An Exegesis of John 3:1–10 with a View to its Testimony Regarding the Agency of the New Birth  

The hinge upon which the door of salvation-by-sovereign-grace turns is the doctrine of the new birth conceived as a supernatural accomplishment initiated and performed by the sole agency of Almighty God. B.B. Warfield (1851–1921) said, “The doctrine of monergistic regeneration—or as it was phrased by the older theologians, of ‘irresistible grace’ or ‘effectual calling’—is the hinge of the Calvinistic soteriology, and lies much more deeply embedded in the system than the doctrine of predestination itself which is popularly looked upon as its hall-mark.”[1] On this doctrine rests the “I” of Calvinism’s soteriological “TULIP.” It teaches that in the logical order of salvation, regeneration precedes a divinely bestowed gift of faith. In the words of the Canons of Dort, God “produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also” [i.e. not only the volitional inclination to believe but also the operation of faith in its very act and exercise is divinely capacitated], because “without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, [sinners] are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation.”[2] Man does not save himself nor does he make himself more ‘save-able.’

In other words, sinners are dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1–3). They are enslaved by sin’s tyrannical power; dominated by its corrupting influence upon the will. They cannot rise to follow Christ in faith unless they first receive a unilateral infusion of new life from God. Man has “free agency” and moral responsibility but he does not have free will to believe or do that which is truly good in God’s sight. The sinner’s will does not initiate or effectuate regeneration by accepting the Spirit’s call; it does not contribute to regeneration by cooperating with the Spirit’s call; and it cannot frustrate regeneration when God sends forth his Spirit with the intention of acting for that purpose. The Spirit effectually calls and imparts the grace by which the call of the gospel is received. God the Holy Spirit is the sole efficient cause of regeneration. Therefore, the glory of God alone is regeneration’s final cause. Again, to quote the lion of old Princeton: “What lies at the heart of [the Calvinist’s] soteriology is the absolute exclusion of the creaturely element in the initiation of the saving process, that so the pure grace of God may be magnified.”[3]

This is known as the Reformed or Augustinian perspective. But it has been challenged throughout church history, and is still challenged today. Challengers take up different views and employ diverse arguments. The positions they tout include what can be classified, from most divergent to least, as Pelagianism (anthropocentric moral suasion), semi-Pelagianism (“human-initiated synergism”), and semi-Augustinianism (“God-initiated synergism”).[4] The gist of each of these divergent positions is their denial of monergistic regeneration.

In support of monergism, many texts have been used. But the locus classicus for the Scriptural teaching on regeneration is the exchange that took place between Nicodemus and our Lord in John 3. In this paper I intend to provide an exegetical defense of the Reformed view of monergistic regeneration by examining the evidence for it in John 3:1–10. It is my contention that the text leaves no place for anthropocentric or synergistic views of regeneration because it teaches that the new birth (taken basically as a synonym for what we call regeneration) is effected by the sole agency of God apart from man’s assistance, cooperation, or contribution.

The Literary Context (John 3:1; 2:23–25)

Nicodemus is described as “a man of the Pharisees” (ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων) and “a ruler of the Jews” (ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων). Externally, he was of exemplary piety, coming to Jesus with “the best of credentials.”[5] But his religious zeal could not suffice as a substitute for the vital power of godliness in the heart (Rom. 10:2–3; 2 Tim. 3:5). So he appears on the scene in the Gospel narrative immediately following the description of those whose interest in Christ was superficial and non-saving (2:23–25). They saw the signs and had a kind of “miraculous faith” (i.e. faith due to miracles that is not of a salvific nature),[6] but Jesus “did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.” They did not have saving faith. Jesus was aware of this, for due to the hypostatic union of his human nature with the divine and out of his perichoretic participation in the divine omniscience, he knew them better than they knew themselves.[7] The pericope concerning Nicodemus is introduced as a specific exemplar of such a person, to (as Calvin put it) “exhibit to our view how vain and fleeting” such a faith was.[8] They believed due to the signs, they held that Jesus was a divinely-commissioned teacher, but they did not possess saving faith in Christ’s person and work because they were void of the life of God in their souls. Hence the need for the new birth of chapter 3.

