What does it mean?
Why is it necessary?
How can It happen?
By Henry Jaegers
These two words have come to be very important for the modern-day Christian who desires to share salvation with his friends. It has become so popular that the non-believing world has borrowed it and changed its original meaning. Although the word has to do with change, it is a change that takes place inwardly not outwardly. You hear it used by many to describe somebody’s new batting stance or a way of pitching or a style of playing some other type of sport, having nothing to do with the purpose for which Jesus used it. The term “born again” is used so often by Christians that it has become a reason for ridicule. We don’t want that so it is necessary at times to describe the new birth in another way. It has lost its significance because of overuse. If that happens we must change our presentation in order to make our faith more understandable.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
The words “you must be born again” was used only one time by Jesus. He used it while speaking to a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a very religious man, a leader of the Pharisees sect of Judaism. He was morally good, well trained in the Jewish religion and a leader. How else could he have been respected and looked up to unless he was a good example. Now the question arises, why did he come to Jesus? That’s the question of importance. It appears from the total discourse that Nicodemus had been watching Jesus, and John is well and their ministries. He observed and saw something different. He saw in Jesus something more than religion; he saw him reaching out to people in an unselfish manner and performing many great works. Nicodemus recognized him as a man from God because, he reasoned, no one could do the works that He did unless God was present. There seems to have been a great emptiness in the life of this moral religious person. That brings us to our point of the need for the new birth. Nicodemus knew that something was missing in his life that was present in the life of Jesus, and if we are to conclude anything we must conclude that it was his empty life and the workings of the Holy Spirit that led Nicodemus to Jesus that day.
I wonder what Nicodemus expected to happen when he met Jesus? Surely, being born again totally confounded his sense of logic. We know by his questions and statements that he didn’t ask Jesus what he meant by that. John in writing this gospel mentioned at the end that there were many things that Jesus said and did that are not written in this particular book. So because it is not stated does not mean that it couldn’t happen. What I’m referring to is Jesus answering all questions in order to help him understand. We know also that Nicodemus in time counted the cost and became a follower of Jesus.
Somewhere Jesus took the time to help him understand. But for now, when Jesus said to Nicodemus that he must be born again, he was telling him that outward forms of religion couldn’t do it. They were merely the best that men could do and they could not satisfy the holiness of God. God demanded perfection and religion falls short of God’s requirements. But Jesus was saying that a change from within had to take place and that change could only take place through the operation and power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said “that which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I say to you ye must be born again.” It is difficult to know everything that Jesus told Nicodemus that day but there are a few verses of the Old Testament that make this matter of being “born again” very clear. In Ezekiel chapter 36:25 through 27 we have these very clarifying words as to what being born again is all about. Hear these words: “Then shall I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them.” This is a remarkable section of Scripture because it specifically tells us that this new birth is a work of God. He causes things to happen, which in turn help us to evaluate our relationship to Him. Once they turn from their folly God will put within them a heart that loves to obey and keep God’s commandments. All of the rebellion will be gone and there will be great joy in the service of God to others. In our next section we will describe how it all happens and the means by which God causes it to happen, but first we will consider why the new birth is necessary.
WHY IS IT NECESSARY?
As we approach the subject, we come to what I believe is the most important part of why it is necessary to be born again. When Jesus said to Nicodemus, “unless a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” I believe he elaborated to Nicodemus more than what the statement tells us. For instance, how would Nicodemus have acted upon this unless he understood what Jesus meant? Here is what I believe Nicodemus needed to understand.
First Nicodemus was fully aware of the Ministry of John the Baptist. If he wasn’t, Jesus is now explaining it to him. Second Nicodemus had to listen to the message of John. What was that message? John was talking about the problem of sin. Third, Nicodemus needed to understand the fact and presence of sin. That is how the Holy Spirit works. The fourth thing Nicodemus needed to know and experience was the guilt of sin. He had to know that the problem of sin existed in him as well. I’m sure that this was not easy, for a self righteous man to come to grips with the guilt of sin. At this point Nicodemus could do one of two things. He could face the fact and identify himself with the Ministry of John, or he could deny the reality of sin and ignore the message. The water represents identification. Before the new birth could take place the birth by water was necessary. He had to actually be baptized by John. I believe he did. That was the importance of John’s ministry as the forerunner of Christ.
A. The source of the problem
Now we come to recognize the seriousness of the problem of sin. Sin at the outset caused a very horrible thing to occur. Man became separated from God and the presence of guilt caused Adam and his wife to know something was wrong. Never under estimate the blessing and the importance of guilt. Guilt is the great motivator to do something and Adam did. He became self conscious and tried to cover his own sin with fig leaves. Immediately he knew that something was wrong and something needed to be done. What he did is what most of us do, we try to cover our sin by excuses and blame. God’s way is for us to face the fact and admitting not only to ourselves but to God as well. When that happens, then God can remove the guilt and restore us once again.
