The need to be born again in order to see the kingdom of God (John 3) is hardly an unfamiliar concept. Sadly it has been misused to describe a certain type of Christian, and perhaps because of that avoided slightly as a general term we use when talking about our faith. Having said that – phrases like ‘new birth’ and ‘dying to our old selves’ are regularly used to describe what happens when a person comes to faith in Jesus.
I mention the phrase now simply because I have recently had another layer, or facet of the potency of the concept exposed to me recently.
As I have mentioned I am slowly working through The Heidelberg Catechism. After the Introduction the first part of the catechism (questions 3-11) is entitled quite simply: Guilt.
The Introduction is amazing starting with the question: What is your only comfort in life and in death? Question 2 goes on to ask: How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily? The answer is 3. First the greatness of our sin and misery. Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.
Point three has also really got under my skin, but that is for another post.
Questions 3-11 then unpack the guilt and misery of our condition as humans. Having summed up what the Law of God requires of us it asks us in Q5: Can you keep all this perfectly? And the answer? No, for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour. It goes on to ask if we were created that way – answer in short – NO! So where does it come from? From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve in Paradise, whereby our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.
Then Q8 comes: But are we so depraved that we are completely incapable of any good and prone to all evil?
And the answer?
Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.
In Q9 the question is posed: “Does not God, then, do injustice to man by requiring of him in His Law that which he cannot perform?”
And the answer shines a spot light on our desperate need to be born all over again into a very different family.
“No, for God so made man that he could perform it; but man, through the instigation of the devil, by wilful disobedience deprived himself and all his descendants of this power.”
Wow – huge, mind-expanding, heart-stretching truths are swirling around right now!
It isn’t that any of this was a huge intellectual or theological surprise to me.
Although we do tend to shrink things to something a bit more manageable and palatable don’t we? Something that is just a bit easier to serve up in our bible studies and our one-to-ones.
Simply reading through questions 1-11 didn’t particularly ignite much thought or emotion in me.
BUT as I read and re-read and committed these statements to memory (or tried to!) – in other words as I meditated on the Scriptural truths presented – the sheer hopelessness and helplessness of the human race when left to its own devices hit me right between the eyes of my heart.
Of course I needed to be born again! It was my only hope.
[Note the Star Wars reference!]
From the moment I was conceived the most important thing that needed to happen to me was to go through the most radical and thorough ‘start all over again’ possible.
I say possible – but how can it be possible?
Nicodemus asks exactly that – but he asks because he is trying to picture himself literally re-entering his mother’s womb. Impossible – yes.
[As a mother I am crossing my legs at the thought!]
But also completely useless. Our helpless situation is a problem of inheritance. To be born again into the same race, into Adam’s helpless race, would be of no use at all. Our second birth needs to be quite different from our first!
And still Nicodemus asks “How can this be?” – and I am assuming that as I go on to ‘Second Part: Grace’ in the Heidelberg Catechism I will have many chances to revel in the answer to that question. But I am so glad that first I have been plunged into the depths of our depravity and culpability. The futile, foolish, heartbreaking situation we are born into. How much brighter the grace of God will shine, and how much more deeply will the miracle of my new birth grip me. For not only do I need to know “how I am to be redeemed from all my sins and misery”, but also “how to be thankful to God for such redemption”.
Thank you my gracious, wonderful, miracle performing Father. Thank you for giving me new birth, not a re-birth that simply takes me back to the start of the same old story, still heading towards the terrifying ending, but a completely new birth into a totally different story, the story of your Son. The story that has no beginning and no end! The story that just gets better and better and better. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Amen.