This is an extended version of the article at SBC Today which begins with Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus in John 3.
A lot has been written about Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3:3 NKJV) Jesus repeats Himself in verse 7, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” There is no question as to the importance of being born again but there is a lot of debate as to what Jesus meant when He said what He said. What did Jesus mean when He said, “You must be born again?”
Basically there are two primary interpretations and both are related to belief, repentance and faith. One posits being born again as being essential for belief, repentance and faith to take place and the other makes belief, repentance and faith essential for being born again. This article will examine these two positions in light of the Scriptural significance of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as it relates to being born again.
Perhaps the best place to start with this endeavor is with the Words of Jesus Himself in John 3: 5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’.”
What is clear in this passage is that Jesus speaks of two births: a physical birth and a Spiritual birth. Each is essential if one wants to see the Kingdom of God. Verse 8 offers an unusual statement from the Savior. “8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” What is Jesus saying here? Proponents of the Born again prior to repentance and saving faith make reference to this passage to say, “God chooses those who are born again and those individuals repent and believe and are converted or justified. The work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is like the wind; it goes where it goes and makes its presence known. However, if one simply reads the text all it says is this: being born again is like the wind; even though it is not visible its presence is felt. It is like the words of the hymn, “you ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart.” So it is with everyone who is born again. While one may not be able to prove its existence, one can most certainly experience it.
Nicodemus asks Jesus, “How can these things be?” and Jesus’ answer is quite interesting. He compares being born again to an event that took place in the Old Testament where the children of Israel were grumbling and complaining about God’s provisions for them in the wilderness and they referred to the manna God provided as “worthless bread.” This is an indirect reference to Jesus who is the Bread of Life. (John 6:41-51) God sent poisonous serpents to bite the people and they began to die. The people confessed their sin and pleaded for Moses to intercede on their behalf. “8 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.’” (Nu 21:8-9 NKJV)
Here is Jesus’ commentary on Numbers 21 and being born again: “14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 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. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. 18 ‘He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.’” (Jn 3:14-18 NKJV) It is clear in this passage that being born again is related to looking at the serpent that was raised up; those who look up to the cross and believe will not perish but have everlasting life. Those who are condemned are those who do not look up at the cross and the resurrected Savior and do not believe.
Consider verse 19 and following: “19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” (Jn 3:19-21 NKJV) This is a very important statement. Jesus is of course the Light of the World. (John 8:12, 9:5) Because men love darkness they do not come to the light, not because they are unable to do so as portrayed in the doctrine of total depravity and inability but rather because they choose not to come to the light because their attitudes and actions are revealed for what they are! It is not that men cannot come to the light; Jesus clearly indicates that they choose not to because their deeds are evil. Jesus says, “he who does come to the truth (Jesus) comes to the light that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
Now how does this passage relate to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? How does regeneration relate to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? One of two things has to be true; regeneration is the result of the indwelling or it is not. If regeneration is the result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit then the issue of the role of regeneration as it related to conversion is equally related to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the salvific process. Jesus in verse 36 makes the following statement: “36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Paul makes the following statement in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Here being born again in Paul’s mind is related to being “in Christ.” In Romans 8:9 Paul writes, “We should be led by the Spirit of God. If the Spirit of God does not dwell in us, we do not belong to God.” One thing appears clear: apart from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit or ones being “in Christ” there is no new birth or regeneration.
In Romans 8 the Apostle Paul is clear that the presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of an individual is essential to his being “born again.” Verse 1: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” In verse 8 Paul writes, “So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Those who are in the flesh are designated as those who are not in Christ or do not have the Spirit dwelling in their hearts. Paul continues, “9 But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. 10 And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. Clearly to be born again one MUST have the Spirit living in his heart for if one does not have the Spirit in his heart that one does not belong to God. Regeneration is not possible apart from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Consider the following admonition from Paul in 2 Co 13:5-6: “5 Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you are disqualified. 6 But I trust that you will know that we are not disqualified.” How is one to know if he is in the faith or not? If Christ is “in you” then Paul says that person is qualified and in the faith. In Colossians 1:27 Paul makes this declaration: “To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is clearly the means of regeneration in the Scriptures. So the question now is this: does the Holy Spirit take up residence in the heart of the unregenerate so that he is able to believe, repent and be saved or does the Holy Spirit take up residence in the heart of an individual who has believed, repented and is then saved?
Consider the following passages. At Pentecost, “38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Ac 2:38 NKJV) In 1 John 4 points to the importance of confession in the salvific process: “13 By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (1 Jn 4:13-15 NKJV)
In Romans 10 Paul writes, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Here Paul notes the reason many of the Jews had not been saved. He says that they sought their own righteousness and did not submit to the righteousness of God. It was not that they could not submit, Paul says they did not or would not submit to God’s righteousness. What was required of them? They were to believe in Christ who is the end of the law for righteousness for all who believe! It is obvious that believing in Christ is essential for right standing before God. God does not grant right standing in order to believe; He grants right standing because one believes.
Consider Paul’s continued admonition in Romans 10. “8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’.” Once again, the Scriptures are clear. One must confess the Lord Jesus and believe in one’s heart that God has raised Jesus from the dead to be saved or born again. Those who believe will not be put to shame and those who call on the Name of the Lord shall be saved. Conversion is the result of the Holy Spirit taking up residence in a person’s heart and that takes place after one believes, repents and confesses Christ.
Jesus reiterates this in the Great Commission recorded in Mark’s gospel: “15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mk 16:15-16) One is not regenerated or born again enabling him to believe; one believes and will be saved. When one believes, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the repentant heart and then he is born again. In Romans 1:16-17 Paul underscores the necessity of believing the gospel so that one might be saved: “16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is available to everyone who believes.
Consider Paul’s word of instruction in Ephesians 1: “13 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” (see also 2 Co 1:20-22) Clearly the sealing of the Holy Spirit takes place after one has heard the Word of truth presented in the proclamation of the gospel message and has believed it.
In conclusion, there is no ambiguity in the Scriptures where the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is concerned with respect to being born again or being regenerated. Regeneration is not possible apart from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to those who have believed and have repented and trusted God by faith. (Acts 2:38) While some may try to make a case for a temporal or logical position for regeneration preceding repentance and the exercise of saving faith, such is not the case for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Since regeneration is not Scripturally possible apart from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit one must conclude regeneration prior to repentance and saving faith is not possible either.
The lost are not regenerated so they may then repent and by faith trust Christ to be justified or saved; the unregenerate are convicted of their sin and their lost state by the work of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel and through believing and repentance, they by faith in the person and the promises of God are converted and justified and receive right standing before God when the Holy Spirit takes up residence in their hearts. This is the clear position presented in Scripture.