THE BORN (AGAIN) IDENTITY
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
February 2, 2020
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 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. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
— John 3:1-15, ESV
Recently I sought to discover which state in the United States has the most Christians. It is not our state of Arkansas nor my home state of Georgia. It is not the most populous state, California, nor either of the two largest states in the South, Texas and Florida. It is the state of confusion. The majority of people who profess faith in Jesus Christ in our country really have no idea what it means to be a Christian. Statistics from the leading research organizations prove this point.
Combining the data from Barna, Christianity Today, and LifeWay Research, we learn that we are living in a post-Christian country, even though over 70% of adults consider themselves to be Christians. This is because out of this number, only about 15% claim to be born again, which according to Jesus is an absolute prerequisite for being a Christian. And even among those who claim to be born again, statistics indicate fewer than 2% recall a conversion experience, worship in their churches and study their Bibles each week, and undertake efforts to evangelize non-Christian people.
Perhaps all professing Christians, and anyone interested in becoming one, should come along with a Pharisee named Nicodemus and listen to the Lord explain how to become a Christian. In Jesus’ own word, “You must be born again.”
The Born Again Identity
Nicodemus the Jewish Pharisee would fit right into today’s diluted statistics regarding Christianity. He was born a Jew, he became a Pharisee, he crafted his own version of extra-biblical piety, and he was convinced that his own innate goodness made him right with Almighty God. However, after observing Jesus over a period of time, Nicodemus had questions about his own pathway on the road to Heaven and thought the Lord may have a better plan.
The majority of professing Christians in America are like Nicodemus. They were born into a Christian family, baptized into some Christian church, but open Scripture and darken the doors of a church only once or twice a year. They live their lives by standards other than the word of God, because they are either oblivious to or offend by the teachings of Holy Scripture. They would do well to sneak out and listen to what Jesus has to say.
Jesus said Christianity begins with being “born again.” In the original language, the first word means to be generated or “born.” The second is usually translated “above” and occasionally “again.” John favors words with dual, deeper meanings. His choice here amplifies Jesus’ saying to show the identity of a true Christian begins with the passive experience of being regenerated after being generated, or being born again from above.
Christians must be born again, or given a second birth. All human beings have a birthday, thanks to the contribution of the father and the water-breaking labor of the mother. It should be a day of joy for a family, and the joy should be remembered and celebrated every year. Christians have a second birthday, much more mysterious than the first, but a day nonetheless when there is great rejoicing in Heaven and on earth. It is a day when new life is formed, new loves are attached, and a new day dawns that will never cease to be celebrated.
Christians must be born from above, or given a spiritual birth. Consider Paul’s commentary in Titus 3:5, “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Being born from above is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When He comes into a life He brings the gifts of repentance and faith, so that a human being can be changed by belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Spirit works with the word of God to create a new child of God, born again and born from above.
Lost church members, like Nicodemus, really believe they are going to Heaven because of something they have done. But one does not become a Christian by actively doing. We become Christians by passively being, by being born again by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Only then can you truly identify as a Christian, it is a born again identity.
The Born Again Supremacy
Christianity is under fire today from without and within over the doctrine of supremacy, or exclusivity. The current Catholic pope says we should not evangelize people of other faiths. Most Protestants take his advice. But is the new birth, is faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, is biblical Christianity the only way to Heaven?
Jesus offered only one answer to Nicodemus’ unasked question. Again, if a person could go to Heaven by obeying laws, or being religious, or the general goodness of their own hearts, Nicodemus would have had no need to meet with Jesus. But by watching Jesus, I think by this time for about the full three years of ministry, Nicodemus suspected there had to be a more valid entrance into the kingdom of God. He did not even have to ask, the omniscient Lord knew his mind and heart and instructed him, “You must be born again.”
Jesus offered only one cure for man’s depravity. Remember the last text’s take on depravity (ref. John 2:23-25)? Jesus looked inside Nicodemus, like He can look inside all people, and saw that while the Pharisee was physically moving, and intellectually and emotionally engaged, he was spiritually dead. That’s why the Lord said, “You must be born from above … of the Spirit.” They say a soldier who loses an arm or leg in the war can still feel it itch from time to time. That’s why lost people, who lost the Spirit in the fall of man, still reach out sometimes to Jesus by night. They itch, and Jesus offers the only thing that can scratch it, the gospel, the new birth, and life in Christ.
