Part 8 of 34
Salvation and Discipleship
I don’t remember the day I was born, but my mother tells me it was an event to remember. Once I was born, I could never go back. It was a done deal, a one-time event, an irreversible transaction. It is likely for that reason that Jesus used birth to illustrate what happens the moment someone believes in Him for everlasting life. In a conversation with one of the religious elite, Jesus once said:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”1
No doubt, you’ve heard the term “born again” if you’ve been around believers at all. Being born again is the term Jesus used to describe the conversion experience. He reiterates his words only a few verses later.
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.2
Jesus is explaining that there are two births that people can experience. First is the physical birth, which he calls, born of water. Then there is the spiritual birth. Nick, the man who he was talking to, didn’t understand what Jesus meant by being born again. So Jesus goes on to explain. In his explanation, we find the most famous verse in the entire Bible, John 3:16. Did you catch that? John 3:16 is a description of how to be born again. So anyone who believes in Jesus for everlasting life becomes born again.
The Greek word that we get “again” from can either be translated “again” or “from above.” Both meanings fit the context.3 Jesus makes it clear that this new birth is something a person is not able to achieve on their own because it’s a birth from above. It’s Jesus’ work, not ours that makes us able to be born anew.
Jesus tells us that to enter the Kingdom of God, which is a synonym for “go to Heaven” one must be born again/from above. Only those who experience the new birth by believing in Jesus will make it to Heaven. Thus, being born again is only ever about salvation. We see other places in the New Testament where John uses a very similar term.
Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…4
Here the same author explains that it is faith alone which makes it possible to be born of God. Therefore, salvation comes by faith alone and can be illustrated as a new birth. It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that being born again is about salvation since the term is almost always used to describe that. However, spiritual growth is sometimes offered as a proof of new birth or even mixed up within the concept of new birth. This is what we will examine next.
Does a child have to grow up to prove that they were physically born? Obviously not. The growth of a child is independent from the birth event. The birth happens in a moment of time, but the growth that a kid will experience continues for years to come. If a child is growing, it can be assumed that he was born. However, if a child is not growing properly it would be ridiculous to use that as proof that he was never born. Growth is a separate issue from salvation. Some will grow fast, some slow, and some not at all. We see the potential for varied spiritual growth patterns in these words of Peter:
as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby.5
We learn a few things about growth in this verse. First of all, everyone who is born again should desire to grow. As a baby grows by drinking milk, a newborn believer should grow by consuming the word of God. It’s important to notice what the verse does not say. It does not say that a baby will automatically grow. There is a condition to be met for growth to happen. In the same way that my newborn son would not grow if my wife and I refused to feed him his daily helping of milk, a baby believer will stifle their growth opportunity if they don’t feed on the word of God.
Secondly, the fact that Peter has to tell believers to do this lets us know that the growth is not automatic. Many have claimed that a person who becomes born again will automatically grow into a mature Christian, but if that were the case why is the Bible so packed with instructions on growing? Not only does the New Testament talk about the first phase of growth from spiritual birth, but it also talks about become grown-ups.
that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.6
The goal is not to grow only a little and then stop. Our physical bodies are amazing creations which, if given proper nutrients, will grow up to maturity. Beyond that, hopefully, we never stop growing in knowledge and wisdom. These verses demonstrate that God has a plan for our lives in which we continue to develop and grow in our walk of faith.
Once again, the fact that Paul is instructing them to, “no longer be children,” lets us know that it’s a possibility. It is within the realm of reason that a believer’s growth that either be stunted or nonexistent.
All of this points to a simple conclusion. Growth is about discipleship. Discipleship is a long-term process in which we continue to grow and mature toward the likeness of Christ. The level of maturity that we attain in this lifetime is determined by our commitment to discipleship.
In this chapter, we learned that birth and growth are two separate things. Being born again is about salvation, and growing is about discipleship. The one condition we must fulfill for new birth to occur is that we believe in Jesus. Faith in Christ alone brings about a spiritual birth which Jesus’s work enables. However, once we are born anew, we have the opportunity to grow by making daily decisions. This process of growth is called discipleship.
1 John 3:3
2 John 3:5
3 Robert N. Wilkin, “The Gospel according to John,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 374.
4 1 John 5:1
5 1 Peter 2:2
6 Ephesians 4:14-16