That which is born of the flesh is flesh,
and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Recently we heard the sermon in which the Lord told Nicodemus that unless a man is born anew of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot come into the
That which is born of the flesh is flesh. There is such a wide gulf between these two that it cannot be bridged. Flesh and spirit have nothing at all in common; man is either flesh, or he is spirit. Thus
Christ compresses all this into the one word “flesh,” saying: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” that is, it has a physical and living life. Whether it be king, prince, or lord—all share the same kind of birth; and the people who have had only this physical birth are nothing but flesh. This implies a condemnation of all that is exalted and precious in the world, call it by whatever name you will: noble or ignoble, powerful, clever, judicious, rich, wise, rational, as well as all learned men. For whatever is born physically is a physical being. And if it does not have another birth, it will never be anything but a physical being which will perish. Truly, this cuts the ground from under our feet; yes, it really condemns us.
It must be noted here that what we refer to as “physical” the Hebrews call “flesh” or “fleshly.”10
Thus this verse passes an appalling sentence on the whole world, a sentence comparable to the one pronounced by St. Paul in the eleventh chapter of Romans, in which he says that “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32). Likewise in Rom. 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And in Eph. 2:8–9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” If we really believed this, it would make us very humble. For is a man’s birth of a woman, which is only a physical process and nothing spiritual, to be his greatest glory before God? After all, what would it amount to even though you were born a lord, or even if you were a king or the Turkish sultan, or possessed the profoundest wisdom and intelligence on earth? My dear man, what would this really amount to? Nothing but flesh. In the eyes of the world all this may loom big and be greatly praised, but before God it means nothing. Why not? Christ answers this question here: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh”; a physical birth brings forth a physical object, and nothing more than a physical object. This is apparent from the bigwigs, whose might, honor, riches, glory, money, and goods all perish in the end.
Here Nicodemus is sharply lectured and taken to task. It will do him no good to have Moses and the entire Law on his side; despite all this he will remain flesh unless he is born anew. Christ wants to say: “Nicodemus, why do you persist in following Moses so long? You will still remain flesh.” So what does the preaching of the Gospel profit the pope and the Turks? They hear and see it all. It is painted for them,11 written for them, sung and spoken for them. And still they refuse to be converted, for they remain the flesh they were when they were born. Nicodemus too. He and his Pharisees have the Law of Moses, the temple, and divine worship; and yet they remain flesh. We do not fare very differently today. To be sure, we hear the Gospel preached, sung, and read; but we do not become more pious or better as a result. For we are flesh and remain flesh. On the other hand: That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
As we have said, there is no way of reconciling the two: whatever is flesh remains flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spiritual. But what is spiritual birth? It means that I am born again as a new being by Baptism and the Holy Spirit and that I believe in Christ. Then I do not expect riches, power, and glory from Him (as many a person looks exclusively for such things in the world) unless God has given me this before. And when the physical birth ends in death—whether this comes by fire or water, or whether I am interred in the earth—then I hope for and expect an eternal life, eternal joy and bliss. I shall be eternally saved even though I lose this life and lack the money and goods, the riches and power after which the world otherwise runs and races.
Thus we are reborn into a new life which is unlike the way of the world. Your natural mother cannot aid you toward this life with her body, her breasts, and the milk an infant drinks. An infant also has need of pap and cradle, clothes and shoes; it must be reared properly and decently. All these elements of parental support and sustenance are part of physical birth. But when all this has had its day; when you lie in your grave and your good friend, your father, mother, government, and princes cannot accompany you but are powerless to help you; when strength and might forsake you, and you leave behind your popularity, honor, money and goods; when you are buried—then a new birth is required. Then it is necessary to look to another existence, an existence into which I am called by the Gospel and by Baptism, namely, when the Holy Spirit gives birth to me anew for eternal life, rearing, nourishing, and clothing me anew. This calls for other breasts and nipples, a different room and different garments, to nourish me and clothe me—to nourish and clothe me for eternal life and to make me fit for the kingdom of heaven.
