- First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi - https://www.fpcjackson.org -

The Agent of the New Birth

Please take your Bibles in hand and turn with me once again to John’s gospel, chapter 3. John 3, verses 1 through 15. We continue our meditations on the subject of the new birth. So far, over the last few weeks we have considered the nature of the new birth – what it isn’t and what it is – then last time we considered the necessity of the new birth. Do you remember we said that the new birth is a universal principle? Everyone, all people must be born again. We said it’s an absolute rule; there are no exceptions, no negotiations, no middle way. You must be born again. We’re either dead in our sin or made alive together with Christ. And then we said the new birth is an urgent need. The hard fact is that without the new birth we are in the darkness of spiritual night. We are born of the flesh, we are dead in sin, we are under the wrath and curse of God, we are totally unable to alter our condition. We desperately need God to intervene and to bring life and light to our dead hearts. We must be born again. The nature and necessity of the new birth.

Today I want to think about a third dimension of this topic – the agent of the new birth. That is to say, to whom must we turn for the new birth? Who does the work in our hearts? And the clear answer of our Lord Jesus in the text this morning is that the agent of the new birth is the Holy Spirit Himself, the third person of the blessed Trinity. And as we reflect on that together, I want to highlight three things from John 3 about the character of the Spirit’s work in giving new birth to His people. First, we will see that it is a sovereign work. Secondly, a mighty work. And thirdly, a mysterious work. So that’s our outline as we consider the teaching of our Lord in John chapter 3. The Spirit is the agent of new birth whose work is sovereign, mighty and mysterious. Before we read the passage, as always, let’s pause once again and pray and ask for the Spirit to come and work in our hearts and our minds to illuminate the text and give us His grace. Let us pray.

O Lord, we pray now for the same Spirit who inspired the words before us, who breathed them out, to come and give light to us, to open our ears, to melt our hearts, and indeed to give new life, to give grace to cling to Jesus. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

John chapter 3 at verse 1. This is the Word of God:

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”


I wonder if you know the story of the 11th century Danish King Cnut, the great King Cnut, who ruled an empire covering Norway, Denmark and parts of England? One day, famously, Cnut had his royal throne placed on the shoreline and he gathered his courtiers around him and then he commanded the tide not to rise and wet the feet of the royal personage. The waves, of course, couldn’t care less about the royal feet and they were soon lapping around the legs of his throne and the lesson was learned. What’s interesting about the way that story has been repeated and come to be used, especially when you come across it in contemporary journalism and in political discourse, is it’s seen as an illustration of the king’s monumental ego. Right? He thought he could stop the tide with a command so mighty a king was he. But of course there are few things so inevitable as the tide, and not even mighty Cnut can hold it back. That’s actually not what the story was originally intended to illustrate. Cnut had not come to believe his own publicity or the flattery of others. He had no expectation of the tide turning back at his command. Instead, when the water rose around his feet, Cnut is said to have then turned to all his courtiers and given glory to God who alone holds the power to rule the seas. It was a rebuke to the pride of others and a reminder to all that only God is sovereign.

The point of the story is to remind us we are not omnicompetent. We ourselves do not have the power. And that realization takes on particular urgency when it comes to the subject of the new birth. It’s a tragically, far too common mistake to think that the cause of the new birth, of new spiritual life, lies within ourselves. Too often, the operating assumption is that, “I am entirely capable of responding to the Gospel at any time and it’s my choice to believe in Jesus that is the first step in my own salvation and so it’s my choice that is the real cause of being born again.” But the tide of spiritual death will continue to lap at our feet no matter how often we command it to retreat. We have no power to bring new life to our dead hearts any more than did King Cnut to turn back the tide.

In 1 John – so not the gospel of John that we’ve just read but John’s first letter – chapter 5 verse 1, the apostle John makes the true order of things very clear when he says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Now listen to John Stott’s comments on that verse. “The combination of the present tense” – whoever believes, right now in the present – “The combination of the present tense and the perfect” – “has been born again” – alright, so are you tracking with John Stott so far? “The combination of the present tense and the perfect is important,” he says. “It shows clearly that believing is the consequence not the cause of the new birth. Our present continuing activity of believing is the result, and therefore the evidence, of our past experience of new birth by which we became and remain children of God.” Whoever believes right now that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. The “being born of God” is the grounds and the cause of your present belief. You believe because you have been born again; you are not born again because you believe. We must not, we must not overestimate our own ability. We are dead in sin by nature. We love the darkness rather than the light. We are born of the flesh, Jesus says, and we cannot please God, Paul says. We do not become born again because we believed. How can we believe when we are spiritually dead? No, God makes us alive. And in the instant that He makes us alive we believe!

