In John 3:1-8 Jesus maintains that the need to be born again is paramount. He insists that apart from the new birth it is impossible for anyone to enter the kingdom of God (= gain eternal life) which is the goal of man made in the image of God (Gen. 2:17, cf. John 3:3,5; Acts 14:22; Col. 1:13; 2 Pet. 1:11; 1 John 2:25). While all Christians who have reasonable understanding of the Bible realize that the way to gain eternal life is through faith in Jesus (John 3:16), prior to the preaching of the gospel Jesus himself made it plain that keeping the law to perfection was its indispensable precondition (Mt. 19:16, cf. Lev. 18:5, etc.). The issue requires clarification.
The Reason Why
Traditionally, under the prevailing influence of Augustine of Hippo it has been assumed in the churches that that the need for regeneration or eternal life arises because we are born sinful ‘in Adam’ and are hence doomed to eternal death under the wrath of God. (Romans 5:12 is traditionally held to teach this, but it has been long noted that the words ‘in Adam’ based on Augustine’s ‘in quo’ or ‘in whom’ are missing.) Thus the new birth conveyed even in infancy by baptism is regarded not simply as the antidote of the sins we personally commit but primarily of the original sin in which we are born. However, this poses a problem since in John 3:1-8 neither Jesus nor Nicodemus mentions sin which does not appear to be on their horizon. Rather, their emphasis falls exclusively on the flesh (though Augustine regarded even this as sinful) or on what man is physically by nature. Clearly the background of the new birth requires further exploration.
According to Augustine by whom the church in the West has been so pervasively and deeply influenced, at the beginning God created a ‘good’ even perfect world (Gen. 1). Adam and Eve as those who were created in the image of God and called to exercise dominion over the rest of creation were assumed to be characterized by holiness, righteousness, perfection and even immortality by nature. Despite this, they mysteriously gave way to temptation, ‘fell’ into sin and thereby brought a curse on the very creation over which they were intended to exercise lordship. Against this backcloth it has been assumed that sin is the only problem to be overcome and hence the new birth has to all intents and purposes been regarded as a moral imperative like repentance (Mark 1:15).
The Biblical Background
The Bible itself teaches something substantially different. For a start we must recognize that Augustine failed to appreciate that the meaning of the word ‘good’, even ‘very good’ (cf. Num. 14:7), in Genesis 1 was not ‘perfect’ but ‘serviceable’ or ‘useful’. (1* The material creation is said to be the work of God’s hands, Ps. 102:25, cf. Isa. 45:12; 48:13, etc. This in itself indicates its intrinsic imperfection, profanity or secularity, cf. Heb. 9:11,24. See further my Manufactured Or Not So ) In other words, he did not perceive that the visible creation was a temporary tool (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18, etc.) in the hands of God serving a purpose rather like Eve’s ‘apple’ which was good for food (Gen. 3:6, cf. 2:9,18). Since it had a beginning, it surely had to have an end (Genesis 1, Revelation 21f., cf. Heb. 1:10-12). This in itself constituted a problem for man who as dust or clay was clearly formed from the temporal earth and was by nature mortal and subject to corruption (cf. Job 10:8f., 2 Cor. 4:16-18, etc.). How could he who was himself naturally temporal and inherently imperfect like his material source gain eternal life and attain to glory (Gen. 1:26; Ps. 8:5)? Genesis 2:17, while significantly pointing up man’s mortality, supplies the answer. The condition he must meet is perfect obedience to the commandment which was the road to righteousness (cf. Rom. 2:13, etc.). Of course, a single commandment resembling a prohibition imposed by a parent on a child with diminished responsibility was all that was required to test the spiritually infantile Adam (cf. Dt. 8:2,16) who at the start knew neither good nor evil. However, as both physical and mental development took place so the greater became the requirements (cf. Luke 2:40-52; Mt. 3:15). In the end the entire law of Moses was to provide the test which man had to pass if he was to gain life (Lev. 18:5; Dt. 30:15-20, etc.). But as the OT itself makes abundantly plain, though the trans-generational condition of eternal life remained (Dt. 30:6; Jer. 31:33; 32:39-31, etc.) no one proved capable of meeting it (1 K. 8:46; Ps. 130:3; Eccl. 7:20, etc.). And it was precisely this situation which made necessary the coming of Christ, the second or last Adam. It was he who was to achieve what all the natural offspring of the first Adam failed to do (1 Pet. 2:22, cf. Rom. 5:12) and thus fulfil the promise.