Thus the spiritual birth is brought about by the Word of God, Baptism, and faith. Even now, while we sojourn on this earth, we are already in this birth if we believe. I stated earlier that the new birth or the spiritual life cannot be perceived by the five senses. It is invisible. Neither sword nor might, gold nor silver, neither crown, scepter, nor kingdom, can help to acquire this life; it is bestowed through the new birth. And this new life will endure when this physical life ends, when the physical birth vanishes and is reduced to dust. When the physical birth is no longer seen and felt, then the spiritual life will abide, and we shall be quickened and raised from the dead.
This birth is invisible and intangible; it is only believed. We believe that what issues from the spiritual existence is spiritual, and that the chief treasure it dispenses is forgiveness of sin and eternal life. At the same time Christians must still participate in external existence too. While they are on earth, they let father and mother sustain them; they are still being governed, and they themselves govern; they eat, and they drink; they wear clothes and shoes, have house and home, money and goods. But all this they utilize as guests who journey across the countryside until they arrive in the city, which is their real destination. Upon their arrival they do not care any longer for the inns which sheltered them en route. And while they are staying in the inn, they think to themselves: “Today I stay here as a guest, and tomorrow I journey forth again.” Thus a Christian also reflects: “Today I am a guest here on earth. I eat and drink here; I live honestly and decently according to flesh and blood. But tomorrow I set out for eternal life in heaven, where I am a citizen and hold citizenship” (Phil. 3:20). Thus Christians pass through the years of their dependence on father and mother, through their time of eating and drinking, of wearing clothes and shoes; and when they come to their end, they forsake all that is physical and enter into an infinite spiritual life, where they no longer have any use for their physical
And now Christ says: “You must be one of the two, either a physical man or a spiritual man. Now choose which you want. There is no compromise: either physical or spiritual.” He who chooses to be physical may be intent on good and easy days here on earth, on gorging and carousing, on indulging in all sensual pleasures; for after this life he gets nothing more. He will take along neither money nor goods, neither power nor riches, neither gold nor pearls—everything will remain behind. You may be a Turkish sultan, but this will not save you. But whoever would have eternal life must see to it that salvation is his after the conclusion of this life and that God is his Protector. He must be willing, if necessary, to abandon everything temporal for the sake of the Lord, in whom he is baptized and born anew. He will use all earthly things according to his necessity and pass through this temporal life into an eternal life which he neither sees nor understands nor comprehends but only believes. Whoever does not transcend physical birth will descend into the abyss of hell. Physical birth entails physical things, such as diapers and pap, father and mother; it concerns physical life and no more. But if you want salvation, you need different parents, who will bring you to heaven. This Christ does. By means of Baptism and the Word of God He places you and your Christianity into the lap of our dear mother, the Christian Church. This He accomplished through His suffering and death that by virtue of His death and blood we might live eternally.
Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born anew.
This poses a mysterious and odd doctrine for reason, which cannot come to terms with it. Therefore the good and pious Nicodemus probably sat there wrapped in silence, brooding sadly, shaking his head, and acting strangely. Undoubtedly he pondered the matter, but he failed to understand. While he is wrinkling his nose as if to register his displeasure and sits there in silence, Christ continues and says: “My dear Nicodemus, why are you so amazed at this? No matter how long you meditate on this question, you will never comprehend it. Surrender, and bear in mind that you are learning it from Me. After all, there are other matters, surely of lesser importance, which you do not understand either, but which your fine and feeble reason has to accept on faith. So do the same thing here. Believe that a man must become a new creature and must be born anew if he is to be saved, even though you do not understand how this takes place. I shall give you an understandable and clear illustration from nature.”
The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it,
but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes;
so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
The Lord wishes to say: “It sounded strange to you when I told you that you must be born anew. But listen. I will tell you something important, something known to everybody. You live in the wind every moment of your life; without it you could not exist. You hear the wind, and you feel it rushing against your hand, your nose, and your whole body, particularly when it blows coat and mantle over your head, as it often does. Yes, everything in the world feels the wind—the foliage and the grass, wood and stone, the high towers and the houses, and all the animals in the world. And yet you cannot tell Me from which hole it emerges, even though this were but a few inches behind you. Nor can you tell Me how far it blows and where it stops, even though it blows right in front of your nose. The sense of sight or the eye is the most acute member of the human body; yet it does not see the wind although the wind is very harmful to the eyes. The wind is perceived by only two senses: the ear and the hand, that is, the sense of feeling. Your perception of the wind is confined to feeling it on your hand and hearing its rushing sound with your ears. Of course, the ear does not really hear the wind itself, but only the sound of rushing produced when the wind strikes it. A deaf person does not hear the sound of the wind; he merely feels it on his body.”
