Born From Above
A Regenerated Cosmos
(excerpted from Cosmos Reborn by John Crowder, available HERE)
Just as the Old Covenant was engineered to make way for the new, so should we see the old creation was always intended to make way for the new creation. One seamless act. It was an inevitable consequence in the heart of God that the new creation should spring forth out of the old. As a seed eventually gives birth to something that is similar in substance, yet altogether more glorious than itself. That seed must die, in order to bring forth new life. Evil was allowed to strike death, only for the grand redemptive purpose of bringing life from the dead, restoring creation to a state better than it was in the beginning.
We employ lots of different terminology: new creation, redemption, reconciliation, new birth, regeneration, salvation, etc. But all these words mean essentially the same thing. They are all the work of Christ stepping into our humanity, turning it back to its original design, destroying its corruption in His own death, and resurrecting it back to life.
What does it mean to be born again? For all the modern evangelical talk of the “new birth,” there are some major blind spots in the currently accepted message. As soon as we see our renewal as sourced in Christ and Him crucified, we recognize that the new birth was never about my choice, personal decision or altar call experience. Nor do I need to live in strife, condemnation or question the validity of my salvation. In no way did we ever self-generate the new man. This cuts to the heart of our “self-salvation” process.
Nicodemus by Night
We think of the “new birth” as a simple, basic, clearly understood concept … Christianity 101. Yes it is simple, and we should understand it. But we grasp it no more than the religious leaders did during Jesus’ day. The Lord was being anything but clear when he brought up this mystical concept of rebirth to Nicodemus … keep in mind that Jesus was speaking in shadows and parables.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:1-3, NIV).
Later in this conversation comes the banner verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
How are we saved? Jesus talks about believing and about being born again. Now John 3:16 seems pretty self-explanatory and it is often paired together with Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Yes, you will! But belief and confession are not the purchase price of salvation – it’s aligning with the salvation He already purchased. If you take these two verses, isolate them from the rest of the scripture and put them into an evangelism tract, you have a great formula for getting someone saved. Just muster up a little faith and voila! You did it!
I understand that tweaking with the “born again experience” flirts with molesting the holy grail of all doctrines. But just humor me for a minute. I’m not trying to confuse the system here. You may think I am overcomplicating things. “Just believe!” you may say. I would argue that we have overcomplicated things already. In all of Christendom, no one can quite agree on this fundamental idea … what must I do to be born again?
Do I believe? Do I believe and pray? How long? How hard? Until it sinks in? How do I know it sank in? Believe how deeply? What if I believe the wrong thing? Do I believe and repent? Is repentance changing the mind? Is repentance changing the actions? Do I stop snorting coke? Do I stop picking up hookers? How much repentance is enough? What if I only snort one line of coke? What if I only have one hooker?
Me, me, me, me, me … what do I do, what do I do, what do I do?? How much faith is enough?
The Mustard Seed
Jesus said in Matthew 17:20 that “… if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be
impossible for you?”
Doesn’t seem like much … one tiny mustard seed.
Over the years, I have literally prayed the sinner’s prayer with hundreds of thousands of people. I have never seen a single one of them move a mountain … ever. Did none of them have faith?
Here’s the deal. Jesus was not saying to strain and pop a hernia until you finally squeeze out a mustard-seed worth of faith. People never read this stuff in context … let’s at least read the entire verse for starters to see what He meant: “He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there” and it will move. … ’” (Matt. 17:20).
The whole point here … Jesus was saying, “You boys have NO faith! Not even a smidgeon! If you had even the tiniest little germ of belief (which you don’t), you could take on hell with a water pistol.” Jesus is saying they are hopelessly bankrupt in the faith department. I would argue that we’re largely in the same boat today.
The Rich Young Ruler
It is true that Jesus told Nicodemus that faith was necessary. But maybe you’ve never noticed something. Jesus was also highly inconsistent in His answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus gave several different recipes for salvation and they all seemed quite contradictory. Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler?
