Who brings about the new birth? What is the cause? The teaching that I want to try to persuade you is biblical and, therefore, true and precious is that the new birth is the result of the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit preceding and enabling our first act of saving faith. We do not cause our new birth by an act of faith. Just the reverse: the cry of faith is the first sound that a newborn babe in Christ makes.
Regeneration, as we sometimes call it, is all of God. We do not get God to do it by trusting Christ; we trust Christ because he has done it to us already. The theological catch phrases which are sometimes used to designate this beautiful doctrine are "prevenient grace" (grace which precedes and enables our faith) or "irresistible grace" (grace which overcomes the resistance of man's perverted will by transforming his nature) or "effectual calling" (a divine call which not only offers but effects transformation).
Turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 3. Jesus says to Nicodemus in vs. 5 "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Whether we refer the water of this verse to the bag of waters which breaks at a person's first birth, or to baptism, or to spiritual cleansing, the main point of the verse is the same. Being born once or being baptized is no guarantee of salvation; you must be born of the Spirit, you must experience a spiritual cleansing and re-creation.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (John 3:6)
"Flesh" in John's gospel simply means human. So Jesus is saying here, your human birth makes you merely human. But when you are born of the Spirit, a new person is born.
Paul's terms for the person before and after new birth are "natural man" and "spiritual man."
"The natural man does not welcome the gifts of the Spirit of God for they are folly to him . . . The spiritual man judges all things but is himself to be judged by no one." (1 Cor. 2:14-15)
So Jesus and Paul are saying the same thing: that which is born of the flesh is a natural man (a person with no spiritual inclinations or receptivity to the things of God), and that which is born of the Spirit is a spiritual man (who loves the things of God).
The connection, then, between verses 5 and 6 of John 3 is this: We have to be born of the Spirit, because until we are, we are mere natural persons who do not welcome the things of God and therefore are unfit.
Faith is the most beautiful, God-honoring, and humble act that a human can perform, and therefore we must not imagine that it can be performed by a "natural man" who "does not welcome the things of the Spirit of God."
Before a person can perform the best of all acts, he must become a new person. Thorn bushes don't produce figs, apple trees don't produce olives, and a "natural man" does not produce faith. He cannot.
Here is the way Paul put it in Romans 8:5–7, "Those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, and those according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind of the flesh is at enmity toward God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it submit."
Fallen human nature is so hostile to God and his demands that it cannot submit to God in faith. We must be born again, born of the Spirit, before we can approve of God's Word and trust Christ. Faith is not the means or cause of the new birth; it is the result, the fruit of the new birth.
“The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
What is this verse trying to teach? I believe Jesus was trying to drive home the freedom and sovereignty of God the Holy Spirit in the act of regeneration. "The wind, that is, the Spirit, blows wherever it wills." The will of man is impotent at this point. We cannot start the wind blowing, and we cannot change the direction of the wind and make it blow when we want it to. The Spirit blows where he wills and, therefore, everyone born of the Spirit has been acted upon by the free Spirit and has been born anew, as John1:13 says, "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." The new birth is not a result of our decision or our act of will. It precedes and enables the heart's decision to trust Christ.
Jesus declares this truth with even greater clarity in John 6:41 the Jews murmur because Jesus said, "I am the bread which came from heaven." In both cases Jesus was up against a resistant and imperceptive listener. So he says in John 6:43, 44, "Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him."
No one can come to Jesus unless drawn by God. The natural man cannot submit himself to God until a supernatural work of grace is done in his life, called "new birth" in John 3 and the "drawing of God" in John 6.
Look at John 6:61–65. Again some of his disciples murmur and he says,
"Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe and who it was that would betray him. And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by my Father."
Here Jesus repeats verse 44 with only a slight twist, but the connection here between verses 64 and 65 makes his meaning unmistakable: "There are some of you here that do not believe . . . That is why I said no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father."