Only God can remove guilt. We must remember that. Even though Adam was forgiven, his sin had long lasting consequences upon all those who would follow him. Instead of being able to live for ever in the garden, Adam was expelled and eventually over time he experienced physical death. Death is a consequence of sin. (Romans 6:23). Let us put it this way. In Romans 5:12, we are told “wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men for that all have sinned.” We have inherited an inner corruption from Adam. David, in confessing his sin to God in Psalm 51 says “behold I was shaped been in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” In Jeremiah 17 verse nine, Jeremiah says ”the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” There has been implanted in us from birth a natural phenomenon called sin. By the word sin we are not talking about the things that we do. Sin is what we are by nature and results in sinful acts. Sometimes we try to deal with the sin by dealing with the acts and not the cause.
Now we can all admit to the problem of having a sin nature but the seriousness of that condition is only realized when we understand the horror of it all. When we stand, like Adam, in the presence of a holy God sin is no more a light and frivolous thing. Sin in the presence of God is serious and that’s where repentance begins. The work of the Holy Spirit is to make sin exceedingly sinful and bring us to the place where we desire to be rid of it and finished with it.
B. The seriousness of the problem
I must use the example of David the King, the man whom God says is “a man after his own heart”. We may wonder how such a man could sink so low. We must also come to grips with the fact that we are all men and are capable of some of the most grievous acts under the right circumstances. There is no room for finger pointing because as Jeremiah states so clearly, we are capable of some of the most horrible acts and we ourselves don’t know how far we are capable of going. There is no need for pride in any of us when it comes to the problem of sin. Having said that let us think about the situation of David. First he was King. That was his appointment and responsibility given to him by God. But something happened to that King. Pride began to take over his life as he realized everything was his. One day while sitting idle when he should have been at the battle site he observed a beautiful woman not far away. His first problem was idleness. That is usually when temptation is the strongest. Second he looked too long at her. That’s another problem with temptation. We stay too long at the place. The next thing was lust. He desired her. We find Eve in the same situation. She saw the tree was something to be desired. In the next step she took of the fruit. That’s what David did he arranged a meeting and formed a relationship with another man’s wife. His lust led to adultery next his adultery resulted in pregnancy. This was serious. This matter could not be known. It had to be covered so David devised a plan. He called for Uriah her husband to leave the battlefield and come home immediately to stay with his wife. Uriah being the dedicated soldier that he was refused. That called for another solution. The final thing David did was he caused Uriah to be placed in the hardest part of the battle and arrange for his death and it was so. David, the man after God’s own heart, did this. Never underestimate the power and potential of the sin nature. We must believe that word that Jeremiah spoke was correct; that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked and I’m sure David understood that message. Although that verse was quoted by Jeremiah years later the message was still true of David. And if we are tempted to criticize David for the horror of his sin remember we are all sons of Adam and capable of the same things under similar circumstances.
C. The solution to the problem
From all outward appearances it looks is though David solved his own problem and he did it quite effectively. David was the king. He had the right to any woman in the kingdom including Bathsheba. And we might conclude that they lived happily ever after until one day he received a knock on the door and a prophet from God named Nathan came to give him a message. We must stop for a moment and consider the courage of this man Nathan. He was sent by God to confront David about his sin. Sometimes God calls us to do some scary things and I cannot believe this was easy for Nathan. He is confronting the King, and his life at that time was in the king’s hand. The reality was, that Nathan was in God’s hand and that made the difference in the success of his mission.
Nathan was very careful to use great tact in order for David to understand the seriousness of his action. The main mission of the prophet Nathan was to help David see what God saw that was hidden from the eyes of men. He began by telling David about a man who had a lamb that was taken away from him by a rich man who could have purchased own but he took the poor man’s lamb by force. David became angry and he replied who is this person that would do such a horrible thing? And Nathan said only four simple words. “Thou art the man”. By the power of the Holy Spirit the message penetrated David’s heart. The faithful prophet confronted the King and brought about repentance. When David saw that his action was a dreadful sin against God he saw how enormous it was and did something about it. There were consequences to David’s sin. First the child would die, and second his kingdom would eventually be divided and lost. But the most important thing was David dealing with his relationship to God and being restored.
We have written in the Scriptures a record of David’s true repentance before God. In Psalm 51, we have the prayer of David as he dealt with his sin and his prayer to God. Psalm 51 is a great Psalm to read when we experience the guilt of our sin. It tells us how to approach God, how to recognize the importance of penitence and we have a model of how to pray in light of our sin. In Psalm 32 we have a record of David’s restoration and joy having experience the forgiveness of God.
