The phrase “born-again Christian” is not an uncommon one in our day, and is often used to describe a person who is devout and committed to the tenets of the Christian faith, is very often on the conservative end of the religious (or political) spectrum, and claims to have had a spiritual conversion experience. But to discover what being born again really entails, and why it is necessary and beneficial, we must go to the Bible, the source of the term and the concept.
We ought to discuss first the necessity of “new birth”, a term that may be used interchangeably with the phrase “born again”. Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:1-21 of the need of the people of Israel to be born again as a prerequisite for entering, or even to “see” (perceive by faith), the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was evidently about to inquire further about the Lord’s miracles and mission from God. Why then did Jesus change the subject in order to impress upon him an Old Testament teaching¹ that was seemingly unrelated? He did that because the Jews in general wanted a Messiah, a Teacher from God, on their own terms; that is, according to their nature as being “in the flesh”,² and Jesus was being faithful in speaking the truth of God concerning that fleshly nature.
The truth is that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh”. At first glance, that might seem to be a simplistic statement, but it is full of meaning as to how fallen human nature has been passed down to us. Now God has never found anything good in the flesh, not even an inclination toward Him. “There is none that seeketh after God” (Romans 3:11), and “in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). A baby does not begin life with a “clean slate”, but with a fallen nature, and time and maturity have manifested literally billions of times over that our fleshly nature is at enmity with God, no matter how many times and ways He has or will yet test it. God tested our first parents (yet unfallen) in the garden of Eden, He tested men for a few thousand years under the influence of their consciences until the flood, and then under human government and under God’s perfect Law. In every case, and even given the most favorable circumstances, He got the same results, because the flesh can never improve, and certainly cannot attain to the level of “spirit”, for only “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Here is a parallel to consider: When the Lord Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the Devil for forty days, the tempter could find nothing in Jesus³ that answered to his temptations, for the Lord’s holy human nature was “of the Spirit”, and He came forth as pure gold from that temptation. He had a nature that “cannot sin” (I John 3:9). Conversely, the natural man is born with a fleshly nature that will not obey nor seek God, no matter how much he is courted, no matter how much benefit or blessing is promised him if only he would obey. A work of the Spirit of God must take place in a person’s soul before there will be any response to the drawing of God (Romans 8:5-8).
Before you rise up in disbelief at the gloomy picture that the Scriptures paint of the depravity of our common fleshly nature, think about the tendencies of your own heart, and let’s look at ourselves (at least our former selves) in light of the testimony of the Lord Jesus to Nicodemus: “Men loved (past tense) darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil”. This is universal, just as Jeremiah’s description of the human heart is universal in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” We surely cannot “know” or tell the depths to which our own hearts could or would go if left to themselves apart from new life created in our souls when the Spirit of God initiates our new birth.
Next time in this column I hope to address the more hopeful and positive aspect of this subject: God’s work in human souls for their eternal blessing and for His ultimate glory.
¹ Ezekiel 36:25-27 ² Romans 7:5 ³ Matthew 4:1-11; John 14:30.