The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus seems straightforward on the surface. Jesus said that, in order to see the kingdom of God, one must be born again. (John 3:3-7). At least, it did when I was a new Christian.
As a newly saved teenager, I latched on to that passage, zealously quoting it to family and friends in my attempts to strongarm them into salvation. At that time, I believed that I could claim credit for “accepting” Jesus, and I consequently thought I’d made the choice to be born again. I understood John 3:7 as an imperative command rather than as a cause and effect principle. In my mind, someone needed to make a decision to believe in Jesus so that he or she could experience the new birth. Much of the teaching I received back then only reinforced my misunderstanding of the passage.
During my college years, Jimmy Carter popularized the phrase “born-again Christian” as he campaigned for the presidency. One evening, as she got me ready to visit a neighbor’s church service, my mom asked me to explain what Jimmy Carter, my neighbor and I meant by this seemingly new terminology. I merely quoted John 3:3-7, secretly relieved that I didn’t have time to really explain it. Yes, relieved — because deep down I knew that, although I had been born again, I didn’t understand how it actually worked. The expanded passage frustrated me by failing to detail what a person needed to do to make the new birth happen.
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 have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to 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? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into 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 be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” ~~John 3:1-8 (NASB95)
Notice that Jesus didn’t offer Nicodemus definitive steps towards the new birth. Instead, He pointed to the Holy Spirit. Essentially, the Lord indicated in his answer that Nicodemus could not regenerate himself. Only the Holy Spirit had the power to bring him the new life required to enter God’s kingdom.
Not exactly the answer a Pharisee wanted to hear.
Nor is it the answer that anyone wants to hear. We’d prefer knowing how we can make ourselves acceptable to God. Paul’s call to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31) gives us something to go on, but it also raises questions. Are repentance and faith things that human beings muster up through the exercise of sheer willpower? If so, why didn’t Jesus say so in His conversation with Nicodemus? Why did He make it sound as if Nicodemus (and by extension, everyone) was helpless to effect salvation? Certainly, His words in this passage amplify a declaration that the apostle John made just two chapters earlier:
12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 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 (NASB95)
John 3:1-8 clarifies that God the Holy Spirit is the One Who brings about the new birth — a new birth that our human will can never accomplish apart from Him. Nicodemus had absolutely no innate ability to become born again, just as he couldn’t physically crawl back into his mother’s womb. He had to be born of God’s Spirit according to the Spirit’s working and timing. Just as he had no control over his physical birth, he could have no control over his spiritual birth. The Holy Spirit had total authority over his regeneration.
Paul’s letter to Titus directly attributes the new birth to the Holy Spirit. Look with me at But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. ~~Titus 3:4-7 (NASB95)Yes, we must exercise repentance and faith, but both repentance and faith come through the power of the Holy Spirit rather than as a result of human effort (see Acts 11:18 and Ephesians 2:8-9). God the Holy Spirit gives us new life, which in turn gives us the ability to repent and believe in Jesus. Thus we depend solely on Him to experience the new birth.
Scholars argue about whether or not Nicodemus ever came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps the Bible never really tells us if he did because the Holy Spirit wanted us to come away from the narrative with our focus on His sovereignty in a person’s salvation. The more I think about what Jesus said to this pharisee, the more I praise the Holy Spirit for giving me new life in Christ. Hopefully you also praise Him for your new birth.Follow my blog with Bloglovin