The New Birth—A Personal Decision?
WHO causes the new birth? When exhorting their listeners to become born-again Christians, some preachers quote Jesus’ words: “You people must be born again.” (John 3:7) Such ministers use these words as a command, in effect saying, “Be born again!” They thus preach that it is up to each believer to obey Jesus and take the necessary steps to undergo the new birth. According to such reasoning, the new birth is a matter of personal choice. But is that view in harmony with what Jesus told Nicodemus?
A careful reading of Jesus’ words shows that Jesus did not teach that it is up to man to choose whether to experience the new birth or not. Why do we say this? The Greek expression translated “is born again” can also be rendered “should be born from above.”a Thus, according to that alternate rendering, the new birth originates “from above”—that is, “from heaven,” or “from the Father.” (John 19:11; footnote; James 1:17) Yes, it is caused by God.—1 John 3:9.
If we keep the expression “from above” in mind, it is not hard to understand why an individual cannot cause his own new birth. Just think of your physical birth. Was it up to you to make the choice that led to your birth? Of course not! You were born because you were begotten by your father. Similarly, we can experience the new birth only if God, our heavenly Father, causes our new birth. (John 1:13) Thus, the apostle Peter rightly states: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for according to his great mercy he gave us a new birth.”—1 Peter 1:3.
Is It a Command?
Some may wonder, though, ‘If it is true that no one can decide on his own to be born again, why did Jesus give the command: “You people must be born again”?’ That is a valid question. After all, if Jesus’ words do indeed constitute a command, he would be ordering us to do something beyond our control. That does not sound reasonable. Then, how should the words you must be “born again” be understood?
A closer look at that phrase in its original language shows that it is not rendered in the imperative mood, or in the form of a command. Rather, the phrase is rendered in the form of a statement. In other words, when Jesus said you must be “born again,” he was stating a fact, not giving a command. He said: “It is necessary for you to be born from above.”—John 3:7, Modern Young’s Literal Translation.
To illustrate this matter of command versus statement of fact, think of a comparison. Picture a city that has several schools. One of them is set aside as a school for students belonging to a native, or indigenous, population living in an area far from that city. One day, a young man who does not belong to that native group tells the principal of that school, “I want to enroll in your school.” The principal tells him, “To enroll, you must be a native.” Of course, the principal’s words are not a command. He is not ordering the student, “Be a native!” The principal simply states the fact—the requirement for attending that school. Similarly, when Jesus said: “You people must be born again,” he was simply stating a fact—the requirement for one to “enter into the kingdom of God.”
That last thought—the Kingdom of God—has a bearing on yet another aspect of the new birth. It concerns the question, What is its purpose? Knowing the answer to that question is a key to understanding accurately what it means to be born again.
a Several Bible translations render John 3:3 in this way. For example, A Literal Translation of the Bible states: “If one does not receive birth from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”
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What similarity is there between the new birth and a physical birth?