Born From Above
“So is everyone that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8)
Probably no passage of Scripture has caused more contention than John 3:7, where Christ Jesus said: “Ye must be born again”. An alternative translation is “born from above”. Maybe this helps to clarify the meaning. Nevertheless, the perception, fostered by the media. that there are, and that there can be, various categories of Christians, is now too deeply embedded in the folklore to be eradicated. To speak of Ã¢â‚¬Å“born again” Christians is tautologous (as well as being a term of abuse), since it is only by the new birth that one can become a Christian. The ridicule and contempt from the world about being “born again” are simply insults that Christians must be prepared to suffer, knowing that, “if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” [or “matter”] (I Peter 4:16).
The response came as a result of a secret enquiry by Nicodemus, about whom the following background information may be useful.
He was almost certainly a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council. He is mentioned on three occasions in John’s Gospel. On the second and third occasions he displayed spiritual progress. This in itself should be taken as a source of encouragement to those who waver, or are fearful. When he first came to Jesus, he was certainly afraid: else he would not have sought a meeting with Him by night. He opened the discourse in a somewhat apologetic manner, acknowledging that Jesus was a great teacher, but not perceiving anything beyond that.
On the second occasion, he showed greater boldness by speaking up for the Lord at the Jewish Sanhedrin. The incident is recorded in John 7:50. Certain officers were being reprimanded for failing to arrest Him. Nor was their explanation, “Never man spake like this man” (John 7:46) well received. Nicodemus ventured to draw attention to the fact that Jewish law did not condemn a man without a fair hearing; but he received a sharp rebuke for his labours (John 7:50-52). However, the very fact of his intervention is an indication of his spiritual progress. He was now prepared to speak out in public, albeit to a limited extent.
Further evidence of his spiritual progress is to be found in John 19:39, where Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathaea to remove Jesus’ body from the cross for burial. At that point, the prospect could not have seemed bleaker. Surely it was a test of faithfulness to associate himself with a cause that appeared to be hopelessly lost. No doubt the word got around. He had already been contemptuously asked if he, too, was a Galilean (John 7:52). His reputation would have suffered a further serious blow; indeed he may well have become a marked man.
Sin no longer has dominion over believers
One of the most picturesque illustrations of the effects of the new birth is to be found in Romans 6, where Paul likens baptism to following the Lord Jesus, in a spiritual sense, through the process of crucifixion and resurrection (Romans 6:6). The particular purpose is to draw attention to the fact that sin no longer has dominion over true believers. Being dead to sin, as once they were dead to the law, they are now freed from its guilt and pervasive power so that they might become the “servants of righteousness” (Romans 6:18).
The Holy Spirit and the new birth
That each and every person who names the Name of Jesus as Saviour must be born again will not be contended further here, except to say that those who are heaven bound must be heaven born. Instead, let us focus on the essential role and activity of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. In so doing, may we remember and draw strong encouragement from the fact that He is the same as He always was, and build our thoughts on an acrostic of the word “same”. Thus He is Sovereign, Awesome, Mysterious and Effectual.
The activity of the Holy Spirit is compared to the wind. This is how Pentecost is described (Acts 2:2). The comparison is very graphic. As the Lord Himself said, no one knows where the wind comes from, or where it is going. Nor can anyone direct its course. In this respect, there is an illustration of the sovereignty of the Godhead, revealed to Moses of old, when God declared: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19, also quoted in Romans 9:15).
Nor can He be required of anyone to explain what He does. “Behold, he taketh away, who can hinder him? who will say unto him, What doest thou?” declared Job (9:12). Many may wonder why God does this, or does not do that; but they have no right of reply.
This is not to say that God acts in an arbitrary manner – far from it. It does mean that His ways are beyond human understanding or explanation. Therefore, let none conclude that there is any unrighteousness with Him (Romans 9:14). Power may corrupt the human soul, and often does; but “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5b).
Thus God the Holy Spirit, being co-equal with God the Father and God the Son, is sovereign in –
*the way in which God’s Word is applied to the heart; and in
*awakening and drawing sinners to Christ for salvation.
And once that is realised, then, and only then, will we realise that we can achieve nothing unless we pray, and keep on praying. As Thomas Watson once commented: “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched out the angel.”
A startling conversion
Some conversions have been truly astonishing. The Apostle Paul, quoting from Isaiah 65:1, writes in Romans 10:20: “I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me,” of which the following incident provides a most striking illustration.