This context is significant because it places the passage which deals with the necessity of the new birth on the heels of a passage which exposes the empty profession of faith without the substantial possession of faith. The literary context at least hints at the fact that the lack of new birth is the reason for the lack of saving faith (see 1 John 5:1). Or to put it positively, the new birth stands causally related to faith. If the lack of new birth means the absence of faith, the operation of new birth would therefore indicate that there would be a consequent operation of faith. The contextual flow of the narrative supports a monergistic view of the new birth as causally preceding faith.

The Scene (John 3:2)

The fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (οὗτος ἦλθε πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν νυκτός) is no superfluous detail (v. 2). The Gospel of John has long been recognized as “the spiritual Gospel,” as Clement of Alexandria termed it, meaning that “a purely historical-grammatical, let alone historical-critical, approach to the text would lend a helpful but impoverished interpretation at best.”[9] A hermeneutical approach that is not only redemptive-historical but decidedly theological is necessary to discern its authorial intent.[10] The apostle often cites the natural world and the literal miracles of Christ as symbolic and metaphorical of greater spiritual and theological realities. Although Nicodemus was apparently afraid of the social/political ramifications of being associated with Jesus (see 12:42), most commentators agree that the fact he came by night is symbolic, since references to νύξ are conspicuously symbolic in other passages in the Gospel (1:4–5; 3:19; 9:4; 11:9–10; 13:30).[11] As Carson said, “Doubtless Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, but his own ‘night’ was blacker than he knew.”[12]

What all this signifies is that from the outset, the Nicodemian discourse is conceptualized with regard to the Johannine motif of darkness and light.[13] Such is essentially a creation motif, for it was God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness in the beginning as a creative fiat of raw omnipotence (Gen. 1:3; cf. John 1:1–5). This is fitting with the apostle John’s portrayal of salvation as a new beginning and a new creation—essentially a new genesis.[14] Nicodemus’s coming by night betrays the spiritual condition of his soul, for in spite of all his external parade of piety he still abode, internally, in the darkness (see 11:9–10; 13:30). Jesus will tell him he needs a new genesis. John’s presentation of the exchange from the first verse of the narrative implies that the new birth is really an act of new creation. And what John here implies is taught expressly by Paul elsewhere: “it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6); “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Insofar as new birth is presented as new creation, and such creative activity is solely God’s prerogative, the new birth is the work of God alone—monergistic, not synergistic. The source of the light of salvation must be none other than the God who gives light to the world, and the efficient cause of this light in its salvific illumination of the sinner must be none other than the Spirit who is introduced in John 3:5-8.

To be Born ἄνωθεν (John 3:3)

In verse 3, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ Θεοῦ). An immediate testimony to monergism can be discerned in the grammar taken at face value. When Jesus speaks of someone being born anew, the syntax is revealing, because the verb γεννηθῇ is in the passive voice, indicating that in this act, the subject receives the action of the verb and does not perform it. Man is the passive recipient of the new birth, not its causal agent. That should be clear enough, for the analogy is predicated on the concept of natural birth, and that in itself is not something that the subject performs but is something that happens to them. But to inquire deeper now into the significance of these words relative to the present thesis, first we have to discern its meaning. This depends on two major issues.

eFirst, what is meant by seeing the kingdom of God and what is the nature of the condition that is expressed? The kingdom is not the sovereign and universal reign of God, for all are under it and in it (Ps. 103:19; Dan. 4:34–35). It must be the Messianic introduction of the kingdom as the sphere of God’s redemptive and eschatological reign, promised in the Old Testament Prophets (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Isa. 9:1–7; Dan. 2:44; 7:14).[15] The general Jewish expectation of which Nicodemus was part took it for granted that when Messiah would come to establish the kingdom, the physical stock of Abraham through Isaac would inherit it—all except for the openly profane and the apostate.[16] If anyone would be expected to enter, it would be a pious and devout Pharisee like Nicodemus. But Jesus confronts him in his self-righteousness and stresses that entrance into the kingdom is contingent upon being born of the Spirit. The verse contains ἐὰν with the subjunctive verb γεννηθῇ in the protasis followed οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν in the apodasis, which is a third class conditional statement stressing future potentiality.[17] The phrase indicates three things: (1) it stresses the necessity of being born ἄνωθεν as a condition for entrance into the kingdom; (2) it implies that Nicodemus is currently excluded from meeting this condition; (3) it communicates the potentiality by which Nicodemus may come to meet this condition, hinting at the hope of salvation despite his then current condition in spiritual darkness.[18] Ultimately, to “see” the kingdom of God is to enter it and experience it. Salvation and eternal life are experienced correlatively to the act of being granted admittance to the realm of the eschatological kingdom, and it is upon this admittance that the sinner comes under God’s reign of grace. The new birth is the key that opens the door to the kingdom.