Why do I say to you that no one can come to me without the Father's enablement? I say it to explain why there are some who do not believe. Those do not believe because it has not been given to them by my Father. He has not drawn them like he has drawn the others.
Therefore it follows that saving faith does not precede and cause the new birth. But rather God the Father, by the agency of his Holy Spirit, regenerates freely whomever he pleases and by this draws a person to the Son enabling him to believe in the Son and be saved.
This is the gracious work of God preceding and enabling the act of faith. There are divine influences which can be resisted, but there are also those which cannot be.
This is the effectual call of God. The same call that called the world into existence. The same call that called forth Lazarus from the dead. It is the call that creates what it commands. The same call found in Romans 8:30 where it says "those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified." Not all will be justified but all that He calls with this call, will be.
The new birth is one which operates beneath a person's consciousness transforming the root of his affections, giving him/her spiritual eyes, spiritual ears, a new heart and thus removing hostility towards God.
What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the new beginning we must all make in order to be saved? The answer Jesus gives is that the new birth is the result of the free and sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, preceding and enabling our first act of saving faith.
We do not bring about the new birth by faith. On the contrary, the Spirit must first create a new person who then, according to his new nature, has the desire to believe in Christ.
Reasons to Love This Doctrine:
1) First, it gives all glory to God and keeps me humble before him. It prevents me from robbing God of any of his majesty by crediting myself with something that he alone has achieved. It reminds me that I am so corrupt and hostile in mind that never in a million years would I have called upon the name of the Lord except for the sovereign grace that created in me a new heart of faith. It keeps before my mind the truth that all the benefits and rewards of obedience are not earned by me because all obedience comes from faith which is a free gift of God. Therefore, I cannot boast in any virtue or achievement because it is all of God. And, therefore, he gets the glory.
2) Secondly, I love the doctrine of the Spirit's sovereign freedom in regeneration because it enables me to pray for the lost who are "dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1). I do not know what I could ask God to do for a hard-hearted, resistant neighbor or loved one if I didn't believe the doctrines of grace.
Any prayer I can think of sounds like a joke: "Dear God, provide my neighbor with some allurements to believe, but don't make them so strong they are irresistible; work in his heart, but not so thoroughly that he feels an overwhelming urge to believe." O, no, I will not pray like that. On the authority of God's Word I pray: "Overcome his resistance, dear God! Take out of his flesh that heart of stone, and give him a new heart of flesh! Interpose your precious blood, demonstrate your love so irresistibly before his face, and open the eyes of his heart so that he cannot help believing for joy. Don't keep your distance; ravish him with your glory."
I love this doctrine because I cannot pray for the lost without it.
3) Thirdly, I cherish the doctrine of the Spirit's sovereignty because it gives me the encouragement I need to witness to unbelievers. What could be more encouraging in our daily witness, especially among people who seem hard, than the confidence that nothing can stop the Holy Spirit from making a new creature out of anybody he pleases?
Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:24–25, "The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome, but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance unto a knowledge of the truth."
Ours is to witness by life and word; God's is to give repentance. Or another way to say is; we plant the seeds, others water but God gives the increase. And therein is great freedom and encouragement and hope for witnessing. No one is to hard hearted because God is almighty.
4) Finally, I love this doctrine because it gives to you who are not yet born again strong encouragement to close in with Christ. You do not need any other witness of the Spirit's work within you than the desire you feel to come to God. If there is one spark of longing in you to trust Christ, it is of God, and you may take heart that he is at work in you to draw you to the Son. He has not left you to yourself. Go forward with him. Confirm his work by your faith. Make your calling and election sure: cleave to Jesus, and he will never let you go.
And so I commend to you all this blessed work of the Holy Spirit. And I urge that none of you take any credit for your new birth, nor for your faith. It is all of God. I am persuaded that if we miss this note here, all our thinking about the work of the Spirit will be off-key. May God root us deeply in the glory of his sovereign grace.
Excerpt from ‘That Which is Born of the Spirit is Spirit’ by John Piper