Nicodemus was a prominent Jewish leader who came to Jesus under cover of darkness. He wanted to find out more about this new rabbi who had come to town. Jesus was proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, but no one can see it until he or she is born from on high.
“Tell me more,” Nicodemus said. Jesus explained, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
That phrase “Spirit gives birth to spirit” can have revolutionary meaning today for traditional Christians from mainline churches.
An appropriate translation of the key verb is “the Holy Spirit influences human spirit.” Human spirit is one of the words the Bible uses for “soul” or “heart” or “inner being.” A modern equivalent is “motivation.” The Spirit can and will change the motivations of those who are open to him.
The annual New Year’s resolutions many make show that most people want to change something about how they live. They know the behaviors they want, but their key problem is motivation. I’ve read that the only eight percent fulfill their resolution. A biblical understanding of the Holy Spirit would hold out the hope that the Spirit can really change their personal motivation for better follow-through. The Spirit works his changes best in the context of believers who share God’s word and are in a fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
What’s revolutionary is to recognize that the supernatural can intervene in the natural. John Calvin taught that we can no longer expect miracles to happen. They were needed in Bible times but don’t happen anymore. Few educated Protestants in our modern era are willing to recognize the miraculous. I like the definition of a miracle as an extraordinary event for which there is no natural explanation. After years of searching, I have come to believe that indeed miracles do happen in our times. More on that later in Do Supernatural Miracles Really Happen?
Once you change your worldview to recognize that the supernatural God can intervene in natural life, you can appreciate the significance of Jesus’ claim that the Holy Spirit actually changes the motivations of real live people today. Paul tells us that the product of the Spirit’s work is the fruit described in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Who would not want more of such fruit? Who would not want to live with more love, joy, or peace? In discussions I’ve led, the first choice for most is patience.
What are those Spirit-influenced characteristics? Usually, they have been regarded as virtues. They are then preached as behaviors we are each to pursue in our Christian living. I think they are better described as feelings or affections. Out of changed affections and motivations come virtuous behaviors. The motivations are more important than how these express themselves in specific behaviors in daily living.
The core of the biblical Gospel is that we can claim life everlasting through the salvation won by Christ’s death and resurrection. Consider how belief in the Spirit’s intervention into our human spirit really amounts to additional Good News for living in this world. We are not on our own to become the person God wants us to be. His Spirit helps us. Jesus said he will not leave us orphans (John 14: 18).
The Kingdom of God Jesus preached will be fulfilled in the next life for believers because of what Jesus did. It is initiated in this life because of what the Spirit does.
What a wonderful double Gospel. Actually, recovering the Spirit’s present work amounts to recovering the original but now forgotten Gospel.
For a discussion of the dominant world view today and the new worldview emerging among well-educated Christians today, see my 2014 book Your Encounters with the Holy Spirit: Name and Share Them—Seek More.