And if you look with me at John chapter 3, in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, I want you to see this very point in the teaching of our Lord. Look at verse 5. John 3 verse 5. Do you see it? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Now what does Jesus mean when He says, “We must be born of water and the Spirit”? “Born of water and the Spirit” – it’s an odd, intriguing phrase. Is He talking about the waters of baptism, for example? Some people suggest that He is. The children we baptized a few moments ago, are they now born again simply by virtue of receiving the application of water in the name of the Trinity? Well, there is some comfort, I think, in noticing that Nicodemus is confused by our Lord’s teaching here just as much as we have been or at least some in the church have been. It’s very clear, as I hope to show you, that baptism isn’t what’s in mind here but something else altogether.

And if you look at Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ confusion in verse 9, I think we actually get a clue to our Lord’s true meaning. Look at verse 9. Do you see where Jesus asks Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” So whatever it means to be “born of water and the Spirit” is something Jesus can legitimately and reasonably expect Nicodemus to grasp as the teacher of Israel, intimately acquainted as he is with the Old Testament Scriptures. This is a principle, in other words, that is already taught in the Old Testament.

And if you will turn – keep your finger in John 3 and turn back to Ezekiel 36 – Ezekiel 36, beginning at verse 25, I want to show you the particular place that I think Jesus had in mind when He spoke about being “born of water and the Spirit.” Ezekiel 36, beginning in verse 25. God promises, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Water and the Spirit. Do you see that there in Ezekiel 36? There it is again. Water and the Spirit. The new birth, in other words, being born of water means cleansing. That’s the point. When the new birth comes and you are born of water and the Spirit, you are washed clean from all the uncleanness of our idols, of our sin. “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness.” When God makes you a new creature by His grace He makes you clean. Praise the Lord – clean! Clean from the stain of your sin, a clean conscience in His sight! Being born of water.

And only the Holy Spirit can accomplish it – water and the Spirit. “I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” To whom belongs the transformation of the human heart? Whose work is it? Not mine, as I baptize with water on a Sunday morning. If it were that easy to make Christians, I’d get the firehose out and baptize indiscriminately! Right? Not mine by force of preaching and rhetoric. I cannot simply by my words cause the new birth. Not even yours – it’s not your work, as you hear the preaching of the Word, as if by force of your own will you could cause yourself to pass from death into spiritual life.

Whose work is the new birth? According to Jesus, according to Ezekiel, it is the work of God the Holy Spirit alone who will wash you clean and take away your stony heart and dwell within you and make you a child of God by grace. And so Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3 verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” You see his point. The only thing that the unregenerate flesh can produce is flesh. You can pray a prayer, you see. You can raise your hand. You can go forward at an altar call. You can sign a card and make a pledge. You can turn over a new leaf. You can make any number of New Year’s resolutions to live today, now at last as a Christian. None of that is going to do it. None of it! The flesh only produces flesh. It is the Spirit alone who produces spiritual life.

So let me urge you to beware the temptation to assume because you made a decision for Jesus twenty years ago at camp that that means today your eternal destiny must be secure. You don’t go to church, you don’t’ pray, you don’t read the Scriptures, you never think of Jesus, you live a life of moral indifference, you’ve got no desire really to speak of the things of God, but whenever someone challenges you, you’re quick to point to the fact that when you were twelve you joined the church and you made a commitment and so you’re all set. No, no, no. No, no, no. It’s not some external rite – not baptism, not some decision you made or some experience long ago in your past that makes you a child of God. It is the work of the Holy Spirit alone. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” You must be born again! You must be born of the Spirit!

The new birth, as John chapter 1 verse 13 puts it, is not of blood. That is to say, it’s not a matter of biological inheritance. You were born, perhaps, into a Christian family. Praise the Lord for that immense privilege. Your parents are believers and they raised you and taught you the truths of the Gospel. So that makes you automatically a Christian, right? Wrong. The new birth is not of blood; not a matter of biological inheritance. And then John says, “Nor is it of the will of the flesh.” Clearly not a consequence of sinful passion or wicked motives. Nor is it, John says, “of the will of man.” The new birth isn’t the result of our mere decisions or any act of our own will alone. No, John says, those who believe in Jesus are “born of God.” Have you, have you been born of God? Has the Holy Spirit given new life to your dead heart? Has He? It’s the most weighty question you will ever have to answer. “Am I a child of God by the work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ who gives me new life?”

