The turning point, or major key, in getting to know God personally is the “new birth.” Jesus said it is impossible to really understand God or have a close relationship with Him until we are born again, or experience a spiritual heart conversion to God. Until that time, we know about God or about theology and religion, but we don’t know Him in a personal, saving way.
The reason for this is that we are born dead, spiritually speaking. The Bible teaches this in many places. Ephesians 2:1 says we are dead, but God resurrects us to new life when we trust in Jesus as our personal Savior. Titus 3:3-7 describes this same before and after experience. Baptism, Paul says, is the symbol that we have been raised from the dead to live a new life just like Jesus was when he died and rose again. We don’t need to be better; we need a resurrection, which is just what God promises to do for us in the new birth.
The heart of our problem is the human heart. When the Bible speaks of “the heart” it means the core of who we are—our will, mind, and emotions. Solomon wrote, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Prov. 4:23
Since the Fall (the entrance of sin into our world), we are born with sinful hearts. David wrote, “I was born in iniquity; in sin my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5). He means he was born naturally oriented toward sin and that sin was a part of his nature. Later he wrote: “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies.” (Psalm 58:3). Since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious perfection (Romans 3:23), Ps. 58:3 applies to everyone.
Jesus described the heart this way: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.” (Matthew 15:19).
The prophet Jeremiah wrote: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9) And Paul wrote “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away. . . .There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12).
What does this mean? One writer puts it this way: “It is impossible to change ourselves. Our hearts are evil, and we cannot change them. "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one." "The sinful heart is at enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." (Job 14:4; Romans 8:7). Education, culture, the exercise of the will, human effort, all have their proper place, but here they are powerless. They may produce an outward correctness of behavior, but they cannot change the heart; they cannot purify the springs of life. There must be a power working from within, a new life from above, before men can be changed from sin to holiness. That power is Christ. His grace alone can quicken the lifeless faculties of the soul, and attract it to God, to holiness. (Steps to Christ, p. 18).
How does this happen? That is precisely the question a man named Nicodemus asked Jesus one night: “How can a man be born again when he is old?”
Nicodemus was a very religious man, a leader in his faith and known for his generosity and good deeds. But with all of that, he felt something was seriously missing in his life. When he heard the teachings of Jesus, it spoke to his heart; and he decided to look Jesus up.
Jesus told him that he could not truly know God or his kingdom unless he was first born again. When Nicodemus asked how, Jesus said it was something only the Spirit of God could do: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:6-8).
It is the job of the Spirit of God to create new life in us when we trust in Jesus as our Savior. God promises: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26). David prayed, “Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a right spirit in me.” (Psalm 51:10). Paul wrote, “God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Titus 2:5-6).
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to draw us to God’s Saving Son Jesus. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. . . All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” John 6:44, 37. Jesus told Nicodemus that we must be born again, but the original word in Greek can be translated, “from above.” Jesus was describing the Source and direction of the new birth. It is from God.
The metaphor of “birth” is significant. Birth takes place after conception and months of gestation. In the same way, God speaks to our hearts in many ways, sometimes over a long period of time, planting his truth and revealing His character and love to us--all to prepare us for new birth. When we consciously believe in and commit ourselves to Jesus as our Savior, we are born again.
Jesus used the metaphor of wind to describe the Spirit’s work to Nicodemus. One author explains: “The wind is heard among the branches of the trees, rustling the leaves and flowers; yet it is invisible, and no one knows where it comes from or where it is going. So with the work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart. . .By the Holy Spirit who is as unseen as the wind, Jesus is constantly working upon the heart. Little by little, perhaps unconsciously to us, impressions are made that draw the soul to Christ. These may be received through meditating upon Him, reading the Scriptures, or hearing a sermon. Suddenly, as the Spirit comes with more direct appeal, a person gladly surrenders themselves to Jesus. By many this is called sudden conversion; but it is the result of long drawing by the Spirit of God,--a patient, protracted process.
“While the wind is itself invisible, it produces effects that are seen and felt. So the work of the Spirit upon the soul will reveal itself in every action by a person who has felt its saving power. When the Spirit of God takes possession of the heart, it transforms the life. Sinful thoughts are put away, evil deeds are renounced; love, humility, and peace take the place of anger, envy, and strife. Joy takes the place of sadness, and the countenance reflects the light of heaven. No one sees the hand that lifts the burden, or beholds the light descend from the courts above. The blessing comes when by faith the soul surrenders itself to God. Then that power which no human eye can see creates a new being in the image of God.” The Desire of Ages, p. 173
Even after all the explanation, Nicodemus was still perplexed about how this could happen, so Jesus reminded him of a story he knew well: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15).
After Israel was delivered from their bondage in Egypt, they lived in the wilderness for many years. Sometimes they rebelled against God, and He could not protect them in their sin. During one mutiny, poisonous snakes, began biting them. These “fiery serpents” were always there; but without God’s protection, the people were dying.
The people turned in repentance and God told Moses to make a snake out of bronze and hang it on a pole in the middle of the camp. Anyone who looked at the snake, trusting God to heal them would be healed.
Jesus said this was a symbol of His death for our sins and how we are brought from death to life. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15).
About three years after Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. Nicodemus remembered what Jesus said and finally understood that Jesus was the Savior of the world—and his Savior too. He gave his life to Him, was born again, and followed Christ the rest of his life.
Nicodemus had believed that God’s favor could be earned by good works. He had trusted that he was a good person and did good things, so God would accept him. But acceptance with God is purely an act of God’s mercy. God can only give us personal salvation when we admit we cannot change or save ourselves. “Blessed are those who admit their spiritual poverty; then the kingdom belongs to them.” (Matthew 5:3).
As you have read this, have you understood the problem of the sinful heart, and your need of the new birth? Maybe you experienced this. On the other hand, you might not be sure. So what can you do? Come to Jesus just as you are. Don’t depend on your good works or religious practices. It is a new heart you need. Ask God to prepare you and give it to you. He is the Divine Surgeon who loves to help us. Read about Jesus, especially the story of His death for you. Ask God to open your eyes to see what He did for you and to open your heart to receive Him.
He will, because His Son died to do this for you.