The Necessity of the New Birth

Sermon by David Strain on January 10

John 3:1-15

We continue this morning with our series looking at the vital doctrine of regeneration, or the new birth. Last time we looked at the nature of the new birth – what it is not and what it is. It isn’t more religion. It isn’t better information. It isn’t moral reformation. Rather, the new birth, being born again, we said, is the radical creation of a new self. It is new life in the heart of a human being by the supernatural work of God the Holy Spirit. It is like a new creation, like a spiritual resurrection.

And today I want to face with you the persistent feeling many of us have, I suspect, even when we know better, that though we might confess the truth of everything we’ve said thus far about the new birth, we, we ourselves don’t really need it. It’s for desperate cases. You know, for violent criminals and desperate addicts and inveterate cheats. They need to be born again, but good folks, clean living, upright, religious folks, folks like me and like you, surely we don’t need to be born again. Do we? And the answer of our Lord to Nicodemus in John’s gospel chapter 3, which is really the epitomizing passage on the subject of the new birth in the Scriptures, the answer of our Lord to Nicodemus is that the new birth is necessary, not just for the tax collectors and the sinners, you know, but for rabbis and Pharisees like Nicodemus. It is necessary not just for the drunkard and the porn addict and the abusive husband, but for the theology professor and the elder and the Sunday school teacher as well.

The new birth, Jesus says, is necessary. It is necessary, according to John 3, in at least three ways. First, it is necessary as a universal principle, a universal principle. It is applicable not to some people only but to all. A universal principle. Secondly, the new birth is necessary as an absolute rule. There are no exceptions. There is no deviation. There can be no qualifications placed upon the rule that our Lord prescribes. You must be born again. A universal principle. An absolute rule. And thirdly, the new birth is necessary as an urgent need. An urgent need. There is an immediacy, as I hope to show you, a red-hot urgency in Jesus’ message, His words to Nicodemus, that we’ve got to get clear in our thinking. So the new birth is a universal principle, an absolute rule, and an urgent need. All of which is simply to say you must, you must, you must be born again.

Now as always, before we dive into all of that, we will read the Scriptures. And before we do that, we will pause again to pray. Let’s pray.

O Lord Jesus, Your Word is before us. You are speaking to us now as truly, as vitally as You spoke to Nicodemus so long ago. Please help us to hear You, not just with the ears of the flesh but as You give the Holy Spirit with the ears of the heart, with the hearing that is unto eternal life, the hearing of faith. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

John chapter 3. If you have your Bibles and you haven’t turned there yet, please do so now, and keep them open before you. John chapter 3, beginning at verse 1:

“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.’”


A Universal Principle

One of the frustrating things – at least for me, if not for you – about COVID-19 restrictions lately has been the inconsistency sometimes demonstrated by the very officials who urge us to obey them. Haven’t you found that frustrating? Let me give you a few notable examples from around last Thanksgiving. The day before Thanksgiving, the mayor of Denver, Michael Hancock, reminded residents to “stay home, avoid travel, host virtual gatherings instead of in-person dinners.” Thirty minutes later, he boarded the first of two planes to fly home to Mississippi to visit his daughter for Thanksgiving. Likewise, Andrew Cuomo, the well-known governor of New York, had to cancel his plans to host an extended family Thanksgiving in the wake of massive public backlash when the plans leaked to the press after restricting everyone else for Thanksgiving. The mayor of San Jose, Sam Liccardo, was forced to apologize after he attended a Thanksgiving dinner combining five different households in violation of state regulations. L.A. county supervisor, Sheila Kuehl, was greeted with angry protestors picketing outside her home when people learned that she had voted to ban outdoor dining in L.A. and then went to eat at a Santa Monica restaurant. When the mayor of Austin recorded a video – this one is my favorite, actually – he recorded a video urging his people to stay home if at all possible and he warned them, “We may have to close things down if we’re not careful.” And it turns out he was recording the video on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico at the time.