But then since, according to Jesus, the new birth is the work of the Spirit alone, I want to think with you about its distinguishing marks. How does it happen? What does it look like, when the Spirit works, what are the characteristics of His ministry in giving new birth? Jesus says, remember, it is a sovereign, mighty and mysterious work. Those three.

The Holy Spirit’s Ministry in the New Birth: A Sovereign Work

First of all, it is a sovereign work. Look at verses 7 and 8. “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes.’” You probably know the word for “wind” and the word for “Spirit,” both in Hebrew and the Greek of the original manuscripts of the Bible, are the same. So Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit under the metaphor of the wind. And the wind blows where it wishes. Those who are born of the Spirit are born of the one who is free and unconstrained and sovereign. The wind blows where it wishes.

Think about those hurricane tracking reports you see, you know, on the Weather Channel in hurricane season. And they’ve got different models, don’t they. And you see the cone, arcing like that, and one model has it tracking up the eastern seaboard; another model has it turning back out into the ocean and dwindling away. Another has it entering the gulf, and then we’re wondering, “Where’s it going to make landfall? Will it pick up speed or die down?” And they are constantly having to adjust their models and there’s multiple models all at the same time because the truth is, the wind blows where it wills and we’re not in control of it, at all. The new birth is the unconstrained sovereign work of the Spirit of God alone. And so, Romans 9:15, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” And Paul declares that, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even while we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive.” It is the work of God the Holy Spirit, freely, sovereignly.

The Holy Spirit’s Ministry in the New Birth: A Mighty Work

Then secondly, Jesus says the Spirit’s ministry in the new birth is not only sovereign, unconstrained free work, but it’s a mighty work. The wind blows, he says, and you hear its sound. You can see it’s effects. You can’t predict it, you can’t control it, but when the wind blows you know it. Sometimes it’s power is overwhelming. I saw a photograph – maybe you’ve seen it – that illustrates the power of the wind as part of a commemoration of the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And it was a picture of a pickup truck suspended by its rear axle from a tree, hanging vertical because of the power of the storm. Another picture of a large shipping container carrying automobiles, maybe 100, 150 yards dumped inland from the shoreline. Jesus is saying the wind has power, it has power. You hear its sound, you see its effects; nothing can stop it. No heart can withstand the wind of the Spirit when He begins to blow.

And actually, there is in that a great deal of hope. Isn’t there? You have children who have rejected the Gospel, loved ones who still do not know the Lord. Here is comfort for your fearful heart for them. The wind blows where it wills and you hear its sound. It is mighty and sovereign and free, so mighty and sovereign and free in fact that there are no hearts so hard, none, that the Spirit of Christ cannot break in and make them new. So never stop praying and pleading and witnessing, crying to the Lord Jesus to send His mighty Spirit to work the new birth in the hearts of your loved ones and your friends. Listen, they are never too far gone; they are never beyond His reach. They are never impervious to His mighty work. When you know you have a sovereign, mighty, redeemer God like this you can begin effectively to fight the paralyzing discouragement that you may have experienced when your every attempt to share the Gospel seems to fall on deaf ears; it just sort of bounces off. It’s only the conviction that the Spirit blows where He wills and when He does He sweeps all before Him that enables me every Sunday to climb the pulpit steps. If your salvation rested upon my powers of persuasion, we would all be in big trouble! And I would be crushed beneath an intolerable burden of responsibility. Praise God the salvation of sinners belongs to the Lord. So pray on and preach on and do not, do not give up on the people in your lives who do not yet believe. God can save them yet.

The Holy Spirit’s Ministry in the New Birth: A Mysterious Work

The Spirit’s ministry in the new birth is a sovereign work, it’s a mighty work, and thirdly and finally, the Spirit’s ministry is a mysterious work. “The wind blows where it wishes, you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” I love the story in John 9 of the man born blind. Do you remember that story? Jesus made mud, put it on his eyes and told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. And the man came back healed. And when people begin to question him – there’s two or three rounds of questioning – you remember what happens or what he said when he reported. When he answers, he reports what Jesus said to him, what Jesus did, and now he can see how it was accomplished, however, he confesses he doesn’t know. Over and over he says that in the story – “I do not know.” Later when the Pharisees get ahold of him they say, “We know this man is a sinner.” And the formerly blind man replies, “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

And that’s the point we’re making here precisely. The supernatural work of God in our lives, it’s mysterious. I don’t get it. I can’t fathom it. The mechanisms of it, the details, the process – it’s mysterious. But the effects are unmistakable. I was blind, now I see. I was dead, now I live. I was lost, now I am found. Now to be sure, the Scriptures do teach us about the new birth as we are discovering in these weeks together, but they do not prescribe a single template for how it occurs. There are no steps. There is no formula. It doesn’t conform to the same pattern in every heart. The Spirit of Christ works as He wills, mysteriously in His own time, in His own manner.

