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You Must Be Born Again (Part 4)

Originally published at https://deeperheights.blog/theology/you-must-be-born-again-part-4/

Being “born again” happens when God transforms the person He called to salvation.

In the previous article, we discussed that to be “born again” is the work of God. It is a mystery  that cannot be rationalized even by the most intelligent person on the planet. For how can a person who once lived his life without any regard for God be suddenly transformed into a God-fearing believer?

How can a person who is proud, haughty, and self-dependent become humble and fully dependent on the LORD? How can God change a person who relies on his own righteousness and make him look solely on the righteousness that comes by faith in Christ? (Romans 3:22)

God’s effectual calling

While being born-again is a mystery, it can be understood by those who are being called to faith. Theologians refer to this as effectual calling, or God’s transforming work in those who have been chosen in eternity past so that they can repent and put their faith in the Savior. Yes, it is true that Christians should preach the gospel to everyone. This is the general call of the gospel. However, we know that not everyone who hears will respond to the gospel. Only those God called will believe the message with faith and repentance (Barrett, 2013).

The effectual calling of God is explained in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. In John 3:5-6, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (New International Version).

Now, many interpret this as being born naturally and spiritually, based on Nicodemus’ statement that it is impossible for anyone to reenter their mother’s womb in order to experience physical birth a second time. It seems that a person is first born through the flesh, which involves the water bag in the womb, while the second birth is the one that involves the Spirit of God.

But this is a weak interpretation of what Jesus was telling Nicodemus. Jesus did not affirm Nicodemus’ rhetorical statement about experiencing physical birth again. Instead, he was talking about an experience that is entirely different.

Notice that John 3:3 and John 3:5 are parallel verses:

(verse 3) “… no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

(verse 5) “…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”

Since they are parallel, then being “born again” is therefore equal to being “born of water and the Spirit.” The conjunction “and” (Gk. και) also affirms this. Jesus was only talking about the same thing. Being born of water means being born of the Spirit.

Interestingly, this concept should not be surprising to Nicodemus since he is a teacher of Israel – one who has mastered the Law, Writings, and the Prophets. He must have read the concept of water and the Spirit in Ezekiel 36:25-28. There are four parallel models of God’s transforming work in these verses:

  1. Sprinkling of clean water (36:25) – God revealed through the prophet Ezekiel that a time is coming when He will clean His people from their impurities and idolatry by sprinkling clean water on them.
  2. Giving a new heart and a new spirit (36:26a) – this sprinkling of clean water, which will cleanse them of their sins, is parallel to giving them a new heart and a new spirit.
  3. Removing the heart of stone (36:26b) – having new heart and a new spirit is parallel to God’s work of taking away their heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh.
  4. Putting God’s Spirit in them (36:27) – all the above are parallel to God’s promise to put His Spirit in His people so that they will follow His decrees and keep His laws.

All four concepts sum up what happens in God’s effectual calling. A person whom God called to salvation will hear and respond positively to the gospel because his or her heart, or inner being, or spirit, has been regenerated. He or she is changed from a sinful, depraved state into one that is capable of loving and following God.

Steve Lawson, in his book New Life in Christ: What Really Happens When You’re Born Again and Why it Matters, says it well: It is the new birth that produces repentance and faith, not the other way around. We do not preach the gospel so that people will be born again. Rather, a person is first transformed by God before he or she can have saving faith.

As 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.”

Now, Jesus helps Nicodemus understand what “born again” through another model – wind.  

In John 3:6, Jesus explains: “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So, it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:6, NIV).

Here, the wind is used as a synonym for the Spirit. It moves at will and even the best minds cannot fully explain the wind’s behavior. Yet, even if we do not see the wind, we can see its effects. The same goes with a person who is “born again.” He is transformed by God’s invisible power yet the effects are obvious. There is a change in life. Not that the person is instantly perfect. The believer will only achieve perfection when the kingdom of God comes.

