The Impossible Necessity

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 3:7

Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born anew.”

John 3:7 rsv

“You must be born anew.” That’s what Jesus said once to a man named Nicodemus. And, we may well believe, that’s what God says today to people like you and me. “You must be born anew.” Now, if ever there was a strange, puzzling word, that’s it! Jesus speaks of an absolute need which we have no way of fulfilling. You might call it “the impossible necessity.”

WHAT IT MEANS

What does it mean to be born anew? We’re accustomed to hearing the phrase translated “born again.” But that can mislead us. It’s not being born again in the sense of physical birth re-enacted. Nor is it reincarnation in some imagined future existence. Being born anew, according to Jesus, is something that happens to people, if at all, in the midst of their life here in this world. The new birth He describes is birth of a different kind. The first, of course, was brought about through the union of our human parents. That brought us physical life. We were, in Jesus’ words, “born of the flesh.” This second birth is something brought about in us by God’s mysterious working. Jesus calls that being “born of the Spirit.” We are made alive by God’s power to a new kind of life, a new order of existence. Here and now we become part of a new creation. We are transformed.

WHY IT’S NECESSARY

Now, why? Why must we be born anew? Obviously, it is not necessary to be born anew in order to live a fairly normal life in this world. I can eat and drink, work and sleep, without a new birth. I can marry and rear children. I can laugh and cry, love and hate, suffer and prosper without this second birth, right? What do you mean then that it is necessary? “I can get along all right without it,” says someone.

Jesus would not disagree with you there. He’s not saying that you need to be born anew in order to function in this life. Remember what His conversation with Nicodemus was about that night? It was dialogue about God. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the man of authority among the Jewish people, initiates a religious conversation. “Rabbi,” he observes, “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.” Nicodemus is speaking as one who professes to know God. He claims to be able to recognize what comes from God. He says, “We know about these things.” God-language is a specialty for him. He’s confident of his ground here.

But now, in a startling way, Jesus challenges all that. “Truly, truly,” He answers, “I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Later again, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). Now, it’s in this sense that being born anew is necessary: it’s required if a person is going to enter or even see the kingdom of God. Jesus is saying, in effect, “If you want to know God, if you want to submit to Him, if you want to live in His presence, if you want to enter heaven, if you want to dwell with God and be a part of His future kingdom, then it’s necessary that you be born anew.” If you want to have what the Lord calls “eternal life,” there is no other way. “You must,” He says, “be born anew.”

And notice this: Jesus is not saying these things to a hardened criminal, to a notorious sinner. This is Nicodemus now, a Pharisee, a member of that group in Israel regarded as most devout and careful in keeping God’s law. More than that, he’s a man reasonably friendly and open to Jesus, who treats Him with respect, who acknowledges that He comes from God. He’s the one to whom Jesus says, “You must be born anew.”

So even though you’re a member of the chosen people, even though you have position and prestige, even though you are a minister, or a priest, even though you are religiously inclined and perhaps more upright in your moral life than most people around you, you still, like Nicodemus, must be born anew.

Talk about an upsetting message! That is surely one, isn’t it? Jesus is saying here to the very best folk within the most religious people on the earth, “You need to be made over completely if you’re ever going to live with God.” So if Nicodemus needs this, there can’t be much doubt about the situation with us. From God’s perspective, we are not likely candidates for His kingdom. We’re not naturally fit to live in His presence. Apparently the stain of our wrongdoing is so deep and the warping of our character so serious that no tinkering or patching will avail. In our hearts, in our inmost selves, in our total being, we need to be recreated, born anew. That, according to Jesus, is the necessity we face – all of us.

IMPOSSIBLE FOR US

But how do we bring that about? How do we make ourselves new and different people? How do we get reborn? To call that difficult would be to understate the case. Absurdly. It’s impossible for us! It’s absolutely beyond us. How much did you and I have to do with our physical birth? Nothing whatever. There was the union of our parents, of course; there was the miracle of conception; there was that mysterious process of gestation within our mother’s body. Then we were ushered into the world. We came forth. But at no point along the way did we take the slightest initiative in all this. We had no choice in the matter and can claim no credit for having arrived. Our birth just happened to us, that’s all. It was a marvel with which we had nothing to do.