Second, what does being born ἄνωθεν mean? Whether it is properly rendered “again” or “from above” or is a double reference to both is difficult to determine. There are weighty exegetical arguments for each of these possibilities.[19] Johannine usage of ἄνωθεν within this Gospel favors “from above,” since that is its indisputable meaning in other places (3:31; 19:11, 23 [“top”]). And James 1:17-18 speaks of being begotten by the will of God as an example of a good and perfect gift “from above” (ἄνωθεν)—a parallel too close to brush off as coincidental. Furthermore, in the immediate pericope, the Spirit is the agent of this supernatural birth (vv. 5, 6, 7, 8), and this Spirit himself comes from above as the ascension gift of the exalted Son, being sent from the Father and the Son to embrace the elect into communion with the Triune God (7:39; 15:26). However, we should note that Nicodemus understood Jesus to mean “again” as indicated by verse 4: “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’” What should we make of that? We must be careful not to put too much stock in what Nicodemus understood, because he is scolded in verse 10 for misunderstanding Jesus’s words. In the final analysis, I agree with Carson, who writes, “As he does with other terms, John may be choosing to extend double meaning to this one in John 3:3, 7, both ‘from above’ and ‘again’; he certainly does not mean less than the former.”[20] In other words, it is possibly a word play intended to be dual in meaning, but it certainly means at least “from above.”[21] Jesus is speaking of an intrusion of transformative life from “another realm” or sphere of existence due to heaven’s supernatural “intervention.”[22] Additionally, since it is a birth from above, and since one’s first and physical birth is obviously presupposed, it would be a given that it must be a second or new birth. In this sense, to be born “again” would be the implied secondary meaning regardless.

Now, that ἄνωθεν definitively carries the connotation of “from above” is of no small significance when it comes to the consideration of the agency by which this new birth is accomplished, for at least two reasons. Each of these is informed by another Johannine use of ἄνωθεν in this Gospel. First, just some verses later in 3:31, ἄνωθεν is used to described Jesus’s divine abode in heaven with the Father and the heavenly sphere as the origin of his incarnate mission in order to predicate of him the fact that he is “above all” (ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν).[23] In this verse, “from above” is antithetically juxtaposed with that which is “of the earth” or from it (ἐκ τῆς γῆς). If this use is to inform our text, then the birth “from above” in verse 3 is the birth that does not originate in anything earthly but is just as heavenly in its origination as is the mission of the Son himself. Likewise, that the new birth is “from above” denotes that it is beyond the scope, abilities, and power of the earthly to produce it. Fallen man with all his faculties—mind, soul, will—is incapable of concocting it (cf. 1:13). As verse 6 puts it, it is of the Spirit and not of the flesh. It must originate in a divine, supernatural, and heavenly source that altogether transcends all that man is in all his abilities. This use of ἄνωθεν in 3:31 informs its use in 3:3 and testifies to a divine and unilateral orientation in the alpha point from whence this new birth originates. Both verses use ἄνωθεν locally rather than temporally,[24] and both speak of the realm of heaven, where God’s perfect will is done (see Matt. 6:10), as the place in which is conceived the inception for the consequent manifestation of the divine will on earth.

Second, the use of ἄνωθεν in 19:11 lends further support to this. Jesus said to Pilate, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above.” The “power” or authority (ἐξουσία) Pilate had to exercise over Jesus on earth was “given” or granted (δίδωμι) ἄνωθεν, from the authority of the Father in heaven. The authority by which Pilate acted was derived from the sphere of that which absolutely transcended his earthly domain and into which he had no right to make any deliberation. Caesar did not even stand behind that authority as its ultimate wielder. Pilate was doing the bidding of the sovereign God. Again, we see ἄνωθεν used to describe that which is completely beyond the human and earthly sphere of existence, superseding man’s will and determinations. This use of ἄνωθεν also points to the sovereign agency of the divine will in fulfilling his eternal purpose and it attributes to this sovereign will total primacy over all the determinations of men (cf. Eph. 1:11).

