Finally Alive (Book Highlights)
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.
by John Piper
In his book Finally Alive, John Piper aims to recover a phrase that has lost some of its power—“born again.” These days, being “born again” is often equated with attending church, but the term itself has entered popular culture and often refers to any mystical experience or new lease on life. Piper reminds his readers that being born again is not merely flowery language, but describes the crucial moment of salvation. He sets out to describe the new birth by answering a series of questions:
- What is the new birth?
- Why must we be born again?
- How does the new birth come about?
- What are the effects of the new birth?
- How can we help others be born again?
What is the new birth?
Piper begins by exploring the story of Jesus and Nicodemus from John 3, the most famous instance of the born again language in Scripture. Using this conversation as a template for new birth, Piper answers his first question—What is the new birth? As Piper describes it, the new birth is an act of the Holy Spirit, not of an individual person. When we say that a person has been born again, we mean that the Holy Spirit has supernaturally intervened in their lives to give them new life.
The new life that the Spirit gives to believers is not just a feeling or a renewed vigor to live rightly—the life which the Spirit gives is Jesus Christ himself. What Jesus offered Nicodemus and what we receive when we are born again is the new life of Christ. This means that we do not just experience an improvement on our previously broken selves; we become an entirely new person, still recognizable, yet completely changed. As Piper writes, this new self is “a nature that is really you, and is forgiven and cleansed; and a nature that is really new, and is being formed by the indwelling Spirit of God” (28).
Why must we be born again?
Why must the cure for our situation be as radical as a new birth? Piper asks, “Do we really need to be changed? Can’t we just be forgiven?” (48). To answer this, he turns to a litany of biblical passages to highlight the hopeless situation of those without the new life of Christ. From Ephesians, he notes that apart from the new birth, we are dead in trespasses, are by nature children of wrath, and are slaves to Satan. From Romans, he points out that apart from the new birth, we are slaves to sin, unable to submit to God. From the gospel of John, he shows that apart from the new birth, we are unable to come to Christ because we love darkness and hate the light. The overwhelming sensation is that human life outside of the new birth is really no life at all. A new birth is absolutely necessary.
How does the new birth come about?
As the imagery of birth shows, there is a certain passive element to being born again. It is the primary work of the Holy Spirit, and a person has as much control over being born as a physical child does in childbirth. Yet Piper balances the work of the Spirit with the simultaneous action that occurs in the life of the individual—faith in Christ. The new birth comes about because of the work of the Spirit, but from our perspective, we see evidence of the new birth when a person places their faith in Christ. As Piper explains it, “Our first experience of this [new birth] is the faith in Jesus that this life brings. There is no separation of time here. When we are born again, we believe. And when we believe, we know we have been born again. When there is fire, there is heat. When there is new birth, there is faith” (78). Piper acknowledges that this balance reflects a mystery, but that this accurately reflects the biblical depiction of the new birth.
The new birth that God creates in believers is part of the broader work of God in renewing and restoring all of his fallen creation. The new life of Christ that springs up in believers is like a down-payment, a promise of the future regeneration of both our bodies and this physical world. The new birth is “the first installment of what’s coming.” New birth gives us the confidence that “God’s final purpose is not spiritually renewed souls inhabiting decrepit bodies in a disease and disaster-ravaged world. His purpose is a renewed world with renewed bodies and renewed souls that take all our renewed senses and make them a means of enjoying and praising God” (89).
All of this regeneration occurs as a result of the character of God, not because of any worthiness in creation or in us. The result of the new birth is our faith in Christ, not the other way around. “In other words,” he writes, “‘hearing with faith’ is what happens when we are ‘born again through the living and abiding word of God.’ The gospel—the news about Jesus Christ—is preached, we hear it, and through it we are born again. Faith is brought into being” (114).
What are the effects of the new birth?
Piper draws eleven principles from the book of 1 John to illustrate how the life of believers differs from the life of non-believers. Most importantly, those who are born of God believe in Jesus and love other people. Faith in Christ stands above our love for others, since our love may waver, but believers can always trust in the unchanging Christ. “Even if you have failed to love as you ought,” he writes, “he has never failed to love as he ought. And this perfect one stands before God and advocates for you” (140). As believers grow in the new birth, we want to imitate the love of God more and more in our daily lives. We will not achieve perfection in this life, and we need to constantly turn to Christ for forgiveness, but the new birth has definite and distinct results.
How can we help others be born again?
The final portion of the book is focused outward: How can we help others be born again? “The biblical answer is not obscure, and it’s not complicated. The answer is: Tell people the good news of Christ from a heart of love and a life of service” (166). In all of his emphasis on the work of God in the new birth, Piper ends with a stirring call to personal evangelism. He encourages his readers to treasure the Word of God until they cannot help but share that truth with others. A lost world desperately needs the truth that can make them finally alive.
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