Finally Alive by John Piper
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
1 John 1:1–10
In the previous chapter, we launched our answer to the question Why must we be born again? We started with Ephesians 2:4–5: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” I said that “God made us alive” is virtually the same as the new birth. The reason Paul gives for why we need this miracle is that we were dead. “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive.”
This is what we need—the miracle of spiritual life created in our hearts. And the reason we need it is that we are spiritually dead. We are unable to see or savor the beauty and worth of Christ for who he really is. Those who are not born again do not say with Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8).
Then we began to unpack the meaning of this deadness. I said I would mention ten ways of describing this condition from the New Testament. We have already looked at seven of them:
1 We are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1–2).
2 We are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3).
3 We love darkness and hate the light (John 3:19–20).
4 Our hearts are hard like stone (Ezek. 36:26; Eph. 4:18).
5 We are unable to submit to God or please God (Rom. 8:7–8).
6 We are unable to accept the gospel (Eph. 4:18; 1 Cor. 2:14).
7 We are unable to come to Christ or embrace him as Lord (John 6:44, 65; 1 Cor. 12:3).
Now we turn to the last three descriptions of our condition apart from the new birth. The aim in this list is to give us an accurate diagnosis of our disease so that when God applies the remedy at great cost to himself, we will leap for joy and give him some measure of the glory he deserves. We will not sing with authentic amazement the words “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,” unless we know the nature of our “wretchedness.” John Newton knew his heart. That’s why he wrote the song.
8. Apart from the new birth, we are slaves to sin (Rom. 6:17).
Paul celebrates our liberation from slavery to sin by thanking God for it. He says in Romans 6:17, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” We were once so in love with sin that we could not leave it or kill it. Then something happened. The new birth happened. God caused us to get a new spiritual life, a new nature that hates sin and loves righteousness. And so Paul thanks God, not man, for
this great liberation: “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart.” Until God awakens us from spiritual death and gives us the life that finds joy in killing sin and being holy, we are slaves and cannot get free. That’s why the new birth is necessary.
9. Apart from the new birth, we are slaves of Satan (Eph. 2:1–2;
2 Tim. 2:24–26).
This is one of the terrible things about spiritual deadness. Our deadness is not unresponsive to the devil. It is perfectly in tune with the devil. Look at the way Paul describes our deadness in Ephesians 2:1–2: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” In other words, the mark of unregenerate persons is that their desires and choices “accord with” the prince of the power of the air. The unregenerate may scoff at the very idea of a devil. And of course, nothing is more in line with the father of lies than the denial that he exists.
But the bondage to the devil is most clearly mentioned in 2 Timothy 2:24–26. This is an exhortation to ministers about how to liberate people from the bondage of the devil:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
When Paul says that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” that is virtually what
happens in the new birth. And here is the key to liberating people from the captivity of the devil. God grants repentance— that is, he awakens the life that sees the ugliness and danger of sin and the beauty and worth of Christ. That truth sets the prisoner free.
It’s what happens when a person in the dark fondles an ebony brooch hanging around his neck, and then the lights go on and he sees it’s not a brooch but a cockroach, and fl ings it away. That’s how people are set free from the devil. And until God does that miracle of new birth, we stay in bondage to the father of lies because we love to be able to tell ourselves whatever we please. We keep fondling smooth roaches and warm fuzzy tarantulas in the dark.
10. Apart from the new birth, no good thing dwells in us (Rom. 7:18).
Now this is a statement that is unintelligible to the unregenerate who know very well that they do many good things and that they could do much more evil than they do. The statement makes no sense—that there is no good in us before new birth—without the conviction that everything good that God has made and that God sustains is ruined when it is not done in reliance on God’s grace and in pursuit of God’s glory.
So, of course, in one sense the human person (the soul, the mind, the heart, the brain, the eye, the hand) and human social structures (marriage, family, government, business) are all good. God made them, ordains them, sustains them. It is right that they exist. But they all exist for the glory of God. God commands that we love him with all our heart and soul and mind (Matt. 22:37). He commands that we use all that he has made by relying on his grace and in order to show his worth (1 Pet. 4:11). Where people use all that God has made without relying on his grace and without aiming to show his worth,
they prostitute God’s creation. They make it the instrument of unbelief. And they ruin it.
So when Paul says in Romans 7:18, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my fl esh,” this is the reason he adds the qualifier “that is, in my flesh.” There is something good in Paul after the new birth. Faith is good. The Holy Spirit is good. The new spiritual nature is good. Growing holiness is good. But in his flesh, that is, in the person he is by nature apart from the new birth, there is no good thing. All that was created good is ruined by being made the servant of man-centered concerns, not God-centered concerns.
