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Born to Believe
A Study in God's Initiative in Salvation

John 1:11-13

"He came unto His own, and His own did not receive Him.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God,
even to those who believe in His name;
who were born,
not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man,
but of God."

Christ Rejected

"He came unto His own, and His own did not receive Him."

This is one of those familiar verses which is not often fully appreciated. Generally, the verse is viewed as an historical statement only. That is, when this verse is read in preaching, often all that follows is an explanation of the rejection of Jesus by the nation of Israel in the days of His flesh. Sad and unexplainable as it was, He was rejected.

There is no question at all that this is what the verse says. But it seems that John is intending by that statement to say much more something which he emphasizes again and again throughout his Gospel.

Let me put it this way: John's statement, historical though it is, is more than an historical statement. It is a theological statement. His point is not merely that Israel rejected Jesus. No, his point is thatman rejects God.

Now in a sense this is not a profound point at all. You don't have to observe this world very long at all before you notice that this is a point of theology that is as obvious as anything can be. This universal rejection of God is due in part to man's natural blindness. That is, there is on the part of natural man a kind of inability to rightly understand and appreciate the things of God. In fact, this is precisely how the apostle Paul says it in 1 Cor. 2:14.

The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

In other words, the things of God are of another character, another realm entirely; they are "spiritual," and man in his "natural" state just cannot make sense of it all. In "the futility of his mind," man is so "ignorant" (Eph. 4:17) of the things of God that he simply is unable to grasp, let alone appreciate, the gospel of Christ.

Paul speaks like this in 2 Cor. 4:4 also. Those who do not believe the gospel are those "whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them." Satan has so effectively worked in the hearts and minds of all men that they are unable to "see" the true value of Jesus Christ.

Jesus spoke like this also. In John chapter 8, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees, who are persistent and stubborn in their unbelief and rejection of Him. But what is significant is the way Jesus characterizes the reason for their unbelief: "Because I tell you the truth, you do not believe me" (v. 45). Fascinating, isn't it. "Because I tell you the truth you do not believe me." You might wish that He could say, "If I tell you a lie, you will not believe me." But no; they reject Him precisely because He tells them the truth.

If you have attempted to witness the gospel to a friend, you have experienced this. If you would tell them that they will be saved if they but keep the ten commandments, they will believe that. If you tell them that they will be saved if they but "do their best," they will believe that also despite the fact that no one yet has done "his best." If you tell them that they will be saved if they are "sincere," they will believe that. But tell them that their sin has alienated them from God so drastically that only Christ can save them and that only in His death can they find sufficient payment for sin and that they may have all the saving blessings of Christ's person and work freely by faith, and they will not believe you. Amazing. "Because I tell you the truth, you do not believe me."

You don't have to analyze this very long before you realize that the problem is not a rational one! No, the gospel is just too simple and makes too much sense for the problem to be a rational one. Man's problem is not that he cannot understand the gospel message. He can intellectually grasp that sin demands penalty and that God has sent His Son to pay that penalty and that salvation may be his by faith in Him. That is not difficult to understand. His problem is much deeper.

The reason people reject God is that they want to. The problem is in their will. They are biased against Him. People are not looking for God, really; they are looking to be rid of Him. They are ignorant of Him, to be sure, but they are willfully ignorant. "His own did not receive Him" because they would not have Him.

John emphasizes this at some length. "This is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed" (John 3:19-20).

That is, their love is misplaced instead of loving God they love their sin, and this explains their bias against Him. This is why they will believe a lie but not the truth of the gospel. The world "hates" Christ (John 7:7; 15:18) and wants nothing to do with Him. Yes, to be sure, they are glad to have a Jesus of their own making one who is more tolerant of sin and less restricting, one who allows us to walk the "broad road" rather than a narrow one. This kind of Jesus they are happy with, a Jesus who will "save" them by their own good works, however few their good works may be. But the real Christ who demands surrender and submission no, they are not interested in Him. "They will not come to the light."

"So deep is their hatred for me," Jesus says, "that they will rejoice when my people weep" (John 16:20). They are "enemies" of Christ (Rom. 5:10). They are "children of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2), naturally inclined away from God. Their natural disposition is to disobey Him, not to trust Him and obey Him. There is a natural hostility against God on the part of natural man, and this is true of all people everywhere (Eph. 2:1-3). Man rejects God.

