“You Must Be Born Again”
In John 3:1-6, Jesus meets a man named Nicodemus. The encounter is brief, but powerful, and a number of lessons can be learned by examining our Lord’s words. “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” This statement obviously confuses Nicodemus, to the point that he wonders why Jesus wants him to be physically born again. But consider the explanation offered by the Christ, “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit…’”
The idea that our Lord is conveying is that total spiritual renewal is required of us to be truly converted. We must completely start over again if we want to make ourselves right with God. Many people, whether consciously or not, have no desire to make a full change when it comes to their lives. They want to change only as much as they need to skirt by. Even worse, the religious world in general is allowing this and even facilitating the poor attitude by allowing churchgoers to “come as you are” without making any real changes. Those who are addicted to worldly vices are given a pass instead of convicted. Church members who are blatantly sinning are not disciplined properly. People in adulterous relationships are overlooked. Some churches seem to practice more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy than anything else. This is not change, though. This is not rebirth or renewal.
In order for real, meaningful change to occur in our lives, we need to allow ourselves to be totally reborn. There is no desire for half-hearted change in God’s eyes, so how willing are you to let go of your old life completely and turn yourself over to God. Consider as a natural example the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Like many natural disasters such as forest fires and tsunamis, great renewal can only be achieved through total destruction. From the ashes rise a new generation of plants, made stronger by the fire. Without this purging in the carnal world, life would be hard-pressed to maintain any sort of order. So, too, our souls must be completely purged of the “old self”. We must start fresh at our conversion, or else the conversion is effectively meaningless. We must be born again.
Christianity is a religion of conversion. We are expected by God to change ourselves, our nature, our attitudes, our habits, and every action that is contrary to the expectations He has for us.
· “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts” (Galatians 5:24).
· “But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self” (Colossians 3:8-10).
· “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2).
· “Our old self was crucified with Him” (Romans 6:6).
This is what makes our faith so unique from others in the world. While many religions require little or no change, and ask nothing from their members, God commands His followers to give everything over to Him, and render both body and soul to His service. Even beyond that, most religions that ask some changes in their members’ lives do not require any treatment of habits or lifestyles. “Come as you are” is the prevalent mentality, and that lends itself to people who do not want to make a meaningful or lasting transformation. Contrary to the world’s perception of religious conformity, the Bible makes it clear that change must be actively pursued and permanent:
· “In reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self” (Ephesians 4:22).
· “Put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:24).
· “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put aside from you, alone with malice” (Ephesians 4:31).
· “Let him who steals, steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good…” (Ephesians 4:28).
· “If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).
“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which have been done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit…” (Titus 3:3). This verse is used often to show that it is not our deeds that save us, but God’s grace working through faith. However, we also are introduced to a very powerful lesson when we consider the meaning of baptism. While it must be admitted without hesitation that our meritorious deeds do not save us (Ephesians 2:8-9), we need to realize something about baptism that “faith only” proponents fail to see. Baptism is not a work that we do of ourselves, contrary common misconception. It is not a deed that we perform that deserves merit or recognition. We do nothing in baptism that makes it saving. Notice again how Paul puts it in Titus 3:3, “According to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration…” It is God who is doing the work in baptism, not us. Baptism itself does not save, but the appeal to God for a clean conscience (1 Peter 3:21). It is God washing our sins away with the blood of Christ. It is God showing mercy to us, undeserving though we might be. It is God drawing us near to Him, not us drawing ourselves. When we are baptized, we give ourselves over to God to do the merciful work of forgiveness. Baptism is most definitely a work, but not a work that we do.
Renewal Is More Than Just “Feeling Sorry”
Repentance is a key aspect of deep spiritual renewal. It is an essential part of salvation, that must be from the inside out. Anybody can do the deeds of repentance, just as anybody can have the heart of repentance. Unless the two are joined together, the repentance means little. In any study of a word like repentance, we must first look at what the word actually means, that is, what the original text says about this word. In Greek, which is the primary language of the New Testament and the translated Old Testament, the word for repentance is metanoew, which literally means “to perceive something after it has been done, or to change one’s mind” (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vine, 279). The common usage of the word, however, suggests a change in action. And, every single time that it is used in the New Testament, it is referring to a change of action for the better.
We know that repentance is an essential part of the plan of salvation because we see it exemplified and mentioned right alongside other actions leading to salvation. We see it with baptism in Acts 2:38. The Apostle is asked by the crowd, “What must we do?” He responds, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” We see that repentance leads the soul to forgiveness in Acts 5:31. Peter says, “[Christ] is the One whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” We see that repentance also leads to knowledge in 2 Timothy 2:25.
As examples of true repentance, consider, first of all, the Corinthians. We find out from the text that many of them were fornicators, and drunkards, and adulterers, and all manner of despicable characters (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). But baptism and faith in Christ Jesus saved them. It washed them. It cleansed them and made them whole.
There are some valuable lessons that we can learn from the Corinthians. Primarily, we find that Gentiles are most certainly under the specific, outlined Law of Christ, not protected by ignorance or their own moral code. The sins described in the text are very specific sins, some of which would not be considered unlawful to Gentiles (i.e., alcoholism is not an illegal thing for most people, neither is homosexuality, and neither is adultery in our society). But these ignorant, unbelieving, lawless Gentiles were still being judged by the Lord through Jesus Christ. And they were still criminals held accountable to the Gospel. Take a look at Acts 20:21.
Another lesson that is valuable is that nobody is stuck in any certain sin, no matter how strong the temptation may be. These Corinthians were homosexuals, yet changed and became productive heterosexual Christians. These people were drunkards and alcoholics, yet overcame that as well. These people were living in adulterous and incestuous relationships, yet they rejected worldly “love” to live a better, more righteous life.
Also take note of the kind of repentance displayed by Zaccheus. In Luke 19:1-10, we see that this man was a very wealthy tax collector – likely supporting himself by the illicit funds skimmed off the top of the taxes. However, after only one day with Jesus, this man was so affected by the Lord that he proudly proclaimed that he would repent of his sins to the utmost extreme. “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” As a shining example of repentance, Zaccheus shows us that trite acts of change mean nothing compared to the desire to repair and repay every mistake he had ever made in his career. Do we show the same zeal for our renewal?
The New Creature
“Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Becoming a new creature necessarily involves a complete change, a total reversal. Whereas the old creature lived in its passions and lusts, seeking sin, the new creature wholly lives for Christ (“And He died for all, that they who lives should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” [2 Corinthians 5:15]). There are some practical applications that must be considered:
· The new creature does not change half-heartedly, but dives in head first. The new creature also does not change piecemeal, but resolves to mold himself totally in Christ’s image.
· The new creature thinks differently. In order for a mental change to occur, actions must change, attitudes must change, outlook must change.
· The new creature finds the impetus for change in the Word. We must all diligently seek the message of the Bible, and conform ourselves to its life-giving expectations.
· The new creature treats people differently;
· He works harder;
· He devotes himself more to family, responsibilities, mental self control, etc.;
· He is totally under control of his own life. And in situations that the new creature fears will overcome him, he flees (1 Timothy 6:11);
· Not only that, but the new creature fills his mind with good things. It is not enough to simply avoid sin, one must actively seek righteousness. “But flee from these things and pursue…” Also consider the parable of the man with the demons (Matthew 12:43-45), whose soul was left unoccupied after expelling the evil spirit.