This is our tenfold condition apart from the new birth. Apart from regeneration we are, to use the words of Paul in Ephesians 2:12, “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” This is why we must be born again. Without the new birth, our condition is hopeless, and we cannot fi x it with moral improvement. Dead men do not do better. Dead men need one thing before anything else can happen: They must be made alive. They must be born again.
The Other Half of the Question
Until now I have been asking only half of the why question. The question really has two meanings. The one we’ve been answering is: Why don’t I have spiritual life and why can’t I get it on my own? Our answer has been that we are rebellious and selfi sh and demanding and hard and resistant to spiritual things and unable to see the beauty and worth of Christ and therefore unable to come to him for life. And that’s why we need a supernatural work of God to make us alive. We need to be born again. That’s the first way to ask the question Why is the new birth necessary?
But there is another way. The question also means: What do you need the new birth for? What does it bring about that you need in the future? What can’t you have without it? The first way of asking the question looks back and asks what our condition is that makes the new birth necessary. And the second way of asking the question looks forward and asks what must happen for our future joy that only the new birth can bring about? That’s what we turn to now.
What Won’t We Have without the New Birth?
I’ll try to answer this new question in summary form in the rest of this chapter, and then work it out in practical detail in the following chapter. What won’t we have without the new birth?
Jesus’ answer was simple and sweeping and devastating: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Without the new birth, we will not see the kingdom of God. That is, we will not go to heaven. We will perish eternally. What won’t we have without the new birth? We won’t have anything good. We will have only suffering forever.
But it’s important that we show why this is so. We need to unpack the way God saves us through the new birth—the way he gets us to the kingdom. We need to see the connection between the new birth and what God has done to save us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So I will give fi ve interrelated answers to the question, fi rst in a negative form, and then fi nally, in a positive form. What won’t we have without the new birth? First, negatively:
1 Without the new birth, we won’t have saving faith, but only unbelief (John 1:11–13; 1 John 5:1; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 1:29; 1 Tim. 1:14; 2 Tim. 1:3).
2 Without the new birth, we won’t have justifi cation, but only condemnation (Rom. 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 2:17; Phil. 3:9).
3 Without the new birth, we won’t be the children of God, but the children of the devil (1 John 3:9–10).
4 Without the new birth, we won’t bear the fruit of love by the Holy Spirit but only the fruit of death (Rom. 6:20–21; 7:4–6; 15:16; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10; Gal. 5:6; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2; 1 John 3:14).
5 Without the new birth, we won’t have eternal joy in fellowship with God, but only eternal misery with the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41; John 3:3; Rom. 6:23; Rev. 2:11; 20:15).
To know ourselves and to know the greatness of Christ and of our salvation, we need to know how the new birth relates to those five destinies. We will see more of this relationship in the next chapter. But I conclude here by saying them again, only this time positively and in the words of Scripture. Notice especially how each builds on the ones before.
1 When God causes us to be born again, saving faith is awakened, and we are united to Christ. 1 John 5:1: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Not will be born of God, but has been born of God. Our first faith is the flicker of life through the new birth.
2 When the new birth awakens faith, and unites us to Christ, we are justified—that is, counted righteous—through that faith. Romans 5:1: “Since we have been justifi ed by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” New birth awakens faith, and faith looks to Christ for righteousness, and God credits righteousness to us on the basis of Christ alone through faith alone.
3 When new birth awakens faith and unites us to Christ, all the legal obstacles to our acceptance with God are removed
through justifi cation. So God adopts us into his family and conforms us to the image of his Son. John 1:12: “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the fl esh nor of the will of man, but of God.” We are born again from God, not from the will of man, and we believe on Christ and receive him, and God makes us his legal heirs and spiritual children.
4 When the new birth wakens faith and we are united to Christ, and all condemnation is replaced with justifi cation and the Spirit of adoption moves into our lives, he produces the fruit of love. Galatians 5:6: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” Where there is new birth, there is love.
5 Finally, when the new birth wakens faith and unites us to Christ, who is our righteousness, and unleashes the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, we are on the narrow way that leads to heaven. And the pinnacle of heaven’s joys will be eternal fellowship with God. “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The pinnacle of the joy of our new life is God himself.
This is what we will miss if we are not born again. The reason for being born again is not only that we are dead without it, but that we miss everything good forever without it. This is why Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:3, 7).