Jesus said, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:7). “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
By John David Hicks
What does “born again” mean to you? Turning over a new leaf? A change of attitude? Starting all over again? Perhaps you’ve experienced a “born again marriage,” or you’ve tried “born again skin care cream.”
The term’s popular usage has led to its loss of meaning. Because Jesus was the first to use it, it makes sense to study exactly what He said, especially if you’re seeking to know God, or if you’re not sure what it means to be a Christian. In John chapter 3 and verses 1 to 21, Jesus explained what He meant in a conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus guides him into the light of understanding what it truly means to be “born again.”
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:1-2).
Nicodemus belonged to an influential group of Jews known as the Pharisees, who were serious about wanting to do what was right and living according to the commandments that God had given Moses. He also was a member of the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, which had religious authority over every Jew in the world. Part of the council’s responsibility was to examine anyone suspected of being a false prophet. Nicodemus wanted to discuss with Jesus what the Scriptures said about the coming of the Messiah, the Savior.
He came “at night” because he was afraid, some say. Yet, it’s a wonder that a man of his position came at all. And he even brought his disciples: “we know” indicates that both Jesus’ disciples and some of Nicodemus’ students witnessed the conversation. Nicodemus addressed Jesus as “rabbi…a teacher who has come from God.” This well-educated man came with an open mind to learn the truth.
But Nicodemus did not get the reply he was expecting. Jesus explained that mankind’s only hope for relationship with God and for entrance into God’s kingdom is to be “born again.” Nicodemus was religious, but his religion had not satisfied him. He is a picture of religion without power to change lives (2 Timothy 3:5).
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (vv. 3-4).
This penetrating statement that “no one,” not even the pious Pharisees, could “see” or get into the kingdom of God without the new birth must have shocked Nicodemus! This had not entered his mind or even engaged his attention. Jesus said that to be a citizen in God’s kingdom, you must be born into it. Just as citizenship in the United States is given by right of birth, citizenship in God’s kingdom is given by a new birth—a birth of the Spirit of God. God’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. That’s why Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
The fallen, sinful state of mankind shows the necessity of the new birth. Adam and Eve died spiritually the day they sinned. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death.” Death in the Bible means “separation.” We are all dead in trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1), separated from God (James 1:15). The result of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden is that all generations were born spiritually dead. The apostle Paul tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This fallen nature caused by sin brings bondage and slavery, controlling and dictating your actions. It manifests itself in sinful rebellion, selfishness, self-deception, possessiveness, dysfunctional love, and addictive behavior.
We can never measure up to God’s standard of righteousness. It doesn’t matter if we go to church every Sunday, read our Bibles and pray, and do kind things for our neighbors. That is what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus. Being a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish council was not enough. Nothing is ever enough because you cannot earn your salvation. It is a free gift from God.
The Law of God
God’s law, which Nicodemus strived so hard to obey, pointed to his need for a Savior. Man’s lawlessness and rebellion against God is revealed by the law—when you tell a half truth, when you don’t pay your bills, when you have looked on a woman with lust, when you hate. But on Judgment day God the judge will condemn to hell everyone who is a liar, thief, adulterer, and murderer in his heart (Revelation 21:8).
Yet many people think that because God is good and loving, He will wink at their sin and save them anyway. But it is because God is good and loving that He will see that justice is done. The more serious the crime, the greater the punishment. Sin is a terrible thing in God’s sight. It calls for eternal punishment in hell. We know that if God is good and loving, He should punish all who have lied, stolen, committed adultery, and murdered. Hell will be their dreadful fate.
The Good News, however, is that Jesus came not only to save you from hell, but to deliver you from the bondage of sin and its slavery. “He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8). You must confess your sin, turn from it, and come under the authority and lordship of Jesus Christ. Then God will redeem you from Satan’s kingdom of slavery and darkness to Christ’s kingdom of freedom, grace, and light.
God used the law to demonstrate that we could never measure up to God’s standard, because of our fallen nature. We are powerless to keep God’s law, to be holy and measure up to God’s life. No matter how diligently they tried, observant Jews would always find that in some particular they had failed to observe the whole law. Honest introspection would show the same in our lives. We turn over new leaves, we make vows, but somehow we find ourselves doing the same old things—the things we know we are not supposed to do or not doing the things we should be doing.
But often people, even religious people, are blind to this. They feel that their good works and devout deeds should earn them favor with God. Like Nicodemus, many people are trying to doctor up the outside of life. Jesus said we need a change from the inside out—a new birth, or regeneration.
