The Marks of the New Birth II

Sermon by David Strain on February 7

John 3:1-15

Well as Cory has pointed out, next week, Ed will be preaching as we begin to prepare for the Mission Conference that begins in Sunday School next week and then runs for the next few weeks after that. And I would invite you, please, to be praying for what I trust will be a really encouraging and challenging season for us as a congregation.

That does mean, however, that we come this morning to the last in our short series of sermons on the subject of the new birth. You will remember that we have looked so far at the nature and the necessity of the new birth. What it is and why we need it. And we’ve looked at the agent who accomplishes the new birth, and the instrument. By what means? By the Word of God the new birth is accomplished. And then last time, we began to consider the marks or the evidences, the fruit of the new birth, when it happens in your life. When you are born again, what does that produce in you? And we said there are five marks that we wanted to focus on. The new birth produces a new person, a new perception, a new power, a new principle, and a new purity. And we looked at the first two of those last week. And so as we turn back again to John’s gospel chapter 3, we are going to be thinking about the remaining three marks – the new power, principle, and purity – that the new birth brings.

So do take your own Bibles in hand and turn with me to the gospel according to John, chapter 3. Once you have it open, before we read it together let’s pause and pray and ask the Lord to help us. Let’s pray together.

O Lord, we recall how with a word You spoke and all things came to be. And how in the midst of the storm, our Savior spoke, “Peace, be still,” and the waves ceased and the wind stopped blowing. How with a word our Savior raised Lazarus from the tomb – “Lazarus, come forth” – and he was raised from death to life. As Your Word is now spread before us, we pray that You would speak it in the power of the Holy Spirit into our hearts that light may dawn and new life may come, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

John chapter 3 at verse 1. This is the Word of almighty 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.’”

Amen.

A New Person and a New Perception

Well last week we said the new birth, being born again, means you become a new person. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul says, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come!” A new person. You’re regenerated; you’re made new when you are born again. And then we said that also means you have a new perception. You have new eyes! “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind and now I see!” Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom.” Now you see. You have new eyes to see. What was once dark and strange and obscure and the preaching of the Word just seemed like white, background noise, now becomes beauty and truth and goodness. It becomes manna from heaven. It becomes a light to your path and a lamp for your feet. New person and a new perception.

A New Power

And now I want to think about the third mark of the new birth; the third thing it gives you. The new birth, being born again, bestows upon us a new power. A new power. A few weeks ago, just as I was getting ready for bed, my phone rang and my oldest son called me. And I could tell – you know the way a parent can always tell – as soon as he said, “Hey, Dad,” something was wrong. And my heart did a little backflip. My first thought was, “Is he okay?” And then them second thought was, “What has he done to the car?” And it turned out he was calling to tell me he was stuck in a dark parking lot with a flat battery. It was a horribly cold, damp night and he just couldn’t get the engine to turn over at all. A friend with jump leads had already come by to help and he couldn’t get it started either. And in the end, just as I was getting ready to go see what I could do, which wouldn’t have been very much, a friendly policeman came by with one of those jump starter packs and got the thing going in a jiffy, much to everyone’s relief.

Now look again at John chapter 3 verse 3. You can see it also in verse 5. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Verse 5, “Unless he is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The word translated in our English version, “cannot,” in both verses, verse 3 and verse 5, is actually two words in Greek – the negative particle, “not,” and the verb, “to be able.” So translated rather woodenly perhaps, Jesus says something like, “Unless you are born again, you are not able,” or maybe even, “you do not have the power.” You are a beautiful, shiny new car, Nicodemus, you look very good out here in the dark under these street lights, but your battery is flat dead. You need new power. New power. Unless you are born again, you are not able. The implication, of course, is that once you are born again a new power floods into you so that you are able, at long last.

There is a dangerous trend in some circles these days to emphasize spiritual inability in such a way that we get the impression that when you are born again you remain every bit as powerless to obey the law of God as you were before. Christians, we are told, are still totally unable, Christians are still totally unable to keep God’s law or obey His commands or walk in new obedience unless some additional help from the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon us right in the moment of our need to empower us; unless that happens, we are told, we are stuck and we are doomed to failure.

