Regeneration Precedes Faith: Exegesis of John 3:1-21 (part 1)

This series of blog posts will be a verse by verse exegesis of John Chapter 3 in order to demonstrate the consistency of Jesus’ teaching regarding the doctrine of regeneration or the new birth. I am convinced that a Non-reformed Protestant (1) is “unable” (pun intended) to walk through this text verse by verse and maintain their system of belief at the same time. We must always be willing to subject our theological systems and traditions to the verse by verse exegesis of God’s word. This is where the rubber meets the road. One’s systematic theology is only valid to the extent that they can take large chunks of Scripture, walk through them verse by verse, and demonstrate that their theology is consistent with the exegesis of that text. As you encounter Non-reformed apologists, you will find a disturbing trend: that they rarely offer a compelling verse by verse exegesis of John chapters 3, 6, 8, 10, or Romans 8-9 or Ephesians 1. If you listen to Dr. James White’s debates (2) against people like George Bryson, Steve Gregg and Dave Hunt, you will notice that it is Dr. White who offers the compelling verse by verse exegesis of these key texts, and they simply throw out isolated proof texts and philosophical speculations to prove their system to be correct. As Reformed Protestant apologists we need to offer consistent and compelling exegesis of these key scripture texts which show that our understanding of salvation flows directly from the Biblical text and not merely from our traditions, our system, or our philosophy.

Also, this paper was prompted by this incredible claim made by Roger Olson in his new book “Against Calvinism”. “However, many Protestants such as Baptists and Pentecostals believe that faith precedes regeneration in the logical order of salvation. The ordinary message of the gospel for most evangelicals is ‘believe and be saved, ‘ based on Scripture passages such as John 3:1-21, in which Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again and that belief in him will accomplish that (v.14). There is really no way to reconcile this passage with belief that regeneration precedes faith”. (3) Is he seriously claiming that John 3 teaches that belief in Jesus “accomplishes” the new birth?! He offers no exegesis to back up this claim and it is incredible that he can look at one of the clearest passages in the Bible that teaches that the new birth precedes faith and turn it on its head to prop up his own position!

So Lets begin…

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”(John 3:1-2) (4)

Right off the bat, John’s description of Nicodemus as a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews is important to understand. This man Nicodemus is no second rate, Bible College dropout who doesn’t know the scriptures. On the contrary, a Pharisee in Jesus’ day would be well versed in the Old Testament Scriptures, and even have much of it memorized in Hebrew. They would also be familiar with the entire Jewish Rabbinical system of interpretation. I don’t know about you, but if I saw a man walk in a room and quote the entire first five book of Moses from memory in Hebrew, I would be impressed to say the least. My point is that this man knew his stuff. And to add to it he was “a ruler of the Jews”. According to the note in the NET Bible, this phrase is “denoting a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest legal, legislative, and judicial body among the Jews.” (5) Not only is this man a Pharisee, but he is a Pharisee who sits on the Sanhedrin. The point being, that from all outward appearances, this man has Biblical knowledge and respect amongst the Jewish people.

It is important to note a connection here between the phrase (aνθρωπος, anthropos), which is translated “man” in this verse and the previous chapter only three verses earlier, this statement is made, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25) In these verses, the people in Jerusalem respond to Jesus’ miraculous sign of turning water into wine by “believing” eπiστευσαν-episteusan in him. There are two things to note in this: the tense of the verb “to believe” and what they saw that caused them to respond.  

First, the verb “to believe” eπiστευσαν-episteusan is in what is called the “aorist” tense.  In the New Testament in general and this gospel in particular, it appears that this tense was the choice to describe a general assent to Jesus which doesn’t necessarily imply true saving faith.6 The simplest definition of the aorist tense is that it “…presents an occurrence in summary, viewed as a whole from the outside, without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence. This contrasts with the present and imperfect, which portray the action as an ongoing process.”7 The main distinction to be noted here is the difference between a point in time action, and an ongoing action. The Aorist tense can indicate an action that takes place in the past but does not continue into the present or future. We want to be careful to make blanket statements about the Aorist tense everywhere it occurs (a little Greek can be a dangerous thing!) but it is safe to make the statement that in John’s Gospel saving faith is usually found in the present tense, whereas as temporary or false faith is found in the aorist tense, as here in John 3:23. 

