I was speaking recently with someone who was looking forward to becoming a father. He asked me, "Is it hard to learn how to be a good father? How did you deal with that change in your life?"
"One of the nice things about becoming a father," I said, "is that it happened one step at a time. First came the engagement, then some time later the marriage. During this time, talking about parenting helped prepare me mentally. A few months later, my wife became pregnant, and then we still had nine months before our child was actually born.
"Of course, having a new baby was a big change, but still there were many parenting tasks that came later. For example, discipline was not an issue during the first year, and it was two years before we had to help him learn to get along with his new sister. Being a good father all at once would be impossible, but the Lord gives us a chance to learn slowly."
Most changes in our lives are gradual. An inch of growth may take a child half a year. It can take several years to learn to speak a new language or play a musical instrument. Two people can be married in a day, but the actual marriage of minds takes decades to accomplish.
Changes in our spiritual life are also gradual. They take place one step at a time, and spiritual growth will be easier if we know that it does not take place in a moment. It is an ongoing process. Jesus said, "Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3) Many passages in the Bible indicate that being born again spiritually will be just as much a step by step process as physical conception, gestation, birth, growth, and development. For example, Peter describes it in seven distinct steps: "Add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge self-control, and to self-control perseverance, and to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love." Only by completing this process can we be sure to enter the Kingdom of God. (2 Peter 1:5)
One reason why being born again must be a gradual process is that it involves a complete change of character. "If any one be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new." (2 Corinthians 5:5) Rebirth involves new knowledge, new habits, new activities, new loves, and new awareness of the Lord.
Rebirth does not take place through a blind leap of faith, but through gradual education, study and enlightenment. Jesus said, "If you continue in My Word,...the truth shall make you free." (John 15:3) Truth is the tool of change, the means to a new life. Jesus said, "Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you." (John 15:3)
Instead of accepting dogmas without question we must make sense of the truth in order to be reborn. Being "childlike" does not mean being childish in our beliefs. "In malice be children, but in understanding be adults." (1 Corinthians 14:20) In one of His stories Jesus describes a good person as one "who hears the Word, and understands it, and also bears fruit." (Matthew 12:23)
Most important of all is the understanding of God. If God's nature is a mystery to us, we can hardly say that we are born again, or that we are His sons. (Compare John 15:15) Knowing God goes hand in hand with being born from Him. (1 John 4:7) "The pure in heart shall see God." (Matthew 5:8) When we are born again, God "shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Anyone who is in the habit of doing or thinking evil things is living the "old" life, and is incapable of the genuine goodness of the person who has overcome them. "Can the leopard change its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil." (Jeremiah 13:23) "He who commits sin is the servant of sin."
Receiving the new life requires fighting against the old habits. "Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die? ...Turn and live!" (Ezekiel 18:21,31,32) "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean, put away the evil of your doing from My eyes! Cease to do evil, learn to do good." (Isaiah 1:16) This kind of repentance cannot take place merely by praying for forgiveness. It requires a struggle, an ongoing battle to overcome the old ways of life. Paul called this a struggle between the "flesh" and the "spirit." (Galations 4:29, Romans 8:7) It is a battle that requires our greatest effort--"all your heart and all your soul and all your might." (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Eventually, through constant effort, God gives us such power over our habits that we no longer would think of doing something evil. When this time finally comes, we can be called "born again." "Whoever is born of God does not commit sin.... He cannot sin, because he is born of God." (1 John 3:9) "Whatever is born of God overcomes the world.... We know that whoever is born of God does not sin, but he who is born of God keeps himself and the wicked one does not touch him." (1 John 5:4,18)
Along with new habits come new activities. A person who neglects to be useful cannot be born again, and cannot go to heaven. Jesus indicated that some Christians would not be saved because they lacked good works. "Not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in the heavens." (Matthew 7:21) In one of His parables, Jesus told of some people who would go into everlasting punishment, not because they had lacked faith, but because they had failed to help people who were in need. (Matthew 25:41-46) After death, the Lord "renders unto everyone according to his deeds." (Matthew 16:27)
A person who is born again is concerned for others, and orients his life around the work he can do to help others. "Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead... A person is justified by works, and not by faith alone." (James 3:17,24) To be born again, you must "bring forth fruits worthy of repentance." (Luke 3:8) Service and usefulness are marks of the new life.
Even more than faith and more than works, the power that causes a person to be born again is love. Peter tells us that we are reborn by means of loving and for the purpose of loving others. "Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, being born again...by the word of God." (1 Peter 1:22,23) John also makes it very clear that only those who love others can receive the new life: "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death." (1 John 3:14) "Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love." (1 John 4:7,8)
We must take it upon ourselves to have faith, to fight the evil impulses within ourselves, to serve others, and to love others if we wish to be born again. Yet in all these things we need also to realize that it is the Lord who is working within us. "You have also done all our works in us." (Isaiah 26:12) "There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all people, are the work of the same God." (1 Corinthians 12:6)
In the process of rebirth we come to realize that it is the Lord working within us that enables us to work, believe, struggle, and love. These abilities are His merciful gift. He says, "I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you...and cause you to walk in my statutes." (Ezekiel 36:26, 27)
In order to be reborn we must renew our knowledge, habits, actions, loves and relationship with the Lord. All this takes time, even a lifetime. Just as childbirth and growth require patience and endurance, so does being born again. "In your patience you will possess your souls." (Luke 21:19) "Whoever endures to the end shall be saved." (Matthew 10:22) God will give eternal life to those who seek it "by patient continuance in doing good." (Romans 2:7)
We cannot expect to be born again in a single moment. Again and again, the Bible advises steadfastness and endurance if we wish to gain the promise of heaven. "It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord." (Lamentations 3:26,27) For although it takes time, if we do our part, the Lord will certainly make it happen. "Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass." (Psalm 37:5,7)