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Jesus: Pioneer of the New Birth

Yesterday I posted a quotation by TF Torrance on the new birth.  Essentially Torrance said he was born again when Jesus was born from the virgin womb and rose from the virgin tomb.  What do you make of that?

As Dave commented, it only highlights the objective side of the new birth, and you've got to balance that with the subjective.  That's absolutely right, we need both.  By itself the quote is unbalanced and insufficient.  But let me ask you - have you ever heard sermons/teaching/quotations about Jesus being born again?   Where have you heard about Christ's objective achievement of the new birth through His Person and work?  And how often have you heard about your need to subjectively appropriate it?  Balance is indeed called for!

Recently I saw the "evangelical" episode of Diarmaid MacCulloch's "History of Christianity" (you can still watch it for the next 6 days on BBC iPlayer).  He continually describes the distinctive focus of evangelicalism as "our choice for God."  Of course every time he said it I howled at the tv screen.  Theologically, "our choice for God" is the very reverse of the evangel.  It's His choice for us.  But the more I watched and the more I thought about evangelicalism the movement, I had to admit, it's a pretty apt description.  How much of what passes for evangelicalism is actually "our choice for God"?  "Be more committed, more devoted, more serious, more emotional - choose for God."

So what's the answer?  Well let's think about John 3 a little bit.

"You must be born again (or 'born from above')", says Jesus (v7).  Therefore it is not in your power - not of 'the will of the flesh' as John 1:12 puts it.  Flesh only gives birth to flesh (v6) - it never gives rise to Spirit-life.  Something needs to come down 'from above'.

Think about it - birth is something that happens to you.  When you were born, someone else suffered (your mother), and you benefited.  (cf John 16:21-22).  You were entirely passive in your first birth.  So it is with your second birth.

Or think of the wind (v8).  You don't control it, you just get blown on.  Again it's passive.

Well alright then - it's out of my hands.  Does that mean it's just completely arbitrary?  Is it just a case of drifting about hoping for a favourable wind??

Well let's look a little deeper.  In verse 8 Jesus is using a play on words.  'Spirit' is the same word as 'wind' (or 'breath') and 'voice' is the same word as 'sound.'  So Jesus is saying "The Spirit blows where He wills, you hear His voice."

That's interesting.  The Spirit might be sovereign and invisible - but He is audible.  He speaks.  And the voice of His breath blows on us fleshy corpses to give us life.  Ring any Old Testament bells?  Jesus has just made an allusion to Ezekiel 36 - "born of water and the Spirit" (cf Ezek 36:25-27).   And now it sounds like an allusion to Ezekiel 37 - the valley of dry bones.  Remember?

Then He said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them,`Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath (Spirit) enter you, and you will come to life.  (Ezekiel 37:4-5)

Jesus says in John 3 that dead, fleshy people will hear the voice of the Spirit and receive new life.  Proclamation will bring the new birth!  And what is the content of this proclamation?  What will the Spirit's voice be saying?

Well He won't be instructing you about your ascent into spiritual life (v13).  Instead He'll tell you about the Son of Man's lifting up (v14ff).  As Christ is lifted up so we look to Him and find new life (cf Num 21:8).

It's not something we achieve, it's a birth from above.  It's given to us by the Father as we hear the voice of the Spirit and look to the Son.  So the new birth is not our work.  It's nothing that flesh can produce.  But neither is it the arbitrary caprice of some abstract divine sovereignty.

You see commonly people teach that the new birth is outside ourselves - which is true.  But to secure that truth they locate it in a hidden and inscrutable divine will.  Others who find that hard to swallow draw attention to the way the chapter continues.  They point to verses 14-16 and proclaim that this new life is in our power.  After all, they say, we have the power to 'believe' don't we?

And so it becomes a fight between determinism and free will.  One side finally locates the new birth in a hidden divine will, the other finally locates it in us.  But neither side locates it in Christ.  And Christ Himself is the One who makes good both verses 1-8 and verses 14-16.

Because Jesus was the Pioneer of the new birth.

He became flesh (John 1:14) and lifted up that old humanity to suffer its brazen judgement.  Like a seed He took the Adamic ways down into the grave to die and be raised up new (John 12:24).  And when He rose again, He rose into new Spirit-life.

[Christ was] put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18)

At Christmas, Jesus assumed flesh-life.  On Good Friday, Jesus destroyed flesh-life.  On Easter Sunday, Jesus birthed Spirit-life.  Jesus was born again.

