“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ ”
Many people today say that they are Christians. They had an experience once in their lives that makes them feel like they have been converted. They may believe all the correct doctrines that are espoused in the Bible, they may go to church weekly, and they may believe in Jesus as their personal Saviour. These are all signs that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts and the Father has drawn them to Him.
However, as I have studied and continue to study this “new birth” experience Jesus speaks of, I have come to believe that we all should question whether we have truly had this experience. We cannot rely on a feeling or the knowledge that we believe Jesus is the God of heaven as our evidence that we have had it, for the devil himself believes that God is the Ruler of the universe. “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” James 2:19
When Jesus said “unless one is born again” to Nicodemus, this learned leader of Israel did not understand it. With a bit of sarcasm, he asked Jesus how he could physically be reborn from his mother’s womb. Yet, because of his ignorance regarding the nature of God, he could not fathom this new concept. Jesus was not offended, but asked a cutting question, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” John 3:10
Nicodemus, a religious leader in the church of God, had no idea what a new birth experience was all about, and today there are many leaders of the churches who still have no idea of the gravity or extent of becoming renewed in Christ. Jesus tried to explain it to Nicodemus in as simple a way as He could. “ ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ ” John 3:5, 6
What did Jesus mean when He said that we must be born of water? This concept was introduced by John the Baptist. John was a man specifically chosen just for the purpose of preparing the way for Jesus’ first appearance on earth. He was the one about whom Isaiah said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ ” Isaiah 40:3
It was John the Baptist’s mission to prepare the people to recognize and accept the Saviour when He came. John’s message was simple. “In those days, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ ” Matthew 3:1, 2. He knew that to be ready for Jesus, all must turn away from their sins and be cleansed from iniquity. Even King David knew this. He prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
Repentance of sin is a turning away from wrongdoing. It is not a one-time thing. It is an everyday task. A daily commitment to work by the power of the Holy Spirit to remove all sin from our lives and receive a Christlike spirit. Jesus wants to give us clean hearts, but it is our part to daily die to sin. When Jesus told Nicodemus that a man must be born of water, He was talking about baptism. Baptism is an outward expression of this renewed, inward change effected by God.
Paul tells us that we must die so that the new person we become can prosper. “Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him [Jesus], that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.” Romans 6:6
When we die to self, we are spiritually crucifying our old self so that the new self might live. The old self is then buried in the water of baptism as Jesus was buried with the sins of the world upon Him in the tomb.
“Baptism is a most sacred and important ordinance, and there should be a thorough understanding as to its meaning. It means repentance for sin, and the entrance upon a new life in Christ Jesus.” Counsels for the Church, 296. As Jesus rose from the tomb without the sins of the world upon Him, we are raised from the watery death of baptism to newness of life. Through our repentance, confession, and baptism, Jesus cleanses us from our iniquity. This public exercise is not only symbolic, but if we have truly repented, it is a cleansing act of God.
When Jesus went to John and asked to be baptized, He was giving us the example of how we are to begin a new life in Him. Jesus told Nicodemus, after His own baptism, that a man must be born of water and the Spirit to be born again, to emphasize that we must first repent of our sins before the new birth can even begin. We must make the commitment to God and therefore “die daily” in Christ Jesus. “I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” 1 Corinthians 15:31
Baptism does not mean that we will never sin again, rather it is a public confession that we are sinners in the sight of God and need cleansing through our repentance. If we look at the disciples of Jesus, we can see many instances where they sinned. For example, they contended with each other to see who would be the greatest in heaven (Matthew 18). These disciples had all been baptized, but still were controlled by selfishness. They had not yet had the second part of the new birth experience. They had not learned the lesson of “dying daily” as Paul relates to us.
The water Jesus talks about is just the beginning of the new birth experience. Nicodemus did not even understand the first part of the new birth, so how was he to understand the spiritual side of it? Jesus says to him, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” John 3:12. Nicodemus, like most of us, was slow to understand and believe. We say that we believe in Jesus, but like Satan and his demons, we believe, but do not obey. Nicodemus needed to be converted, and each of us, without that experience, will never see the kingdom of God. We can claim to be Christians, but our hearts are far from God, just as the hearts of the children of Israel.
“Therefore the Lord said: ‘Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.’ ” Isaiah 29:13
As we accept the fact that we are sinners and in need of a change in our life, baptism is the first step in a new walk with Christ. We must make the decision to turn away from sin and confess to God for the cleansing process to start. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9.
If we have died to self in the watery grave of baptism, we will receive the Holy Spirit in our lives. But a true conversion must take place, a change of heart not only to believe, but also to do. Many people make the confession of belief in Jesus but fail to continue the walk with Him. There immediately is a feeling of renewed vigor, one of “first love.” Once the feeling begins to wear off, new Christians start seeing trouble in their lives. Old habits are cherished that were not totally put away. Sin revives and their faith wavers.
That is why the second half of the new birth experience is so important. Jesus said we must be “born of water and the Spirit.” It is the Holy Spirit that makes the changes in a person’s life. It does not happen all at once, but is a continual, daily process. If we are daily walking with Christ, the Spirit will make changes in the way we think. He connects us with God through Jesus Christ. Without this connection, there is no real conversion. What is it that the Spirit does for us? First, it convicts the heart of sin, of righteousness, and coming judgment. “ ‘Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper [Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.’ ” John 16:7–11. The Spirit of God is given to help us overcome our sinful tendencies.