In becoming incarnate or flesh Jesus’ primary objective was to do his Father’s will and to keep his commandments (Heb. 10:7). But to what end? Initially, his purpose was to achieve personal righteousness (cf. Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7), the precondition that Adam failed to meet. Ultimately of course Jesus’ intention was to save his people by giving them eternal life (cf. John 17:2f.), but in order to do this he himself had to be qualified as a genuine member of the race to whom the promise had originally been made (Gen. 2:17; Heb. 2:17f.). So whereas the first Adam disqualified himself by breaking the commandment and was paid wages in death, Jesus the man, the second Adam, succeeded in keeping all the commandments, the entire law in fact, and thereby gained eternal life for himself. Thus having met his Father’s requirements, as man he became his spiritual Son at his baptism (Mt. 3:13-17). In his case, who he was (ontology) was matched by what he did (function). Truly did his reception of and sealing with the Spirit (cf. John 6:27) at his baptism testify to the fact that he had kept the law to perfection. He had proved himself to be righteous by meeting the indispensable precondition of eternal life or regeneration (Lev. 18:5). So, once he had attained to eternal life as a man he was in a position to grant it to all his fellows who believed in him (cf. Heb. 2:10-13, cf. 1 Cor. 15:45). He did this, first, by dying on their behalf to achieve the forgiveness of their sins, and, secondly, he sent the Spirit to sanctify them (John 14:16; 15:26; 16:7) just as his Father had done for him. So, the redemption he had accomplished on the cross was then applied to those who put their trust in him.
The author of Hebrews explains that Jesus as the Son of God came into the world not to offer ineffective sacrifices according to the law but to do God’s will (cf. John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 8:29), ultimately by making the supreme sacrifice of his body once for all (Heb. 10:9f., cf. Rom. 8:3; 1 Pet. 3:18). Why was this so important? The answer is that he had to do for man what all men had previously proved incapable of doing for themselves (cf. Mark 10:45). The blunt truth was that all sinned by breaking the law in some sense and came short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23; 5:12). Thus Jesus was crowned with glory and honour after suffering death on behalf of those who believed in him (Heb. 2:9). In further explanation and clarification our author maintains that it was fitting that God in bringing many sons to glory should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering (2:10) and thus make him a merciful high priest (2:17f.). Needless to say, this was a far cry from anything the first Adam achieved.
Jesus the Regenerate Son
The idea that Jesus himself had to attain to life and be born again in order to spearhead or pioneer salvation for the rest of mankind has not been exactly popular in the history of the church despite its clear implication in Hebrews 2. Obviously, if with Augustine we associate regeneration primarily with sin, the idea is anathema, for Jesus, as is acknowledged by all, was sinless (1 Pet. 2:22, cf. Mt. 3:14). But if he was truly incarnate and John 3:1-8 does not allow for exceptions, even though he was the physical Son of God as the virgin birth implied (cf. Luke 3:38; Heb. 10:5), Jesus must have been born again too.
So, assuming what I have suggested above is correct, we must expect it to be supported elsewhere in the New Testament.
