Three Things We Learn About the New Birth

from Jesus' Conversation with Nicodemus

by J.C. Ryle, adapted by
| Time: 9 Minutes

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter 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 marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
(John 3:5-8 ESV)

The conversation between Christ and Nicodemus is one of the most important passages in the whole Bible. Nowhere else do we find stronger statements about those two mighty subjects – the new birth, and salvation by faith in the Son of God.

The servant of Christ will do well to make himself thoroughly acquainted with this chapter. A man may be ignorant of many things in religion and yet be saved. But to be ignorant of the matters handled in this chapter is to be in the broad way which leads to destruction.

1. Your Start to the Christian Life Doesn’t Determine Your Finish

Notice what a weak and feeble beginning a man may make in religion and yet finally prove a strong Christian.

We are told of a certain Pharisee, named Nicodemus, who feeling concerned about his soul, “came to Jesus by night” (John 3:2 ESV). There can be little doubt that Nicodemus acted as he did from the fear of man. He was afraid of what man would think, say, or do if his visit to Jesus was known. He came “by night,” because he did not have enough faith and courage to come by day.

There was a time afterwards when this very Nicodemus took our Lord’s part in open day in the council of the Jews. He said, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7:51 ESV). Nor was this all.

There came a time when this very Nicodemus was one of the only two men who did honor to our Lord’s dead body (John 19:38-42). He helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus, when even the apostles had forsaken their Master and fled. His last things were more than his first.

Though he began badly, he ended well.

The history of Nicodemus is meant to teach us that we should never “despise the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10 ESV) in religion. We must not set down a man as having no grace because his first steps toward God are timid and wavering, and the first movements of his soul are uncertain, hesitating, and stamped with much imperfection.

We must remember our Lord’s reception of Nicodemus. He did not “break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick” (Matthew 12:20; Isaiah 42:3).

Like him, let us take inquirers by the hand and deal with them gently and lovingly. In everything there must be a beginning. It is not those who make the most flaming profession of religion at first who endure the longest and prove the most steadfast.

Judas Iscariot was an apostle when Nicodemus was just groping his way slowly into full light. Yet afterward, when Nicodemus was boldly helping to bury his crucified Savior, Judas Iscariot had betrayed him and hanged himself (Matthew 27:1-10)! This is a fact which ought not to be forgotten.

2. Every Christian Life Begins with a New Birth

We should notice what a mighty change our Lord declares to be needful to salvation, and what a remarkable expression he uses in describing it. He speaks of a new birth.

He says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). He announces the same truth in other words, in order to make it more plain to his hearer’s mind: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5 ESV).

By this expression, he meant Nicodemus to understand that “no one could become his disciple, unless his inward man was as thoroughly cleansed and renewed by the Spirit as the outward man is cleansed by water.” To possess the privileges of Judaism, a man only needed to be born of the seed of Abraham after the flesh. To possess the privileges of Christ’s kingdom, a man must be born again of the Holy Spirit.

What Is New Birth?

The change which our Lord here declares needful to salvation is evidently no slight or superficial one.

It is not merely reformation, amendment, moral change, or an outward alteration of life. It is a thorough change of heart, will, and character, a resurrection, a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), a passing from death to life (John 5:24), the implanting into our dead hearts of a new principle from above, the calling into existence of a new creature, with a new nature, new habits of life, new tastes, new desires, new appetites, new judgments, new opinions, new hopes, new fears. All this, and nothing less than this, is implied when our Lord declares that we all need a “new birth.”

Why We Need New Birth

This change of heart is rendered absolutely necessary to salvation by the corrupt condition in which we are all, without exception, born. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:3 ESV). Our nature is thoroughly fallen. The carnal mind is enmity against God. We come into the world without faith, love, or fear toward God. We have no natural inclination to serve him or obey him, and no natural pleasure in doing his will.

Left to himself, no child of Adam would ever turn to God. The truest description of the change which we all need in order to make us real Christians is the expression, “new birth.”

How the New Birth Happens

This mighty change, it must never be forgotten, we cannot give to ourselves. The very name which our Lord gives to it is a convincing proof of this. He calls it “a birth.”

No man is the author of his own existence, and no man can quicken his own soul. We might as well expect a dead man to give himself life, as expect a natural man to make himself spiritual. A power from above must be put in exercise, even that same power which created the world.

Man can do many things, but he cannot give life either to himself or to others. To give life is the peculiar prerogative of God. Well may our Lord declare that we need to be “born again!”

3. Every Christian Born of the Spirit Will Bear the Fruit of the Spirit

We should notice the instructive comparison which our Lord uses in explaining the new birth. He saw Nicodemus perplexed and astonished by the things he had just heard. He graciously helped his wondering mind by an illustration drawn from “the wind” (John 3:8 ESV). It’s impossible to conceive a more beautiful and fitting illustration of the work of the Spirit.

There is much about the wind that is mysterious and inexplicable. Our Lord says, “You do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8 ESV). We cannot handle it with our hands or see it with our eyes. When the wind blows, we cannot point out the exact spot where its breath first began to be felt, and the exact distance to which its influence will extend. But we do not on that account deny its presence.

It is just the same with the operations of the Spirit in the new birth of man. They may be mysterious, sovereign, and incomprehensible to us in many ways, but it is foolish to stumble at them because there is much we cannot explain.

Whatever mystery there may be about the wind, its presence may always be known by its sound and effects. “You hear its sound,” (John 3:8 ESV) says our Lord. When our ears hear it whistling in the windows and our eyes see the clouds driving before it, we do not hesitate to say, “There is wind.”

It is just the same with the operations of the Holy Spirit in the new birth of man. Marvelous and incomprehensible as his work may be, it is work that can always be seen and known. The new birth is a thing that “cannot be hidden.” There will always be visible “fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV) in every one that is born of the Spirit.

How Do I Know If I’m Born Again?

Would we know what the marks of the new birth are?

We shall find them already written for our learning in the 1 John. The man or woman born of God:

  • “believes that Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 5:1)
  • “does not keep on sinning” (1 John 5:19)
  • “keeps his commandments” (1 John 5:3)
  • “loves the children of God” (1 John 5:2)
  • “overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4)
  • “protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18)


This is the person born of the Spirit! Where these fruits are to be seen, there is the new birth of which our Lord is speaking. The person who lacks these marks is yet dead in trespasses and sins. ­

Have You Been Born Again?

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.

Yikes, you may think. Is Ryle being super harsh here? If you’re not born again, “you may wish you were never born at all.” Was Ryle being mean? No, we believe Ryle was being sincere here—he had the passion of a pastor deeply concerned for the eternal wellbeing of his listeners. He wants you to feel the weight of the necessity of the new birth. If you’re interested in what he truly means in that bold statement, explore our page, Is Hell in the Bible?

This article has been adapted from J.C. Ryle’s sermon, titled, A Conversation with Nicodemus. This originally appeared here.
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