How to experience Spiritual Birth
How do we truly become a child of God? What should the experience feel like? And why do some of us have a hard time getting there?
God is not some distant being, too hidden for us to know. We can know Him – He wants us to know Him – that is why He said: “No longer will each one teach his neighbour or his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Hebrews 8:11).
This is not an experience reserved for a worthy few. Every one of us is unworthy, and yet we are all still welcome. But as easy as that may sound, many of us have a great struggle in coming to God. We see other people come to salvation so easily, why then do we have such a battle? Where are the answers to our questions?
We sincerely hope this discussion will provide some help.
OUR PREVIOUS DISCUSSION
In our previous discussion, we showed that God has left us an impressive amount of proof, both of who He is, and His power to affect the course of history. One of those proofs is the Bible's 2000 fulfilled prophecies (a full 2000 more than any other religion's text). Only the God of the Bible has proved He knows the future (therefore stands outside of time), and can declare coming events which no rival power can overthrow. If you missed that piece, you can find it at the following link:
We must then conclude that there is a God, and He alone is God. And if so, then He alone can determine if, or how, we can approach Him. So in this discussion we will explore that path of finding Him.
STRUCTURE OF THIS DISCUSSION
This discussion will start by looking at how God draws men close, and why that is the only possible way to Him. Then we must ask if we are personally being called by God or not. We go on to discuss the obstacles that try to keep us from God. Finally, we will bring ourselves to God, trusting His miracle of a second birth. We close with the evidence that we have been accepted into His family.
ONE WAY TO GOD
The Bible says that there is only one way to approach God, and that is through His Son, Jesus Christ:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.“ John 14:6
“Anyone who denies the Son doesn’t have the Father, either. But anyone who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” – 1 John 2:23
There is a very good reason why Jesus Christ is the only way to God. So let's take the time to explore that:
Usually when we think about approaching God, we think of it from the perspective of us trying to reach up towards Him. But the story only really begins to make sense when we turn the picture around, and look at how God reaches down to us. God is the beginning and the source of everything in creation. So the puzzle of life falls into place when we look at it from that angle.
The entire story of the Bible is one of God searching out people who desire to walk in relationship with Him. He wants a relationship with mankind – that is why He made us. He had a relationship with Adam in the beginning, but Adam chose to sin (which is another way of saying Adam rejected God and chose to obey the serpent's words instead).
“Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteousness?” – Romans 6:16
In obeying the devil instead of God, Adam chose to submit himself to a different authority – a different ruler. And so Adam changed camps, if you will, and his betrayal of God broke their relationship. The ripple effect of that choice still touches every human today. Adam fell into the kingdom of sin and every child he fathered, and every child they fathered after that, was born a sinner in that same kingdom.
“But when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning.” – 1 John 3:8a
“through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.” – Romans 5:12
This leaves God with a great dilemma, because He is holy.
GOD IS HOLY
God is holy, not just some holy – He is all holy. He is perfect, without any spot of darkness in Him, not anywhere.
“God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” – 1 John 1:5b
God is perfect truth, perfect light, perfect love – each of these to an infinite degree. Each of them so completely that there is no hint of a lie, or a corruption in Him. His holiness gives His Word power. When He speaks, His truth is so complete, so incorruptible, that all the universe bends towards His words to “make them true”. If He says something will be – it will be – because the very fabric of the universe bows to His Words. It is impossible for us to conceive of His holiness. But that is the problem – we are sinners, we are not holy.
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – Romans 3:23
When this holy God's presence descended on mount Sinai to meet with His chosen people Israel, “The sight of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain” (Exodus 24:17a). His presence made the Israelites tremble and, “they said to Moses, ‘You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.’ ” Being near His absolute holiness made them so aware of their own sinfulness that they feared His glory would kill them.
We see this again (in Hosea 8 and Revelation 10), where sinners are faced with God's presence and beg the mountains to fall on them and hide them from Him. Even when men have been faced with mere angels, they repeatedly collapsed to the ground as dead men, and angels are just created beings that reflect the light of the truly holy One.