So we conclude this portion on why the new birth is necessary. The new birth recognizes the need for change and the impossibility of us changing ourselves. It recognizes the reality of sin and the potential to commit great acts of sin. The presence of Nathan the prophet reveals the importance of God’s servant in declaring God’s message and sometimes that message deals with the problem of sin in the lives of each of us. Thank God for faithful men who preach the word of God faithfully and are not afraid to declare truth. So we see first of all the importance of the preacher as we do in the ministry of John the Baptist. Then we must be honest about ourselves before God and recognize how God sees us. When we see the horror of our sin it’s not hard to call on God to help. That is what guilt is supposed to do. The purpose of the law in the Old Testament was to produce guilt which in turn resulted in men turning back to God. So being born again is a determined effort to forsake our life of sin and exchange it for a life of glorious liberty offered to us by God himself through his son Jesus Christ.
HOW CAN IT HAPPEN?
We have considered what the new birth is and the need for it to happen. But we cannot close with this. There must be some type of action we can take in order to make being born again a reality inour lives. Jesus made an interesting statement to Nicodemus that says “the wind blow with were it listed, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the spirit.” As I was working one day, that verse came to mind and it was like a light to my understanding. Now I don’t claim to fully understand everything that this verse has to say but the thing that stood out in my mind was the fact that you can’t put the Holy Spirit in a box. I think in modern-day evangelism, with the emphasis on the numbers to prove success, there is a tendency to produce Christians without conviction. We do not know when, how, or what manner the Holy Spirit is going to work in other people. I understand that under most circumstances a person hears the gospel at least seven times before receiving the new birth. My part in this may just be planting the seed or preparing the ground. Even then, all we can do is be faithful. It’s not our responsibility to control the Holy Spirit. So that’s my simple interpretation of this and I think it is true. Maybe it doesn’t give the full meaning but this helps me to be faithful in the areas where I can work and be a blessing.
So what can I say to the question “how can it happen?” First I must recognize how God has equipped me to do his ministry. No matter what my gift may be. I must always be faithful both in my personal spiritual life and in my public life that others see. When the Holy Spirit works in a person’s life I am not always present to see it happening. There are many situations that occur when becoming a Christian. If I am unsaved perhaps consulting another Christian can help me to understand why I need to be saved. Let me close with the word of testimony from my own life on how being born again happened.
As early childhood I went to church, went to camp and had exposure to the gospel thanks to my mother. I recall several times walking forward in evangelistic meetings and receiving the Lord and it always seemed to be the same. I thought every time the preacher preached, I needed to be saved over again. I know people that think the same way today. Somewhere down the road God’s word was planted in my heart. I was unaware of that happening until one day while I was in the service. I purchased a small Bible to keep in my pocket in case I happened to catch a bullet and the Bible would save my life. (I heard a serviceman testify that way so I thought it was a good idea.) That’s what I thought about the Bible but one day I sat down in the barracks while all alone I read from the book of Revelation. In the first couple of chapters, those words “I know thy works, I know thy works”, echoed into my heart. I went to church every Sunday but I know I had a corrupt heart. Those words brought guilt to my heart and I recognize it was God who is speaking to me telling me about what He was seeing. Then I came the Revelation 3:20 and I heard these words” behold I stand at the door and knock.” As I thought about these words I sensed that I was in the presence of God. The great overwhelming sense of His love and patience and desire to change me caused tears to flow from my eyes as I sought for someone to tell me how I could make Jesus my own. It was at noon time and a man whom I knew to be a faithful Christian was in his car having his lunch. I found him and I told him what was happening and he prayed with me and help me to receive Christ that day. Over the years much was planted in my heart and mind but that day the Holy Spirit took control and helped me to become his child.
So will praying a prayer make me a Christian? Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes no. Only the presence of the Holy Spirit can make the difference. Understanding the fact of sin, the consequences of sin, the importance of guilt and the sincere crying out for deliverance can cause salvation to occur. When I receive Jesus into my life it was the beginning of a new life. That new life continues on for many years. For others it may just be a short while but the most important thing is what we do with those years after the new birth. The Ministry we have to others will have something to do with the rewards we have later. We know that Nicodemus did not become a Christian the same day that Jesus spoke to him. It’s possible but time was needed for Nicodemus to think through what following Jesus would mean.
A suggested prayer might be:
Heavenly Father, my life is empty and my sin is great. Help me to see my sin as you see it. Forgive me for my neglect. Search me, know me and lead me in the way everlasting. Cleanse me from my sin and cause your Holy Spirit to dwell in me and make me faithful in Jesus name I pray.