Believers: Testimony Believed
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (1:12–13)
The conjunction de (but) is a small fulcrum that marks a dramatic shift. The world’s hatred of God and rejection of Christ in no way overrules or frustrates God’s plan, for He makes even the wrath of men praise Him (Ps. 76:10). There will be some who receive Him. Those whom God willed for salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9) will in faith embrace Christ. As He declared in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”
Lambanō (received) could be translated “take hold of,” “obtain,” or “grasp.” To receive Christ involves more than mere intellectual acknowledgment of His claims. The last clause of verse 12 refers to those who received as those who believe in His name. The concept of believing in Christ, another important theme for John, will be developed in several passages in his gospel (6:29; 8:30; 9:35–36; 12:36, 44; 14:1; 16:9; 17:20; cf. 1 John 3:23; 5:13). His name refers to the totality of Christ’s being, all that He is and does. Thus, it is not possible to separate His deity from His humanity, His being Savior from His being Lord, or His person from His redemptive work. Saving faith accepts Jesus Christ in all that Scripture reveals concerning Him.
Though people cannot be saved until they receive and believe in Jesus Christ, salvation is nonetheless a sovereign work of God on the dead and blind sinner. John simply states that no one would come to believe in Jesus unless He gave them the right to become children of God. They are saved entirely by “grace … through faith; and that not of [themselves], it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9), because “God has chosen [them] from the beginning for salvation” (2 Thess. 2:13). Thus they were born again (John 3:3, 7; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23) not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. Those three negative statements stress the fact that salvation is not obtainable through any racial or ethnic heritage (blood), personal desire (flesh), or man-made system (man). (See also Matt. 8:11–12; Luke 3:8; Gal. 3:28–29.)
The great truth of election and sovereign grace is here introduced appropriately at the very foundation of John’s mention of salvation. Our Lord Himself will speak of this truth in 6:36–47; 15:16; 17:6–12.
Because all bear the guilt of unbelief and rejection, the phrase but of God means that salvation, that is, receiving and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, is impossible for any sinner. God must grant the power supernaturally and with it the divine life and light to the lifeless, darkened sinner.
The Free Offer of the Gospel
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
We have seen two very important themes in the prologue to John’s Gospel: the glory of Jesus Christ, and the depravity of man. The glory of Jesus is described in verses 1–9. The depravity of man is shown by man’s rejection of Jesus when he came. These two themes leave us at the end of verse 11, with a very depressing picture. Men as a whole did not know Jesus; and, by and large, his own people, the Jews, who should have known better, rejected him. Are we to think then that no one believed? No, that would be a false inference. So John hurries to point out that although the Lord of glory was unknown by the world at large and was rejected by the nation of Israel, nevertheless, there were some who did receive him. He writes, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
This is a glorious verse, especially since it comes, as it does, after the dismal picture of the preceding verses. It is a verse for you personally. It reminds us here at the very beginning of the Gospel—even before the account of the crucifixion and the resurrection—that the gospel of salvation by grace apart from the keeping of the law is today offered freely to all men, and it points to the glorious privilege of those who receive it.
We need to look at this statement in parts, beginning with the part declaring that those who believe become God’s children. How are we to understand this? If we are to understand it rightly, we need to recognize first that people are not (or do not become) God’s children naturally. The ideas of the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man have been popular themes in the past. But this is not biblical teaching. It is true that Paul told the men of Athens: “We are his offspring” (Acts 17:28), but that is not the same thing as saying that we are God’s legitimate children. And what is more, in that verse Paul was actually only quoting a Greek poet, either Aratus or Cleanthes, obviously in order to establish a point of contact with his Greek hearers. In his own teaching, by contrast, he stresses that we become God’s children only by means of the new birth.
It is also true that there are verses in the Old Testament that speak of the nation of Israel as God’s child or of the Jews as God’s children. In Exodus 4:22 Israel is called the “firstborn” son of God. David says in the Psalms: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13). Isaiah has written, “O Lord, you are our Father” (Isa. 64:8). Jeremiah says, “I thought how I would set you among my sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beauteous of all nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me. Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the Lord” (Jer. 3:19–20 rsv). Although this is true, we must note that these verses are not talking about the Babylonians, Egyptians, Syrians, or even Americans. They are talking about God’s relationship to Israel and, thus, about a special relationship that they had to God and that was possessed by no other people at that time. Moreover—and this is much to the point—not one of these verses makes the relationship of father to son the relationship of God to any individual Israelite.
