With the new year comes the hope for new life; resolutions are made, gym memberships are purchased, and revised budgets abound. Of course, we dare not give thought to the similar decisions we made in the previous year but failed to follow through. Yet, thinking on our weaknesses can be instructive and valuable if we hope for genuine change. It reminds us that, despite our best efforts at life, we fail quite often. Not only do we make unwise choices, we plan them assuming they are good choices. If the plan is a good one, we often fail to carry it out. Jesus referenced this tendency in Matthew 26:41 when he declared, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Paul confessed his inability to overcome his weaknesses in Romans 7:18: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” What hope is there for renewal? We need help from above.
John begins his gospel by declaring that the children of God were created by two elements: faith and the will of God (John 1:12-13). He highlights what doesn’t create spiritual rebirth: not blood, not the will of man, not the will of the flesh. God creates new life in those who respond to the gospel in faith—but how? Just a couple of chapters later in John 3, Jesus teaches the religious leader Nicodemus this important lesson: we must be reborn by the water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5). By our faith, we respond in penitent, confessing immersion at which point we are given the Spirit of God (Acts 2:38). The agent which creates this response of faith and the bridge for our regeneration is the word of God (Rom. 10:17; 1 Pet. 1:23). Yet, the regeneration that occurs within the heart and life of the believer is the Spirit himself. Paul refers to this as the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Scripture is the sword of the Spirit, but the Spirit is not the sword; they are independent but intertwined. What makes the scripture powerful and effective is their origin: they come from the Spirit of God. Thus, Jesus could say that the “Spirit gives life” but then subsequently say “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). Jesus doesn’t intend for us to superimpose one over the other; rather he shows us these two elements work together in harmony to create renewal in the people of God. The word and the Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5); or, in other words, our submissive faith and God’s sustaining grace.
Later in John 7:37-39 Jesus stated, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive.” What a beautiful picture of the new life God offers us through the Spirit. Not only does he grant us initial regeneration in our salvation, but he grows continual life in our sanctification (Rom. 8:13). What is the life he gives us? It is one of “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23)—that which is truly life (1 Tim. 6:19). No doubt we have questions about how all of this occurs but let us never allow our questions to reject the reality of what scripture teaches. We can stand in awe of the mystery, but never reject it because of its complexity or depth—for, truly, it is only the Spirit which gives life.