Ye Must Be Born Again

 •  17 min. read  •  grade level: 8
When Nicodemus went to our Lord for instruction, he was met instantly by the solemn word, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, be cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:33Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)). It behooves therefore every anxious soul to consider this searching divine word; because we at once learn, that whatever the anxiety of soul—earnest desires, profession of faith—if there has not been wrought this great change, the “new birth,” there is no life in the soul, and consequently no salvation.
Who was it then to whom the Lord addressed these words? We only learn half the truth when we answer, Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; for, in fact, this tells us nothing beyond his name and official rank, and these things have no weight before God, and no significance for the seeking soul. It is in the connection of the third chapter with the second that we shall find the real answer to our question. We read, “Now when He [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast-day, many believed in His name, when they saw the miracles which, He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself unto them, because He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man; for He knew what was in man. “But” (as it should be read) “there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the jews” and so forth (John 2:23-25; 3:123Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. 24But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, 25And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man. (John 2:23‑25)
1There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: (John 3:1)
). There was thus a number of Jews who believed on Jesus when they saw His miracles, and Nicodemus was one of that number. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them because He knew what was in man; because, in fact, their faith was nothing more than a natural conviction, wrought by the evidence of the miracles, of the truth of the claims of Jesus. There was no bowing of heart before God in all this; there was nothing more than a natural or intellectual belief in the name of Christ. When therefore Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, no doubt in quest of something more, and expressed this belief, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him,” Jesus answered him at once by stating the necessity of being born again. It was as if He had said, “You may believe in me as a divine teacher, and yet be lost. You must be born again before you can enter into the kingdom of God.”
We thus get a most solemn warning, as well as a needed caution. The warning is, “Beware of being satisfied with a profession of belief in Christ.” The caution is, “Never forget that everything is useless if you have not been born again. You may be most earnest, most religious, a model of activity, in high repute for sanctity of life, or for works of usefulness, and yet be a lost soul; for unless you are born again, you cannot even see the kingdom of God.”
Why then must a man be born again? The answer to this question brings us to a most important part of our subject. We have already shown that all men are sinners; but it is not only that they are sinners, but they have an evil, corrupt, depraved nature; and this incurably corrupt nature is the tree which produces all the evil fruits of sin. The acts of sin reveal the character of the nature; and this nature is totally unfit for God’s presence. This is the purport of our Lord’s words in this chapter, “That which is born of flesh is flesh” (vs. 6). All therefore that we are as natural men, as children of Adam, is flesh; and in this flesh there dwelled’ no good thing (Rom. 7:1818For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. (Romans 7:18).)
“Are we to understand that all men, without exception, are thus totally corrupt, hopelessly evil?”
“Yes. Such is the verdict of God upon human nature. ‘That which is born of flesh is flesh.’”
“But is it possible, for example, that all the noble deeds recorded in history, or all the kind, generous, and beneficent actions which we meet with in daily life, are all these done by those who have a totally depraved nature? Surely there must be a difference—degrees in our natural condition; for how is it possible to class such actions with open and flagrant sins?”
It matters not what may be the outward character of the actions of men, whether such as will elicit the applause or draw down the condemnation of their fellows; for as long as they proceed from men who have not been born again, they are nothing but evil in the sight of God, “for a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes” (Luke 6:43-4443For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 44For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. (Luke 6:43‑44)). The Word of God is most explicit on this question. “The carnal mind” (the mind of the flesh) “is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-87Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. 8So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:7‑8)). It is thus, as Luther said, not a question of doing, but of being; not a question of the character of actions, but a question of nature, and this nature God declares to be flesh, and the flesh is nothing but evil in His sight, and consequently “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption” (1 Cor. 15:5050Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. (1 Corinthians 15:50)).
Herein therefore lies the necessity of being born again. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh..... Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (John 3:6-76That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. (John 3:6‑7)). This necessity is universal in its application. It concerns every one born into this world, the dutiful, obedient child as much as the prodigal son; the active, zealous philanthropist as much as the convict in his cell. For the flesh is flesh, and cannot enter the kingdom of God. There must therefore be a new nature and a new life; for if there be not these, whatever a man’s moral repute, he will be forever outside of the kingdom of God.
How then, must a man be born again? This, in substance, was the question of Nicodemus. “HOW can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (John 3:44Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? (John 3:4)). This question rigidly construed means undoubtedly, How is it possible for a man to be born again? But our Lord, in His answer, does not notice it in this form, but points out the way in which a man is born again. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (vs. 5).
