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!”
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 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.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? (John 3:1-10)
When I was in college, I had an economics professor who worked with a prison ministry. One day, as he was making a point about race and economics, he referred to himself as a “born again Christian.” Since his topic was not religion but economics, he mentioned that in passing and said nothing more about it. When the class was over, another student walked over to me and suggested that we have lunch at a nearby restaurant, and so we went. I was minding my own business and deciding what I should order when he looked up from his menu and said, “What did he mean by born again?”
Since my food was the will of God, I would have gladly put down my menu to answer his question right away. However, I did not want to disappoint the waitress, so I ordered something sumptuous (I cannot recall what), and then went on to talk to my friend about God, sin, judgment, Christ, the atonement, faith and justification, and of course, the new birth, or what it meant to be born again. As far as I could tell, most of what I said was new to him, and he promised to give our discussion further thought.
This story illustrates my contention that we do not always need to be in a hurry to tell others that we are Christians or to preach the gospel to them. There are those who insist that if you do not make people aware that you are a Christian within several hours, days, or weeks of meeting them, then there is something seriously wrong with you. Perhaps you are ashamed of the gospel, so that you are too afraid to speak about your beliefs. Or, perhaps you are so deficient in your faith that your righteousness fails to overwhelm the unbelievers with the awareness that there is something different about you. Surely, if you are behaving as a Christian should, unbelievers will pick up on this and ask you about it. However, this way of thinking has no biblical warrant, and it is rather naïve and stupid. It betrays a lack of maturity and comprehension about spiritual things.
It is true that the Bible teaches us to be a light in this world by our good works, but it is always assumed that this is accompanied by the preaching of the gospel. It is just not true that if you behave like a Christian should, then unbelievers will automatically pick up on this and ask you about it. This false theory assumes some spiritual sensitivity in the unbelievers, but the Bible teaches that they are spiritually dull. Also, even if a Christian manages to distinguish himself in some situations, there are circumstances that are so ordinary that there is no opportunity for the Christian to naturally distinguish himself. As a whole, the church is to be a light in this world, but it is foolish to think that this can become naturally obvious in every single human relationship or interaction. The Bible never teaches this.
The only reliable way to draw attention to your faith is to bring up the topic and speak about it. And even when it comes to this, there is no rule that requires us to do it as soon as possible after we are first introduced to a person. Of course, in principle a Christian may preach the gospel to anyone at anytime, even to new acquaintances or complete strangers. It is also true that some believers may be too timid to do this, and may search for reasons to excuse themselves. But I am not referring to this aspect of evangelism. There is the issue of boldness, but there is also the issue of wisdom. When you are dealing with someone that you are likely to meet again and again, there is the option to wait until a convenient opportunity comes up to present the gospel.
In this case, I had been friends with this college student for months. I would see him several times a week, but not until that day did our conversation offered such a natural transition to an exposition of the gospel. And because he was the one who brought up the topic, and in such a direct and inquisitive manner, I was able to hold his attention for a great length of time without any protest. One could hardly imagine a more beautiful opportunity to present the gospel than being asked, “What did he mean by born again?” I do not say that you should wait for such a direct invitation. Something like this might never happen, but it remains that some contexts are better than others, some opportunities are superior to others, and some conversations are more easily transformed into religious discussions than others.
Again, a Christian should possess the boldness and the readiness of mind to approach a total stranger with the gospel, or to create the opportunity by forcing a conversation toward the desired direction. This should never been undermined. My point is that there are advantages to waiting for opportunities that enable you to naturally enter the topic. If such an opportunity does not come up, then there is nothing wrong with using a more invasive approach. I am, however, far from advocating a form of “friendship evangelism,” where the Christian befriends the non-Christian, and impresses the latter with how normal, sociable, and attractive a follower of Christ can be. The “natural” opportunities that I speak of can occur within the first several seconds of meeting a person, or it might not occur until several months later. In any case, no Christian should be made to feel guilty for not immediately announcing his faith to every person he meets, or for not dazzling an unbeliever with his holiness in a few days, especially if the reason for this is not a lack of boldness and conviction, but wisdom, patience, and faith in divine providence.
