RPM, Volume 15, Number 12, March 17 to March 23, 2013

Born Again by the Spirit

John 3:1-8

By Mike Osborne

Introduction: In 1976, a book was published that brought a phrase out of the Bible and into the vocabulary of popular culture. That book was Born Again. It was the first-person account of the conversion to Christianity of Chuck Colson, President Nixon's "hatchet man."

Since that time, "born again" has become probably the most derided, misunderstood, and misused religious term in America.

Another word for born again is regeneration. Another word for it is the rebirth or the new birth. They all refer to the same thing. What do they mean? John 3 is the best place to find the answer.

So let's talk about 3 things this morning:
• The necessity of the new birth — why is it important?
• The nature of the new birth — what is it?
• The marks of the new birth — how can you know it's happened to you?

I. The necessity of the new birth

It's early in Jesus' ministry. In Jn 1-2, he's been baptized by John, he's called several of his disciples, and he's performed his first miracle — changing water into wine at a wedding in Galilee. Now he's in Jerusalem, and he's already made quite a stir. He cleared the Temple of the money-changers, and healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, taught the Scriptures, and performed other miraculous signs.

Now we meet this guy named Nicodemus in Jn 3.
• Who is he? He's a teacher of the Jews. Vs. 10 calls him "the teacher of Israel." He's one of the leading theologians of the day — maybe THE leading theologian of the day. He has the best of credentials: vs. 1 says he's a Pharisee: a sect known for their rigorous adherence to the law and to religious customs. He's a member of the "Jewish ruling council" — that's the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jewish people. So Nicodemus is like a US senator.
• In short, he's a good man. He's a moral man. He's a powerful man. He's liked and looked up to. He's zealous for religious purity. And he lives what he teaches. You could dig up no "dirt" on Nicodemus.

And he comes to Jesus by night (vs. 2) and says, "Rabbi (teacher), we know (we Pharisees, we religious experts) that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could do what you are doing if God were not with him."
• Now what lay behind these words? It's hard to say. It sounds very condescending to me. It also seems like he's representing the religious establishment, and saying, "We've been watching you, and we're impressed. We think you've got a lot to offer. Let's work together. You can help us, and we can help you."
• It's the game people play when they're jockeying for power. They use titles and flattery.

But Jesus is not impressed. He pierces through the jargon and looks directly into Nicodemus' heart.

Vs. 3 — "Truly, truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he or she is born again."

Now think of the irony of this. Most people in east Orlando would say that if there's anybody who didn't need to be born again, it would be Nicodemus. He's an upstanding person. You know, it's the poor who need to be born again, or drug dealers or misguided people. But not Nicodemus.

But Jesus thinks otherwise. He sees Nicodemus' true spiritual condition. Nicodemus may know a lot of theology. He may be very moral. But he's not in the kingdom of God. In fact, he's very far away from the kingdom. In fact, he's moving in the absolute wrong direction, away from God.
• That's interesting, isn't it? Morality without Christ — being good without believing the gospel — actually takes you away from God. Why? Because you don't think you need a Savior. You rely on yourself instead of Christ.

But anyway, back to vs. 3. Notice the word "can." "No one CAN see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
• Vs. 5 — "No one CAN enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit."
• Jesus is saying, unless (a) happens, (b) cannot happen.

He makes it even more plain in vs. 7 — "You must be born again." Regeneration is required for one to be in the family of God.

Now why is that? Because of the radical and pervasive presence of sin in the heart.
• See, here's this very good man. He's got a record as clean as a person might have. But the trouble is, he's still in his natural, sinful state before the holy eyes of Jesus.
• Nicodemus is a sinner by birth and by choice.
• He's good, yes. But good compared to what? Think of somebody you know who's very tall. Compared to a giant redwood tree, that person is not tall! Nicodemus is "good." But compared to the perfect holiness and righteousness of God, Nicodemus is not good. He's a sinner! And so are you & I the moment we are conceived in our mothers' wombs!
o Rom 3:10 — "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God."
o Later in Rom 3, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

