The wind is free. It has a free will. And it starts and it ends. And you can’t see where it starts or where it ends. You see effects. You hear sounds. That’s the effect. The wind makes a sound.” You can think, “I know it was wind because I saw leaves moving and I felt a little pressure on my cheek, and I heard some noise, so I know wind was here. But I don’t know where it came from and where it went.” That’s like the new birth.
I see some effects here. I see some interest in Christ. I see some drawing to Jesus. I see some falling away of bondage. I see life. And so, I know he showed up. I didn’t see him and I don’t know where he came from because he’s so free. The point of John 3:8 is that God is sovereign in the new birth. He just moves around like the wind and he awakens people from the dead, and you see life.
When it happened to you, it happened that way. If you’re honest and you understand your own conversion, once upon a time — which might have been at age six or 16 or 56 — you were disinterested, mainly bored with Christianity and the Bible. Football leagues, basketball, television, the internet, or other things were interesting. It was food and friends, and everything was so fun and interesting, and religion, church, Bible, and gospel were just so boring. There was zero responsiveness in your heart. You were dead. And then something happened.
You listened to Billy Graham on TV, or your mom was talking to you, sitting on the bed, or you were scared to death because of what was happening more and more and you flipped your Bible open, and something happened. And then you were interested. You were scared. You were hopeful. You were being made alive and you were not doing it. You’re not going to say that in heaven. When God says, “What happened to you?” you’re not going to say, “I got smart,” or, “I was more spiritual than my brother.”
He Will Hold Me Fast
I had an old man come up to me after my last message. It was a very sobering message for a lot of our people — this message I preached the day before yesterday on this point, about a greater love than John 3:16, which so emphasized the sovereignty of the Spirit in new birth. This old man looked like he was maybe 70. I’m coming up on 63, so 70 doesn’t sound so old. But he just had tears streaming down his face. And his wife was standing beside him, kind of awkwardly. He could hardly get the words out. He just took my hand and said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m chosen, I’m chosen.” He was just weeping because he knows that if it’s hanging on him to get himself born again, or to stay born again, or to finally make it to heaven as born again, he’s a goner.
I mean, I asked the folks and I’ll ask you, how do you know you’re going to wake up a Christian tomorrow morning? How do you know you’re going to wake up believing and not be totally disinterested tomorrow morning, ready to throw it away, walk away from the marriage, get a new business, buy a motorcycle or sailboat, and say, “I’m out of here. Midlife or whatever — I’m gone.” How do you know that’s not going to happen? And the only way you know, if you know, is that God won’t let it happen.
If you think that you’re on a trajectory and it’s pretty good, and that your trajectory won’t wobble that much, how do you know that? You have one assurance: he took you and he keeps you.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling . . . (Jude 24).
That’s my only hope that I’m waking up a believer tomorrow morning. When I woke up this morning that horrible beep, beep, beep went off at 6:00 a.m. and I opened my eyes, and thought, “There you are again, and I’m loving you, and needing you, and I’m believing in you, and I’m counting on you.” And that’s amazing because I was stone-dead unconscious for six hours, and I could have woken up in any condition whatsoever.
So my first point, what happens in the new birth, is that new life comes and it comes by the blowing of the wind and it comes by the begetting of the Holy Spirit.
There’s one other little verse. If you jump over to John 6:63, it says, “It is the Spirit that gives life . . .” So if you just wanted me to put the words “life” and “Spirit” together that’s it, because the words “life” and “Spirit” aren’t in chapter 3. Spirit is, but life isn’t. I’m kind of assuming that birth implies life, but if you want to see it explicitly go to John 6:63. It is the Spirit that gives life. The Spirit gives life.
Why Is the New Birth Necessary?
Now, here’s the second point: why do we need this to happen to us so badly? We need to set up this paradigm in our churches so that people operate in terms of their condition, which explains why certain things had to be done by God to save them. Last night, I talked totally about the cross and about the righteousness of Christ. And I will end by trying to link the two messages together in a few minutes.
But, here, we’re talking about another kind of problem, aren’t we? It’s not like I need forgiveness or I need righteousness. I’m dead. That’s a different problem. I can’t even believe in order to get united to Jesus where that forgiveness and that righteousness will count for me. I can’t even respond because I’m dead. So let me give you 10 descriptions of your condition, my condition. And brothers, as bad as this news is, it is glorious to get it right when you know there’s a magnificent remedy.
I mean just, go ahead. Tell me how bad I am, because it’ll just make my resurrection all the greater. It’ll just make Christ’s sovereign free, glorious, redeeming grace, all the sweeter. Go ahead, tell me. I hope that’s all you feel right now, because I’m going to tell you some really bad things about you.