The story also illustrates something that is more relevant to our discussion, and it is the fact that not everyone is familiar with biblical concepts that seem commonplace to us. My friend was almost twenty, and was raised in the United States. With so many churches and believers in this country, we might expect someone like this to understand what Christians mean by “born again” even if he does not believe in it. But the truth is that very few unbelievers understand this and other biblical doctrines. Other than outright admission, there are other indications of their ignorance. For example, it is not unusual for a non-Christian to assert that religion should be primarily about unity, tolerance, social justice, good works, and so on. He would speak this way to a Christian without supplying any support and without making any effort to preempt objections, showing no awareness that his statement contradicts what his hearer believes. An unbeliever would often speak this way assuming that the Christian agrees with him.
This indicates that, no matter how wide we think that the biblical worldview has been propagated in Western cultures, it has not penetrated the consciousness of most people. It is not only that they do not believe what we believe, but they are not even aware of what we believe. Furthermore, it is also obvious that even those who identify themselves as Christians often do not know what we think they ought to know. Ask a number of church members what it means to be “born again,” and it is almost guaranteed that you will hear many different answers, all of them ridiculous. The idea is not commonplace after all. Now ask the pastors the same question, and it is unlikely that you will get much better results. Of course, one reason for this is that most church members and pastors are not born again. If most people in Western civilizations – if even most “Christians” – do not know what it means to be born again, then we need to make our exposition of the Christian faith much more clear and forceful before the world. We should not assume that people in any part of the world understands even the most basic Christian ideas, including those in our churches and seminaries.
God created man, and called him Adam. He was created upright, but he fell into sin, and sin produced devastating damages to every aspect of man. The moment he transgressed God’s command, death came into him. His body began to deteriorate. It would continue to survive for many years, but it eventually expired and returned to dust. The life and light of God dissipated from his soul, and in the place of peace, joy, and clarity of thought came fear, shame, and confusion. Adam was the federal head of all mankind, that is, the representative. Thus when he fell into sin, all of mankind fell with him. Every human person produced since that time would inherit his corrupt nature, and would also come under the judicial condemnation of God.
There is an intellectual and an ethical aspect to the damage inflicted upon the fallen soul of man. We can summarize the condition of every non-Christian with two simple words – he is stupid, and he is sinful.
The non-Christian is stupid. He turns away from God’s wisdom in his thinking and attempts to construct his own interpretation of the world using irrational methods such as induction, sensation, and science. He claims to value reason highly, but he is considered rational only by other irrational men. In the intellectual arena, men’s credentials come from mutual approval. They refuse to receive the wisdom that comes from God, but instead bands together to build their intellectual Tower of Babel. But under the test of logic, every project crumples to dust. It does not matter what they say about one another. I have no respect for their opinion. Since there is not one non-Christian theory, discovery, or claim to knowledge that I cannot refute in under ten seconds, the only reasonable conclusion is that non-Christians are unintelligent. They are very stupid. Their thinking is characterized by ignorance and irrationality. This is especially pronounced when it comes to spiritual things.
The non-Christian is sinful. To commit sin is to transgress God’s moral laws and precepts in any way, whether in one’s thoughts, motives, desires, or actions. The Bible, of course, includes many such laws and precepts, and they define for us right and wrong, good and evil, and how to distinguish between them. Even those who have no access to God’s verbal revelation, or who reject it, are instinctively aware of some of the broader principles of God’s moral code for mankind. These may not be in sharp focus in their thinking. In them they seem more like faint memories, and when they surface, they are usually suppressed, distorted, or explained away.
