Selected highlights from this sermon.
What does it mean to be born again or to be regenerated (the new birth)?
In this message, Pastor Lutzer explains how we can be born again—born into the family of God. And once we’re born into God’s family, we are born complete.
The greatest miracle that God ever performed was to save you.
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Perhaps one of the greatest errors that people ever commit when it comes to their relationship with God is that they think of it in terms of a religion rather than a relationship. As all of us know, religion can become boring and very overbearing. And religion is not the way to God. It is a special relationship - God’s way.
Nobody illustrates that better than Nicodemus, and I want you to take your Bibles and turn to the third chapter of the Gospel of John, which is one of the most well-known stories in all the Bible – Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night. Who was this Nicodemus? Well, he was a high-ranking official of the Jews, the Bible says. He was a ruler of the Jews, a man of the Pharisees and also of the Sanhedrin. He had a position there, which meant he was on the highest Jewish court. And as a Pharisee he was a meticulous keeper of the Law. We are talking about strictness and exactness. It would be enough to drive most of us silly, but that’s how desirous they were of doing things right.
We have a negative view of them because of some things that Jesus said of them, but they were probably the best people that there were in those days. Very probably they’d have made good neighbors as long as you would not have walked on their lawn. That’s the kind of people they were. And he comes to Jesus by night. Why does he come by night? Very probably because he was afraid to come during the daytime when he would be seen.
You know the Gospel of John plays out this light-darkness motif very beautifully. For example, right here in this context Jesus says later in verse 19, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” So Jesus talks about people who are in darkness and Nicodemus came in the darkness, which was symbolic really of his own heart, but come he did and we are glad that he came.
He began by saying, “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.” Give Nicodemus some credit. He was recognizing Christ to have come from God. Jesus really does not respond directly to what he is saying but plunges right into the heart of the matter. I love that. He just cuts out all the underbrush and gets to the root of it and says to Nicodemus in verse 3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The Greek text actually means born from above. He cannot see the kingdom of God.
What does it mean to be born again? Well it means that God does a miracle by which He imparts into us the very nature of God. It doesn’t mean that we participate with God in His nature in the sense that we become one with God, but it does mean that God does a miracle within us so that we actually are reborn as members now of a heavenly family. You are born into your earthly family and that makes you a member of the human race, and you are born again to become a member of the heavenly family.
To better understand, do you remember Adam and Eve in the Garden when they disobeyed God? God said, “In the day that you eat of the fruit of this tree you will surely die.” Now they didn’t die, did they? They ate of the fruit of the tree and later on they walked around and the sun was still shining, and they were able to talk together, and they even left the Garden, so they didn’t die. Oh yes they died. “In the day that you eat thereof you shall die.” They died spiritually. Their relationship with God was broken. They went into the night of sin. It would be as if you had a lamp that was burning, and then suddenly somebody pulled the plug and the switch was turned off and the light went out. And ever since that time, as Jesus said, men loved darkness rather than light, and people stumble around. It says in the book of Proverbs that the wicked stumble and they do not know what it is that they are stumbling over. They try this path and this path and this path and they always end with a sense of futility and unreality. Now Nicodemus was a man who had theology but he didn’t have God. He had religion but he didn’t have reality. He was still in the night of existence.
Now regeneration is another word that is used in the New Testament for the new birth. What the new birth does is it flips the switch back on and we are in contact with God once again. We are cleansed and we become a member of God’s family, and again, God becomes real. That’s why Jesus said, “You must be born again in order to see the kingdom of heaven.
Now Nicodemus didn’t understand. He was a ruler of Israel. He should have understood but it’s amazing sometimes what even religious people misunderstand. The only thing he can think of is obstetrics, and he says in verse 4, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” He’s thinking, “How can I be born again?”
And then Jesus responds and says in verse 5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” What does Jesus mean? We can understand “unless one is born of the Spirit.” I think that would be clear to us. But Jesus used that word water. And there are some people who just love that word water because wherever it is they like to read into it baptism.
Well I want you to know today that I am positive that Jesus did not have baptism in mind when he used the word water. First of all, the word water when it is used just by itself without any other references never refers to baptism. The New Testament may talk about water to be baptized, but never just uses the word water. Secondly, Nicodemus would never have understood this to be baptism because that ordinance had not even yet been instituted really by Christ.
How would Nicodemus have understood this? Well, as a ruler of the Jews and a meticulous scholar, poring over those Old Testament scrolls, he would have thought of Ezekiel 36. It says there, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you. I will cleanse you, and I will put within you a new heart.” There you have the new birth in the Old Testament.
