In John 3:7, Jesus said to a prominent Jewish religious leader, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” This was intended not so much as a command but rather as a declaration of something absolutely necessary, not only for Nicodemus, but for every person. What does it mean to be born again and why is it necessary?
It is necessary because in our first birth, we arrive with a corrupt nature that loves sin and is hostile towards God. Sin separates us from God and leaves us spiritually dead. We live self-centered rather than God-centered lives. We do not desire God and are therefore unable to please Him, love Him, or surrender ourselves to Him. When we are born again, we are born of the Holy Spirit. We receive a new nature inclined towards God. Only by receiving this new heart is it possible to enter God’s kingdom. Until and unless we are born again we will remain faithless, unrepentant, unconverted, and therefore still dead in sins and deserving of God’s judgment.
This second birth is essential in the formation of a true Christian. It is the difference between having only an external facade of religion and having true salvation. Counterfeit Christians can repeat a sinner’s prayer, be baptized, serve in the church, and even sacrifice to help the needy. But their works can never win God’s favor because they are the fruit of ungodly motives. Reforming our sin nature is impossible. We need a new nature; we must be made a new creation. Being born again always dramatically changes us from within. We can know this change has occurred by observing certain evidences in our lives. We now believe in and persevere with Christ. Our affections are turned toward the Lord instead of this world. We love the Word of God. We deeply love our brothers and sisters in Christ. We hate sin and struggle against it. We strive to be obedient to the Lord. These are characteristics that could not have been produced by our old sinful nature.
So how does this dramatic change of heart occur? We cannot cause ourselves to be born again, just as we cannot cause ourselves to be born the first time. Nor when we are dead can we cause ourselves to live again. God must act upon us by His Holy Spirit. He does this as we are confronted with the Gospel message. He draws us and calls us to Himself. Then after we believe and are justified, God seals us by His Spirit (marks us as His own), adopts us into His family, and preserves us until we are with Him in glory. If we are born again, the rest will always follow. The Apostle Paul said he was “confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ”. (Philippians 1:6)