I was brought up a Methodist and part of my staple diet was the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century. Essential to understanding of its message was the idea that the new birth was an absolute moral imperative for salvation. Later in life I realized that Jesus’ teaching in John 3 involved not so much a moral imperative like repentance (Mark 1:15, etc.) but a natural necessity. The difference is of basic importance. Arminian though Wesleyan Methodism has always been in its thinking, it has been deeply influenced like the rest of the Western Church by the teaching of Augustine of Hippo for whom the new birth provided the remedy for sin, original sin in particular.
Against my background where sin was so evangelistically important, it was a long time before I came to understand the plan of salvation as it is taught in the Bible. Wesley himself was convinced that whatever else it involved it meant going to heaven at death. He wrote:
“I want to know one thing, the way to heaven …. God himself has condescended to teach the way ….He has written it down in a book. O give me that book: At any price give me the book of God ! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be Homo unius libri (a man of one book) …. I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven ….” (Quoted by J.I.Packer, ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, p.75.)
I eventually realized that the first indication of salvation in the Bible occurs in Genesis 2:16f., before Adam had even sinned. There, in a rather negative sort of way, by means of a death threat in fact, he is promised eternal life which as a product of a temporal corruptible creation he obviously did not have. This is borne out especially by Paul who implicitly claims that as a child, he recapitulated Adam and Eve’s experience. He too was born ‘alive’ (cf. Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f., etc.) but when the transgenerational commandment (cf. Prov. 1:8; 4:1ff.; 6:20) dawned on his consciousness promising eternal life, it led to death. Like his distant forebears Paul broke the commandment (Rom. 7:9f.) and thus earned the wages of death (Rom. 6:23). (In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul points out that the ministry of the law is a ministry of death, cf. 1 Cor. 15:56.)
It needs to be stressed, however, that Adam received the promise of life before he sinned. In light of this, we are compelled to conclude that man as created from a perishable earth, though in the image of God, is naturally mortal and perishable (corruptible) like all animal life, indeed like all created things (cf. Rom. 1:20; Heb. 1:11; 12:27) animal (Ps. 104:21,27-29, etc.), vegetable (James 1:10), mineral (1 Pet. 1:7,18). If this is so, two things immediately become apparent: first, man must somehow overcome his natural mortality or susceptibility to death; second, he must also triumph over his natural corruptibility which ensures that like the earth from which he stems, he grows older (cf. Heb. 1:10-12; 8:13). (1* It is important to stress both man’s natural mortality and corruptibility since by contrast God himself is presented in Scripture as being immortal, athanasia, 1 Tim. 6:16, and incorruptible, aphthartos, 1 Tim. 1:17. If man is to become like God he must attain to both. The reason why both are important is illustrated by the story of the goddess Aurora and her lover Tithonus in classical mythology. According to Lempriere, Tithonus was so beautiful that Aurora fell in love with him and carried him away. He begged her to make him immortal but forgot to ask for his early vigour, youth and beauty and so soon grew old, infirm and decrepit. He thus prayed Aurora to remove him from the world. As he could not die, the goddess changed him into a cicada, or grasshopper.)
Of course, in Adam’s case the promise of eternal life was nullified by his sin. But what if he had never sinned? How would he have got to heaven and the presence of God where alone eternal life can be lived? It is here that the Bible’s two natural necessities come to our aid.
(1) John 3 and Spiritual Rebirth
First, pace Augustine, in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus there is no mention of sin, least of all original sin. By referring to ‘flesh’ Jesus is stressing our natural condition by creation (cf. John 1:13a). If this is so, he is clearly highlighting a ‘natural’ necessity (2* I use the expression ‘natural’ necessity for convenience simply implying, first, that the necessity arises out of the nature of the situation and, second, that morals, sin in particular, are not involved. Gordon Fee rightly says in comment on the Greek word ‘dei’ in 1 Cor. 15:53, cf. John 3:7, it is “Not a necessity of natural order but of divinely ordained eschatology”, p.802. Both our spiritual regeneration and our bodily transformation, though ‘natural’ necessities, are supernatural in that they are ordained and monergistically accomplished by God.) not a moral imperative like repentance and faith (cf. Mark 1:15; 1 John 3:23). He is trying to inform Nicodemus that in order to gain eternal life and enter heaven spiritual rebirth or birth from above is intrinsically indispensable or naturally necessitous. If it was true of Adam before he sinned, it is true of everyone else including the incarnate Jesus himself who never sinned. By uniquely obeying the law Jesus as the second Adam achieved righteousness, which was the precondition of eternal life (Lev. 18:5, cf. Mt. 19:17, etc.). He thus received the Spirit at his baptism and was acknowledged and confirmed as God’s Son. Otherwise expressed, having pleased his Father by his obedience he was born from above and granted eternal life when he saw the dove descending and the heavens open (Mt. 3:16f.). (The fact that Jesus at his incarnation was sent by the Father and was God’s natural son by creation, Heb. 10:5, cf. Luke 3:38, is beside the point. It was as man that he had to make his way to heaven as our pioneer, our elder brother in fact, cf. Heb. 2:10f.. The truth is that he confirmed his divine pedigree by his obedience. He did as man what all other men and women had failed to do.)