The water, you see, is another way of talking about the Holy Spirit. That’s why you could translate this, “Unless one is born of water (namely or even the Spirit), he shall not enter into the kingdom of God.” When God does a miracle in our hearts, it is a miracle of cleansing, and it is a miracle of change. So Jesus said to him, “Unless you are born of water (unless you are cleansed and transformed), you will not enter into the kingdom of God.”
Well, my friends, today that’s my introduction. What we’d like to do now is to look at three characteristics of this wonderful miracle of God that some of you have experienced and some of you still need to experience. And et’s look at its characteristics.
First of all, I want you to know that it is a miracle that is a work of the Father. The Father is begetting children. Now when you are born physically you have the ovum and the sperm that unite together, and that creates life. In the very same way, the Father, when He begets us, uses two agents really. First of all, there’s the Holy Spirit, who is the Father, as God is looked at as one in three persons, with the Holy Spirit a member of the Godhead. And then He also uses the Word, the truth of God, and that ignites in the human heart, and together that produces the miracle of the new birth.
You say, “Well why do you bring the Word of God into it?” In 1 Peter 1:23 this is what the text says. “You have been born again, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible seed.” Let me get this straight now. When we are born physically we are born of corruptible seed, and not incorruptible. So that verse really says, and let me quote it accurately now, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible seed by the Word of God which lives and abides forever.”
God speaks. God has spoken through His Word. He takes the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and those together produce the miracle of God of the new birth. But the Bible says that we are begotten of God. God does the work of begetting. It is a work of the Father.
In fact, if I were to explain this just a little more I would want to emphasize that it is the work of the Father alone. It is a miracle that God does independently of any human agency, independently of any help from us. It is a miracle done by God unassisted by human beings.
You say, “Well where do you find that in the Bible?” Let me remind you that in the Scripture there are three different illustrations actually of what happens when a person is born again. Let me give them to you. First of all, the Bible says that the act of being born again causes us to be new creatures. We are a new creation. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 it says, “If any man be in Christ he is a new creation.” It says in Ephesians 2, “We have been created for good works.”
God exercised His creative activity when He saved you.
Let me ask you this. When God decided to create the world, did He say, “You know, this is a big project, putting those stars up there. I can’t do this alone. I’m going to have to find some human assistance. Somebody is going to have to build some ladders or something. How can they expect me to do this alone?”
Oh no. No, we’d have just been in the way. In fact, if we had been there it’s because He would have created us. How did God do it? He did it ex nihilo. He did it out of nothing. He spoke the word and they came into existence. Now you just stop to think about it. Where was your new nature before you were saved? It wasn’t in existence. God created within you a new nature. He implanted that new nature within you and He did it by speaking a word, and doing a miracle. It is the miracle of creation. And just as no one helped Him create the worlds, no one helped Him create the new nature implanted in the life of every believer.
Here’s another illustration. Light! How would you like to say to someone who is in a cave without a flashlight, “What’s your problem? Just make some light.” Well, they can’t make light. And the Bible says that everything was dark and God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light created out nothing. There it was.
Listen to what the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4. Take this slowly but let it be absorbed into your soul. He said, “The God who said, ‘Let shine out of darkness’ has shone in your hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of Jesus Christ in the face of Christ.” The same God who created physical light and took all the darkness from the Universe by a single word is the same God who created moral and spiritual light within us, created as a miracle of God without any human assistance.
Well, some of you need another illustration because you’re not believing me. Resurrection! It says in Ephesians 2 that when we were dead God raised us up. Does God need any human assistance when he does resurrections? Did Jesus come to the tomb of Lazarus and say, “Now look, Lazarus, I want to raise you from the dead, but don’t think that I can do this on my own? At least minimally I expect you to wiggle your toe. Minimally! If you can do more, do it!” No, He never even asked him. He said, “If Lazarus has to be raised, I can’t depend on Lazarus. I can’t even enlist the help of the disciples.” He said, “Lazarus, come forth,” and lo and behold he staggers out of the tomb, and he’s alive, and there he is, a miracle of God. And when you were born again, when you were recreated and your new nature was given to you by God, it was because God said, “There needs to be a miracle. Let the miracle happen,” and it happened. It was a miracle wholly and totally of God. Now there are some things that we can do. Yes, we can do some things, but one thing we can’t do are these kinds of miracles, and the new birth is a miracle.
