Dr. Paul E. Adolph has described what it is to become a Christian in such an insightful way that I want to share an entire chapter from his book with you:
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. -- John 3:6
When a baby is born, the acts of four persons are of importance. (1) The mother has to experience travail or labor of variable duration and severity. (2) The baby must cry. (3) The physician must effect by approved technique the separation of the baby from the mother and duly certify thereto. (4) The father or other observers usually come along and substantiate, whether through the glass window of the nursery or more intimately, the unmistakable signs of a new life, perhaps in a naive grimace of the face, or maybe in ungainly motion of the fingers, toes, arms, and legs. These procedures are those which we associate with the birth of a baby. The art and science of obstetrics are concerned with these matters.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, when here on earth, commonly used the simple facts and experiences of ordinary life as illustrations to clarify spiritual truths. Some of these illustrations were in the form of parables where the matter of likeness was to be stressed in just certain respects. In some other instances the matter of similitude was so close that a direct metaphor was employed, saying in effect, This IS that. Such would seem to be the case in His discourse concerning the new birth with Nicodemus, one of the rulers of the Jews, as recorded in the third chapter of the Gospel of John.
In this discourse Jesus so closely compared the spiritual new birth with physical birth that even learned Nicodemus was momentarily mystified and asked: How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother*s womb, and be born? (John 3:4)
In reply to this query Jesus pointed out the sharp distinction between physical life and spiritual life when He said: That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:6) Two basic biological concepts are included in this statement: (1) like begets like; and (2) life is produced only by pre-existing life (and not from spontaneous generation.)
There is no vagueness in Jesus* metaphor such as some want to interject into theological concepts nowadays. The spiritual new birth is clearly the sine qua non of the Christian life, just as the physical birth is of physical life. It cannot be a halfway measure, any more than a baby can be half born. It must be a definite and complete transaction.
When one is born again, moreover, it must be of spiritual parentage, even of the Spirit of God, who is also known as the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead. Furthermore, just as the mother accomplishes the birth of her baby as the outcome of travail or labor, frequently with great pain and suffering, even so our Lord Jesus accomplished the basis of our spiritual birth at the expense of great suffering on Calvary*s cross. It was there, as He shed His blood for us, that our redemption was completed, as attested by our Lord*s words on the cross, It is finished: (John 19:30) It was with this in view that prophet Isaiah exclaimed: He shall see of the travail of his soul and shall be satisfied: (Isaiah 53:11)
However, even though the travail and suffering is accomplished, there is no new life until the individual concerned, helpless though he or she be, does one thing which is really so simple that it hardly seems like doing anything at all. That one thing is to cry. It is the cry of the infant that makes the difference between death (the so-called stillbirth) and new life, as the newborn babe inflates its lungs by taking its first breath of air. Indeed, it is the height of disappointment to witness all the suffering, travail, and mental planning on the part of the mother, only to find that no cry is put forth by the infant such as to produce life as a new individual.
How much more is this true spiritually! We in our weakness can actually do nothing to obtain the life of the Spirit, which is our salvation, nor can we add anything to that which has been already done by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul gave expression to this when he said: For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. (Rom. 5:6) Moreover, he adds that it is Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; (Titus 3:5) Thus it is for us in our utter helplessness to receive Christ*s finished work as applied to us through the cry of simple faith unto God. In this way the entrance of the life of the Spirit is accomplished: For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Rom. 10:13)
The Spirit of God broods and yearns over us, waiting for that response in the form of a simple cry on our part that means the difference between life and no life. David of old was finding salvation through such a cry when he exclaimed: I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me. He shall send from heaven, and save me . . . (Ps. 57:2,3)
Perhaps few realize all the implications of the physician*s care at the time of birth. Apart from the actual measures taken to alleviate pain, to prevent infectious processes, and to secure unobstructed, safe delivery of the baby (and the author*s contacts with situations where such care was lacking during his nearly 15 years in China convinces him of their paramount importance), the physician stands in a strategic semi-official relationship to the local government. It is he that certifies as to the place and time of the birth in such a way as to establish more or less permanently the nationality of the newborn individual and his future relationship to that nation, such as in selective service and old-age pensions plans. In Jesus conversation with Nicodemus, this very matter of nationality was discussed with reference to the spiritual realm. He definitely established the nationality of those who are born of the Spirit as being that of native-born citizens of the kingdom of God. His references to inability to see or to enter this kingdom apart from being born of the Spirit are very pertinent indeed.
The barrier between the life of the body, which belongs to the animal kingdom, and the life of the Spirit, which belongs to the kingdom of God, may be compared with the barrier between the mineral kingdom and the animal kingdom. Neither of these barriers can be crossed by any other means than through birth. We know much about the chemical elements and chemical compounds which constitute the framework of the human body, but gathering these substances together in their proportions does not in any wise give us animal life. Entrance into the animal kingdom is only effected by physical birth from pre-existing animals life. So also we may gather together many elements, which we recognize as characteristic of the life of the Spirit, but this does not give us the life of the Spirit. Entrance into the kingdom of God is only effected by spiritual birth from the pre-existing life of the Spirit which God alone can impart.
