More Editorials from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.
IT is common to hear people referring to "born-again" Christians, invariably in a disparaging way. The inference is that there are two types of religion which bear the name 'Christian'. There is a reasonable, respectable type of Christianity which is adequate for most of those in society with religious leanings but then there are certain people who want to take things much further. To these zealots everything is black and white. They assert dogmatically that they are right in what they believe and others are plain wrong. They are intolerant of all other views. They are therefore worthy of being given the name 'bigots'.
It is our opinion of course that there is only one type of Christian. A true Christian is a sinner who has been born from above by the Holy Spirit. The corresponding truth is that if a man has not been born again he cannot be a Christian at all in the proper sense of the term. In the end it is not what men think that matters. In subjects of vital concern to our souls (and there is surely none more important than this) there is only one place to which we should go for an opinion – the Word of God. "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isa.8:20).
We may look firstly at what is meant by the new birth in Scripture and then particularly at the words of Christ as He spoke to a man who needed to be taught about this subject.
Scripture employs a variety of terms to indicate what is involved in the new birth. It is compared to circumcision (Jer.4:4), resurrection (John 5:25), creation (2Cor.5:17) and washing (Tit.3:5). The central idea which the Word of God highlights when dealing with the subject is renewal.
Technically the term which should be applied to what we are speaking of is 'regeneration'. As the term "the new birth" suggests, there is an analogy between this event and its natural equivalent. When we refer to the appearance of a child in this world as a 'birth' we do so in the full knowledge that strictly-speaking the child has not begun his or her life at that moment; that life in fact had its beginning some time before and developed to the point of birth.
In a similar way we understand God's dealings with our soul. Regeneration is that act of God in which He implants the principle of new, gracious and eternal life in the soul of a man. Regeneration however is subconscious and not directly perceived by us. The new birth is this new life coming to its first conscious expression in lasting conviction of sin and saving repentance and faith. Because this principle of "holiness to the Lord" is a developing one the term regeneration is sometimes used in a broad sense to cover the whole of an individual's conversion and sanctification. It must be understood though that these things grow out of a life which had a distinct, definite beginning at a particular instant in time.
What does the Bible say about this 'new birth'? It speaks of it as something very important. The man who has been born again is described as a new man (Col.3:10). He has a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek.36:26). He walks in "newness of life" (Rom.6:4). All in all he is a new creation: "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2Cor.5:17). To be born again is to know a great and blessed change in our lives.
A man named Nicodemus once visited Jesus to question Him on the things of God (John 3:1,2). That interview changed him forever. He came a sceptic but went away deep in thought. Later he stood up for Christ when the Jewish leaders would have condemned Him unheard (John 7:50,51). He lovingly buried the Lord's body when few wanted anything to do with Christ (John 19:38-42). He had been born again. What did Jesus teach Nicodemus about the new birth?
The first thing Jesus taught is that by nature we are spiritually blind. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). A man may be educated in all the arts and sciences; he may be learned in every belief of his chosen religion, even Christianity. But if he is not born again then he is no better off in the end. He has not understood his need of salvation. He is still in his sins. By sin the devil has "blinded the minds of them which believe not" (2Cor.4:4). When Christ came in the flesh the Jews did not recognise Him as their Messiah. It is the same today when the gospel is preached. "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God" (1Cor.2:14). Only the grace of God can remove the scales which are upon our eyes and give us true sight.
The second thing Jesus taught is that we are spiritually lame. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Even when we hear of the way to heaven we cannot take one step in the right direction. Sin has disabled us. Only by divine power can we "walk in the law of the Lord" (Psa.119:1) and follow holiness "without which no man shall see the Lord" (Heb.12:14).
The third thing Jesus taught is that we are spiritually dead. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh" (John 3:6). When we come into this world we are made in the likeness of our parents, not only physically but also spiritually. In fact we should look right back to Adam and Eve, the original parents of mankind. When tempted by Satan in paradise Adam sinned against God and became a guilty soul. He lost God's image and God's fellowship. He and all his descendants in him became "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph.2:1).
The fourth thing Jesus taught is that the new birth is spiritual. "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6). Given what we have seen, it must be so. To be born again is not simply to reform one's behaviour, to "turn over a new leaf." That is not enough. The problem is deeper and its solution is more profound. The Bible says: "But God, who is rich in mercy... Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ" (Eph.2:4,5).
The fifth thing Jesus taught is that the new birth is vital. "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again" (John 3:7). Many churchgoers and clean-living people need to hear this. We must be born again because "the carnal mind is enmity against God...they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom.8:7,8). Our human nature is corrupt and we deserve hell for our sins. Baptism, Communion, church attendance and good works will not change this. We need a new beginning on the right foundation, Jesus Christ, who died to take away sin.
The final thing Jesus taught is that the new birth is wonderful. "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). It is God's work alone. His Spirit works secretly in a sinner's heart. We cannot see this wonder. Yet just as we trace the wind by the stirring of the grass and the swaying of the trees, so we may see the effects of the new birth in the lives of believers.
There will be a sincere faith in Jesus Christ: "whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God" (1John 5:1). There will be an active obedience to God: "every one that doeth righteousness is born of him" (1John 2:29). There will be a keen hatred of sin: "whosoever is born of God sinneth not" (1John 5:18). There will be a true love for God and His people: "every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God" (1John 4:7).
We can surely now see that we need the new birth. If we are not born again when we die, it would be better for us if we had never been born at all. Our duty is clear: "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith" (2Cor.13:4). If we cannot see in our lives the marks we have mentioned – faith, obedience, holiness and love – then whatever our profession of Christ we have reason to fear that we do not have actual possession of Christ. Our religion is a sham and does not deceive the God who looks not on the outward appearance but on the heart. We should pray in earnest, "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me" (Psa.51:10).