Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

IMPOSSIBLE - You Must Be Born Again, Part 1

This is the first post in a new series called "THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE: Rediscovering the Words of Jesus" In this series, we will examine commands of Jesus that are impossible for fallen man to obey, and impossible for man to accomplish apart from God's grace. Let's start things off with a look at the famous conversation that took place between Jesus and Nicodemus under the cover of darkness . . .

John 3:1-3 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 have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Notice how our Lord uses the language of impossibility. Cannot. He does not say it is very difficult, or that it will take a long time if you really try hard. He does not say, "You can do anything you set your mind to," or, "Just visualize the kingdom of God, and it will be yours." He does not even imply that because God commands something, we are able to do it. In fact, He states the opposite. He says we "cannot."

Cannot do what? The person who has not been born again cannot SEE something. See what? The kingdom of God. Someone could be standing right in the middle of it, surrounded by its greatness and majesty, but still he would not be able to SEE it - let alone enter into it. Why? He CANNOT.

Jesus is answering Nicodemus' assertion that "no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him." Jesus says, in essence, "You can see the signs well enough, but it will require a miracle of God for you to see His kingdom."

With this answer, Jesus points to the basic blindness of our fallen human nature. We are naturally blind to the things of God. We use our physical eyes all day long, looking at books, billboards, cars, trees, people, websites, nature, art, this blog. Some put their eyes up to microscopes and look at the tiny, hidden world of microorganisms. Others put their eyes up to telescopes and view the vastness of space with its quietly whirling fire-balls and stony, barren planets. We delight in our seeing, as we use our eyes to discover, to perceive, to examine, to scrutinize, to KNOW what is around us. Our eyes aid us in navigation, interpreting language, making judgments and even sinning. They are an entry way to our hearts. We use them like spiritual doors to take in the objects and images of worship that are most passionately cherished within. We are natural idolaters. Sometimes our eyes fill with tears as we witness the tragedies of a sin-saturated world. Sometimes they are wide with wonder as we watch someone perform an amazing stunt. But apart from the new birth, our eyes cannot perceive the kingdom of God. We're not just shortsighted, we're not merely in need of enlightenment, we're not even simply blind. We lack the faculties needed to see it. We have physical eyes, but no spiritual eyes.
Jesus uses His flaming eyes of judgment and compassion to look directly at us. He tells us the truth: "You cannot see the kingdom of God." With omniscient realism, He tells us what we can't do, but He offers us the ONE HOPE that enlivens the hearts of His chosen ones. He says the beautiful little word, "unless." Unless one is born again. Unless a second birth happens. Unless GOD intervenes for us.

We need something, but what we need is out of our reach. How does a person who can't even SEE cause himself to be born? Causing one's own birth is physically impossible the first time, and spiritually impossible the second time. Only the Sprit gives birth to spirit, and fallen man does not have the Spirit. Yet Jesus' earthly mission was intended to bring about a second birth in some of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam.

John 1:11-13 He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

One cannot be born again by the will of the flesh, and one cannot be born again by the will of man. The point is emphatic. It is God alone Who can accomplish this.

Jesus calls us to the new birth, but it is a call which He alone can accomplish in us. Is this humbling? It's meant to be.


  1. Hey Derek, I think I will appreciate this new thread of thought! There are so many things that are impossible without God.

    Being that we are born again, my mind can't help but run to Phil. 4:13! I can do all things through HIM who gives me strength!

    Press on brother! Fight the good fight! Stand firm! Stand in the gap!


  2. Rob,

    You're right. As believers, we CAN do the impossible, because God lives in us. God makes the first move in saving us, but as His children we are responsible to lay hold of His grace and work in cooperation with Him - to "walk in the Spirit," as Paul put it. After He makes us alive in Christ we are free to act on His commands. We sometimes need to be reminded that as regenerate believers we CAN do the will of God.

    Thanks for the encouragement. I need to see both sides.

  3. Isn’t it odd that if the Baptists and evangelicals are correct that their “born again experience” is the true and ONLY means of salvation, the term “born again” is only mentioned three times in the King James Bible? If “making a decision for Christ” is the only means of salvation, why doesn’t God mention it more often in his Word? Why only THREE times? Isn’t that REALLY, REALLY odd?

    Why is it that the Apostle Paul, the author of much of the New Testament, NEVER uses this term? Why is this term never used in the Book of Acts to describe the many mentioned Christian conversions? Why is this term only used by Jesus in a late night conversation with Nicodemus, and by Peter once in just one letter to Christians in Asia Minor?