Secondly, Jesus responds to their belief by not “entrusting himself”, (literally “believing in”) to them. Why did he not entrust himself to them, “because he himself knew what was in a man aνθρωπος-anthropos ”. We don’t want to miss the connection between the two occurrences of the word “man” so close to one another. Jesus knows what is in a “man” and then he encounters a “man” named Nicodemus. My point is that John 3 appears to be an extended discussion of what exactly is in a man and why Jesus does not entrust himself to people who merely make a profession of faith in response to a sign that they saw him perform. We will see that according to John 3, the only thing that is in the natural man is an inability to come to Christ in a true and saving way.  

Back to verses 1-2 of chapter 3. “…This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” There is certainly some significance of the term “by night”. It could indicate the simple fact that Nicodemus did not want to been seen by the other Pharisees talking with Jesus because he was afraid of what they would say. Also, it could have a spiritual meaning that Nicodemus was still “in the dark” spiritually speaking and needed to be enlightened by Jesus’ teachings. I think it may be a little bit of both, but in the immediate context, 3:19-21 shows that it probably has more to do with spiritual darkness.8 

Let’s break down the content of his statement. First he calls him “Rabbi”. This is a title of respect in Jewish culture which indicated that you were a teacher and scholar of the scriptures. You didn’t just call any old dude walking down the road Rabbi. Especially coming from a high ranking Pharisee like Nicodemus, this would be a high compliment. Then he states that they know he is a teacher who has come from God precisely because of the signs that he is able to perform. Nicodemus is saying that the miraculous signs which Jesus performs are enough to convince him that Jesus is truly a teacher from God. And his rationale for this statement is that no ordinary person would be “able” δuναται-dunatai to do these signs. This word δuναται is crucial for understanding John 3 as it occurs 5 times between verses 2 and 9 of this chapter.  

This term carries the meaning of being “able” to do something. According to Friberg, it means “of capacity or ability be able, be capable of, can, have power to;”9 According to Gingrich is mean, “I can, am able Mt 6:24; Mk 3:23; Lk 9:40; Ac 4:20; 26:32. δ. approaches the meaning like in J 6:60. Be able to do something Mk 9:22; Lk 12:26; 2 Cor 13:8.”10 This is a term that has to do with ability. It is usually translated into English with the word “can”. This is an acceptable translation to be sure, but it doesn’t bring out the force of the word. So it may be better to say here, “for no one has the ability (δuναται) to do the signs that you do unless God is with him”. This word is crucial for understanding the point of John 3. This word also pops up in a few key texts in Paul’s letters which speak of what the fallen human in Adam is “able” to do Spiritually speaking, ie. Romans 8:7-8 and 1 Corinthians 2:14. So Nicodemus attributes Jesus’ ability to perform signs to his being sent from God. What is Jesus’ response to this compliment? 

“Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) 

Didn’t Nicodemus just give Jesus a compliment and this is his response? No “thank you” or “I appreciate that”? No. Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter, and the heart of the matter is human ability or δuναται. This is the word that Jesus picks up on in Nicodemus’ statement. While Nicodemus says that no one is “able” to do signs unless God is with him, Jesus throws it back at him by saying no one is “able” to see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. So for Jesus this whole matter is about ability, but not the ability to perform signs, but the ability to see the kingdom of God. It is almost as if Jesus responds to Nicodemus by saying, “You have seen me do signs, but you have really seen nothing, because unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God”. This is kind of a slap in the face to Nicodemus. So according to Jesus, in order to have the ability (δuναται) to see the kingdom of God one must be “born again”. What does this term mean. Literally the Greek word means to be physically born. It is instructive to note how Nicodemus responds to Jesus’ words in order to understand what the term “born again” means.  

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4) 

Clearly, when Nicodemus heard Jesus use the term “born again”, his first thought was to think of physical birth. In his mind, this term stirred up the image of crawling back into the womb of one’s physical mother and popping out again! So there is no doubt how Nicodemus took this term; he understood Jesus to be referring to a physical birth like his first birth into the world from his mother’s womb. Also, don’t miss the fact that the word δuναται occurs again twice in this verse. Literally it could be translated, “How does a man ‘have the ability’ to be born when he is old. Does he ‘have the ability’ to enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” (Notice also the term “enter into”, which will become important in the next verse). 