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
“Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” (Matt. 19:16-20)
Notice here the same topic as discussed with Nicodemus: how to get eternal life? And how does Jesus answer? Keep the law! Points the kid right to the Ten Commandments. Now you won’t see any evangelical get near this one. You’ll see plenty of John 3:16 posters at the football game “BELIEVE!” but never a Matthew 19:18 poster “KEEP THE LAW!” That doesn’t fit the grid. But both are formulas for salvation offered by Jesus. We know we can’t work up law … but herein lies the problem. We do think we can work up saving faith. So we’ve decided to pick and choose which recipe for salvation that we like. We know that the law is powerless to save us because we are powerless to keep it. But we still think we can pull off faith – as if that department is still within reach.
Amazingly, in this passage, Richie Rich actually thinks he’sbeen doing a good job at the Ten Commandments. But as we read on, we don’t see Jesus giving him any kudos for his stellar legal performance. Instead, Jesus starts shooting from the hip – almost making stuff up as He goes along – amping the law up on anabolic steroids! It seems Jesus is intentionally making it impossible for the rich young ruler. The man says “I’ve done these things (kept the law) ... what else do I lack?” (Matt. 19:21-22).
Now selling all your stuff is nowhere found in the law. In saying to “sell your stuff,” Jesus starts personally tailoring a salvation method that he knows the rich young ruler can’t accomplish. He throws the kid’s brand new Aston Martin from sixth gear into neutral, jingles the keys and says, “Okay, I’ll take it. Along with everything else you own. You’ll be walking from here on out. You good with that?” It was beyond anything this trust fund baby could ever bring himself to do.
The disciples start calculating at this point. Their minds start spinning … they know if they were in Richie’s shoes they would have the same problem. They’re thinking, “Sure, we’ve left everything to follow Him. But then again, we were dead broke to begin with.” Finally, in a moment of honesty they blurt out what they are really thinking … this is impossible!
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:25-26).
This is the whole point! Salvation is God’s business. You can’t do anything to be saved. You can’t follow the rules enough. You can’t believe enough. Salvation, as a human task, is utterly totally hopeless.
Frustrated to Salvation
Not only is Jesus extremely inconsistent with his answer to “How do I get saved?” On top of it all, He seems to be making up random new rules at the drop of a hat, just to add a new layer of complexity to the already difficult rules they knew!
“Instead of just keeping the law, have a yard sale and get rid of all your stuff as well.”
“Forget what you read about murder - get angry at your brother without cause and you’ve already killed him.”
“Forget what you heard about adultery, just look at a woman to lust after her you’ve already done it.”
“Wanna fix yourselves up boys? Okay, chop off your hands and pluck out your eyeballs.”
Jesus was in the habit of frustrating people, of disqualifying their best efforts, to show them their need for a Saviour. He knew they couldn’t fulfill the external works of the law, nor the internal work of faith. He put good works and faith on the same plane – in fact John 6 says faith is a work. God was gonna have to pull this off. Even Jesus’ admonitions to believe were not the “easy out” method by which we think we are born again. His command to believe, like every other command, highlighted our inability to do it. Even the “father of faith” Abraham shacked up with Hagar during a night of doubt and gave birth to the Islamic world!
Jesus never sent His disciples out saying, “Boys, let’s water this salvation business down to the lowest common denominator. Let’s drop the bar to make it really easy. Just twist people’s arms to say this simple prayer of faith.”
No! It was just the opposite. Jesus was going around frustrating everybody, showing them how infinitely impossible the salvation game was. His whole ministry seemed geared at telling people how futile it was for humanity to climb into heaven – as unachievable, in Nicodemus’ mind, as climbing back into the womb.
Even His own disciples didn’t believe Him down to the last minute of His earthly ministry:
Then Jesus’ disciples said, “Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God”
“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone ... (John 16:29-32).
So back to our question … Are we born again by believing in Jesus? You can’t do that successfully enough. You were born again 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ came out of the virgin womb. You were born again when He stepped out of the virgin tomb. As Francois Du Toit says, “The Message does not demand faith, it supplies faith.”
One guy asks, “How do I get saved?” The Teacher answers, “Follow the law.” To another guy on the exact same topic Jesus says, “Believe
Same question. Two radically different answers.
But in fact, it is the same answer. Only Jesus could fulfill the law. And only Jesus could attain perfect saving faith. His answers were custom-tailored to be impossible for each individual. But with God, all things are possible.