Let us further illustrate this point. As an American medical missionary, seeking entry into China years ago, I could not but be impressed by the hundreds of millions of Chinese who had entered China with no difficulty whatsoever and were reckoned as citizens of China by just being born there. I for my part was limited in my entry into that land by having to come under constant surveillance wherever I went. Indeed, even my passport was at times called into question and was valid for only limited periods at a time. Permanent entry into China had been accomplished with ease by those who were born there of Chinese parents. Even so, the true entry into the kingdom of God is only to be achieved by those who are born there, that is, begotten of the Spirit of God, and who have acquired the characteristics of the citizens of the kingdom of God through birth.
Furthermore, in my missionary work in China I at first thought that I could be much more successful in the work by identifying myself with the Chinese. I applied myself to learning the reading, writing, and speaking of the Chinese language. I studied the Chinese classics. I learned to eat Chinese food with chopsticks. Living in the interior of China, I wore Chinese clothes. While this all added tremendously to my efficiency in the work, yet try as I might, I was not truly identified with the Chinese people, for my nationality remained perfectly obvious as being American. My entry into China was on a temporary basis. My nationality was American because I had been born of American parents as attested by my passport, my accent in speaking, and my general demeanor.
The same is even truer in the spiritual realm where even temporary entry to a non-citizen is denied. Our Lord Jesus made the matter very clear that it is impossible to enter or even see the spiritual realm, the kingdom of God, apart from being born anew of the Spirit of God. (John 3:3,5)
It is to be noted that two terms are used in connection with an individual*s relationship to the kingdom of God, namely: (1) see, and (2) enter. Some folk seem to think that even though they cannot enter into all the rights and privileges of citizenship in the kingdom of God because they have not taken the step of faith involved in crying unto God, they can at least see for themselves the things of the kingdom of God and then make up their minds as to whether they want to enter or not. Jesus, however, pointed out that it is not even possible to catch a proper glimpse of the kingdom of God without the spiritual insight that comes from being born anew. This is further stressed by the apostle Paul when he says: Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them to us by his Spirit: (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10)
This lack of insight in matters outside the realm of personal experience was forcibly impressed upon me when I was formerly trying to explain to a Chinese patient uninitiated into the realm of the microscopic, that he had doubtless gotten some germs into his flesh wound. The patient contradicted my explanation with an air of finality, for he said he himself had looked at the wound at frequent intervals and he said there were absolutely no germs there!
We also find that the nationals of a country are usually the only ones who really have true insight into the affairs of their own people. Other folk may come to live among them, eating their food, speaking their language, and wearing their clothes, but there is usually a lack of full insight into the customs and thinking of that nation unless one has been born of parents of that nationality.
In like manner intellectual uplift, rationalization, and pious phrases, good as they are, can never bring the individual to the state of being spiritually enlightened apart from being born of the spirit of God. Environmental influences can never lift us from the realm of the physical into the realm of the spiritual. We cannot lift ourselves into Heaven by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Like begets like, and it is only by being born of the Spirit of God that we obtain the life of the Spirit. We cannot expect spontaneous generation of spiritual life from physical life. It is contrary to all the processes of nature and to the teachings of the Bible as well. Jesus said: Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. (John 3:7)
There simply is no other way to see or to enter the kingdom of God and become a citizen of Heaven than to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and thus become born anew. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16) It is then that we can say: For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: (Phil. 3:20)
But the skeptic may ask, Where is the evidence for all this? I do not believe. Therefore I cannot see or enter the kingdom of God. How can I know that this new life is possible?
Jesus answered this objection very concisely when He pointed to the clues that there was wind round about Him. Of course, no one could see the wind. Moreover, the moment one attempts to grasp hold of a piece of it in one*s hand to examine it, it ceases to be wind. Nevertheless, there was unmistakable evidence all around that there was wind blowing, for as it blew it produced sound (John 3:8) and also doubtless was causing visible motion of the leaves and branches of the trees.
Similarly, as the observer looks at the signs of new life in the infant, it is not by dissecting apart that infant body that the presence of life is confirmed, for as soon as we endeavor to hold up to view that evanescent something called life in a dissecting forceps, it ceases to be life! Actually the true clues of life are observed by that overjoyed father as he sees the grimaces, the yawns, the at first meaningless and purposeless gesticulations of the infant, and hears its cry. He is convinced beyond all doubt that life is there.
Even so is it in connection with the life of the Spirit. When a new nature shows itself so that there is love where formerly there was hate; there is sweetness where formerly there was bitterness; there is peace where formerly there was worry, fretting, and anxiety; there is joy and hope where formerly there was unhappiness and desperation; and there is patience where formerly there was impatience -- then we may say that here the life of the Spirit is manifested. This is genuine evidence.
Birth is the way a new life comes into the world physically, and birth is the way new life comes into the world spiritually. Let it not be supposed, however, that this is the end. Actually, the infant child is of importance because of the potentialities which are reached after a prolonged period of growth. Nothing is perhaps more pitiable than an infant who does not go on to grow.
The same is true of the spiritual life. It must not be thought that spiritual maturity is attained in any sense by the first cry. Actually there are many more cries to be anticipated. We must go on trusting our Saviour day by day. Growth takes place only as one feeds daily upon the spiritual nourishment provided in God*s Word. There follows a prolonged period of growth under the chastening and disciplining hand of God, Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, (Eph. 4:13, 14).
First, we must recognize that spiritual life has not begun until we cry unto God in simple faith. Then, those of us who have taken this step must give heed to the scriptural injunction: Let us go on unto perfection . . . and things that accompany salvation, (Heb. 6:1, 9).