Now you say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, is it really as great a miracle as putting all the stars up there? I mean that’s power. There are billions of them. Is it as great a miracle as speaking and suddenly you have all of this light going on in the Universe, or raising the dead?”
I want you to know today that when God saved you He did a bigger miracle. Now, you know, with the physical miracles He had to overcome the barriers that existed, but that was no trouble because they were miracles of power. But when He saved us it was not only a miracle of power. It was a miracle of love and grace because He had to overcome the barrier, the tremendous moral and spiritual barrier that would allow Him to save us. You say, “Well, what are you talking about?” I hope you get a copy of that message I preached last week if you weren’t here because it is on justification by faith. Until God declared us to be as righteous as Jesus Christ, He could not have done this miracle within us, so He had to overcome all of the legal barriers and the entanglements. That’s why the new birth is a miracle of love and grace – not just of power, though of power too. The greatest miracle that God ever performed is to save you.
I remember Beverly Shea singing in Harringay Arena in 1954. Billy was in Harringay I think 96 nights in a row back then. But Bev sang this song:
It took a miracle to put the stars in place.
It took a miracle to hang the world in space.
But when He saved my soul, cleansed and made me whole,
It took a miracle of love and grace.
That’s a greater miracle. Now just remembering the difference between what we can do and what God can do, I should remind you that when he finished singing, you remember there was that angry English woman who met him in the lobby, and said, “Mr. Shea, what do you mean by saying it took America to put the stars in place?”
Well, I need to tell you that there are some wonderful things that America can do, and America has done some of those wonderful things. But so far, America has not been able to put the stars in place. There are some things that God can do, and the new birth can only be done by God.
Before I leave this point, let me emphasize something else. Did you know that this is the only religion in the world that has something like this? No other religion has this. You remember I told you that at the Parliament of World Religions there were 100 booths from all over the world of all the different religions, and I went from booth to booth looking for a savior, and not one of them said, “We have a savior.” Not one! There were gurus aplenty. There were all kinds of prophets that could tell you how to live better. But while all the other religions of the world have prophets who try to take good men and make them better, only Christianity has a Savior who takes dead men and makes them alive. Only Christ can flip the switch back on within the human heart. Would you remember that to be born again is a work of God?
Secondly, we are born not just by the work of God; it is also the will of God. Now I’m going to tease you a little bit and stretch your theological horizons, and some of you may feel uncomfortable about what I’m going to say, but I’m going to say it. I always say, “You know, if you disagree with me, that’s fine. You can come up later and apologize for having done that.”
I need to ask you a question. Did you choose to be born physically? Was that your choice? Did your parents say, “Well, you know, we can’t bring this child into the world unless we ask him first?” No, your mom and dad made that choice for you. Did you choose to be born again, or could it be that it was the Father who chose to beget you?
You say, “Oh Pastor, there you go again. You are stretching it.” Well, your Bibles are open, aren’t they? I hope that you always bring them because it’s so important that you make sure that what I say is biblical.
Look at chapter 1 of the Gospel of John. This is what it says in verse 12, a very famous verse. “As many as received Him to them gave He the right to become the children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” But look at verse 13. “Who were born (You see, when He received them they were born again.) not of blood.” It had nothing to do with your lineage. That why some of you are Christians even though your parents weren’t. And some of you have Christian parents, and you are not Christians. It’s not of blood. You can’t say, “Well, I’m a Christian because my grandfather was a Methodist circuit rider.” No, that doesn’t work.
You were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh. This was not a decision made for you by some human beings, nor of the will of man, but of God. John closes off all opportunities to think that somehow this was somehow our idea. It was the will of God, and James agrees. James says, “By His own will begat He us through the word of truth.” By His own will He begat us.
You say, “Oh well, if you are going to say that then ‘Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be will be.’” Not quite, because even though it is the Father who does the choosing, always remember that now that we are physically alive, He does work through the human will to get us to agree with His choice. And that’s why in this text that I read to you from John 1:12 and 13, there’s such a beautiful balance.
Looked at from our standpoint as many as received Him to them He gives the authority to become the children of God. The human side is to receive Him, and as many as many as receive Him to those He gives that authority, but from the divine side, they are receiving Him because God is working in their wills so that they are begotten by God. And God therefore works through the human will so that anyone who wants to receive Christ may do so. And on the other hand, no one is ever forced to against his will.
Part of the work of God is to get our wills in agreement with His purposes, and that’s why it’s so important for you to listen to the Word of God as it is preached. It is important for you to read the Word of God because the Word of God will then be used by God to bring your will in line with His purposes.
