The new birth is the great change which God works in us when we meet the conditions of salvation. The new birth is not turning over “a new leaf.” It is not changing our attitudes, or cleaning up our language. The new birth is a work of grace wrought in the heart of repentant sinners when they respond to the invitation of the Gospel.
Jesus (as well as the apostles Peter, James, and John) refers to spiritual regeneration as a “birth” (John 3:5-7; 1 Peter 1:3,23; James 1:18; 1 John 3:9). The Holy Spirit moves quietly into the heart of a penitent and believing person, and brings about a marvelous change. The whole experience has an element of mystery about it. Jesus says, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). We want to look at what the Bible says about being born again.
1. The Necessity of the New Birth
Jesus told Nicodemus (a man who was highly respected and a person of clean morals), “You must be born again.” The word “must” makes it clear that the new birth is not optional. The new birth is an absolute necessity.
The new birth is necessary because of our own inability to please God. The first man Adam (through the sin of disobedience) acquired a sinful nature, and this nature has been transmitted by birth to each of his descendants. Each of us has a sin nature, a nature which is at enmity with God, and thus incapable of pleasing God. Mankind (since the Fall in Genesis 3) has been placed in a state of sin—a condition so profound that we cannot lift ourselves out of it. We do not, by natural birth, automatically desire and understand and enjoy the things of God. Jeremiah says that our hearts are deceitful above all things and are desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).
The new birth is necessary also because of the absolute purity and holiness of God. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. God inhabits eternity and His name is “Holy” (Isaiah 57:15). He remains always and forever the absolute and eternal enemy of sin. Holiness means to be clean and pure and free from defilement. God desires us to be holy because He is holy (1 Peter 1:1516). And yet when we think of the sinful desires and inclinations which have characterized our lives in the past, we know that we have not met the standard. The holiness of God demands a radical change within us, and unless we are born again, there is going to be a gulf fixed between us and God.
2. The Nature of the New Birth
If the new birth is such a tremendous necessity, what is it all about? How do we explain it? Where can we go to find it?
The term “born again” speaks of an inner moral transformation that leads to an outward change in one’s way of living. The Apostle Paul calls it “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). The Apostle Peter speaks of it as becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The Apostle John says it is “passing from death unto life” (1 John 3:14).
The new birth is an inward change of heart. It is being “born of the Spirit.” When a person believes the message of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit imparts to that person a new life—the life of God. It is described as a renewing which comes by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). The new birth is a tremendous spiritual change accomplished in the human heart by the Holy Spirit. It is not just being forgiven for past sins; it is being made over again! God in His grace offers a change in human nature—a change so decisive that the dominion of sin is broken. The new birth is a mystery you cannot really explain; but at the same time it is a reality that no person can explain away.
The new birth is accomplished by the Holy Spirit working quietly in the believing heart, but the Holy Spirit only performs the change when there is at least a threefold human response.
a) We must realize our sinful and lost condition. Our definitions of sin are often very shallow, and we fail to realize how seriously all of us have offended God.
b) We must demonstrate repentance for the past life of sin. Repentance is a reversal of our attitudes. Those who repent reverse their attitude toward sin. They hang their heads in shame and sorrow for having indulged in obscene stories, foolish talking, desecration of the Lord’s Day, illicit sexual attitudes, etc. Those who repent reverse their attitude toward God. They are especially grieved at the particular sin of having rejected Christ for so many years. Those who repent reverse their attitude toward themselves. Instead of justifying their wrongdoing, they become overwhelmed with a sense of their own unworthiness. Repentance is such a sorrow for sin that one is willing to turn from sin with all his heart.
c) We must believe on the work of Jesus on the Cross. When Jesus told Nicodemus about the new birth, He explained how He would hang upon a Cross (see John 3:14), and then concluded with the words, “Whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:15). The tense of the word “believe” expresses a continuous action. It means to keep on believing. The emphasis is not on one isolated moment of faith, but on a continuous attitude of faith in Jesus Christ and of submission to Him. The individual follows the Lord in the experience of water baptism, seeks fellowship in a Bible-teaching church, and makes a commitment to walk day by day with the Lord Jesus.
The new birth, then, is an inner moral transformation accomplished by the Holy Spirit, but in order to experience that transformation, there must be a human response.