(1) Water. Much difficulty has been occasioned by special attempts to wrest the meaning of this symbol. Ritualists of many shades have persistently endeavored to support their false teaching of baptismal regeneration from this passage. But if we confine ourselves to the Scriptures, we shall find that the difficulty will disappear. Now it is very evident that Nicodemus should have understood what our Lord meant; and if he did not, that he was expected to understand. For when he replied, “How can these things be? Jesus answered and said, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (John 3:9-109Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? 10Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? (John 3:9‑10)). And if we turn to one of the prophets (with whose writings Nicodemus, as one of Israel’s teachers, should have been well acquainted), we shall find a distinct foreshadowing of this teaching of our Lord. Speaking of the future restoration of Israel, the prophet says, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye 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 I will give you an 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” (Ezek. 36:25-2725Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. 26A 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 I will give you an heart of flesh. 27And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. (Ezekiel 36:25‑27)). Here we have the same conjunction of the water and the Spirit, and a radical change following upon its application; for nothing less than this can be implied by “a new heart.” Not only so, but the water in this passage is used in the most familiar of all senses to the Israelites, in connection with cleansing.
With this passage then before us, what, we ask, is the import of the water? Turn to Psalm 119, and we get this question: “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to Thy Word. We read also in the New Testament of “the washing of water by the Word” (Eph. 5:2626That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, (Ephesians 5:26)); again, “Now ye are clean through” (or because of) “the Word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:33Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. (John 15:3); read also John 13:5-115After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. 6Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? 7Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. 8Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. 9Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. 10Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. 11For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean. (John 13:5‑11)). The water therefore is a well-known symbol for the Word of God. Hence we find the Word constantly associated in other passages with the new birth. “Of His own will begat He us with the Word of truth” (James 1:1818Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18)). “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away; but the Word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Peter 1:23-2523Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. 24For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: 25But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you. (1 Peter 1:23‑25)). The Apostle Paul makes an allusion to the same thing when he says to the Corinthians, “In Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:1515For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. (1 Corinthians 4:15)). The Word of God, preached in the gospel, is the first means of the new birth which our Lord here sets forth under the type of water.
(2) And [of] the Spirit. “It is the Spirit that quickeneth” (John 6:6363It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. (John 6:63)). “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:66Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. (2 Corinthians 3:6)). The Spirit acting in. and through the Word of God quickens dead souls, and they are born again. The Word cannot do this in and by itself; nor does the Spirit of God act alone, but He wields the Word as the instrument, so that by it He may bring souls out of death into life, producing in them both a new nature and a new life. Many illustrations of this might be collected from the Scriptures. Take the most prominent of all—that afforded by the day of Pentecost. The crucifiers of the Lord Jesus were gathered round about Peter and the other apostles. Peter proclaimed the Word of God to them, and said, “Let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:3636Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:36)). At the beginning of the chapter we read of the descent of the Holy Spirit; and it is said of the apostles that “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Peter was therefore speaking in the power of the Spirit, and that same Spirit clothed the Word of God with mighty power, and the effect was that a multitude were born again, the change wrought upon them being indicated by the fact that “they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles; Men [and] brethren, what shall we do?” (vs. 37). So it is now when men are born again. It is always through the Word, by the Spirit of God. There is no other way.
(3) We may, however, with our Lord’s own teaching before us, define more exactly. In the ninth verse Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” Our Lord first of all rebukes, though with all tenderness, both his ignorance (John 3:1010Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? (John 3:10)) and his unbelief (John 3:11-1211Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. 12If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? (John 3:11‑12)), and then proceeds to vouchsafe a full reply to the question he had put. It falls into three parts, and together they reveal the whole mystery which was perplexing the mind of Nicodemus.
(a) The Person of the Son of Man. This is the foundation of all in that Word of God—the gospel—by which, through the Spirit of God, souls are born again. “No man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, [even] the Son of Man which is in heaven” (vs. 13). We have here the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. He was in heaven, but He “came down from heaven,” was born of a woman, and became the Son of Man on earth, who yet while He spake to Nicodemus could say of Himself, “Who is in heaven.” It is the God-man—true man, and true God, who is here revealed in the Person of the Son of Man. And it is this wondrous dignity of the Person of Christ which gives such infinite efficacy to His work; and hence the necessity of guarding with such jealous care the true doctrine of the Person of our Lord, of repudiating, refusing all teachings which seek to degrade either His human or divine natures. For whatever militates against the Person of Christ, militates against the cross, against His atoning sacrifice. The Person of Christ lies at the foundation of, gives its blessed character to, the gospel of the grace of God. “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of’ darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to [give] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:66For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)).
