“Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3)
With these words, Jesus began His discourse on regeneration, or the new birth, a subject with which Nicodemus was thoroughly ignorant. In fact he was so unacquainted with both its necessity and nature that Jesus expressed His astonishment that someone in Nicodemus’ position of spiritual leadership could be so lacking in his understanding of this fundamental spiritual truth (Jn 3:10). The necessity of regeneration is expressed by Jesus’ emphatic declaration that without this new birth a person “cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The Greek words ou dunatai, translated “cannot”, are more accurately translated “is not able”.
In other words, no one has the ability to enter the kingdom of God without first experiencing a new birth. They are impotent and helpless to do anything to initiate or affect this new birth. They have no more power over the conception of this new life than they did over the conception of their natural life. They have as much ability to determine the time or place of their new birth as they did with their natural birth. Without this new birth their condition is hopeless and they remain under the wrath and condemnation of God and left to suffer the terrors and torments of an eternal hell. No wonder Nicodemus was dumbfounded (Jn 3:4).
Jesus’ also defined the nature of this new birth, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jn 3:6; cf. Jn 1:13; 1 Pt 1:23). That is, just as natural life is the product of generation, and always manifests certain qualities that are in keeping with its nature and without which there can be no life, so is spiritual life a natural product of regeneration and will always manifest qualities that are consistent with its nature and without which there can be no spiritual life.
All life manifests qualities that are consistent with its nature. In other words, like begets like. So what are these distinguishing properties of a new birth? They can be known by making analogies from qualities that characterize natural life.
The First is Nourishment.
Without this, natural life will soon expire and so it is with the spiritual. Spiritual life desires and hungers for spiritual food. Job stated, “I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12). Jesus said His food was to do the will of God and accomplish His work (Jn 4:34). “Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word” (1 Pt 2:2).
A true Christian longs for and desires the pure, unadulterated word of God, not blended with man’s ideas and philosophies, or diluted and corrupted with cultural relevancy and false doctrines, nor doctrines that have had their sharp edges rounded off to accommodate the unregenerate mind ( 2 Cor 4:2; 1 Thes 2:3,4).
It is the natural quality of all life to desire and require food suited to its nature, without which it cannot live. Just as the natural man primarily longs for the things that gratify the flesh, so the new born person longs for that which will satisfy the spirit (Col 3:1,2).
One preacher of the Great Awakening, the Rev. Samuel Blair, noticed this marked change among those who seemed to be truly born again,
“The general carriage and behavior of people was soon very visibly altered. Those awakened were much given to reading in the Holy Scriptures, and other good books. Excellent books that had lain by much neglected were then much perused, and lent from one to another; and it was a peculiar satisfaction to people to find how exactly the doctrines they heard daily preached harmonized with the doctrines contained and taught by great and godly men in other parts and former times.” (Archibald Alexander, The Log College: Biographical sketches of William Tennent and his students together with an account of the revivals under their ministries, Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1968, (160), Emphasis mine).
People who are content to be in a dead ministry and to sit under blind guides who make no distinction between the holy and the profane nor teach the difference between the unclean and the clean (Ezk 22:26); who are satisfied with shallow, superficial, therapeutic, man-centered messages, whose primary desire is to have their ears tickled, their conscience unmolested, and their false faith affirmed; who can satisfy their soul with the latest pop-theology that is not worth the paper on which it is printed; who are content to get their theology alone from Facebook, Twitter, and 1,500 word blogs; and who do not think it worth the effort to be a student of the Bible; these do not have the spirit of the Savior they profess.
It is a tragic sign they are as blind as moles and dead as stones who have no hunger, taste, or desire for substantive and hearty spiritual food. Where there is no hunger, there is no life. When the hunger is for things other than the pure word – things like programs that cater to specific demographics or music that appeals to the senses even when the lyrics are inane and unbiblical – then the hunger is to gratify the flesh, not the spirit. Spiritual food feeds the spirit, not just the emotions and senses. Spiritual life requires and longs for spiritual food and could care less about the ambiance (Am 8:11,12).
The Second is Growth.
It is natural for children to grow, and to grow fast. Where growth is stunted or absent there is reason to fear something is terribly wrong. Babes in Christ grow fast unless stunted by malnutrition (Hb 5:12-14). All living things grow, and where there is no growth then there is no life.
Not only is there perceptible growth, but the growth is proportional, not just in knowledge, but in faith, love, holiness, and maturity. “When I was a child I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child, when I became a man, I did away with childish things” (1 Cor 13:11).
So it is with a growing Christian, they do away with childish things and childish thinking and reasoning. They don’t read children’s books. They are not always learning but never growing (2 Tm 3:7). They don’t always expect to be coddled in their Father’s arms, but will undergo discipline and training so they may share His holiness (Hb 12:9-11). They learn to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). They “are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14).
The true Christian presses on to maturity (Heb 6:1). Those that are content with stinted and stunted measures of growth have no spiritual life. No spiritual child is still-born.
The Third is Activity.
This is an inseparable quality of natural life. When we see a statue standing stock still and motionless, no matter how realistic it may appear, we conclude that it has no life. So when we see professing Christians contenting themselves and assuaging their consciences with a form of godliness devoid of its life and power (2 Tm 3:5), should we not conclude that they are spiritually dead?
When their religion consists of nothing more than tradition and external formalism, and when they are utter strangers to the exercises, dispositions, and experiences which God declares as inseparable from truly regenerate people, should we not warn them of their dangerous condition?
When the direction and actions of their life betray the absence of the fruit of the Spirit, when we see them pursuing what the Christian is told to flee, and trivializing the pursuit of practical Christianity (1 Tm 6:11), when we see them becoming less and not more obedient and holy, is it not reasonable to suppose they are devoid of spiritual life?
Spiritual life always produces spiritual activity that aims first and foremost at the glory of God and cleanses the Christian “from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1).
There are many other qualities of spiritual life we could mention that are analogous to natural life – qualities such as love and likeness. Every child loves their parent and is eager to please them (Jn 14:15, 21, 23), and likeness, a child bares the image of the one who begat them (Jn 3:6). Like begets like.
By now it should be clear that the vast majority of professing Christians are as unfamiliar with the necessity and nature of the new birth as was Nicodemus. Untold millions have been deceived into thinking they possess spiritual life when in reality they are spiritually dead. Spirituality has been confused with spiritual life.
The overwhelming majority within Christendom now call evil good and good evil. To condone what God forbids and forbid what God prescribes is not a mark of spiritual life. A spiritual nature can never condone or participate in unrighteousness; it would be against its nature. It should be obvious to any with eyes to see that the majority of those who profess to be guides to the blind are themselves blind to spiritual truth. According to one recent survey, over seventy-percent of pastors admit to only reading their Bible to study for sermons.
As for serious theological reading that feeds the soul, this too is almost nonexistent. Simply observe the type of books which make up the best-seller lists. It seems a great many consider the writing of Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Sara Young, or Joyce Meyers to be spiritual food (listen to our podcast with John Fast on the seeker movement). Such authors merely feed the flesh, which is why they are so popular. “Lain by and much neglected” are the writings of “great and godly men in other parts and former times”, the writings of the Puritans, and the biographies of godly and faithful men of the past, men and women whose faith we would do well to learn from and strive to emulate.
Are you hungry and longing for the pure milk of the word? Are you growing up in all respects? Is your life an active pursuit of holiness? Like natural life, true spiritual life must also be characterized by certain distinguishing qualities. In the absence of these qualities and marks, life does not exist, and where there is no spiritual life there has never been a new birth, and without a new birth you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Do you possess these qualities?