The true biblical teaching is seen most clearly in the great discussion of this theme by Jesus Christ as recorded in the eighth chapter of the Gospel. The starting point of the discussion, as John records it, was the question of freedom. Jesus had said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Because this was a touchy theme in a country that was then under the rule of the Roman armies, Jesus’ Jewish hearers reacted to Christ’s words violently, saying, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” (v. 33). Jesus did not bother to refute their absurd contention although he could have. They had been slaves to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians, Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, Philistines, Greeks, and Romans. There had almost never been a power in the ancient Near East to which they had not been in bondage at some time or other. But Jesus did not speak about this. He was speaking of a slavery to sin.
Even this was a sore spot with Jesus’ hearers, as it is to people today. So they answered by becoming vicious, probably accusing Jesus of being illegitimate. “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself” (v. 41). At this point Jesus nailed down the whole subject by denying that they were in any sense God’s children. For, “If God were your Father, you would love me.… You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire” (vv. 42, 44).
Now if the Jews, who had a special historical relationship to God, could not be called his children even by Jesus Christ, who was himself a Jew, how much less can this be true of the rest of us. It is true that not all men are children of the devil. A person becomes a child of the devil in the same way that another becomes a child of God; that is, by a moral commitment to him and to his principles. Nevertheless, a man is not naturally a child of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ either. According to the Bible he becomes a child of God only through a new birth.
By Whose Authority?
The second important part of the verse is the part that declares that we become God’s children not on the basis of any human authority but on the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. The verse says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
The importance of this is that it gives the one who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ great boldness. On one of the military campaigns of the emperor Napoleon, when Napoleon had dropped the reins of his horse in order to read papers, the horse reared up and nearly unseated him. A corporal of the grenadiers, a very lowly soldier, leaped forward and caught the bridle of the emperor’s horse so that in a few seconds he had brought the animal under control. Napoleon turned to the corporal and said, “Thank you, Captain.”
“Of what company, sire?” asked the soldier who had just been called a captain.
“Of my guards,” answered Napoleon.
In an instant the young man threw aside his musket and walked across the field toward the headquarters of the general’s staff, tearing off his corporal’s stripes as he went. He took his place among the emperor’s officers. Someone asked what he was doing, and he replied that he was a captain of the guards.
“By whose authority?” they asked him.
“By the authority of the emperor,” the young man answered.
It all depends upon the authority of the commander involved. If one of the soldier’s friends had called him a captain, the two corporals might have had a good laugh together, but that would have been all. The title bestowed by the friend would have meant nothing. However, when the emperor gave the order, the corporal seized upon it instantly and was then received as a captain by the staff. In the same way, our position before God as God’s children depends upon the highest authority in the universe, the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, before whom every knee shall bow. And we can be as bold in seizing our rank as Napoleon’s soldier was.
Will we step back into the ranks and boast, “Jesus has called me God’s child,” but fail to assume the privileges and responsibilities of that position? Or will we take him at his word and come to God to enjoy all the privileges of being his own? If you have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and understand this verse properly, then you will come to God as his child with great boldness.
Faith in Christ
At this point someone might say, “That is wonderful. It must be a great privilege to be God’s child. But how do I become God’s child? How does this special relationship become mine?” The answer, which is the same answer given throughout the New Testament, is that you become a child of God through faith. This means that you must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and also believe that by means of his death and resurrection he is your Savior.
The letter to the Hebrews says: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). Romans tells us that “a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’ ” (Rom. 1:17). Ephesians says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8). In Romans 10 we read, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (vv. 9–10). It is the same in the opening verses of John’s Gospel.
There is one more truth to be seen. When you believe in Jesus Christ there must be also a verbal expression of that belief. The Bible does not acknowledge any such thing as secret discipleship. On the contrary, it teaches that Christ must be professed publicly. The reason, of course, is that verbal testimony indicates the reality of that faith, just as the cry of the newborn child reveals the existence of life to the doctor and the mother. The verses just quoted, Romans 10:9–10, say that if we “confess” with our mouth the Lord Jesus and “believe” in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead we shall be saved. Confession is proof that belief in the Lord Jesus Christ is genuine.
