The Gospel 10: You Must Be Born Again
By: Deji Yesufu
My children are eight and six. My daughter is the older one. Recently both of them invited my wife and me to a love feast in their room. I was in the middle of starting off this blog then and very busy putting materials together; so my first inclination was to reject the invitation. But my wife said that little events like these are what leave pleasurable memories of parents in the minds of children. So I went. The love feast began with praise and worship. Then there was going to be preaching, and then we would eat. The minister for the program was our eight year old and she took her text from John chapter three. Her topic was “You Must Be Born Again”. Surprisingly, also, she had her sermon written, at least most of it. She spoke about Nicodemus visiting Jesus and our Lord laying this emphasis on him: Ye must be born again. I could not believe my ears. I have written a whole pamphlet on this subject before and now the first sermon my child will preach is be this. I was sincerely blessed and I prayed for them that God would make those realities established in both of their hearts in our Lord Jesus’ name. Amen.
Gospel Preaching as Means of Salvation
There are two main reasons why the gospel must be preached to all men. For the saints, it is a source of encouragement in this sin-cursed world. In this world, we would have tribulations, but the gospel reminds us that we have a home in heaven, sure and secure, kept by the power of God for us. The second reason why the gospel must be preached to the nations is so that men can be saved. There is no other way. Paul writes:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jews first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)
God’s power for salvation is released to the sinner as the gospel is preached and this power is what makes people believe the gospel message. Some have claimed that people are being converted by seeing Jesus and angels in dreams; others have such ludicrous conversion experiences like encountering some divine beings somewhere or having voices speak to their heads in mysterious ways. All such conversions should be held suspect as long as they do not have a gospel message in them. When God would convert Cornelius and his household, he did send an angel to him. But that angel, of a necessity, needed to get him to a human agent of the gospel, Peter, who then preached the gospel to them. As Peter spoke to this group of expectant people in Acts 10, they were not only converted but also subsequently filled with the Holy Spirit right there. God’s power for salvation is released when the gospel is preached and this power is able to change the heart of stone to the heart of flesh, bringing unsaved persons to comprehend the message of Christ.
When in John chapter three Nicodemus visited our Lord at night, Jesus drew attention to the central need of the hearts of all men living. Our Lord told Nicodemus that except a man was born again, he could not enter God’s kingdom. Quite naturally Nicodemus pointed out the impossibility in this statement: no one can return to his mother’s womb and be reborn. But Christ showed him that he was speaking of spiritual things. He said further:
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘you must be born again.’ 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 3:6-8)
One aspect of Christ’s words here that is often overlooked is the dimension of the sovereignty of God in saving sinners. While on one hand our Lord impressed on his listener the need for him to come to sincere faith; on the other hand, he showed him the supernatural dimension of this process. When a man comes under the converting influence of the Spirit, it is like the wind blowing: you can hear it and feel it, but you cannot see it. You can experience the effect of the wind but you cannot control it. Christ is saying that while human birth is usually occasioned by the will of the flesh: man and woman coming together; Spiritual birth is always occasioned by the will of God. No flesh can make another person become born-again; no one can even go out and say, “I have given my life to Christ now; I am born again.” This thing does not work by the will of man; it works only by the will of God. Like the wind, we cannot dictate the direction the Spirit will go in converting sinners. All we can see is a converted life. We cannot make the wind go our way; we can, however, feel the power of the wind moving.
God’s Sovereignty in Salvation
The matter of the conversion of sinners resting within the sovereignty of God has often been a source of debate. Many Christian groups today hold the notion that any man can “come to Christ” of his own will and whenever he wishes. But this is not the position that our reformed fathers held. They knew, quite rightly, that conversion was what God and only God could do, at his own time and by his own will. How then will a man be saved? Well, the best that we can do is to preach the gospel and to pray. We can do nothing else. The unconverted person is described spiritually as a man who is dead in trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1); he does not have any capacity in him to make a decision for Christ by himself. The only thing the churches can do is to pray that God would save sinners and to lay emphasis on gospel preaching, because this is God’s means for converting sinners. The act of conversion is what God and God alone does. The born-again individual is only a recipient of the grace of God.