But once the new birth happens, the person becomes different. He once desires the things of this world and the pleasures of the flesh. He once rejects God and refuses to hear His word. Yet, after being born again, he now desires the things of God and seeks to obey Him (1 John 2:4-5). 

God’s transformation and timing

Because being born again is the work of God’s transforming power, the timing of this event is also in His hand. During his meeting with Jesus, there is no indication that Nicodemus responded in faith.

I remember how Season 1 of The Chosen portrayed the John 3 event. This popular TV series created by Dallas Jenkins to highlight the individual experiences of those Jesus called shows Nicodemus believing in Jesus during their encounter on a rooftop. Jesus even asks Nicodemus to follow him in his ministry. Then after their meeting, the teacher of Israel kneels before Jesus and acknowledges that he is standing on a holy place. 

While both the artistry and script are remarkable (I say this a creative writer myself and as a fan of this TV Series), Mr. Jenkins and his team of scriptwriters overstretches John 3. 

Fortunately, it’s just a TV Series and they are not claiming to be authoritative interpreters of Scripture. Nonetheless, I believe that going beyond what is revealed in Scripture, either explicitly or implicitly, is dangerous. Yes there is no explicit statement that can deny the possibility that Nicodemus confessed his faith during his encounter with Jesus. But the absence of such as statement is loud enough to imply that Nicodemus did not walk away from that encounter as a believer.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that he never responded in faith, ever. I am just saying that in John 3, Nicodemus is already face to face with the Savior but he still does not respond in faith. We can get a hint from what transpires next. First, he is astonished at what Jesus is saying. He asks Jesus “How can this be?” To this Jesus says, with slight sarcasm, “you are Israel’s teacher… and do you not understand these things?”

Second, Jesus gently rebukes him for his refusal to believe. The phrase “you people do not accept our testimony,” is clear indication that Jesus categorizes Nicodemus as among those who still do not believe despite the evidence that backs up His message (John 3:11). Thus, Jesus asks rhetorically: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:11-12). In other words, Nicodemus has yet to experience what it means to be born again.

This point to the fact that God’s effectual calling is subject to His timing. Because being born again is entirely the work of God, then its timing also depends on Him. I will tackle the issue of timing in the succeeding articles. For now, I want to stress that Nicodemus eventually became a follower of Jesus Christ. In John 19:38-39, a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea secretly asked permission from Pilate to give him the body of Jesus. He did it in secret because he was afraid of what the Jews would do. In those challenging circumstances, Nicodemus still came with around 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes in order to give Jesus an honorable burial!

Some would argue that Nicodemus just performed this out of sympathy, pointing to the fact that there was no clear statement that he believed that Jesus is the Messiah.

I beg to differ.

First, granted that the four gospels do not have a statement of Nicodemus’ profession of faith, giving an account of such professions was not John’s intention:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31, English Standard Version)

Second, the gospels does not have accounts of the profession of faith of Simon the Zealot, James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus but we believe that they are genuine followers. It does not follow that since a clear statement of Nicodemus’ response in faith is absent then his transformation is doubtful.

Third, one vivid mark of genuine faith during the first century church is the willingness to risk one’s life and/or reputation for the sake of Christ. John wrote his gospel at a time when the Christian church experienced intense persecution from both Judaizers and the Gentile world. But in John 19:39, Nicodemus, just like Joseph, went to secure a proper burial for Jesus despite the risk of angering the Jews.

What he did shows evidence of genuine faith.

Being “born again” is not about knowing many verses in the Bible or even knowing that salvation is by faith. Of course, knowledge is important. But take note that Nicodemus must be more knowledgeable than the average Jew during his time. Yet, entering the kingdom of God was not about human knowledge. He needed the transformation that only God can start and maintain in his life. In our next article, I will discuss the timing of God’s effectual calling and our responsibility in the process of salvation.

References

Lawson, S. (2020). New Life in Christ: What Really Happens When You’re Born Again and Why it Matters. Baker Books

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