The necessity of the new birth

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In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Lion The Witch, And The Wardrobe, we are introduced to a magical land filled with talking animals and mythological creatures. Four children enter Narnia at a time when it is under the curse of an evil queen whose touch can turn people to stone. A series of adventures removes the curse from the land and liberates those who had been turned into statues. They are set free when Aslan the lion breathes on the stone people, and they miraculously come to life.

This is Lewis’s way of illustrating salvation–the time when God changes our hearts of stone and brings us from death to life. In Ezekiel 36:26, God says, “I will give you a new heart with new and right desires, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony heart of sin and give you a new, obedient heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so you will obey my laws and do whatever I command.”      

The Hebrew word translated Spirit is “ruach,” which means breath, or wind. By “breathing” into us, God takes up residence inside us. The New Testament uses the same word picture; the Greek word, “pneuma,” also means breath and wind.

In John 3, we find the story of a Pharisee named Nicodemus. One evening he visits Jesus to learn more about him: “‘Teacher,’ Nicodemus said, ‘we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are proof enough that God is with you.’

“Jesus replied, ‘I assure you, unless you are born again, you can never see the Kingdom of God.’

“‘What do you mean?’ exclaimed Nicodemus. ‘How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?’

“Jesus replied, ‘The truth is, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven. So don’t be surprised at my statement that you must be born again. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.'”

Jesus bypasses everything the old Pharisee thinks is necessary to please God. He tells Nicodemus that he is looking in the wrong place. The life he is seeking isn’t about something he must do; it’s about a work of God. Jesus tells him that no matter how clean a life he lives, no matter how kind and generous he is, it still comes down to a work that only God can do.  It is God breathing life into us that changes things for the better.

That’s why it’s foolish to put off responding to God when he speaks to us. Many of us intellectually accept the facts of the Gospel and believe Jesus is the Lord, but that is not enough. The real question is: has God done that work in you that only He can do–the life changing experience of the new birth?

Many of us are on a performance treadmill where we’re constantly running to please God, hoping that somehow, someway, someday, we’ll do enough to redeem ourselves. But God tells us we can’t save our souls. We don’t have the ability to take a corrupt mind and transform it into a thing of beauty. We can’t breathe life into a heart of stone. Only God can do that.

This is why God’s promise in Ezekiel 36:26 is so valuable. God tells His people, “I will give you a new heart with new and right desires, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony heart of sin and give you a new, obedient heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so you will obey my laws and do whatever I command.” 

To show Ezekiel (and us) how that happens, God gives him the vision found in chapter 37. Ezekiel says, “The Lord took hold of me, and I was carried away by the Spirit of the Lord to a valley filled with bones. He led me all around among the bones that covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. Then he asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones become living people again?’

“‘O Sovereign Lord,’ I replied, ‘you alone know the answer to that.’

“Then he said to me, ‘Speak a prophetic message to these bones and say, “Dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”

“So I spoke this message, just as he told me. Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them.”

Put yourself in Ezekiel’s shoes. You see bones form into skeletons. Then you watch the bones take on muscle and flesh. Ezekiel saw a lot of amazing things happen, but so far there’s no life, just stuff happening. Much like our lives when God begins to work in us–we see some positive changes, we see the influence of God in the way we speak and act, but that’s just a prelude to what must happen. 

Ezekiel’s story continues in verse 9: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Speak a prophetic message to the winds, son of man. Speak a prophetic message and say, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, O breath, from the four winds! Breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again.”

“So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies. They all came to life and stood up on their feet–a great army.”

When Ezekiel spoke the Word of God to the dead, there was some positive activity, but the bodies remained dead. Then God told Ezekiel to ask the Wind to breathe life into the bodies. The Spirit of God responded, and the people were made alive.

God wants to do the same work in you. It begins with the realization that salvation is not something you can earn. It is God’s work from start to finish. John 6 records Jesus’s teaching about how we can gain God’s approval:

“Do not work for food that spoils,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

“Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

“Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.'”

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