Summary: If you’re born once, you die twice; if you’re born twice, you die once!
“Born-Again”, John 3:1-8, Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
We’ve been examining conversions in the book of Acts, and now we’re going to look closer at what it means to be converted. When Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States, he described himself as a “born-again” Christian. For many Americans this was an unfamiliar term. By the time of the next election primaries, nearly all the candidates were claiming to be “born-again.” Political satirist Mark Russell suggested, “This could give Christianity a bad name.”
“Born-again” has become part of modern language, our vernacular. This doesn’t mean people necessarily understand it. This term has unfortunately been turned into a generalized way of indicating any awakened awareness. Sometimes it means a return to a previously-held position; e.g. on CNN a politician was described as a “born-again Socialist”. While this may suggest a personal shift in economic ideology, it has nothing to do with the Cross of Christ. Even worse was a love song from the 80’s that declared, “With you I’m born-again”.
Even the Church seems confused by this perfectly legitimate, Biblical term. Some Christians think “born-again” is an exclusively Charismatic or Fundamentalist concept. In fact, it is a teaching straight from the pages of Scripture, and is an essential truth of our faith, critical to our eternal condition and destiny.
In John’s Gospel we encounter a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus going to Jesus for spiritual advice. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, which may be why he came at night, unobserved by those critical of Jesus. Nicodemus was a man committed to studying and obeying the Law. He respectfully addresses Jesus as a teacher from God, though Jesus was more than just another teacher. Nicodemus was impressed with Jesus, and more open-minded than most of the religious leaders of the day. He acknowledged the Source of Jesus’ power, even though he was aware that Jesus had not received any formal religious training.
Jesus gets right to the point. In one sentence He sweeps away all that Nicodemus stood for: “I assure you, unless you are born again you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (3:3). The word “unless” signals a necessary condition. We have to be re-made from Above. Nicodemus had been diligently taught that salvation came by human effort. It doesn’t matter how good a person may be. Jesus declared that salvation is a work of divine grace.
Although Nicodemus was a teacher of the Law, he too found this concept of rebirth somewhat perplexing. Either he is being sarcastic in his reply, or he is being wistful--how wonderful it would be to go back and have a fresh new start. In either case, Nicodemus thought Jesus was suggesting the impossible--a physical rebirth--and Jesus assures him that being born again is a spiritual event. Nicodemus took Jesus literally, when it’s clear that Jesus was speaking figuratively. Being born again appears absurd unless we grasp the spiritual intent of our Lord’s words. Nicodemus should have been familiar with Ezekiel, to whom God said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). It’s exactly the same concept and the same promise--regeneration. We can’t find peace with God without the new birth.
Being born-again means an inner reawakening. Another acceptable translation is “born from above.” In order to make sense of this concept, we first need to recognize that we are born spiritually dead. We’re told by Paul in Ephesians 2, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins” (vs 1). The Bible never flatters us; we’re told, “There is none righteous, not one” (Rom 3:12). The Holy Spirit performs heart surgery, giving new life to individuals. This means that even people who aren’t inclined toward God are drawn to Him. We become regenerate, we come alive, when this happens.
Assisting in the process is the written word of God. Spiritual truth helps create new life. Peter tells believers: “You have been born again; your new life did not come from your earthly parents because the life they gave you will end in death. But this new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal living word of God” (1:23 NLT). This is new life created by God, with the help of the Bible, the word of life. The Spirit wrote the Scriptures and writes its truth in our hearts.
It’s been said, “Life begins at 40”. In other words, life begins to make sense and you’re mature and healthy enough to do something about it. But in the spiritual sense, life truly begins when we turn to Christ and receive His forgiveness. This act of faith produces a transformation (faith itself is a gift from God). We begin to walk in a new direction, toward a new destination. God gives us new purpose and priorities; the Spirit enlightens us so that we have a clear understanding of the Bible; and we gain the desire and ability to live in victory, according to God’s revealed will. The power of love is planted in our souls, enabling us to reflect and express God’s love. Some people drive themselves to exhaustion trying to be holy. The miracle of the new birth is seen in how God produces holiness in unholy people, making them members of His family.