Illus.: Movie Wreck-It Ralph
• Wreck-It Ralph is the bad guy in a video game. Ralph dreams of someday being a hero. But he doesn't know how to change. He can't change. All he can do is wreck things. Fix-It Felix, Jr. is the good guy who must clean up after Ralph and stop him from ruining things.
• So Ralph goes to this support group for video game villains (Bowser from Super Mario Bros., Dr. Eggman from Sonic the Hedgehog, Clyde from Pac Man, etc.)
o Ralph: "I don't want to be the bad guy anymore."
o "You can't mess with the program, Ralph."
o Clyde says, "Ralph, we can't change who we are."
• That's the human condition. We're all born into this world bad guys. Nobody has to teach us to wreck things. We do it naturally. And we can't change who we are without supernatural help. We might learn to be nice. Some of us might actually be respectable human beings like Nicodemus. But none of us can come anywhere close to God's standard. And truth be told, even a lot of the "good" things we do are motivated by a self-centered desire to be recognized, to get ahead, or to overcome some kind of insecurity in our own hearts, not to please Almighty God.

2:23-24 — "Jesus would not entrust himself to [the people], for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man."
• God knows what's in us. We have this natural proclivity to go our own way, to do our own thing, to rely on ourselves and not God, to live independent of God and to use God to get what we want out of life.
• Eph 2 says we are "dead in sin."
• This is why in order to be a Christian, regeneration has to happen first. You can't even believe in Jesus until you've been born again. Most people say, "Believe in Jesus and you'll be born again." No — it's the other way around. You can't even believe in Jesus UNTIL you're born again!

The new birth is a necessity. You need a new heart, a total makeover. There are no exceptions. Regeneration is the prerequisite for eternal life.

II. So let's talk about the nature of the new birth. How does it happen exactly?

Let me define regeneration in three pieces:

A. First: Regeneration (the new birth) is a sovereign act of God the Holy Spirit.
• Vs. 3 — "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or, from above)."
• Vs. 5— "No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit."

What does he mean by that — "water and the Spirit"?
• Remember that Nicodemus is an expert in the Jewish Scriptures. So Jesus takes him to the OT.
• Ezek 36:25-27 — "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws."
• Notice the pronouns: "I will sprinkle clean water on you… I will cleanse you… I will give you a new heart… I will remove your heart of stone… I will put my Spirit in you." And it must be this way, right? Because like I said before, we are dead in sin. We are helpless.
• And do you see the connection between water and Spirit? Water speaks of our need of cleansing, and Spirit speaks of our need of new life. When the Holy Spirit regenerates you, he does both things: he cleanses you of sin, and he raises you to new life in Christ.
• You see this in Titus 3:4-6 — "When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us."

Here's the point: The Holy Spirit is the sovereign agent of the new birth. You are passive; he is active.
• Jesus compares the HS to wind (vs. 8) — "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."
• Regeneration happens outside your control.
• Did you choose the time and place of your first birth? No! Neither can you make yourself be born the second time. You can't push a button or say a prayer or take a class and become a regenerate person.
• You can't make the Holy Spirit do what you want him to do, any more than you can capture the wind or turn a hurricane or stop a tornado. He blows wherever he pleases.

B. Second: Regeneration is a sovereign, instantaneous act of the Holy Spirit.
• Eph 2:4-5 — "Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved."
• "Made us alive" is an aorist verb — snapshot action.
• Being born again is like when Jesus was raised from the dead. One moment his body was lying lifeless in the grave, and the next moment breath entered his body and he was alive.
• And you may not be conscious of it when it happens. That's part of the mystery of regeneration. It can happen to a little child. It happened to John the Baptist when he was in the womb of his mother Elizabeth. In fact you should pray for your children, that the Holy Spirit will regenerate their hearts as early in life as possible.