Regeneration literally means “new birth.” God changes man’s nature and he becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus. The emphasis of regeneration is the impartation of the life of God to what was dead by nature. The necessity of this change is declared over and over through the New Testament.
This is not the overhaul of the physical man, or the education of the mind, but the Spirit of God giving a new nature and disposition. In all respects, it is the work of God and no one can ever take credit for it. Thus, we must be born again by the Holy Spirit to inherit the kingdom of God and to have a relationship with God. Only a new spiritual birth by God’s Spirit can regenerate your dead, separated spirit and make you a child of God. It is sinful man partaking of the divine nature and being made into a child of God. Simply, it’s being born of God! “You may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:4). This new life of God gives us new attitudes and actions.
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (vv. 5-6).
Now Jesus goes a step further and talks about not just seeing, but entering the kingdom of God. To do that, He says, you must be born of water and the Spirit. To the Jewish mind, water speaks of cleansing. The great ceremonies in the temple were accompanied by ritual cleansing with water. It also is a reminder of baptism. Nicodemus would have thought of John the Baptist preaching by the Jordan River and calling on the people to repent for the “kingdom of God is at hand.” To enter the kingdom, Nicodemus needed to repent. The sins of our past are washed away, forgiven, and no longer held against us.
But Jesus goes on to say that we must be born of the Spirit. The Spirit symbolizes power. Here is a radically new thought. It isn’t just that our past sins are behind us, blotted out, but now we have the Spirit’s power to enable us to live a different life.
William Barclay writes in his commentary on the Gospel of John: “When Jesus takes possession of our lives it is not only that the past is forgotten and forgiven; if that were all, we might well proceed to make the same mess of life all over again; but into life there enters this new power which enables us to be what by ourselves we could never be, and to do what by ourselves we could never do. Water and the Spirit stand for the cleansing and the strengthening power of Christ, which wipes out the past and which gives us victory in the future.”
We become Christians by a miracle of God’s grace. Our part is to come to God in faith and repentance. God’s part is to make us into new persons. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This radical alteration is the new creation of God that is forming us into the image of Christ.
The new creation is not a makeover of our old sinful self. We are to be transformed. The biblical picture is that of metamorphoo, a caterpillar going through metamorphosis to a chrysalis, as it is being transformed into an adult butterfly. When the caterpillar enters into the darkness of the chrysalis, a substance emanates from the head that transforms it. The actual conversion of the body causes the caterpillar to become a creature of a completely different order as it emerges from the darkness. Jesus Christ is our head, emanating His life-changing energy into our lives (1 John 4:4; 3:5; Titus 3:5).
John 1:12-13 (NKJV) says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” This new birth is received by faith, trusting God. Receiving and faith have a personal object—Jesus Christ. With the focus on Jesus, the Greek word translated “right” means authority or permission to be born the “children of God.” With God’s mandate He gives the power.
Note that this birth does not come by “blood.” You can’t inherit it from your family. Nor does it come from “the will of the flesh,” or positive thinking. Nor is it by the will of some man, king, priest, or minister. What’s more, it’s not our effort, good behavior, or right associations. The new birth is a gift, all of God, and must be received.
Oswald Chambers reaffirmed this in God’s Workmanship when he wrote: “The evidence of the new creation in me is that I submit to God more and more easily, surrender to Him more and more readily, ‘for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’ (Philippians 2:13). God does the supernatural re-creating and the setting free of the will; I have to do the doing…as we ‘put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness’ (Ephesians 4:24).”
“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (vv. 7-8).
As the wind blows through the trees, you can see the movement, hear the rustle, and feel its breath. We may not understand everything about high- and low-pressure gradients, down drafts, and up drafts, but we all know the effects of the wind. We don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but we have seen trees uprooted and fields leveled by its power.
Holy Spirit Power
The movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is similar. We don’t know from where the Spirit comes or where the Spirit is going, but we can see the effects of the movement of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others. At times the Spirit moves on us as a gentle, calming breeze, and at other times He comes as a powerful gale. The Spirit moves where He wills, and the believer submits to that flow.
Sometimes we think we need to understand everything, or at least understand “more” before we make a commitment to Jesus Christ. Knowledge of the Bible does not always give understanding, especially when we are not humbly seeking truth. Many Jews of Jesus’ day fervently studied the Scriptures, but they missed Jesus the Messiah, the Savior. Jesus warned them, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). Their prejudice and closed minds got in the way of the testimony of Scripture. This can happen to us too, and when it does we also will miss the truth.