Have you confessed your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ publicly? One of the most famous characters in the New Testament was a man who came to Jesus by night and held a long conversation with him, yet left Christ’s presence without any outward confession of faith. As a result, we do not know whether he was genuinely converted or not. His name was Nicodemus.
Nicodemus came to Jesus as a result of Christ’s preaching, as many people travel to hear great preaching today. We know this because he referred to Christ’s teaching and miracles in his opening remarks: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2). In other words, he was very impressed. This alone was no evidence of his conversion, however, and Christ’s reply to him was in essence a rebuke. The one thing that Jesus was not was a teacher sent from God. There had been thousands of teachers sent from God in the previous history of the world, and there have been thousands of teachers since. He was not one of them. He was God sent to teach, and to die, and to rise again. So he corrected Nicodemus by telling him that unless he was born again, he would never be able to understand things that were spiritual.
Nicodemus was puzzled. “How can a man be born when he is old?” he asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (v. 4). Jesus answered by showing that the new birth was spiritual and that it would express itself as faith in his death and resurrection. How much of this entered into the heart of Nicodemus? We do not know, for Nicodemus left no outward expression of his belief. He had heard great preaching, but so have thousands of other unbelievers. Later he would say to the Jewish leaders who were plotting against Jesus, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” (John 7:51). But many unbelievers have argued for the due process of law and for civil liberties. We even see him bringing spices to Joseph of Arimathaea in order to embalm the body of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion (John 19:39), but many a guilty, unbelieving conscience has donated a stained-glass window or a chapel to Jesus.
Was he one of God’s children? We do not know. His witness to the Lord of glory is missing, and we search in vain for his confession.
How different, on the other hand, is the account John gives us of the woman of Samaria, just one chapter later. Donald Grey Barnhouse, in Epistle to the Romans, has pointed out that the contrast between these two personalities is striking. “The one is the story of a man, the other of a woman. The one is seemingly a seeker, the other is found by Christ, almost by accident, but definitely by design. The first was a Jew, the second a Samaritan. The one was an aristocratic Pharisee, the other a village harlot. The one wanted Jesus to talk to him, the woman tried to avoid the probing truth and attempted to change the subject. The one came at midnight, the other at noon.”
Both Nicodemus and the woman heard great truths during their conversation with the Lord Jesus, but the effect of his words on them was different. Nicodemus questioned Christ, but he showed no verbal response to Christ’s teaching. The woman tried to evade Christ’s questions. But at last she believed and thereafter showed signs of her faith and transformation. Who was Jesus? To the woman he was revealed to be God’s Messiah. So we read, “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?’ ” (John 4:28, 29). We are told that the men then went to Jesus and asked him to remain with them, and that as the result of his words and of the testimony of the woman many others believed in him also.
The importance of public confession arising out of true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ can hardly be overestimated. It is true that there is a type of confession that is insincere. It is this type of confession that the apostle James refers to when he speaks of a faith without works that is dead (James 2:20, 26). But there is also a sincere confession that will always arise out of a life transformed by Jesus. Have you told others of your faith in him?
Children of God
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13)
The youth movement of the 1960s was hailed as a “counterculture” because of its values of social upheaval, sexual liberation, and psychedelic narcotic highs. But this counterculture soon proved to be quite at home in the culture that it was intended to confront. Many of the hippies went on to be stockbrokers, and many stockbrokers took up the lifestyle modeled by the hippies.
There really is only one true counterculture that never becomes absorbed into the world. John describes this in the prologue to his Gospel, telling us that the true light shined in the world but the world rejected him. Rebellion against God and his light is the first principle of this wicked world. But there are some in the world whose attitude is not of this world but of heaven. John says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Here is the true counterculture, the only real alternative to a sinful humanity: those who receive Jesus Christ in faith and thereby become children of God.
The Greatest Distinction
There is a basic division within mankind based on our response to Jesus Christ. There is the prevailing culture of unbelief and the counterculture of Christian faith. Charles Spurgeon observed, “Were an angel to come here with a drawn sword, and suddenly to separate the righteous from the wicked with one stroke, you would find that his sword had for its edge the question, ‘Believest thou in the Lord Jesus Christ?’ ” It is faith in Christ that makes the greatest distinction in our world. John 3:36 puts it this way: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
We recognize all kinds of distinctions among people. There are the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the powerful and the weak, the moral and the immoral. Today, political views seem to divide us more and more. But according to the Bible, in God’s sight all people are united under the guilt and curse of sin, regardless of all other distinctions: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We all have transgressed God’s law, and whether we are Caesar or slave here on earth, in God’s sight we are united in the condemnation of sin. The only distinction that will last is faith in Christ: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life … but whoever does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:16, 18).