1. Dead in Sin
Number one: apart from the new birth we are dead. We’ve said enough about that. That’s Ephesians 2:4–5.
2. Children of Wrath
Number two: apart from the new birth, we are by nature children of wrath. That’s Ephesians 2:3. It says “by nature,” so underline the word nature. That means we’re not in trouble because we do bad things; we’re in trouble because we’re bad. Yes, John Piper is bad. I knew you were waiting for that. It’s not funny except for the internet, because there’s so much of that badness left in me that it makes marriage hard, it makes my parenting hard, and it makes my staff relations hard.
I don’t need a conversion story about how I got drunk, was on drugs, and slept with 10 girls before I met Noël. I don’t need that. All I need is to look in the mirror today. Regenerate John Piper is so bad that all I need to do is do a little trajectory drawing if I was absent the Holy Spirit, and I’m out of the marriage, I’m out of parenting, I’m out of the ministry, and I’m off to the Bahamas. This is not about just saying, “You know John Piper’s bad,” with a funny little video out of it.
So the point of that was that my badness is endemic. If you have a theology that says, “Your problem is that you do bad things,” well, that’s true; it’s just not deep enough. You do bad things because you by nature are a child of wrath. And that means wrath relates to you like your father relates to you. You’re a chip off the old, wrath block. Wrath belongs to you naturally. Nobody will be in hell unjustly.
3. Loving the Darkness
Number three: apart from the new birth, we love darkness and hate the light. John 3:19 says:
This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light . . .
So we love the darkness and we hate the light. That’s my text for next Sunday. I’m preaching through the Gospel of John. I feel like it will take me about six years, even though it took me eight years to do Romans and John is longer. That’s the effect that narrative has.
So I’m into it, I love it, and I’m eager to do the next little unit here from John 3:18–21. And so I’m looking at this thinking all week long, “What am I going to say about loving darkness and hating light?” That’s who I am. You and I didn’t have a will problem. It’s interesting that this conference is built around “urging the will” and “reviving the affections”, or something in the mind. You didn’t just have a will problem, which is implied in this conference. You have a love problem, you love darkness. We still have that old indwelling sin, which is marked by the love of darkness. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “Well, I don’t want to sin a day, but I’m going to, out of duty, do a little sin so that I don’t fall into perfectionism.” Nobody ever sins out of duty. You only sin for one reason, just one reason: it feels good. Or it will get you a little more money from your tax report if you don’t report that honorarium.
4. Hearts Like Stone
Number four: apart from the new birth, our hearts are hard like stone. Ezekiel 36:26 says:
I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
5. Unable to Submit
Number five: apart from the new birth, we are unable to submit to God or please God. Romans 8:7–8 says:
For the mind that is set on the flesh (literally, the mind of the flesh) is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Now this is a real cannot that doesn’t make you guiltless. This is a huge issue that has to be worked out with your people. If you use “cannot” language, lots of your people are going to say, “Well, if I cannot, I’m not responsible.” That’s not the way the Bible thinks. There are different kinds of “cannot”. There’s a physical cannot, like a hand tied with a chain behind your back and someone says, “Raise your hand.” If you try to move to raise your raise, I think God honors that. He sees your heart.
Now the other side is really tricky. I’m just making this up on the fly. This is totally out of my head right now. If God says, “Raise your hand, and your hands are free, and you’re just embarrassed about raising your hand, and you don’t because you’re so embarrassed you can’t, you’re still responsible. Okay?
But forget that whole hand raising thing, I didn’t mean to bring that up at all. That’s irrelevant to anything I’m saying here. My point is when the Bible says that people who are in the flesh cannot please God, the “cannot” is real. They’re dead, which is why we need to be born again. There’s a “cannot” in me, for which I am not excused.
6. Resisting the Gospel
Number six: apart from the new birth, we are unable to accept the gospel. First Corinthians 2:14 says:
The natural person (that which is born of the flesh is flesh — no regeneration, no new birth) does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
Before you were born again, when you heard the gospel you could not understand it as true, glorious, beautiful, wise, and powerful. You couldn’t. It was foolishness to you, because that’s what the natural mind does. It sees glory as foolishness. Until that is changed, you can’t see it as beautiful.
7. Unable to Come
Number seven: apart from the new birth, we are unable to come to Christ or embrace him as Lord. First Corinthians 12:3 says:
No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
Clearly that does not mean that an actor on a stage, who’s a Muslim, and is called to play a Christian part can’t say the words, “Jesus is Lord.” Clearly it doesn’t mean that you cannot program your computer to say, “Jesus is Lord.” What it means is you can’t, from the heart, own Jesus as Lord, submit to Jesus as Lord, and give expression to that with your lips, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, which is another way of saying, “You must be born again.”