If we then, were to stand in the full brightness of that glory, it would destroy us. Faced with His holiness, our sin would be consumed, just like fire burns up impurities when it refines gold. Only we have no inner “gold”.
“we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” – Isaiah 64:6a
But – let's dream for a moment – what if our sin could be removed? Well then, like the angels, we would be able to survive the presence of God. If there were no impurities to burn up, we could endure the consuming fire of God's glory. So the answer is simple, all God would need to do is forgive our sins and all is well. Only that is impossible. God cannot simply forgive our sins and make like they never happened.
GOD IS JUST
God is holy, which means He has to be just. He cannot allow our sin to go unpunished because that would be unjust. And injustice is darkness. And He has no darkness in Him. Therefore His own holiness compels Him to punish us. Our debt has to be paid.
One day all of creation will have to give an account to its Maker. Before the judgment seat of a Holy God, we will be weighed. His presence will expose every secret thought, every private deed, every evil intention our hearts have ever had. We will stand “naked“, and all will see the things we thought we had hidden. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13).
As the judge He will measure out our punishment – as much as we are due – no more, no less. We make a mistake to think of that judgement as a set of balances, where every good deed wipes away a bad one. No, God's measure is perfect, sinless holiness. One small blemish corrupts us like a single drop of ink discolours a whole glass of water. Every sin will be punished and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
But this is not what God wants. What He longs for, what He truly desires to do, is draw us near and shower His love and goodness on us. But His holiness will not let him do that. So therein lies God's great dilemma – desiring to love us but needing to punish us.
So what does God do?
ONE UNTHINKABLE ACT
The solution was extraordinary! God (Father and Son together), found a way to save us. The Son would come to earth in the form of a man, to live a life of perfect obedience – as a man. In Jesus Christ, God then had the sinless sacrifice He needed for this to work. God had an innocent man (who did not deserve death), who could take on the punishment of the guilty (who God wanted to save from death). In other words: God had a free man He could use to ransom those in captivity.
With Jesus hanging on the cross, God the Father (who, you will recall from Step One, we said is outside the limits of time), collected all the debt of human sin together. All of that guilt He imputed onto the person of His precious Son. In other words, though Jesus was sinless, God considered Him as the man who had committed every sin in human history.
Jesus willingly stretched out His arms to receive that unbearable mountain of shame, and guilt and filth.
“I am the good shepherd... and I lay down My life for the sheep... No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord.” – John 10:14a, 15b, 18a
When God looked on His Son in that state – as the sum of all human sin – it put a wedge between them, much like Adam's fellowship with God was broken when he sinned. And Jesus cried out feeling His Father's eyes turn away from Him. God's fury burned against the sin Jesus now represented. And God judged Him. He struck Him with such great force that even the earth shook under it.
“Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’... And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit... and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split.” – Matthew 27:45-46, 50-51
Together Father and Son had done something extraordinary! They had pronounced judgement on sin and paid the price of all of that sin. So instead of making us pay, God took the full price of our punishment – on Himself! He spent all His wrath for our sins on Himself.
“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:2
God's love and His justice came together on that cross. He showed everything He is, in that extraordinary moment.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16
The cross & Christ
There is no greater revelation of the character or the heart of God, than in that single act of the cross. Every question we can ask, has an answer there:
Does God love us? Look to the cross and see His love on full display.
Is God just? Look to the cross and see Him offer sin no mercy (not even on His own precious Son).
Is God merciful? The cross is one extravagant act of mercy towards undeserving, sinful men.
Does God want us? Enough to be tortured and beaten and hung on display like the filth of the earth, to buy us back.
How can we become God's children? By trusting in that extraordinary sacrifice that paid the debt of all our sin.
On and on we can go...
Every answer is in the cross and the One who hung on it. That is why the Apostle Paul said:
“I resolved to know nothing... except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” – 1 Corinthians 2:2
A divine exchange
He came because we could never deserve heaven. And that is the point: He came to make a way to give us what we do not deserve. He became our ransom – swopping what He deserved, for what we deserved:
So when He took on our guilt, He offered us His sinlessness.
