In our “best books” series, we have been focusing on essential reading for Christian leaders. This week’s pick: Finally Alive, by John Piper.
Like many, I have known and loved Dr. John Piper for many years. He is rightly appreciated for his extensive ministry of preaching, teaching, and writing.
One of my favorite books by Dr. Piper is Finally Alive. Unlike many of his books, this one is relatively short with few footnotes or technical words. It is a book the average person can read and comprehend. In it, he covers the issue of regeneration. This is a massively important issue. Perhaps since the time of the Reformation, the locus of biblical study and controversy has been around the issue of justification. This level of focus is understandable since vital gospel issues are at stake. However, even in our day when debates between people like Dr. Piper and N.T. Wright on the issue of justification rightly occur, what is often overlooked is the doctrine of regeneration. What happens when someone is born again by the Holy Spirit through the gospel of Jesus Christ is tremendously important because it establishes our identity, which then determines our activity. Those of us honored to lead and teach God’s people know that getting Christians to understand and walk in their new nature with the new power made available to them through their new birth is vital.
Chapter one answers the question, “What happens in the new birth?” Piper says:
- “What happens in the new birth is not getting new religion but getting new life” (28).
- “What happens in the new birth is not merely affirming the supernatural in Jesus but experiencing the supernatural in yourself” (28).
- “What happens in the new birth is not the improvement of your old human nature but the creation of a new human nature—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).
Additionally, Piper looks here at the new birth through Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. Piper says, “What Nicodemus needs, and what you and I need, is not religion but life” (29). Put simply, the Holy Spirit “is the immediate cause of the new birth” (31).
Next Piper professes, “Jesus is the life we receive at the new birth” (31). He continues, “. . . we should never separate the new birth from faith in Jesus. From God’s side, we are united to Christ in the new birth. That’s what the Holy Spirit does. From our side, we experience this union by faith in Jesus” (32).
“The work of the Spirit in regeneration is to impart new life to us by uniting us to Christ.”
Chapter two examines “New Life Through the Holy Spirit.” Piper explains, “In John 3:6, Jesus says, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ The flesh does have a kind of life. Every human being is living flesh. But not every human being is living spirit. To be a living spirit, or to have spiritual life, Jesus says, we must be ‘born of the Spirit.’ Flesh gives rise to one kind of life. The Spirit gives rise to another kind of life. If we don’t have this second kind, we will not see the kingdom of God” (36).
Concerning the relationship between Jesus and the new birth, Piper says, “The work of the Spirit in regeneration is to impart new life to us by uniting us to Christ. The way John Calvin says it is: ‘The Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself’” (37). Therefore, “In the new birth, the Holy Spirit supernaturally gives us new spiritual life by connecting us with Jesus Christ through faith” (37).
In the section called “The Need to Be New,” Piper explains, “So in the new birth, God takes out the heart of stone and puts in a heart of flesh. The word flesh doesn’t mean ‘merely human’ as it does in John 3:6 (‘that which is born of the flesh is flesh’). It means soft and living and responsive and feeling, instead of being a lifeless stone. In the new birth, our dead, stony boredom with Christ is replaced by a heart that senses the worth of Jesus” (41–42).
In chapters three and four, Dr. Piper provides ten aspects of life without being born again. Later in chapter four he describes the “before” and “after” states with regard to the new birth, and in the several chapters that follow he unpacks just how new birth comes about—the process God brings us through as we move from spiritual death to spiritual life.
Chapter six is about how God ransoms, raises, and calls us into new life in him. Piper says, “The new birth is something that happens in us when the Holy Spirit takes our dead hearts and unites us to Christ by faith so that his life becomes our life. So it makes sense that Jesus must be raised from the dead if we are to have new life in union with him” (83).
“The new birth is the act of the Holy Spirit connecting our dead, selfish hearts with God’s living, loving heart so that his life becomes our life and his love becomes our love.”
Chapter seven further unpacks the relationship between the Holy Spirit and regeneration, and explores how regeneration happens. Piper says, “It is an objective historical act of the Spirit of God connecting us by faith to the historical, incarnate—the appearing—Lord Jesus, so that the life he now has as the crucified and risen Savior has become our life because we are united to him. New birth happens because Jesus came into the world as the kindness and love of God and died for sins and rose again” (94).
Chapter nine is about the role of the Word of God in conjunction with the Spirit in regeneration. Dr. Piper explains, “1 Peter 1:23 says, as we saw in the last chapter, that we ‘have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding Word of God.’ This sentence is stupendously important. We are born again, that is, we are united by the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ so that we share in his new, eternal resurrection life through the Word of God. This miracle, this transfer from death to life, happens through the hearing of the Word of God” (112).
Chapter thirteen is about God’s love and the work of the Holy Spirit in causing us to love others with God’s love. Piper says, “The aspect of the new birth we will focus on in this chapter is the fact that the new birth creates the connection between God’s love for us and our love for each other. If anyone ever asks, how does the fact that God loves you result in your loving others? The answer is: the new birth creates that connection. The new birth is the act of the Holy Spirit connecting our dead, selfish hearts with God’s living, loving heart so that his life becomes our life and his love becomes our love” (153).
Jesus said we must be born again to enter the kingdom and so it is vital that we are born again and walk in the new life that has been provided to us through the new birth. This is a very readable book, and a great aid in helping us grow toward that end.