In the non-Christian man are strong motives, desires, and dispositions toward evil, toward beliefs, thoughts, and actions that are contrary to God’s commands. It is not that unbelievers have no concept of morality, but they suppress in their minds what they instinctively know about God and his holiness, and in their wickedness they invent their own standards to replace the precepts of God. In other words, non-Christians call evil that which is good, and call good that which is evil. And they do this so that they can call themselves good even as they perform evil and defy their Creator. Nevertheless, they cannot even live up to the standards that they set for themselves. Thus the non-Christian is an intellectual failure, and he is an ethical failure.
The non-Christian is a defective person. There is something wrong with him. There is not just something wrong with what he thinks or what he does – a person is what he thinks and what he does. There is something wrong with his person, with him – all of him. Every non-Christian is a bad person, a rotten person. He is this way from the moment he is conceived. He is dead on the inside, and dying on the outside. Any religious or philosophical doctrine must be false that denies the true condition of man, that proposes a superficial solution, or that proposes a solution that is powerless to effect the necessary change.
Jesus said that the only solution is for a person to be “born again.” The word rendered “again” can also be translated “from above.” The Bible teaches both ideas. It refers to the need for regeneration of the soul, and to the “new creation” of the inner man. But in the Gospel of John, a prominent contrast is made between that which is “from above” and that which is “from below.” And Jesus referred to his disciples as “not of the world” even though they were still living in the world. So both ideas apply. It is indeed a second birth, but it is not a second natural birth, but a different kind of birth. It is a birth of the spirit, in which God gives divine life to the soul of man, reviving his spiritual senses, enlightening his mind with truth, orienting his dispositions toward righteousness.
Jesus said that unless a man is born again – unless he is born from above, given birth by God in the spirit – he cannot “see” and he cannot “enter” the kingdom of God. The word “see” refers not to sensory perception, but to intellectual perception about spiritual things. That is, unless a man is born from above, he cannot truly grasp the things of God. He cannot understand the truth about God or believe what he has revealed to us. The word “enter” refers to participation. That is, unless a man is born from above, he cannot be a part of God’s family of love, truth, and righteousness. A person can become a citizen of God’s kingdom only by being born into it. In other words, unless a person is born again, or born from above, he will always be on the opposite side of God, and of all that is good and true.
There is only one Father, he has only one divine Son, and there is only one Holy Spirit. The Father has granted to the Son a fixed number of individuals, chosen before the creation of the world. All who are born again necessarily belong to the Son of God, and indeed all who belong to him will believe on him. We are not born again by believing in Christ, since no one who is still dead in the spirit can believe in the truth. This is man’s problem in the first place, and he cannot rescue himself out of it. Rather, all those whom God has chosen belong to Christ, and all who belong to Christ will be born again, and all who are born again will show themselves as such by believing Jesus Christ.
As in natural birth, the spiritual birth is not a work that you perform. It is not something that you do; it is something that God does. It is something that happens to you, that happens in you by God’s sovereign decision, and that he causes by the power of his Holy Spirit. And once it happens, you will do what your new spiritual nature dictates. Just as a human person is moved by a natural desire for human food, a child of God has a natural desire – natural as opposed to artificial or pretended – for spiritual food, that is, to consume the word of God and to perform the will of God. It becomes the most natural thing for this person to believe in the truth, to entrust his life and soul to Jesus Christ, and to love and worship God.
This is why all non-Christian religious and non-religious proposals fail. Unless a man is born from above, born of God, he cannot perceive or participate in God’s kingdom. But God regenerates only those whom he has chosen in Christ. Therefore, there is no one who is a non-Christian who can say that he is born from above, that he is a child of God. It does not matter what religion he belongs to. It does not matter what philosophy he affirms. It does not matter how much education he has, or how many good deeds he has done. It does not matter if he is strong, wealthy, or clever by the standards of the world – men’s approval does not imply God’s approval. It does not matter if he claims to search for the truth, yet not by accepting revelation from God, but by utilizing the means that he thinks he has, and that he thinks are reliable, such as his physical senses, inductive reasoning, and the scientific method. It does not matter if he reaches deep within or stretches far beyond for enlightenment. All is futile. Nothing that man can do can make a difference. Only a new creation, a new birth from above can remove man from the kingdom of darkness and place him in the kingdom of light, from the bondage of Satan to the righteous liberty in God.
