As a young Christian, I had a zeal for evangelism. Not a talent for it, mind you, and not the best motives, but certainly the burning conviction that everybody needed to be born again. So I’d drive my motorized wheelchair all over my high school campus, passing out tracts and telling people they must be born again.
I frequently referred to John 3:1-8 as substantiation for my message. That indeed is the appropriate passage.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” ~~John 3:1-8 (ESV)
Actually, I ignored verses 5, 6 and 8 because I just plain didn’t understand them! Anyway, I wanted to emphasize the apparent command to be born again. I demanded that people repent of sin and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to escape eternal hell. In my overly simplistic mind, accepting Jesus and living for Him caused someone to be born again.
My misinterpretation of the words “must be” created the problem, both in understanding the concept for myself and in presenting the Gospel to others. By separating those two words from their context, I emphasized human responsibility over the prerogative of the Holy Spirit.
Being born again isn’t a human accomplishment; it’s the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. on those He wills to save. In fact, the words of the apostle John two chapters earlier help clarify that very point.
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. ~~John 1:12-13 (ESV)
Notice verse 13, please. Although the acts of receiving Him and believing in His name are involved in becoming children of God (verse 12), the spiritual birth results from God’s will, not human will or effort.
Jesus taught Nicodemus that, though being born again is an essential requisite to entering the kingdom of God, it isn’t something we do ourselves. As John MacArthur has explained numerous times, we played no part in our physical births, so what makes us think that we could possibly have anything to do with our spiritual ones?
Yes, Jesus said we must be born again. Like a child must be a certain height and weight to ride in a car without a booster seat. Like you have to be 18 to register as a voter. You can’t reach those conditions through your own efforts, but those conditions must be met. Although we must be born again, that rebirth happens through the work of the Holy Spirit.
I still have evangelism as a high priority, even if I do it better online than in person. I also still want people to know that they must be born again. Now, however, I understand what it means and how it happens. That understanding makes a huge difference!