Now, let’s admit that it’s easy to take swipes at public officials when their hypocrisy gets exposed like that, especially right now when we’re all so frustrated with restrictions. So we can feel a certain righteous indignation. We feel justified in our outrage. But the reality is, we are all tempted sometimes to think that the rules do not apply to us. Aren’t we? We are exempt. We are special. We belong in that select class for whom this issue is just not relevant. When Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” I rather suspect that no small degree of the surprise and shock that Nicodemus felt resulted from the fact that he was being included amongst those who needed to be born again. After all, Nicodemus, remember Nicodemus – a man of impeccable personal piety and devotion to God. He was devout. He was consistent in both private and public worship. He knew the Scriptures well. He was upright and moral. He was an aristocratic member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin; born into privilege. He was a teacher, an expert, a theologian even.

And what’s more, it’s clear from John 3 isn’t it – he had room for Jesus in his thinking. He wanted to add the teaching of the Lord Jesus to his life. Surely if anyone was exempt from the need to be born again it would be Nicodemus. He had no need of anything so radical. Not a new creation; not a spiritual resurrection. No, he just needed some information, some redirection, some instruction. He wanted Jesus to supplement what was, after all, his otherwise morally and spiritually sound life. “So Jesus, new birth? Sure. Absolutely. But you mean the peasant classes, don’t you? You mean the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the sinners. You know, all those marginal people that my Pharisee friends get so frustrated with You about because You keep hanging out with them. They’re the ones that need the new birth. I get it. I agree! But surely You don’t mean the likes of me, do You?”

Well look at the way Jesus frames His teaching in verse 3. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Or verse 5, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Pay attention to His language. “Unless one is born again…Unless one is born of water and the Spirit.” Literally He says, “Unless someone is born again…Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit.” This is a universal principle, not just a personal prescription. Jesus does sometimes give personal prescriptions in His interactions with people in the gospels. Doesn’t He? Think for example about the woman at the well in the chapter immediately following this one. He deals with her objections and her questions. He tells her to go call her husband and then come back, exposing her shameful sexual history. And He does it all so He can open for her wells of living water that will spring up to eternal life. And the whole conversation is highly situational and specific to this woman and her needs, her past, and her predicament. Or think about the story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus believing that he had managed perfectly to obey the moral law of God – he’s kept all the commandments, he believes. And so Jesus gently but incisively exposes actually his comprehensive failure to keep the law by unmasking his covetousness in particular. “Go sell all your possessions and follow Me.”

Now Jesus, when He said that, was not giving a universal principle as though we all had to liquidate all our assets immediately if we want to be serious about following Jesus. No vows of poverty necessary to be a Christian. Right? This isn’t a universal principle. This is a personal prescription and nothing more. But when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” He’s not doing that. This is not a personal prescription. It’s a universal principle. “Anyone, Nicodemus, everyone, whoever, wherever, whenever, all people, every single human being must be born again if they are ever to see the kingdom of God.” And in case Nicodemus is still hunting for a loophole, a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, Jesus drives the point home finally in verse 7 very particularly at last to him. “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ That’s right, Nicodemus, if it’s true for everyone, it’s true for you. And so you, even you, must be born again.”

At my kids’ school, if you have the GPA and perfect attendance in class throughout the year, you can be granted exemptions from year-end exams. And deep down, I think we all hope that God actually operates the moral universe like a teacher in a cosmic classroom granting exemptions for good grades in the coursework of our daily lives. We wonder if we really have to have the new birth. “Yeah, sure, maybe many, even most will require the new birth, but isn’t there at least a possibility, just a chance, however slim, that I could still win an exemption for good behavior?” Isn’t that how we think? The Lord Jesus is clear in our text, isn’t He? There are no exemptions possible, no classes of people free of the necessity. The new birth is a universal principle. There is no one sitting within the sound of my voice that does not need to be born again. Have you been born again? Have you? It’s a vital question from which Jesus really offers no escape. The new birth is a universal principle.

An Absolute Rule

Secondly, notice the new birth is an absolute rule. Look at what He says again in verse 3. “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom.” Verse 5, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom.” Unless you are born again, born of water and the Spirit, born from above, unless this radical new life is implanted into your heart by the power of God, unless you are given spiritual resurrection, new creation, unless you are born again, the kingdom of God is sealed shut against you. In this matter, the teaching of Jesus operates on a binary principle. Do you see that? Either we are born again or we are not. There is no middle way. There is no in between category. There are no “almost Christians.” There are no degrees of dead and alive. It’s a binary situation. You are one or the other.