Thus, Jesus was upset at the scribes and Pharisees for denying the testimony of the Scriptures. “And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent” (John 5:37-38, NRSV).
It’s true that no one has seen God bodily, yet it is also true, says Jesus, that you can see Him with your spiritual eyes. God is a spiritual being and so are you. You can see God when you open up your mind to the truth, for He is truth. Then your spirit can receive Him (John 4:24).
Jesus’ argument goes like this: “If you had ever listened to God’s voice, heard His call, or known Him and His ways; if your desire was to do the will of God, God’s word would have found a place in your hearts. Then you would have known Me, that I came from the Father, and would have listened to Me. The light from God’s word abiding in you would show you the likeness of My face and My voice to My Father’s. If you would have seen God, you would have seen Me. But your own ambitions and your refusal to do God’s will closed your ears and shut your eyes. If you loved the Father, you would have recognized His Son.”
Satan uses prejudice and pride to harden our hearts and close our minds to the truth of God. When you have your own agenda and when you fill your life with the values of the world, by the heroes you admire, the television you watch, the books you read, and the songs you listen to, you will discover it is hard to “hear” God speaking to you. God has not stopped speaking, but you have stopped listening.
Now as in Bible times those who recognize God are those who love righteousness and hate evil. But self-righteousness gets in the way of the new birth of the Spirit. How do you know if you are self-righteous? When your judgmental attitude points out faults in others and overlooks your own. When you find it difficult to admit a sin or even a shortcoming in your life. This was the self-righteous, legalistic pride of the Pharisees.
Sin never shocked Jesus, but self-righteousness did. Jesus was always willing to work with the immoral woman at the well, a tax collector who stole from the citizens, the thief who was crucified. The people who dismayed Jesus were the self-righteous. Self-righteous people cannot be helped because they perceive no need of help. But God stands ready to let the wind of the Spirit blow forgiveness into the heart that will confess and acknowledge sin. Only the person who acknowledges his sin will see the wind of the Holy Spirit at work and be born again (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?” (vv. 9-10).
As a teacher of Hebrew Scripture, Nicodemus should have known about the new birth from the prophets (1 Samuel 10:6; Isaiah 32:15; Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:25-27, 37; and Joel 2:28-29). I believe Jesus’ words finally “clicked” with Nicodemus and he became a believer. Later, he stood up for Jesus against the course of action the Jewish leaders were taking against Jesus to crucify Him. He boldly asked the Roman governor for Jesus’ body to place in a tomb. And he took part in preparing the body of Christ for burial. He believed the Scriptures about Jesus the Messiah. Thus, he was born again, and became a follower of Christ.
“I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (vv. 11-15).
Truth Comes from God
Knowledge is born of experience, and Jesus said that His authority to speak on heavenly things came from personal experience. He is the one who came from heaven. If Nicodemus struggled to understand the “earthly things” of wind that can be felt and heard, how could he relate to the heavenly realm of the spiritual? “Heavenly things” are revealed by God and received by faith.
To explain His mission as Savior, Jesus told a well-known story from the Scriptures. After the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness. They took to grumbling and complaining. They were sorry God had led them out of Egypt. As a punishment, God sent a plague of poisonous snakes. When the people repented and cried to God for mercy, He instructed Moses to erect a pole with a bronze snake on top. Everyone who was bitten by poisonous snakes could be healed by looking upon this bronze serpent.
This, Jesus said, is an illustration of His provision of salvation upon the cross. He also must be lifted up, as the serpent was. When men look to Him as the source of their salvation, they are healed from the poisonous bite of sin. As our Savior, Jesus gives us eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (vv. 16-21).
Why don’t people receive Jesus Christ as their Savior? We meet people every day who are burdened with guilt, bitter and resentful over their life, and others are in dysfunctional relationships. Many times they are their own worst enemy. Jesus wants to forgive our sins, relieve our bitterness, cleanse our guilt, and bring healing to our broken relationships. So why do we refuse to accept Him as Savior?
The answer is in verse 19: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Light exposes what is hidden. The Light of God exposes evil and sin. Our natural human tendency is to cover up the evil within and not deal with it. It is difficult to admit to God and to ourselves what kinds of sin lurk within. We condemn the sins we do not practice, but gloss over the greed, selfish ambition, and pride we find hidden in our own souls.
When we are confronted with our sin, the temptation is to do what Adam did—blame someone else (Genesis 3:12). By blaming others or your circumstances, you think that you can shift the load of guilt from yourself. But when you accept your responsibility and quit making excuses, you take the first step toward experiencing forgiveness.
