Regeneration Precedes Faith: Exegesis of John 3:1-21 (Part 2)

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 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8:7 ESV)

      In this verse Paul is explaining to us the ability of the flesh. In the context, Paul is speaking of the fact that those in the Spirit fulfill the righteous requirements of the law (vs. 4), they set their minds on the things of the Spirit (vs. 5), and they have life and peace (vs. 6). This is contrasted with those who do not have the Spirit of Christ, but have their minds set on the flesh. Notice carefully the progression in this verse. First, he gives a description that the mind set on the flesh is “hostile” to God.

This word translated “hostile” is the word eχθρα-echthra, which means “enmity, hostility, hatred, both as an inner disposition and objective opposition (RO 8.7)”[1] So this is a very strong word that indicates hatred, active rebellion and hostility toward God. Our first birth does not render us merely passive and empty spirituality (although we certainly are), but it also renders us actively hostile to God. This is Jesus’ point when he says “that which is born of flesh is flesh”. Next, the mind set on the flesh “does not submit to God’s Law”. The flesh places us in a state where we do not submit to God’s law. And notice the next phrase, “indeed it cannot”. Guess what Greek word is being translated “cannot” here. You guessed it: δuναται. This of course is the same word we are encountering in John 3, better translated “to have the ability”. So what is Paul saying about the ability of the flesh to obey God? It cannot, will not and does not have the ability to do so. That which is born of the flesh only has the ability to do what the flesh can do! This is the whole point that Jesus is making back in our John 3:6 text, that birth=ability. The final phrase in this Romans 8 text is, “those who are in the flesh cannot (δuνανται) please God”. Notice the same word again! (The additional ν or nu simply makes the word plural.) If you are in the flesh, you do not even have the ability to please God! And where do you get this flesh from? It is from your first birth of course. Your first birth in Adam has rendered you and I blind and paralyzed and hostile regarding spiritual things. Both Jesus and Paul are teaching us that our first birth renders us unable to see, enter, obey or submit to the kingdom of God. Your birth determines your ability.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor 2:14)

      Here is another verse in Paul that I think enlightens our understanding of what Jesus is saying in John 3:6. Paul speaks here of “the natural person” which is the word ψυχικoς-psuchikos. According to one lexicon this term means “pertaining to being material or physical, especially in relation to life processes – ‘physical, natural.”[2] This makes an interesting link with John 3 and the issue of our first birth. Paul is saying that the “natural” man, or the man who simply possesses the nature that he was given at his first birth does not accept Spiritual things. Why not? The text makes it clear first of all that these things are foolishness to him. He hears spiritual truth but considers it to be foolish. We will see that this is what Nicodemus ends up showing himself to be by the end of his conversation with Jesus when he exclaims, “how can this be?” Notice again, what Greek words occurs in this verse that we have been talking about all along? You guessed it again: δuναται. Paul says that the natural man does not have the ability to understand spiritual things because only a spiritual person can do so. Our nature that we bring into this world from our mother’s womb does not give us the ability to understand spiritual truth. Instead, it only renders us darkened in our intellect, and unable to understand the truths of Scripture and of Jesus Christ.

      Now back to John 3:6. Hopefully this connection to these two texts in Paul have helped bring more clarity to Jesus’ words when he says, “that which is born of flesh is flesh”. Jesus is saying that one is unable to either “see” or “enter” the kingdom of God because their first birth does not give them the ability to do so. This is why the new birth is a necessity. Without the new birth, we remain hostile to God, unable and unwilling to submit to his law, unable to understand spiritual truth, and deaf and paralyzed in relation to the true nature of God’s Kingdom. Once again, the simple formula: birth=ability is an apt way to sum it up.

      Now to look at the second half of John 3:6. “…and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus is now referring to a spiritual birth that gives a person the ability to do something of which their first birth does not. It is instructive to look back at the two passages in Paul and see the very next verse in both contexts. First, Romans 8:9 says, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” Notice the contrast between this verse and verse 7-8. Paul is saying that those in the flesh do not have the ability to obey or please God. Then he makes a contrast, indicated by the word “but”, that if one is “in the Spirit”, there is a difference. In other words, those in the flesh have the inability to please God, while those in the Spirit are in a situation where they can. They have been given a Spiritual nature that is now responsive to God’s Law and able to do things that are pleasing to him. Can the person do any of this before the Spirit is given to them? No.

      Look at the next verse in the 1 Corinthians passage: “The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.” (1Co 2:15) This is the same pattern as in Romans 8:7-9. Paul begins by saying that the natural man does not have the ability to understand spiritual things. Then Paul makes a contrast using the word “but” (the word δe “but” is in the Greek text, but left out of the translation by the ESV for some reason) to make the contrast between the natural person and the spiritual person. One key word here is the term translated “judges” in the ESV. It is the term aνακρiνωwhich can mean “(1) generally, of the process of evaluation examine, question, study carefully (AC 17.11); (2) as sifting evidence in judicial hearings hold a preliminary hearing, cross-examine, investigate, interrogate (AC 28.18); (3) as passing judgment on personal behavior call to account, criticize, judge (1C 14.24).”[3] The Spiritual person has the ability to evaluate, study, investigate and examine spiritual things because they are described as “spiritual”. The natural person does not have the ability to do any of these things because they are described as “natural” In other words, they only have the ability to do what their natures give them the ability to do.

