In this chapter Carson addresses the issue of new birth in light of the Bible’s story-line. He first considers our human dilemma and the three things we people need. They are; to be reconciled to God, to be morally transformed or else our rebellion will continue to perpetuate itself, and we also need the effects of sin somehow to be reversed. These include not only our interrelationships but also death itself. Otherwise, death just keeps on winning as the universe keeps on decaying, creatures continue to go through pain, sorrow and disappointment.
Carson notes that justification by faith alone remedies these three problems, but it’s by no means alone. For, Jesus is the revelation of God himself—incarnate deity is He. Thus, he can authoritatively speak to our plight—we are God’s enemies. But on Calvary’s cross, Jesus rectifies the enmity for it was there that God’s justice and mercy kissed the earth and brought hope to our doom.
This hope comes through new birth which produces inner transformation. This is not complete until Christ finishes the work of sanctification in our lives through glorification. Thus, we are continuously to be in the process of becoming increasingly more like the Son of God. Here, our motives are of the utmost importance for outer transformation varies from person to person be it the rescued drug-addict or the straight-laced person seeming to be “squeaky clean.”
Secondly, Carson explains what “new birth” or what “born-again” means in Jesus’ mind. In our world, the term’s “new birth” or “born-again conjures up a car changing its name (e.g., from Datsun to Nissan) or a delegate changing from one political party to another (e.g., a Democrat becomes a Republican).
But for Jesus these terms point to the impossibility of man to do a single thing to attain salvation which utterly crushes human pride. And if this language of “new birth” is based on the decision of the one being born, it’s frankly bizarre. It’s weird because in our usage when a person is “born” their volition is never in the equation. Some other agent is always responsible for their existence. Moreover, to be born-again in Jesus’ view guarantees that one will see the kingdom of God.
Carson reminds us that what we really need are not new institutions but new men and women; what we need is not new laws but new lives; what we need is not new creeds but new creatures; what we need is not new power plays but new people.
Thirdly, Carson compares the difference in the flow of logic between Barna’s view and the Bible’s concerning new birth. Concerning Barna’s position (this is a group dedicated to gathering statistical information about the role of Faith in America, known to possess the nations’ most comprehensive databases of spiritual indicators) Carson sees a radically man-centered approach, not a Biblical one. For being born-again depends solely on ones profession of faith, saying a prayer or going to church. But a mere profession or decision by an individual is not what’s required. Instead, what’s required is a radically transformed life.
The Bible’s view however is radically God-centered and humbles our pride, for its’ the impossible which is required to be born again. We must start over, we must become something we can’t do ourselves, because in ourselves it’s impossible and we know it or do we? Regardless, nothing less than transformation must occur for assurance to be Biblically grounded.
Fourthly, Carson peers into what the meaning of “born of water and the Spirit” according to (Jn. 3:5) is. He affirms that it means to be born-again; it’s a parallel meaning, not two births, but one. In fact the reason in John 3, Jesus could speak with such knowledge and authority about new birth is because the revelation was divine; that is, it was God the Son speaking of what only God knows. God the son is the revelation and this is stunning. He comes from heaven and hence he speaks of what he knows. His identity grounds his authority to speak and to know.
Fifthly, Carson rightly challenges us that to eventually understand Christianity we are going to have to come to terms with the claims it makes. This starts what we will do with Jesus. If you accept what he says then you must bow to him, but if we dismiss his claims we deny his very identity which is not good. One correlation to Christ’s identity is the connection between the account of new birth in John 3 and the Old Testament account of the bronze serpent in (Numbers 21:6-9)
“6 The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” 9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.”
The problem of the serpents was death at the door and the remedy was looking at what was killing them—snakes—which were on the pole (this prefigured the cross) and by doing so would save the people. Bizarre as it may seem, looking at the bronze serpent on the pole was God’s way of rescue, and that was a type of the cross of Christ. That is, in order for people to be delivered from death they must put their trust in the provision of Christ’s cross. But if that provision is rejected, only death awaits. Carson asks, “Have you been born-again?” At times I’ve doubted my conversion based on struggles with sin, actually feeling as if God did not care for me. But then again, I’ve seen my affections turn God-ward increasingly as the years of struggle and sin persist. My struggle sounds like the one described by the apostle Paul in Romans 7.