Pastor David B. Curtis


Media #1016 MP3 Audio File Video File

Birth Before Belief Pt 1

(1 John 5:1)

Delivered 06/14/20

We are continuing our study of the little epistle of 1 John. We are beginning the fifth chapter this morning. And for our study this morning we are going to look at the first half of verse 1. This verse teaches us something very important about the doctrine of Soteriology. Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation.  Within evangelical churches, there is ongoing debate on the issue of salvation. Is it by a choice of man's free will or of God's sovereign choice? This verse in 1 John adds significantly to the debate.

Everyone who believes that Yeshua is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 1 John 5:1 ESV

For some reason, even the New American Standard Bible, which is usually quite literal, obscures the sense of the Greek verb in verse 1. The English Standard Version translates it correctly: “Everyone who believes that Yeshua is the Christ has been born of God.” The tenses are very important. Sadly, they are not made clear in the English translation, so just bear with me. John uses the present tense: “Everyone who believes.” It conveys the idea that everyone who is presently believing in Yeshua “has been born of God.”

Here the perfect tense is used which all Greek students know generally refers to an event in past time—the results of which persist to the present time. So, we have a present tense and we have a perfect tense, and the perfect tense would indicate that that represented by the perfect tense is an event that occurred previous to the other. The tenses make it clear that the divine begetting is the antecedent, not the consequent, of the believing.

“Has been born of God”—is a perfect passive indicative, conveying a settled condition brought about by an outside agent—Yahweh. So, let me state it like this: “Everyone who is presently believing in Christ has been in the past born of God.” This verse teaches that faith is the result and evidence of one’s being born again and not the reverse.  In other words, we are not born again as the result of faith. Birth precedes the believing.

According to what this verse is teaching, the majority of Christians in the Church has their soteriology wrong. One commentator writes that “We are born of God when we put our trust on Jesus and on His saving work in our lives.” Another writes: “To be born of God we must believe that Jesus is the Christ.”

John Stott, commenting on this verse, writes:

“It shows clearly that believing is the consequence, not the cause, of the new birth. Our present, continuing activity of believing is the result, and therefore the evidence, of our past experience of new birth by which we became and remain God's children.” (The Epistles of John, Eerdmans, p. 172).

“Born of God”—is from the verb gennaō which means “to father, to beget.” Here it means to be fathered by God and thus be a child of God. This is what Yeshua calls being “born again.” The idea of being "born again" is a very familiar concept to believers. At least the terminology is a very familiar part of evangelical lingo. It has been popular for a long time for believers to speak of themselves as being a born again Christians. But born again Christian is redundant. To be born again is to be a Christian, and to be a Christian is to have been born again.

The term "born again" is synonymous with "regeneration." Being born again is the same as "receiving a new heart" (Ezekiel 36:26), or according to Ephesians 2, being "made alive.” 1 Peter calls it "being called out of darkness into his marvelous light.” All of these terms refer to what theologians call "regeneration.”

Hodge says that regeneration is "the instantaneous change from spiritual death to spiritual life. Regeneration, therefore, is a spiritual resurrection, the beginning of a new life." Henry Thiessen wrote that "Regeneration may be defined as the communication of divine life to the soul, as the impartation of a new nature, or heart and the production of a new creation."

There are many different views of regeneration within the Church. The Pelagian view says that regeneration is a moral transformation, a work of man. Most liberals today hold this view. It was condemned by the Church in A.D. 431 at the Counsel of Ephesus. Practically, the Pelagian says "I can save myself by my works." Adam was the first Pelagian; he tried to cover his sin with fig leaves. God killed animals and clothed Adam and Eve with the skins to picture Christ's righteousness.

The Catholic view says that regeneration is accomplished by baptism, so it is a work of man through a divine ordinance. The Church of Christ also holds the view of baptismal regeneration. The Arminian view is called "semi-pelagianism." Regeneration is not exclusively God's or man's work—it is the fruit of man's choice to cooperate with the divine influences. Arminians teach that the work of man, a decision to trust Christ, is prior to the work of God. This view is held by most evangelicals. They believe it was necessary for them, in an act of their own will, to cooperate with the grace found in the preaching of the Word.