The first instinct and response of Nicodemus to this idea of being born again is to think of his own ability to bring it about. Stop and think about the reality of this. This is why Nicodemus is walking in the darkness. He thinks that something like the New Birth is within his own ability or capacity to bring about! This is the problem with us as fallen humans. We think that we have the ability to bring about spiritual life through our own choices and efforts. If the thought of crawling back into your own mother’s womb sounds strange or slightly disturbing to you, it should. This is the absurd and ridiculous nature of the claim that we can bring about the new birth by our own will or ability. And why does Jesus use this image of being “born again”? It is Precisely because it takes all human will out of the equation.  Did you make a choice to be born into this world? Were you sitting on a cloud somewhere in heaven and God came to you and asked, “Okay, would like to choose to be born into the world in the year 1981?” And you responded, “Yes God, that looks like a good year”. No of course not. When you were in your mother’s womb, did you make the conscious decision to say, “Okay, I’m sick of being in this womb, so I am going to make the choice to start my mother’s contractions and get out of here”. No of course not. You had no ability to choose or control when you were conceived or birthed into this world. In the same way, the new birth is not a matter of you making the choice to be spiritually born, rather it is a supernatural act of God. Those Non-reformed Protestants who would claim the new birth is a byproduct of the human will are stuck in the embarrassing situation of also having to claim that their first birth was an act of their human ability and will. They end up looking as foolish as Nicodemus who thought he could crawl back into his mother’s womb a second time. What is Jesus’ response to this?   

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5) 

This time Jesus hones in on the word “enter”, (εiσελθεiν, eiselthein) to make the contrast between Nicodemus’ statement about “entering” a second time into his mother’s womb and “entering” into the kingdom of God. What is at stake here is not a second physical birth, but a spiritual birth that gives one the ability to enter into the kingdom of God itself. Notice again the term δuναται occurs when Jesus says “he is unable to enter the kingdom of God”. This chapter is all about human ability! Jesus know “what is in a man” and he is teaching us. According to Jesus, does a person have the ability to enter the kingdom of God by nature? No. First a person must be born again before they can either “see” or “enter” the Kingdom of God.  

What does Jesus mean by saying that one must be born of “water” and “the Spirit”? Many take this use of the term water as a reference to water baptism. I think this is forcing an idea into the context that is foreign to it. Why would Jesus suddenly enter into a discussion about water baptism at this point? So although I am not totally ruling this out as a reference to water baptism, I think it is more likely that Jesus is pointing us back to a classic text in the Old Testament that has everything to do with the new birth, Ezekiel 36. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27) In this text, both the term “water” and “spirit” occur in the context of God bringing restoration to the exiled people of Israel.  God will give them a new heart, one might even say a re-birthed heart, and put His Spirit within them and cause them to walk in his ways. God will change the core desires of his people so that the results of this change will be that they will walk in his statutes and obey his rules. This is exactly Jesus’ point in this context, that the new birth is what gives one the ability to see and enter into the kingdom of God. One does not enter into the kingdom of God first and then they are born again, but one is born again and then they enter into the kingdom of God. 

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:6) 

Jesus expands on his statement in verse 5 about why one must be born again in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Put simply, one must be born again to see or enter into the Kingdom of God because their first birth prevents them from doing so. When Jesus says, “that which is born of flesh is flesh”, what he is saying is that your birth determines your ability. Don’t miss this point. Your ability to understand spiritual things, your ability to see spiritual truths and even your ability to enter into the Kingdom of God flows directly from the abilities your first birth “of the flesh” gives to you. Now what is the New Testament teaching concerning the abilities of the flesh? This is a very important point to understand if we are to correctly interpret Jesus’ words here when he says, “…that which is born of flesh is flesh”. There are two verses we can briefly look at that will make the point, Romans 8:7-8 and 1 Corinthians 2:14. I am choosing these particular passages because they both contain the term δuναται. 

Stay Tuned for Part 2

Footnotes

Artwork: John La Farge, Visit of Nicodemus to Christ, 1880, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans, 1909


1 By “Non-reformed Protestants”, I mean those who have departed from the teachings of Martin Luther on human depravity, bondage of the will, God’s absolute sovereignty and the sufficiency of grace alone to save without the added cooperation of libertarian free-will.  

2 His debates can be found at sermonaudio.com  

3 Olson, Roger. Against Calvinism. p.52 

4 All scripture references are taken from the English Standard version (unless otherwise noted) 

5  The NET Bible, Version 1.0 – Copyright © 2004,2005 Biblical Studies Foundation. Note on John 3:1 

6 See Dan Wallace’s “Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics”, p. 621, footnote 22.  

7 Wallace, p.554-555 

8 Dan Wallace notes that the use of the genitive νυκτoς rather than the dative indicates that John is not referring primarily to what particular point in time Nicodemus came, but rather to the kind of time. p. 123-124 

9 Friberg Analytical Greek lexicon, accessed on Bibleworks 

10 Gingrich Greek New Testament Lexicon, accessed on Bibleworks 

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