I remember visiting theme parks as a boy and having to measure myself to see if I was tall enough to get on any given ride. At the entrance to each ride, a wooden cartoon figure with outstretched hand had this message for the young and still-growing: “You must be this tall.”
Of course, this message was not a command. The cartoon figure wasn’t saying, “Grow up to this height!” But it was saying, “If you want to ride this, it is necessary that you be at least this tall.” And that is exactly the meaning of the words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, when he said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Jesus wasn’t commanding Nicodemus to born again, he was telling him that the requirement for entrance into the Kingdom of God is that one has been born again. As he says a few verses earlier, “…unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v.3).
This is one of the truths of the grace of regeneration that John Murray stresses in the third chapter of Part 2 of Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Regeneration is not something we are commanded to do, but it is something God does for us and in us. Just as we were completely passive when we born of our mothers, so we are passive in spiritual rebirth – it is entirely the work of God’s sovereign grace. As Murray writes,
We are as dependent upon the Holy Spirit as we are upon the action of our parents in connection with our natural birth. We were not begotten by our father because we decided to be. And we were not born of our mother because we decided to be. We were simply begotten and we were born. We did not decide to be born.
And Murray points out that this rebirth is absolutely necessary if we, who are dead in our sins and transgressions, are to answer the call of God to repent and embrace the Lord Jesus Christ by faith. It is the glory of God’s grace that when he calls his elect to faith in Christ and new life in him, he also enables dead sinners to respond to his call:
God effects a change which is radical and all-pervasive, a change which cannot be explained in terms of any combination, permutation, or accumulation of human resources, a change which is nothing less than an new creation by him who calls the things that be not as though they were, who spake and it was done, who commanded and it stood fast. This, in a word, is regeneration.
Although we are passive in regeneration, spiritual rebirth produces in us great spiritual activity: faith, repentance, love for God, new obedience, and so on. Just as a baby becomes active the moment he is born – breathing, crying, nursing, etc. – so God’s people become active by the grace of regeneration.
This truth about regeneration should deeply humble us. If there is any love for Christ in us, if we see any fruit of God’s Spirit in our lives, it is not because we have willed it to be there. Rather, God mercifully and powerfully gave us new birth, that we might believe in, and worship and serve, our Savior. By the same token, even as we call others to faith in Christ, we must pray fervently for the Spirit to give them new birth.
And regeneration is not just a abstract theological concept, but a reality that is a cause for joy. In the hospital where I stayed recently for surgery, the loudspeakers would play a nursery song throughout the building each time a baby was born. All who heard it could share in the joy of the parents at the birth of their child. In the same way, each time the Spirit of God regenerates one of God’s elect, the announcement brings joy to heaven itself: another child of God has been born! (Luke 15:7, 10)