8. Slaves of Sin
Number eight: apart from the new birth, we are slaves to sin. Romans 6:17 says:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed . . .
So you might be able to muster up carnal willpower to walk to the front and sign a card and pray a prayer. But this verse says, “You once were slaves of sin and have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” And he begins by saying, “Thanks be to God,” because God did that. If once you were a slave of sin and you were being jerked around by sin because of its compelling beauty and desirability to your fallen soul, and that changes, what you say is, “Thanks be to God.” That’s what you say because he caused you to be born again so that you would see the ugliness of sin.
I like to treat sin as a broach hanging around your neck, and you’re in the dark and you keep fondling it, thinking, “It’s so wonderful. Oh, I love my sin. I love my sin. I love my sin.” And then God, mercifully, causes you to be born again, which means the lights go on, and you look down and it’s a roach hanging on the string. And you throw it away and think, “How could I ever have . . . ?” and then fill in all the blanks where the new birth makes you have different taste buds for righteousness and sin. You think, “How did I watch that show? How could I have watched the show, and not been convicted?” You’re new. God opened your eyes. The lights went on.
9. Slaves of Satan
Number nine: apart from the new birth, we are slaves of not only sin, but Satan. Listen to these words from Ephesians 2:1–2:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience . . .
There’s a perfect correlation between our fallen will and Satan’s action. We are flying in tandem with the devil before we are born again. We can’t say, “The devil made me do it,” because he’s working in perfect tandem with our fallen wills. It’s both right there. It says we are “dead in the trespasses and sins in which we once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”
The God of this world is blinding the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4). And then 2 Corinthians 4:6 says, “The God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” So how do you get from the blindness of 2 Corinthians 4:4, to the sight of 2 Corinthians 4:6? It’s when creator God says, “Let there be light.” That’s how you got saved. He says, “Let there be light,” or, “Lazarus come forth.”
10. Nothing Good Within
Number 10: apart from the new birth, no good thing dwells in me. Romans 7:18 says:
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.
That’s enough regarding our condition. That, brothers, is why we need to be born again and why our people need to be born again. If they understood those 10 things about themselves, the doctrine of the new birth would not be perplexing. It would be absolutely necessary, it would make sense, and they would see that they can’t make it happen.
I mean, how many times do you brothers deal with what I deal with? You stand for 45 minutes or an hour at the end of every service, or if you have two services, you have to squash it down. And then after the second service or third service, you just stay and pray with people. I was there for one hour on Saturday night, and I just say to the people, “I’m here until midnight if you need me, because I want to pray with you.” So I’m there, I was there for an hour. And the most common thing that we pray with is people who say, “I’ve tried this and it doesn’t work. I can’t do this. You say this but I can’t make it happen. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. I can’t.” And they’re absolutely right, which is why we pray.
How Does the New Birth Happen?
Here’s the last point. How does this happen? Let me give you four steps and try to relate them to each other
1. The Spirit Gives Life
Step number one: the Holy spirit freely gives life. There is no “how to” here at all. He must sovereignly do this. But don’t leave me yet. If that sounds a little too much like taking away man’s responsibility, just stay with me. I think I’m going to say something helpful for all of us lovers of God’s sovereignty that will put us in the midst of this.
John 3:8 says the Holy Spirit is free. He blows where he wills. And John 6:63 says the Spirit gives life. And Ephesians 2:5 says that while we were dead, in his great love, God made us alive. That’s step number one. The first thing we should think about is, “God, I am desperately in need of being made alive and I can’t make it happen. Make it happen.”
2. The Gospel Is the Necessary Means
Number two: the new birth happens through the living and abiding word of God. Go with me to 1 Peter 1. This is so important. This is the second most important passage on the new birth in the Bible, maybe the most important. This is 1 Peter 1:23–25. It says:
Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable (and here’s the most important phrase), through the living and abiding word of God . . .
And then, lest we think some kind of vague notion of the word of God, he nails it for us. Keep going:
“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you.
Now, brothers, this is clear. How are people born again? It’s through the good news. Is that clear? That is crystal clear. The human agency of the divine, sovereign, awakening of dead souls is the gospel preached in its fullness with undiminished understandings of justification and reconciliation and redemption and propitiation. It’s just unpacking the glories of the gospel in front of dead people. All the while, pleading with God that he would do what Alistair Begg’s quote of Spurgeon said.