Born of Water and the Spirit (John 3:5)

Many commentators, following the consensus of the ancients, argue that “water” (ὕδωρ) in verse 5 is a reference to baptism.[25] This could be a formidable obstacle to the present thesis, because baptism is a rite performed and requested voluntarily by men, subject to the exercise of human volition and even contingent upon it. While there have been many interpreters through the centuries who held to a monergistic baptismal regeneration, I believe such a position is untenable for at least two reasons: (1) Scripture nowhere teaches, and instead contradicts, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration;[26] and (2) introducing a human ceremony (that is at the discretion and power of fallible men) into the efficient or instrumental cause of regeneration would insert into the equation a principle of human participation, making it essentially synergistic in nature, thereby subverting the divine monergism of it all. This means that the possibility of a monergistic baptismal regeneration would be inherently inconsistent, even self-contradictory.

More conspicuously inconsistent is the view that interprets the “water” to be Christian baptism but denies that baptism is essential for salvation. This is often the interpretation when a prevailing evangelicalism prevents the interpreter from holding to baptismal regeneration, leading to a strained interpretation of the text that discards the absolute necessity of being born of water. One Wesleyan commentary reads, “The water [in v. 5] referred to the rite of baptism. Conversion was very closely associated with baptism in those early days, being synonymous in time. Baptism, which was a ritual cleansing, became associated with Christian conversion as the evidence of having accepted the Gospel.”[27] Theologically, this position is much to be preferred over that of baptismal regeneration.[28] But the problem with it is that the language of the text (also in v. 3) indicates that the birth in question, which is of water and the Spirit, is essential to salvation.[29] This commentator takes “water” to be baptism as mere ritual cleansing in believing expression of a converting act, but the very fact that he holds that the new birth is experienced independent of water baptism jettisons the absolute necessity of the “water” as a condition for entrance into the kingdom. The text does not allow for such dismissal of the necessity of the birth by water. This position practically relativizes and relegates to the category of nonessential that which Jesus expresses as absolute and as pertaining to the category of essential. So, I think that if baptism is in view, regeneration would be dependent upon it, and to be fully consistent, monergism would have to be cast aside in favor of some form of synergism which would esteem ecclesiastical rite as initiating or cooperating with grace in a way that is essential to salvation.

“What can we say in response to the suggestion that the water is baptism? It must be pointed out that Christian baptism had not yet been instituted by Christ. How could Christ reprimand Nicodemus’s ignorance to these things in verse 10 if verse 5 is a reference to Christian baptism? Would the perfect and just Son of God rebuke and condemn a rabbi for not knowing about an aspect of Christian worship that pertains to positive law that had not yet been revealed as the will of God for his people? It cannot be that Jesus would reprove him for not knowing what he could not have possibly known!

One commentary specializing in Patristics says, “obviously there is a quite special connection here with the Sacrament.”[30] But is it obvious? Actually, calling it “obvious” begs the question because it circumvents the need to provide meaningful Scriptural warrant for such an interpretation.[31] It seems to me that those who take this position assume it is the natural meaning of the term, but is that really in keeping with the apostle’s use of ὕδωρ in relation to πνεῦμα in this Gospel? Must we assume that when the “Spiritual Gospel” uses a term, the natural and physical referent is what is intended (i.e. literal water in baptism)? In the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood and he clarified that his words are πνεῦμα and not carnal (6:63). If the Gospel may be permitted to interpret itself by establishing the hermeneutics for the proper interpretation of its own terminology, there would be no reason to assume that the reference must be to the literal water of baptism by way of metonym.[32] In fact, interpreting this Gospel’s enigmatic expressions literally is generally an obstacle, a hindrance, and a stumbling stone to understanding the true, spiritual meaning of such expressions. In chapter 6, that kind of carnal hermeneutic led to such misunderstanding that it occasioned a terrible apostasy (6:66)!