Most people are not born again, or born from above, and it is often easy to tell who they are. Murderers, adulterers, homosexuals, robbers, deceivers, atheists, agnostics, all those who admit that they are non-Christians, and all those who tolerate or approve of them, as long as they remain such, will certainly not inherit the kingdom of God. The demonic nature is right there on the surface. Some people are not as obvious. It is, in fact, not difficult to see what they are, but clear perception requires us to discard some of our assumptions, and to look beyond appearances.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, even one of the Jewish rulers. He was educated in religion according to the standard of men. He admitted that Jesus performed miracles, and that at least on the basis of these miracles, Jesus must have come from God. As a side note, Nicodemus must have been familiar with the record of the false prophets and magicians in Scripture, so he knew that deceivers could produce tricks or miracles. And he realized that the miracles Jesus performed were beyond these – they must have been numerous, spectacular, overwhelming.
Nevertheless, Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, and the opinion expressed by Nicodemus fell short of this. Any opinion of God that falls short of seeing him as God falls infinitely short. Just as God is infinitely superior to man, as long as a person judges God to be a mere man, no matter how special a man, this person is wrong by an infinite measure. It should not surprise us that Jesus told him that he must be born again, born from above, in order to perceive and participate in the kingdom of God. No matter how much religious education Nicodemus had, and even though at least a part of that education was sound, he was a man of the world, a man “from below,” so that his perception was limited to this perspective.
No matter how religious a person appears to us, and no matter how established he is in religious circles, if he fails to sincerely and intelligently acknowledge that Jesus was and is the Christ, the Son of God, he remains a person of the world, dead in the spirit, and not born from above. Many seminary professors, church leaders, denomination directors, will be thrown straight into hell when they die, not because they are these things, but because they have not been born again. Perhaps they have learned to say the right words, as a parrot imitates its master, but only a born again person can confess the truth with understanding and belief, and afterward grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, bearing much fruit.
There is another principle, a broader one, that helps us to identify those who are not born again. Many Christians fail to think clearly on this issue, and affirm that a person can acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, but deny the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. But on what basis do these people confess that Jesus is God and Christ? The truth is that the person who denies biblical inspiration and inerrancy is worse than Nicodemus. Of course we cannot say that he truly believed the Scripture until he also believed in what it said about Christ, but at least he affirmed the authority of Scripture in principle. This is more than we can say about those who reject the doctrine. So let us not deceive ourselves and deceive others. A person who is born from above will naturally believe the truth that God has revealed. And since God has revealed truth to us in the Scripture, a born again person will naturally believe the Scripture – all of it – and it follows that he will believe and confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. There is no promise of life for anyone who affirms anything less than this.
When we speak with non-Christians, we must see through appearances and go beyond mere symptoms. Of course, we may begin our approach with any issue that we like or that is convenient. A conversation may begin with food, weather, career, politics, even religion. But very soon we must use it to lead to deeper questions, and especially to draw attention what is wrong with the non-Christians as people. What kind of people would say what they say about food? What kind of people would assume what they assume about the weather? What kind of person would take their view of work, education, parenting, ethics, and so on?
Even when we discuss these topics with them on a superficial level, the conflict of ideas between us should become evident right away. But what are the reasons for the conflict? We provide arguments for these beliefs, and so do they. If we believe in accordance with the Scripture, we will find that our arguments crush theirs every time and on every issue. But they cling to their positions. Why? Why are they so irrational? Why are they so dishonest, so immoral? What kind of people are they? Ah, they are stupid and sinful people. We have come upon it. We have come to the root of the matter – they must be born again, born from above, to even perceive what we perceive, to see the truth that is so clear and simple to us.
