You Must be Born Again
#2 in the Series “All I have Commanded You”
Primary Text: John 3:7 “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
Secondary Text: Mark 8:34-35 And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
Before Jesus even began his ministry, John the Baptist announced the spiritual difference between Jesus and other religious leaders: “I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8) John was administering a ritual, Jesus would bring a life-changing transformation. If, as I have suggested, the teaching of Jesus is like a wagon wheel upon which we ride to Heaven with “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” being the rim, then “You must be born again” is the first spoke.
As I wondered how best to describe Jesus’s teaching regarding the transformation that He works in a person’s life, I found myself considering one of the prime examples of a person whose life Jesus completely changed: Peter. I found myself asking a question, however, which event in Peter’s walk with Jesus was the one moment where Peter’s life changed? For Peter was granted a whole series of experiences, any one of which would have been completely lifechanging for any one of us. Peter had a miraculous catch of fish through which he recognized his sinfulness (Luke 5), he walked on water with Jesus (Matt 14), he made the confession of faith upon which Jesus said he would build his church (Matt 17), he experienced Jesus’s transfiguration and appointment with Moses and Elijah, he was restored to fellowship with Christ in a private meeting after the Resurrection (Luke 24:34), and after a second miraculous catch Jesus challenged him three times by asking him “Do you love me?” (John 21). Even after Jesus ascended into Heaven, he changed Peter’s life at least two more times: the first when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost (Acts 2) and the second when Peter was called to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Peter did have an initial conversion experience: the moment when he, Andrew, James and John, answered Jesus’s command to “Follow me” by leaving their work behind to walk with Jesus. This initial experience, however, was not the end of Peter’s transformation but rather the door that Peter entered to make all the other transforming experiences possible.
As I look at Peter’s life as a model for our lives as Christians, it seems to me that following Jesus is not principally about what we do, and it is not principally about what we are, but it is most about what we are becoming by walking with Jesus. We believe that a person is saved at the moment that one recognizes that one is a sinner and when one surrenders one’s life to Jesus in faith that his death and resurrection make it possible to lead a new life. Peter’s life demonstrates, though, that such a moment can lead to many other transforming moments. Through his walk with Jesus, Peter was not only “born again” he was “being born again.” To paraphrase a cherished Baptist motto, Christian discipleship is not only “Once saved, always saved” it is “Once saved, always being saved.” As Christians we are always being transformed by Jesus
Nicodemus’s spiritual experience (and that of many of the religious leaders) was very different than that of Peter. He had been brought up to strictly keep the laws and traditions of his religion. He worked hard at being pious, faithful, and virtuous. I’m sure he was at the synagogue whenever it was open. But when spirituality has its basis on one’s own hard work, it is never tranformational. Nothing in Nicodemus’s experience prepared him to understand Jesus’s command, “You must be born again.” Most people’s religion is not about being “born again” but about “being good enough to get into heaven.” Jesus says that unless we are “born again” we can never enter the kingdom of heaven, and being “born again” is not something we accomplish, it is something the Spirit accomplishes in us.
For that reason, most spiritual experiences are not transformative, and even miracles may work a transformation that makes us worse and not better people. In Luke 11 Jesus speaks of casting a demon out of a person who, because they did not turn to God, ended up with many more demons. I wish it were not so, but Satan can work in a person’s life in two ways. He can either leave them alone knowing that in the absence of any transforming experience they will remain bound by their own selfishness or he can offer them a condemnatory experience (a crisis, a loss or an emotional experience that masquerades as transformation)—the kind which leads to greater hopelessness, bitterness and wickedness. God, on the other hand, wants true transformation in our lives, taking away our sin-soaked life of the self and replacing it with His life of love.
Although the Holy Spirit is the one who works this life-changing experience in us, it is not true that we Christian are merely passive recipients. We are instead active recipients. Jesus speaks over and over about the ways in which those who are being born again, prepare to receive the transformation of the Spirit. Jesus speaks of four elements in receiving the continuous work of the Spirit in our lives:
- We recognize our own ongoing need for God’s action in our lives, and we implore it. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” Jesus says in Matthew 5; those who recognize their need for God enter His kingdom. Jesus also says “Ask, and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened to you.”
- We keep a teachable attitude. “Unless you receive the kingdom of God like a little child, you shall never enter it.” (Mark 10:15) Little children have to be taught everything, and they become what they are taught.
- When God initiates a transformation, it becomes our highest priority. Jesus said that the kingdom of God was like a buyer of pearls who found the perfect pearl. He sold everything that he had to buy that one pearl.
- God’s transformation requires a willingness to die to the old life. Jesus said “whoever would save his life will lose it.” We cannot be transformed and at the same time try to hang on to our old selfishness.