Then there is the position that we hold here at Berean Bible Church called the Calvinistic or reformed view. It teaches that "regeneration is of the Lord.” God made us alive who were dead, and God made us willing who were unwilling. According to the reformed view, salvation is a work of God from beginning to end.

The basic debate in the Church is between Calvinism and Arminianism. Those who hold the Pelagian or Catholic views are not Christians because they trust in themselves and not in Christ. Calvinism proclaims a God who saves, while Arminianism speaks of a God who enables man to save himself. One position makes salvation dependent on the work of God while the other makes it dependent on a work of man. One regards faith as part of God's gift of salvation, but the other contends tht faith is man's contribution to salvation. One gives all the glory of salvation to God while the other divides the praise between God, who built the machinery of salvation, and man, who by believing operated it.

John mentions being “born of God” nine times in this epistle (1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 4, 18). The best explanation of what it means can be found in two places in the Fourth Gospel (John 1:12–13; John 3). So let’s look at those texts and see if our verse in 1 John 5:1 lines up with the teaching of the New Testament.

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 1:12-13 ESV

The antecedent of "who" are those who believe in Yeshua's name (v. 12). John defines this supernatural birth into divine sonship in the negative by listing three ways we were not born into God's Covenant Family.

"Not of blood"—literally, the text reads "Who were born, not of bloods…." "Bloods" probably indicates the two parents necessary for a human birth, and this verse emphasizes that the birth of the children of God is not a normal physical process.

"Nor of the will of the flesh"—this refers to human sexual impulse, not born by human sexual impulse. The flesh cannot produce children of God. Crossing the boundary from the world's realm to God's realm is possible only by divine agency.

"Nor of the will of man"—the word that John uses here for man is andros, which speaks of a male and not the generic term for mankind. This word is often translated as "husband." The NIV interprets it properly as "husband" here. This probably refers to the father's authority in deciding to have a child. Spiritual life does not come because of a human decision.

This verse actually ends with "Born of God"—which is "ek ho theos gennao." This is what we have in our text in 1 John 5:1. The Greek verb gennao is an aorist passive indicative and is placed last in the Greek sentence for emphasis. This emphasizes the initiating and sovereign role of God in the new birth.

Do you remember what Yeshua said to Nicodemus in John 3? A study of John 3:1-8, where Yeshua used the term "born again,” will give us an understanding of regeneration.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. John 3:1 ESV

As a Pharisee ruler (member of the Sanhedrin) and teacher, Nicodemus represented the essence of Judaism at that time. This is a formidable man in the religious system of Israel. In fact, he may have been one of the most formidable men of his day based on what Yeshua says in verse 10, “Are you the teacher of Israel.” This man has reached the pinnacle of Judaism because he is “the” teacher (definite article) of Israel. He's a leading man in apostate Judaism.

This man came to Yeshua by night and said to him, “Rabbi, 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.” John 3:2 ESV

"This man came to Yeshua by night"—since night/darkness in the Fourth Gospel symbolizes the realm of evil, untruth, and ignorance, it is unlikely that John tells us this just as a detail. Nicodemus, "the teacher of Israel," was himself in darkness.

Here is a man who is a member of the most hostile, the most aggressive, the most angry, and the most hateful enemies that Yeshua had on earth—the Pharisees. And he is saying, "We know that you are a teacher come from God.” Nicodemus' courtesy and lack of hostility mark him as a very non-typical Pharisee.

Yeshua answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3 ESV

Notice that our text says, “Yeshua answered him”—what is the question Yeshua is answering? Nicodemus didn't ask a question. He made a declaration, a confession. Nicodemus didn't yet ask the question, but Yeshua answers the question before he ever asked it. This must have had an impact on him. He knows that only Yahweh knew the heart of man. The implied question seems to be something like, "How may I enter into the Kingdom of God, or how may I have eternal life?" That was his question. And Yeshua's answer is:

“Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”—the word "born" is our word gennao, the normal word for being born. The word translated "again" is anothen, which has a double meaning. It may mean either "again" or "from above." The primary meaning intended by Yeshua here is probably "from above." This phrase points to God as the source and origin of this birth.