The new birth was achieved completely apart from our own fleshly powers.  But it was not done in a secluded corner of heaven.  No, Jesus has been raised up for us in our midst, that the whole world might look to Him and find new Spirit-life.  That's what John 3:14-16 is about.  And it's completely of a piece with the first part of the chapter.  Born-again Spirit-life is the eternal life of verses 14-16.  Jesus is not switching between determinism and free will.  Throughout this passage He's talking about the way new life comes.  It comes from above - from the man of heaven who took the man of dust back into the ground to raise Him up new to become a Life-giving Spirit (1 Cor 15:45).

And so we have been born again through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:3).  TF Torrance's answer is biblical.  And it's helpful when it points us away from an obsession with our own 'choice for God'.  So many John 3 sermons can make the congregation look within for signs of life.  And all the while the chapter screams to us "Look to Christ!"

Torrance's objective emphasis guards us from thinking our regeneration lies in us - in some experience that we need to work up.  The new birth doesn't lie in me - it lies in Christ.  Look to yourself and all you'll find is flesh.  Look to Christ and there you will find your new birth.

My recent sermon on John 3:1-15


0 thoughts on “Jesus: Pioneer of the New Birth

  1. Heather

    I'm not smart enough to be able to dissect Torrance's statement.

    But it is downright eerie that you so frequently manage to comment on Bible passages I've been recently contemplating.

    I do appreciate the repetitively Christ-centered message concerning what He has done for us. It is so easy to start internalizing and focusing on the significance of my own choices and actions--thereby taking my attention off of Him.

  2. Bobby Grow

    Here's what Torrance says on Jesus being a Christian:

    H. R. Mackintosh [one of Torrance's beloved professors] used to remind his students that 'Jesus was not a Christian'. A Christian is a sinner whose sins have been forgiven, who knows himself or herself to have been saved by Christ. But Christ was not a sinner who needed forgiveness. Our approach to Christ must be a Christian approach: we must not try to look at Jesus in such a way as to gain entry into his religion, that is into his own private relation to God the Father. We can approach Jesus only as sinners who need the mediation of Christ in order to go to the Father, so that in the analogical relation set up between us and Christ, we can approach Christ only in acknowledging his uniqueness and sinlessness on the one hand, but on the other hand, only in yielding ourselves to him, in obedient conformity to his saving grace and as sinners desperately in need of him. Christ is utterly unique, but what corresponds to him on our part, is a Christian attitude, the attitude of forgiven and reconciled sinners. [brackets mine] (T. F. Torrance, "Incarnation," 11)

    I agree, TFT presses the objective, but He also presses the subjective through the Spirit-anointed humanity of Christ (if only by implication). I think it's his emphasis on the vicarious humanity of Christ that really underscores the subjective point. Although, TFT doesn't really develop much on the Spirit and otherness. Which Habets highlights in his book on "Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance."

    I think TFT is right in line with the emphasis of John, great points, Glen!

  3. theoldadam

    I don't think Jesus needed to be born again.

    His old sinful self needed to die as does ours?

    Yes, He died for us and took all our sin upon Himself...but...hmmm...

    not sure about that theory.

  4. Gav

    Just doesnt seem right.....why would my God need to be born again or born from above.......although he did find it necessary to be baptised...@#?.....just picture me screwing up my face getting a headache!

  5. Glen

    Hey OldAdam and Gav,

    try this argument on for size:

    1) The Word became flesh (John 1:14)

    2) Flesh cannot give birth to spiritual life (John 3:6). "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:50).

    3) Jesus was put to death in flesh and raised in Spirit (John 12:24; 1 Pet 3:18; 1 Cor 15:35-50)

    4) Jesus is therefore the Pioneer of the new birth - He crossed over from flesh-life to Spirit-life through death and resurrection.

    5) This is the sense in which Jesus was born again - not that He was converted from sin, but that He crossed over from man-of-dust life to resurrection-immortal-life.

    6) We participate in Christ's death and resurrection (through baptism - good link Gav!). Christ is the Pioneer and we share in the reality that He established.

    7) For us that means, in part, dying to our own sins and rising to new righteous life. For Christ His death and resurrection didn't mean that (for He was sinless). But nonetheless He *had* to die and He *had* to rise.

    8) In just the same way (in fact we're talking about the very same thing) Jesus must be born again.

    I guess it's just part of a realisation that God doesn't save us by zapping people from heaven with righteousness and new life. Rather the Man of Heaven comes down an effects that righteousness and new life in history. Just as He was baptised for us, lived for us, died for us and rose for us - He was born again for us. And by faith we share in His pioneering reality.