Jesus offered only one way to enter the kingdom of God now and live in Heaven forever. Nicodemus had thought that all Jews go to Heaven, with the possible exception of extreme apostates and criminals. Being baptized a Christian won’t necessarily qualify you, either. I had a good friend who owned a business with this sign inside: “Being good will keep you out of jail, but it won’t keep you out of Hell.” “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Jesus said.
Think also the words John records later in the Gospel, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Me” (ref. John 14:6). The supremacy of being born again marks it as the only way to be saved, according to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Born Again Ultimatum
If Christianity requires being born again, and it does, and if Christianity is the only way to be saved and enjoy eternal life, and it is, then is this and ultimatum to everyone else and every other religion?
Jesus does not accept religion. If he did, Nicodemus would have been fine, just the way he was. No one was more religious than a Pharisee. No one kept more religious rule and regulations. No one had a higher standing in Israel than a member of the Sanhedrin. But Nicodemus, according to Jesus, had to change, be born again, follow Christ, or else.
Jesus does not accept good works. I am aware that a lot of bad things have been done in the name of religion. But racist Nazism and atheistic communism has a pretty bad track record, too. Most people do mostly good things in the name of their religion, live peaceable lives, promote health, education, and welfare, and pick up their dog’s poop on a walk. But if a good deep point system was the way into the kingdom of God, why would Jesus insist on the new birth? And, why would Jesus allow Himself to be lifted up on the cruel cross? The requirement for Christianity is not what you have done for God, but what you have done with what God has done for you.
Jesus does not accept religion or good works. Jesus accepts only those who accept Him. Remember what was written about Him in the prologue of the Gospel, “He came to phis own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13).
The born again ultimatum means unless you are chosen by the will of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of God the Son, reborn by the power of God the Holy Spirit, you cannot be saved, enter the kingdom of God, or go to Heaven when you die.
The Born Again Legacy
Of course, the opposite is true, too. Those chosen by the will of God willing choose to follow Jesus Christ. Those who have been born again behave like born again people and bear the fruit of the Spirit. Christians build and leave a legacy while laying up treasure in Heaven, while unbelievers will eventually be forgotten by man and God. What is your legacy going to be?
How do you see yourself? Do you see a religious person, a good person, or a sinful person in need of forgiveness and redemption? I think Nicodemus saw himself as religious and good, until after he met with Christ. He would later defend Jesus before the Sanhedrin, and bury Jesus after the cross. I think Nicodemus’ sins are forever forgiven, and not by Judaism or Christian nominalism.
How do you see the cross of Christ? Silly or seriously? If our works or goodness could save us, it would have been silly for Jesus to get caught in a conspiracy and crucified. The text Jesus referenced, Numbers 21, would have been very familiar to Nicodemus and the Jews. It is a story of punishment for sins and the offer of redemption, an offer that would seem silly to a sophisticated American. Look at a snake on a pole and be healed from the snakebite of sin and death. But those who looked were saved, and the same thing is true today. Do you see Jesus on the cross as the historical, biblical, true, and only remedy for sin and death?
How do you see the Holy Spirit? Well, you cannot see the Holy Spirit, and that’s the point. You cannot see the wind, but you can see the effects of full sails or a hurricane’s aftermath. You cannot control the wind, or else we’d only have full sails and no hurricanes. Neither can anyone control the Spirit, or manipulate people into making some so-called saving decision for Christ. Word and sacrament are our sails, and so often the Spirit it pleased to come and fill them and send faith into a newborn Christian’s life, where the evidence of the Spirit’s new birth includes important things like repentance, faith, love, obedience, and perseverance.
I think a person knows whether or not they were ever born. And, I think a person can know whether or not they’ve been born again. If you have, Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus will give you great assurance. If not, read John 3:1-15 again, then go to the very next verse, and feel the wind start to blow.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org