Look, it’s a very common and really tragic mistake that happens in churches when we begin to compare our Christian experience to other peoples. This is what we do. See if it sounds familiar. We say to ourselves, “Well, because he underwent a dramatic conversion, you know, from a wife, from a life” – from a wife! – “from a life, a life of profligacy and vice and I can’t point to any moment; I don’t remember ever having a dramatic change. His must be authentic, and maybe mine isn’t real at all.” Sound familiar? I encounter Christians who struggle with that problem of comparison all the time, especially hard for those who have been raised in Christian homes; children of the promise of the covenant they’ve been brought up to know and trust in Christ because often you can’t point to a single pivotal crisis moment. It’s not so clear cut for you. That’s why it’s so helpful to remember Jesus’ teaching here. “The wind blows where it wishes, you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

The point, you see, is not whether your Christian experience is dramatic and emotionally impactful enough to qualify as authentic. No, the point is whether today, today, right now you are trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ to save you, and depending on the supply of His grace seeking to live for His glory. That’s it. Perhaps you can’t point to the moment when you know, “That was the moment I was born again.” Maybe the instant of your conversion is actually unknown to you. That really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. What matters is present convertedness. Not when you were born again, but whither you were born again.

And one last thing and then we’re done about the mystery of the new birth that we’ve got to remember. This is one reason, the mystery, this is one reason why Christians, real Christians are such mysteries to the world. This is how it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit, Jesus says. You are a mystery to them. People who are born again, they are a mystery to their unconverted friends and their family just as much as the secret work of the Holy Spirit is a mystery to everyone. Haven’t you had that experience, brothers and sisters? They look at you with total incomprehension. They just don’t understand why you make the choices that you do, why you deny yourself when it’s hurting nobody and it’s so much fun. They don’t understand why you don’t want to spend your life in the same way that they do but spend yourself, your time, your labor, your resources for the glory of the name of Jesus Christ. They just don’t get it. You’re a mystery to them. Why? “Because the wind blows where it wishes. You hear it’s sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” You have the sense you belong in a different world. You breathe different air. You look at the world through different eyes. You have been born from above, you see. By the Spirit of Christ you are a child of God, born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but born of God.

Actually there is great comfort in knowing that’s the reason, that’s the reason you feel like a stranger and an alien in the world – because you are. You are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, a child of God by grace, an heir of God and a fellow heir together with Christ. You are a mystery to a world that is set in opposition to the sovereign Lord Jesus Christ. And actually, when I bump into the hostility and the discomfort and the awkwardness of the world because of my commitment to Jesus, remembering that reality is a great comfort and help to me. “What did you expect?” That’s what Jesus is saying. “If you follow Me, you will become a mystery to others.”

So the Spirit’s ministry in the new birth. Do you see it? It is a sovereign work. Only He can make you new. Do not trust yourself but cling to Jesus Christ and cry to Him for yourself and for those whom you love who do not know Him that He might give you the Spirit’s mighty work. It is mighty, after all. No heart so hard that He cannot break in and soften it and save it. So don’t give up. Don’t stop witnessing. Don’t stop praying. God is able to save. And it’s a mysterious work. So don’t compare your experience to someone else’s. It doesn’t matter whether or how you came to know Jesus at some point in the past. The question is today, today right now – Have you been born again? Are you trusting in Christ? Are you? That’s the key question. And that’s why, when you do trust Him, you become a misfit. You become a square peg in a round hole. You don’t belong here. You belong in another world by the mighty grace of God.

Let’s pray together.

O Lord, how we pray for the wind of Your Spirit to blow in sovereign, free, mighty and mysterious ways through this congregation, through our community, through our families. There are so many we know and love – colleagues, friends, neighbors, brothers, sisters, children, parents – that don’t know You. They think they do, perhaps, and yet they don’t. O God, save them. Save them. May the hurricane wind of Your Spirit blow in new life like only You can. Hear us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.