Now Jesus makes it plain that the new birth is like that, too. It comes from the Spirit of God whose work is as free, mysterious and unpredictable as the wind. You and I can’t manipulate the Holy Spirit, any more than we can harness the jet stream. If being born physically is a miracle, being born spiritually is an even greater one. If you couldn’t engineer the first for yourself, you surely can’t manage the second.

Now notice I’m not saying that people can’t make some changes in their lives, can’t form resolutions, can’t renounce bad habits, can’t learn more considerate ways of behaving. They can. I’m saying rather that we can’t give ourselves new life. Just as God breathed upon us in the first creation and made us living souls, so He must breathe into us afresh if we are to have genuine spiritual life. You and I can’t buy that, can’t earn that, can’t bring it about in ourselves. That ought to be perfectly obvious.

Most of us, when we think about becoming new and different people, become just a little bit wistful. We muse, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a new beginning?” But we know there is no going back. Or, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our character were different?” But we know that a thousand past choices have made us what we are today. We could wish that we were more favored physically, but that’s all in the genes. We would like to be changed in our temperament, in our psychological makeup. But we can’t obliterate the traumas and losses we may have suffered in the past. And some of us have made bold resolutions and then failed many times to keep them. We’ve tried so often to change disagreeable traits about ourselves and then have seen them reassert themselves, so that we sometimes despair of ever being really different. We may know that we need to be born anew, but we’re even more sure that we can’t bring it off.

So that’s the impossible necessity – you must be born anew. And I wish today, more than I can put into words, that every person in the world would know: a), that they need to be born anew to enter God’s kingdom, and b), that it’s impossible for them to bring that about. You see, I’m convinced from the Scriptures and from the lessons of history that such a twofold awareness in people is a tremendously hopeful sign. In many a spiritual awakening, this twin conviction of necessity and impossibility has prepared the way. It has destroyed false hopes, and scattered all imaginings that people can possibly save themselves. And it has led multitudes to cast themselves entirely on God for His mercy and salvation. May it be so in our time!

POSSIBLE WITH GOD

You see, friends, what is impossible for us is possible with God. That’s what Jesus goes on to teach here in the third chapter of John’s gospel. A new birth is possible, he says, because of God’s love. It’s not because we deserve that, or are brilliant enough to find a way to achieve it, but because God cares about us, because He wants the best for us. Get this now: He wants us to see His kingdom; He wants us to enter it; He wants us to know Him, to become His children, to receive His own life. That’s why there can be such a thing as a new birth, because God cares about people like us in spite of our disobedience, in spite of our ingratitude, in spite of our wanderings and our wicked ways. He loves us still and wants us to be with Him.

That’s a beautiful thought, you say, but how can we know it’s true? “It would be wonderful to believe that, but after all.” Someone objects, “When we look around at what’s happening in the world today, we don’t see a great deal of evidence that God loves us so much.” I can tune into those feelings when I see the tragedies that befall people, some of them very close to me. When I see the suffering and the sadness, the deprivation and the deviltry all around me, I can wonder, too. How can we be sure that God loves us?

Here’s the best answer I’ve found. Here’s the answer that has satisfied the hearts of literally millions of millions of people: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” God so loved human beings that He sent Jesus. Jesus lived among us, revealing the Father’s heart and showing us what we are meant to be. Jesus identified Himself with us, bearing our sins, carrying our sorrows. Jesus died for us and rose again. That’s why there can be a new birth because God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, because He raised Him to life again and now sends His own life-giving Spirit to the hearts of people like us.

Now for the rest of that great verse, everyone’s favorite: “God so loved the world [so very much] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Have it, right now. Do you see the connection here? Jesus is speaking about eternal life, new life, abundant life, the life which only God can give. That’s what comes to people, according to Jesus, when they are born anew. The new birth becomes possible because God promises eternal life to all who believe in His Son Jesus. It’s as simple as that.

So, if you long today to enter God’s kingdom, and yet realize that it is totally impossible for you to make it on your own, take heart. You don’t need to despair. You are ready for the gospel. You can trust God’s great love in Christ. As you do that, eternal life will be yours. That is God’s clear, unfailing promise. No one has ever tested that and found it false. Whoever believes in Christ will not perish but have life everlasting. And as you believe in Jesus as God’s Son and your Savior, as you come to know the living God through Him, you will realize that something uniquely wonderful has happened. What seemed impossible has actually taken place. You have been born anew!

PRAYER: O God, may everyone sharing this program today so trust in Jesus Christ Your Son that each may find the miracle of new life. Amen.