    But I might be arguing falsely - let me know which of the points above are dodgy or unclear.

    in Him,


  6. Glen


    "only at resurrection"?


    Another way of saying eternally begotten is to say 'eternally born'. But we know when the Son was begotten - Psalm 2:7 Acts 13:33. In His resurrection He becomes who He always has been and He always is the One He becomes on Easter Sunday.

    Don't know what to say more than that... Thoughts?

  7. cath

    One immediate thought: there's flesh and flesh. Flesh in the sense of 'flesh and bones', versus flesh in the ethical/moral sense of what is sinful/carnal/opposed to God. I can't help thinking that using the term "born again" to refer to the resurrection (?!) is guaranteed to induce some truly unhelpful confusion, precisely because when sinners are born again, it refers to a change from spiritual death to spiritual life, whereas the death and resurrection of Christ the sinless sin-bearer involved no such internal change or renovation of his nature. Innovative use of technical terms to provoke thought - can only go so far without eliciting what in scientific parlance is known as the boggle effect. Gav and the old Adam have all my sympathies!

  8. Heather

    Just doesnt seem right…..why would my God need to be born again or born from above…….although he did find it necessary to be baptised…@#?…..just picture me screwing up my face getting a headache!

    I'm with you, Gav and picture my poor little brain cells--writhing and screaming in agony "Enough....let us up!"

    But your reference to baptism brought to mind how Christ fully identified with our need--even though He was sinless. My current understanding is that repentance is simply turning away from my own stubborn desire to be in control, agreeing with God that I cannot be Him, and submitting to His discipline as a child does to a loving Father. It's a reversal of the prideful, thankless attitude Adam displayed in the garden.

    I've been wondering whether Jesus' participation in John's baptism "unto repentance" was acknowledgment of human need for complete humbling of one's self before our Maker. He identified with our need completely so that those who turn to Him may be able to identify completely with the relationship the Son has with the Father.

    I dunno. My brain was already smoking.

  9. Glen

    I agree with Cath that "there's flesh and there's flesh".

    But when Paul says "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom" (1 Cor 15:50) he doesn't just mean sinners. He means the whole mass of humanity that hasn't been planted like a seed and raised up again new (1 Cor 15:35-50). Christ had to go through this on our behalf, to create many seeds (John 12:24).

    He came through flesh life into Spirit life. This is what I mean by Him being born again. It's just one more way of explaining the fact that Jesus is our Pioneer, assuming our condition, putting it to death, and rising up new.

    I'm still pretty convinced that my 8 points above hold. But happy to be contradicted.

  10. Dev

    yea.. i didn't think it was only at the resurrection

    surely He's been born in the Spirit all the time!

    if anything when He had his fleshly birth - then perhaps He can have had a 2nd kind of birth?

    in the resurrection if anything the dustly flesh matches the Spirit in a new way of life

    but i don't think that's being born a 3rd time

    after all... everything's only in two's =)

  11. John B

    I like the Torrance quote and see in it an improvement over similar responses that I've heard to the question, "When were you saved?"; with the response, "On a Friday afternoon, two thousand years ago, on a hill outside of Jerusalem." Torrance's womb to tomb is a much better construction on this.

    But I'm not quite comfortable with the metaphor of Jesus as born again. Like Dev says, I think that would be his third birth. He's already eternally begotten of the Father, and born of the virgin, Mary. That second birth was necessary for our salvation so that he could exchange places with us. I'm not sure that I see the Torrance quote as describing Jesus as born again, but it may be there in the larger context. I don't know, as I haven't read Torrance. (Hope to though.)

    As the Lamb of God and the Suffering Servant, Jesus' was always the King of Glory, but his glory was veiled. This comes through most pointedly for me in the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus.

    Like Cath, I struggle some with this terminology as being too innovative for me. But I'll continue to ponder this, as I found Glen's citations from Psalm 2 and Acts 13 as very powerful and compelling.

    The Son of God became a man so that the sons of men may become the sons of God!

  12. Glen

    Ok, is this what Americans call 'Push back'?

    Oh well. Just to clarify, I don't think it's a third birth because 'eternally begotten' means 'always born' - that doesn't count in the sequence. So resurrection is Christ's second birth and (somehow!) IS His eternal begetting. In this sense His 'new birth' is His 'ever-new-birth'

    Think I've already said what I want to say on the matter but I might shelve the terminology for now. :)

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