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Jesus and the New Birth

Nicodemus and Jesus

by Dennis Pollock

Some people, who like to consider themselves Christians and yet deny the inspiration of the Scriptures, would try to tell us that the message of Jesus and the teachings of Paul are in opposition to each other. They suggest that Jesus came to teach us to love one another and behave ourselves, but Paul got carried away with all sorts of nonsense, and warped the essence of the life and teachings of Jesus by insisting that we must be saved through a radical experience with Jesus. They love to talk about “Pauline theology” as being irreconcilable with the theology and message of Jesus. In their eyes, Paul was a grumpy, demanding demagogue who couldn’t leave well enough alone. Jesus came to teach us to love each other and be happy, but Paul has spoiled everything with his harsh, twisted version of Christianity. What especially troubles folks like these is Paul’s insistence upon being born again through a faith experience with Jesus. In their minds, Jesus tells us to be nice, but Paul tells us to be saved.

Anyone who reads the gospels will recognize that these Paul-haters could hardly be more wrong. Our Lord Jesus had much to say about salvation, the new birth, and the necessity of our being justified through faith. The terrible mistake they make is probably the result of two factors. First, it is likely that these people have never tasted the new birth themselves, and therefore have a built-in bias against any teaching which insists that we must be born again or we will surely perish. Secondly, Jesus did indeed have a lot to say about how we are to live. His remarks about our behavior greatly outnumber His sayings and His hints about the need to be saved through faith, especially in the first three “Synoptic gospels.” The Sermon on the Mount, for example, contains tons of directives about how we are to live. In fact that is pretty much the sum and the substance of it. If all we had to go by was this sermon, no one would ever get saved. There is almost no evangelistic emphasis in the whole sermon. Throughout the sermon, Jesus is saying, “Do this,” and “Don’t do that.” If I were to paraphrase this sermon and preach it in one of our evangelistic meetings in Africa, it would be helpful for the believers, but no one would be born again.  The Sermon on the Mount is truly a believer’s manifesto.

So it is true that a quick perusal of the gospels might lead one to think that Jesus came to simply correct some of our behavior and assure us of God’s love. But if you carefully read the gospels, searching for references related to salvation, you can find them easily. Jesus was sent from Heaven by the Father to do far more than merely give us a slight behavior adjustment, and He knew it well! As that famous Christmas song declares, He was “Born to raise the sons of earth; Born to give them second birth.”

Saved!

The term “saved” has gone out of favor in the church these days, and it is kind of a shame. Nowadays we are too cool to ask people if they have been saved, or to declare that they need to be. Today preachers talk about “crossing the line of faith,” and use other expressions that sound less offensive to politically correct ears. Actually the word saved has some pretty sound roots. The Lord Jesus used it frequently. After His resurrection He told His disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). According to Jesus, there are two spiritual conditions in which men and women find themselves. People are either saved or they are condemned. Jesus came to save as many as would believe on Him, and elsewhere He declares, “I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47). In His parable about the seeds sown on four types of ground, He says, “Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12).

Jesus seems to feel that people need to be saved. And it follows logically that if people need to be saved, they must at present be “unsaved.” Of course Jesus is not talking about men and women who have been lost in the woods, or who are being attacked by a bear, or who have been taken captive by dangerous criminals. He is referring to men, women, boys, and girls, who are walking around with their sins clinging to their souls, people upon whom the wrath of God continually rests, human beings who eat, drink, sleep, play, and make their way through this life, unforgiven, unreconciled, unrepentant, and unsaved.

You Must Be Born Again

You must be born again

The one chapter in the Bible that utterly undercuts this Paul vs Jesus controversy and clearly demonstrates that Jesus taught and insisted upon the new birth is the third chapter of John. Here Jesus doesn’t just hint at the idea of being saved through faith – he spells it out so clearly you would have to be a blind man wearing dark sunglasses to miss it. The chapter begins with one of Israel’s elite political leaders, a man named Nicodemus, coming to Jesus and beginning the conversation in a complimentary manner: “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus seems to pay little attention to the compliment and immediately deals with what He obviously perceives is Nicodemus’ greatest need, saying, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

It is curious that Jesus makes this statement to Nicodemus. Beyond the fact that he was a leader, he was one of the very, very few leaders of Israel that showed any respect for Jesus. Jesus had been with tax collectors and sinners of every size, shape, and kind and had not said such things. But when one of the most respected men in all the nation of Israel comes and compliments Him, He tells the shocked Nicodemus that if he was ever to see heaven, he would have to be born all over again. Respectability, piety, decency… all the things Nicodemus had worked his entire life to achieve meant nothing in the quest for eternal life with God. He, like everyone else, would have to be born again.