My wife and I have a friend who grew up in what used to be called the Soviet Union. She grew up as an atheist. I have been sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with this woman, and when I stopped into her shop a couple of weeks ago I noticed that she is now reading her New Testament. And that is wonderful. I have a hunch that one of these days her will is going to be lined up with God’s and there’s going to be a miracle that is going to happen in her heart as the Word of God and the Spirit of God combine to produce the miracle of God.
Always remember that the new birth first of all is the work of God. Secondly, it is the will of God. And thirdly, it is always done in God’s way. What do I mean? Did you know that the new birth is something direct and immediate that God does in the human heart? It is not mediated by sacraments. It is not mediated by some person who claims to represent God. It is something that God does in the heart directly.
Did you know that this work is instantaneous? During Medieval times they used to teach that conversion was a process that you went through, and you had to attend church, and you had to this, and you had to do that. And you were never sure because you were being converted, and it looked as if it was an impossible process because it never ended. The Bible says that when you receive Christ you pass from death unto life. And just as I mentioned, God, who caused the light to shine out of darkness, shines in the human heart. And when it shines it is an instantaneous experience - it happens at a point in time. It is never repeated. You never have to be born again and again and again, and that incidentally is the topic of next week’s message. And then two weeks from today, very importantly, the topic is how you deal with doubts and how you know for sure that you have been born again. Please be here for that one, but nevertheless, what the text is trying to tell us here is that just as a child is born in a moment of time, so a person is born into God’s family in a point of time. You actually cross a timeline. At this point you were not born again. At this point you are, and your relationship with God is eternally settled.
You say, “Well, what happens after a person is born again? Does he go back and live the way he lived?” Well, what happens when a baby is born? Now you know when a little baby is born (those little precious bundles) you look at them and you count their fingers. All new fathers count their fingers and their toes, and in most instances they come up with ten of each. But have you never noticed the fingernail? I mean, it may be like a pinprick in a new baby, but it’s there. And some little children when they are born may not have eyebrows, but you can see where those little eyebrows are going to grow. The baby is complete, absolutely complete. What it needs now is growth, and that’s the way you are when you are born into God’s family. You are born complete. The Bible says in Colossians 2, “We are complete in Him.”
And then you begin to grow, and as you begin to absorb the milk of the Word, and as you begin to fellowship with other believers, suddenly you discover that the life of God, which has been created in you begins to have more control over you, and you begin to grow. That does not mean that you become perfect all of a sudden. It may be possible, and certainly it is true, that there are those who are Christians, born again of the Spirit, who still struggle with alcoholism or sin of various kinds, who still fail, but there is now within them the life of God. The switch has been turned on. God has done a miracle, and Jesus said that without this miracle, don’t even plan on seeing the kingdom of God. Unless you are born a second time into God’s family you are not a member of that heavenly throng and you will not see the kingdom of God. And that’s why Christ said, “You must be born again.” I think Nicodemus became born again.
Pastor Wiersbe has an outline that he preaches on this text that goes like this. He says that in the third chapter of John, Nicodemus was in the midnight of confusion because he didn’t know the things that he should have known. It’s just like some of you who should know that you have to be born again, and yet you are hearing this for the first time. But Nicodemus was in the midnight of confusion. In John 7 where he stands up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin and defends Him, that is the twilight of conviction. He is now beginning to believe that this was a prophet come from God indeed and that he had to be born again, that is that Nicodemus had to be born again. And when he is willing to be identified with Jesus Christ in the midst of all of this hatred and anger directed towards Christ and Christ dies on the cross, who is it that helps take his body down and brings 100 pounds of spices to anoint the body of Jesus? Of all people it is Nicodemus. No man would have done that unless he had been born of God and had experienced the radical change of the new nature that Jesus had told him about on that very interesting midnight.
And you know that represents the people who are here today and the people who are listening by radio, doesn’t it? There are some of you who are in the midnight of confusion. You are walking in darkness. May you ask the right questions of the right people who can help you! I’m glad that you’re here. I am glad that you are listening, but that’s where you are. You’re confused. Even this message may have not made that much sense, and you are there.
There are others who are in the twilight of conviction, and you are to the point where you say, “Yes, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief.” You want to believe and you are on the verge of believing, but you still cannot bring yourself to that last step. Like someone said to me, “I still can’t get over the hump that I have become as I am,” but you are on your way.