Jesus was crucified and presented His sacrifice to the Father. He became our High Priest in heaven to offer Himself as our sacrifice for sin. He was our justification for the penalty of sin so that we would not be required to die the eternal death. Jesus also promised not to leave us alone, therefore, He sent the Holy Spirit to be our Helper in place of Jesus on earth. The Spirit could be many places where Jesus could only be in one place because of His now begotten humanity.
Jesus wants to clean out our hearts so that the Spirit can live within us and give us better things. Jesus said the “Spirit is spirit.” This allows Him to come to each person and impart His holy attributes in us. As we gain this change through the new birth process, we become a new creature in Christ. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17. This is the conversion process that each day changes us to become more like Jesus. The Holy Spirit is also a teacher of truth. Jesus calls Him the Spirit of truth. “ ‘But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.’ ” John 15:26. It was for our advantage that Jesus returned to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to us in His stead.
The Spirit will continue the new birth experience by imparting new character traits. The Holy Spirit will produce new traits that are not naturally occurring in mankind. Once we are plucked from the clutches of Satan, these new traits will begin to develop a godly character in us. These traits are found in 2 Peter. The Holy Spirit will add to us—if we are submissive to His will—faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and Christlike love. By daily dying to self, we are giving up our own will and letting the Spirit join His will to ours to make significant changes in our lives.
The Father requires perfect faith, so the converted Christian will endure trials and temptations, allowing the Holy Spirit to help him overcome, thereby developing his faith, and perfecting his character to be like Jesus. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we gain strength as we overcome temptation and trial, and in this way, we learn to trust in God and obey His word. God knows what we can endure and does not give us more than is necessary for character growth. But if we do not trust in God, and do not pray for help, we will be overcome by our trials and temptations.
Once converted to the Spirit of God, He will produce love in our hearts for every person, whether good or evil. Jesus loves all of us, even before we come to Him. We are all wicked, evil in the sight of God, yet He loves us without reservation. He died for this evil race so that we can understand the goodness of God. He wants us to experience this goodness through the Holy Spirit. Conversion produces other traits of character as well. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” Galatians 5:22, 23. Paul also says that “the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth.” Ephesians 5:9
The new birth experience is an ongoing, continual changing of one’s character by the Holy Spirit. Profession is the beginning, but the end is a spotless character. Our character will be washed and scrubbed, purged by the fire of trials and temptations until we are free from sin, reflecting only the image of God. The Holy Spirit will be with us through each issue of life making it possible to weather every trial and temptation while our character is being perfected. After all, our character is the only thing we take from this life to heaven, and God will only allow a spotless and cleansed Christian character in heaven.
So how do we receive this character from the Holy Spirit? Through prayer and the study of His holy word. Jesus said to some of His critics, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” John 5:39. The Scriptures that Jesus was talking about were the Old Testament. None of the New Testament had even been written, yet Jesus said they all testified of Him. He was the One who created the worlds, who spoke to Moses and wrote the ten commandments with His own finger. He shut the mouths of the lions to save Daniel from being killed, and He employed His Spirit to give testimony of future events to His prophets. The Spirit of truth testified of Jesus and what was to happen hundreds of years before His birth.
The Holy Spirit is the sanctifying power from the Godhead. We are justified by Christ’s sacrifice, and by the Holy Spirit we are sanctified by the changing of our character to be like Jesus. The new birth becomes complete when every wrong thought, action, and word is no longer part of us. Each day the Holy Spirit is working to perfect us. His goal is to “bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:5, last part
We should never be discouraged in Christ as He has promised to complete the changes in us, even as we see our faults so clearly. This is the purging power of the Holy Spirit. Paul gives us this word of encouragement, “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6. The Holy Spirit will not let us go unless we let go of Him. What a wonderful promise!
“Keep your wants, your joys, your sorrows, your cares, and your fears before God. You cannot burden Him; you cannot weary Him. He who numbers the hairs of your head is not indifferent to the wants of His children. ‘The Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.’ James 5:11. His heart of love is touched by our sorrows and even by our utterances of them. Take to Him everything that perplexes the mind. Nothing is too great for Him to bear, for He holds up worlds, He rules over all the affairs of the universe. Nothing that in any way concerns our peace is too small for Him to notice. There is no chapter in our experience too dark for Him to read; there is no perplexity too difficult for Him to unravel. No calamity can befall the least of His children, no anxiety harass the soul, no joy cheer, no sincere prayer escape the lips, of which our heavenly Father is unobservant, or in which He takes no immediate interest. ‘He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.’ Psalm 147:3. The relations between God and each soul are as distinct and full as though there were not another soul upon the earth to share His watchcare, not another soul for whom He gave His beloved Son.” Steps to Christ, 100
If this has not been our experience in our walk with Christ, then we have a work to do. We submit our will to Him, and He will work together with us. We must believe His truth and His truth is His word. “Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your law is truth.” Psalm 119:142
His truth will set us free from the sinful passions of worldliness. Jesus will help us overcome all sin in our lives and His Spirit will prepare us for our eternal life with the Father. Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31, 32
As Jesus showed His character and how His Spirit could change their lives, the disciples and Nicodemus were broken down by His goodness and mercy. They realized that all selfishness and pride of life must be put away. They hung their “old man” on the cross with Jesus and took up a new life in Christ. They were born not only of the water, but also of the Spirit of God that now rested in them. They “overcame by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” Revelation 12:11. We, too, can have this experience by fully submitting all in our lives to God.
Michael C. Wells is the director of Anointing Oil Ministries.