You Must Be Born Again

1 Peter 1:3-5 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

This morning I want to share with you all a biblical perspective on what it means to be born again.

From my time as an undergrad I remember a man known as “The Wells Hall Preacher”. Wells Hall is a building on the campus of the school I attended. The Wells Hall preacher was a man who stood outside of it most days. What made this man notable was that he wore a sign naming numerous sins, declaring that those who commit such sins were going to hell and that he was constantly debating students who didn’t agree with him.

The two phrases I most remember hearing from him were “you must repent” and “you must be born again”.

In my experience the Wells Hall preacher’s understanding of what it means to be born again is pretty typical. In general, people think of being born again as a charge for non-Christians to decide to turn from the world and trust in Jesus. This common understanding has at least two significant errors.

First, most people (including the Wells Hall preacher as far as I could tell) think of being born again as something that happens after someone places his or her faith in Jesus. That is, most people believe that once someone initially trusts in Jesus they are subsequently born again. As we’ll see shortly, this is not what Peter or any of the NT authors mean by “born again”.

Second, most people seem to understand being born again as something we must choose to do. The Wells Hall preacher certainly did. As I said, he was constantly calling people to make that decision. But again, this is not what the NT means by “born again”.

1 Peter 1:3-5 speaks indirectly to the first error and directly to the second. In addition, it paints a remarkable picture of the cause, source, and result of new birth. I want to help you see each of these things from the text and then I mean to close by helping you see how it ought to shape our evangelism.

Let’s pray, then, that God would help us to understand his work in our lives in order that we’d live accordingly and share it rightly with others.

Perhaps you noticed that 1 Peter 1:3-5 does not speak directly to the meaning of being born again. Peter just sort of assumes his readers understand what he means. He describes various aspects of being born again, but does not define it.

Before we get to the things this text does speak directly about, then, I want to remind you of the meaning of the new birth (and therein address both of the common misunderstanding concerning it). More than once I’ve preached on this in the past year so I won’t belabor it here. Again though, I do want to quickly make sure we’re all on the same page.

The bible clearly and repeatedly and consistently teaches that all of the sons and daughters of Adam are born spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-2). We are conceived with Adam’s sinful nature (and consequently, quickly share in his sinful choices). The wages of our sinful nature and choices is death—immediate spiritual death and eventual physical death. That is, we are born alive physically, but dead spiritually. We are not born spiritually sick, we are born spiritually dead.

This is a significant problem because, in addition to causing us to be spiritually stillborn our sin has also caused us to become enemies of God. Worse still, the only way to be reconciled to God is through faith in the sacrificial, substitutionary death of Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Do you see the problem? In our sin we are spiritually dead, enemies of God. The means of being made right with God is faith in Jesus. However, dead people cannot have faith. They are dead.

Therefore, before anyone can be saved they must first be made alive. And that is the essence of what Peter means by born again—being made spiritually alive in order that we can believe the gospel and be saved.

All people are born first physically. God’s people are born again spiritually.

Clearly, then, being born again is not something that happens after placing our faith in Jesus. It is a prerequisite to placing our faith in Jesus.

And equally clear is the fact that dead people can’t chose to become undead—they can’t choose anything. It is true that we must be born again in order to be saved. It is not true, however, that it is up to us to accomplish the new birth. If a dead person is to come alive it is because something living outside of him or her, more powerful than death, caused them to do so. And that’s where we’ll turn our attention now: the cause of this second birth.

Concerning the new birth of 1 Peter 1:3, there are four defining prepositional phrases.

According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again…

…to a living hope…

…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…

…to an inheritance…

As I mentioned in the introduction, these phrases give us the cause, source, and result of being born again. Again, let’s start by considering the cause of new birth. It is clearly stated in the first prepositional phrase.

Peter writes, “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again…” As we saw earlier, people are not commanded to be born again. We cannot choose it. What, then is the cause of the new birth? The answer according to this passage is that the One of great mercy causes us to be born again.

We need to ask, of course, who is the One of great mercy? Who is “he”? The beginning of v.3 gives us the answer: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God the Father has great mercy upon his people and, accordingly, he causes his people to be born again. Through the power of gospel (1 Peter 1:23) and the Holy Spirit, the Father makes us come alive spiritually.

The cause of our being born again, then, is not (as the Wells Hall preacher and many other well meaning evangelists suggest) our decision or our choice or our will (John 1:12-13). It is, rather, the mercy and power of God. He is merciful and so he desires his people to have new life, and he is powerful and so he is able to cause us to be born again.

This leads us to the third prepositional phrase (we’ll come back to the second in a few moments).

Like the cause, the source of new birth is easy to spot in our text. God causes his people to be born again…”through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…”.

Perhaps no one has understood the significance of this better than Martin Luther. For years he was tormented by the fatal combination of two divine declarations: 1) since Adam’s fall, no one is righteous, and 2) no one can have fellowship with God apart from righteousness. Only the righteous can enter God’s presence, but there are none who are righteous.

Again, do you see the dilemma?

If God is true to his nature and word we all go to hell. Consequently, it was impossible, Luther believed, for God to be both just and justifier; to be both fair and forgiving. To forgive sinners was to act unjustly.

The glorious, life-giving, liberating, saving discovery that he made was that Jesus died to change the entire equation. Because of Jesus’ righteousness and sacrificial death, God’s people can receive a righteousness that is, as Luther called it, alien to us. God remains true to his word by punishing all sin, but He also forgives sinners who receive Jesus’ righteousness by faith.

In other words, God is able to give us new life (to cause us to be born again) justly because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The cross is the source of the new birth. It is the means by which God can be both just and justifier; fair and forgiving.