When an unbeliever comes to you with an objection or a comment about something that disagrees with the Christian faith, what do you do? Do you answer the objection or respond to the comment, and then stop and wait for the next one? If you have been educated by the Scripture in right beliefs and in the way of right reasoning, then of course you can defeat any objection and address any comment, but you must go further than that. Because the Bible has given you insights about the non-Christian, you understand him better than he understands himself, so it is up to you to push the conversation in a direction that will allow you to tell him what he needs to hear. His hostile objection is just an excuse. His comment – perhaps one that has no apparent relation to religion at all, but that conflicts so much with Christianity – is just a symptom.
There is nothing wrong with the Christian faith. He thinks the way he thinks, and he acts the way he acts, because there is something wrong with him. He is broken, defective, unintelligent, and wicked to the core. He is a stupid and worthless piece of spiritual garbage. He has no redeeming qualities. He must be changed. He must be born again. You need to tell him that. You need to show him that. Of course, I do not say that if you preach the truth to him, then you will cause him to be born again, or that he can decide to be born again. No, that is up to God. But you need to preach the truth to the unbeliever, as a witness against him and as a witness to the truth about God, so that perhaps God may show him mercy and bring conviction to his heart, and convert him through faith and repentance.
So you answer the objection, but you also point out the foolishness of the objection, and then ask, “What kind of person are you, that you would think like this? See, you think you are a smart and rational person, but you are really a stupid and irrational person. But why are you so stupid? Why are you so irrational? Because there is something wrong with YOU. Your stupid objection is a product of sin’s effect on the mind, an effect of the fall of man. Only Jesus Christ can save your mind and give you light.”
If the unbeliever remains stubborn, even though he has lost the debate, or if his comment, question, or objection has to do with a conflict between Christian and non-Christian ethics, then you should say, “Now I have answered what you said, but what kind of person are you, that you would insist on believing a lie, even though I have refuted you? Why are you so dishonest, although you claim to respect truth and reason? Or, what kind of person are you, that you would think this way, that you should make such a protest, or ask this question? Do you not see it? You are an evil, sinful, rotten person. Why are you so despicable? It is because you were born a child of the devil. But Jesus Christ can save your soul and give you life.”
Jesus’ teaching that a person must be born from above to perceive and participate in God’s kingdom defines the way that we look at the non-Christians, and thus also the way we perform evangelism and ministry. The doctrine requires Christians to stop flattering the unbelievers, and to stop lying to them about their condition. Our debate with unbelievers, and with many of those who call themselves believers, can be reduced to this basic difference – they are from below, but we are from above. So our message to them is not that we are very much the same, only that they are misinformed and misguided, that if they would only hear us out, they could decide to make that slight adjustment and become like us.
Rather, we must tell them, “You have a problem, a big problem. It is not something superficial that you can easily fix. You are ignorant, but you cannot fix this problem by learning a little more information. Your intellect is so broken that you cannot learn what you need to know. You are irrational, but you cannot fix it by gaining more practice or exercising more care in your thinking. Your mind is so confused and stupid that you can never learn the way of right reasoning as long as you remain the person that you are. You are evil, wicked, immoral, and filthy. But you cannot do anything to change that, try as you might. In fact, you are so stupid and sinful that you cannot truly understand what it means to be righteous and how to live up to it. You see, you are the problem. You are not an intelligent person who lacks opportunity. You are not an ethical person who makes mistakes. You are an unintelligent person. You are an unethical person. You need a power that is greater than you and that is outside of you to change you into something else. You must be born again. You must be born from above to see into and to live in the realm of God.”
