by Bob Wheeler


Parmigianino, The Conversion of Paul

Parmigianino, The Conversion of Paul


   Jesus once had a private interview with a distinguished rabbi by the name of Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, a court that sat in Jerusalem and tried cases under Jewish law. He was also a Pharisee, a member of a Jewish sect that was noted for its emphasis on tradition. And yet in spite of all these impressive credentials Jesus told him very bluntly, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3; NKJV). Why did He say that?

    As we have already seen, God has promised that “this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts . . . No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying ‘know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord . . .” (Jer. 31:32,33). In another passage God says “Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them . . .” (Ezek. 11:19,20). The kingdom of God will be a time of universal peace and righteousness. But we are all sinners by nature. In order for the kingdom to be realized on earth something must be done to the human heart.

    The heart, in the Bible, represents our innermost being, our innermost thoughts and emotions. The problem is that in our natural state the heart is wicked and corrupt. “The heart is deceitful above all things, / And desperately wicked; / Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). Or, as Jesus Himself put it, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19). This means that in order for the kingdom of heaven to be realized in our lives a change of heart must take place. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7).

    But what exactly is the new birth? What it is not is a mere change of attitude produced by natural means. It is rather a profound inward change wrought by the Holy Spirit. Those who have “the right to become children of God” are those “who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12,13).

    To understand the nature of the change that takes place when a person is truly born again one must first take a look at the psychology of an unconverted person, what he is like before he is born again. In Eph. 2:1-3 Paul says that we were once “dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience . . . ” He then goes on to describe the conduct that is typical of such people: “We all once conducted ourselves in the lust of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind . . .” (v. 3). In other words, we were motivated by self-interest, and as a result displayed a range of behavior that was often compulsive, anti-social, and self-destructive. These desires include not just the baser instincts for sex, drugs and alcohol, but also the more refined and socially respectable vices such as pride, ambition, greed and envy. But at the bottom of it all we were busy looking after “good old number one.”

    When a person is born again, however, he has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of him. Paul, in another passage, makes a distinction between those who are “in the flesh” and those who are “in the Spirit.” ” . . . the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:7-9). And thus Paul could say in another place, ” . . . it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God . . .” (Gal. 2:20). This, in turn, means a definite break with the sinful attitudes and behaviors of the past: “And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).

    What it all comes down to is psychology. The question we all have to ask ourselves is this: deep down in our heart of hearts, what do we want to do? Are we basically living for ourselves, and chafe under rules? Or do we genuinely love God and want to please Him in all that we do? Do we look forward to spending time with Him in prayer and personal Bible study, or do we view these things as tedious chores? When we pray and meditate do we sense that we are having real communion with Him? Are we actively looking for ways to serve Him?

    It is to be feared that there are many on the membership rolls of our churches who have never really been born again. They are in the church mainly for social and cultural reasons. It is the way they were raised; they have friends there; they like the music and the pastor’s nice, comforting homilies. But prayer is largely a meaningless exercise to them and the Bible is mainly a closed book. There is nothing particularly “spiritual” about their religious experience. And the moment it starts to cost them something personally to be a Christian they are gone.

    To return to Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” To know whether or not we have been born again is the most important question of all, for eternity hangs on the answer.