Some things are better understood through the school of life. That is to say that you can’t learn everything in a classroom.
The proof of this can be observed in the pedagogy employed in classrooms as early as kindergarten. Certainly, the field trip to the Birmingham zoo when I was five years old was not a mere opportunity to take a break from learning. No, it was but to cause me to marvel at the animal world our teacher had taught us about. I think the point is vivid—the marvel captured in the mind of a child who stands in the presence of a five hundred pound lion is not easily, if at all, reproduced through the image or words of a book. There is something unique about the experience that leads the child to a greater understanding than what was originally held.
It seems to me that there are some ideas in the Bible which are perhaps best learned when the Holy Spirit takes us on a field trip to teach us with greater clarity a spiritual truth. You can read all the texts which speak upon a matter, and I think that you should. You can exegete with sound hermeneutics every text which speaks on the truth, and I think that you should. You can seek to examine a theological survey of how, when, and where the Bible uses the truth, and I think that you should. Let me be clear—I am in no way suggesting that you should be a lazy student of the Word. No, you need to immerse your mind into the glory of God’s Holy Word. The school bus of life will arrive either way, and it is good wisdom to arrive to school with a mind and heart instructed and taught in the ways, methods, and purposes of God. The child who never learned in the classroom the danger of a lion might well try to stupidly pet one. The child who listened and learned will wisely marvel at a distance, as their understanding is amplified. So, endeavor to learn all that you can so that when the occasion arises the school of life might amplify your understanding.
Such was my experience a week ago as I held my wife’s hand during the birth of our first born son, Shep. It was a few moments which were terrifying, exhilarating, emotional, joyful, and more all bundled together. Moments that I think deserve much personal reflection afterwards. Whether it was from lack of sleep in a hospital or a deep curiosity I do not know, but as I laid in my bed later that night reflecting on those moments of my son’s physical birth, I could not evade thinking of how it is similar to the spiritual new birth. So, here are few brief musings from a new dad on the biblical doctrine of the new birth.
1. The new birth begins with labor.
Labor, as in the working process by which the mother ushers her child into the world. Until last Monday, I have never experienced the full scope of a woman in labor. However, I’m not an idiot—and thus, I fully expected for the event to be intense. My expectation was fully met.
However, there was a new perspective I observed during my wife’s labor, of which I had never considered before. Labor is a process. That is to say that you do not merely walk into the room and out comes the child—labor is more methodical than that. It is preceded by changes, such as specific hormonal changes which cause the body to change, adjust, and prepare for the actual moment of birth. Now don’t worry, I’m not going into detail regarding those hormonal and physical changes—there are many anatomy and physiology books you can consult regarding what and how those changes occur if you wish to study that—but I simply wish to draw the conclusion, that birth begins with labor.
I think the same can be said for the spiritual birth—the sinner experiences labor prior to the new birth. That is to say that the sinner undergoes spiritual activity which prepares him or her for the actual moment of birth. And such spiritual activity I believe is what Jesus is referencing, in John’s account of the Gospel narrative, when He is speaking with the Jews who refused to believe in Him and in His Word.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.John 6:44, ESV
Two points of reflection can be drawn here. The first is the complete inability of the sinner to come to Christ in saving faith on his or her own initiative. Sinners are of such depravity, their condition so hopeless, that unless God Himself intervenes—then they will remain hardened in their sinful state rejecting the great salvation which Christ offers. This is not a gray area. This is not confusing. This is clear—apart from the “drawing” of the Father a sinner does not come to Christ for salvation. But what is this “drawing” per say? It seems to me that it is the mysterious workings of God which prepares, changes, and literally draws a man to the grace of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is a sermon through which God speaks that kickstarts an awakening of the dead to his depraved condition. Perhaps it is a song through which God warms the heart causing desires to arouse which previously did not exist. Perhaps it is through a conversation that a phrase so sticks to the mind in such a way that it causes many hours of sleep to be lost, due to the tossing and turning of one coming under conviction. Oh, how many times have I listened to the testimony of a young man or woman who upon the sovereign drawing and providential means of God find within themselves desires which previously did not exist—desires which lead to eternal life such as prayer, Bible study, and attentive ears in church. I do not presume to understand His ways, and there is mystery here for sure. All I mean to say is that birth does not occur apart from labor, and the new birth does not occur without the sovereign drawing of The Father—indeed I find that it is an intrinsic part of it.