First, we need to recognize that Jesus’ own baptismal reception of the Spirit which was the consequence of his keeping the law is implied whenever the apostle discusses the salvation of all others. When he states categorically in Galatians 2:16 that no one (Gk flesh, cf. 1 Cor. 1:29) will be justified by works of the law, Paul implies not only that ordinary men and women are incapable of attaining to righteousness by obedience (cf. Rom. 3:19f.; Gal. 2:16; Tit. 3:5) but also that they need Jesus to supply for them what Luther called an ‘alien righteousness’. What is more, it is vital to appreciate that justification (getting right with God) precedes regeneration in the order of salvation. This truth becomes evident when he asks his readers specifically in Galatians 3:2 whether they received the Spirit, that is, eternal life by the works of the law as we noted above that Jesus had done or by hearing with faith (cf. Rom. 10:17). Again in 3:5 he implies that faith in Jesus (and hence justification), not the works of the law, occurs before the granting of the Spirit (cf. Lev. 18:5). Now, since it is accepted universally among Protestants that we are justified by faith, it follows that justification or righteousness precedes regeneration and is not its fruit. To re-iterate what was asserted above, righteousness is the indispensable prerequisite of life as Scripture plainly teaches (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). In any case, plain logic should teach us that to be born again, that is, granted the Spirit and eternal life before we are justified or accounted righteous would mean that we would be eternally characterized by sin (cf. Rev. 22:11). This idea is implicitly repudiated in Genesis 3:22-24.
Reformed and Evangelical Theology
Strangely this latter inference is denied especially in Reformed circles. The classic Calvinist view which is enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, is plainly Augustinian. Here original sin, despite its patently unbiblical nature (2* On this see my articles relating to original sin, including An Exact Parallel?, Imputation, J.I.Packer on Original Sin, etc.), looms so large that the new birth is called in to overcome it even in infancy. (3* Catholics believe in regeneration by means of baptism and are unquestionably more consistent at this point than Protestants who baptize infants but usually deny their regeneration. Protestant failure to deal adequately with baptism at the Reformation continues to cause trouble in the Christian camp to this day. See further my articles Concerning Infant Salvation, Regarding the Baptism of Jesus, Baptism Revisited) In this scheme of things it is little wonder that the doctrines of election and predestination play such an important role and logically undermine man’s responsibility. It has been traditionally held, for example, that elect infants can be saved apart from faith and justification, (see Westminster Confession of Faith, ch.10.3). However, according to Scripture, while both faith (Eph. 2:8) and repentance (conversion) leading to life (Acts 11:18; 2 Cor. 7:10) are said to be the gift of God, they are nonetheless gifts that man must exercise (cf. Phil. 2:12f.) on pain of death (Luke 13:5). Here divine sovereignty and human responsibility clearly harmonize even if we have difficulty in understanding exactly how. And it is important that they do since, while it is beyond dispute that regeneration (cf. physical birth) is exclusively the work of God, a clear example of divine monergism, salvation does not dispense with human accountability (synergism).
But why is the new birth so vitally necessary if sin is not the reason as John 3 surely implies? (4* It is important here it recognize that the new birth does indeed have an important role in overcoming sin. On the assumption that regeneration is the first step in sanctification, then along with the work of the Spirit in general it plays its part in combating the works of the flesh in the justified sinner. See, for example, Romans 8:11, Galatians 5:22-25, Titus 3:4-8, etc.) The answer to this question is given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and is succinctly summarized in verse 50. Here the apostle maintains that the flesh (dust), as opposed to the spirit, by its very nature as created by God from the corruptible earth is quite incapable of inheriting eternal life. Once we see this we gain insight into the meaning of other texts, not least Romans 8:18-25 (5* On this passage see my article Romans 8:18-25) where Paul teaches that the temporal material creation as such, and hence the creature which derives from it, was subjected to the futility of corruption (decay) from the start. And the reason he gives for this is that God always had in mind something better than earthly life in the flesh for the creatures made in his image. His plan from the foundation of the world was to give them an invisible hope (Rom. 8:24f.), the hope of glory (Col. 1:27), in fact to make them his children and joint heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:14-17; Eph. 1:4f.; 1 John 3:1-3).
