“Ye must be born again”
A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Castle Street, Reading,
18th June 2000.
by Maurice Roberts
Let us now hear the Word of God as we have it written in the Gospel according to John and in chapter 3:
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
May the Lord add His blessing to this reading from His most holy Word.
I wish to draw your attention today to words which you will find in verses 3, 5 and 7 of this chapter. John 3 verse 3: “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, Verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” At verse 5, “Jesus answered, Verily, Verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” And again at verse 7, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again.”
If I may, I should like to bring the greetings of my brethren in the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) and in a word express my deep gratitude for the privilege of being invited to address you on this occasion. We seek God’s richest blessing upon the ministry of Mr. Richard Mortimer, now begun. May God anoint him and bless him in all time coming.
The subject before us, as you see, is that of the new birth. Nicodemus was a man of great religious knowledge and experience. He was, if you like, an expert and a scholar in the things concerning the Old Testament. But there was clearly one thing he did not know. He did not know the way into the spiritual experience which is known as the new birth. We are told here and indeed elsewhere in the Gospel of John, that he came to Jesus ‘by night’. It is, as it were, a label which is attached to him all through this Gospel. He was the man who came to Jesus, we are told, ‘by night’. Why should he come ‘by night’ and why should the Scriptures repeatedly draw attention to the fact that it was ‘by night’ that he came? I suppose that he came to Christ by night under cover of darkness as being ashamed to come by day. He was, after all, a religious expert and a ruler in Israel, as this portion of the Word of God informs us. But, in spite of that, there was something that he did not know and at this point in his experience had not understood. So our blessed Lord and Saviour brings to him this supremely important theme of the new birth.
Every minister beginning his work engages upon it with the overwhelming concern to be instrumental in the blessing of men, women and children. That’s why God instituted the ministry at all. And of all the ways in which a minister might be a blessing to the people to whom he ministers in time to come, none is greater than that he should have the joy of seeing them come to this experience of new birth, whereby they become the sons and daughters of Almighty God. Allow me, therefore, on this occasion, if I may, to bring this theme before you and to look at it under three simple and brief headings.
I. Our Lord and Saviour first of all brings before us the necessity for the new birth.
He does this in the words, ‘ye must be born again’. Now there are many things that you and I can live in this world without. We do not need to have great riches, fame or popularity to live a happy and a fulfilled existence here in this world. There are many things we can do without and these things that I have listed come to few in this world. But our Saviour tells us all here in this passage, that there is one thing that we dare not live without. He calls it by this term, ‘the new birth’. He emphasises the necessity of it in these words, ‘ye must be born again’. Other things may be optional but the new birth is a matter of absolute necessity, he says.
Now let us raise the question, Why is it a matter of necessity? Why is this new birth so much insisted on by the glorious, eternal Son of God in the days of his ministry upon earth? Why does he press so repeatedly the necessity for this experience of new birth?
Allow me to give you one or two reasons at this point. First of all because our first birth did not give us any spiritual life. He tells us in his own words, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit”. He clearly shows, therefore, that there are two kinds of life. There is natural life and there is spiritual life. By natural life, he means that as we are born from our mother’s womb into this world, we enjoy a certain quality of life. That is so common-place that it hardly needs to be said. But what does need to be said is that our first birth from our mother’s womb does not make us partakers of spiritual life. We are born spiritually dead according to the teaching of the Word of God. We are dead by nature in trespasses and sins. And the necessity of the new birth arises from this consideration, that if we are to have spiritual life, then there must be in our own experience this wonderful work of God whereby we are given a second birth, a new beginning in this life.
I come to a second reason why we need new birth. It is because we must all die and we must all face the judgement. The supreme question therefore in life is, Am I prepared for death, and am I prepared to face my Maker and my Judge in that awesome day in which every knee must bow before him and every tongue confess him? The only way in which we can prepare for death, judgement and eternity, according to the words of Christ here himself, is by having this new birth take place in this life and in our own experience here in this world.
Why then should our Lord make this point so strongly to Nicodemus? Did he not know these things? Was not all his religious learning sufficient to have taught him this already? And the answer is, No. My dearest friends, it is possible for us to spend many years under faithful preaching and many years under the influence of godly men and women and yet ourselves to remain without this experience. It is possible for us to be as ignorant of the new birth as Nicodemus was in his day.
Let me illustrate it briefly before I must move on. The famous John Wesley, two hundred and so many years ago, believed it was his calling to be a missionary to the Indians of America and he travelled the long sea voyage to the eastern seaboard of America to embark upon his life’s work, as he supposed, of preaching the Gospel to the Indians. But he came back to England a disappointed man. And this is what he commented on himself. He said, “I went to America to convert the people to Christ, not realising that I was still unconverted myself.” The great man he became was the result of his experience in Aldersgate Street, London. This famous experience was the outcome of the new birth and of it he said, “My heart is strangely warmed.” May I ask you this question, Have you seriously faced the claims of Christ upon your life? Do you know that we must be born again?
II. The second thing we look at here briefly is this. What happens in the new birth?
What exactly is this experience? Well, it is a ‘birth’. That is what our Lord intends by this figure of speech. A birth brings something into the world which was not there before. A young man and a young woman fall in love and marry and a year or two pass by and God then blesses them with a child. It is a very common-place experience and one that many of us have seen and witnessed and perhaps experienced for ourselves. If so, we all know that the coming of a child into this world changes everything. The pattern of the family’s life immediately alters. Birth brings something into the world which changes everything. So, my dearly beloved, it is with the new birth. It brings spiritual life into the soul of a man, woman or child which was not there before and the consequence of this spiritual life is that a person who is the subject of it is changed in every way. I use this illustration as it may help the young. Imagine an old book such as, let us say, Pilgrim’s Progress. You go into a shop selling old books and there you see a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. The spine is torn, the pages are mildewed, and some of the pages are dog-eared. The whole book, though wonderful in itself, is old and unappealing. But, let us suppose that a printer comes along and issues a new edition of the old book, which now appears in new dress. The book has not changed but the appearance of the book has changed dramatically. So it is when the new birth occurs in the life of anyone.