      This is Jesus’ point in this text as well. He has made it clear that one cannot “see’ or “enter” the Kingdom of God unless they are born a second time. He further explains that the reason this second birth is necessary is because your first birth only gave you “the flesh”, and the flesh does not give one the ability to do these things necessary for salvation. But if one is born again, they are of the spirit, and then they would have the ability to “see” and “enter” the Kingdom of God. Then Nicodemus’ must have had a puzzled look on his face at this point, because in the next verse Jesus says:

Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ (John 3:7)

      The term here translated “marvel” is the Greek word θαυμaζω-thaumazo, which means “as expressing human response when confronted by divine revelation in some form wonder, be astonished, marvel (MT 9.33)”[4] Nicodemus was astonished at this teaching that Jesus was presenting to him, and Jesus knew it. Nicodemus could not understand the necessity of the new birth. Apparently Nicodemus had not come face to face with the utter inability of his carnal nature to do anything spiritually good. And this is the case with people who are outwardly religious and life “moral’ lives. They have a hard time admitting that in themselves they have absolutely no ability to do anything pleasing to God. Instead, they want to say that we just need a little help from God to bring out the good inside of us that is already there. But the idea that we need to be totally reborn is a foreign concept. But once one is confronted with the depravity and vileness of their own nature and the impossibly high standards of God’s Law, then the necessity of the new birth comes into sharper focus. Next Jesus gives another analogy to make the point that the new beyond is no a bi-product of the human will.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

      Jesus now uses the analogy of the wind to make the point that the new birth is beyond our control. John Piper has an excellent sermon he preached on this text which he aptly entitled “The free-will of the Wind”.[5] The wind blows where it wants to. We do not have control over where the winds blows, right? I would hope everyone would say that. None of us are the like the fictional character Storm from the movie the X-men, who has the ability to control the weather? Well, if that sounds absurd to you, then it should be just as absurd to make the statement that we bring about the new birth by our own choice to do so. Remember, Roger Olson claimed above that “Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again and that belief in him will accomplish that…” Really? So this John 3 text is teaching that faith “accomplishes” the new birth? If that were the case why is Nicodemus so astonished by this teaching? These two analogies of birth and wind are designed by Jesus to specifically take human will and choice out of the equation. Once again, did you make a decision to be born into this world? Did you “accomplish” your first birth by your choice? No. Can you make a decision to cause the wind to blow where you want it to? No. Much less then does one who is born of flesh, have the ability to bring about a spiritual rebirth. The Spirit of God is not at the beckon call of the sinful human race. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit brings new life when He so desires. In an age where we have such things as in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination to bring about a pregnancy by the will of man, I can understand why people would not accept this teaching of Jesus. Many people think that they have the power to bring about life in the womb through these technologies, but ultimately God is the one who decides when and where life will be created. In the same way, we have no power to bring about new life, but God is the one who controls power to bring about spiritual life.

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9)

      Again, in Nicodemus’ response we have the term δuναται-dunatai which is a term of ability. This is the sixth time this term has occurred in these verses. Literally what Nicodemus said was, “How are these things able to be”? He is puzzled, shocked and amazed at what Jesus is saying here. He hears Jesus saying that it is necessary to be born again, but he is amazed at how Jesus puts this event completely beyond the power of man by using the analogies of birth and wind. Nicodemus has been so completely used to thinking in terms of the ability humans have to respond to God, to see what God is doing and to enter into the kingdom by their choice, that he is completely puzzled that Jesus would so totally take human ability out of the equation. Remember, Nicodemus was so used to speaking primarily in terms of human ability that he thought that when Jesus mentioned being born again, he was talking about physically climbing back into his mother’s womb a second time to be born. (vs. 4). Jesus used two earthly analogies about physical birth and the wind to communicate that the ability to see or enter the kingdom of God have nothing primarily to do with human ability or choice, but the sovereign power and prerogative of God. And remember, the reason why this is totally dependent on God is because we are born of the flesh and only have the abilities given to us by the flesh.