If faith in Christ is the great distinction, we should want to know what faith is. John 1:12 gives a definition: “All who did receive him, who believed in his name.” Faith, then, involves believing and receiving Jesus Christ as he has revealed himself—in his person and saving work. It is not enough to have vague notions about Jesus. People say, “I believe in Jesus,” meaning that they accept that he existed or even appreciate him in some sense. But that is not receiving Jesus Christ, and it does not constitute saving faith. Faith requires us to receive Jesus as he has offered himself to us. John spells this out at the end of this Gospel: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
First, we must receive Jesus as the person he has revealed himself to be. This especially means acknowledging him as the unique Son of God. Some people admire Jesus but doubt that he could really be God’s Son. Yet the Bible insists: “The Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:14–15). To deny Jesus’ unique deity is to reject him. Jesus insists that we receive him not only as fully human but also as fully God.
Jesus confronted his own disciples about this matter. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he asked. They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus pressed them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus hailed that profession of faith as the rock on which he would build his church (Matt. 16:13–18). We must likewise profess Jesus as God’s Son.
Second, we must receive Jesus in his saving offices. Believing “in his name” includes accepting him in his God-given work. Christ means “Anointed One.” It refers to the three anointed offices of Old Testament Israel—prophet, priest, and king—which pointed to and were fulfilled by Jesus. This means that we must receive Jesus as the true Prophet who reveals God to us. People are looking for gurus of every kind; Jesus calls us to receive him as our Teacher. Others deny that truth can even be known. But Jesus claims to be God, who knows all truth perfectly, and he came to teach the truth to the world. “Your word is truth,” he said to the Father (John 17:17). To refuse to accept God’s Word—the Bible—as genuine and binding truth is to reject Christ as Prophet. He said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:31–32). Faith acknowledges to Jesus:
Thou art the Truth: thy word alone true wisdom can impart;
To thee alone I yield a willing mind, and open all my heart.
Jesus also claims the office of Priest. The Old Testament priests offered sacrifices to God—lambs and bulls and goats—to purify sinners. Jesus came as the true Sacrifice and the true High Priest. John the Baptist said of him, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Receiving Jesus in his office of Priest means confessing your need to be cleansed from your sin and trusting his death for your forgiveness. It requires you to renounce every other ground for pardon with God—all human priests, saints, rituals, and even your supposedly good works. First Timothy 2:5 teaches that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Faith acknowledges:
Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace.
Foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.
Finally, Jesus comes to us in the office of King. The kings of Israel were anointed to rule God’s people, and Jesus is the true Anointed One, the Christ, and the King of kings. Receiving him and believing on his name means bending the knee and opening your heart to be ruled by him. Jesus came to forgive our sins, but also to lead us into a new life of righteousness. We do not receive him unless we are willing to yield to his commands. Our faith acknowledges to him:
My King supreme, to thee I bow, a willing subject at thy feet;
All other lords I disavow, and to thy government submit.
This is what it means to have faith in Christ, which makes the great distinction between those who are saved and those who are lost: to receive him as Son of God and as Christ in all his offices—Prophet, Priest, and King.
And we must receive him personally. It is one thing to acknowledge that a feast is prepared, but another to come and eat. We must not merely assent to Jesus as a God and a Christ, but say: “Jesus, you are my God. You are my Christ—my Prophet, my Priest, and my King.” The great dividing line of the human race—a distinction that will last forever—is between those who personally receive Jesus in faith and those who refuse him in rebellious unbelief. Jesus declares, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:27–28).
The Highest Privilege
Faith also grants us the highest privilege: “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). People work all their lives to receive titles and privileges—to become vice president or chairman of the board. Others dream of being a son or daughter of some noble king or high official. But John holds before us the highest possible privilege: we become children of God through faith in Christ.
This is our great need, to be brought into God’s family and to become his blessed children. People may talk about God as being the Father of everyone, but the Bible denies this concept (see John 8:44). Sinclair Ferguson asserts:
This is a basic assumption of the Christian gospel: we are not, by nature, children of God. We need to become his children. By nature we are alienated from God.… Not one of us possesses, by nature, the characteristics of a child of God. Instead, we show all the signs of rebelling against him and turning away from his Fatherly rule over our lives.
