The work of the Spirit is so mysterious we should not try to pin it down. We should and must affirm that it is, that new life has been given. We should and must affirm who gives new life (the Holy Spirit). We should and must affirm the necessity of new life. Our Lord could not be clearer: “You must be born again.” It is not possible to enter into the Kingdom of God without this sovereign, unconditional work of the Spirit. One in whom the Spirit has not so worked, upon whom the Spirit has not conferred new life, has no interest in God’s kingdom but we should not be more precise than our Lord. Rather, we should rejoice in the mystery of sovereign grace.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus *said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (NASB95; John 3:1–8).
“I was saved in…” or “I was born again in…” are both sentiments regularly expressed by well-meaning evangelicals. They mean to testify to the power of the Lord to save and to the reality of salvation in our time. We should affirm that both statements are mistaken. First, all believers were saved when Jesus died and was raised from the dead. That is the decisive accomplishment of salvation. What people mean by the expression “I was saved in…” is “I was given new life in such and such a year” or “the Holy Spirit applied to me Christ’s work for me in such and such a year.” Now these expressions are more accurate but they remain somewhat problematic. The same applies to the expression, “I was born again in such and such a year.”
Again, we trust that believers are affirming that they were given new life by the sovereign grace and power of the Holy Spirit. We should affirm this but the idea that a believer knows precisely when the Holy Spirit did his mysterious applying work is still a bit presumptuous. According to our Lord Jesus in John 3 and the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:1–4, we know that the Holy Spirit has worked sovereignly, powerfully, wonderfully to raise us from spiritual death to spiritual life (to use the imagery to Ephesians 2), we know that the Holy Spirit has given us life from above or again (ἄνωθεν). The word our Lord uses in John 3 can mean both things and John regularly writes in a way that requires us to consider two senses at the same time. This may well be one of those cases.
From our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus (who came to Jesus late at night so as not to lose his social position in the Jewish leadership) we know without question that new life or regeneration is something that God endows. Our Remonstrant (Arminian) friends are, if you will excuse the pun, dead wrong. God does not elect those whom he knows will believe. We come to faith because we are elect. We believe only because we have been sovereignly, unconditionally given new life and true faith. Regeneration is the free, sovereign gift of God. This is a biblical basic. It comes from above, i.e., from the Holy Spirit. This we know from John 3 and many other passages (e.g., Romans 9).
The temptation, however, in asserting the sovereign grace of God is to go beyond what Scripture says, to go beyond what may be inferred by good and necessary consequence, to infer that we know exactly when the Spirit worked. According to the Lord Jesus, in fact, we do know when the Spirit worked. This is why he said, “You do not know whence it comes and whither it goes.” In our enthusiasm to affirm the one truth we should not stumble into what I call “the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty,” which, in this case, is a claim of certainty where godly uncertainty, godly agnosticism, is the order of the day.