The doctrine also defines how Christians ought to understand themselves. Even before the creation of the world, God chose to justify and to adopt me through Jesus Christ. When I was born, I inherited Adam’s corruption in my soul and body, just like everyone else, and shared in the effects that sin produced in the intellectual, ethical, and physical aspects of man. Then, at God’s appointed time, his eternal decree regarding my salvation was made manifest, and I was changed. I was born from above. The life of God flooded my soul, and the light of Christ filled my mind, and opened my eyes – that is, my spiritual or intellectual perception – to the truth, and I believed the gospel. The Spirit of God came into me, and testified to me that I was the son of God, and declared to my conscience that I was justified and sanctified in Jesus Christ.
On the outside, I may look like everyone else, since the change was not a physical birth, a birth from below, but it was a spiritual birth, a birth from above. I remain a human person, as non-Christians are also human, but the similarity is only superficial. In the spirit I belong to an altogether different spiritual race, a race that is so much superior in substance – in intellectual capabilities and in ethical dispositions – that it is sometimes difficult to make satisfactory comparisons. You can compare a man to a dog, but they are so different in some areas that it might not make sense to do so. Jesus said that he did not come to bring peace between men, but that he came to bring a sword that would disrupt even the most intimate relations. Of course, the race of God had been in conflict with the race of Satan since the fall of Adam, but Christ made the divide clearer than ever before.
I am a man from another world. I can comprehend the things of the spirit, and belief in the doctrines of God is natural to me. It does not strain me to believe the truth, because I see truth for what it is, and I can testify to what I perceive in the realm of God. In the natural, I am a descendent of Adam, and I can also grasp all that the non-Christians believe. I know how they think, what they believe, and the reasons that they provide to justify their beliefs and their actions. But I can also see that they are wrong, and I can show how they are wrong, every time. So I am a Christian not because I am ignorant or gullible, or because I do not understand the non-Christians’ positions and arguments. I understand them, and I see that they are wrong, but that the faith of Jesus Christ is true. I stand in judgment over the thinking of unbelievers. But the non-Christians cannot rise to my level of thinking and perception, since as Paul wrote, the things of God are spiritually discerned, grasped by a mind that is capable of processing spiritual things.
This birth from above is not a work of man. I did not give birth to myself in the spirit, nor did I cause God to do so. And it did not happen because I deserved it. If I was so good that I deserved regeneration, justification, and adoption, then I would not have needed these things, for I would have been born from above in the first place. No, God decided to adopt me, justify me, and sanctify me in eternity, before the creation of the world, without regard to my faith and conduct. Rather, my faith and good works are the products of his divine decree, not the cause of it. Thus to note my privileges as a believer, as a member of the superior spiritual race, is not to boast about myself, but to boast about the grace and the power of God, and to make nothing more than a factual statement.
This is how every Christian should understand himself. It is astounding that those who claim to be Christians would resist this, and would criticize those who speak like this. Like the Pharisees, hypocrites respect a person after he is dead, and they would practically worship him when it is fashionable to do so, although they would condemn someone who is alive for saying the same thing. This is why I am often criticized by “Christians” for merely repeating the doctrines of the prophets and the apostles, as well as Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, and for teaching them with the same attitude and force. Luther is praised, and Calvin is exalted, but let no one dare repeat what they said!
Thus I cite Spurgeon for their benefit: “What is a Christian? If you compare him with a king, he adds priestly sanctity to royal dignity. The king’s royalty often lies only in his crown, but with a Christian it is infused into his inmost nature. He is as much above his fellows through his new birth, as a man is above the beast that perishes.” He says it well: The Christian is as superior to the non-Christian as a man is above a brute. This is the teaching of Scripture, and of all those who have respect for God’s work in regeneration.
Let us not be hypocrites, but be true to our profession of faith. If we say that we stand with the prophets and the apostles, the Reformers, and the great theologians and preachers of the past, then let us also declare the same doctrines that they taught, in the same boldness of speech with which they declared them to their generations.