You Must Be Born Again
John 3:1-20 You Must be born again.
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.
Why Must We Born Again?
We are starting a new series on Following Jesus. 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 serious. Heaven and hell are hanging in the balance. We will not see the kingdom of God unless we are born again. So 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? 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.” But what happened: “God Made Us Alive”
V5 “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 “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.
These words “he made us alive,” are 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, 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. Here is some good news. “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
What does this mean? This deadness? 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. Do we really need to be changed? Can’t we just be forgiven and justified? Wouldn’t that get us to heaven?
- We were dead in trespasses and sins.
Dead means 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.
- 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.
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. Listen 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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. It is a real and terrible bondage. But it is not an innocent bondage.
- 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.
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.
- We were slaves to sin.
Paul celebrates our liberation from slavery to sin by thanking God for it. He says in Romans 6:17, “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.” We were once so in love with sin that we could not leave it or kill it. Then something happened.
The new birth happened. God caused us to get a new spiritual life, a new nature that hates sin and loves righteousness. “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart.” Until God awakens us from spiritual death and gives us the life that finds joy in killing sin and being holy, we are slaves and cannot get free. That’s why the new birth is necessary.
- We were slaves of Satan.
This is one of the terrible things about spiritual deadness. Our deadness is not unresponsive to the devil. It is perfectly in tune with the devil. Listen to the way Paul describes our deadness in Ephesians 2:1–2: “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.”
In other words, the mark of the unbeliever is that their desires and choices “accord with” the prince of the power of the air. The unbeliever may scoff at the very idea of a devil. And of course, nothing is more in line with the father of lies than the denial that he exists.
But the bondage to the devil is most clearly mentioned in 2 Timothy 2:24–26. how to liberate people from the bondage of the devil:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. That God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
When Paul says that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” that is what happens in the new birth. And here is the key to liberating people from the captivity of the devil. God grants repentance — that is, he awakens the life that sees the ugliness and danger of sin and the beauty and worth of Christ, and that truth sets the prisoner free.
That’s how people are set free from the devil. And until God does that miracle of new birth, we stay in bondage to the father of lies because we love to be able to tell ourselves whatever we please.
- No good thing dwelt in us.
Now, this is a statement that is unintelligible to the unregenerate, the unbeliever, who know good and well that they do many good things and that they could do much more evil than they do. The statement makes no sense — that there is no good in us before new birth — without the conviction that everything good that God has made and that God sustains is ruined when it is not done in reliance on God’s grace and in pursuit of God’s glory. So, of course, in one sense the human person (the soul, the mind, the heart, the brain, the eye, the hand) and human social structures (marriage, family, government, business) are all good. God made them, ordains them, sustains them. It is right that they exist.
But they all exist for the glory of God. God commands that we love him with all our heart and soul and mind (Matthew 22:37). He commands that we use all that he has made by relying on his grace and in order to show his worth (1 Peter 4:11). Where people use all that God has made without relying on his grace and without aiming to show his worth, they prostitute God’s creation. They make it the instrument of unbelief. And they ruin it.
So when Paul says in Romans 7:18, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” this is the reason why he adds the qualifier “that is, in my flesh.” There is something good in Paul after the new birth. Faith is good. The Holy Spirit is good. The new spiritual nature is good. Growing holiness is good. But in his flesh, that is, in the person he is by nature apart from the new birth, there is no good thing. All that was created good is ruined by being made the servant of man-centered concerns, not God-centered concerns.
This is our condition apart from the new birth. Apart from regeneration we are, to use the words of Paul in Ephesians 2:12, “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” This is why we must be born again. Without the new birth, our condition is hopeless, and we cannot fix it with moral improvement. Dead men do not do better. Dead men need one thing before anything else can happen: They must be made alive. They must be born again.
Why do we need new spiritual life by being connected to Jesus? One answer: because we are dead. What won’t we have without this life?
1 John 3:8b: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” That is, the reason for the incarnation — for Christmas — is to destroy the works of the devil. You will see the connection in that context between the incarnation and regeneration, or between our new birth and the birth of Jesus.
The Kingdom of Heaven
What won’t we have without the new birth? Jesus’s answer was simple and devastating: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Without the new birth, we will not see the kingdom of God. That is, we will not go to heaven. We will perish eternally. What won’t we have without new birth? We won’t have anything good. We will only have suffering forever. That is hell.
God saves us through the new birth — the way he gets us to the kingdom. We need to see the connection between the new birth and what God has done to save us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Without the new birth, we won’t have saving faith, but only unbelief (John 1:11–13; 1 John 5:1; Ephesians 2:8–9; Philippians 1:29; 1 Timothy 1:14; 2 Timothy 1:3).
Without the new birth, we won’t have justification, but only condemnation (Romans 8:1; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 2:17; Philippians 3:9).
Without the new birth, we won’t be the children of God, but the children of the devil (1 John 3:9–10).
Without the new birth, we won’t bear the fruit of love by the Holy Spirit but only bear the fruit of death (Romans 6:20–21; 7:4–6; 15:16; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 5:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2; 1 John 3:14).
Without the new birth, we won’t have eternal joy in fellowship with God, but only eternal misery with the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41; John 3:3; Romans 6:23; Revelation 2:11; 20:15).
To know ourselves and to know the greatness of Christ and of our salvation, we need to know how the new birth relates to those things. But let me end by saying them again, only this time positively and with the word of God.
- When God causes us to be born again, saving faith is awakened, and we are united to Christ. First John 5:1: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Not “will be” born of God, but “has been” born of God. Our first faith is the flicker of life through the new birth.
- When the new birth awakens faith, and unites us to Jesus, we are justified — that is, counted righteous — through that faith. Romans 5:1: “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” New birth awakens faith, and faith looks to Jesus for righteousness, and God credits righteousness to us because of Christ alone through faith alone.
- When new birth awakens faith and unites us to Jesus, all the legal obstacles to our acceptance with God are removed through justification. So God adopts us into his family and conforms us to the image of his Son. John 1:12: “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.” We are born again from God, not from the will of man, and we believe on Christ and receive him, and God makes us his legal heirs and spiritual children.
- When the new birth wakens faith and we are united to Jesus, and all condemnation is replaced with justification and the Spirit of adoption moves into our lives, he produces the fruit of love. Galatians 5:6: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” First John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” Where there is new birth, there is love.
- Finally, when the new birth wakens faith and unites us to Jesus, our righteousness, and unleashes the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, we are on the narrow way that leads to heaven. And the pinnacle of heaven’s joys will be fellowship with God. “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The pinnacle of the joy of our new life is God himself.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:3, 7).
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.