And let me be clear, we are indeed never able entirely on our own to obey, even when we are born again. That much is quite true. Sin is still a strong reality in our hearts. Our wills remain compromised. We continue to battle disobedience, don’t we? That’s quite right. So we must always depend on the Spirit of Christ to help us and strengthen us in our combat with sin. But as we embrace that truth gladly, let’s not forget the Spirit now dwells, He dwells within the heart of every single Christian as a permanent donation of God, never leaving us or forsaking us. We are made new, and the one who made us new, the Holy Spirit Himself, never deserts His people entirely. He lends His power to our remade wills, our reborn hearts, so that we can obey by His grace.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is so very important. It is not immodest to say to your heart, as you cling to Jesus, “You are able, by His grace, you are.” You remember how Paul puts it in Ephesians chapter 2 verse 10? “The God who made us alive together with Christ and raised us up together with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places,” Paul says, “has made us His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” You were created in Christ Jesus, born again in Him, to do and to work. You are able. Or listen to how Paul puts it in Titus 2 verse 11, “The grace of God has appeared,” Paul says, “bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” What does the grace of God that broke into the world in the coming of Jesus Christ do in us? Is it merely about dealing with our past failure to obey? Is it merely God’s provision for our guilt when we do sin?

Well it is that. Praise the Lord that it is that. But the grace of God does more than deal with past failure, wonderfully more. Paul says the grace of God “trains us to renounce sin and live self-controlled lives of godliness.” That’s what it does. That is the power that is now at work in your heart, believer in Jesus. Last week we said, you may remember, that identifying yourself by your sin rather than by your new identity in Christ is handing the devil weapons to use against you as you struggle to be godly. Well here’s another place where we are at risk of doing the same thing. We mustn’t hand the enemy weapons to use against us by embracing the lie that says, “There is nothing we can do now to obey, unless we receive some fresh endowment from heaven, some fresh experience of supernatural help to empower us.” The more repeat that error to ourselves the less we will expect to march into the daily battle against our sin and triumph. Instead, our instinctive posture will be passive and we will incline, rather, to tell ourselves that in our helplessness we are really victims and our vocabulary will start to be brokenness. That will become the dominant way we describe our condition. And instead of seeking grace to obey, we will look mainly for healing for our hurts.

But do you see the teaching of Scripture is that if you are born again you are no longer in bondage to sin. You are no longer enslaved to its dominion. You are a new creation, filled now with the power of God by the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ who unites you to the risen Savior. The life of Christ is your life now, and He makes you mighty. So stand firm in your struggle with sin. Face down the enemy of your soul. Submit to God, resist the devil, and the promise of Scripture is, “He will flee from you.” You can do it. Glory to God that you can, by His grace. So set your jaw, get up off the dirt, and looking to Christ get back in the fight. Get back in the fight. The third mark of the new birth, then – new power. You are enabled, more and more by His grace, to say “No” to sin and to live self-controlled and sober lives in all godliness.

A New Principle

Then the fourth mark of the new birth – a new principle. Jesus told Nicodemus the new birth is about seeing and entering the kingdom of God. Do you see that language in the text? “Unless you are born of water and the spirit you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” What does Jesus mean by entering the kingdom of God? Well He is certainly not referring to crossing a geographical boundary. Is He? When I go home, I enter the United Kingdom when I cross that international border. And that’s not what Jesus means by “entering the kingdom of God.” In the Bible, the kingdom of God is shorthand for the rule of King Jesus extended throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel and made visible only in the local church. That is the kingdom. It is the dominion, the Lordship, the rule of Christ. And so to enter the kingdom is another way of talking about coming under His governance, His Lordship, having His royal law regulate our lives. It is to surrender all claims to sovereignty over our own hearts and to bend the knee to King Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords at last. That’s what it means to enter the kingdom.

If you were to take a boat and travel about seven miles off the coast of Suffolk in England, you would come across a small, offshore platform looking a bit like an oil rig. It was built by the British during the Second World War as part of a defensive fortification against German naval attacks. By the 1950s it had been abandoned until a family moved there and, get this, they decided to claim independence from the United Kingdom. They named their tiny new country, The Principality of Sealand. Sealand issues its own passport and currency; it has its own flag and coat of arms. And at one point, it even managed to repel an attempted coup by an armed mercenary force. The Principality of Sealand continues to this day in its claim of independence and sovereignty. It has a typical resident population of two people.