The question often arises regarding the heathen who have never heard the gospel. Are they lost? Must they be condemned? But the question assumes too much it assumes that people are innocent until they have heard the gospel preached, and only when they reject it are they guilty. Paul deals with this at some length in Romans 1:18-32. There he explains that all people everywhere, however remote the place in which they live, have some degree of knowledge. They know right from wrong, and they know there is the true God and that they are obliged to worship Him. But what have they done? People universally have suppressed what they know to be true and right and have turned to gods of their own making. Their problem is not ignorance; their problem is rebellion. Man has a natural hostility toward the things of God.

And so man is blind and willfully so. It is his very nature to reject God. And in this condition he is as bad off as he can be. He is helpless. "No man can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him," Jesus said (John 6:44). It is something altogether beyond him. He needs Me, and unless he comes to Me he will perish. But come to me is precisely what he is unable to do. It is not within him.

And so as I say, man in his natural condition is as bad off as he can possibly be. He loves his sin, he is lost, and he is unwilling to be otherwise. This is what theologians have called "total depravity." "Total depravity" does not mean that all people are as bad as they can possibly be; everyone could be worse! No, it means that all people are as bad off as they can possibly be. They are lost, sinful, and unwilling to be anything else. This is their nature.

And so John 1:11 is a theological statement that meets up exactly with everyday experience. It was the story then, and it is the story today. Man rejects God. You see it virtually every time you witness.

Christ Received!

"But to as many as received Him,
to them He gave the right to become the children of God,
even to those who believe on His name."

With this verse John turns to a happier theme indeed. Christ is offered to all, and all who come to Him are given the very highest of blessings: they become "children of God." By their association with the Lord Jesus, God's Son, they become children of God also. And with sonship come the wonderful blessings of love, acceptance, access, safety, provision, guidance, care, and all that children receive from a good father.

And all this is ours simply by faith "even to those who believe on His name." We needn't work to make ourselves acceptable. No, we come claiming the sufficiency of Christ's work, relying on Him to save us. We "believe on His name."

And notice the freeness and the extent of the offer: "as many as received Him." Any and all who are willing to come to Christ may have Him and find in Him the great salvation which only He can give. All who trust Him have eternal life.

That's Impossible!

Do you detect a problem here? How does verse 12 follow verse 11? How can we have both a statement of universal rejection of Christ and a statement of His universal availability? Or perhaps better, how can anyone get out of verse 11 into verse 12? It is plain in verse 12 that some did believe, but how did they?

So verse 12 presents us with an interesting situation. Here are people who like all others were blinded by Satan, loved their sin, and were naturally hostile enemies of God. Like all others they were unable and unwilling to be anything but what they were sinners without Christ. Yet the verse tells us that some, in fact, believed and were saved! How can we explain that? How do people who hate Christ all of a sudden love Him?

This would seem to be an impossibility. To believe on Christ is to act contrary to fallen human nature! It is not "natural" for men to believe; their nature leads them to reject Christ, not to trust Him. But they did, in fact, believe! How can we account for it?

It seems evident that in order for a man to turn to Christ in true saving faith, there must be a whole reconstitution of his entire being. His whole makeup must be made over! In sin and under Satan he is constituted such that he will not come to Christ. To do so, he would have to be made all over again into something other than what he is.

Put another way, in order for a man to believe in Christ, he would have to be born all over again. And this is what verse 13 tells us exactly: these people who believed "were born." This is the doctrine of regeneration that God remakes us entirely and gives us new life in His Son. This is how they believed they were "born again" (John 3:3).

But How?

"Who were born,
not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man,
but of God."

Now that raises another question: How can that happen? How can a man receive new life?

Throughout the history of the church many answers have been offered to that question, and they all remain today. The Roman Catholic will say that in the waters of baptism original sin is washed away, and we are born anew. This is called baptismal regeneration.

In the early centuries a monk by the name of Pelagius taught that regeneration was solely an act of the human will. Regeneration is nothing more than moral reformation turning over a new leaf, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. This (Pelagianism) is the view of modern liberal protestantism that man is good enough. He needs only to improve, and this he has the power to do. This we may call self regeneration.