    If you attend a Baptist/evangelical worship service what will you hear? You will hear this: “You must be born again: you must make a decision for Christ. You must ask Jesus into your heart. You must pray to God and ask him to forgive you of your sins, come into your heart, and be your Lord and Savior (the Sinner’s Prayer). You must be an older child or adult who has the mental capacity to make a decision to believe, to make a decision to repent, and to make a decision to ask Jesus into your heart.”

    It is very strange, however, that other than “you must be born again” none of this terminology is anywhere to be found in the Bible! Why do Baptists and evangelicals use this non-biblical terminology when discussing salvation?

    Maybe…making a “decision” for Christ is NOT the manner in which sinners are saved!


    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

  4. Gary,

    Your comments give the impression that you did not read the post. Nowhere do I mention "making a decision for Christ." This post is essentially exegesis of the passage with a devotional exhortation to humility in light of the fact that such a "decision" is impossible for spiritually dead sinners.

    God saves us, opening our eyes and enlivening our hearts by His Spirit. We can't save ourselves by deciding to be born again.

    If you believe God saves lost sinners only through the shed blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, then we can probably agree on the essentials of regeneration. If you think God saves people some other way, then I encourage you to let the words of John 3 and Romans 3 and Titus 3 sink down into your heart.

    Blessings in Christ,

  5. Hi Derek,

    I apologize. I did not see that you are a Calvinist.

    So in your theology, when does the "born again" event occur? Are the Elect born saved? Are they born again when they make a public declaration of their faith at some point in their life, confirming that they are of the Elect? Do you believe it is necessary to know a "when" of salvation?


  6. I am not interested in arguing with you, brother, but I am interested in preaching the Gospel to sinners and correct doctrine to errant Christian brothers and sisters. I will leave you with one last comment:

    We are in agreement that salvation is a free gift from God, received in faith by the sinner, creating belief and repentance. What I am asking you to consider is the PURPOSE of Christian baptism. Is the purpose of baptism really only as an act of obedience/public profession of faith? If so, why doesn't the Bible, in clear language, state as such?

    Why is the term "born again" used only three times in the KJV Bible but the word "baptism" or one of it's variants (to baptize) is used over 100 times in the NT? Why are there so many passages of Scripture that if read in their simple, plain, literal interpretation state that God forgives/washes away sins in baptism? Did God really have that much difficulty explaining the exact purpose of baptism? Did God allow every translator of the Bible into every language on earth to mistranslate Acts 2: 38 and other baptism passages? If baptism is simply the after-thought that most evangelicals make it out to be, why did Jesus, his disciples, the Apostles Paul and Peter make such a big deal about it?

    Is baptism really a work of man as Baptists and evangelicals claim...or is baptism a work of God?

    Lastly, there is no historical evidence found anywhere on planet earth, including areas never under the control of the Catholic Church or the Roman Empire, in which ANY Christian in the first approximately 800 years of Christianity believed that baptism is simply and only an act of OUR obedience/OUR public profession of faith. All evidence from this time period points to early Christians, from the very disciples of the Apostles such as Polycarp onward, believed that baptism means much, much more.

    I encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart to the Truth of the Gospel and re-read the Bible without your denominational biases.

    God bless!

  7. Gary,

    Thank you for your reply, your apology, and your desire for peaceable discussion. I must admit I initially chuckled when I received your blast against what many call "decisional regeneration" because in a sense we are fellow critics attacking the same problem, but approaching it from very different angles.

    To give you some background, my parents grew up Lutheran (ELCA) and I was born and baptized as a Lutheran. Growing up, we attended all kinds of churches (non-denom, Methodist, Congregational, etc. - but generally mainline) and finally ended up settling into the Assembly of God, where I was deeply impressed by the idea of taking the Bible seriously and not explaining it away as I had observed in mainline churches. After Bible College and some ministry experience, I was led toward a moderate variety of Calvinism, which makes a world of sense to me with regard to soteriology and the Gospel. Beyond this, I'm fairly open minded about issues like ecclesiology, spiritual gifts, eschatology, and other "non-essentials" (still studying!). However, I am strongly convicted that Scripture must function as THE PRE-EMINENT AUTHORITY and guide in all matters of faith and practice (i.e. the "sole rule," or "Sola Scriptura"). God's inerrant Word holds the "trump card" over every tradition or approach that is taken. Thus, as Luther stated, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason . . ." and "My conscience is held captive to the Word of God!"