In further support of this we have only to consider Jesus. It is clearly taught in Scripture that having died for the sins of his people he was physically raised from the dead, never to die again (Rom. 6:9, cf. Acts 2:23f.). Since by keeping the law he had gained immortality (6* As the acknowledged Son, Jesus was of course spiritually immortal (regenerate) after his baptism but he freely laid down his life (psyche) for his sheep, John 10; 1 Pet. 3:18, etc.), it is possible to infer that he should literally have rebuilt David’s tent (Acts 15:16) and established his eternal throne on earth (Dan. 2:44; 7:14; Luke 1:32f., etc.). In the event he did nothing of the sort. Rather he ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 1:13; Rev. 3:21, etc.). Why? The answer to this question is obviously that as corruptible (perishable) flesh himself operating in a temporal corruptible creation (Gen. 1:1, cf. Rom. 8:18-25) he had of necessity to return to the eternal world from which he had originally emanated and regain the glory he enjoyed prior to his incarnation (John 17:5,24). To do this he had to undergo the change that Paul says is universally necessary if man is to reign forever in the presence of God (1 Cor. 15:51ff.). (7* See further my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities) Thus it is of the essence of Paul’s gospel that Jesus abolished death and brought life and incorruption (Gk) to light (2 Tim. 1:10).
On reflection Jesus had implied this himself not merely in John 3 but in John 11, for example, when he paradoxically told Mary that though we die yet shall we live. Jesus’ audience was every bit as aware as we ourselves are that when we die we undergo permanent physical decay, decomposition and disintegration (Acts 13:36, cf. John 11:39). Since physical rebirth (re-entering our mother’s wombs, cf. John 3:4) is impossible, the unavoidable conclusion we draw from this is that we are raised spiritually even as we are born again spiritually and given what the apostle calls spiritual (1 Cor. 15:43-53) or glorified bodies like that of Jesus (Phil. 3:21, cf. Rom. 8:23).
Without categorically denying that the new birth relates to sin to some degree (Eph. 2:1-10; Tit. 3:3-8), I conclude that its prime purpose is to prepare us for heaven and eternity as purified or perfected spirits (Heb. 12:23; 1 Pet.4:6; 2 Pet. 1:4; cf. 1 Pet. 1:3f.; 3:4). Thus regeneration is the pearl of great price. In the words of Peter, Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous in order to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18, cf. Heb. 2:10). If access to God is possible for us by prayer in this world (Eph. 2:18; 3:12), how much more is it in the world to come (John 14:2f.; Rev. 22:1-5, etc.). But this access can only be achieved by meeting God’s condition, that is, perfect holiness and righteousness (Mt. 5:48; Heb. 6:1). Since this is beyond our personal capabilities, all human beings made in the image of God are compelled as sinners to rely on Christ (Heb. 9:14) who alone achieved perfection (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28) and pioneered our way into the divine presence (Acts 2:33; 5:31; Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:19,25; 9:11f.,24; Rev. 3:21) in a body of glory (Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:42-49; Rev. 3:21). Truly may it be said that no one comes to the Father but by him (14:6).
(In case it is assumed that only specific faith in Christ will bring ultimate salvation, it must be remembered that faith in God and his promises was exercised long before Jesus came into the world. So while full salvation eluded all who preceded him, nonetheless, since his atonement covered all history, cf. 1 John 2:2, all who exercised faith before his coming, cf. Heb. 11, will nonetheless find a place in heaven. Along with Abraham, and even John the Baptist, cf. Mt. 3:14, who preceded Christ chronologically in this world, there will be many who exercised a faith like his, Mt. 8:11. While like him they fell short of perfection, they will nonetheless be ultimately perfected along with all the rest, Heb. 11:39f. The order of salvation, see my The Order of Salvation, which begins with repentance and faith, not regeneration as has been traditionally held, is of prime importance at this point.)