John 1:12 stresses the privileges of membership in God’s family: “he gave the right to become children of God.” Many people talk glibly today about “rights,” demanding privileges to which their claim is, in fact, dubious. Jesus speaks of “the right” to become God’s children as an authority that is bestowed by God himself. God confers on believers a change of status. Just as we adopt children, giving them authority to claim the privileges of family membership, God adopts us into a loving, Father-child relationship. Jesus is God’s true Son, and we are adopted as God’s sons and daughters in him.
The world thinks little of the privileges of membership in God’s family, but they are the greatest that could be imagined. First, we receive the privilege of God’s dear fatherly love for us. Some people struggle with the idea of God as Father because their human fathers were unloving or abusive. But God is the true Father for whom our hearts have always yearned. This is why we crave a father’s love—because God wants us to look to him as Father. “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13). Believers are “beloved children” (Eph. 5:1).
As such, we receive God’s gracious care. It is a father’s duty to provide for his children, and God has taken up the obligation of caring for believers in Christ. Jesus remarks: “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matt. 10:30). “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (6:26). Even earthly parents anticipate their children’s needs. A child does not have to ask, because his parents are watching and recognize needs even if the child does not. “God is like that to us if we are in Christ; he is going to supply our every need because he is our Father.”
Moreover, God grants us the privilege of his loving discipline. No loving father neglects to punish and train his children. We might not think of it this way, but discipline is a mark of God’s fatherly love: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6). Earthly fathers do not discipline other people’s children, but only their own. God chastises us and prods us toward holiness because we are his beloved children.
Furthermore, children of God are heirs of God’s eternal glory. This is why God trains us in this life: because we have royal callings awaiting us in the life to come. Romans 8:17 reminds us that Christians are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” Every believer can look forward to an inheritance in glory with God.
Finally, those who receive Christ are granted the inestimable privilege of intimate access to God in prayer. Romans 5:2 promises that if we have been justified by Christ, “we have also obtained access by faith” into the grace of God. It is always a thrill when someone you greatly admire takes you into an intimate relationship. He pulls you aside and says, “You don’t have to call me Mr. but simply John.” Sinclair Ferguson writes, “But that privilege pales into insignificance by comparison with what we have here. Christ is giving us access to the presence of his Father, and saying to us: ‘You may now speak to him as I speak to him; with the same right of access, with the same sense of intimacy, with the same assurance that he loves you.’ … We may speak with the Father just as he speaks with the Father.” This is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9).
John 1:12 promises that these privileges are available to one and all through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the only distinction—not your past, not your rank in the world, not the amount of money you have to give, not your supposed moral attainments: “To all who did receive him … he gave the right to become children of God” (1:12).
This means that we should be bold in exercising our privileges, since we received them on the authority of Christ. The Emperor Napoleon once was almost thrown from his horse while reading some papers. A corporal of his grenadiers, a lowly soldier, leaped forward and caught the horse’s reins, saving the emperor from injury. Napoleon turned to him and said, “Thank you, Captain.” Instantly, the soldier walked over to the headquarters tent, demanding to be issued the uniform of an officer in Napoleon’s guards. “On whose authority?” they demanded. “By authority of the emperor,” he replied, and the uniform was issued. We likewise should boldly exercise our privileges as God’s children, claiming our privileges as children of God by authority of God’s royal Son, Jesus Christ, whom we have received through faith.
The Most Profound Change
Faith in Christ makes the greatest distinction and grants the highest privilege. Faith also involves the most profound change. John 1:13 explains that children of God “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John is talking about the spiritual rebirth, one of the great themes of his Gospel. God grants us outward privileges as his children, but he also works in us the spiritual character of his own heavenly family.
Many of us long for a new start in life. Perhaps we remember the innocence of childhood, before we entered into the school of sin and felt its cruel bondage. We think, “Oh, that I could go back and start over again!” This is the very thing that God grants to his children. Our spiritual lives begin with a new birth: a new life infused into us so that we are able to believe and live like children of God.