The Conversion Experience
Let’s look for a moment to the currently accepted notion of what it means to become born again. Our idea is that of an emotional conversion experience. Where someone walks down the sawdust trail, perhaps mourning over sins or mustering up the effort to change their lives. Depending on the strictness of your denomination, that change may entail a willingness to jump over any number of hurdles – from changing the length of your skirt to simply raising your hand at the altar call. Christians are torn over “how much” repentance is to be involved at conversion, as well as what “repentance” actually means. Some expect you to instantly fulfill Torah; others simply expect you to stop sleeping with your girlfriend.
Regardless of what we believe about repentance, all evangelicals seem to agree that being born again ultimately has to do with us believing in Jesus. Faith in Jesus: the one surcharge
This idea piggybacks off our earlier conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 about being born “from above.”
Is faith necessary? Yes. But, faith is not a magical formula we are called to generate on our own.
And this is exactly what He’s saying to Nicodemus, the ruling Pharisee who is so dead broke in faith that he’s slinking to Jesus in the dark behind everybody’s back, so as not to ruin his reputation with the Sanhedrin. “You wanna get saved Nick? Okay, forget this cloak and dagger midnight rendezvous stuff. We’ve gotta take this out in broad daylight. Put all your chips on red. That’s right, all you’re your eggs in one basket. Trust in Me. The One you don’t wanna be seen with. The nut bar Sabbath breaker who spits in people’s faces and breaks bread with Mafioso tax collectors – the guy who tore up the temple and told all you professionally religious guys that the whores are gonna enter the Kingdom before you do. That’s right, trust Me, Nick. The ‘Glutton and Winebibber.’ Believe in Me.”
Impossible. Just as He did with the rich young ruler, Jesus is giving Nicodemus a recipe for salvation he can’t possibly conjure up. You’ve gotta trust Me, the most unreligious guy
you’ve ever met. You’re going to lose your reputation, your ministry, your career.
Can Nicodemus make this jump? Hardly. Now we see why Jesus in the same breath talks about being “born again.” Generating faith is as impossible as birthing yourself. The “new birth” is incorrectly taught as something you must choose to do. That being “born again” is something you actively decide or participate in. That is impossible. You contributed nothing to your natural birth – you contribute nothing to your spiritual birth. You didn’t choose your parents; your parents had you. You didn’t pop yourself out of the natural womb. Nor do you have any participation in your spiritual birth.
You were “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).
“Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18).
John Calvin writes, “The reality of our adoption is not one we can force. For those of us who would charge into claiming our ‘adoption’ as yet another thing to accomplish, the good news is that adoption is under the Holy Spirit’s jurisdiction. Our adoption—God welcoming us into his relationship with his Son—is brought about by the Spirit, ‘without whom no one can taste either the fatherly favor of God or the beneficence of Christ’” [John Calvin, Institutes, III.1.2].
Experience is a flimsy ground for salvation. I’m not banking on my experience, I’m banking on Christ.
Born From Above
Jesus is telling Nicodemus that salvation comes from above. It is all God’s business … your human effort plays no part in it at all. He tells Nicodemus that if anyone should understand this, it’s you – a religious leader of Israel! Shouldn’t you of all people know that salvation comes from above, Nick?
A number of translations say “born from above.” The key word here is anothen, meaning “from above, from heaven, from the beginning, from their origin (source), from of old, again, anew” (Strongs, 509)
On the one hand, it means your life finds its origin in Him and His will, not in your own effort or willpower. But this is also saying, “back it up … start it over from the top.” This literally means to start back at the beginning – back at your original design from above. Return to the origin – your authentic blueprint. This is about renewal – rediscovering mankind’s initial design as a spirit being in union with God. A restoration of the original creation.
New creation and old creation both originated in heart of God as one seamless act. The new was always intended as a regeneration of the old. God breathed His very pneuma– His Spirit into Adam. We find our very life source in His Substance! Somehow we were with Him, in Him and as Him from the foundation of the world. We were associated in Christ from the dawn of creation (Eph. 1:4). We have “forgotten the rock from which we where hewn” (Isa. 51:1), but the believer is one who begins to recognize and remember his true identity: that “as He is, so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). We are restored to that very image – our true self made in the very image of God. Spawned from an immortal seed. The divine, immortal you!
“You have been born again, not from a perishable seed (mortal sperm, human origin), but from one that will live forever (immortal) because it comes from the eternal, living Word of God” (1 Pet 1:23).