C. Third: The new birth is a sovereign, instantaneous act of the Holy Spirit, in which he breathes life into your heart and puts a new disposition, a new operating principle into your life, so you begin to be transformed from the inside out.
• Vs. 6 — "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit."
• Jesus is saying that regeneration results in a new person. Not just a better person or a nice person or a reformed person, but a new person. Someone with new loves, new values and priorities, a new desire to know and love and serve God.
• It's not a reformation; it's a resurrection.
• 2 Cor 5:17 — "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"

Illus.: Think of gardening. Think of a gardener who goes into her backyard and looks at a piece of ground. The only thing she sees in that garden is weeds, no fruit, no produce. So what does she do? She takes seed and digs a hole in the ground and plants seed in the soil and waters that seed, and suddenly the garden comes to life. It produces fruit.
• That's what the Holy Spirit does when you're born again. Jeremiah put it this way: "God writes his law upon your heart," so that you want to obey.
• You remember last week we talked about Genesis 1? At the dawn of creation, the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters. Like a mother bird warming her chicks with her wings, the Holy Spirit brooded or warmed the creation and brought it to life. In the same way the Holy Spirit hovers or broods over your dead, sinful heart and brings your heart to life so that you can understand the gospel, repent, and believe in Jesus and follow after him.

So the new birth is a radical change of your nature. It brings about a decisive, irreversible break with the past and an embracing of Christ as Lord. Resistance to God becomes non-resistance. The old stubborn clods of sin and selfishness are broken up, and in their place is a new desire to know God and please him.

It's not the same thing as conversion — that comes after the new birth. That's when you repent and believe the gospel.

And it doesn't mean you never sin again. You will. You will struggle and often fall. But it does mean sin no longer satisfies you as it did before. The things that once brought you pleasure now break your heart. It means that you fight against your sin and hate your sin and gradually you get more and more victory over your sin. It means you have a new energy inside you to say no to sin and yes to Jesus.

III. So, we've seen what the new birth is, and why it's necessary. Now the question is, Have you been born again? How do you know? What are the marks of regeneration?

There is not a more important question than this. You can know whether you've been born again or not, whether the Spirit has given you a new heart or not. And the way to find out is to ask yourself some things:
1. Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God? Do you believe he died for your sins and are you resting in his work instead of yours? (Romans 10:9)
2. Do you keep the commandments? Is it your goal to obey God and live according to his plan rather than your own self-centered desires? (1 Jn 2:3-4)
3. Do you hate your sin? (Rom 7:24) I don't mean you just feel guilty. Do you have a growing awareness of the depth of your sin, a heightened awareness of the demands of God's holy law, and a sense that if Jesus doesn't take care of your sin you're undone?
4. Do you know that God is your Father? (Gal 4:6)
5. Do you love your brothers and sisters? Do you love the church? (1 Jn 3:14)
6. Is it your #1 priority in life to know, love, and serve God? (Phil 3:10)

I spoke to a person one time who came to me in a very troubled state. He said, "I really wonder if I'm a Christian. I am such a sinner. I fall so far short every single day. How in the world can I be a saved person?" And I said, "The very fact that you're worried about it tells me that you're a Christian, because a non-Christian wouldn't care."

You know, I suspect I'm talking to someone this morning who knows you need a new heart. You're like Nicodemus. You've tried to do better, and it hasn't worked. You've tried to be good, and you know you're not good enough. What do you do?
• Run to Jesus.
• Vs. 14 — "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."
• Jesus is referring to something that happened back in the OT (Num 21). The people of Israel were marching to the Promised Land. They'd been very bad. They'd rebelled against God and slandered his name. So God chastened them. He sent poisonous snakes among the people. Many of the people were bitten by the snakes and died. So they repented. They confessed their sins to God. And God said to Moses, "Make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole for all to see. When someone looks to that snake hanging on a pole, he or she will be healed and live."

The parallel is obvious, right? Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, "Here's what you need to do. You need to stop thinking of me as merely a Teacher, and look to me as a Savior. You need to admit your sins and believe in me for healing. It's not about being good, Nicodemus. It's not about trying harder and getting your act together and starting good habits — those things will only take you farther away from me. For God so loved the world that he gave ME, that whoever believes in ME shall not perish but have eternal life."

Run to Jesus. Tell him everything. Believe he died on the cross to forgive you and make you his child. And if you'll do that, you will know that before you loved him, he loved you. Before you believed, he regenerated you through the Person of the Holy Spirit.

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