You must be born again. —John 3:7
Here’s what Immanuel Church is all about: Jesus, community, mission – and nothing else. What does Jesus mean to us here at Immanuel? He means we have acceptance before the all-holy God on terms of grace. How did we get in on that? We received Jesus with the empty hands of faith. How then do we grow? We keep on receiving him. “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Colossians 2:6). We grow the same way we started. We start with justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from all our works, and God never changes those ground rules. We don’t start by faith and continue by works. We start by holding out the empty hands of faith, we grow by holding out the empty hands of faith. We start in forgiveness, we grow in forgiveness. We start in acceptance, we grow by being accepted in the Beloved again and again and again. We sin, and what does our Savior say to us: “You just sinned – and it doesn’t matter. I’m in your life, and nothing you do will make me reject you.” Our sins can destroy our health, our homes, but not the love of Jesus. That’s what Jesus means to us – the grace of endless acceptance. Everyone in Nashville needs this grace.
Jesus means even more to us, and we need more. What he did on the cross, for our acceptance, was 2000 years ago. It was an historic event. It can’t change. But we need more. We need to be accepted, and we need to get changing. We need peace with God once and for all, and we need newness of life in a constant flow. We need the finished work of Christ on the cross, and we need the power of the resurrection. That’s why Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
Nashville is a religious city. But who was the man to whom Jesus said, “You must be born again”? He was a religious man. He was a moral man. He knew the Bible. But Jesus said to that man, “You must be born again.” He’s talking about God acting upon us, God getting involved in our subjectivity, God changing how we experience reality. He’s not talking about us improving ourselves; he’s talking about God entering into us at a level so deep it’s like being born all over again. It’s not what religious people do. It’s what religious people need. We can rearrange the surface of our lives. But to really change, we need a miracle from God.
But let’s admit it. God often seems remote from us. But this world is very real, very compelling. This week I read about a study conducted by two psychologists at Cornell. They found that the desirability of an object influences its perceived distance. Thirsty students fed with pretzels perceived a water bottle to be nearer than those who had had their thirst already quenched. Other students placed in front of a $100 bill they could win for themselves perceived that $100 bill to be closer to them than the students who were told that the bill belonged to the scientist conducting the test. What did the study find? Desire reduces the perception of distance. If you desire something, it seems closer than if you didn’t desire it. Desire reduces distance. Could that be why God seems far away? What do you desire? What do you consider essential to your happiness? Your relationships and job and reputation and comfort and security? Is your heart aching for God? Or did you just come to church? Have you killed your God-desires with your money-desires and your sex-desires and your job-desires and your self-esteem-desires? And how can you desire what you don’t desire any more? How can you care when you don’t care? You’re stuck. You need a new heart with new desires, and God can give it to you. That’s what Jesus is saying.
Augustine is a famous example. He noticed that when his will told his arm to move, his arm moved. But when his will told his will to move, it wasn’t as simple. Choice is not simple. Our wills are unfree. Augustine realized he was neither completely willing toward God nor completely unwilling. He was somewhere in-between, like most of us in Nashville. We’re not opposed to God, but we’re not sure how much of him we want. Augustine wrote, “I felt my past to have a grip on me. It uttered wretched cries, ‘How long, how long is this to be? Tomorrow, tomorrow. Why not now? Why not an end to my impure life in this very hour?’” But Augustine was stuck – until God came. God gave Augustine a new being way down deep. And Augustine was surprised: “Suddenly it became sweet to me to be without the sweets of folly. What I once feared to lose was now a delight to dismiss. You, O God, turned them out and entered in to take their place. Already my mind was free of desire for gain, of wallowing in self-indulgence, of scratching the itch of lust. And I was now talking with you, Lord, my radiance, my wealth, my salvation.” You need total acceptance from God, and you need a new heart from God. Jesus gives both.
What does it mean to be born again?
Jesus made a distinction: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). What was he saying? The flesh is our own natural moral potential. And if your mama raised you right, you can be a moral person, you can do a lot of good, you can pay your bills on time, you can be honest, you can be a great neighbor, you can love your family, you can serve your community, you can be religious, and people will think you’re great. The world can truly be a better place because of you, and you don’t need God to be that wonderful kind of person. Some atheists are a blessing to this world, more than some Christians. You can do good without God. But you can’t experience God without God, you can’t enter the kingdom of God without God. Here’s why.
When God created us in the Garden of Eden, he gave us passions and appetites and pleasures and aliveness at two levels – the spiritual and the physical. Both were good. But our physical passions were supposed to serve our spiritual passions. Physical passions are good servants, but bad masters. Adam found that out, when he turned away from God. When Adam cut himself off from his spiritual life support system and went off on his own, it messed with him. Sin changed him. Sin diminished his experience of reality. When Adam sinned, something inside him died – his God-passion, his God-enjoyment, his God-capacities. His perception of God darkened. His experience of God powered down. And that changed everything about him – and us. We think we’re good people making bad decisions now and then. The truth is, we’re bad people proving it. Why? Because we cut off our God-connection. We did it to ourselves, but we can’t undo it by ourselves. It’s too late for that. We can’t just up and change whenever we feel like it. We’re born dead to God. We’re born with a natural relish for the experiences of this world, but we’re also born with a natural disrelish for God. We’re born allergic to God, if he gets too close. If we want God at all, we want him only on our terms. We don’t want to hand control of our lives over to God. But we hand control of our lives over to money and sex and human approval. Those are the passions that rule us now, and there’s nothing inside us that can check our raging desires. We become compulsive. The Bible calls it idolatry, and our idols always degrade us. But God says, “From your idols I will cleanse you.”
