The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. Thus is everyone who has been born of the Spirit (John 3:8).
When I say “born again,” what comes to mind? Most of us, especially if we have any background in an evangelical church, will imagine a high-pressure sermon (“If you died tonight, where would you go? Heaven or hell?”), saying “the sinner’s prayer” and “accepting Jesus” into your heart, walking down the aisle (popularly know as an “altar call”), and being baptized. I praise God for the ways he has used these longstanding means to draw people to Christ and bring about their new birth. It is the nature of sin, however, to manipulate even the best things—including God’s Word (see Genesis 2:2-5). Consequently, I need to warn you about a grave danger that can creep into our understanding of what it means to be born again.
Far too many people have had the gospel presented to them in rigidly formulaic terms. It typically goes something like this, “hear the gospel+say the sinner’s prayer+walk the aisle+get baptized=salvation.” The problem is not the sequence; the problem is the way the sequence is packaged. As a result, two errors come into focus.
First, we risk believing salvation comes down to what we have done instead of what God has done for us. In other words, we’re tempted to think that because we’ve said a certain prayer or taken certain actions, God is thereby obligated to save us. Yet Jesus says the new birth is not subject to human control. Like the wind, the Spirit blows wherever he chooses. Although we can see where the Spirit has been at work, we cannot force the Spirit to do anything. God brings about the new birth, not us.
Second, we risk confusing birth with growth. We think because we have followed the prescribed formula we have sufficiently responded to the gospel. Our ticket to heaven has been punched, we believe, so now we just need to get as many people as possible to get their tickets punched as well. But the new birth is only the beginning of a lifelong process of having the Spirit make us more and more like Christ. We need the same Spirit who gives us new life to help us develop into mature Christians. Sadly, too many Christians remain “mere infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). They genuinely love Jesus, but they lack the wisdom and perspective to faithfully follow Jesus through life’s tumultuous trials.
Even though the exact nature of how the Spirit transforms a rebellious sinner into a redeemed child of God will remain a mystery, we can be assured of the fact that the Spirit’s work is unmistakable (see Galatians 5:22-26). I hope you’ll join me in praying for the Holy Spirit to move powerfully throughout our church family and beyond.