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave after those three days, Lazarus moved from one condition into another. There wasn’t a transitional phase – you know, while most of him was dead, his hand had woken up. Not at all! He said, “Lazarus, come forth!” And death worked backwards and immediately he came from his grave alive again. When a person is born again, a birth has happened. New life has come into being when it did not exist before.

When Jesus says to Nicodemus in verse 7, “You must be born again,” it’s worth noticing by the way the grammar that’s being used. It might surprise you to learn that the verb translated, “you must, you must be born again,” is not an imperative. And so it’s not a command. It’s not in the imperative mood; it’s in the indicative mood. So it’s not a command; it’s a statement of fact. You could translate John 3:7, “It is necessary that you be born again.” The same verb is used, for example, in Mark 13:7, where Jesus says, “And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet.” So wars and rumors of wars are part of the foreordained, divine program for human history. This is how it’s supposed to go. These things must take place. They are integral to the divine economy and plan and that’s really exactly what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus here about the new birth at an individual level. Not only is it universal in scope, it is absolute in character; it is necessary, integral to the divine economy and plan. There’s no way into divine favor, no room in the kingdom, no place in God’s family, unless one is born again. Have you been born again?

How important it is for us, finally and completely, to relinquish all hope of finding entry into God’s kingdom, finding favor in His sight by any other root. We’ve got to realize there are no detours possible here. There are no side roads you can take; no scenic routes that you can plot your own meandering course to heaven by. There’s only one highway, one path that runs straight from your spiritual grave to heavenly glory. From spiritual ruin to redemption; from being lost to being found. Only one! And you must get on that highway if you’re to have any hope at all. Whatever other path you have taken in life will lead only to death and destruction. You must, it is necessary, you must be born again.

An Urgent Need

A universal principle. An absolute rule. And thirdly, the new birth is an urgent need. Twice in this passage, in verse 3 and – actually three times in the passage – verse 3, verse 5, and verse 11, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you.” Literally, “Amen, amen, I say to you.” Jesus often prefaces His teaching like this as a way to emphasize the authoritative truth that is being proclaimed. That’s what it means. The repetition, “Truly, truly I say to you,” is a way to make it emphatic. It’s the equivalent of bold, italics and underlined. “This, this is critically important. Don’t miss this! This is the key thing.” That’s what He’s saying. There’s urgency here. Do you see it? Nicodemus came to Jesus, you know, as one teacher to another, one scholar to another, expecting some learned discourse, some exchange of ideas, maybe some theological sparring. The citation of sources and rabbinical interpretations. That’s what he was used to. What he got cut through all of that with immediacy and urgency and force. He came to Jesus with compliments, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher sent from God.” And in response, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” It’s almost abrupt. Isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t really respond to Nicodemus’ words at all. He cuts to the chase. “Time is short, Nicodemus, and your need is great. Yes, yes, whatever; leave your flattery for someone else. I don’t have time for your platitudes, Nicodemus, and frankly neither do you. This is the thing you need – you’ve got to get this. You must be born again!”

Actually, John tells us a little bit about how badly off Nicodemus really is when he points out in verse 1 that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. That John points that little detail out means that there is some significance; it’s not just that this is the only time Nicodemus had left in his busy schedule and so he just happened to go to Him at night. If that’s all it was, John likely wouldn’t have mentioned it. It is safe, I think, to speculate that Nicodemus was aware of the prevailing negative opinion about Jesus amongst the party of the Pharisees. And so coming to Him at night provides Nicodemus some cover, spares his blushes.

But if you step back a little bit and think about the night in John’s gospel, you’ll see that John uses it and Jesus uses it symbolically. It’s laden with significance. Let me give you a couple of examples. John 11:9-10, Jesus said, “If anyone walks in the day he does not stumble because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night he stumbles because the light is not in him.” And maybe most pointedly in John 13:30, at the Last Supper we read of Judas receiving the morsel from the hand of his Savior, the Lord Jesus, who he is about to betray, and then John says, as Judas gets up and leaves, “And it was night.” There’s a sense of foreboding and this is the appropriate sphere for the betrayer’s wicked actions, you see. And Nicodemus comes in the night because he is in the darkness and he does not know what makes him stumble. And so as John 3:19 goes on to say, “The light has come into the world and the people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” That’s Nicodemus’ condition. He loves the darkness.