Human beings, before they are born again, are like The Principality of Sealand. They claim independence and sovereignty. They assert their freedom from all other control. They adopt a posture and they try to live as if they were their own kings. But the claim is spurious and unrecognized by the true king. When we are born again, we enter the kingdom of God. We come to embrace His rule at last over our hearts. We bend the knee to the Lord Jesus Christ and His will and His Word become the new constitution that regulates and governs our lives. Whereas once, God’s law, His moral law only spoke with a voice of condemnation to us; now it speaks in the voice of Abba, Father. Before we were born again, God’s law exposed our guilt and our sin. We heard in the law of the Lord the indictment of the heavenly Judge on all our rebellion and God’s law drove us to seek deliverance and mercy in the Lord Jesus Christ. He has obeyed the law on our behalf and paid in full all its penalties. Amen and praise God! Right? Jesus has satisfied the demands of the law in our place.

But that’s not the end of the moral law’s role in our lives. No longer does it condemn, even when it exposes our sin and our failure to obey from time to time as Christians, “there is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So whereas once we heard only condemnation from the law, now we hear – even when the law is rebuking us for our sin – now we hear the loving discipline of our Father who never condemns His children. Where once all we heard in the law was the reminder of the obedience we have failed to offer and could never fulfill, now that we are born again we hear in the very same law the gracious guidance of God, directing our steps and showing us how we should live for Him and within His kingdom. Whereas once all we could say is, with Paul, “By the law came the knowledge of sin,” now that we are born again we can say with David, “Oh, how I love Your law! Now we know the rules of the law are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold, sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them as Your servant warned, in keeping them there is great reward.”

One of the marks of the new birth is that you come to love the life of godliness to which God’s Law points you. You have a desire to please Him and nothing thrills Your heart more than honoring God in your daily life. God’s law is no longer a burden; now it is a delight. Now it is great gain. Now it is the guidance of Abba, Father, showing you how to live a life of gratitude. So the third mark is new power. So a new person, a new perception, a new power, then a new principle. The principle of the law of the Lord – the rule of King Jesus governing our hearts.

A New Purity

And finally, the fifth mark, is a new purity. Those who are born again are cleansed definitely and progressively from the pollution of sin. Look again at verse 5 in John chapter 3. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And you will remember when we looked at this a few weeks ago, that curious phrase, “born of water and the Spirit,” was most likely a reference to Ezekiel 36:25-27 where God tells His people, “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses and all your idols I will cleanse you. 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.” It’s probably the Old Testament text on the new birth. We are given a new heart and the Spirit dwelling within us so we will obey more and more the law of God.

And with that, Ezekiel says, comes a washing, a cleansing. We are “born of water and the Spirit. We are washed clean from all our uncleannesses and from all our idols.” If you live in the greater Jackson area, one often frustrating, all too regular fact of life is the boil water notices that we all love so very much. Some pollutant, dangerous levels of some chemical, some bacteria or something else that doesn’t bear thinking about has gotten into the water supply and we all have to take frustrating extra precautions for a period of time. When you are born again, Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, the source of the pollutant that poisons the well of our hearts is removed. And then over time, the whole flow of our lives is cleansed and made increasingly pure by the sanctifying, cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. There is a decisive breach with sin that has taken place within us when we became new creatures. And that decisive breach with sin has a progressive effect, an ongoing cleansing effect in our lives over time. That’s what it means to be born of water and the Spirit. It means new purity.

Paul speaks about it in Romans chapter 6 when he likens being born again to spiritual death to one life and resurrection to new life. And he sums up his teaching in verse 6 of Romans 6 like this. He says, “Our old self was crucified with Christ in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” So you see, a decisive breach has happened. You are no longer enslaved to sin. Sin no longer rules your heart, no longer has the mastery. Christ rules your heart. He has the mastery. And that once for all change has concrete, ongoing consequences.

Turn forward with me in your Bibles to 1 John near the end of the New Testament, the first letter of John, chapter 5 verse 18; 1 John chapter 5 verse 18. John is still using the category that Jesus provides for us in chapter 3 of his gospel, “born again” or “born from above.” This time he is explaining one of the marks of the new birth. First John 5 verse 18, “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him and the evil one does not touch him.” Now what does that mean – “Everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning”? Does it mean that the mark of the new birth is sinless perfection? Well obviously not. In the first part of this letter, John tells his readers, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Christians sin. John is very clear about that. What he says in John 5:18 is that “Everyone born of God does not keep on sinning,” not that everyone born of God never commits a sin.

