Born again

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: 'Be holy, because I am holy.' (1Pe 1:14–16)

In the previous study we looked at the most important aspect of the Holy Spirit's ministry in our lives, which is that of sanctifying us, or making us holy. He performs that task by coming to live in us. God wants us to cooperate with his Spirit in this vital process of sanctification and to make every effort to live holy lives. Why? Because holiness leads to eternal life.

The Bible says that righteousness (doing what is right in the sight of God) leads to holiness (a person manifesting the moral and spiritual character of God); and the result of holiness is eternal life (Rom 6:19,22). There is no other way to heaven. Jesus Christ is the Way (Joh 14:6), and his way is the Way of Holiness (Is 35:8).

The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us at conversion (when we're born again). In this study we're going to look at what it means to be born again, and the responsibility it brings.

Necessity of the new birth

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, 'Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no-one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.'

In reply Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.'

'How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus asked. 'Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!' (Joh 3:1–4)

Nicodemus was a religious man; he was a spiritual leader in Israel and he worshipped the true and living God. He wanted to enquire about spiritual things so he came to Jesus at night.

He believed that Jesus was a teacher sent from God because no one could perform the miracles he had performed unless God was with him. It was good that Nicodemus believed that Jesus had come from God, but acceptance of that fact wasn't enough to save him.

Many people today believe that Jesus existed and that he was a good man. Some even believe he was the Son of God who performed miracles; but such belief won't save them either. There are churches filled with people like that: they have an intellectual belief in Jesus, but not a true faith in him. I know what I'm talking about—I was one of them.

Jesus came straight to the point: 'I tell you the truth,' he said, 'no one can see the kingdom of God (the Greek word means to understand with the mind) unless he is born again (Joh 3:3).'

He also said that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (Joh 3:5). If Nicodemus wanted to experience the salvation God was offering him he had to be born again (Joh 3:7). The same is true for us.

Born of the Spirit

The primary meanings of the Greek word translated 'again' in the phrase 'born again' are from above or from the beginning. The word can also mean again or anew. Most translations translate it as 'again', but the word should be viewed in its full meaning.

At the beginning God created man in his image (Gen 1:26a); he formed him from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life (Gen 2:7). What did God breathe into him at that point? He breathed his Spirit into him.

Man's body was made from the dust of the earth, but God doesn't have a body: he is Spirit (Joh 4:24). So how could he make him in his image? He made him in his image by giving him his Spirit so he could have his nature. And that's what happens when we're born again.

When we're born again God breathes his Spirit into us, as he breathed his Spirit into Adam at the beginning (the Greek word translated 'Spirit' in the New Testament means breath or wind). At that point we are born of the Spirit; we are born from above; we are born again with a new nature—the nature of God; we are born anew—the new birth (1Pe 1:3).

Two natures

The apostle Paul, reflecting on his way of life before he was saved, wrote:

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Rom 7:18–19)

As a devout Jew Paul had a desire to obey God's law, but he couldn't do it because he was controlled by his sinful nature. In the next chapter he wrote:

…the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. (Rom 8:7–8)

No matter how hard we try, we cannot live a godly life with our sinful nature. Men and women, with the nature they are born with, cannot please God nor obey God. In order to do that we must be given a new nature. That happens at conversion when God's Spirit comes to live in us.

We then find we have two natures: our old sinful nature which desires to sin, and the new nature of the Spirit which desires to live righteously. The two are in conflict and we have to choose which to obey (Gal 5:16–18).

Crucified with Christ

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. (Rom 6:8,6–7)

The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23): death awaited each one of us because of our sins. But Jesus Christ bore our sins on the cross and died: Jesus died the death that was due to us for our sins.

But that is not all he did for us on the cross. He didn't just die so that our sins could be forgiven, he dealt with the cause of our sins, which is our sinful nature.

The Bible says that the whole world is a prisoner of sin (Gal 3:22a). Every man, woman and child is enslaved by sin; it's our master and it controls us. But slaves are only slaves for as long as they live: when they die they are released from their slavery.

By dying on our behalf, Jesus has released us from our slavery to our sinful nature; its power over us is broken. We no longer have to obey its desires; we are now free to live the life God wants us to live.

Dead to sin

Because of this we are told to count (consider) ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (Rom 6:11).

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. (Rom 6:12–13)

You will note that these are things we have to do:

God doesn't do these things for us, he gives us the ability and tells us to do them. Whether we do them or not is up to us: it's a matter of obedience (1Pe 1:14). We are not controlled by God, we still have free will.

We are warned in the New Testament not to live sinful lives (Heb 10:26–27). If we don't obey that instruction we won't inherit God's kingdom (Gal 5:19–21; Eph 5:3–7).

If Christians sin it's because they've chosen to sin: God has given them the power to resist it (1Co 10:13). Unbelievers sin because they haven't the choice: they are powerless to resist it.

Sowing to please the Spirit

Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live… (Rom 8:12–13)

That shows that we still have a sinful nature and can yield to it if we wish. It also shows that, through the power of the Spirit, we can put to death the misdeeds of our body. God expects us to do that—in fact our salvation depends upon it.

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Gal 6:7–8)

Paul was writing to Christians. I don't think he could have put it more clearly than that. God's way of salvation is not merely through faith in Christ; it's through faith in Christ followed by the life he calls us to live, which is a life of holiness (1Pe 1:14–16).

Putting our faith in Jesus gives us the ability to live that life because when we put our faith in him he gives us his Spirit—his Holy Spirit.

You will note that Gal 6:8 says that it's from the Spirit we'll reap eternal life. We won't reap eternal life from our own efforts, even though we are told to do certain things. We'll reap eternal life from the Spirit, because without the Spirit we couldn't do those things.

So we'll have nothing to boast about on that Day. Paul said that nothing good lived in him (that is, in his sinful nature). Any good that God sees in us will come from what he has produced, in our lives, by his Spirit.

To God be the glory!

Michael Graham
August 2009

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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