Jesus speaks of two births saying, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There are two births – the natural birth (born of the broken water of a human womb) and the spiritual birth (born of the Spirit, born from above). By discovering his true and authentic origin as a spirit being – not a mere carnal, flesh-driven, fallen man – can Nicodemus engage the Kingdom. The Kingdom cannot be comprehended apart from a realization of his true, authentic identity as a son of God. Apart from an awareness of his sonship, Nicodemus will be continually driven by hollow impulses with no appetite for heavenly things.
By no means do I intend to diminish anyone’s conversion experience. In all actuality, we endorse experience more than just about any ministry on the circuit. But your experience is merely the awakening to a sonship He has already endowed you with. We should live a life of continual intoxication in His presence, because we are continually in union with Him apart from our own efforts. I am not looking for an experience of a lifetime. I’ve been brought into a lifetime of experience. Our experience is just an awakening to a forgiveness He purchased before you were born. Realizing a regeneration that had taken place before the world began. Experiencing a new creation that is older than the first one. It is not your conversion experience itself that has power to save. You are simply experiencing a salvation He already procured. His finished work is the object of your experience. You’re tasting what He accomplished to reconcile the cosmos before the cosmos even existed.
He rebirthed humanity when He stepped into human skin. Jesus regenerated mankind in His own incarnation and saving act. When we hear this good news, faith effortlessly
pops up as an ecstatic “Yes!” to what He has done. It’s a gift! Faith is now the eyes to see what He’s done. And out of that faith flow good works and a happy, holy life in obedience to the daily influence of the Spirit. We are now motivated not by legalism – but by love – the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus.
Despite the overwhelming scriptural evidence against it, most evangelicals rabidly believe that our conversion experience itself regenerates us. That a man is not truly new until Holy Spirit personally recreates him at an altar call or whatever. Holy Spirit is always pointing us dramatically and emotionally to what Christ accomplished, but the Spirit is not doing additional regenerative works. He is supplying the new life and energy of God that was already fully poured out on the tree.
The word regeneration is used only twice in scripture. First, regarding Christ’s saving act in Titus 3:5, and again upon His return in Matthew 19:28. Thomas Torrance points out the following:
It is significant that the New Testament does not use the term regeneration (paliggenesia) so often as modern evangelical theology does, for what goes on in the human heart. It is used only of the great regeneration that took place in and through the Incarnation and of the final transformation of the world when Jesus Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead and make all things new. That is to say, the Gospel speaks of regeneration as wholly bound up with Jesus Christ himself.
The “new birth,” being synonymous with regeneration, is not about what happens in the heart of individual believers. Yes our hearts are awakened to this reality, but even Paul did not point to his experience on the Road to Damascus as a “conversion” … rather, he refers to it as his “calling.” Jesus does not magically float down and enter a man. In fact, his conversion was a disclosing of something God knew to be true about Paul all along, as he said “God, who set me apart from birth … was pleased to reveal His Son in me” (Gal. 1:15-16). Torrance continues:
“Conversion” is not an emotional experience or a radical change in heart as the repentant sinner tearfully trods the sawdust trail beneath the billowing dome of the revival tent; it is about what happens in the regeneration of the human mind in the incarnation. May I suggest that we think of conversion “christologically” rather than “anthropologically”?
By saying we should no longer think anthropologically, Torrance is saying mankind should not be looking within himself with an “in-turned notion,” but that we should be looking to Christ. Not just what He did, but who He is in the incarnation. This is a matter of Christology – our understanding of the very fabric of the nature and person Christ. Christ Himself – in His very makeup – is the substance of conversion. We've been so self-focused on what we have to do or say or believe to be reconciled to God, that we’ve missed what He did. But even beyond that, we’ve missed Who He is.
He Became Our Conversion
We've missed the simple fact that He is the reconciliation between heaven and earth. The God-Man connection. Jesus Christ is the covenant between God and man. Jesus Christ violently attacked our side of the covenant relationship in His own death. He became our human response to the Father. His person and His work are all seamlessly one in the same. Salvation was not merely an act He accomplished. He Himself is Salvation.