(b) The Work of Christ. In this we have the second of the divine “musts.” “Ye,” said our Lord, “must be born again”; and now He says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even SO MUST THE SON OF MAN BE LIFTED UP: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:14-1514And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:14‑15)). But why— must the Son of Man be lifted up—crucified? It was a moral necessity; for without the shedding of blood there is no remission (Heb. 9:2222And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. (Hebrews 9:22)); because, as taking the sinner’s place, He must be “wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:55But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)); because, inasmuch as we were under the judgment and condemnation of sin, He must die in our stead; for He “bare our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:2424Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. (1 Peter 2:24)). It was, in a word, as the sinner’s substitute that He must be “lifted up.” The object of His being lifted up is, “that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (vs. 15). He thus becomes the source of life, yea, in resurrection He is the life of every believer (Col. 3:3-43For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. 4When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:3‑4)); for it is in being born again that this life is communicated through the power of the quickening Spirit. But He is the life of those who believe, because of the character of His death, because He was the sinner’s substitute on the cross; for it was in death that He expiated, made atonement for our sins, and thereby removed every barrier out of the way between a God of grace and lost sinners. Hence He could say, “He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:2525Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: (John 11:25)). It is thus life out of death, life in a crucified and risen Savior, because “through death He destroyed him that had the power of death” (Heb. 2:1414Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; (Hebrews 2:14)); for if the corn of wheat had not fallen into the ground and died, it must have remained alone; but having died, it brings forth much fruit (John 12:2424Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. (John 12:24)).
(c) Faith, is the connecting-link between the sinner and Christ, just as the touch was the connecting-link, between those who were healed and Christ in the days of His sojourn here. Hence it is, “Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:15-1615That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:15‑16).)
This will be at once understood by looking at the comparison which the Lord Himself has made. He compares His own “lifting up” to the serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness (Num. 21:6-96And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. 7Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. 9And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. (Numbers 21:6‑9)). They were serpents that bit the people of Israel and caused their death; it was a serpent to which they were directed to look and live. It is Sin that has caused our death. “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin (Rom. 5:1212Wherefore, 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: (Romans 5:12)). It is to One who was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:2121For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)) on whom we are commanded to believe in order to live.
This, then, is the present point of importance—the comparison between the looking and believing. We read—”And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when, he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num. 21:99And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. (Numbers 21:9)). Notice, first of all, that it was the bitten Israelite who looked; and secondly, that lie looked in the obedience of faith—believing the Word of God. Just so is it with Christ lifted up. Whosoever takes the place of a sinner, acknowledging that he is “bitten,” hopelessly lost by sin, if he look away in the obedience of faith to Christ, will not perish, but have eternal life. We thus, as in the case of the passover night, see that there is absolutely nothing whatever for the sinner to do; he has simply to believe the record that God has given of His Son, that God has dealt with sin in the death of Christ, and that therefore He proclaims life to everyone that believeth. So soon then as the sinner has faith in the Lord Jesus Christ he is born again, he has everlasting life (Gal. 3:2626For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26)).
This is the method of the new birth. The gospel is preached—the Word of God—which tells to a guilty race that “God so loved the world, that He gave (delivered up to death) His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:1616For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)). The Spirit clothes this message of God’s grace with power. It enters the hearts of sinners; they believe, they are quickened, they are born again, they have everlasting life (John 3:1616For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)).
Have you been born again? You surely, with this testing word before you, can have no difficulty in answering the question. If you are, your whole, soul will go out in thanksgivings to God for the gift of His only begotten Son. If you are not, let me again warn you that it matters not what you are besides—you may be a good son or daughter, a loving husband or wife, a kind father or mother, and yet, not being born again, you are outside the, kingdom of God, hopelessly undone and lost. Will you be satisfied in this condition? What had been the consequence if the bitten Israelites had refused to look at the serpent of brass, saying, “We may perhaps recover”? They would have died in their anguish and their sin. And so if you refuse to look to Christ, to believe in Him, there is no other remedy; and, instead of having eternal life, you will forever perish. But if you bow to this divine necessity of being born again, acknowledging your true condition before God, and look to Christ in simple faith, you will immediately pass from death unto life.
“Let earth and heaven agree,
Let men with angels join,
To sing salvation free,
The work of grace divine;
To praise the great atoning Lamb,
And all His wondrous love proclaim.

“Jesus! life-giving sound,
The joy of earth and heaven;
No other help is found,
No other name is given,
For which the sons of men can boast,
But His who seeks and saves the lost.

“His name the sinner hears,
And is from guilt set free;
‘Tis music in his ears,
‘Tis life and victory:
His heart o’erflows with sacred joy,
And songs of praise his lips employ.”