And if I may take it a step further? Perhaps this is why we sometimes hear people describe their coming to Christ as a journey over time, as opposed to a decisive moment that others claim as the moment of being born again. I think that either way is reasonable, and that we would be wise to not dismiss one or the other. Perhaps God is pleased to bring a man to life in a way that resembles a flash of lighting. Or perhaps it is pleasing to Him to draw it out like long, and rolling thunder. Who are we to question His methods? Did not Jesus also say,
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear it’s 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, ESV
The point is that it is impossible to confine the methods and manners of The Spirit to a cookie-cutter method for the SBC’s latest evangelism campaign. There are no cookie-cutter templates when it comes to birth. We must allow for variances as it pertains to the sovereignty of God. Here’s an example. My wife was induced at 12:01 AM on Monday, along with 13 other soon to be mothers—out of 13 births none of those children were born at the same time. Apparently, labor is a process that is different for every woman, including length of time. There are signs that tell us that the moment is close, but the moment of birth cannot be predicted with absolute precision. I think the same is true of the new birth. We all go through spiritual labor—it is the way in which God designed for birth to occur—but spiritual labor can and often does look differently for each person.
2. The new birth is intense.
I’ll never forget the conversation about my wife getting an epidural. The practitioner asked, my wife obliged, and the practitioner joked, “I’m with you—don’t try to be a hero.” Well, the day for induction came, we checked in, signed consent forms, and all that Jazz—and at about 4:30 AM they came to “give the epidural.” The next few hours were pretty quite and everything seemed to be going well—the doctor even came in to render the opinion that “we would most likely have a baby by lunch.” All was well, and then came the labor contractions. We was fairly shocked at how strongly they could be felt—Like why did she even get that epidural? This is still terrible for her. Now disclaimer, my wife is tough as nails—she really is, so I began to get worried when these ‘contractions’ were getting excessively painful for her by mid-morning. Painful enough that the nurses called the doctor back to re-evaluate. Turns out the epidural ‘never got into the epidural space’ meaning that it simply was not working. She was experiencing labor pains with no epidural.
Thankfully, they were able to correct it with a second epidural—but let me just tell you, before that second epidural I caught a glimpse of what giving birth would have looked like in Jesus’s day. Here is my conclusion: praise God for the common grace of epidurals—and the labor is intense. I think that’s the image Jesus has in mind when He begins using the terminology of a person ‘being born again.’ It’s painful, it’s difficult, it’s hard, it’s messy, it’s overwhelming; it’s intense in every sense that the word means it. And I think we get the same idea when we look at other metaphorical language that is used to describe the new birth—getting a new heart which means removing the old one, being circumcised in the heart (ouch!), the dead being made alive. Do any of these images seem light, simple, quick, easy, or superficial to you? These are words and phrases that talk about an intense process. Or perhaps it could be said this way—the new birth is no casual, sophisticated event; it is extremely intense. Which makes sense when we consider the outcome of this intense laborious process, to which we now turn.
3. The new birth results in new life and needs.
Let me begin with a scenario. A sinner comes down to the altar with many tears, though why exactly he or she is crying is a mystery sometimes. Wasn’t that the young man flirting with his girlfriend during the entire sermon? Wasn’t that the young lady scrolling through social media? Wasn’t that the old man who was counting ceiling tiles? Yet, here they come, into the altar with many tears. They shockingly claim that they desire to be “born again”—and to be frank it’s rather surprising that such an uninterested congregant would even know such terminology. But, we have protocol to follow and so they ‘pray to receive or invite Christ’ into their heart (as if Jesus really needs an invitation from us!), after which they are popishly declared to have been gloriously born again. Therefore, we urge them to be baptized as quickly as possible, instead of examining their faith to discern whether it is genuine or not, and then proceed to make them members of the local body with rights to the sacraments and fellowship of the church. But they quickly resume the ‘uninterested’ posture they displayed during the sermon, the one through which they claim that God called them to eternal life. Within a short time they have all but forgotten their ‘religious experience’ and have resumed their sinful, devilish, and worldly way—except now they are staining the testimony of the church. Woe to those who practice little to no discernment in the granting of false assurances of new life to stillborn children.
What has happened in this scenario? Only two options seem to be credible. They have either succeeded to be the first true child of God to ever fall from grace—which I say is impossible since Jesus authoritatively declares that such a thing never could happen
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.John 10:28-29, ESV
Thus, the only other possibility is that they were never truly born again. They did not have a new birth. They were not called to eternal life as they claimed. What else can be concluded? The new birth is the bringing in of a new creature, when the old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
It seems to me that this is the part of the new birth that we would rather ignore in contemporary Christianity, the actually being a ‘new creation’ part. But, who am I to question the integrity or sincerity of another man’s or woman’s or child’s profession of faith? After all, I can’t see the heart, only God reserves that privilege. That is true, but I also know this—when my son was born at 1:23 PM last Monday, there absolutely was no doubt that new life had entered the room. There was a new creature in our presence, and my goodness did he let us know it! There was no confusion, there was no skepticism, no speculations; not even the slightest bit, for it was abundantly clear that Shep had been born.