      One note for those who preach and teach the sovereign Grace of God in the new birth: Many times people who hear this teaching that the new birth is as a much a work of man as his ability to choose his first birth or control the wind, will react the way that Nicodemus did. They will reply, “If what you’re saying is true and I have nothing at all to do with being born again, then what is the point of doing anything? How can this be that this is totally a work of God and not something that I at least cooperate with?” I want to encourage you that if this is the response you are getting, you are being faithful to Scripture and should not back down or compromise in the face of this response. Your response to this must be a simple and straightforward, “Yes, you are hearing me correctly. You are completely helpless in this matter and it is totally a sovereign act of God to give a person new birth or not.” What is happening in the person who makes that response, is that their fallen nature, which is dominated by pride, self-sufficiency and the lie “you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5), is reacting to the sovereignty and lordship of God in the matter of salvation. Many pastors retreat in the face of this opposition because they do not want to make the person feel hopeless, so they respond, “But don’t despair, because God has promised that if you believe in him (implying the person has the ability to do so) you will be born again. God has given you his grace and you can respond to it in repentance and faith. God has done his part, now you need to do your part”. When a preacher caves in like this, the natural ability of man to bring about their own regeneration is asserted and the sovereignty of God and the impotency of man is denied. So what do you say to someone who responds to the teaching of the new birth in the way stated above? J.I. Packer has a great response:

“And to the further question still: how am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting, if I have no natural ability to do these things? it answers: look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry to Christ, just as you are; confess your sin, your impenitence, your unbelief, and cast yourself on His mercy; ask Him to give you a new heart, working in you true repentance and firm faith; ask Him to take away your evil heart of unbelief and to write His law within you, that you may never henceforth stray from Him. Turn to Him and trust Him as best you can, and pray for grace to turn and trust more thoroughly; use the means of grace expectantly, looking to Christ to draw near to you as you seek to draw near to Him; watch, pray, read and hear God’s Word, worship and commune with God’s people, and so continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you.”[6]

I would add one statement to this great response to that question that Packer gives, “And while you are crying out to Christ in this way, remember that God is under no obligation to show you mercy or give you new birth or to bestow forgiveness upon you. If God passes you by and lets you perish in your unbelief and be cast into hell for all eternity, that is exactly what your sins and rebellion deserves. Mercy cannot be demanded, it can only be begged for.” To the next verse.

Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? (John 3:10)

      Jesus responds to Nicodemus being equally amazed that he is “the” teacher of Israel, yet he doesn’t understand the things he is teaching him. Wallace lists this verse under the use of the article par excellence, “There were many teachers of Israel, but Nicodemus was either well known or, if the article is par excellence, the number one professor on the Gallup poll!”[7] This means that Nicodemus was in a class by himself in regards to the teachers of Israel, yet he still has no understanding as to what Jesus is saying. As we will see in verse 12, Jesus is mainly pointing out that Nicodemus can’t comprehend simple earthly analogies.

 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. (John 3:11)

      One striking thing to note about this verse is its similarity to 1 John 1:2  “…the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us– (1John 1:2). Notice the same first person plural “we” in both passages. I think Jesus is speaking here in the same sense as the Apostle John in that He is speaking of both the present witness of himself to Nicodemus and the future witness of the Apostles and the continual rejection by the Jewish leaders that is plainly seen in the book of Acts. Jesus further says that Nicodemus does not receive their testimony. Why don’t they receive it? We have already been told in John’s gospel how one “receives” the truth of Jesus Christ.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,  who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13) Notice first of all there is a reference to Jesus’ own people (ie the nation of Israel) not receiving him, just as Nicodemus is not receiving him here. Furthermore, the verse goes onto explain how one comes to receive or believe in Jesus Christ. Many Non-reformeds like to quote verse 12 to prove that faith precedes the new birth, but you will notice over and over again that they never continue into verse 13, which is where the explanation is given as to why a person believes in Jesus. It is clear that they do not become children of God through blood or through the will of the flesh or the will of man, but they are born of God. In other words, this whole process of receiving and believing in Jesus, which in turn makes one a child of God, is accomplished by God himself. If one stopped at verse 12, you could get the impression that one first receives and believes, then Jesus acts in response to this belief and makes one a child of God. But if you add the information found in verse 13, you would not make this error. It is clear that those who become children of God are born of God, and not born of their own will or choice.

      One more verse to make this point is found in the words of John the Baptist later in chapter 3. John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. (John 3:27) This verse is very straightforward. John is responding to his followers who are saying that Jesus is baptizing more people than him, thereby becoming more popular. John’s response is to say that nothing can be received unless it is given to him from heaven. Before we move on from this point about receiving the truth about Jesus, and why a person does or does not, I need to point you to study scriptures further ahead in the gospel of John that deal with this topic directly. They are John 6:35-71, John 8:43; 10:25-26; 12:37-43. All these passages, especially John 6, explain in more the depth the reason why Jesus is not received or believed in. Now back to the text in John 3.


[1]    Friberg Analytical Greek lexicon, accessed on Bibleworks

[2]    Louw-Nida Lexicon, accessed on Bibleworks

[3]    Friberg Analytical Greek lexicon, accessed on Bibleworks

[4]    Ibid.

[5]    John Piper’s sermons on the Gospel of John can be found at http://www.desiringgod.org

[6]    J.I. Packer, excerpt from Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Death of Death. Accessed at http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/packer_deathintro.html

[7]    Wallace, p.223

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