One of the greatest books about God ever written, namely, John Calvin’s Institutes, begins with this sentence: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” What we may need reminding of in our day is not that the knowledge of God is difficult to comprehend and to embrace — that’s more or less obvious — but that the knowledge of ourselves is just as difficult to comprehend and to embrace. Indeed, it may be more difficult, first, because a true knowledge of ourselves assumes a true knowledge of God, and, second, because we tend to think we do know ourselves, when, in fact, the depths of our condition are beyond our comprehension without the help of God.
Who Can Know the Human Heart?
The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). David said in Psalm 19:12, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.” In other words, we never get to the bottom of our sinfulness. If our forgiveness depended on the fullness of the knowledge of our sins, we would all perish. No one knows the extent of his sinfulness. It is deeper than anyone knows.
“No one knows the extent of his own sinfulness. It is deeper than anyone knows.”
But the Bible does not leave us without help to know ourselves. The fact that we cannot know fully how sinful we are, does not mean we cannot know deeply how sinful we are. The Bible has a clear and devastating message about the state of our own souls. And the reason it does is so that we will know what we need and shout for joy when God gives it to us.
Why Must We Born Again?
We are in a series on the new birth. We have heard Jesus say in John 3:7, “You must be born again.” And in John 3:3: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In other words, being born again is infinitely serious. Heaven and hell are hanging in the balance. We will not see the kingdom of God unless we are born again. So today the question is Why? Why is it so necessary? Why isn’t some other remedy sufficient, like turning over a new leaf or moral improvement or self-disciple? Why this radical, spiritual, supernatural thing called new birth or regeneration? That’s the question we try to answer today and next week.
Diagnosis: We Are Dead
The text where we take our beginning is Ephesians 2. Two times, in verses 1 and 5, Paul says that we are dead in our trespasses. Verse 1: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins. . . .” Verses 4–5: “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 — by grace you have been saved.” So two times Paul describes us as “dead.”
Remedy: “God Made Us Alive”
And the remedy for this in verse 5 is: “God made us alive.” You will never experience the fullness of the greatness of God’s love for you if you don’t see his love in relation to your former deadness. Because verse 4 says that the greatness of his love is shown precisely in this: that it makes us alive when we were dead. “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.” Because of his great love for us, he made us alive. If you don’t know that you were dead, you will not know the fullness of the love of God.
I take this miracle, “he made us alive,” to be virtually the same as what Jesus calls the new birth. Once we had no spiritual life, and then God raised us from that state of spiritual deadness. And now we are alive. This is the same as Jesus’s saying that we must be born of the Spirit (John 3:5) and “It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63).
New Covenant Love
So we can say then that the work of regeneration, the work of new birth, the work of being made alive, flows from the richness of God’s mercy and the greatness of his love. “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.” This is new-covenant love. This is the kind of love God has for his bride. He finds her dead (Ezekiel 16:4–8), and he gives his Son to die for her, and then he makes her alive. And he keeps her forever. “I give them eternal life,” Jesus said, “and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
Why the New Birth Is Necessary
So the question is: What does this mean? This deadness? There are at least ten answers in the New Testament. If we consider them honestly and prayerfully they will humble us very deeply and cause us to be amazed at the gift of the new birth. So what I aim to do is talk about seven of them today and three of them next time along with the larger question: Do we really need to be changed? Can’t we just be forgiven and justified? Wouldn’t that get us to heaven? But we save that for next time.
Here are seven of the biblical explanations of our condition apart from the new birth and why it is so necessary.
1. We were dead in trespasses and sins.
Dead implies lifeless. Not physically or morally lifeless. Ephesians 2:1: We are “walking” and “following” the world. Verse 2: We have “passions” of the flesh, and we carry out “desires of the body and the mind.” So we are not dead in the sense that we can’t sin. We are dead in the sense that we cannot see or feel the glory of Christ. We are spiritually dead. We are unresponsive to God and Christ and this word. Consider now how this is unfolded in nine other descriptions of our condition before new birth happens.
2. We were by nature children of wrath.
Ephesians 2:3: “We were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” The point of this is to make clear that our problem is not just in what we do but in what we are. Apart from new birth, I am my problem. You are not my main problem. My parents were not my main problem. My enemies are not my main problem. I am my main problem. Not my deeds, and not my circumstances, and not the people in my life, but my nature is my deepest personal problem.
