In his introduction to the Fall 2021 edition of The Master’s Seminary Journal, John MacArthur writes:
Here is the key lesson that runs like a powerful current through everything the Bible says about the New Birth: Eternal life is not a prize for being good. It is not a reward for those who try harder. It is not heaven’s reimbursement for those who live sacrificially in this life. It is not a wage that can be earned by being pious and legalistic. You don’t obtain it by forsaking vices or praying prayers. You can’t acquire it by paying tithes or performing religious ceremonies. It isn’t the birthright of anyone’s ethnicity or an entitlement for some privileged class. You don’t get it by joining a religious sect, no matter how meticulously you keep its traditions.
John goes on to say that the new birth is a gift one doesn’t earn. It’s a work of God. That is central to the doctrine of regeneration, the theme of the Fall 2021 TMS Journal.
Throughout this edition, scholars such as Mark Jones, Joel Beeke, Andy Naselli, Nicholas Needham, Whitney Gamble-Smith, and Steve Lawson explore this central doctrine in its biblical, theological, and historical context. John introduces the journal by expositing John 3, where Jesus and Nicodemus famously discuss the new birth, also known as the doctrine of regeneration. Below is an excerpt from our chancellor’s article, in which John shows how the doctrine of regeneration is not only a New Testament doctrine but one that is clearly present in the Old Testament.
What did Jesus mean when in John 3:5 when he tells Nicodemus that unless he is “born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God?” I’ve heard some people argue that Christ simply means you must be born both physically and spiritually. The idea is that this refers to a mother’s “water breaking” as the amniotic fluid is released before the birth of a child. But that interpretation leans too heavily on an American colloquialism that wouldn’t have made any sense in first-century Israel. Moreover, Christ doesn’t need to tell Nicodemus that he has to exist before he can be saved. Others argue that this is an affirmation that baptism is essential for salvation. But if Christ were simply recommending another good work to Nicodemus—even one like believer’s baptism, which had not yet been implemented—the Pharisee’s despairing response makes no sense. Frankly, he would have been overjoyed if Christ were prescribing such simple instructions. But his response—along with everything else Christ says in this passage—reinforces the idea that he could not attain salvation for himself. The fact is, Nicodemus should have understood what Christ was saying.
In verse 10, the Lord rebukes this high-ranking Pharisee’s ignorance: “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” You’re an expert in the Old Testament and you don’t know that salvation isn’t something you can accomplish for yourself? You don’t know that only God can grant you spiritual life? Nicodemus should have known better. He should have remembered God’s promise of a new covenant through the prophet Ezekiel. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances (Ezek. 36:24–27).
Read the Fall 2021 edition of The Master's Seminary Journal
God had promised, centuries earlier, to revive and restore His people. He promised to wash them of their sin and corruption, and to put His Spirit in them. Over and over, God stresses His work in the regeneration of His people. He had no intention of them saving themselves. There is no sense here that they need to pull themselves up by their spiritual bootstraps. Their only hope is His regenerating work. He says He will “sprinkle clean water on you” and “cleanse you from all your filthiness”—that’s what it means to be born of water. And He further promises to “remove the heart of stone ... and give you a heart of flesh,” and to “put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes”—that’s being born of the Spirit. This is God’s description of His regenerating work—He washes us of the corruption of our sin and indwells us through His Spirit. That was the salvation that the Pharisees should have been looking for and proclaiming to Israel—not the phony piety of external religion.
The promise of the new covenant and the new birth is not an obscure idea. It’s repeated throughout the Old Testament. Earlier in Ezekiel, God promised, I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God (Ezek. 11:19–20).
God made similar promises through the prophet Jeremiah. “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer 31:31–33).
Nicodemus knew those passages well, and they should have been ringing in his ears. Christ was confronting his ignorance and biblical illiteracy. He was the teacher of Israel, and he didn’t even know the promises of the new covenant. The doctrine of the Pharisees deviated from the clear promises of God’s Word. They proclaimed a faulty gospel of works that could not save. Their legalism had no solution for the sinful heart, and Christ drove that point home with His next statement: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6). In Romans 8:8 Paul writes, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Nicodemus didn’t have access to the book of Romans, but he should have known plenty about the weakness and inability of the flesh from the Old Testament.
Just a few chapters into Genesis, God said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh” (Gen 6:3). Verse 5 continues, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” It wasn’t long before the Lord revealed His plan to purge the earth of man’s sinful influence. “God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. Then God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them’” (vv. 12–13). And we know the flood did not mitigate the sinfulness of man’s flesh, as the Lord declared, “The intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21).
The theme of man’s wretchedness continues throughout the Old Testament. “What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” (Job 15:14). In Psalm 51, David confesses that he was sinful from the beginning: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (v. 5). Isaiah likewise acknowledged mankind’s comprehensive corruption, and the futility of the sinner’s attempts to save himself. “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on Your name” (Isa 64:6–7).
Nicodemus should have known that. He should have known that salvation could not be as simple as external behavior modification—that the problem was entirely internal. He should have known the impotence of man’s flesh to produce righteousness. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23). He should have known that “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (17:9)— that its corruption is beyond understanding. Unmistakably spelled out across the Old Testament, Nicodemus should have had a thorough doctrine of human depravity. He should have known that man’s flesh renders him incapable of honoring God, much less earning His favor and forgiveness. Nicodemus’s ignorance of the new covenant and its promises was inexcusable. Christ told him directly, “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:7). It was all there. He was supposed to be the teacher of Israel—he should have known there was nothing he could do to save himself. He should have known that the new birth was God’s work alone.