The eighteenth century evangelist, George Whitfield, was often mimicked and ridiculed. One day he became the topic of conversation amongst a group of men in a public house. Bets were placed as to who could parody him the best. Each man took his turn, and last of all came John Thorpe of Rotherham. Leaping on to a table, he declared: “I shall beat you all.”
Opening his Bible, he turned to a text: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5), and he began to preach. As he did so, an unaccountable power came upon his words, until his voice rose in fervour. In fact, he preached on the text that he had intended to mock with such authority and conviction that, when his awe-struck listeners departed, he was converted by his own “sermon”, and later became a congregational minister.
Whenever the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, the resultant effect upon the unsaved is awesome. The Bringer of All Truth reveals to the sinner the true state in which he/she has previously lived. But what is even more awesome is that Almighty God should have sent His Son in the first place to die for ruined sinners lost, or that He should have sent the Holy Spirit to awaken the spiritually dead and undeserving. It has been a loss of this sense of awe in the present age that has been its undoing.
The principal danger
William Booth, the first General of the Salvation Army, foresaw it, commenting shortly before his death that the principal dangers of the 20th century would be –
*a religion without the Holy Spirit;
*Christians without Christ;
*forgiveness without repentance;
*salvation without regeneration;
*politics without God; and a
*heaven without a hell.
If we reflect upon the events of the past hundred years, it is painfully obvious that he was right. Were it not for the fact that God is, in fact, in control, the times in which we live would be a cause for total despondency, desolation and despair.
That is why Christians should rejoice that the sovereign Holy Spirit, awesome in the way in which He moves and in what He achieves, cannot be thwarted by the rebellious attitude of mortal man. You need look no further than the remarkable events taking place in Africa and Asia, and in particular, China, where Christianity is becoming as vibrant as it is largely moribund in the west. Indeed, this is the next point of the acrostic:
None knows how the Spirit moves, nor when or where He will awaken hearts. Consider what the Apostle Paul says about God’s Word: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Just think about it: preachers are called upon to proclaim the Gospel of Salvation to those who are incapable of understanding or receiving it. This in itself is a mystery. There lie the lost, whose minds have been blinded by the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2: 1b), spiritually as hopeless and helpless as the dry bones to whom Ezekiel prophesied (37:1-14).
Yet to these is the gospel sent. It is enough to deter and discourage anyone, and will do so, unless they realise that it is not by the persuasiveness of the preacher’s arguments alone (though the gospel must be preached), nor by the power of personality, nor by the impressiveness of intellect, but by the Holy Spirit of God that souls are awakened (Zechariah 4:6b). Thus it is that –
“No man can truly say
That Jesus is the Lord,
Unless Thou take the veil away,
And breathe the living word;
Then, only then, we feel
Our interest in His blood,
And cry, with joy unspeakable:
Thou art my Lord, my God!”
(Spirit of faith, come down, verse 2, Charles Wesley)
Many previous generations understood this well. That is why so much headway was made in the 18th and 19th centuries. They steadfastly set their faces against watering down the gospel, and toning down the truth until it was acceptable to the hearers. Not for them the reluctance to raise such matters as the burning necessity of the new birth, lest it arouse ridicule and rejection. They trusted in One far greater than the spirit of this age, or the god of this world. They put their faith in the Spirit of truth Himself; and in that Spirit they lived, moved and had their being (see Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, outside Athens- Acts 17:28). And before their very eyes, they saw that He is always –
Two young men had been drinking. It’s a common enough theme throughout the ages – and no more than today. They made their way towards a Primitive Methodist Church, intending to disrupt the service. Given their intoxicated state, they could easily have done so.
Now our Methodist forebears were particularly attentive to the preaching of a full, free, and present salvation; and thus was the Gospel presented on this occasion. The outcome was that instead of the drunken youths taking over the service, they were effectually overtaken by the Holy Spirit’s application of the Word of God to their hearts; and they were saved.
Sovereign, Awesome, Mysterious, Effectual – nothing has changed. Therefore, such knowledge should fill believers with complete confidence that, however dark the day, God’s purposes will be performed.
If you know Christ as your Saviour, hold fast to His Word, and walk in His truth with complete certainty, making no concession to the doubt and despair purveyed by the spirit of the age. Then your life and witness will be God-honouring and Christ-magnifying. That is your calling; and so it is of “everyone that is born of the Spirit”!
R. MURCOTT (Douglas, Isle of Man)
[Printed by permission from the Gospel Magazine, September-October 2005, 14 Beechwood Close, Hailsham, BN27 3TX]
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