And all of this, then, leads to the final two prepositional phrases which tell of the result of new birth.

When my kids were born the result was that they cried and messed themselves and lived wholly irrational lives for a time. Eventually they learned to think and talk and walk and do many things on their own. They’ve gotten sick and mad and happy and smarter and bigger and stronger. Lord willing, they will grow older, have a family, and contribute significantly to their community. All of that was (and will be) the result of their first birth, their physical birth.

But what is the result of being born again, of spiritual birth? As we just saw, God’s people are born again because he causes them to be born again, and being born again comes through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Again, what, then, is the result of the new birth?

Peter gives two answers to this question in vs. 4-5. He describes an immediate result and a final result of being born again. The immediate result is that God’s people are born again “to a living hope”. That is, upon being born again God opens our eyes to see him as he truly is and ourselves as we truly are. We become amazed by his glory, convicted by our sins, and convinced by the gospel. What’s more, we become certain, through the active work of the Spirit of God, that God is with us, that we are his children, that he will keep us in Christ in this life.

How do we know if we’ve been born again? One of the most significant indicators is that a living hope marks our entire lives. We may be people of difficult circumstances but we are not people of despair. We may experience hardship, but we do not experience hopelessness. We are people of light and trust and confidence. The immediate result of the new birth is a God-empowered living hope in the presence and promises of God.

As awesome as the immediate results are, the final results of the new birth are more awesome still. Ultimately, being born again results in an everlasting inheritance. Our new life matures into eternal life in the presence and fellowship of God. For all who hope in God through Jesus Christ, there awaits for us (as we saw a few weeks ago) a prize that will never die, become corrupted, or lessen in any way. That we will receive this prize is as certain as God himself because it is protected for us by God himself. Indeed, the prize is God himself. All who have been born again will ultimately spend eternity glorifying and enjoy God. We will have unhindered, unfiltered fellowship with our Maker. Our souls will be fully satisfied forever and ever and ever.

What amazing news.

For God’s people all of this is good news. When we were dead in our trespasses and sins God caused us to be born again. What we were unable to do for ourselves, God did for us through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We have been born again to a living hope and to an everlasting inheritance of immeasurable glory.

But how do we share this with others? How do we communicate to non-Christians that they must believe in the name of Jesus, but that they can’t unless God causes them to be born again? I want to offer four suggestions in closing.

  1. We are commanded to proclaim the gospel to the world. In Mark 16:15 Jesus told his followers to “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” While it may seem counterintuitive to tell others to believe the good news that they cannot believe on their own, that’s exactly what we’re commanded to do. We do not know who God has chosen to cause to be born again, but we do know that he always does it through the gospel (1 Peter 1:23). Our job is to proclaim the gospel and God’s job is to give new life to whomever he chooses.

  2. In most NT gospel proclamations the simple call is to repent and believe. Again, the same men who wrote that we must be born again to be saved primarily called people to repent and believe—to have faith in the risen Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. They did not see this as being deceitful, they saw it as fulfilling Jesus’ commands and commission. For instance, God supernaturally freed Paul and Silas from jail, the Roman centurion in charge of the jail asked Paul and Silas how he could be saved. They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). Again, they did not mention that the jailer could not do so on his own. In most cases this is how we will share the gospel as well.

  3. In several evangelistic passages, however, there is no blushing about the reality that God must grant repentance and belief. It is not anything to hide from or be ashamed of. God’s ways may be mysterious and they will be offensive to some, but they are good and right and not to be apologized for. God will give eyes to see and ears to hear the beauty of this message to all he chooses; to them it will be sweet. To everyone else it will be a stumbling block.

    We see examples of this in several places in the NT. After Pentecost the crowd who witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit asked how they might be saved. Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39). The last phrase is key, “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” That is, everyone whom God causes to be born again.

    Similarly when Nicodemus asked what he must do to be saved, Jesus himself answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). In other words, Jesus unapologetically said to the religious leader, “You can’t do anything unless God does something in you first.”

    As I’ve personally grown in the conviction that I can’t save people (through carefully planned events or well contextualized gospel presentations or whatever), I’ve moved away from trying to make the gospel sound like it’s no big deal and toward making it as true and clear as possible. I know now in a new way that my job is to faithfully proclaim the gospel and it is God’s job to give new life to understand it.

    The bottom line of all of this is that we have been given a clear mandate to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world and that we should not shy away from the fact that it takes a work of God to enable to world to understand and accept it.

  4. Finally, love and compassion must be our primary feelings toward those who are not yet born again. We must clearly and frequently share the gospel, then, and plead with people to plead with God that he might save them according to it. Non-Christians are well served by being told from the beginning of the sovereign rule of God over the universe. Our aim is not to make God more palatable than he really is, but to declare his might and power and glory and trust Him to open the eyes of the lost to the goodness of it. And we must do so in love and compassion and in the knowledge that apart from God’s sovereign grace sinners will sin—they will reject the gospel, persecute its proclaimers, and act unrighteously.

    God loved us and was merciful and gracious to us in our sin, and so we must be to others.

Being born again means being given new spiritual life in order that we might believe the gospel and be saved. It is God alone who causes his people to be born again through the resurrection of Jesus. And the result of all of this is a living, eternal hope in the finished work of Jesus and a living, eternal inheritance of fellowship with God.

We are called to boldly and joyfully and sacrificially share this good news even to the ends of the earth. And we are to do so in the knowledge that God has people for himself in every corner of creation whom He will cause to come spiritually alive as we bring them the good news of Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.