Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). This was part of the discussion that Jesus had with Nicodemus; it leads to the most well-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16. But what does it mean to be born again? What is the new birth?
In his first letter, Peter writes, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3). When we talk about the new birth, this is what we are referring to—that we are reborn spiritually into a new life that is defined by Jesus Christ. This new life is possible because of the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross and completed when He rose from the dead three days later. The new birth is a way of describing what happens when a person puts his or her faith in Jesus.
To better understand the new birth, we need to understand the spiritual condition of mankind. Paul, throughout the book of Romans, outlines the difference between the person that we were before being reborn and the person that we are after. One of the most dramatic pictures of who we were is seen in Chapter 3 where Paul highlights all of the depraved and evil thoughts of mankind (Romans 3:11–18). In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes, "Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). In other words, those who continue to live according to their sinful desires will not enter the kingdom of heaven. But he was writing to Christians in Corinth; notice what he says to them next: "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11).
Every human was once separated from Christ (Ephesians 2:1–5) and alienated from the life of God (Ephesians 4:18). Romans 5:12 explains, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned." Romans 3:10–11 explains that no one is righteous and none seek God. Romans 3:23 affirms that all sin and fall short of God's glory. Romans 6:23 tells us that sin results in death. But God, in His love and mercy, sent Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for our sins by taking them upon Himself so that we could take the righteousness of Christ upon us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Sin leads to death, "but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). All who put their faith in Him are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Another way of saying we are a new creation is that we have been born again or reborn. This new creation is like a new birth.
Those who have been saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus are no longer the same as they were (Ephesians 2:8–10). They have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the eyes of God (1 Corinthians 6:11; Romans 3:23–24). They have been crucified with Christ and their old selves have died so that they would no longer be slaves to sin, but instead be slaves to Christ (Romans 6:6). They have become children of God (John 1:12; Romans 8:14–17; Galatians 4:4–7) "who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). As His children, they are to reflect Him in all they do (1 John 4:7–12).
Just as an infant needs to grow, so, too, do those who have been reborn need to grow in Christ. Peter encouraged, "Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation" (1 Peter 2:2). Those who have experienced new birth in Christ grow up into maturity in Christ through things like the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:3–14; Philippians 2:12–13; Romans 8:28–30), time in God's Word (2 Timothy 3:16–17), prayer (Hebrews 10:19–25), fellowship with other believers (Ephesians 4:11–16), and obedience to Christ (John 15:10–11).
None of this is possible apart from Jesus Christ. Just as an infant does not grow itself, neither can we force ourselves into spiritual maturity. And just as children and adults do participate in their own growth, so, too, do we participate in the Holy Spirit's work in our hearts and lives. Jesus said, "Apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Philippians 2:12–13 encourages, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." For those who have placed their hope and faith in Jesus Christ He says, "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). The growth process lasts a lifetime. We will never be perfect this side of heaven. But God will complete His good work in us (Philippians 1:6; 1 Corinthians 15:50–58).
To summarize, the new birth is the spiritual rebirth of every person who surrenders their life and their will to Jesus Christ. When we place our faith, hope and trust in Him, we are spiritually reborn, "The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
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