Why then do we press on our listeners to believe the gospel and be saved?
It is because this is a veritable aspect of gospel preaching. It is not enough to explain what Christ did to save sinners, we must impress upon the conscience of the sinner the need to believe the gospel and be saved. While the unconverted person is dead spiritually, God has given every man the ability to hear the gospel physically and a mind to process this information. The gospel is like a seed, such that when it lands on the heart of an unconverted listener, it can take root downward and bear fruit upward. The best we as preachers can do is to spread this seed of God’s word and pray that God will cause his word to grow in the hearts of men. This is why conversion is often regarded as receiving ears to hear in the Bible and the only person who can give spiritual ears is God. A man has received spiritual ears when he suddenly understands the gospel preached to him and he believes it. It will require that he repents of his sins and lay hold on Christ as Savior. Most times the process of understanding the gospel and even repenting of sin takes a period of time (for a few others, it can happen suddenly). The sinner would be ruminating over the message he has heard. Sometimes he would be asking the preacher questions – and this is one reason why we must give opportunity to our listeners to ask questions. When the Spirit begins a work in the hearts of men, he spurs them to ask questions like in Acts 2:37. And the answers we give them help them to gain understanding. Understanding leads ultimately to repentance and faith.
It is important that we teach this process of conversion and lay the emphasis on God’s sovereignty in saving sinners, not necessarily on men “giving their lives to Christ.” This is because of the problem of false conversion in the churches.
“Giving your Life to Christ”
Beginning sometimes in the 19th century, a false practice of decision making entered Christendom. People were beginning to be made to understand that they could actually, by themselves, decide that they could “give their lives to Christ”. Those who taught this concept, however, overlooked the reality that no one “gave his life to Christ” in the Bible. In his entire three year ministry, Jesus never led anyone in a sinners’ prayer; neither did his disciples. No one gave an altar call in scriptures. The whole practice of decision making in Christendom has watered down the power and process of conversion in believers. So that anyone who has flippantly said some sinners’ prayer can now claim to be born again. But in the days of yore, it was not so. The gospel is usually preached to people. The gospel is usually the answer to this same people via their questions. And the only proof that men are converted is not by their claiming to be “born again” but by their very converted life.
A man who begins to come to church would have the gospel preached to him. The fact that he returns to church the next Sunday is proof that God is doing a work in him. Ministers in that church will keep an eye on him and be praying for him, while at the same time preaching the gospel still. At mid-week meetings, where questions on the Sunday morning sermons are permitted, they see this man begin to come and ask questions. His questions are answered. Soon, they see that he has invited his wife and children to church and becomes a regular attendee. One day, this man and his wife approach the pastor and tell him that they wish to be baptized. The pastor tells them they must be converted first. The man responds that he believes he has come to faith in Christ. The minister asks him “how”. And the man goes on to explain how, as a sinner, he stumbles into this church one day and heard the gospel preached. That it spurred him to begin to come to church often.
Then he explains further that during one of the mid-week services, as a question asked by another person was being answered, he bent his head and asked Christ to forgive his sins. He believes that the Lord changed him that day. Subsequently, seeing the change in his life, the wife and children also began to come to church. And a week ago, in the privacy of his room, he prayed with his wife as she repented and believed the gospel. The minister beams with smile and tells them that he believes they are now Christians. They would be required to give their testimony before the whole church at the mid-week service and then they would be taken through some baptismal classes, as foundational members of the church, and then they would be baptized.
Now the story will certainly differ for many others, but the element of gospel preaching, repentance, and faith will be obvious in all of these testimonies. Nothing short of gospel preaching will produce a converted life. And except men are born-again, they will simply continue in false religious professions like Nicodemus – who himself was a Pharisee, a leader in the synagogue. When Christ told Nicodemus “you must be born-again”, he was telling all men that this is the only way you can be saved and enter the kingdom of God. He was also saying that the born-again person is made so by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit; it cannot be orchestrated by human beings.
The process of conversion is a sovereign work of grace on the hearts of sinners by God. We can only preach the gospel; we can only pray; the one who converts is God alone. And my prayer to all the readers of this text is that you would believe the gospel and that you will be saved. Amen.