People do not necessarily weep or shout or tremble when the new birth occurs. Jesus says that the new birth is in many ways like the wind (John 3:8), and all of us know that a wind does not always blow the same way. Sometimes it blows up a severe storm (a tornado, cyclone, or hurricane)—but more often the wind settles down to a gentle evening breeze. Just so, our experiences of conversion (the new birth) vary a great deal. There are those whose conversions are almost cyclonic; they are born again in thunder and lightning and storm. The Apostle Paul, on the road to Damascus, experienced a sudden light and voice from heaven. But others have a much less dramatic experience. In earlier years, they had godly parents who daily gathered around the family altar. They had been spared the depths of the most wicked kinds of sins. But still, they have been born with sinful tendencies, with natures inclined to sin—and even in early years—gave expression to selfwill, and bouts with anger, and the like. Their conversion is often as simple and as natural as the gentle blowing of a summer breeze. Such a conversion can be just as genuine as the conversion of one who for many years was living in the depths of sin, and then had an explosive conversion experience.
3. The Evidences of the New Birth
The new birth is something that no one can hide. If a person is really born again, there is going to be a radical change in life and character. The mysterious work of God in the human heart changes our tastes and habits and desires and opinions and appearance and our hopes for the future. Evidences of the change will be seen in a number of areas.
a) There will be a new love for fellow human beings. There will be a love even for enemies. The Bible says, “Everyone that loveth is born of God” (1 John 4:7). This does not mean that every mother who loves her child is born of God, or that every young man who loves his sweetheart is born of God. There are special Greek words to describe those kinds of love. The love John speaks about is the “1 Corinthians 13” kind of love. It is a love that suffers long, and is kind, and is not easily provoked. Everyone who loves with this kind of love is born of God.
The real test of whether or not we have genuine love is our attitude toward those who misuse us. That is the test which Jesus manifested from the Cross. He looked down on the blood-spattered hands of those who crucified Him and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Stephen showed real love when he prayed for those who were stoning him, and said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). One of the evidences of the new birth is a new love even for those who mistreat us.
b) There will be a devoted obedience to God’s commandments. The Apostle John, in 1 John 5:3, says that for one who is born of God, the commands of God “are not grievous” (not burdensome).
In some circles today, “obedience” is almost a dirty word. If one talks about obedience to the detailed commandments of the New Testament, they say “It sounds like you are trying to work your way to heaven.” But that is not it at all! We are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ—not by our good works. There is a difference between “good works” and “obedience.” Good works are warm deeds of love springing from a right attitude toward God. Good works speak of “service.” Obedience is the act of earnestly carrying out the instructions of another. Obedience speaks of “compliance.” (To escape the error of salvation by works, some have fallen into the heresy of teaching salvation without obedience.) The Bible does not recognize faith as a valid faith unless that faith leads to obedience. See Hebrews 5:9. Those who think they are saved, but don’t care about obeying the specific instructions of the New Testament, had better think seriously about what it means to please God.
The Bible says that believers are to teach new disciples “to observe all things” that our Lord has commanded us. It is not those who say, “Lord, Lord” that shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but those that “do the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Those who are born again, not only desire to hear, but to do, the will of God.
c) There will be a deliberate refusal to practice sin. We read in 1 John 3:9 that “whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.” The Greek tense clearly refers to the continual practice of sin. Sin is not a regular habit in the lives of those who are born again. Those who are born of God do not live in sin. They have received a new nature—a divine nature—a nature that hates sin. They despise every form of it. Instead, they find themselves loving the Scriptures more, and eager to pray more often, and day by day they become increasingly more warm and gracious and positive persons. The born again person moves on toward spiritual maturity, and new victories are gained over the inroads of sin.
A group of atheists were criticizing the Bible. One of them spoke about creation. He said, “What man with any common sense could believe that several thousand years ago, God stooped down and picked up a piece of mud, breathed on it, and changed it into a human being?” A newborn Christian man standing by overheard the conversation and responded by saying, “I can’t answer all the questions about creation, but this I know: One night God stooped down and picked up the dirtiest piece of mud in this city, breathed upon it by His Spirit, and changed a gambling, drinking, thieving, fornicating wretch into a peaceloving man of God. I was that man.” (And just so, my friend, whoever you may be—what God has done for others, He will do for you!)
For all of us, the future is uncertain. The time is quickly passing. You may never have another opportunity like you have right now. My friend, the day will surely come, when those who are not born again will wish they had never been born at all. Jesus died to provide the way of eternal salvation. Why not believe, receive, and obey Jesus today? Make a commitment to continue the path of discipleship—seeking to follow Him day by day.