How does God save people? Yes, you know the Sunday School answer: Jesus! But that is not what I’m asking. What are the means, and what is the method that God uses to save people? Some Christians will say God does everything: “Everything is predestined, so it doesn’t matter what you do.” Other Christians say God does everything, except you have the pivotal responsibility of exercising faith: “God’s done it all, so why don’t you just put your faith in him? God’s asking you, no begging you to just believe.” Most people who consider themselves Christians would not be so crass as to say God does nothing, and it’s all up to the person to save himself: “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps! God helps those who help themselves.” What does the Gospel of John teach about how God saves sinners? In chapter 3:1-21, we read about a man named Nicodemus who found himself in a conversation with Jesus about this very topic.
Nicodemus was a rabbi and a Pharisee. This made him a well-respected teacher of Scripture in his community of Israel. He was also humble enough of a teacher to seek out Jesus and ask him questions. Not many teachers and leaders will approach another teacher as student. His shows that Nicodemus was not full of pride, but was teachable. He visited Jesus “at night” which probably indicates that he is coming of his own volition (not on a fact-finding assignment from the other Pharisees). But he probably came to Jesus under the cover of darkness because he didn’t want to be seen asking Jesus questions. After all, seeing answers from another rabbi could suggest to others that Nicodemus was not a teacher worth following. There are folks in our day that are like Nicodemus. They might be respected pastors or Bible teachers in the local church. If Nicodemus lived today, he would probably make his living preaching and teaching the Bible as lead pastor in a local church. He would probably have a big library with lots of books on the Bible and theology. And he might be a little smug in his position as holy man in the crowd.
Being born from above is very different from being an involved member of a religious group. I’ve been in churches all my life. So I’ve seen people who were very involved in the service and ministry of the church for a season, and then later move onto new things in life, seeming to leave the Christian faith behind. What I’ve noticed is that people who are active members who later fall away don’t evidence a balance in their Christian life. They are heavy on the service and ministry activity, but very light on the personal holiness and spiritual disciplines that no one else can see—things like private prayer, personal Bible study, displaying Christian virtue outside of the church community. I know this because many of those people who are publically active have admitted to me that they don’t know how to follow God when they are alone. Being born again (from above) is different because it tends to bring balance to the Christian life. And the reason it brings balance is because God gives new life, a new nature, a new heart, and new affections by the power of the Holy Spirit. Being born from above does not prevent you from sinning or make you live the balanced Christian life, but it enables you to believe (and continue to believe) the gospel of God’s grace, and irresistibly brings you back to God every time you’ve fallen down trying to walk the walk of faith. In others words, being born from above gives a believer the power and desire to continue to live the balanced Christian life.
In John 3:6-8, Jesus talks about the Spirit and the wind. “Spirit” and “wind” are the same word in the original Greek (pneuma), but it is clear Jesus is talking about two things. Jesus’ comparison of the Spirit of God to the wind is an interesting thing. Usually people think the main point is that you cannot see the wind. I think that is true, and Jesus means to convey this to Nicodemus, but what is often missed is that the wind is unpredictable and uncontrollable. The wind is not under the power of man. We learn to use the wind, to harness it, but we cannot tame the wind. God is like the wind. We can learn to observe the effects of the wind, but we cannot tell it what to do. Jesus said we don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes. We know the flesh because we are of the flesh, but we do not know the Spirit because we are not of the Spirit. Only the one who is born again (from above) is of the Spirit. Only he who is born from above understands the things of the Spirit.
Why would this kind of religion make a person like Nicodemus confused and uncomfortable? If religion is a set of truth propositions, then with study anyone can comprehend religion. If religion is a set of life principles, then with practice anyone can be religious. But the kind of religion that Jesus is speaking of is confusing and uncomfortable to people like Nicodemus who prefer concrete propositions and principles. The Spirit is like an untamed wild animal. The Spirit is not “safe” for city-dwellers and bookworms. The Spirit lives and moves and has his being in the realm of life in this unpredictable world. And that is something that people like Nicodemus can never be at ease with.
One question that frequently arises in American evangelical circles is whether it is possible to be born of the Spirit and not remember the particular day on which this occurred. Not knowing the day or the hour of one’s conversion has been the experience and testimony of many (more likely the majority) of believers through the ages. For every Paul who was converted suddenly and unexpectedly, there are dozens of Peters and Johns who walked with Jesus for days, weeks, months, even years before they came to realize that they believed. Jesus asked Peter to identify who he is, and Peter didn’t hesitate to confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Luke 9:20). That occasion was Peter’s first confession, but it was not the first time Peter reached that conclusion. Most likely, Peter had slowly grown in his faith that Jesus is the Christ. The experience of faith as a dawning realization is evidence that it is possible to be born of the Spirit without being able to name the date and time when it occurred. Spiritual birth is just not that obvious, at least in the majority of instances.