Every doctrine of conversion must be grounded in Jesus Christ Himself. Even to the point that He took our place in our acts of repentance and personal decision, “for without Him all so-called repentance and conversion are empty,” says Torrance. “Our conversion or ‘new birth’ is a sharing in the conversion of the human mind wrought in the healing assumption of Adamic flesh in the incarnation. Our new birth is a prior act of sheer grace, whereby, through no merit of our own, we are given to participate in the ‘conversion’ of Jesus Christ.” We do not depend on our own “decision” for Christ, as this throws men back upon themselves to be saved, effectually telling men they are responsible for their own salvation.
From the very moment of His virgin birth, Christ was beating back our old nature, converting humanity through His own struggle against temptation, in his fasting, in His persecutions, in His sweating of great drops of blood. He embodied our repentance. He repented as us, just as He was baptized as us. He was turning our nature back into submission to God. He received baptism from John, clearly not needing it for Himself – but He was stepping in, becoming our conversion.
When vs. Who?
You were not born again during an epiphany moment on November 13, 1982. Now it is fine to talk about when you first came to faith – and I have no problem with the term conversion experience – but it wasn’t the moment Christ first included you. It was the moment you first realized your inclusion. You accepted your already given gift of acceptance. Many of us have dramatic testimonies of when our lives were first radically transformed by faith. I myself was instantly delivered from drug abuse and all sorts of evil. Yet the power of my encounter was not rooted in my acceptance of Him, but His acceptance of me. And He had accepted me and blessed me long before I ever realized it.
When did it first happen? My new life sprang up not when I “received” it but, “he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead” (Eph. 2:5). The new birth finds its origin in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
We must stop thinking in the dimension of time (when the new creation began), and start thinking in the dimension of a person. Maybe it first became visible to you on November 13, 1982. But you were included in Him before you started – predestined from the foundation of the world. All people, before and after Christ, were included in His grace – even before He came 2,000 years ago.
At the incarnation, Christ was not leaving His heavenly rest to come to do a second work of repairing Adam. He had foreordained His own coming, and it was latent within His original work of creation. He worked six days, and on the Seventh Day God rested. It never says he clocked back in again on Monday morning. The Sabbath Rest never ends. God completely restored you from the foundation of the earth, before you ever fell in Adam. He’s not sitting on pins and needles hoping you make the right choice. From His perspective, you’ve always been complete. You just realized it for the first time on November 13, 1982.
The good news is that your faith was insufficient to accomplish salvation. You don’t have to depend on yourself. The requirement is too high. To be saved by the law, you had to perform it spotlessly, which was impossible. And to be saved by your own faith? Well, that would require perfect faith. Let me say this loud and clear: nobody could believe enough! This frees us up to just trust Him. And that is the very nature of what faith is: trust.
Jesus made sure that the hurdle of the law was too high for you to jump over. But what most evangelicals don’t know is that he also made the hurdle of faith just as high. In fact, Jesus basically gave us the law in order to contribute to our sin problem … to show us how depraved we really were apart from Him.
He handed all men over to disobedience that He might have mercy on all (Rom. 11:32)
Now, rather than faith becoming the price tag for salvation, it becomes the initial byproduct of hearing the news of your salvation! John 5:24 tells us that belief is proof positive that one has already “has crossed over from death to life.” You begin trusting instead of striving.
You may not see all the evidence yet of this regeneration. One day, when He returns, He’s going to catch us all up to the facts of what He has done. The return of Christ is not a “second work” of somehow recompleting something left unfinished on the cross. It will be the grand unveiling of His accomplishment … but what made it real was His life, death and resurrection.
He has regenerated humanity, but we have not yet seen the full ramifications. Nothing holds us back from seeing it right here, right now – the Kingdom is at hand. We do not preach a gospel of postponement or delay. Power, right living, good marriages, healthy children, prosperity … its all your inheritance available now, as we discover what’s already ours. And yet, He fully intends to speed up our process of discovery. The good news is that we don’t wait forever for these things to manifest if we don’t see them right away. Paul always spoke of the ever-present Christ in the same breath as the hope of His reappearing. When He returns, in the second coming, we will all experience that final regeneration! We are expectant of that day, but not wasting away in frustration as we await Him. His return is not really a second paliggenesia. It is merely an outward transfiguration of what we had already completed long ago. We don’t know what it will fully look like, except that this final regeneration is not separate from the first one. The flower will fully open to see what He finished from the origins of time.
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