What is an idol? An idol is usually a good thing. But we bank our happiness on it, as if it could be God to us. We treat a career, for example, as if it had the power to reward us. The thought that God could be our reward doesn’t enter our minds. We build our identity on money, but it doesn’t pay off. We get our self-worth from our kids, but they let us down. We suck pleasure out of pornography, and then we feel so ashamed. There’s only thing scarier about living like that, and it’s staying like that. The Bible says we can be cleansed of these idolatrous desires that make us miserable. Jesus said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). God can wash us inside with the water of his Spirit. God can cleanse our dirty hearts. God can reawaken us to God-fascination. It is a miracle. That’s what it means to be born again. Jesus is not saying to Nicodemus, “Let me help you be an even better Pharisee.” He’s saying, “God can free you from your tragic goodness and make you new, alive to God.” God is able to resuscitate your deadened heart. Turn to him. Ask him to cleanse your heart of your idols. Ask him to give you a new heart of passion for God. You have robbed yourself of your original self. But God can give you a new self, your true self. He has given this gift to so many. He can help you.
How can I know if I’ve been born again?
It isn’t just sweaty palms and butterflies in your tummy when you’re having a religious experience. Here’s how you can know whether or not God has given you a new heart. Here are five biblical indicators of the new birth.
One, your heart reveres Jesus with new love. The Bible says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). And when Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus told him, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-17). The apostle John wrote, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him” (1 John 4:15). What do you think of Jesus? If you love him, if you believe what the Bible says about him, if your heart is definite about him – that he is the Son of God, that he is the only way to God, and that you desire him to save you from yourself, God has worked a miracle in you. That’s what God is doing in the world today – awakening people to a new love for Jesus that overcomes their old love for sin.
Two, your heart loves, believes and enjoys the Bible. The apostle Peter wrote of all who are born again, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2-3). Healthy babies are hungry, and they know good milk when they taste it. The apostle John spoke for all the apostles when he wrote, “Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us” (1 John 4:6). What is your attitude toward the Bible? If you receive it gladly and humbly, God has worked a miracle in your heart.
Three, your heart accepts suffering, so that Jesus can tell his story through you. The apostle Paul wrote, “For the sake of Christ I delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Are you willing to do hard things for the sake of Christ? That humility is so counterintuitive, only God can give us hearts like that.
Four, your heart loves other believers and you long to be a blessing to them. The Bible says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. . . . If we love one another, God abides in us” (1 John 4:7). Are the people around you dear to your heart? Do you cherish them, forgive them, put them ahead of yourself? If so, God has performed a miracle in your heart, especially in our narcissistic culture.
Five, your heart knows moments of overflowing spiritual joy and peace and hope. The Bible says, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). Religious people are gloomy and negative and self-pitying. Born again people tend to bubble, even when life is hard. Born again people are thrilled that God loves them and forgives them. That’s a new heart. Only God can do that.
How do you assess yourself?
All of us must at least say, “I’ve got a long way to go in every area.” But if you’re amazed that such a glorious Person as Jesus loves you and died for you, if you’d rather follow the Bible than all the experts of this world, if it’s okay with you to suffer for Christ, if you love the people around you, if there’s a hope inside you that just won’t quit, God has given you a new heart. You’re still a sinner, and you might not be mature. But the cure has begun. It is the beginning of heaven inside you, and it will never die. God is at work in you, and he will never leave you. Eternity indwells you. You can face anything now.
But what if you have to admit you’re only religious and moral? The Bible says, “The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20). So many people in our city have the talk but not the power. You might be thinking, “If Christianity is a new power inside, am I really a Christian?” – what do you do then? What you don’t do is give yourself an easy answer. Pay attention to that doubt. What you don’t do is cover up your failings. Drag them out into the open and tell God everything. He loves sinners. You can get real with him and ask him to make you new. It was a blind man who said to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” And Jesus gave him sight. What about you?
So, what do I do now?
How do you pursue the miracle? What is your part? Jesus tells you right here in verses 14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” That’s what he wants you to do. Look. Look at Jesus. Stare at Jesus Christ in the gospel, until your heart melts. When the people of Israel sinned and were stung by serpents, Moses put a bronze serpent up on a pole, and everyone who looked lived. As they were stepping on these serpents and being bitten by them and trying to brush them off, they might have thought, “I can’t look up. I have to look down at myself. I have to get these horrible things off me.” But the only way for them to be set free and healed and live again was to look away from themselves, away from the danger, to the Remedy. Even so, at his cross Jesus identified with you in your sin. Your part is simply to look at him. Looking is the most profound spiritual act. Look away from yourself. Look outward to Christ. He is the miracle-worker. If you’ll turn to him, stare at him in the gospel, he will have mercy on you, and you will change.