Therefore the Lord wishes to say here: “Since the wind is a physical thing which sustains life and without which you cannot live, and since you feel it with your whole body and hear its sound with your ears, tell Me, my dear man, whence it comes and where it goes. Name the mother which gives it birth and the grave in which it is buried. You cannot tell Me. Yet you must believe in the existence of the wind even though you know nothing about it. It begins at the ear and ends at the ear. 12 Even if it is strong enough to overturn houses, I still do not see it; I merely hear its sound. When I do not feel the wind on My body or skin, it does not exist at all so far as I am concerned; then I do not know whether it is far away from Me or whether it is before Me or behind Me or where it is hiding. Even if the wind uproots trees, I nevertheless perceive neither its origin nor its end. I merely hear its sound and feel its blowing against My body; but where it originates and where it stops I do not know. This you cannot deny, My dear Nicodemus. You experience this on your own body. You hear the sound of the wind, but you do not know whence it comes.” Even if everyone on earth were to study this question, no one would be found who could say or prove just what the wind is, whence it comes, and where it gets such strength and power that it breaks strong trees in the forest, topples large houses, and batters and sinks mighty ships. When Aristotle engages in a lengthy discourse on the wind’s origin, asserting that it has its source in the caverns of the mountains or of the earth, where it is confined until it rushes forth when a bit of air strikes it, 13 he comes as close to the mark as do blindfold children who spin a top on the street and think they are spinning it toward the south when they are really spinning it toward the north. It is sheer nonsense, and a philosopher should be ashamed of having such thoughts!
Holy Writ informs us differently about the wind. In Ps. 135:7 we read: “He it is who brings forth the wind from His storehouses.” And neither Aristotle nor anyone else has seen these. The wind is so mysterious that not one step of it can be known. This the philosophers themselves would admit if a confession of ignorance did not offend their pride in their own wisdom. It is very foolish of them to allege that the wind originates in the high mountains. A wise man should not speak that way.
But the Lord Christ declares here that one cannot say about the wind, which constantly surrounds us, whither it goes and whence it comes. It does not blow as we desire or from the direction we wish. It also rushes and roars without your knowledge, strength, will, might, or power, wherever it chooses, everywhere in the world, at one time from morning till evening or sunset, at another from midday until midnight. We only feel its rushing and blowing, and we must simply believe it and acknowledge its existence.
The fact that everyone feels and hears the wind is, of course, only a physical matter subject to our five senses; and yet we do not know just what the wind is, whence it comes, or where it goes. Then why do we not readily give honor to our God and believe His words when He tells us that we are born anew through Baptism and that, although we are still sinners, we enter into eternal life by way of the grave and are saved? Why do we not believe this even though we cannot perceive and comprehend it with our reason and do not feel anything but the water and the sound of the Holy Spirit, that is, His Word? Therefore the Lord later says to Nicodemus: “If you cannot understand earthly things—for example, the origin and the goal of the wind—how, then, can you hope to understand when I talk to you of heavenly things? You must do God the honor of admitting His power to do things that transcend your comprehension.” As if the Lord were to say: “I want you to know that I am going to talk to you about many things which you will not and cannot understand. In particular you will not understand how those who are born anew from water and the Holy Spirit will come into eternal life; this you must simply believe. It is not necessary for you to know the origin of the wind. Even though you do not know what the wind is, whence it comes and where it goes, you are content to hear its sound and feel its breath. And it may be very surprising that such a smart and wise man (indeed, all of us even today!) cannot know the wind, its source, its beginning, and its end, though we inhale it and derive our breath and life from it.” This speech of the Lord is rather harsh, yes, very humiliating. But He wants to say: “If you, Nicodemus, are ignorant of this and must let the wind come whence it wills, why, then, do you not also say in this instance: ‘I shall gladly humble myself and be taught, since I neither know nor can know anything about the wind. I shall do the same thing here. Even though I cannot comprehend the rebirth with my reason, I shall believe it and acknowledge as true that we must be born anew by water and the Holy Spirit.’ ”
Listen, even though you do not understand this. The sound of the wind is also heard in this Word of God: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Furthermore, you also have the wind in the baptismal water; the Holy Spirit is blowing there. You cannot understand how a man can be renewed by water and the Holy Spirit, nor how one who has died can live anew. But believe it, accept it, and content yourself with hearing the sound of the water and with feeling the water and the sound of the Holy Spirit. It matters not that you cannot understand how you are renewed. Just say: “I will believe it. I do not know either whence the wind comes; and still I know that it exists, for I can hear and feel it. Thus I will also believe God when He says that Baptism initiates a new birth, even though I cannot understand how it can renew me, keep and preserve me for eternal life. I will simply hear the Word, accept the water of Baptism, and believe. After all, I have to accept far lesser things without understanding them. The fact that I was born anew this way is just as true as the fact that I hear the wind. Just as I know that I hear and feel the wind but do not know whence it comes, so I shall also believe that I am born anew by water and the Holy Spirit and that the old man in me must die if I wish to enter eternal life.”