When He took on our wounds, He offered us His wholeness.
When He died our death, He offered us His eternal life.
When He hung naked baring our shame, He offered us His robe of righteousness.
“By His divine power, God has given us everything we need for godliness. We have received all of this by coming to know Him, the one who called us to Himself by means of His marvellous glory and excellence.” – 2 Peter 1:3
God can now consider us to be holy and pure, only because He first considered Jesus to be a sinner guilty of death. God literally takes the list of everything we have done, and everything we are – and then swops our list, for Jesus's list. In God's eyes we trade places. That is how we end up being worthy of heaven – because Jesus lived a perfect life and so earned our place there. He walked as a sinless man, obedient to His Father. And He did that as our substitute. The result is that He has already done for us everything necessary to make us children of God.
“For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21
The Bible teaches that if we could save ourselves, then there would have been no reason for Christ to die on the cross (Galatians 2:21). If we could save ourselves, then Christianity would serve no purpose. But we are powerless to save ourselves and so Jesus Christ becomes our hope. This is why:
“there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” – I Timothy 2:5
Maybe now it makes more sense why Jesus Christ is our only way to God:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” – John 14:6
Only the God of the Bible could find, and accomplish, a way to wash sinners clean again. Jesus is not a way to a God – He is the only way to the only God. It cost so much to make that way, a price He paid because He loves us, and there was no other way.
“And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” – John 17:3
So now that we have a picture of how God has said He will save us. What is the process of actually becoming a Christian and receiving all that Jesus bought for us on the cross?
SEARCHING FOR GOD
Before we can find God, we must look for Him. And before we can look for Him, He must call us. This is how the spiritual journey works. It's like a dance, God takes the first step, and then waits to see if we respond. Then He takes another step and waits for us again.
So the first few steps of the process of becoming God's child look like this:
Step one: First God calls us.
Step two: He waits to see if we will search for Him.
Step three: God offers us His truth.
Step four: He waits to see if we will accept His truth.
God must always act first because it is His will and power that makes Christianity possible. True Christianity is not just a set of habits, a culture, or a system of beliefs we adopt. Instead it is the life of God living in and working through us – it is a supernatural walk. In simple terms: Christianity is utterly impossible to do. But God doesn't look for those who can do Christianity – He looks for those who want to be Christians, then His power helps us do it. He must initiate the process (because we can't), so He must first call, but then He will wait to see how we reply (what we choose).
So how can we know if God has taken that first step? What is the sign that we “are included among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ.” – Romans 1:6
ARE WE BEING CALLED?
We have already mentioned that we are born with a sinful nature. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1John 1:8). There is another word for it – we are selfish. When you take a long hard look at every kind of sin, you discover that they all satisfy our desires (our need for pleasure), while harming either ourselves, someone else or both. We sin because it makes us feel good (at least for a moment).
Even the good things we do (that are not sins), deep beneath the surface we find they are done for selfish reasons. We make people happy because they, in return, make us feel good or give us what we want. Behind everything we are always looking out for ourselves. That inner selfishness is our sinful nature at work – it is the evidence of the darkness of our hearts.
Our nature resists God
Because we have a sinful nature, it is natural for us to move away from God. We avoid Him, we dislike His rules and we want to decide what is best for us. We don't want His truth to reveal our secrets, or shine a light on our private desires, which is why our “sinful nature is always hostile to God” (Romans 8:7a).
“And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” – John 3:19
Our point is this: to search for God is actually a very unnatural thing for us to do. It takes an act of divine intervention (a touch of God) to make us start looking for Him. This is God's calling. It simply means He draws us to Himself. When that happens we have the desire to look for Him, to go searching for His truth.
It becomes very easy then to know if we are being called. We simply need to ask, are we searching for Him? Are we reading books, entering conversations or going to places in the hopes of finding Him? Do we long to know what the truth is for ourselves – not just because someone else told us so. If the answer is yes, then we know that He is already at work in our hearts, helping us do the impossible. He wants to draw us near to Himself and we know this because He has already begun to do it.