John says that believers are “born … of God.” We entered our earthly families because we were born into them. We did not take the initiative; our parents met and produced us, so we became their children. It is obvious that God uses this image to show that he is the One who initiates our salvation; we believe and become his children because he first created the new life in us to do it. We entered our earthly families because we were born of our parents; likewise, we enter God’s family because we are “born of God.” This is what the Bible consistently teaches. Ephesians 1:4–5 says, “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” James 1:18 states, “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth” (niv).
Some will ask, “Am I not a Christian because I was born into a certain family?” John answers that we become God’s children “not of blood.” Spurgeon writes, “Sin runs in the blood, but grace does not.” God often brings us to faith by placing us into families where God’s Word is taught and lived. But no human family has the virtue to enter you into God’s family apart from your personal faith in Jesus.
Moreover, John points out that we are not born “of the will of the flesh.” This distinction is important today, when people associate spiritual experiences with a true work of God. But no surge of the emotions will cause the new birth. Moving people to tears at a church service will not produce the kind of change that transforms us into God’s children. We must be born of God and not “of the will of the flesh.”
Third, John says that we are not born “of the will of man.” This, too, cuts across the spirit of our age. People think the rebirth occurs by getting people to exercise their will: by making a decision, by filling out a card, or by walking an aisle in response to an altar call. But John explicitly says that it is not the will of man that causes the new birth. The change is a supernatural one, and it cannot be caused by any natural means.
How, then, is anyone saved? The answer is that we are supernaturally born again through God’s Word so that we respond in saving faith. This is why the church must devote itself not to cultivating bloodlines, not to inciting emotional highs, and not to appealing to the human will, but to teaching God’s Word. By other means we may warm the heart so as to attract the interest of the world. But only God’s Word has divine power to transform the heart with power and make us children of God: “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Paul observed that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
What, then, should you do? You should receive and believe on Christ as the Bible is preached, for God’s Word is the source of spiritual life. You should also read the Bible for yourself. You can start anywhere, but a Gospel like John is an ideal place. Read God’s Word prayerfully, asking God to reveal himself to your heart, so that you receive Jesus Christ as he is presented to you. When you believe in him, you will have a new life, with God living in your soul. This is God’s way: we are born again “not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
To be born of God is to experience the most profound change. Second Peter 1:4 explains that believers have become “partakers of the divine nature.” A new spiritual DNA is given to us: a new principle and a new power within. We have new and godly desires and a new perspective on life and eternity. To be born of God is not to have all our problems solved or all our sinful tendencies removed. But it is to have the spiritual ability and desire to know God, worship him, and do his will. And with this profound change comes a new obligation to live as the true counterculture that trusts and glorifies God.
The French have an expression, noblesse oblige, meaning “nobility obliges.” The point is that if we enjoy great privileges, we have great responsibilities, too. This is especially true of God’s children. How can a child of God live only for money or pride or pleasure? How can he permit anger to rule his heart? How can a true Christian be unfaithful or live dishonestly? How can one who has been forgiven harbor a critical spirit toward others? How can we have fellowship with darkness or participate in the shameful sins of the world? Yes, we become God’s children through faith in Christ alone: “To all who did receive him … he gave the right to become children of God.” But it is by the lives that we lead that we show what family we belong to.
There is no greater distinction than faith in Christ, no higher privilege than to become a child of God, and no more profound change than to be born of God. Now we must live up to our calling by the grace and power that God gives to his family. Peter writes, “Live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12 niv).
12 Although his people as a nation did not accept the divine Word, some as individuals did. To all those who did receive him, he gave “the right [the authority] to become children of God.” People are not by nature God’s children. They become his children by receiving Jesus Christ. God’s attitude toward all humanity is that of a father, but unless they receive his Son they cannot become his children. John always refers to believers with the word tekna (“children.” GK 5451) rather than huioi (“sons,” GK 5626), the latter term being reserved for Jesus alone.
Those who received him are further identified as those who “believed in his name.” Here we see the customary use of the verb pisteuō (“to believe,” GK 4409) followed by eis (GK 1650) and the accusative, a construction that appears thirty-six times in John. To believe is to place one’s faith “into” (eis) another person. Faith for John is a definitive action. By contrast, pisteuō with the dative case means no more than to believe that something is true. It involves the intellect but not the will. The construction John uses indicates “allegiance as well as assent” (Barrett, 164). To believe in the “name” of Jesus is to accept all that his name declares him to be.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 34–35). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 73–78). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Phillips, R. D. (2014). John. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (1st ed., Vol. 1, pp. 44–52). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 372). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.