    By the way, I sometimes refer to myself as a Calvinist with Lutheran leanings (as you know, Lutherans are great paradox people), and I have been at times deeply moved by Luther's writings (also frequently emphasizing paradoxes). In particular, I can remember reading Luther's treatise on Justification by Faith during a plane trip, with tears filling my eyes. Also, some of his hymns have touched me deeply. In recent years I have discovered the LCMS and benefited greatly from its scholars (James Voelz, Joel Biermann, and Louis Brighton, for example). Nevertheless, I am decidedly non-sacramental in my theology. To be honest, I find sacramental theology confusing.

    You asked some great questions:

    "So in your theology, when does the "born again" event occur?" At conversion. A detailed explanation of my soteriology can be found here:

    "Are the Elect born saved?" Certainly not, but they are elected to be saved.

    "Are they born again when they make a public declaration of their faith at some point in their life, confirming that they are of the Elect?" If "born again" is used as a metaphor for conversion, then this occurs when the twin elements of repentance and faith become present. If used as a metaphor for regeneration, it occurs when the believer is united to Christ. I hold that conversion and regeneration are generally concurrent, so in my theology the distinction is somewhat superfluous.

    "Do you believe it is necessary to know a "when" of salvation?" No. For many, conversion is a process, and they cannot always identify exactly WHEN it happened; but they must know THAT it happened. If it has happened, there will be evidence and assurance.

    I'll add a few additional comments momentarily.

    1. Gary,

      Here are a few further thoughts with regard to your arguments about baptism. You make a number of good points about the significance of baptism, and they deserve to be considered. At the same time, I have some concerns with the approach that is taken in expressing these points. Here is what I mean:

      Why state, "Luther was not born again"? I understand that there is shock value in such a statement. But even if we define the term "born again" as something other than what is typically expressed by American Evangelicals, it seems that Luther would have to have been "born again" if he was a believer. Maybe I am missing the point.

      Further, calling oneself a "missionary" to Baptists and Evangelicals would seem to imply that Baptists and Evangelicals are non-Christians (I admit it is likely that a great many who wear that label nowadays are not saved). But why not call yourself a "voice" or an "ambassador" or something like that? Missionaries are not generally sent to fellow Christians (hopefully). Do you believe God saves people who are non-Lutherans and are not sacramental in their theology? Or is a sacramental view of baptism the only view that can be considered "The Gospel"?

      I ask this because some of your comments seem to imply that your approach to baptism is integral to the Gospel itself. If this is true, then why did Paul say Christ did not send him to baptize but to "preach the Gospel."

      "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." (I Cor. 1:17)

      Paul seems to make a key distinction between "baptism" and "the Gospel" here.

      Finally, I want to mention that Baptistic/non-sacramental Evangelical theology does take baptism very seriously. However, for us the outward, physical act of baptism is distinct from the spiritual baptism with which all believers are "baptized into Christ Jesus." (Rom. 6:1-4, I Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:27). We hold that spiritual baptism accompanies regeneration/conversion and is absolutely essential to salvation. Even the thief on the cross, who was never baptized physically, had to be spiritually "baptized into Christ Jesus" since he was declared by the Lord Jesus to be headed for paradise. So we agree that baptism is God's act and that it is required; however, we view this divine act of spiritual baptism as occurring prior (ideally) to the outward and physical act of being baptized, which serves as a living illustration of the fact that the convert and the evangelizer are both convinced that it (spiritual baptism by God) has indeed occurred. I would even go so far as to say an infant could be baptized in the expectation and hope of spiritual baptism (i.e. regeneration/conversion) occurring at a later time (this concession is not very "Baptist" of me, but I am okay with that!).

      The key distinction seems to be that your Lutheran/sacramental theology co-identifies spiritual and physical baptism, whereas Baptistic theology separates them. This is not a difference regarding "the Truth of the Gospel" so much as a differing view of the role of baptism in relation to the Gospel. Ultimately, I believe it is dangerous to focus on physical baptism when THE POINT of the Gospel is God saving sinners through the work of Christ. When they repent and believe, they are assuredly baptized into Christ and should also be baptized physically.

      Although we won't agree on the baptism issue, can we agree on what the Gospel is and that it is distinct from physical baptism?

      I hope this explanation is helpful and I pray that you will be blessed in all your service to Christ and your knowledge of Him.

      Grace and peace,

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Derek.