To strengthen this idea Yeshua uses a passive voice in "born" which means that He is declaring the necessity of a condition that someone else must bring about on our behalf. The passive voice expresses the idea of the subject’s being acted upon. So Yeshua told Nicodemus that he cannot birth himself spiritually in order to enter the Kingdom. Someone else must birth us, and apart from that new birth, we cannot enter the Kingdom.

The whole point of the analogy of being born from above is to demonstrate that Yeshua is saying that something has to happen to us that we cannot do, something that we cannot contribute to in any way. We made no contribution to our physical birth. That is why the Lord chooses this analogy because we also make no contribution to our spiritual birth.

No one gives himself or herself physical life, and no one by any means gives himself or herself spiritual life. That's the whole point. Spiritual birth or regeneration is the work of God in salvation.

Without a birth from above Yeshua says, "He cannot see the kingdom of God.” “To see the kingdom," and the phrase in verse 5 "to enter the kingdom," both mean "to experience the kingdom." Yeshua uses the term "see" in the sense of "experience, encounter, participate in."

Why does man have to be born from above? He has to be born from above because the condition of humanity demands it according to Ephesians 2.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins. Ephesians 2:1 ESV

Fallen man, in his natural state, lacks all power to commune with God because man is spiritually dead. Apart from the new birth, man cannot understand spiritual things:

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 Corinthians 2:14 ESV

Who is the natural person? The word natural is psuchikos. Jude uses this same Greek word. It is translated here as "natural" and as "worldly" in Jude 19 (“worldly people, devoid of the Spirit”). The natural man is the man without the spirit of God. The new birth or regeneration is absolutely necessary because apart from it, man has no ability to understand or desire the things of God.

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” John 3:4 ESV

Nicodemus interprets Yeshua's use of anothen to mean "born again." We just talked about the fact that anothen, which has a double meaning, could mean either "again" or "from above." Nicodemus takes the meaning of "again."

Nicodemus did not understand what Yeshua was talking about. At this point he could not believe that new birth was a requirement for entrance into the Kingdom; he was amazed by such a thought. His response was, therefore, marked with unbelief which prompted him to reply with a crassly literalistic interpretation of what Yeshua had said. It was his way of expressing a certain degree of scorn because he knew that he couldn't crawl back into his mother's womb.

Yeshua answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. John 3:5 ESV

Nicodemus' misunderstanding led Yeshua to explain His point in a slightly different way. He used the expression "born of water and the Spirit" which was just a different way of saying "born from above" (verse 3). Yeshua told Nicodemus that he "cannot enter the kingdom of God." It was another way of saying that he "cannot see the kingdom of God" (verse 3). Yeshua said the same thing but in a different way so Nicodemus would get it. So what he said in verse 5 was something that Nicodemus could understand.

There is much controversy today over what Yeshua meant by "born of water and the Spirit"—the definite article translated "the" before "Spirit" is absent in the Greek text. The English translators have inserted it to clarify their interpretation of "spirit" (pneuma) as the Holy Spirit.

Some commentators take the "water" as an allusion to water baptism and the "spirit" as referring to the Holy Spirit. According to this view, spiritual birth happens only when a person undergoes water baptism; and as a result, experiences regeneration by the Holy Spirit. This would mean that regeneration is a result of man performing a ritual.

In considering audience relevance, Christian baptism would have had no significance for Nicodemus. He knew nothing of Christian baptism. It is interesting that Yeshua never mentioned water baptism again in clarifying the new birth to Nicodemus.

Another view proposed by many scholars is that "water" is an allusion to the amniotic fluid in which a fetus develops in its mother's womb. Other scholars see it as a euphemistic reference to the semen without which natural birth is impossible. Rabbinic literature quite often refers to male semen as "water," "rain," "dew," and similar terms. This interpretation understands "water" to refer to the normal physical birth that is common to everyone and "Spirit" to refer to the spiritual birth that is essential for life in the Kingdom.

This view assumes that two births are in view, whereas the construction of the Greek phrase favors one birth rather than two. If two were in view, there would normally be a repetition of the preposition before the second noun. Also, the entire expression "of water and the Spirit" is the equivalent of anothen, "from above," (if there is genuine parallelism between verse 3 and verse 5), and this too argues that the expression should be taken as a reference to one birth, not two.