And by nature, that is our condition too. Without the new birth, we are in darkness, spiritually speaking. We are walking in the night. We don’t understand the truth. “Are you the teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?” Nicodemus was blind. You need the new birth today, if you’re not a believer, because the truth is, you’re walking in darkness and you do not know what makes you stumble. You don’t see it. You might not even really realize it. Nicodemus himself didn’t know it. But it is midnight in your heart and only Jesus can give you the light.

And Jesus uses another term to describe Nicodemus’ situation. You’ll see it in verse 6. Would you look at verse 6 with me please? Verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” So there are two births here, right, and the birth that the flesh produces and the birth that the Holy Spirit produces follow the character of the parent, as it were. Flesh results in flesh; Spirit in spirit. Jesus’ point is that each new life replicates the essential character and nature of the one that gave it birth. The flesh can only ever produce flesh. And here, the flesh is really another way of talking about life without God, about the human heart in its natural rebellion against the rule of God; not governed by the principle of His grace. It’s talking about spiritual death, spiritual death.

And so in a very similar passage to this in John 6:63, Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh is no help at all.” It’s powerless. It’s dead. Romans 8:6, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the things of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh” – listen to this – “is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Let that land for a moment. “Those who are in the flesh” – that’s what Jesus is saying is true of Nicodemus. Nicodemus cannot please God. Hostile to God. Totally unable. Now do you see the urgency? The pressing need that makes Jesus cut through all the pleasantries right to the heart of the matter so directly? Now do you see why it’s a subject about which none of us can afford to delay? We are in the dark, by nature. We do not walk in the light. We are blind to the truth, hostile to God. We cannot please Him. Born of the flesh, dead in our sin. We need life! We need life, and only the Lord Jesus can give it to us!

You must be born again. You must. Do you see why? Do you feel anything of its necessity, it’s urgency in your own case? I’m really praying that God would alarm you. You don’t think you come to church to be alarmed, but if you feel no need of the new birth, I am praying, pleading with God that He would alarm you. All your religion, all your piety, all your morality, all your church going, all your prayers, all of it is powerless to reverse your spiritual death. But then on the other hand, here’s the good news. All your lusts, all your vices, every act of rebellion is every bit as powerless to hinder the breaking in of new life in your heart once the Lord Jesus calls you to Himself. Nothing can stop it. You cannot be so far gone that He cannot save you, so lost that He can’t find you, so dead that He cannot raise you to new life.

Remember when Jesus called Lazarus out of the grave? How did He do it? Did He screw Himself up tight and throw Himself against the granite stone of death and heave and sweat and shout? It was effortless. He spoke, calmly and clearly, “Lazarus, come forth.” And though death is mighty and no mere human being has the power to break its bonds, it is no barrier to the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so He called Lazarus alive, by His word, from the tomb. That’s why Jesus ends this conversation with Nicodemus in verse 15, “Whoever believes in Me will have eternal life.” He says – do you see this – He says to a dead sinner who can’t believe, “Believe!” And listening to His call, dead sinners come to life, like Lazarus stepping alive from the tomb. Don’t wait for life. Don’t wait for the Spirit. Don’t wait for something else. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Cry to Him right now, right now for mercy. Confess your sin. Don’t bargain; don’t make excuses. Don’t cut a deal. Don’t boast in your intelligence or your obedience or your religion. Come and say to Him, “O Lord, I’ve been blind. Would You open my eyes? I’m dead. Would You give me life? I’m lost. Find me! I’m a sinner. Forgive Me! I need You. I need You and I trust You to do what I can’t do. Save me!”

That’s what Jesus tells Nicodemus to do, precisely. He tells him about his need, He tells him about the urgency of his circumstances, He tells him that only God can resolve his dilemma, and then He calls him to believe in the Son of Man that he might live. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Let’s pray together.

Father, thank You for the good news about Jesus who died to give us life. He died to give us life. Help us to hear the voice of the Son of Man and live. Grant faith to dead hearts. May every single person here know the reality of the new birth – children and adults, younger and older – and everyone who hears or watches this message, show them the danger of their natural condition, O God, and by Your Spirit bring them at last to the end of themselves to the only Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

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