A survey of the Fourth Gospel’s usage reveals that “water” is infused with spiritual meaning. In the narrative immediately following our passage in chapter 4, water is used as a metaphor for the life-giving, renewing, soteriological activity of the Spirit (vv. 10–24). It was the Samaritan woman’s error for her mind to go to natural water when Jesus said, “Give me a drink” (v. 7). The Lord intended to bring her to a deeper spiritual meaning. Natural water was not in view at all. In addition, there is a clear instance of “water” and “Spirit” being used in not only close proximity to one another but interchangeably in John 7:37:39, where we are told:

On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Here, “water” is, again, used as a metaphor for the Spirit’s life-giving, soteric activity in its distinctive new covenant fullness. These uses lead us to conclude that when the Fourth Gospel speaks of water in soteriological contexts, the primary referent does not have to do with literal water at all but is ordinarily a metaphor for the redemptive activity of the Spirit. This is John’s preferred or primary usage, and any interpretation that would negate this it bears the burden of proof.

Carson explains what Jesus meant, and he grounds his interpretation in the Hebrew Scriptures which Nicodemus, as “the teacher of Israel,” would have been expected to know:

“The ‘spirit’ is constantly God’s principle of life, even in creation (e.g. Gen. 2:7; 6:3; Job. 34:14); but many Old Testament writers look forward to a time when God’s ‘spirit’ will be poured out on humankind (Joel 2:28) with the result that there will be blessing and righteousness (Isa. 32:15–20; 44:3; Ezek. 39:29), and inner renewal which cleanses God’s covenant people from their idolatry and disobedience (Ezk. 11:19–20; 36:26–27). When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it habitually refers to renewal or cleansing, especially when it is found in conjunction with ‘spirit’. This conjunction may be explicit, or may hide behind language depicting the ‘pouring out’ of the spirit (cf. Num. 19:17–19; Ps. 51:9–10; Isa. 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Jer. 2:13; 17:13; Ezek. 47:9; Joel 2:28–29; Zech. 14:8). Most important of all is Ezek. 36:25–27, where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly.”[33]

All of the references cited are pertinent to the meaning in John 3:5. And Carson is right that the primary background text to which Jesus is alluding is Ezekiel 36:25-27, in which baptism is certainly not in view but the sprinkling associated with priestly cleansing as a type of inward, spiritual cleansing (cf. Num. 19:17–19; Isa. 52:15; Ps. 51:7; cf. Heb. 9:13–14; 10:22). Ezek. 36:25–27 and John 3:5 closely parallel one another: (1) both speak of water and the Spirit in close association;[34] (2) both treat of the same topic: regeneration; (3) both have in view the coming of the eschatological kingdom and what occurs in conjunction with it; (4) both stress the monergistic activity of God, each in its own respective context. After all, John 3:5 is to be interpreted by Ezekiel 36:25–27, where the divine oversight of the entire activity is prominent, and the “water” of which one must be born again is the internal purification from sin’s reigning and contaminating power by a God-induced act of pure grace. Far from speaking of a rite in which man obeys and cooperates with the divine will, “water” in John 3:5 speaks of the soteriological activity of the Spirit in the regenerating and sanctifying application of his gracious influence. And the Spirit’s sovereignty is stressed in the words that follow.

The Threefold Description of the Activity of the Spirit (πνεῦμα)

In verse 8, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ, καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλʼ οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει· οὕτως ἐστὶ πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος). “Spirit,” “wind,” and “breath” are the same word in Greek as they are in Hebrew (πνεῦμα; ר֖וּחַ). With this wordplay, the Lord uses the analogy of the wind to illustrate the activity of the Spirit in the new birth. In support of monergistic regeneration, several observations should be made according to the text’s threefold description of the wind as an illustration of the Spirit’s work in regeneration:

In the first place, the wind is independent of man in its operation. The text describes it as blowing where it “wills” (ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ), as if it had a will of its own. The Spirit breaths the life of new birth where he wills, according to his sovereignty in granting it as the efficient cause of regeneration. A.W. Pink said, “The wind…is sovereign in its action. The wind is an element altogether beyond man’s control. The wind neither consults man’s pleasure, nor can it be regulated by his devices. So it is with the Spirit. The wind blows where it pleases, when it pleases, as it pleases. So it is with the Spirit.”[35]

