And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.(Ezekiel 36:27)
Repentance and faith are our work. But we will not repent and believe unless God does His work to overcome our hard and rebellious hearts. This divine work is called regeneration. Our work is called conversion.
Conversion does indeed include an act of will by which we renounce sin and submit ourselves to the authority of Christ and put our hope and trust in Him. We ate responsible to do this and will be condemned if we don’t. But just as clearly, the Bible teaches that, owing to our hard heart and willful blindness and spiritual insensitivity, we cannot do this,
We must first experience the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures promised long ago that God would devote Himself to this work in order to create for Himself a faithful people. “ The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”(Deuteronomy 30:6) “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.”(Jeremiah 24:7) “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them, I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…….And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:19,20)
These great promises from the Old Testament describe a work of God that changes a heart of stone into a heart of flesh and causes people to “know” and “love” and “obey” God. Without this spiritual heart transplant, people will not know and love and obey God. This prior work of God is what we mean by regeneration.
Nicodemus was a Jewish leader and actually was a member of the Sanhedrin, the spiritual ruling body of Israel. This body taught, interpreted and enforced the law of Moses and the Prophets. Of all of Israel, this body should have been the most connected to God. Yet, we find Nicodemus meeting with Jesus at night. In the conversation between the two, great questions and great answers are given.
“Now there was a certain man among the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler (member of the Sanhedrin) among the Jews, who came to Jesus at night and said to Him, “Rabbi (Teacher), we know [without any doubt] that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs [these wonders, these attesting miracles] that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “I assure you and most solemnly say to you, unless a person is born again [reborn from above—spiritually transformed, renewed, sanctified], he cannot [ever] see and experience the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “I assure you and most solemnly say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot [ever] enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh [the physical is merely physical], and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be surprised that I have told you, ‘You must be born again [reborn from above—spiritually transformed, renewed, sanctified].’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it is coming from and where it is going; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be possible?” Jesus replied, “You are the [great and well-known] teacher of Israel, and yet you do not know nor understand these things [from Scripture]? 11 I assure you and most solemnly say to you, we speak only of what we [absolutely] know and testify about what we have [actually] seen [as eyewitnesses]; and [still] you [reject our evidence and] do not accept our testimony. 12 If I told you earthly things [that is, things that happen right here on earth] and you do not believe, how will you believe and trust Me if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up into heaven, but there is One who came down from heaven, the Son of Man [Himself—whose home is in heaven]. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the [bronze] serpent in the desert [on a pole], so must the Son of Man be lifted up [on the cross], 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life [after physical death, and will actually live forever].”
Nicodemus opens the conversation by saying to Jesus, “No one could do these miracles unless he was sent by God.” From the response of Jesus, it indicates that Nicodemus was more interested in how Jesus was working miracles and whether He was the longed for Messiah. Jesus, as usual turns the conversation and says to Nicodemus, “Unless a person is born again, he cannot ever see or experience the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus, like many was trusting in ritual and rule- keeping to be sufficient to qualify for a place in the kingdom of God. To some degree he was relying on the fact that he was a born Jew. And then Jesus introduces this concept of being born again. I love the question Nicodemus asks for it is one I would have asked, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born can he?” Nicodemus like many is again attempting to make it natural or human effort. Doing the right things, saying the right prayers, going to the temple, offering the right sacrifices, surely this is sufficient. For us being a “good” person, going to church, serving the church and the community, living right and keeping the right rituals, isn’t this enough? Jesus states that being “born again” is the only way to get into heaven. Jesus declares we must be born not through the flesh but by the Spirit and He further says that this process is like the wind. We can see the effects of the wind though we may not know where it comes from and we have no control over where and upon whom it blows. What Jesus is saying is that salvation is initiated by God and we who are acted upon by the Holy Spirit can only respond. We cannot begin or control the work of the new birth. This is why the Bible says that while the Spirit of God is moving upon us we should respond. This new birth brings a new heart, a new direction, a change in thinking a re-evaluating of values. We are incapable in making this happen with mere human will. This is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. After Jesus makes known to Nicodemus the only way to salvation, the question then becomes,”How can these things be?” That’s the rub. How can sinful humans, weak and flawed and in bondage to sin and bad conduct ever change and become better? How can our world have the much needed transformation? The simple plan of God and yet a difficult one to understand is given to this seeker. It is that God will send His Son to earth. He will be hung on the tree in the same way Moses hung the brazen serpent and He will die for the sins of all humanity. Those who believe that Christ is the Son of God and who fully and solely trust Him for salvation will be given eternal life. These are they who put no confidence in their good deeds or good works. They know that unless God transforms their hearts by the Spirit, they will be at best religious but not righteous. It is not “joining the church” or being baptized that saves us. These are the results of being born again and not the other way around. This is what God is saying through Ezekiel and Jeremiah when He says, “I will take the heart of stone out of you and give you a heart of flesh.” God alone can move our hearts from their hardness to become pliable in the hands of the Holy Spirit and this alone is the need of our world. Until God changes our hearts, we will continue to give them to sin and sinful acts. Righteousness can never be legislated or forced. It can only occur in born again hearts. This is why the mission of the church is vital for only as people come to know Christ and receive a heart change through the new birth will they live and act differently. There are those who believe that if we elected a godly president or if we once again “put prayer back into school” or if we added the Bible as a required course or if we passed laws requiring all to comply with Christian values, we could somehow be a righteous nation and people. One only has to read the Old Testament to see the folly of these “fixes”. The Israelites were given the laws, those laws were taught and enforced and yet again and again they forsook God and engaged in heathen practices. For that reason, God speaking through Ezekiel and Jeremiah says, “I will give them a new heart.”
What we need is a return to this simple little thing, being born again. Oh beloved, if we somehow could prevail on heaven to send the Holy Spirit upon us and as we tell the story of the Gospel, He would move upon hearts with conviction and those hearts would experience the born again transformation, what a glorious change in our world we would see. In these days of turmoil and all manner of ugly sinful conduct and attitudes, how we need this new birth experience. It begins with you and I. I must ask what Jesus asked, “Have you been born again? Have you experienced the new birth? Has your heart been transformed by the Holy Spirit?
Several years ago, I was preaching a revival and in that church was a man who had served for over 40 years in a variety of church positions. At the time I met him he had been serving as a deacon for a number of years. Remember that he went with the pastor and I during that first day to visit and invite people to the revival and his sincerity was evident that he wished them to come to know Christ. On that evening, as I gave the invitation for salvation, this man came forward. I was literally blown away as he made his request. I had assumed that he was coming forward to sake me to pray with him for some else’s salvation. This 70+ year old who had served faithfully in the church began to weep. I will never forget his words. “I have been coming to church for over 40 years and I have faithfully served, but tonight for the first time, I realize that I have never been born again.” It was amazing to me to watch the countenance of this dear brother being transformed as the Holy Spirit entered his heart and that heart responded with great joy. After the service, I sought him out. I wanted to know how this could occur. This is his story. As a young man he had fallen in love with a Christian girl so when she asked him to go to church he went. When they got married, since going to church was important to her he continued to go. Over time he was asked to serve in some capacity and he would agree and finally he was asked to serve as a deacon. All this time, he said he knew something was missing but did not know what. In that service, the Holy Spirit made known to him that though he was serving God, he did not know Him for he had never experienced salvation. I tell you this story to say that no matter how we serve or live, unless we are truly born again, we will never fully comprehend spiritual things and we will never have eternal life. May the Holy Spirit bring this revelation to the church and ultimately the world.
Dr. John Thompson