That was another point where I wanted to jump up on the desk, because it was so right. We must preach and we can’t save anybody, and yet Paul says he does things “in order that I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). We can’t open the eyes of the blind. And Jesus says to him in Acts 26:17–18, “I’m sending you to open the eyes of the blind.” And you can’t make yourself a new heart, but the Bible says, “Get yourself a new heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16).
So we have two steps now so far. We have the Holy Spirit sovereignly awakening and giving life. And we have, secondly, 1 Peter 1:23, which says that this happens through the living and abiding word of God.
3. The Gospel Effects Faith
Number three: what does the gospel do when it comes? It brings about faith. Go to 1 John 5:1. It says:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God . . .
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:14–17).
So we know that the faith in 1 John 5:1, came through the gospel. But it says, “Everyone who believes has been born of God.” Let me read you something from John Stott. He’s nice and safe to quote, isn’t he? Stott says:
The combination of the present tense (“believes”) and the perfect tense (“has been born”) is important. It shows clearly that believing is the consequence, not the cause, of the new birth. Our present continuing activity of believing is the result, and therefore, the evidence of our past experience of the new birth by which we became and remain God’s children.
So we have three steps now. First, we must have a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in giving life. Second, we must have the preaching of the gospel and the hearing of the gospel, or the reading of the gospel. It has to get to a dead soul. And we have that gospel, by that Spirit, awakening faith.
4. Eternal Life Comes to All Who Believe
Here’s one last step, and the word “step” is totally wrong. But I don’t know what else to say. One last step is that here in 1 John 5:11 it says:
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life . . .
That’s what you’re given in the new birth. That’s the life that comes. He gave us eternal life. And he says, “This life is in his Son” (1 John 5:11). Then John says, “Whoever has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12). So in the gospel, Christ is offered, right? We say, “Receive him. Believe on him,” and John 3:16 happens as we tell people to believe on him.
Regeneration and Faith
I’m going to close with this. My dad and I used to go round around on whether it was regeneration first, or faith first and then regeneration. And we would just bang heads. Well, I’m totally sold that regeneration is the cause of the new birth, but I stumbled over the word “first” when we would talk about it. Because if you try to do that it doesn’t work. Let’s just put it out here and pair this up temporarily, if you can. I don’t think you can. The Holy Spirit arrives and moves in sovereign power, faith is quickened, union with the Son of God happens, and life is enjoyed. We could add justification happens. And we are then counted as sons of God.
To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12–13).
I personally don’t think there is any time between those four things — none. It won’t work temporarily to carve it up, because then you have lapses in here where you have a regenerative person who is not believing. But there is no such thing, which is another reason why I’m a Baptist.
There is no such thing as regeneration without the baby crying, “I believe, I believe.” There is no such thing as regeneration without union with the Son. There is no such thing as regeneration without eternal life. There’s no such thing as regeneration without justification happening instantaneously, because of our faith union with Jesus. This feels to me healing between me and my dad. He’s in heaven now, so he’s got the real scoop. He’s either saying, “I told you so,” or the other thing you might say.
So there it is. What happens in regeneration? Life is imparted and it’s supernatural. Why do we need it? We’re dead, we’re rebellious, we’re hard-hearted, we’re blind, and we love all the wrong things. And there is no way that we could ever cause it ourselves. We’re not inclined to the gospel. We are not inclined to the cross. It is foolishness to us. And third, how does it happen that we get this life? The gospel is preached to us.
So brothers, I’m standing in the place of Jesus now. I’m sending you to open their eyes. I’m sending you to take out the heart of stone and put in the heart of flesh. I’m sending you to raise the dead, brothers. And if you say to me, “We can’t open their eyes and we can’t raise the dead,” I’m going to say things like this: you can’t make electricity or create light, and it never stops you from flipping switches. You can’t create fire in the cylinder of your car, and it never stops you from turning in the key. You can’t create cell tissue, and it never stops you from eating.
And you can’t raise the dead, but brothers, don’t let it stop you from preaching the gospel. Don’t let it stop you from praying. I mean, brothers, we have impossible jobs. Everything we care about most we cannot make happen. All the stuff we care about least, we can do.
You can grow a church, you can have a worship team, you can build a building. This stuff is a piece of cake. But saving sinners, and sanctifying people, and holding marriages together, and seeing kids preserved, and seeing miracles in people’s lives is something we’re totally incapable of. And yet, God sends us to do it. We are absolutely indispensable in God’s work in people’s lives.
Second Corinthians 5:20 says you are ambassadors for Christ. When you speak, God raises the dead.