8 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (James 1:18 NRSV)
It is in God’s purpose (previously discussed) that he gives birth by the word of truth. But what does James mean when he says this? First, let’s concentrate on birth; is there somewhere else that this obviously metaphorical birth is mentioned?
The first hint of this idea comes from Moses while he is complaining to God about the stubborn Israelites in Numbers 11:12,
12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth so You should tell me, ‘Carry them at your breast, as a nursing woman carries a baby,’ to the land that You swore to ⌊give⌋ their fathers? (HCSB)
What Moses is saying in rhetorical fashion is that he is not responsible for the people because he is not the one who conceived them in the first place; it was God who conceived them by implication. This is the right place to start, this metaphorical, spiritual birth is the work of God; Moses could never have gotten such a rebellious, stiff-necked people to follow him! God birthed the nation of Israel in the womb of slavery in Egypt and it would have to be God who made sure they took their baby steps to the Promised Land. This reading is confirmed through Isaiah the prophet:
3 “Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
carried from the womb;
4 even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save. (Isaiah 46:3-4 ESV)
The LORD intimately birthed Israel out of the sands of Egypt and even in the midst of her rebellion and her estrangement; God would continue to bear, carry, and save his people. So God not only initiates this birth, but he also completes it.
But there is another dimension to this spiritual birth, it is a birth that actually comes from death. The infamous passage in Ezekiel about God giving life to skeletal remains comes to mind,
3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 37:3-6 NRSV)
The nation of Israel was supposedly dead, but out of that graveyard, the LORD would call forth a remnant that he would personally clothe with spiritual life. This is the exact picture that the New Testament gives about the new birth.
The Apostle John in his prologue to his gospel writes,
12 But as many as received him—to those who believe in his name—he gave to them authority to become children of God, 13 who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a husband, but of God. (John 1:12-13 LEB)
And then later when relaying Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus,
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-7 NIV)
All three elements are in place: the initiation of God, the sufficiency of God, and the birth being a second birth because of spiritual death. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that one must providentially changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into something new, living, and different.
The Apostle Paul communicates this explicitly in two passages:
17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away—look, what is new has come! (I Corinthians 5:17 NET)
15 For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:16 NASB)
Both of these passages involve the passing away of the old and the expectation of something new! This new creation is to have a different mindset (Phil. 2:5-11), different desires (Galatians 5:18-26), and a different view of death and suffering (Hebrews 12:1-12). These things are supposed to distinguish us from the world and to make us more like our Father in heaven and conformed to our brother the Lord Jesus Christ.
So the birth described by James is 1) initiated by God, 2) completed by God, 3) a birth that comes out of death, and 4) the creature it births is something entirely new and set apart for God with new attitudes, desires, and perspectives on the world.
Are you a believer? Excellent! Do not think you made yourself one however, for even though you chose to follow Christ, you were also chosen. However, you believe this to be the case, the undeniable fact is that God initiated your salvation; you would only have found him had he wanted you to.
Also, your new spiritual birth and life is not maintained by you; stop trying to accomplish your own sanctification! The Spirit who justified you through the blood of Jesus Christ will also sanctify you by clothing you in the righteousness of Jesus Christ! You cannot make yourself holy, you must draw from the holiness that is already yours in Jesus Christ.
Like it or not, you were spiritually dead before God called you to life by the Holy Spirit. Though I am not a Calvinist, I do believe that without the active work of the Spirit no one can become a believer. Our spiritual death makes us unable to seek God without the acting and wooing of the Holy Spirit; those opportunities are not guaranteed and if you are outside of the kingdom you need to act on his calling today! You may not be spiritually able to repent later.
If you claim to be a believer, you are something entirely new; the path of your life that was once on a steam-rail to sin and hell is now picking up momentum toward the other direction. You should be constantly renewed and brought to repentance as you encounter God in his words and in his Word. Your life should be different than your pagan neighbor; I am not going to tell you what that means because the standard is written in Scripture and mediated by the Holy Spirit. I am just saying that your life should look more and more like your Savior’s and if it isn’t…then you have a problem. Every believer is predestined to be conformed into the image of Jesus Christ; you are not an exception.
This birth, this new spiritual resurrection and beginning, comes to us through the “word of truth.” What is this “word of truth?”
That will have to wait till next time.