Should the birth of dead sinners to eternal life be lacking of a similar clarity? Let me be crystal clear. I, in no way am suggesting that when a child of God is born from above that they never struggle with sin, that they do not journey through dry spells in their fellowship with Christ, or that every child is born with the zeal of Saint Paul. But, I am willing to say that there are signs that life has begun.
Here’s another example. After everything had settled down from the labor and delivery, we were moved to the mother-baby unit where we were packed into this little room—once there, they wheeled in little Shep and left us alone. We were exhausted that night, but apparently Shep wasn’t. He, just as all babies do, woke up all through the night for all kinds of reasons. On one particular occasion things got a little overwhelming—Shep literally cried non-stop for what seemed like an eternity. As new parents of course we were at wits end and unsure of what to do. Eventually, my wife just stuck a bottle into his mouth which resolved the temper tantrum, and made him very happy.
Can I draw a simple, and obvious conclusion? New babies are not silent about their needs. Likewise, a child born from above will not be silent about their new needs either—they will cry for the Word of God, for fellowship with Christ, and for fellowship with the local church. Newborn babies are quick to let you know about their newfound hunger, and so will newly born spiritual children. The new birth results in new life which has new needs that are easily discerned by those around them.
4. The new birth occurs by God’s will.
I understand this will be difficult for some, but truth is truth and the days of tincturing truth to make it palatable for sinful men must come to an end. You do not choose to be born spiritually anymore than you choose to be born physically. This entire concept beginning with labor, the intensity of the moment, the creation of something new; while it directly affects the child being born, occurs completely independent from any effort, work, thought, wish, desire, word, or breath of the child itself. Even if we turn to other illustrative language—Who can circumcise his own heart? Who can raise himself from the dead? Who can birth himself? Even more do children request first to be born? Do the dead request to be made alive? Does Luke not observe that it was The Lord who first opened the heart of Lydia so that she would pay attention to what Paul said? (Acts 16:17) Does not James clearly say of God, Of his own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures? (James 1:18) And does not Paul remind the foolish Galatians that our salvation is according to will of God (Galatians 1:4) and then ask them later Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3). Or, if you will permit me to quote from the always ignored Romans 9, So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:16)
So, what am I suggesting? I am suggesting that the notion that a sinner enters eternal life by his own will, desire, and/or at his or her convenience is a foolish assumption. It is the dangerous fruit of easy-believism that puts the right to dispense the mercy and grace of new life where it does not belong, in the hands of depraved beings. Dear sinner, do not presume upon the mercies of God and think that you can enjoy the sinful pleasures of your flesh and come to Christ when you ‘are ready.’ You must first be drawn by the Holy Father. You must first be called by the Sovereign King. Do not presume upon the mercies of God—if today you hear His voice, do not harden your heart! Lest, you become like Esau who being sexually immoral and unholy, sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Hebrews 12:16-17)
We would do well to remember that it is we who are at the sheer mercy and grace of God, and He indeed is merciful and gracious. He rewards those who seek Him! (Hebrews 11:6) The Universal call of the Gospel goes out into all the world inviting dead sinners to this reward of eternal life. And, if you have never heard such a heavenward call, then may it be that the Lord would open your ears to hear the Gospel’s glorious plea, and that like a newborn child He might fill up your lungs with the breath of life so that you would cry out for salvation in the name of Jesus Christ, for it is the only name under which people are saved. (Acts 4:12)
The school of life sharpens the mind.
These are not new ideas to me. I have always strived to take the Word of God at face value and to lay aside prior prejudices that I might bring. I strive to seek the understanding of the truth of God’s Word with an open, honest, and sincere heart. These ‘musings’ if we can call them that—have always been there. Yet, when the school of life called and I observed the birth of my firstborn Son, my mind was suddenly sharpened with conviction. Never have I been so aware of man’s utterly hopeless condition. Never have I been so aware of man’s total inability to birth himself—or raise himself to life. We are dependent upon the Holy God enthroned above the heavens, and His matchless grace is our only appeal! And, oh what a mighty appeal that is!
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because He has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.John 3:16-18, ESV