Christ said that unless you are born again you will not enter the kingdom of God. For this being such a foundational piece of Christian doctrine, I believe that it is widely misunderstood. Even well-meaning Christians struggle to understand what exactly Christ meant in these words.
So, what does it mean to be born again?
In the 36th chapter of the book of Ezekiel we find a crucial piece of the puzzle. It reads as follows:
“ For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and I will bring you into your own land.  Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.  A new heart will I also give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.”
There are three points I would like to make concerning these verses:
1.) Verse 24 says that we will be taken from among the heathen. One who has been born again by the Spirit of God will in turn be brought out from among those of worldly descent. For what fellowship can light have with darkness, or righteousness with unrighteousness? (2 Cor. 6:14)
The Lord warned Israel about fraternizing with the heathen nations as they were coming into the promised land. He specifically states the consequences of this unholy union in Exodus 23 saying:
“ Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods.  They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me: for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee.”
God calls His people to be separate from the inhabitants of this world. Evil communications corrupt good morals. This is why Psalm 1 says that the man is blessed that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. Notice the descent here. First is a casual walk, then we stop and listen, and soon enough we are in the very seat of scornful men. This friendship with the world has led many with good intentions down the road to apostasy, and outright enmity with God (see James 4:4).
Psalm 1 goes on to paint a beautiful portrait of the man who has truly been born again. Having avoided this friendship with the ungodly, the sinners, and the scornful, the man of God is said to be ‘as a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.’ God’s people have been separated unto Himself, and He has said to be holy as He is holy. Righteous Lot was said to have been vexed day to day by the filthy conversation of the wicked in Sodom. Likewise, we who are of a new nature in Christ should be in continual vexation over the unlawful deeds of men all around us. Our new nature forbids this kind of fellowship; which leads me to our next point.
2.) Verses 25 and 26 say, ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.”
Having been separated from among the heathen we are made clean by the pure water of the Word of God. Christ said in John chapter 15 that, ‘ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.’ This cleansing washes us from our inward filth and causes us to come alive in Christ. It is the word of God that in Ezekiel 37 causes the dry bones of the valley to rise up and live. For God says, ‘Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.’ The word of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul…’ (Psalm 19:7).
Hebrews 4:12 says:
‘The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’
God’s word is the living and active force that penetrates the heart of man and draws him into a relationship with the living God. When the heart is prepared by God with good soil, then the good seed of the word comes in and is well received, bearing fruit, and bringing forth some an hundredfold, some sixty and some thirty as the Lord wills (Matt. 13:23). One who has been born again is one who has been met with the word of God.
In the book of the Acts of the apostles we read of Peter standing before the crowd on the day of Pentecost, and after having preached the word of God we read that the hearers ‘were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37). This is one of the responses that men give when God’s word is presented, another we find in the 4th chapter of Acts where we find the apostles, once again, before the council of the high priest for teaching in the name of Jesus Christ.
 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them,  Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.  Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.  The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.  Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.  And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.  When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.
We see similar wording used in verse 33 as we saw in chapter 2, but the Pharisees response to God’s word couldn’t have been of a more polar opposite than that of the men of Judea. While the men in chapter 2 were pricked in heart and sought out what they must do to be saved, we are told that when the Pharisees heard these words they were cut to the heart and took counsel to slay the apostles. While the same word softened the hearts of the men in chapter 2, it hardened the hearts of the Pharisees. As Charles Spurgeon once said, “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay. And the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins”.
To be born again is to be given a new heart from God, one that is able to be molded by His hands and willingly receives, delights in, and is continually washed by the water of His word. If any man be in Christ He is a new creature; and how can one be made new unless old things have passed away? (2 Cor. 5:17).
What was once vile in God’s sight has now been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ and made new. The very Spirit of God now dwells within the bosom of His beloved, replacing his once corrupted nature with a new nature, and with that new nature a new heart, a new spirit, and a new desire of obedience to the word of God.
With that said, let us move on to our final point.
3.) Verse 27 says, “I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.
Being born again means that we have God’s own Spirit within us. It is the Holy Spirit that causes us to walk in the Lord’s statutes and keep His judgments, not just in word, but in deed as well. The Spirit works in many ways, I will list three:
- The Spirit causes man to be brought from death unto life. Romans 8:11 says, ‘if the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by His Spirit that dwelleth in you.’ This is the picture we saw earlier in the valley of dry bones. What was once entirely dead, and rotting has now come to life by the power of God’s Spirit.
- The work of the Spirit is to mortify the deeds of the flesh and to continually sanctify us according to the Father’s will. He works in us not only the desire for obedience, but also the ability to rightly perform the act of obedience itself. Romans 8:13 says this, ‘If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.’ This work of mortification is the Spirit’s work in us, He cuts off those members which work unrighteousness and death in us and replaces them with works of righteousness that promote life and are acceptable in the sight of God.
- The Spirit will teach us of the things that Christ has spoken. Nehemiah chapter 9 says that God gave His Spirit to instruct His people; and Jesus said in John 14:26 that, ‘the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.’ It is the work of the Spirit to instruct God’s people and lead them into a proper understanding of His word.
So briefly stated, we see that the Spirit brings a man from death unto life, He mortifies sin and sanctifies the believer, and He instructs the people of God in rightly handling the word of truth. The Spirit is an absolutely crucial piece in our salvation, so much so that Jesus says to Nicodemus that, ‘except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ (John 3:5-6). Without the Holy Spirit a man cannot be born again! Though he may speak with pious speech, or give alms to the poor, or even be branded a martyr and suffer for the cause of Christ; if the Spirit of God does not dwell in him then that man is as far from Christ as east is from west.
For this cause, we must make our calling and election sure! (2 Pet.1:10). The marks of our salvation shall be evident both in speech and in conduct. An apple tree cannot help but bear apples, so one who is born again cannot help but bear fruit. This is our job. Christ said,
‘Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.’ (John 15:4-5)
Hopefully this has given us a better idea of what it means for a man to be born again. Though my words are weak and feeble at best, I pray that God would grant understanding to His people through the mighty work of Jesus Christ, by the power of His Spirit at work within us. Amen.