In the second place, though invisible, its effects become manifest when it operates. The text says, “you hear the sound of it.” Interestingly, its “sound” (τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ) can also be translated “voice” if the subject is personal. Just as the sound of the wind is manifest when it blows, the voice of the Spirit becomes manifest when he breathes to impart life from above. As the wind has a kind of efficacy to it, so the Spirit’s voice is efficacious when he calls the spiritually dead to life. He issues the inward call, and he imparts the effect by which one recognizes it and responds. John 6:46 presents an evident parallel to this truth: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.” Augustine commented, “Everyone who has learned from the Father not only has the possibility of coming, but actually comes!”[36]

 Third, the Spirit, like the wind, is mysterious in its operations. You “cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.” Not only is it unbounded, unconstrained, and ungoverned by man, it is not understood, especially before discoveries made by modern scientific advances, for the text must be understood in light of its context in the ancient world. The Puritan George Hucheson wrote, “As there is somewhat in the wind incomprehensible to natural reason…so in the Spirit’s working there is somewhat not only beyond the reach of natural reason, 1 Cor. ii. 14, but even above sanctified reason, as to know how he insinuates himself with the Word upon us, and frameth that hidden man of grace.”[37] God’s ways are above man’s ways, and his working in regeneration is beyond man’s ability to control it, coerce it, coordinate it, or comprehend it. Hucheson’s conclusion is fitting: “There are mysteries here to be adored, and calling for praise that he should work so admirably in us, rather than to be pried into.”[38]

Finally, we should not overlook the significance of the Spirit’s sovereign breath by which he “blows” (πνεω) and the Old Testament background of Jesus’s words. Just as Jesus alluded to Ezekiel 36 in John 3:5, so now he alludes to Ezekiel 37 in John 3:8.[39] The Lord said concerning the valley of dry bones, “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live” (Ezek. 37:5). The infusion of the divine ר֖וּחַ is reminiscent of the Lord God breathing into man’s nostrils the breath of life in the beginning (Gen. 2:7). In Ezekiel, this is a redemptive inbreathing of new-creational life by the inspired Word prophesied. The Lord God’s infusion of life-imparting breath brings the dead up from their graves and causes them to inherit the kingdom (Ezek. 37:13–14). Spiritual resurrection from death in sin is not all that is in view, but it is certainly included (cf. Eph. 2:1–3).[40] And the Lord glories in the fact that he, even he, had spoken it and performed it (Ezek. 37:14). William Greenhill said, “Here was a wonderful sudden change wrought with great facility. God can make the dry tree to flourish (Ezek 17:24), Aaron’s rod to bud and blossom, Sarah’s dead womb to conceive, rivers in high places and springs of water in dry lands (Is 41:18). If God speaks but the word, these things are done.”[41] The Lord’s voice even now raises the dead to life, for the “hour” already “is” (ἔρχεται ὥρα καὶ νῦν ἐστιν, John 5:25). One is born again through the living Word of God (διὰ λόγου ζῶντος Θεοῦ, 1 Pet. 1:23). The mighty wind blows where it wills as the Spirit’s efficacious voice energizes death to life by the Word.

The work is all of God, monergistic in nature, as the illustration of the valley of dry bones so clearly illustrates.[42] Grant Osborn comments on John 3:8: “The power of the Spirit in us is a mysterious force, and our job is simply to open our heart to him.”[43] No, actually, we cannot open our heart to him until he gives us a new heart and breathes life into our death. Our “job,” then, is no job, for we by nature are dead, unemployed, and out of commission. But thanks be to God that the Spirit moves in his mighty power to work in us that which we are incapable of working in or of ourselves.


John 3:1–10 testifies to a birth from above that is, by implication, a new and second birth which is entirely monergistic. Herman Ridderbos commented, “Only the Spirit, as the author of God’s renewing and redeeming work, makes alive, creates, and imparts life. But the Spirit does so in the way and manner of the Spirit (cf. 3:8). The flesh cannot touch it!”[44] Pelagianism is ruled out because the text speaks of supernatural cleansing and renovation performed by God, not by man. The new birth is not “turning over a new leaf” or a metaphor for moral reformation or external change of life. All of Nicodemus’s religious effort could not ensure his entrance into the kingdom; he needed new birth. Semi-Pelagianism is also excluded. We have seen that the new birth is God’s prerogative and is performed exclusively by him according to his initiative. Also, semi-Augustinianism is no more viable, because God does not just initiate the process of new birth, he actually begets us. Consistent Augustinian, Reformed monergism is the only position bolstered by the exegetical evidence in this passage. This is of utmost importance to maintain, because the purity of the gospel message is at stake. To the degree that we allow man’s will and abilities to intrude into the doctrine of regeneration’s cause, to that degree we undermine grace in salvation (see Rom. 11:6).