Semi-Pelagianism, as you may guess, holds that man of himself does not have total power to come to God, but he is able to cooperate with divine grace. The key to this teaching is "free will." Man is not good enough, this system teaches, but he is almost good enough. His will is not so affected by sin that he cannot determine within himself to cooperate with the general workings of God in humanity and so be born again.

Arminianism holds that man is not good enough, but by the death of Christ he is rendered able. Men are not good enough of themselves, but all men are able to cooperate with God because their will is now "free." They may choose to incline their wills for God or against Him; the choice is entirely up to them. By our free will we believe, and God in return regenerates us. So according to Arminianism, man is not good enough, but he is able.

Over against all these is the answer of what is known as Calvinism. Calvinism teaches that if a man believes it is due only to the working of God within him enabling him to believe and be saved. Man does the believing, yes; but it is God and not the man who inclines the will to do so. Regeneration is solely an act of God; it is a work of His to which we contribute nothing. There is no cooperation; there is no response on God's part. The response is on our part. He regenerates, and so we believe. In other words, there is nothing natural about it, only supernatural. Man is neither good enough nor able. God does the regenerating of His own free will.

Now you can see from all this that, basically, there are only two suggestions given: 1) Man in one way or another cooperates with the Divine process in the new birth either by baptism or by the exercise of his own will, or 2) Man in no way cooperates, but it is all entirely of God.

Which is it? How do we come to faith? And how are we born again? Are we born again because we believe? Or do we believe because we are born again?

Notice verse 13 again. These who believed "were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." Notice how John systematically rules out virtually every suggestion offered but one.

Not of Blood

First, John says, we are not born again by blood that is, by physical descent. Did you ever meet a person who was proud of his family tree in a spiritual sense? There are many people who are sure that they have eternal life because their parents were good Christians and their grandparents and great grandparents before them! A "Christian" family! You witness to them, and it is difficult, because they think they are already saved. They came by it naturally!

Jesus confronted this with the Jewish leaders of His day. They were sure that because they were "Abraham's descendants" their good standing with God was sure (John 8:33). They assumed that since the promises were made to Abraham and his seed, and since they were his seed, they were safe. Interestingly, in the conversation that follows Jesus tells them that they are not the true children of Abraham but rather the children of Satan (v. 44). And in response they attempted to kill him (v. 59). Clearly, physical descent, no matter how illustrious, cannot guarantee salvation.

Jesus instructed Nicodemus similarly. Though he was the noted and respected Pharisee, he like all others was but fallen and sinful man. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh" (John 3:3). It may be beautiful flesh. It may be very religious flesh. But it is still flesh, and nothing more. Physical birth never gave spiritual life to anyone. Ultimately, it has never mattered who your parents are. Many an evil son has had a godly father. A godly heritage, privilege as that is, is no guarantee of salvation.

The new birth does not arise naturally out of physical descent. It is "not of blood."

Nor of the Will of the Flesh

Next John says that those who believe were not born "of the will of the flesh" (v. 13). When John speaks of "flesh" he generally has in mind "humanity." The thought is no more complex than that. This is seen in the very next verse: "The Word was made flesh"; that is, He became human. "Flesh" indicates humanity.

So when John says that the new birth is "not of the will of the flesh" he means that the new birth never arose out of inclinations of human will. No one ever willed himself into becoming a new creature. Again, "That which is born of flesh is flesh" (3:6). No one by act of his will ever made himself anything other than what he already was. In the language of Jesus, "No one has ascended to heaven" (3:13). The new birth does not arise out of man's will.

What does this say, then, about "free will"? If a man cannot be born "of the will of the flesh," is his will free? First, we must understand that "free will" is theological jargon. It is not Biblical language exactly but theological language which men have employed to describe what they believe about man's abilities. So before we can give a Biblical evaluation of "free will" we must understand what the term means.

If by "free will" is meant that people are free to do what they want to do, that of course is obviously correct. Everyone is free to do what he wants to do, without coercion from without. Man is free to follow the inclinations of his desires. In that sense he is "free."

But having assumed this much, it seems that most who use the term then smuggle in an idea of ability the notion that a man's will is capable of turning him to God. The idea generally taught is that man, in reference to God, is in a kind of moral neutrality. He is free and able to choose either for God or against Him. It is entirely his choice, and if he chooses for God that is, if he will believe he will be born again.