What would be the point of telling Nicodemus or anyone that they have to be born physically and then spiritually? If they are hearing Yeshua speak, they have already been born physically! The Pillar New Testament Commentary states that:

The most plausible interpretation of “born of water and the Spirit” turns on three factors. First, the expression is parallel to “from above” (anothen, v. 3), and so only one birth is in view. Second, the preposition “of” governs both “water” and “spirit.” The most natural way of taking this construction is to see the phrase as a conceptual unity: there is a water-spirit source (cf. Murray J. Harris, NIDNTT 3. 1178) that stands as the origin of this regeneration. Third, Jesus berates Nicodemus for not understanding these things in his role as “Israel's teacher” (v. 10), a senior “professor” of the Scriptures, and this in turn suggests we must turn to what Christians call the Old Testament to begin to discern what Yeshua had in mind.

Judaism expected the Kingdom of God to be the Age of the Spirit. The pouring out of the Spirit of God was an important part of Old Covenant expectations for the Messianic Age:

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. Ezekiel 36:24-27 ESV

Here the water and spirit come together, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly.

So, the revelation that Yahweh would bring cleansing and renewal as water by means of His Spirit was clear in the Tanakh. Yeshua evidently meant that unless a person has experienced spiritual cleansing and renewal from the Spirit of Yahweh, he cannot enter the Kingdom.

As I said earlier, the construction of the phrase in the Greek text indicates that the preposition "of" governs both "water" and "Spirit." This means that Yeshua was clarifying regeneration by using two terms that both describe the new birth. He was not saying that two separate things have to be present for regeneration to happen.

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. John 3:6 ESV

Two words are being contrasted here—flesh and spirit. In the Greek, it is sarx versus pneuma. In his letters, Paul often contrasts these two words, but in the Fourth Gospel, the contrast appears only here.

What is the context of "flesh" in John 3:6? It is human frailty, not sinful nature. Up until Jesus’ teaching on this matter, man had only thought in terms of "birth" in human terms. The seed of man bears children. Man is "begotten" by the seed of a human father and becomes "flesh" when he is born in the kingdom of the world. But Yeshua told Nicodemus that man can enter the Kingdom of God only when man is "born" of the heavenly Father, born from above. Earthly life comes to man only from an earthly father; eternal life comes only from the heavenly Father.

Yeshua said that "No longer is being in Covenant with God a question of being born into the physical line of Abraham, but rather of being born from above through the action of the Holy Spirit by means of life giving water to become a child of God."

Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 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. Romans 8:8-9 ESV

That means that the man of the flesh cannot please God. Does faith please God? Yes, it does. But the man who is in the flesh cannot please God. What does he need? He needs an operation of God the Holy Spirit by which he is taken out of the flesh and given new life and placed into Christ.

This would have all been difficult for Nicodemus to grasp. He viewed acceptance by God like so many of his Jewish contemporaries did. He thought that his heritage (ancestry, position, works, all that made him what he was) was adequate to get him into the Kingdom and make him acceptable to God. He had to realize that he needed a complete spiritual cleansing and renewal that only God could provide by His Spirit! Likewise today, most people are relying on themselves for acceptance with God by who they are and what they have done.

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

This word translated "again" is the Greek word anothen. It is derived from an adverb that means "above" so that "again" may mean simply "from above."

Nicodemus shouldn't have been amazed at the idea that there is a spiritual birth in addition to a physical birth because the Tanakh spoke of it (Ezek. 36:25-28). There is also an intertestamental reference from Jubilees 1:25 that says "I will create in them a holy spirit and I will cleanse them … I will be their Father and they shall be my children." The Essenes of Qumran wrote in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that God would cleanse man "of all wicked deeds by means of a holy spirit; like purifying waters He will sprinkle upon him the spirit of truth."

These texts reveal that entrance into the Kingdom is a spiritual matter and not a matter of physical descent or merit. This was a revelation that most of the Jews in Yeshua's day, including Nicodemus, missed.

The first "you" in this text is singular, referring to Nicodemus, but the second "you" is plural. It reflects a general principle that is applicable to all human beings. The word "must" is from the Greek verb dei (present active indicative) which literally means "It is necessary." It denotes things that must occur for the plan of God to move forward (BAGD 172).