You will know the name of the great C. H. Spurgeon who preached in London in the last century, perhaps the greatest preacher of his age, or of the world, indeed. You may know how he experienced new birth. It was a snowy morning and he came not to his usual church but the only one the family could conveniently reach in the snowy weather. The preacher was not there and did not come, no doubt snowed in. It was one of the office-bearers who stood in to preach the sermon at short notice. Spurgeon came in to the church and sat under the gallery and it was clear from his very face that he was miserable. He was miserable because he had a sense of sin. He was miserable because his conscience told him he was not right with God. The preacher was not eloquent but he did his best and God blessed his message. The young Spurgeon was so transformed in that service that when he went home, his family who saw him said, You have undergone a wonderful change. It was, of course, the ‘new birth’. ‘Old things had passed away.’ ‘All things had become new.’
Jesus tells us that this new birth is something which happens from above. When the Word of God here tells us that we need to be born ‘again’, it is equivalent to saying, we need to be born ‘from above’, from heaven. Our first birth, of course, is from earthly parents. Our second birth must be from God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And Christ describes it with a rather remarkable expression. He says, “Except a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter God’s Kingdom.” What can he mean by these expressions, water and spirit? It is very tempting to suppose that he means baptism. But I have to say to you that although baptism has its place and is important, he cannot be referring to baptism on this occasion for one very obvious reason. There was no such thing at this time as Christian baptism. Our Lord had as yet not instituted Christian baptism. And so what, then, is this ‘water’? And what would Nicodemus understand by reference here to ‘water’? The answer, my dear friends, is that it refers to the washing of Old Testament rituals, and the inward cleansing which was symbolised by those ritual washings. Ezekiel puts it like this: “God says, I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh and I will give you an heart of flesh. From all your idols and from all your filthiness will I cleanse you, a new heart also will I give you.”
We have all heard of the great Augustine of Hippo in North Africa in the 4th Century AD., one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known, and one of the most outstanding theologians the church has ever known. There was a time in his life before he had had the new birth in which he was groping his way towards God. It is a very touching story. He was in a garden, I suppose we would call it a park or a public place today, and he was groaning in his spirit, saying, ‘O why always tomorrow? Why not today?’ He meant, ‘Lord, when shall I know the blessing in my own soul?’ Then he heard a child’s voice or something crying, ‘Take up and read, take up and read’. And reaching for his New Testament, he opened the book at random and found these words, “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof.” Casting the book aside, he cried out to his dear companion, Alepius, ‘I have found it, Alepius, I have found it!’ And Alepius, running to his side with great affection, asked what he had found? He had found the secret of life. He had found Christ for himself. And Alepius, looking at the same passage and seeing the very next verse, found the same experience. These two men were born again almost in an instant of time. Augustine indeed was born to change the current of the world.
The new birth, says Christ, is that work of the Spirit of God within our hearts whereby we become a new edition of our former self. What changes, then, are to be seen in the life of those who become a new edition of their former self? I give you one or two examples.
First, we come to see how sinful our own hearts are. We come to see how great is our need of the grace and mercy of God. We come to realise that this world, however attractive, is not our home. We are but pilgrims and strangers here and we discover we have a soul that needs to be fed with the word of God. It is for that reason that Jesus Christ speaks of the born again in this way, ‘Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness’. Am I speaking to someone to whom these things could be a strange story? Am I speaking to someone today who is fascinated as Nicodemus was by the subject but is still at this time a stranger to it?
III. Let me turn to my third and final point which is this: How would I know if I had experienced this new birth?
What good fruits would I expect to see within myself or others? The new birth makes a man a lover of God. The Ten Commandments require of you and me that we should ‘love’ God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. These same commandments show us the way in which we are to love our neighbour as ourself; honour thy father and thy mother; thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet. O what a blessed country this would be if these things were taken seriously again! O what a happy town this would be if even a fraction of the people took these commandments of God seriously! Yet the Word of God informs us that we cannot keep these commandments until we are born again. Only when the grace of God brings a change into our innermost soul, so that we are washed and purified and renewed in righteousness in the image of God – only then have we a sincere wish to live to the glory of God and in obedience to his Word.
The good fruits of the new birth are obedience to God’s Word. It is for this reason that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in the course of his remarks to Nicodemus, brings before him, and before us, these most famous and wonderful words with which I close today. At verse 16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” My very dear friends, if you would know what it means to be born again, then seek God. Consider how great is His love in not sparing His dear Son, Jesus Christ. Consider again that He gave Him for a sacrifice upon the cross. Repent of sin, believe in Christ crucified and live the life which he commands us to live, of holy obedience to his will in this world. If you do all will be well. When we come to the end of our brief life, as soon we shall all, we shall enter into that everlasting kingdom of which Our Lord has here spoken. So I bid you on this occasion of the ordination of our beloved friend, Mr. Mortimer, consider the words of Christ which are so vital to every true ministry, “Ye must be born again.”
The Rev. Maurice J. Roberts is minister of Greyfriars Free Church, Inverness, a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), and editor of the ‘Banner of Truth’ magazine.
This sermon was preached on the occasion of the ordination of Mr. Richard Mortimer to the diaconate, Trinity Sunday (18 June), 2000.