So that first step is one God takes for us. Then next one is ours:
WILL WE RESPOND TO GOD?
God does not want a legion of slaves, He would have created that if He did. He could easily make us desire Him, but He does not manipulate us like that. Instead, He created this earth to be a “neutral ground,” a space where we are free to decide if we want to be part of His family, and just as easily decide not to be. God is looking for children who desire an eternity with Him. That is why we are given a free will, and a lifetime – to choose or refuse God.
Do we choose Him?
He is our creator, so in effect we already belonged to Him. But instead of claiming His right to us, He sets us free and asks what we want. That boundary God has set for Himself – to never violate our free will – is actually also our first evidence that He loves us. See here how the Israelites (who were already God's chosen people), were offered that same choice:
“And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” – Joshua 24:15
Some of us think God should rather give us a nudge into His kingdom – send a sign from heaven, make an angel appear, something more “tangible” like that. But God is extremely gentle with us. He will not force Himself on us and the simple fact is that such a display would manipulate us into choosing Him, and that is not how He wants to win us.
So when we are being called, what is the response God is waiting to see from us? He wants us to search for Him.
“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.” – Jeremiah 29:13
“those who seek Me diligently will find Me.” – Proverbs 8:17b
GOD OFFERS HIS TRUTH
Once we start searching for God He will reveal His truth to us. We will hear about the hope God offers us, that through Jesus Christ's death on the cross, we can be freed of our guilt and welcomed into the kingdom of God. And even though we may have heard that story a thousand times before, it feels different this time – the story comes alive. It doesn't just feel like words anymore – it feels like truth.
Because we are searching for God, we are able to be stirred by His Spirit, for the first time, to see the truth. “from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard [in heaven]” (Daniel 10:12). When we set ourselves to find God's truth, He begins to make our hearts more receptive to that truth.
If our hearts are soft enough, just one experience like this will be enough and we immediately grab hold of that message and effortlessly trust in this God who is willing to offer Himself for us. And when we do, we are changed forever. (We will come back to explore this experience in Section Four and Five below). But that is more often the experience of those who are younger.
Some first have to wrestle
More often than not, if we have gone through more hurts, or have travelled deeper into the world of sin, our hearts have become too hard, too cynical for such an easy surrender. For us, this moment is just the beginning of what will be a battle for our souls. Our journey to this moment, and the darkness we have encountered, has sunk hooks into us. It has established strongholds in our belief system, to fortify us against accepting God's truth.
We will have to travel a journey of being loosed from the lies that have become a part of us. This is a journey God is very willing to take us on. (And this is what Section Three below is about). Our part to play will be to, “set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God” (Daniel 10:12).
WILL WE ACCEPT GOD'S TRUTH?
For those who find God's truth harder to accept, that truth will challenge us when it comes. It will confront the lies in our hearts. In other words, it will expose us to God's ways and that will make us feel uncomfortable in all the places we have preferred the lie, over the Truth.
In fact a very effective way to discover the lies in our hearts is to ask God to open our eyes to His truth, and then to read through the New Testament (repeatedly if necessary). Then notice every time the text annoys us, scares us or makes us feel uncomfortable. Whatever is being spoken about in those upsetting texts, will be the places the lie has taken hold of our hearts.
“For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” – Hebrews 4:12
The truth wants to save us from our inner darkness. It will not bend to accommodate it. To receive the Truth therefore, we must be willing to bend to it – or more correctly – to Him. He must be Lord of all. The Truth must shape our belief system until we agree with it.
So accepting God's truth means we no longer think we know better. We no longer imagine that our lives will be better off if we have control and make the decisions. We let God shape our understanding of His universe and values, and let God shape the course of our lives as well.
So let's take a moment, to better explore this idea of God's truth, and the lies that try to keep us for Him.
