Finally Alive by John Piper
Jesus’ words “You must be born again” (John 3:7) go to the heart of the world’s problems. There will be no final peace, no final justice, no triumph over hate and selfishness and racism without this profound change in human nature.
All other diagnoses and remedies are superficial. They may even be valuable—like laws that restrain people from doing their worst. But without the new birth, people are not changed at the root, and that is where the problem lies. If human beings are not changed at the root, then our innate selfishness will spoil
Jesus’ remedy fi ts the depths of our disorder. If we only did bad things because of bad circumstances, then there might be hope that changing the circumstances would change our behavior. But our problem is not simply that we do bad things— like slandering others, and cheating in private, and neglecting
our responsibilities, and shunning those who are different, and doing shoddy work, and bending the truth, and gratifying our desires at others’ expense, and ignoring the poor, and giving no regard to our Maker.
Our problem is that what we do comes from who we are. “Are grapes gathered from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matt. 7:16–17). “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). That’s Jesus’ explanation of why human beings bear bad fruit. It’s not that there’s been a drought. No, the tree is diseased.
Jesus’ radical remedy will never make sense until we own up to his diagnosis of our condition. The human heart is innately selfish. Jesus had no romantic notions about the best of men. He loved his disciples. He knew they were kind fathers. But he matter-of-factly called them evil. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” (Matt. 7:11). He agreed with the prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
Jesus would have approved of the apostle Paul’s penetrating description of the layers of our corruption. Humans suffer from “the futility of their minds, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:17–18). At the bottom of our wills—at the root, at the spring—we are hard. There are no exceptions. “For in your sight no man living is righteous” (Ps. 143:2).
Jesus’ remedy for this was and is “You must be born again.” He put everything in place to make it possible. He lived a sinless life. He died for our sins. He endured the wrath of God in our place. He paid the penalty for our transgressions. He purchased eternal life. He secured all the promises of God. He rose from
the dead. He conquered death and hell and Satan. He reigns at God’s right hand and intercedes for us. He will come again to “make his blessings fl ow far as the curse is found.” He did all of that to make the gift of the new birth possible. All those blessings are sure for those who are born again.
The connection between those blessings and us is the new birth. That is Jesus’ root remedy for our depravity. Personal and social and global renewal will not be possible without this most fundamental of all changes. It is the root of all true and lasting change.
Someone may say: “I know religious people—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, cultic—who act like vipers. They aren’t part of the renewal.” Jesus knew them too. But he did not infer from this that the new birth doesn’t work. He infers that they are hypocrites. “You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matt. 23:25). “You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones” (Matt. 23:27).
Religious fakes were no surprise to Jesus. He prepared his most stinging words for them. They do not contradict the new birth. They confirm it. What could possibly change a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 12:34)? Reformation is not what vipers need. They need regeneration. Religious fraud does not make the new birth nonsense; it makes it necessary.
So if your heartache is for your own personal change, or for change in your marriage, or change in your prodigal children, or in your church, or in the systemic structures of injustice, or in the political system, or in the hostilities among nations, or in the human degradation of the environment, or in the raunchiness of our entertainment culture, or in the miseries of the poor, or in the callous opulence of the rich, or in the inequities of educational opportunity, or in arrogant attitudes of ethnocentrism,
or in a hundred areas of human need caused by some form of human greed—if your heart aches for any of these, then you should care supremely about the new birth.
There are other ways of shaping culture and guiding behavior. But none so deep. None so far-reaching. None so universally relevant. None so eternally significant.
Someday, at the return of the Lord Jesus, the world will be made new. The kingdom of God will come fully. Jesus himself will be the great all-satisfying Treasure in that new and beautiful earth. But not everyone will enjoy it. “Truly, truly,” Jesus said, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Until we come to him, we will not have life. Not now. Not ever. God gives eternal life, and this life is in his Son (1 John 5:11). Whoever has the Son has life (1 John 5:12). His word is reliable: “Come to me that you may have life” (John 5:40). If you come, you will be truly, invincibly, finally alive.