The Spirit, the Cross, and the New Birth

Jesus’ late night conversation with Nicodemus is quite instructive regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in our entrance into the kingdom. I love the fact that Jesus was accessible at all hours of the day or night. Apparently he was no stranger to inconvenient late night ministry (Mk 1:32). He is an accessible God inviting us to come at anytime. His door is never closed and his lights are never off. Nicodemus came to him enthralled by his skillful teaching. Jesus responds to his glowing compliments with a lesson that proves the praise of Nicodemus is indeed fitting. At the heart of his lesson to Nicodemus is the necessity of a birth of sorts that comes only from the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:1-16). It is a new birth, a birth from above, a divine injection of new life—and the Spirit alone is the source of this gift. Apart from this gracious movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual the doors of the kingdom remain shut to them. Entrance into the kingdom is possible only through the new birth. It is as a person passes through the birth canal of the Holy Spirit that they are ushered into the kingdom.

In the flow of the text there are two crucial truths about the new birth that stand out to me. First, conception and birth are not the result of our volition. It is the supreme and sovereign volition of the Holy Spirit that makes the new birth a possibility. Like breath the Spirit breathes on those he desires when he desires. Like wind the Spirit blows as he wills. Whether we feel his breathe upon us or know his wind in our face—that is up to him (Jn 3:8). Just as we had no control over our first birth we have no say in our new birth (Jn 1:12). We stand dependent upon the mercy of God to birth us anew. Salvation is a divine gift it has nothing to do with man. This gives us one more reason to be thankful to God for his free mercy.

The second thing to recognize about the new birth in the flow of the text is its connection to the cross. Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus about the new birth drives inexorably downward to the root of that divine gift. The new birth is a new covenant gift. Nicodemus may have and definitely should have recognized the new covenant language used by Jesus in their discussion (Ez 36:16-32). Jesus helps Nicodemus understand that entrance into the kingdom is dependent on the new birth but the new birth is dependent on the cross. The Son of Man must be lifted up like the serpent was in the wilderness that men may look to him with faith and be rescued (Jn 3:14-16). The benefits of the new covenant are made effective only when the blood of Christ is spilled. If there is no cross there is no new birth. The regenerating, indwelling, and empowering work of the Holy Spirit is a gift from the crucified and risen Lord (Acts 2:33, 1 Pet 1:3). This gives us one more reason to be grateful to Jesus for his cross-work.

Babies breathe, eat, cry, grow, and develop. These are the natural results of being born into this world. This is what living people do. If a baby did not do these things then they would not be living. The baby, however, cannot take credit for these things. The child did not choose any of this. The impulse to eat is a result of being born as a living creature. The involuntary act of breathing is the fruit of their involuntary birth. As humans we live simply because we were given life. It is no different with the second birth. What do we have that we have not received? Answer: nothing. Any and all impulses that compel us to desire God, love God, obey God, love neighbor, and cling to the gospel are the natural results of the new birth. As regenerate people we have the impulses/desires of the new nature within us. This is to be distinguished but not separated from the indwelling work of the Spirit whereby he creates in us desires in conformity to his. The long and short of this is that living people live—its what they do. In the next post I will explore a few of the ways this works itself out when we are reborn.

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