The New Birth

I recall the day our neighbors became parents for the second time; they joyfully announced the news of their newborn son’s arrival. To make it even more memorable, the baby came on his dad’s birthday. What a joy to celebrate new life!

The theme of new birth takes us back to a famous conversation of Jesus and a sincere Jewish leader (John 3:1-21). Nicodemus had come by night to personally inquire of the message and identity of Jesus. He said, “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” (v.2). Jesus answered Nicodemus: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The inquirer responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”(v.4). (At this point all mothers exclaim “absolutely not!!“)

Then the Lord clarified the nature of this second birth: “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”(v.5,6). Later in the passage comes the most-quoted verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

From this portion of Scripture we learn several truths about salvation:

1) a spiritual rebirth is required to obtain eternal life;

2) this birth is identified as of “water and the Spirit”;

3) the condition to attain this new birth is personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The phrase “new birth” is used commonly in some denominations, but it has picked up various connotations from the media. We observe here that the phrase is from Jesus Himself and, therefore, should be of the utmost importance to every professing Christian. At this point we should clarify some issues regarding this second birth and the conditions for it.

Jesus stated that this birth is (according the the Greek) “of water and spirit.” This phrase is a bit ambiguous, so we should consider how the rest of God’s Word sheds light on it. Some have suggested that “born of water” relates to water baptism. Although baptism is an important testimony of faith, it is not part of God’s conditions for salvation (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 1:14-17; Acts ch.10).[1] Others have suggested that “born of water” speaks of the first, natural birth. When a baby is born, the amniotic fluid pours forth as well. If this is what Jesus meant, He would be stating the need to be born physically (first birth) and spiritually (second birth). Another possibility is that “born of water” refers to the agency of the Word of God in the process of conversion. Ephesians 5:26 speaks of Christ saving His people “with the washing of water by the word.”

What is unmistakable is the necessity of this spiritual rebirth. The need for this is explained by further references to regeneration:

“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins …
God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Eph. 2:1,4,5; Cf. Titus 3:4-7).

This “new birth” is often thought of as a dramatic, crisis event; it often is (Acts 9). Yet those raised in a Christian home may come to receive Christ with this new birth in a less sensational way–like Timothy did (2 Tim 3:15). Eventually Nicodemus believed in Jesus as his personal Messiah and Savior (John 19:39).

A biography of Andrew Murray, the beloved devotional writer from South Africa, records that Andrew’s father was minister who prayed for revival and preached the necessity of personal salvation. However, it was not until Andrew was completing his seminary studies that he personally received Christ and was “born again.” His testimony reminds me of a believer I know who was a deacon in a church for many years before he understood the plan of salvation and was personally “born again.”

This should lead every one of us to examine ourselves to be certain that we are “in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5). Christ promised “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).

A wonderful testimony of salvation comes from the life of Edward Mote. He “knew nothing about God or the Bible as he grew up in London, England, the child of poor innkeepers. At the age of 16 he was genuinely converted to Christ. Mote later settled in a suburb of London where he became known as a successful cabinet maker and devoted church layman.” [2] As he grew spiritually, Mote became a faithful preacher of God’s Word and composed more than 150 hymns. One of my favorites is “The Solid Rock.” Alluding to Matthew 7:24-27, it clearly describes the nature of salvation in Christ.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

When darkness veils His lovely face
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil.

His oath, His covenant, His blood
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my hope gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.

When he shall come with trumpet sound
O may I then in Him be found;
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.

refrain

On Christ the Solid Rock I stand–
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

“We thank you, O God, for giving us spiritual life in Christ and welcoming us into Your forever family. As we trust in Christ, may we continually appreciate and express this new life. Amen.”


[1] In his Notes, Albert Barnes interprets “born of water” to refer to water baptism. However, he does not take the verse as teaching baptismal regeneration. The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary interprets the phrase as denoting a “thorough spiritual purification by the operation of the Holy Ghost. Indeed, element of water and operation of the Spirit are brought together in a glorious evangelical prediction of Ezekiel (Ezek 36:25-27). Cf. Adam Clarke. John Gill comments, ” by ‘water’ is meant, in a figurative and metaphorical sense, the grace of God, as it is elsewhere; see Ezek. 36:25 John 4:14.

[2] Kenneth Osbeck, Amazing Grace, p. 187.

This article is copyrighted 1999 by John Woodward, 3rd edition, 2015. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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Copyright, John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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