When Nicodemus questioned exactly what Jesus meant by such a strange statement, Jesus did not explain Himself fully. He stated that the experience of the new birth was much like the wind: you can see its effects, but you cannot see the wind itself. Rather than confuse Nicodemus any further with an attempt to spell it out in greater detail, Jesus went on to declare that statement that has become famous the world over, and is unquestionably the most popular and the most frequently quoted verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). If we are wanting to come up with a declaration of the purpose and the mission of Jesus Christ, surely the best way would be to go to the Source Himself – the Lord Jesus. And Jesus tells us without hesitation that He has come to save people and that this salvation has everything to do with faith. He does not say “whoever does ninety-nine good works should not perish,” or “whoever shows kindness to little old ladies should not perish,” or “whoever rescues stray dogs should not perish.” No, He tells us, “Whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This is exactly what Paul the apostle taught. We are saved not through our works but by faith in Jesus. Or to use Paul’s precise language, “…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ…” (Galatians 2:16).

Jesus actually had quite a bit to say about the importance of faith. When some men asked him what they might do to be able to do the works of God, Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:29).  In the midst of a great crowd on a Jewish holiday, Jesus stood up and proclaimed loudly, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). And just in case we might miss what Jesus was saying, John informs us “this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive…”

Gradual or Instant

When Jesus appeared to Paul, He not only converted Him, but He commissioned Him. It is especially enlightening to consider the words He used. Jesus told Paul:

I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.  (Acts 26:17,18)

The new birth Jesus speaks of and defines in these words is surely the most radical, the most far-reaching, and the most transformative experience any human being will ever have. The process of being conformed to the will of God is worked out gradually in the life of the believer, but the experience of the new birth is instantaneous. Our sins are not remitted on an installment program, with a few sins paid off at a time. Our world does not consist of Christians, non-Christians, and partial Christians. People do not fall into the justified, condemned, and “somewhere in-between” categories. From the moment genuine faith in Christ appears in our hearts, we cross over from darkness to light, from the dominion of Satan to the kingdom of our Heavenly Father. Even after we have been saved for forty-five years, and have experienced countless trials, enjoyed innumerable answers to prayer, and have been used by God to touch people’s lives in wonderful ways, we will be no more Christian, no more redeemed, no more “born again” than we were in the first moments of our salvation.

old computerIn the early days of personal computers, I once had the terrifying task of reformatting the hard drive of my computer. I had followed the instructions a wiser, more learned computer geek had given me, and had carefully backed up all my files on 5 ¼ inch floppy discs. This was well before the days of portable hard drives and flash drives. My bed was littered with all the floppy discs, and all I could do was hope that they would still work when placed in my reformatted hard drive. I went through the various commands for reformatting my computer, and at last came to the final question and warning. My computer ominously asked me something like, “Do you really want to format this hard drive? All files will be deleted!!!” I hesitated for a moment, knowing that by clicking yes, I would delete every single file on my computer. Still, it had to be done, and with reluctance and fear, I clicked yes. The computer immediately went into its formatting process, and the deed was done. I had wiped clean my entire computer. Although there was a process leading up to it, there was nothing gradual about that final click. At that point it all depended upon my willingness to click the right button. And once done, there was no going back.

In some ways that experience seems similar to the new birth which Jesus proclaimed. There may well be a process leading up to it. We may go through questions and struggles, we may read and think and wonder and debate. But eventually there will be one final question – will you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and receive Him as your Savior now and forever? And if we say yes, the deed is done and we experience that which Jesus referred to in His conversation with Nicodemus so long ago. We are conveyed from darkness to light and transformed from objects of God’s wrath to subjects of His great mercy. And having been born again, we shall indeed see the kingdom of God.

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