Every world-traveled evangelist of the Gospel has witnessed firsthand the working of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts, many of whom didn’t understand a single word of the language they were preaching to them in. What that demonstrates explicitly is the Holy Spirit communicates with men and women in ways that can’t be explained. It truly gives deep significance to the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” In other words, if someone honestly desires to know the one and only God, no entity or force in the universe can stop it from happening. Thus, to say God the Holy Spirit is heavily involved in winning souls to Christ is an understatement. This essay will attempt to investigate how He gets it done.
I’m writing this the morning after watching on television the destructive riots that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri after the grand jury’s decision didn’t agree with what some thought it should’ve been. The disgusting spectacle of reckless arson and looting further confirmed my belief that mankind’s moral capacities continue to lag far behind the cumulative technological advances and discoveries of the current age. Human beings in a mob still revert to acting like animals. Such blatant criminal activities highlight the great need our world has for the role model that is Jesus Christ. Even humanists acknowledge that man, as he is, hasn’t progressed much and they insist a fundamental change must come about for society to produce a more ethical race of human beings. Many in the fields of psychology and genetic engineering have devoted their lives to discovering ways to upgrade mankind through science. But, as those horrible riots proved, very little improvement can be detected. The unavoidable truth is this: there’s but one way a man or woman’s base nature can be transformed. It’s not through technological innovations, economic restructuring, motivational seminars or wishful thinking that such a fundamental change will occur yet there is a way. God – the sole Creator who made us – can recreate us from the inside out. That’s precisely what happens when a person gives their life to Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:17 states, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come!” Few verses in the Bible pack as much punch.
God’s Holy Word speaks of this complete overhaul in various ways but the most vivid and striking is the term “born again.” In the same way we were born physically from our mothers we must be delivered from this world into God’s spiritual realm or lasting change will not take place in our hearts and minds. 1 Peter 1:23 proclaims, “You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” Your everlasting life begins the moment you sincerely accept Christ as your Lord and Savior. The prime example we’re given in the Bible is the story of Nicodemus’s encounter with Jesus recorded in the third chapter of John. Nick, a high-ranking and wealthy religious leader, was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Israel. In his own humble opinion he was a darn decent fella. He fasted, went to the Temple daily to pray and most likely taught from the Scriptures often. He probably thought he was too cool for school. Yet Jesus told him none of the things he was doing made him good enough to enter heaven’s gate. He told him he “…must be born from above.” (John 3:7) Then the Master informed Mr. Nick this second birth He was referring to could only be accomplished by the Holy Spirit. He said, “The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) What He intimated was becoming born again is a mysterious process humans can’t fully wrap their limited intellects around. It comes from above, not from the earth, and it’s not anything conjured up by ourselves. It’s grace. It’s a manifestation of God’s unfathomable love, freely provided for us through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus, and made a reality by the acts of the Holy Spirit.
Imagine Nick’s shock to hear he was still coming up short of the glory of God! He’d probably anticipated receiving a commendation for being a righteous dude but Jesus could see right into his heart. John 2:25 says Christ “…did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.” Therefore Jesus instantly determined Nick didn’t need more religion. What he needed was a Savior. He wasn’t lacking laws, he was lacking life. Jesus didn’t beat around the bush; rather He aimed straight at the heart of the matter. He told him, “’I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?’” (John 3:3-4) Seems Nick was a pragmatist but Jesus wasn’t having any of that. He answered his question with “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:5-6) Whether or not Nick grasped what the Lord was telling him isn’t revealed but one can surmise from his quizzical response, “How can these things be?”, that the truth went in one ear and out the other, just as it does with so many in today’s world. You see, Jesus knew then and knows now what’s wrong with our hearts – the fatal disease causing all the ills that plague society. In Matthew 15:19-20 He said, “For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person…” While psychiatrists argue endlessly over what’s really askew with the human race, the Bible clearly states that the core problem is this: people, no matter how intelligent or responsible they deem themselves to be, deliberately revolt against the perfect will of God. And that act of conscious disobedience is defined and encapsulated in one word: Sin.
1 John 3:4 is plainspoken about what sin is: “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; indeed, sin is lawlessness.” When we fail or refuse to comply with God’s laws we break them and we’re all guilty. Read the prophecy concerning Jesus written in Isaiah 53:6 wherein it states, “All of us had wandered off like sheep; each of us had strayed off on his own path…” It’s talking about mankind’s insistence on being independent of God. But without Christ we’re dead in our sin. Romans 5:12 teaches, “… sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned.” In other words, the first thing each of us did upon taking our initial breath was to figuratively kick the bucket. That being the case, radical alterations need to be performed inside every man and woman as we mature. Yet we can’t work hard or long enough to bring them about through our own volition. Only God has the power/ability to initiate/complete the top-to-bottom spiritual makeover that’s required.