    I think that many evangelicals are confused regarding the orthodox view of baptism. To us baptism is a WHEN of salvation, not the HOW of salvation. You notice I said "is A when of salvation". That little article "a" is critical.

    Orthodox Christians (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, conservative Lutherans, and Anglicans) believe that baptism is only one of several instances in which God saves. God can save an adult non-believer who hears the Gospel preached and believes/repents. We believe God can save a non-believer who reads the Bible or a Gospel tract, which contains the Gospel, and believes and repents. And we believe that a child of Christian parents can be saved at the time of his baptism by the Word of God being spoken at the time that the water of Holy Baptism is applied to him.

    So what is the "HOW" of salvation?

    The "how" is always the power of God's Word. Period. It is not good deeds, it is not saying a prayer (such as the Sinner's Prayer), it is not magical baptism water.

    I'm not going to list all the passages that say so, but "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God." That is the only manner in which someone can be saved: the power of God's Word "quickens" the soul of one who is of the predestined (the Elect), creating faith, belief and repentance. Faith, belief and repentance are NOT performed out of man's free will or initiative. Salvation, and all the action/actions included in salvation, are gifts from God.

    Therefore, if salvation is a gift, not dependent on any ability or quality of the sinner, God can save whom he wants, when he wants, at any age and with any level of mental capabilities.

    We Lutherans/orthodox could wait and let our children declare themselves a member of the Elect when they are older, but why? In Acts chapter 2 God, speaking through Peter, promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to all those who are called (predestined): the adults hearing the sermon by Peter, their children, and those far off (common reference to Gentiles). But only those among these groups that are the Elect.

    Some evangelicals seem to think that we orthodox believe that just by running the entire neighborhood under a garden hose, we can save everyone. Not true. Only those who are the Elect will be saved, and they will only be saved at the time of God's choosing, not theirs.

    We orthodox baptize our children because Christ commands us to baptize all nations (those who are the Elect) without giving any age restrictions. If you are an Arminian, you cannot understand this because you believe that one just make a decision to believe. Infants cannot make decisions. But you, Derek, are not an Arminian. You are a Calvinist, or at least, Calvinistic. Therefore, I hope that you will see that if Christ has promised Christian parents the Holy Spirit for their children, then their children ARE the Elect, and if they are the Elect, they should be baptized. They should be baptized as infants to receive God's free gift of faith, belief and repentance, which are not dependent on the age, maturity, or decision-making capabilities of the sinner.

    Baptism is a "when" of salvation not THE how. Even the Roman Catholic Church believe that baptism is absolutely mandatory for salvation. Many a martyr has died without the opportunity of being baptized. The thief on the cross and all the saints of the OT were saved without baptism. Baptism is NOT the "how" of salvation! The Word of God is the "how", the means, of salvation.

  9. I do NOT believe that one must be a Lutheran to be saved. I do NOT believe, and neither does the Lutheran Church believe, that you must be baptized to be saved. You must be the Elect to be saved. You must be given the gift of faith to be saved.

    I intend to change "missionary" to "ambassador" on my website. You are correct, it infers that Baptists and evangelicals are not Christians. That is not my intent. My intent is to share the truths of orthodox Christianity, as taught by Martin Luther, with my evangelical and Baptist brothers and sisters.

  10. "Baptism is a "when" of salvation not THE how. Even the Roman Catholic Church believe that baptism is absolutely mandatory for salvation."

    Sorry for the typo. It should be "Even the RCC does NOT believe that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation..."

    You CAN be a Christian without baptism. It is the refusal or rejection of baptism, not the lack of it, that concerns orthodox Christians. If you refuse baptism, do you really have faith? It is the lack of faith that damns, not the lack of baptism.

    1. Gary,

      Thank you for your response. This helps me to understand where you are coming from, and it is also the most sensible explanation of infant baptism I have yet heard. I think that some in the Reformed tradition take a similar approach in assuming the election of their children (Doug Wilson?); however, most Calvinists seem to be more cautious about this (and still, many Reformed people do baptize their infants).

      In any case, I sincerely appreciate your taking time to explain the Lutheran view in some detail, and especially your gracious attitude toward the mild criticisms I offered.

      Evangelicals who are shallow or nominal in their faith need to hear the kind of challenge you are bringing; I hope you are successful in stirring them up to a deeper theological pursuit and a more genuine faith in Christ. The mere spark of interest in Church History would be a great improvement for many!



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