Modern evangelicalism puts much stress on the need for individuals to be “born again.” In other words, the emphasis is on the need for the new birth, on the need for individuals to be personally converted to Christ. This is good and proper, for many people believe that mere church membership or simply growing up in a majority-Christian nation makes them truly Christian. But as Jesus told Nicodemus, the new birth is essential for salvation. In fact, the “you” in John 3:7 is plural. Essentially, it sets Jesus apart from the entire human race. To paraphrase, He says to us, “You, all of you, except Me, must be born again to inherit eternal life.”
Although modern evangelicals rightly stress the need to be born again and the importance of personal conversion to Christ, we must also note that a great deal of misunderstanding exists as to the nature and timing of the new birth. If we were to ask most evangelicals how and when they are born again, they would likely tell us that they are born again by believing in Christ. First we make the choice to believe, and then God changes our hearts. At best, God’s grace enables us to choose Christ, but it does not compel us to do so.
When we read Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, it becomes clear that Jesus teaches the opposite of those ideas. First, our being born again must come before we believe. We cannot see or enter the kingdom of God before our hearts are changed (vv. 3, 5). And since we are saved by faith alone (Eph. 2:8–10), then regeneration precedes faith. The faith by which we enter the kingdom follows our being born again. Moreover, Romans 8:8 tells us that those who are in the flesh—who are controlled by sin and have hearts set on the things of this world—cannot please God. But faith certainly pleases God, for He commands us to believe (John 3:16). People in the flesh cannot exercise faith for they cannot please God. The Spirit must change us first.
Second, the grace of regeneration is irresistible. Jesus likens the Spirit’s work in regeneration to the wind blowing (v. 8). We cannot see the wind, but we can see its effects as trees sway and objects blow past us. Furthermore, try as we might, we cannot stop or control the wind. When it wants to blow in a certain direction, it will push against whatever impedes it until what is blocking it is knocked down, as those who have seen devastating windstorms know all too well. The same is true of the Holy Spirit. He will finally overcome all resistance to faith in those whom God wants to save.