That notion of "free will" is clearly unbiblical. Those who believe "were born . . . not of the will of man." "No man can come to me unless the Father draw him" (John 6:44). "The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7). "It is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy" (Rom. 9:16). Man is not neutral; we saw that in verse 11. Man rejects God. It is his nature to disobey. Yes, a man is entirely "free" to do what he wants to do, but his "want to" is corrupt! "Men love darkness rather than light . . . and do not come to the light" (John 3:19-20). Man's will is such that left to his own freedom he will choose against God and will not believe. This is why John insists that the new birth is "not of the will of the flesh."

Given man's disposition in sin, he will go on refusing God. So much of present day Evangelicalism assures listeners, "If you believe you can be born again." But this is all completely contrary to so much of the Bible and this verse in particular. Those who believe are not born again as a result of their will. It is "not of the will of the flesh."

Indeed, the whole idea that man can somehow cooperate in his own regeneration is foolish. If we could turn to Christ in order to be born again, why would we need to be born again? Is man free? yes! He is free to do whatever he wants. But this is his problem he wants his sin. He "loves darkness" (3:19). His will is only human and sinfully human at that.

In other words, we must somehow get help! What we need is rescue. What we are capable of doing is not sufficient to meet the need. If regeneration awaits the positive exercise of our wills, we will all perish.

Nor of the will of man

John works this out further. Those who believe were not born of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, "nor of the will of man." But how is "the will of man" different from "the will of the flesh"? Actually, there is no difference at all, and John may simply here be emphasizing the fact that man's will cannot effect the new birth.

But it is likely that John is making a narrow distinction here. The new birth cannot arise out of your own activity ("not of the will of the flesh"), nor can it arise from the activity of others ("nor of the will of man"). That is, just as the new birth cannot arise from your will, so also it cannot arise from the activity of, say, a priest sprinkling water on your head. Nor can it arise from the clever tactics of some manipulative preacher who talks you into a "decision." No, the new birth does not arise out of anything human.

Now you see that what John has done here is to systematically rule out everything human. The New Birth has nothing whatever to do with anything we do or will. There is nothing whatever we can do to effect it; there is no room for cooperation of any kind. You cannot do it. Your father or mother cannot do it for you. Your priest cannot do it for you. Your pastor cannot do it for you. The new birth does not come as the result of anything human.

But of God!

But then where does that leave us? How then can a man be born again. To return to our initial question, how can a man get from verse 11 into verse 12 from a natural rebel to a believer?

John provides the answer: these who believe "were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (v. 13). What no man is able to do, God is able to do.

This is the message of the entire Bible. You remember how Jesus said it to his disciples. After a rich man went sorrowfully away from Jesus, our Lord remarked that it would be "easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved." This puzzled the disciples. "Who then can be saved?" they asked. How did Jesus answer? Did He say, "Anyone can be saved if they will simply make a decision, exercise their will toward me positively!" No. "Who then can be saved?" Answer: "With man it is impossible, but not with God" (Matt. 19:16-26). That is to say, this is something altogether beyond us. It is entirely out of our reach. If we are to be born anew, it will be only the result of God's will and activity. We who believe "were born of God."

James said this also. "Of His own will He begat us by the Word of truth" (Jas. 1:18). It never could and never would arise out of our wills, depraved as we are. If this blessing is to be ours, it will be only because God has so willed it. Our "free will" took us all our lives away from Christ "we all like sheep went astray; every one of us turned to his own way" (Isa. 53:6). "None seek after God" (Rom. 3:10). It was God's free will which initiated our salvation and brought us to life so that we would believe. Again, we who believe "were born of God."

To believe in Christ unto salvation requires much more than anything human life can produce. It is not a matter of ridding ourselves of our worst habits. It is not a matter of moral improvement. It requires such a drastic, such a thorough-going transformation that it cannot be brought about by anything we do or will. It is not a matter of human excellence; it is a matter of divine grace.

And so the Biblical writers are careful to tell us not only that "it is not of him that wills or of him that runs," but also that "it is of God who shows mercy" (Rom. 9:16). They tell us not only that we must believe, but that "God works within us both to will and to do of His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). They tell us not only that we cannot do anything to birth ourselves into God's family but also that God in Christ and by His Spirit does for us what we would not and could not do ourselves. They tell us that those who savingly confess Christ do so only "by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3). True confession of faith in Christ is something that is entirely beyond us until we are so enabled by God the Spirit.