The good news is in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Confession of sin starts God’s life-changing power—giving faith for forgiveness. Being right with God comes through trusting Christ as your Savior. To be born again is a spiritual transformation from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13).
God’s salvation will break the power of fear, unbelief, and shame in your life, giving you the power even to forgive yourself.
God loves every individual with an unending, immeasurable love. Unselfish, caring love—everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3)—is the very essence of God’s character. That is why He longs for a relationship with you and planned your salvation. That is why He reaches out to you and gave His only begotten Son to pay the price for your salvation.
But you have a choice of whether or not to accept this free gift of salvation. This offer of redemption is to “whoever believes in Him.” The Greek word that is translated “believe” means more than just an intellectual agreement. It means putting your complete trust and confidence in Jesus Christ, relying on Him alone as your Savior. This requires a response from you.
From the early days of our nation, a story is told of two brothers who got drunk one night, got into a fight, and in a fit of anger one brother killed the other. A judge sentenced the boy to be executed by hanging. The boy’s widowed mother went to see President George Washington to plead for her son’s life. “If they hang him, I will have no one. I will die alone out on the farm,” she said.
Out of pity for the mother, President Washington wrote out a pardon. When the boy received the good news in prison, he refused to leave his cell. “I killed my brother,” he lamented. “I deserve to die.”
Not knowing what to do, the authorities went to the Supreme Court for guidance. After careful consideration, the Court wrote:
“The President of the United States has the power to pardon any crime committed in the United States or its territories. But that pardon must be accepted. If it is not accepted, the sentence must be carried out.”
The boy refused the pardon, the sentence was carried out, and justice, but not mercy, was accomplished.
This story illustrates God’s provision for your salvation. If you refuse God’s pardon for your sins, when you die the sentence must be carried out. You will be separated from God for all eternity. Your rebellion and desire to “do your own thing” can keep you from accepting the pardon. No one will be more saddened than God, who provided your salvation at great cost to Himself.
God’s promise is that when you receive Jesus Christ as your Savior you will “not perish but have eternal life.” “Death” means separation. Physical death is separation from the physical body; spiritual death is separation from God.
The final destiny of the unrepentant sinner is hell. The New Testament teaching on hell is never just information about eternity. It is a warning about the seriousness of the consequence of your choice. God calls you to repent and to receive the gift of eternal life. But if you refuse and won’t follow and serve Christ here on earth, you certainly would not follow Him and do His will in eternity. The choice of your eternal destiny is in your hands: the kingdom of God that has been prepared for the redeemed, or the hell that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.
A Moral Choice
One night after a meeting at a church in Canada, a medical doctor who took pride in being a “deep thinker” came up to me with some questions. I did my best to answer them and then asked if he had any other questions about God and what it meant to be a Christian. He answered, “No, not at this time.” I then asked him if he would like to become a Christian. He said, “There are some things that I still need to figure out about the Christian faith.”
I told him he was like the man in 2 Timothy 3:7, “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.” “You know the truth of the Gospel and what you have to do to be saved,” I said. “Your problem is not getting more information. God has made it so simple that even little children can understand it. You don’t need more light. You need to walk in the light you already have.
“This is a moral choice. Who will be lord of your life? You or Jesus? The Holy Spirit is confronting you about following Jesus and doing His will. Repent of your sin and accept Jesus as your Savior. Will you be obedient to God’s call on your life?”
The doctor’s face turned white, and then he said to me, “You’re right! You are the first preacher to confront me with the truth of God’s word and the choice I must make. I know what I have to do.”
Jesus never tolerated indecision; He asks for a commitment. Who will be lord in your life? This decision is a moral choice, not an intellectual one. Will you make Him your Lord and Master and follow Him? Will you do God’s will or yours? That is the issue.
Have you passed from spiritual death into spiritual life by trusting in the finished work of Christ? If not, why not accept God’s pardon and forgiveness for your sin and rebellion right now? Acknowledge and confess your sin. Accept Jesus Christ as God’s only provision for your sin. Receive Him as your Savior and Lord by praying this prayer:
“Lord Jesus, I confess my sins and rebellion against God. Thank You for redeeming me by dying for my sins and rebellion on the cross. I open up my life to You and receive You as my Lord. Thank You for forgiving me and giving me eternal life. Now give me strength and power to live for You. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
If you have prayed to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior after reading this article, I would like to hear from you. Please write or e-mail me.