Sometimes it has been asked, “Was Christ a Calvinist?” The question is framed with a gross lack of reverence. Calvin was a Christian. And so is the Reformed tradition that follows the long line of godly men throughout the centuries who held to the primacy of grace in the contrivance, accomplishment, and application of man’s redemption. Christ our Lord taught with indisputable clarity that grace reigns with all primacy in the grand work of the Spirit’s re-creative fiat in the soul of a man.

We conclude with a word of admonition. Nicodemus was not alone in his need. What he needed is what everyone needs. Mere head knowledge of divine things will not suffice. It is possible to have a correct understanding of the of the new birth in the mind without having a personal knowledge of its gracious power in the heart. If we are to take seriously what Scripture teaches about salvation, it would lead us to assume that happily, there will be many synergists in heaven who trusted in Christ’s blood with a true and living faith, but sadly, there will also be many monergists in hell. The Lord may be merciful to our dullness in understanding spiritual truths, but he will not be merciful to anyone who faces the judgment seat without having been begotten from above. What matters most is not merely the doctrine of the new birth, but the power of it. J.C. Ryle gets to the heart of the issue:

“And now let us solemnly ask ourselves, Whether we know anything of the mighty change of which we have been reading? Have we been born again? Can any marks of the new birth be seen in us? Can the sound of the Spirit be heard in our daily conversation? Is the image and superscription of the Spirit to be discerned in our lives?—Happy is the man who can give satisfactory answers to these questions! A day will come when those who are not born again will wish that they had never been born at all.”[45]




[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Calvin and Calvinism, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 359.

[2] “The Canons of Dort,” Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The History of Creeds, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1878), 522-23.

[3] Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, in Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 5:359.

[4] Matthew Barrett, Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (Phillipsburg: NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2013), xxvii.

[5] Bruce Milne, The Message of John: Here Is Your King!: With Study Guide, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 74.

[6] For a helpful explanation, see Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1993), 264.

[7] As Augustine said, “The artificer knew what was in His own work better than the work knew what was in itself. The Creator of man knew what was in man, which the created man himself knew not.” Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. John Gibb and James Innes, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 75.

[8] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 103 [commentary on 3:1].

[9] Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 1–10, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), xix. Calvin appears to agree with this when he says, “The first three Gospels show [Christ’s] body, so to speak, but John shows his soul.” Quoted in Mark Water, The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations (Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd, 2000), 438.

[10] I would also add that, due to the God-breathed nature of the text, the authorial intent is twofold according to the human and divine authors. This twofold intent is intrinsically harmonious, but it does mean that the text of Scripture as the product of God’s mind has an unfathomable depth to it, and the full extent of its meaning in all its profundity transcended the human authors who were the instruments of its inscipturation.

[11] Gerald L. Borchert, John 1–11, vol. 25A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 169; J. Martin C. Scott, “John,” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 1169; et al.

[12] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 186.

[13] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Jn 3:2.

[14] Note that the Gospel begins in 1:1 with the words Ἐν ἀρχῇ, the very same words found in the beginning of the Septuagint’s version of the book of Genesis.

[15] Carson, The Gospel according to John, 188.

[16] Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 107.

[17] See the helpful discussion of conditional sentences in A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Logos Bible Software, 2006), 1004-1022.

[18] I may add that this establishes clear precedent and provides an indisputable warrant for stressing the necessity of the new birth in evangelistic appeals. Monergistic grace can and should be preached evangelistically, and the unregenerate should be pressed with the absolute dependence they have on the mercy of God to receive it.

[19] Those favoring “from above” include Rodney A. Whitacre, John, vol. 4, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 88; Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 107–108; A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), Jn 3:3; J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John, ed. Alan Hugh McNeile, International Critical Commentary (New York: C. Scribner’ Sons, 1929), 102; Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Jn 3:3. Commentators favoring “again” include Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 22: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 22 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 278; John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 1, 109; J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, vol. 1 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1879), 126–127; John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, vol. 1, The Baptist Commentary Series (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1809), 767–768. A dual reference is favored by Edward W. Klink III in John, ed. Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 196-97.