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 ESV

Both the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek word pneuma can mean "breath" or "wind" as well as "spirit," though in the New Testament any meaning other than "Spirit" is rare. This is a clever play on both meanings of the word pneuma in this passage and Biblical scholars point out that we do not get the same sense of the word-play when translated into English. The word “wind” and the word “spirit” are both from the Greek word pneuma.

There is word-play also in the use of the word "sound.” The phrase "you hear the sound of it,” is literally "voice." The word-play suggests the "sound" of the wind, but the "voice" of the Spirit. This coming of the Holy Spirit is not something that can be explained by man, and yet it happens. The wind cannot be seen, but its sound can be heard; the Spirit cannot be seen, but the Spirit's voice is heard in the hearts of those who have been regenerated by the Spirit's gift of new birth.

What are the similarities here between the wind and Spirit? First, both the Spirit and the wind operate sovereignly. Man does not and cannot control either one. Second, we perceive the presence of both by their effects. Third, we cannot explain their actions because they arise from unseen and partially unknowable factors; they are mysterious.

Yeshua was making it clear that the new birth is the work of Holy Spirit. When one is born again, he is born by the Spirit. The new spiritual life that comes in the new birth comes through the Holy Spirit. This is really clear in John 6:

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. John 6:63 ESV

So, the new birth and the new life that comes with it is the work of the Holy Spirit. We don't cause the Spirit to bring about the new birth any more than we make the wind blow.

The new birth is solely a work of God. To be born again is to bring to birth again. It is a work that a creature cannot do; only God can do it. This is clear in Ephesians.

even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— Ephesians 2:5 ESV

We were dead, and God gave us life. When a person is dead, he cannot see, feel, or act. Until God gives a person life, he is dead to spiritual things. Man is passive in the new birth; he does no more to produce his own birth than Lazarus did to produce his resurrection.

Believers, please understand this, the new birth or regeneration is effected without means. Most Christians think that the means of the new birth or regeneration is the Word of God or faith. But regeneration is a direct act of God upon the spirit of a man. Truth cannot be the means of regeneration, because before a man is regenerated, he is blind and cannot see the truth, he is deaf and cannot hear the truth, he is dead and cannot respond to the truth. Truth cannot be the means of the new birth when the natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit as taught in 1 Corinthians 2:14. The increase of light will not enable a blind man to see; the disease of the eye must first be cured. A man must be regenerated by the Spirit before he can receive the truth. It is solely a work of the Spirit. The Greek text of 1 Peter 1:23 helps clarify the concept of regeneration without means.

…since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 1 Peter 1:23 ESV

Those two prepositions, "of" and "through," are different. The preposition "of" indicates the source. We are born of God. And "through" indicates the instrumentality. The Holy Spirit gives us life, so we can receive the Word. The new birth is a direct act of God upon the spirit of man. It is a spiritual resurrection.

Bereans, let me ask you this question: How do you know if you have been born from above. Is there evidence to demonstrate the new birth? Yes, the evidence of the new birth is faith in Yeshua.

Everyone who believes that Yeshua is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 1 John 5:1 ESV

The only reason that you believe that Yeshua is the Christ is because you have been born from above. This means that Yahweh gets all of the glory for your salvation. You play no part in the new birth.

The famous Baptist preacher, C. H. Spurgeon wrote:

I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the Gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the Gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Yahweh; nor do I think we can preach the Gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ brought out upon the cross.

It is also my conviction that Calvinism is biblical and is the true Gospel. The church today is being flooded with a new Gospel, a humanistic Gospel. The Gospel is always and essentially a proclamation of Divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment. It is a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and grace. Its center of reference is God. But in the new Gospel, the center of reference is man: he  chooses, he decides, he initiates salvation. The chief aim of the Gospel was to teach men to worship God, but the concern of the new Gospel seems limited to making them feel better. The Gospel is — God Saves Sinners!

GOD—the Triune Yahweh; Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power, and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people; the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father's will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing.

SAVES—does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory; calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies.

SINNERS—men as God finds them: guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God's will or better their spiritual condition. This is the Gospel, God saves sinners. So, all the thanks, all the praise, all the glory go to God.

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