THE SPIRITUAL BATTLE
When God calls us, that spiritual touch we receive does not go unnoticed by the forces of darkness. While most of us do not think of it this way, the reality is that until we enter the Kingdom of God, we are in fact in that other kingdom. We are sinners and therefore sons of the father of sin.
So the moment God stirs us, the devil knows he must respond or he will lose his claim over us. Satan knows better than we do, that the truth will set us free – and that truth is Jesus Christ. So he must do all he can to keep us from finding Him.
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am... the truth.’” – John 14:6a
“Jesus said, ‘If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” – John 8:31b-32
Everything Jesus is, everything He did for us, and everything He taught us – is the Truth.
Satan, by contrast, is “a liar and the father of it.” (John 8:44b). So the most common method he uses to keep us from the truth, is to bring us a lie. If we believe his lie, he has effectively stolen the truth from us. He did that in the Garden of Eden when he offered Adam an alternative reason why God told him not to eat the fruit. Adam believed the serpent (instead of God), and the truth was stolen from him.
The devil does not care which lie we believe, since any lie will do the job. This is why he has dreamed up so many different religions, and so many distortions of Christianity. He hopes we will get lost in the maze of options, unable to discern the one truth out of a hundred lies. It is a very effective ploy.
“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.” – Matthew 7:13.
So when we begin searching for the truth, it isn't only God that replies. Suddenly we have all these various options to choose from. One of those options leads to the one true God. All the others are trying to keep us from finding Him. So how can we know which is which?
THE BIBLE IS OUR GUIDE
God has given us one very powerful tool to separate the truth from the lie – that is the Bible. Of course, because the Bible exposes Satan's deceptions so effectively, he has tried to attack it since the beginning. In our days people's trust in it has been brought lower than ever before. And again, a great tool for doing that has been the writing of so many different versions. But maybe an even more effective tool has been the many different interpretations of the Bible sinful men have imagined.
“our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him... and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction.” – 2 Peter 3:15b, 16b
Despite all of Satan's efforts, the Bible has been preserved faithfully, and we can prove it through archaeological findings, some of which date all the way back to the time of the Apostles. For more on that see our – LIVING WORD – section.
And as for how we untangle the many different interpretations of the Bible, that is quite simple too. A true and correct interpretation of the Bible, is the one which agrees with every text on the subject. Every single mis-doctrine that is “based on the Bible.” uses only a chosen group of verses, while needing to ignore others. Doing that is kind of like walking into a conversation halfway though. You will misunderstand what is being said, because you only have half of the story to work with. The correct interpretation puts the whole story together.
All the scriptures agree. There is no contradiction in them (only mis-interpretations). So the test of a true interpretation is to look for verses which disprove it. Let's use examples to see how Satan tries to keep us from the truth, with a lie – notice how powerfully the Bible exposes that lie for us:
Twisting the way to God
The truth: Jesus alone (by His obedience and sacrifice), purchased our right to become children of God. Because of what He has done, God can offer salvation as a free gift to unrighteous and unworthy men.
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – Romans 6:23
“Therefore, as through one man’s [Adam] sin judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s [Jesus] righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.”– Romans 5:18
The distortion: God does not accept unrighteous sinners. If we do not obey His commands, He will not accept us as His children. As a result, salvation is not simply a free gift, but something we need to earn – either completely by our own efforts, or at least in part by our obedience.
Does the Bible disprove this?
“Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.” – Galatians 2:16
“But when the kindness and the love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.” – Titus 3:4-5a
The conclusion: We cannot be saved by our own obedience, only by placing our faith (or trust) in what Jesus did for us.
Yes, obedience to God is important – it is critical in fact – but it plays absolutely no part in us becoming God's children. We do not become children because we are obedient – we become obedient because we are children. We become obedient after we are saved. Our obedience is a result of God's gift of salvation which changes our hearts to want to obey Him. God does not expect fallen sinners to obey Him, He expects redeemed children to obey Him. Look how clearly this next verse reveals this truth:
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us... when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” – Romans 5:8,10a