In Jesus’ view, it is evident that as naturally unregenerate (that is, apart from sin, cf. 1 Cor. 2:14-16) we cannot even see, let alone enter the spiritual kingdom of heaven and the presence of God who is a consuming fire. This is strongly implied even in the OT. For example, in Isaiah 33:14 the prophet pointedly asks, “Who among us can dwell with everlasting fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?” The prophet then answers his own questions by asserting that those who can have certain spiritual qualities which make them acceptable (cf. e.g. Ps. 15; 24:3-6). Though according to the OT just to see God is a death sentence, Isaiah nonetheless tells us in verse 17 (cf. vv.21f.; 66:19) that these righteous people will see the king in his beauty in a land that stretches far. This instantly reminds us of Jesus prayer that his believing, hence justified and regenerated people should be where he is to see his heavenly glory (John 17:24). Since this glory cannot be seen so long as we are spiritually unregenerate, that is, as we are by nature, the new birth is a paramount necessity. In the meantime, as in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, it is not simply sin that serves as a barrier but our natural condition as ‘flesh’.
So since our earthly nature is provisional and mortal even apart from sin, I conclude that birth from above is a ‘natural’ necessity for entry into heaven. As Jesus implied, just as earthly birth fits us for life on the earth, so heavenly birth fits us for life in heaven (John 3:6, cf. 1 Cor. 15:48).
In clarification of the above, it should perhaps be pointed out in the midst of widespread confusion (3* Misled both by tradition and the language of Scripture I freely confess my own confusion over the years. In John 3 Jesus appears to be using the word ‘flesh’ to describe our total natural condition not just the physical side of us, cf. John 1:13. Cf. also ‘all flesh’ meaning all people in 1 Cor. 1:29, for example.) that our naturally unregenerate (as opposed to sinful) spirits though created by the God of spirits (Num. 16:22) must be regenerated by the Father of spirits (Heb. 12:9) in order to enter heaven. This was true even in the case of Jesus who, though created mortal ‘flesh’ (Heb. 10:5) and a true son of Adam (Luke 3:38), alone as man met the condition of eternal life by gaining the righteousness which was the result of keeping the commandments (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Mt. 19:17, etc.). By contrast, we who prove incapable of obedience gain our righteousness through faith in him. Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:9-14). (4* Arguing that the second or new birth is the natural consequence of the first, Wheeler Robinson wrote: “… if regeneration be entrance into the life of conscious sonship to God, we must regard regeneration as the normal and ‘natural’ completion of what was begun in the first birth” (p.327, cf. Warfield, pp.158ff., 223ff., Westcott, pp.306,308,313)).
(2) 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 and Corporeal Change
Second, if for Jesus spiritual rebirth is absolutely indispensable (Gk dei, John 3:7, cf. Morris, pp.219f.), for Paul bodily transformation is also a sheer necessity (Gk dei, 1 Cor. 15:53, cf. Thiselton, p.1297). In the nature of the case it is essential (1 Cor. 15:50).
As has already been intimated, Adam on account of his sin failed to gain eternal life and came short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). In fact, he earned wages consisting of both spiritual and physical death by breaking the commandment. Thus when he died he lapsed into the dust from which he was taken and underwent final physical corruption. In light of this we must ask what the situation would have been if he had kept the commandment and not died. Or, to put the same question somewhat differently and non-speculatively, what happened to Jesus the second Adam who in fact did not sin but kept the law to perfection?
First, we must be careful to recognize that Jesus died too but in his case in order to atone for the sins of his people. What is indisputable is that he did not earn death as wages for his own sins. Indeed, it was because his death was vicarious that it had no permanent hold over him personally (Acts 2:22-24). He therefore rose from the dead as he had promised regaining the life he had voluntarily laid down (John 2:19-21; 10:17f.). In his gospel Luke makes it plain that Jesus’ resurrection was genuinely physical (24:39, cf. Acts 10:41; John 21:9-13). John also goes out of his way to record Jesus’ encounter with Doubting Thomas who subjects him to detailed physical scrutiny (20:24-29, cf. 1 John 1:1-3). Once Thomas is convinced that his Lord is physically real, Jesus pertinently adds that those who have not seen but have believed are blessed (v.29, cf. 2 Cor. 5:7; 1 Pet. 1:8). Truly are we justified by faith.
