The classic passage on conversion is John 3, where Jesus talks with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews (v. 1). Unlike many of the other Pharisees in the Gospels, Nicodemus seems like an honest seeker, if a little cowardly. He doesn’t appear hostile to Jesus. In fact, he strikes me as a sincere religious man genuinely interested to learn from Jesus. There’s only one massive problem with Nicodemus: he’s not born from above. He recognizes that Jesus is a teacher come from God. He affirms that Jesus has done miracles with God’s power (v. 2). But this is not enough. Jesus says to him in effect, “I don’t care that you see the miraculous with your eyes. I want you to experience the miraculous in your heart.”8
Nicodemus, like the rest of us, must be born again (John 3:3). Or to put it another way, we must be born of water and the Spirit (v. 5). Nicodemus should have been familiar with this curious imagery, for it comes from the Old Testament (cf. v. 10). Jesus is no doubt thinking of Ezekiel 36, in particular the references to water and Spirit (vv. 25, 27). In Ezekiel’s prophecy waters points to cleansing, and the indwelling of the Spirit suggests a new heart (vv. 25–26). Thus, in John 3, Jesus is not talking about the sacrament of baptism but about the supernatural work that removes the stain of sin and makes us new.9
This is what the Bible means by new birth, conversion, regeneration, or being born again. Conversion is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. Titus 3:5 calls it the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Just like the wind (pneuma) blows where it wishes, so it is with everyone born of the Spirit (pneuma). God the Holy Spirit must invade our heart and awaken us to the vileness of sin, the truthfulness of God’s Word, and the preciousness of Christ.
Jesus could not be any clearer: there is no Christian life without the converting work of the Spirit. He enables us to understand and spiritually discern the things of God (1 Cor. 2:12–14). He grants us repentance that leads to life (Acts 11:18). He pours out God’s love into our hearts (Rom. 5:5). He enables us to believe in the promises of God (John 1:12–13). “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father,” Jesus says in John 6:65.
And how do the elect come to God? “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). So we come to faith in the Son by the Father’s appointing and the Spirit’s imparting. Faith itself, then, is a gift, a gift that comes at conversion when we are born again by the Spirit working through the Word of God (1 Pet. 1:23–25).
DeYoung, Kevin L. 2011. The Holy Spirit. Edited by D. A. Carson and Timothy J. Keller. The Gospel Coalition Booklets. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.