“If you don’t know that you were dead, you will not know the fullness of the love of God.”
I did not first have a good nature and then do bad things and get a bad nature. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). This is who I am. My nature is selfish and self-centered and demanding and very skilled in making you feel like the problem. And if your first response to that statement is I know people like that, you may be totally blind to the deceitfulness of your own heart.
Paul describes our nature before the new birth as “children of wrath.” In other words, the wrath of God belongs to us the way a parent belongs to a child. Our nature is so rebellious and so selfish and so callous toward the majesty of God that his holy anger is a natural and right response to us.
3. We loved darkness and hated the light.
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 and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19–20)
This word from Jesus spells out some of what our nature is like apart from the new birth. We are not neutral when spiritual light approaches. We resist it. And we are not neutral when spiritual darkness envelops us. We embrace it. Love and hate are active in the unregenerate heart. And they move in exactly the wrong directions — hating what should be loved and loving what should be hated.
4. Our hearts were hard like stone.
We saw this last week from Ezekiel 36:26, where God says, “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Here in Ephesians 4:18, Paul traces our condition back through darkness to alienation to ignorance to hardness of heart. “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”
At the bottom of our problem is not ignorance. There is something deeper: “the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” Our ignorance is guilty ignorance, not innocent ignorance. It is rooted in hard and resistant hearts. Paul says in Romans 1:18 that we suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Ignorance is not our biggest problem. Hardness and resistance is.
5. We were unable to submit to God or please God.
In Romans 8:7, Paul says, “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.” We can tell from the next verse what Paul means by “the mind of the flesh” and being “in the flesh.” He says in verse 9, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” In other words, he is contrasting those who are born again and have the Spirit and those who are not born again and therefore do not have the Spirit but only have the flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit and that which is born of the flesh is flesh (John 3:5).
His point is that without the Holy Spirit, our minds are so resistant to God’s authority that we will not, and therefore cannot, submit to him. “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot.” And if we cannot submit to him we cannot please him. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” That is how dead and dark and hard we are toward God until God causes us to be born again.
6. We were unable to accept the gospel.
In 1 Corinthians 2:14, Paul gives us another glimpse into what this deadness and hardness implies for what we are unable to do. He says, “The natural person [that is, the unregenerate person by nature] 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.” The problem is not that the things of God are over his head intellectually. The problem is that he sees them as foolish. “He does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him.” In fact, they are so foolish to him that he cannot grasp them.
Mind you this is a moral “cannot,” not a physical “cannot.” When Paul says, “The natural person . . . is not able to understand them,” he means that the heart is so resistant to receiving them that the mind justifies the rebellion of the heart by seeing them as foolish. This rebellion is so complete that the heart really cannot receive the things of the Spirit. This is real inability. But it is not a coerced inability. The unregenerate person cannot because he will not. His preferences for sin are so strong that he cannot choose good. It is a real and terrible bondage. But it is not an innocent bondage.
7. We were unable to come to Christ or embrace him as Lord.
In 1 Corinthians 12:3, Paul declares, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” He doesn’t mean that an actor on a stage or a hypocrite in a church cannot say the words “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit. He means no one can say it and mean it without being born of the Spirit. It is morally impossible for the dead, dark, hard, resistant heart to celebrate the Lordship of Jesus over his life without being born again.
“Our ignorance is guilty ignorance, not innocent ignorance. It is rooted in hard and resistant hearts.”
Or, as Jesus says three times in John 6, no one can come to him unless the Father draws him. And when that drawing brings a person into living connection with Jesus, we call it the new birth. Verse 37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me.” Verse 44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Verse 65: “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” All of these wonderful works of drawing, granting, and giving are the work of God in regeneration. Without them, we do not come to Christ, because we don’t want to come. That is what has to be changed in the new birth.
A Personal and Urgent Response
There is more to be said about why the new birth is necessary, but that is enough for today. We conclude by going back to the amazingly hope-filled words of Ephesians 2:4–5: “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 — by grace you have been saved.”
There are two ways to respond to this: one is theoretical and impersonal; the other is personal and urgent. One says: How can this be, and how can that be? The other says: God brought me here today. God spoke in these texts to me today. God’s mercy and love and grace seem desperately needed and beautiful to me today. O God, today, I submit to your amazing grace that has brought me here and awakened me and softened me and opened me. Thanks be to God for the riches of his mercy and the greatness of his love and the power of his grace.