In the Acts of the Apostles strong stress is laid on the fact that though he died Jesus did not experience corruption (Acts 2:27,31; 13:35-37). The unavoidable inference from this is that Jesus was still flesh at his resurrection from the grave. But here lies a problem. For if Jesus is to receive the holy and sure blessings of David (Acts 13:34b, cf. Luke 1:32f.), the eternal kingdom referred to by Daniel (2:44; 7:14), how can he do so in perishable flesh? The answer to this conundrum lies in Acts 13:34 which tells us that God raised Jesus from the dead “no more to return to corruption”.
Many writers draw the conclusion from this and other evidence that Jesus was glorified when he rose from the grave but as we have just seen this would appear to be impossible not least because it would logically exclude the reality of his physical resurrection. In view of this we are forced to conclude, first, that the expression ‘raised from the dead’ is sometimes used comprehensively to include the whole process of resurrection, ascension, exaltation and heavenly session (see e.g. Harris, p.93; GG, p.182), and this would appear to be the case here especially when we take into consideration affirmations like Hebrews 4:14; 7:26,28. This is further confirmed by Paul’s insistence that Jesus was no more to return to corruption, and this must refer to the fact that he would no longer be physical since physicality as such involves natural corruptibility. (See further my No Return To Corruption.) So we must ask when Jesus was transformed. The answer, in view of the evidence regarding his post-resurrection physicality presented in brief above, must be at his ascension (cf. John 20:17). (See further my When Was Jesus Transformed?)
A Body of Glory
It is at this point that we become aware of Paul’s insistence that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God but that all must of necessity be changed (1 Cor. 15:50ff.). If this holds for the saints at the end of the age who do not die and experience resurrection, by parity of reasoning it must equally and necessarily hold for the incarnate Jesus who after his resurrection lived in the flesh as though he had never died, that is, like a sinless first Adam. It is thus implied in Philippians 3:21 that at his ascension Jesus dispensed with his flesh or body of humiliation (cf. Heb. 5:7) and gained a body of glory (or what Paul calls in 1 Corinthians 15:44,46 a spiritual body), one that was certainly not in evidence before it. Furthermore, we are also informed that we ourselves will be similarly glorified after our death and resurrection which follows a different pattern, that is, one like that of David (Acts 2:29-31; Phil. 3:21, cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-49; 2 Cor. 5:1).
Assuming the truth of all this, we may safely conclude that Jesus’ ascension transformation provides the paradigm for the saints at the end of history just as his regeneration/sonship provides the paradigm for believers’ regeneration/adoption at an earlier stage, at our (believer’s) baptism in fact.
If what has been set out above is correct, why all the confusion in the past? The answer is the church’s failure to recognize that the Augustinian worldview in which sin is the sole cause of all earthly troubles is false. Man as both community and individual (including Jesus) begins his difficult and testing pilgrimage from earth to heaven before the onset of sin, but sin exacerbates the situation. And since all come short of the glory of God (Rom. 5:12, cf. 3:23) sin has to be dealt with and removed. This is achieved through faith in Jesus and prevents all boasting (Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29; Eph. 2:9). Furthermore, it ensures that God himself gains the glory for man’s salvation as he always intended (cf. Isa. 45:22-25, etc.). Little wonder that Jesus as the Son of God is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) apart from whom there is no salvation (Acts 4:12; Phil. 2:9-11).
Since human beings are anthropologically dualistic, that is, both flesh and spirit, in order to get to heaven we must be changed both spiritually and corporeally. On the one hand we must be born again of God (John 1:13; 3:1-8), on the other we must undergo a bodily transformation (1 Cor. 15:50-57). (It is interesting to note that on the natural level we have bodies of flesh before we are spirit, 1 Cor. 15:46, but on the supernatural level we are spirit before we have spiritual bodies or bodies of glory.)
G.D.Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, 1987.
M.Harris, Raised Immortal, Basingstoke, 1883.
M.Harris, From Grave to Glory, Grand Rapids, 1990.
Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. London, 1984.
L.L.Morris, The Gospel According to John, Grand Rapids, 1971.
Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man, Edinburgh, 1911.
A.C.Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids/Carlisle, 2000.
B.B.Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings 1, ed. Meeter, Nutley, 1970.
B.F.Westcott, The Epistles of John, London, 1883.
(See also my The Correspondence Between John 3:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-57)