And if you go back to 1 John 3, verses 4 through 6, you will see him use the same vocabulary in a context that, I think, makes plain what he really means. Chapter 3, verses 4 through 6, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen Him or known Him.” Alright, so do you see the phrase, “makes a practice of sinning” and the phrase, “keeps on sinning,” they mean the same thing. So in 1 John 5:18 when he says, “No one who is born of God keeps on sinning,” he means no one makes a practice of it. He means, though we all continue to sin and shall until we go to be with the Lord or He comes to take us home, he means you don’t rest in your sin anymore. You don’t find it to be a comfortable place to linger anymore. You have no peace in your sin anymore. In fact, the reborn heart hates the sin that festers there. You come to resent it and ultimately you turn from it; you don’t stay in it. Sin is no longer a viable course for our lives, so we are constantly at work trying to put it away so we walk in it no longer. We do not keep on sinning. We do not make a practice of sin.

And as we close, I want us to see the deep challenge, I want you to feel the deep challenge of all of that. This teaching reminds us, doesn’t it, that unholiness only fits an unregenerate heart. Unholiness is only a comfortable fit in the life of someone who has not been born again. If you’ve been born again, your sin should be a source of discomfort and misery to you. We ought to feel it so keenly that we come to hate it and we long to be rid of it. There is a great temptation, isn’t there, in our greatly therapeutic culture, to try to avoid guilt or appease our guilty conscience or maybe even to drown out our guilt or at the very least to distract ourselves from our guilt. There’s a great temptation to do all of that rather than deal with the cause of our guilt festering away in the habits and patterns of sin that lie right in its roots. But those who have been born of God, John says, have ceased from sin. They do not keep on sinning; they do not make a habit of sinning. New purity is our deepest aspiration, the longing of our heart, and our increasing achievement.

And so we need to be asking ourselves this morning whether we have been excusing our sin, blaming our circumstances or blaming other people in our lives for our sin. “I wouldn’t have to be so angry if my spouse wasn’t so stubborn. I wouldn’t have to use such underhanded tactics to manipulate my colleagues if they’d just listen to me in the first place.” What are we doing? We are blame shifting, aren’t we? We are justifying ourselves. Or maybe we’ve been playing the game of “What about-ism.” You know about “What about-ism” don’t you? “Sure, I’m wrong to fly off the handle like that, but what about you? You’re just as bad as me.” “What about-ism” – we’ve all played that game, haven’t we? What are we really doing when we do that? We’re just avoiding the real work to which we are called before God to face our sin, our sin, rather than someone else’s, to confess our sin, to turn from our sin to new obedience resting upon Jesus. We are called to purity, not to excuses, not to self-justification.

Another strategy of our twisted hearts is to run from the guilt of one sin into the arms of another in an attempt to drown out our accusing consciences. Have you ever done that? Here’s how it goes. We are ashamed of our rage and so we drink ourselves into oblivion. We are wracked by insecurity, which is in some ways a sort of inverted pride, and so we use sex to get attention and affirmation. And all the while, Satan is whispering in our ear, dangling worldly pleasures before us telling us, “You know, this is a much easier way to cope with your guilt than real repentance will ever be.” But if we listen to him, we will soon discover as some of you have, that all we’ve done is add sin to sin and compounded our misery in the end. You need to understand that when you were born again you were born into a new power for obedience and under the new principle of the kingdom of Jesus Christ so that you can live in new purity. Do not listen to the lies of the evil one. You are able, and nothing but your obedience will bring you peace.

“Trust and obey, trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” You’re wondering why you’re miserable? Perhaps it’s because you’ve been excusing your sin, you’ve been blaming others, you’ve been engaged in some “What about-ism,” you’ve been using one sin to drown out the sting of conscience for another sin. And all the while, you’re spinning your wheels digging yourself deeper and deeper into the muck, hopelessly ensnared. There’s no root to peace for you except the path of repentance, of turning back to Christ, of asking for mercy and then resolving by His grace to get yourself up out of the dirt and fight on for godliness.

You know, I’m in two minds about whether to say this so you’ll forgive me if I sound overly harsh. I don’t mean it as anything other than an expression of love. But if you are presently happy in your sin, I am praying that God will sour every one of your pleasures and make you miserable until you repent and turn back to Jesus Christ. It is the only path to peace, and it is the great mark of the new birth. Let’s pray together.

Father, thank You that You have made us new people who see through new eyes and everything looks new to us when we are born again. You have brought us into Your kingdom and granted to us a new governing principle, Your holy Law, which we come to love and long to obey more and more, strengthening us with new power and calling us to new purity. Help each of us to face down the temptations of the devil in courage, clinging to the promise of Your Word, to fight on and to see, not in our own efforts but in the work of Jesus in our hearts, Your victory writ large over our besetting sins. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

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