In other words, all this comes down to that one big word which we find everywhere in the Bible, and that word is grace. Salvation comes to us entirely from God's side. "Salvation is of the Lord" (Jonah 2:9). It is His doing for us not because of us or even with us. It is His doing for us and in us. It is all a work of His grace; it all stems from His loving kindness.

Theology Meets Experience

This is illustrated for us in Acts 16:14 where Luke records the conversion of Lydia in Philippi. Paul preached, and the ladies all listened. But only Lydia believed. And why did she believe? Luke tells us: "The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul."

Paul gives this testimony exactly. He explains that his view of God and religion took him ever further away from Him, and there he would have continued if it were not for the fact that God was pleased "to reveal His Son in me" (Gal. 1:15-16). God did not reward Paul for a positive act of will. No, God interrupted Paul's will and graciously turned him around.

Paul explains that this experience of his is true of all who have believed. All of those who do not believe are "blinded" by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4) and continue in darkness just as long as Satan is permitted to blind them. But then how did we all come to faith? What is it that dispelled the darkness? Paul answers:

"For it is the God who commanded the 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).

At the original creation "God said, 'Let there be light!' and there was light" (Gen. 1:3), and so also in this "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17) it is God who creates out of nothing and imparts new life to us who without such blessing would continue in our sin and perish.

All Christians, even Arminian Christians, sing this theology all the time, and well they should:

"Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear!"

It was not our own will; it was God's grace.

Salvation is entirely of grace. Left to ourselves we would all very naturally wander off into perdition. Like all the rest, we too were "children of disobedience" (Eph. 2:1-3). The whole glory of our salvation is that God did not leave us to ourselves or to our own plans. He graciously interrupted us on our mad rush to hell. He sovereignly implanted within us a new principle of life, and by that He made us to see the suicidal folly of our way and the glory and value of Jesus Christ. Then He wooed our renewed affections and overwhelmed us with a sense of His love, and by grace he drew us to Christ where with all our hearts we believed unto salvation.

"I sought the Lord, but afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him seeking me!
It was not I that found thee Savior true!
No, I was found of thee!"

Nor is this is abstract theology. This is the testimony of every true believer. Only this explains the surprising nature of our conversion. We were all content in our own ways some deep in immorality, others deep in crime, others deep in religion, but all of us equally lost. But we all confess that suddenly we were no longer content in our sin. Suddenly there was a great sense of despair. Suddenly there was an awful fear of God and of judgment. And suddenly this Jesus for whom we cared nothing became to us our only goal an ambition, and we went running to find Him and in Him the safety from sin which only He can give.

What made the change? Is it really the result of the positive exercise of our own will? No! We all know, instinctively even, that this is all due to God's special workings of grace. We may not have understood it in these terms at the time, but we understand it well when we read John telling us that we who believe, "were born of God."

And this is life's most important lesson that salvation is of God; that what He requires of us is far more than we can ever do; but that what He requires of us He does for us in grace.

Making it Personal

My friend, you need much more than your will can ever provide. Your hope does not lie in your will or anything else about you. Your hope does not lie in your heritage or in your experience in religious things. What you need is a Savior who is able to rescue you from yourself and your sin. And this is precisely what God freely gives us in grace. Your salvation is all of Him.

What does this do to our pride? Can we boast that our salvation was "our decision"? No. Can we boast that we were wise to make the right choice? No. All of our boasting must be directed to "Him who called us out of darkness, into His marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9). "He who glories, let him glory in the Lord" (1 Cor. 1:13). "For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7). We all must confess with the apostle Paul, "I am what I am by the grace of God" (1 Cor. 15:10). It was not our will but His.

Reflecting on our own experience in grace we can well understand why John, Paul, and all the Biblical writers love to rejoice in this great truth. Like ancient Israel we too naturally refused God; we "would not receive Him" (John 1:11). The gospel of grace came to us promising life in God's Son (v. 12), but we would have nothing to do with it until God came to us in grace and brought us to life and faith in His Son (v. 13) so that in Him we would be made sons also. This is our testimony, and we love to tell it.