So what role does the Holy Spirit play in this? First of all, He’s the one who convicts us and beckons us to repent. It’s vital we understand that sin blinds us to the effects of our self-centeredness. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says “…the god of this age [Satan] has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ…” Furthermore, the only one capable of lifting the blindfold is the Holy Spirit. Only He can reveal the depths of our sin to us and lead us to the truth that is Jesus Christ. Our Lord said of the Holy Spirit in John 16:8-11, “And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment – concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” Make no mistake, the Holy Spirit doesn’t turn you into a Christian. He does open our eyes so we can see that our Lord and Savior is the only person in the universe who can fill the empty cavity in our hearts. It’s the Holy Ghost who guides us to the truth contained in God’s Holy Word. Romans 10:17 states, “Consequently faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ.” Billy Graham wrote, “God the Holy Spirit can take the humblest preaching or the feeblest words of our witness to Christ, and transform them by His power into a convicting word in the lives of others.” If not for the Holy Spirit I doubt man’s best efforts to convert sinners into followers of Jesus would get the job done. That’s likely what Christ was alluding to in John 6:44; “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Nevertheless, there’s nothing coercive about one’s surrendering to the call of the Holy Spirit and if a man or woman resists His beckoning long enough they can eventually become deaf to His pleas. There is, indeed, a point of no return that individuals can venture beyond to their detriment. Proverbs 29:1 says, “The one who stiffens his neck after numerous rebukes will suddenly be destroyed without remedy.”
Secondly, the Holy Spirit regenerates us. That means He renews us, allowing us to evolve spiritually into being more Christ-like in our behavior. Titus 3:5 says, “…He [Jesus] saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the whitewashing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Keep in mind this new birth isn’t temporary, it’s for keeps. In our unredeemed state every human is spiritually deceased due to our foul iniquities but the regeneration the Holy Spirit instigates in us brings us back to life and pronounces us innocent of all our trespasses before the Father. How can He do that? It’s easy, actually, because we’ve been transformed into totally new creatures. What I gather from the Scriptures is that my new, divine life has been bestowed upon my unique soul by Christ through the Holy Spirit. When Jesus referred to the process as being as mysterious as figuring out exactly where the breeze comes from He was telling us all the info we’re capable of digesting. And because it takes place in a person’s heart there’s no possible way for an outsider to see it happening. But what the spiritual rebirth does for the person involved is so overwhelming and exhilarating it can’t be considered anything less than a miracle. In fact, it may be the greatest miracle of all because it’s so personal! Friends, family members and non-believers in their circle may not realize what’s taking place. But the recipient of God’s incalculable mercy is acutely aware of the reconstruction going on inside them. Eventually the folks around them will notice changes are underway because the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit will begin to manifest itself in that renewed person’s countenance and attitude towards others.
This doesn’t mean the new creature that arises from a conversion to Christ gets put on some kind of autopilot setting. Holding oneself accountable and the nurturing of ever-stronger faith are still responsibilities of the individual believer. Christians are encouraged to get to know their Heavenly Father better each day. We’re told by the great I AM in Jeremiah 29:13, “When you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul.” And the closer we get to God, the more faith He’ll give us. Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” From the perspective of the Holy Trinity this entire regeneration phenomenon is rather uncomplicated and simple: the Spirit of God utilizes the living Word of God to create a child of God. We experience our “rebirthing” via the operation of the Holy Spirit who, in turn, employs the divinely inspired Word of God to bring more rescued men and women back to life. When the Holy Spirit makes His home in our hearts we become truly alive for the first time. And that life is not only precious, it’s eternal. And it’s all due to the Holy Spirit. The physical act of walking “down front” in church is an important tangible, public declaration of your commitment to Christ but that symbolic act alone won’t save you. Baptism by itself won’t do it, either. Repentance and trust are indispensable ingredients for receiving transformed hearts and minds but they’re nonetheless incapable of developing an entirely new creature from the old. Nothing miraculous occurs until the Holy Spirit takes over and rebuilds you from the ground upward. It’s not magic, it’s God the Holy Spirit doing what He does. As promised, God’s grace and mercy alights on all who surrender their will to the authority of Jesus Christ. And then they’re transformed by the Holy Spirit. To those in heaven it’s as easy as A-B-C but to us humans it’s nothing short of amazing.
In the final analysis, to be born again means, as indicated in John 5:21, “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.” This being-raised-from-the-dead thing is called “repentance” or “being converted” in Acts. Paul labeled it “coming alive from the dead” (Romans 6:13) and in Colossians 3:9-10 he preached, “Do not lie to one another since you have put off the old man with its practices and have been clothed with the new man that is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the one who created it.” The bottom line is that regeneration’s a present from God that can’t be earned. We can try to reform ourselves by making resolutions to be nicer people but without Jesus abiding in us it’s a fool’s game because “…we are all like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your [God’s] sight.” (Isaiah 64:6) Our well-intentioned, self-generated efforts to imitate Christ will never be good enough. We must be born again.
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit assures us our names are written in the Book of Life. The title of The Rascals’ hit song from the 60s, “How Can I Be Sure?” seems appropriate at this juncture. A troublesome air of uncertainty can haunt Christians when we realize many of our former bad habits and hang-ups haven’t exactly left the building. We still get angry, intolerant. We covet what we don’t have. Jealousy and resentment rear their ugly heads often. I know from experience those lingering tendencies can be confusing and/or depressing because they just won’t go away. Here’s the reason: I now have two natures. The older is from my first birth, the more recently acquired from my rebirth. I’m a child of flesh and a child of God. Whenever my mammalian nature asserts itself I can find myself questioning the legitimacy of my salvation and, in essence, that’s casting doubts on what I’ve been taught in God’s Word. When this happens I have to slap myself around a little and allow the Holy Spirit’s gentle reassurance to seep into my consciousness. Hebrews 10:15 says “…the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us” while Romans 8:16 states, “The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children.” The Holy Spirit doesn’t shout, He whispers. Therefore we must quieten sufficiently to let Him lead us to comforting verses like 1 John 4:15; “If anyone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God resides in him and he in God.” That’s a fact, Jack! Don’t let the devil convince you otherwise.