Another frequently asked question often follows: Is it possible to be born of the Spirit and not feel consistently aware of his presence? There are spiritually vibrant seasons in life, and there are spiritually dry seasons as well. The life of faith is commonly experienced as a series of peaks and valleys, with lots of time lived in between those two extremes. While the saints throughout the ages bear witness to at times feeling devoid of God’s presence, perhaps the ultimate exhibit of this occurred in the life of Jesus. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus cried out to God who seemed to be ignoring his prayers. Eventually God send ministering angels to attend to him to strengthen Jesus for the way of suffering that lay ahead. When he finally was hoisted up on the cross where he endured insults from his right and his left, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) During the most agonizing moment in his life, the one and only Son of God knew he was outside the loving presence of God. Is it any wonder when Christians sometimes feel the absence of God’s presence? There are many reasons for this phenomenon. Personal sin could be rending our fellowship with the Spirit of God. God could be testing our faith to refine it. We could be in the presence of God yet for whatever reason not be aware of it. The point is that just because we do not consistently feel God’s presence, this does not mean that we are without God’s Spirit. When our feelings tell us things that are not true, we should rest in the promises of God’s Word that he will never leave us or forsake us (Josh 1:5; cf. Heb 13:5).
This discussion between Jesus and the seeking (yet still unbelieving) Nicodemus leads to the issue of how we should talk about Jesus with others. For there are many challenges of talking with unbelievers about Jesus’ uniqueness. It is offensive to many unbelievers to say that Jesus is the only way to God. Such a claim has the appearance of arrogance and pride (and sometimes we deliver the message in pride and arrogance to our shame). But the message that Jesus is unique does not have to be delivered in an offensive way. Yes, Christians do believe that Jesus is unique, but not in the same way that we love our favorite sports team. Christians believe Jesus is unique because Jesus himself claimed to be the only way to the Father, and he validated this seemingly outrageous claim with signs and miracles, a sinless life, and lastly by defeating death. Such a track record of evidence confirms that Jesus is unique, and Christians should not shy away from declaring the truth of Jesus and his gospel as the only way.
Another topic that John addresses in this passage is the unity of purpose in the Father and the Son (and the Spirit). Some Christians imagine the Father as a God of wrath, while Jesus is the one who loves us and dies to turn away the Father’s wrath. They think the Father is our adversary, and Jesus is our ally. Notice how John 3:16-18 portrays the Father and Jesus differently, but of the same mind. The Father and the Son are not at odds with each other. Not in any way, especially in their plans to bring salvation to the world. The Son did not come to sake the world despite his Father’s wishes. No, the Son came into the world to save it because the Father sent him to accomplish that very mission. The Father and the Son (along with the Holy Spirit) are one God, united in their saving purposes.
And then there is the controversy over the doctrine of hell. Does God’s sending Jesus to save the world–those who are hostile to him–mean that every person will be saved and hell will be empty? John 3:16-21 clearly teaches that God sent Jesus to save the world, but this does not mean that every last person will be saved and that hell will be empty. Many will remain in darkness, many will not hear the Good Shepherd’s voice calling out of the darkness and into the light. John tells us that those who do wicked things hate the light and therefore do not come to the light because they don’t want their wicked deeds exposed. But those who are born of the Spirit (not of the blood, the will of man, or of the flesh) will become children of God (John 1:12-13).
In John 3:19-21, John diagnoses the core human problem by observing something about human behavior: People who do evil love darkness; they hate and avoid the light. When have you seen yourself, a friend, or your children work hard to avoid being exposed by the light? I’ve seen this time and again in people who have grown up in Christian homes, but were eager to move away to college so they could have fun. The fun they had in mind did not include God, and they made it a point to ignore God, his Word, and the church when they were far away from the watchful gaze of their Christian family. New friends and new activities fill the void of God because those who love darkness prefer the company of fellow darkness-dwellers. I don’t mean to infer that darkness-lovers are evil, Satan-loving people. People who love darkness sometimes continue to speak well of God and his people, they just want those things at a distance so they can run their lives like they want.
It is significant how John narrates the meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, fearing to be exposed in daylight. What does it say about Jesus that he is willing to meet and talk with Nicodemus in the darkness? Jesus is the incarnate Son of God. We can infer from the incarnation that God enters into our world of darkness and sin to meet us, to minister to us, to save us. Jesus talked with people in the daylight and at night. He was willing to meet us where we are in our spiritual journey, not to coddle us in our natural fallen state, but to change and challenge us from the place that each of us find ourselves. We don’t have to come into the light to find Jesus, Jesus will kick in the darkness until it bleeds daylight!
One might despair that there is any hope for those who fear or even hate the light. But such despair or objection is unwarranted, because God is sovereign over all, including salvation, there is hope for every living person who presently hates the light. If people who love darkness had to muster up the decision to step into the light to change their ways and follow Jesus, then hope for them would be critically curtailed. For we are not merely spiritually wounded or sick by nature. We are spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins, and we love darkness rather than the light. Our only hope for those who hate the light is in the sovereign grace of God to change the darkened heart into a heart filled with life. This is what it means to be converted and to be born from above (again). The wind blows where it wishes, we do not see where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with the Spirit of God. When God chooses to save a sinner and transfer him or her from the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of marvelous light, there is no stopping him. That is our only hope. And we ought to pray to such end, that those who remain in darkness would be enabled to see the great light of God by the power of his regenerating Spirit.