And then there are those of you, bless you, who have come to the bright sunshine, the sunshine of confession where you are willing to be identified with Christ, even at great personal cost because you have experienced the radical change of the new nature. By His own will He begat us. By the Word of truth you have been born again.
It happens differently for people. It is always supernatural, instantaneous, invisible and eternal, but it happens differently. For some people it’s a big experience. For other people it’s a quiet experience, but without it you can’t see God.
Do you remember Dorie Van Stone? Some of you have read her book. She was 14 years old, in an orphanage, beaten, sexually abused in that orphanage by the way, a very angry child. She said that she would fight other children. Could I ask parenthetically why children are violent? Why are they so prone to fighting and anger? It’s because of lack of love. That’s why. But here a student from a Bible college comes and gives a little lesson, and then before the student leaves, turns and says to the kids before she walks out the door, “Always remember this. If you forget everything else I tell you, remember that Jesus loves you.”
Now Dorie had always heard the word Jesus as a swear word. She didn’t even know much about Jesus and God, but after everybody left the room she sat there cross-legged and was alone, and said, “Jesus, if You love me, I’m Yours.” And that night she cried herself to sleep as she did all the time in the orphanage, but this time she cried for a different reason. She knew within her heart that she had found God. Years later she would understand that God really found her and she would discover that the switch had been put on, and she knew the Almighty.
Jesus put it this way. He said in verse 14 to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Do you remember that story in the book of Numbers? They were all dying in this plague. They have a disease that is in their blood stream, and God says, “Moses, put up a serpent on the cross and if the people are willing to look at the serpent, they will be healed from their disease.”
I can imagine some Jew who was there saying, “This does not make sense at all. How can looking at a serpent on a pole, something outside of me, bring about a change within me and heal the poison in my blood stream?” God says, “You obey Me, you look, and you will live. Let Me do the miracle.”
Remember there are some things that only God can do. There are some things that we can do with His help, and with His help we can look at the cross, and if we look at the cross we will grasp, as it were, Christ as our very own. “As many as received Him to them He gave the authority to become the children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” You receive Him and then God does the miracle.
Karl Barth was a famous European theologian who died a number of years ago. In 1967 Billy Graham and he had their vacation together in the Swiss Alps. Barth was from Basel, Switzerland. And I remember Billy Graham saying that he preached on the new birth (that is, Billy did) and said, “Ye must be born again.” In fact, it says that in verse 7. “Do not marvel that I said ‘Ye must be born again.’” But Karl Barth believed that everybody was basically born again, that everybody in the end would be saved, which wasn’t a novel idea, buy it was certainly a very, very wrong idea. And he said to Billy, “You know I liked your sermon but I wish you would not emphasize that word must.
Well, I want to tell you something today. Let this be unambiguous and very clear. Unless you are born again you’ll never see the kingdom of God. And so let us say with Christ, “Ye MUST (must, must, must) be born again,” and if you aren’t you are not one of God’s children in this life, and you will not be one of His in the life to come. There is no other way.
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, I don’t know where I stand with God. What do I do?” Well, would you seek Him? Would you say, “God, I don’t know where I’m at but I want to know You. I want to be born again.” Or are you at the point where you say, “Pastor, I know the whole thing. Today I receive Him.” I don’t know what level you may be at. If you are in the midnight of confusion, you seek God. If you are at the twilight of conviction, you can make that decision because God has worked in your heart. If you are at the sunshine of confession, you pray for all those around you who have never savingly believed.
But this much I know. Except a man be born again, he shall never see the kingdom of God. You can’t have it from any higher authority than this - Jesus, Lord God, King!
Let us pray.
Now Father it is at moments like that that we finally recognize that we have come to the precipice of the impossible. We can’t make the deaf to hear. We can’t make the blind to see. We can’t take people who are not born again and make them born again. They can’t either. This is your miracle. We pray only, Father, that those who are struggling today may find their wills brought in harmony with Yours, and then they say, “Lord Jesus, do in me what I cannot do. Save me.” Cause them to do that, Father, because we are helpless apart from the work of your Spirit. Grant them the gift of eternal life.
And before I close this prayer I want you to pray, and I don’t know where you are in your experience, so I can’t tell you exactly how to pray. Why don’t you tell God what you need to tell Him? If you are seeking, tell Him that. If you are prepared to believe, tell Him that. But always remember, unless you are born again you’ll not see the kingdom of God. Let God flip the switch. You talk to Him now.
Father, we pray that your saving work might be evident in the hearts of all those bowed in Your presence. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
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