Puzzling Verses: John 1:12,13

12 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,
13 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; NASB update)

I have always found these two simple verses to be very confusing. I will not resolve my confusion by writing this short post; I will merely expose it.

Verse 12 clearly seems to be speaking of the Christ-believer’s adoption into the family of God. That this is adoption, and not birth, is made obvious by the clause saying that the Christ-believer is given the right, the authority, to become a child of God. The verse does not say anything about how the Christ-believer exercise that right, how he cashes it in. From the rest of Scripture, we know that transaction occurs automatically following faith.

The additional clause, “even to those who believe in His name,” clarifies the opening statement: receiving Christ, as opposed to those who rejected Him, is the same as believing in His name, where His name refers to His Person, character, mission, and the works He performed to fulfill His mission.

But then verse 13 creates a couple problems: 1) it describes being born of God, not adopted, and 2) it explicitly excludes any preceding voluntary act on the part of human beings. Both of these feed each other: in being born a baby is entirely passive. He cannot do anything to make conception occur.

Nicodemus obviously understood this, later in John, when he responded to the rebirth metaphor by asking, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4; NASB) One old commentator suggested that Nicodemus took Jesus too literally. But that’s absurd. Nicodemus was “the teacher of Israel.” Surely he was well accustomed to using and hearing figurative language. His response to Jesus built on the metaphor. He essentially replied, “What am I to do? I cannot make myself be born. Being born just happens to us without any will or action of ours. You’ve left me nothing to do!” That was precisely Jesus’ point. “You must be born again,” is not the gospel message except in demonstrating the need for it. Jesus’ was demolishing Nicodemus’ pride. This is a pre-evangelistic message.

To return: being born without any choice or voluntary action seems very different from believing in or receiving Jesus Christ, or becoming a child of God by right rather than by birth. So how do these two verses relate to each other? Is the antecedent of the pronoun “who” that begins verse 13 to be found in verse 12. The most natural way to read the verse is to take verse 13 as further explaining what it it to be a child of God in verse 12. I have no statistics, but my guess is that’s the most common way of reading the two verses. If that is the correct reading it seems contradictory. It certainly minimizes the importance of the phrase “He gave them the right.” That seems to be a redundant action. But it still has the problem of explaining how verse 13 explicitly excludes any human action with becoming a child being a consequence of receiving or believing. Surely these are human volitional acts, but they are explicitly excluded by verse 13, “not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man.”

Another possibility is that the antecedent of “who” in verse 13 is “those who believe in His name” immediately preceding in verse 12. The exclusively divine act, without human participation, in giving birth produces Christ-believers. So, God acts alone to give birth to children. These children then believe voluntarily, and God makes them His children by right, i.e., by adoption, as a consequence of their faith. So every believer is a child of God twice over: by birth and by adoption. This seems unnecessary. But that is what we learn to expect of this God, a hyper-abounding grace. He acts in order to give His people assurance that they are His people and He is their God.

Now I must admit that this is not the most natural way to read these two verses, but then their syntax is very awkward. I’m not sure there is a smooth way to read them. If my analysis of these two often cited verses is correct then it has tremendous implications for our view of the relation between being born again and faith. Instead of the common evangelical view that believing causes us to be born again, these two verses must be read as teaching that being born again causes faith which then causes our adoption into the family of God. They teach two ways of being children of God, birth and adoption, rather than just one. And the first is solely the act of God, without any participation of ours.

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