In this rebirth neither mother nor midwife is in evidence. It involves neither man nor woman. And yet it takes place, and we are born anew. Thus I also die, I depart this life, and I am placed in a coffin. But where I go and make my abode I do not know. All is invisible and beyond the reach of human reason and understanding. Yet the rushing and the roaring of the wind is present; I see that I am dying and yet am to live. I do not see how that life is to begin and to end; and yet I feel, yes, I experience, that I am to live. Similarly, I also see that I am sprinkled with water in Baptism; but how I was reborn I do not see.
With the help of this physical and clear illustration the Lord taught Nicodemus to believe even where he fails to grasp, for he cannot even understand the sense of hearing. No philosopher or sage has ever been able to say how it happens that the ear can catch the report of a gun discharged two miles away and how this sound travels as fast as any arrow from a crossbow.
Yes, there may indeed be lesser things than the wind that defy our comprehension, that no wise man has ever fathomed. No man on earth has ever been able to explain how the eye can range so far, surveying from a high tower everything within a radius of ten miles or instantly Seeing the sun, which is much larger and more extensive than many worlds may be. This baffles human understanding. Much indeed has been written about this, but no one has ever been able to understand it. 14 No one on earth has been able to explain how the movements of the tongue, assisted by the vocal chords, can produce speech and amplify it so that it can be heard by many people. And no one has ever appeared who could explain laughter or crying or sleep, or how it happens that the bread I eat today or the beverage I drink is transformed into my flesh and blood and excrement tomorrow, how food is changed inside the body, where it is not nearly as hot as it was in the pot. Even though it were to remain in the pot and boil over the fire for many years, still it would not be converted into flesh and blood but would remain flesh. But in the body food and drink become precious flesh and blood in twenty-four hours.
No one has ever been born who could explain the phenomenon of leaves shooting forth in spring with all their might from a tree that was dead in winter, or the growth on a thin stem of a large fruit, beautifully colored, containing a hard kernel inside.
And who can tell me how a stalk can grow from a decayed kernel and then bear kernels? All this pertains to things that we see. We are completely ignorant of all these operations; yet we do not worry but accept them unconcernedly without understanding them. But we do insist on delving into the extraordinary operations of God. There we are busybodies and want to be very smart. We go about asking that abominable “Why?” with which our first parents in
Therefore Christ says: “Dear Nicodemus, do not be amazed. Content yourself in this matter, and just believe in this rebirth. If you cannot grasp it, then simply believe it. You have before you a clear and understandable illustration: the wind. From this you see that there are certain insignificant facts which we cannot understand no matter how we rack our brains. Now I am speaking about far greater things than the sound of the wind. Therefore, simply believe that you must be born again. If you fail to grasp it, do not be surprised; just accept it in faith.”
It is vexing and annoying that the wiser and more intelligent people are, the more they insist on knowing and understanding everything in God’s realm, and the more they delve into it. There is no end to their questions. But in worldly and lesser matters they ask few questions or none at all. In the realm of faith they insist on knowing why; where they should probe into things with all diligence, they are altogether remiss. 16
Luther, M. (1999, c1957). Vol. 22: Luther's works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (22:287).