[20] Carson, The Gospel according to John, 189.

[21] Notably, BDAG takes it this way. See William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 92.

[22] Carson, The Gospel according to John, 190.

[23] There is debate about whether these words are intended to be attributed to John the Baptist or to the writer of the Gospel as narrator. I opt for the latter view, since it seems fitting to end the Baptist’s words at v. 30.

[24] John Peter Lange and Philip Schaff, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: John (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 125.

[25] Raymond Pickett et al., “Jesus and the Christian Gospels,” in The New Testament, ed. Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez, Fortress Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 275.

[26] Belief in the doctrine of baptismal regeneration motivated many church fathers to interpret the “water” of John 3:5 as a reference to baptism. E.g. Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 183. See Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 256, 307-309, 320, 461, 555, 608, 644, 762. For a Reformed and Baptist take, see C. H. Spurgeon, “Baptismal Regeneration,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 10 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1864), 313.

[27] Harvey J. S. Blaney, “The Gospel according to St. John,” in Matthew-Acts, vol. 4, The Wesleyan Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), 387.

[28] I say this because baptismal regeneration smacks of a sacramentally induced soteriology and introduces a principle of works into the nature of salvation that undermines the fact that it is all of grace (Eph. 2:8-9).

[29] Seeing the kingdom of God means to enter and experience God’s eschatological and Messianic kingdom in its redemptive modality. As we saw above, the need for the new birth (which is of water and the Spirit) is expressed with syntax that indicates that the new birth is a necessary condition for entrance into the salvation of the kingdom. If “water” means baptism, the view that baptism is not essential to the new birth simply does not accord with the syntax of the text. Being born of ὕδωρ is just as necessary for entrance into the kingdom as being born of πνεῦμα—they are inseparable conjoined in the protasis of v. 6, and upon the reality indicated by both of these terms the fulfillment of the apodosis is contingent.

[30] Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship, ed. Peter R. Ackroyd et al., trans. A. Stewart Todd and James B. Torrance, Studies in Biblical Theology (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1953), 76.

[31] The argument that the church fathers interpreted it this way is not an exegetical argument. It is not without significance, but it cannot be determinative for our interpretation of the passage if we believe in the unique authority and sufficiency of Scripture (sola Scriptura). I hold that church tradition is valuable to learn from as a testimony, but that testimony is fallible. Scripture alone is infallible and to it must be our final appeal to authority.

[32] Charnock said, “It is strange, that when all agree that the birth here spoken of is spiritual and metaphorical, that the water here should be natural.” Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864–1866), 12.

[33] Carson, The Gospel according to John, 194-195.

[34] In John 3:5, the phrase ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ Πνεύματος joings both water and Spirit under the same preposition,

[35] Arthur Walkington Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John (Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Depot, 1923–1945), 117.

[36] Quoted in Barrett, Salvation by Grace, 8.

[37] George Hucheson, Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1959), 44.

[38] Hucheson, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 44.

[39] Carson, The Gospel according to John, 195.

[40] “Whether it be a confirmation or no, it is without doubt a most lively representation of a threefold resurrection, besides that which it is primarily intended to be the sign of. (1.) The resurrection of souls from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, to a holy, heavenly, spiritual, and divine life, by the power of divine grace going along with the word of Christ, Jn. 5:24, 25. (2.) The resurrection of the gospel church, or any part of it, from an afflicted persecuted state, especially under the yoke of the New-Testament Babylon, to liberty and peace. (3.) The resurrection of the body at the great day, especially the bodies of believers that shall rise to life eternal.” Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1411.

[41] Quoted in Carl L. Beckwith, Timothy George, and Scott M. Manetsch, eds., Ezekiel, Daniel: Old Testament, vol. 12, Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 182.

[42] There is also an intertextual allusion between Genesis 2:7, Ezekiel 37, and John 20:22: “And when [Jesus] had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

[43] Grant R. Osborne, John: Verse by Verse, ed. Jeffrey Reimer et al., Osborne New Testament Commentaries (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 80.

[44] Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 246.

[45] Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, 1:123.