This week we want to pick up where we left off two weeks ago in our series of messages on true and false conversions and assurance of salvation. The reason why we want to spend time here is because the New Testament persistently tells us there will be in any era a number of nice, orthodox church-going people who believe the right things about God and the atonement, but who according to the Scriptures are not saved. We also want to strengthen the assurance of those who are in the faith but need to “make their calling and election sure” as Peter commands us. Last time, we looked at a well-known passage from James chapter two where James contrasts a faith that, though giving mental ascent to the truth is not accompanied by works. In 2:14 James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” James’ answer to that question is a resounding, “no.” There is therefore a faith that cannot save that is different from a true, work-producing, obedience-yielding, saving faith. It is our responsibility as those who “believe” to examine the character of our own faith through the discriminating lens of Scripture.
This morning we hope to flesh out this biblical distinction between a faith that saves and one that doesn’t by turning to the gospel of John and another well-known text. This narrative text supports James’ two-faith distinction. Let’s begin with chapter 2:23 and read through 3:21. John says of Jesus, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. 3:1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "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." 3Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." 4Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" 5Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' 8The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
9Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
Our first point to buttress James’ teaching on this matter of saving and non-saving faith comes from the first five verses we read and is simply: It is possible to have a faith that does not save. This is unmistakably an observation we should make from this narrative. John sets the context in verse 23 telling us that Jesus had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast and he says, “...many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” These were people who believed. The word John uses here for “believed” is the same word used elsewhere to refer to saving faith. Notice however Jesus’ response to them in verse 24, “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” Jesus knew that though these people had “believed” on him at some level, he knew this belief would not hold up when opposition came—they were not safe—they would turn on him and so he does not entrust himself to them. They believed because they saw signs and Jesus later in John denigrates a faith rooted in signs and wonders. In 4:48 he says disparagingly, “…Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Throughout John’s gospel we see John declaring that such and such a person or group “believed,” in some manner but there is no evidence they ever became true followers of Jesus.
In John 12:42-43 John gives us a fairly common response from the people who witnessed Jesus ministry and heard his teaching. “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” John’s editorial comment on these people leaves no doubt that this kind of man-centered, non-confessing faith is not a saving faith. It’s vitally important that we see Christ’s exchange with Nicodemus in this context. The little connective word at the beginning of 3:1 translated “now” and which is missing in the King James is put there by John to connect the last three verses of chapter two with the Nicodemus narrative. He is one of those who “believe” at some level because of the signs, but according to Jesus he is not yet in the kingdom. In verse 11 he says to Nicodemus and whoever he is representing “…you do not receive our testimony.” At this point in his spiritual development, Nicodemus was not a follower of Christ. It’s easy for us to misunderstand where Nicodemus is coming from in John three because we read into this text what John records about him later in Jesus’ ministry. It is true that in chapter seven Nicodemus--apparently all alone, courageously challenges the other Pharisees about condemning Jesus without evidence. It is also this same Nicodemus in who in 19:39 brings 75 pounds of expensive embalming supplies when Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross. It’s clear that Nicodemus ended up being sympathetic and almost certainly a follower of Christ, but we do not get that from his text.
As an expert in the Old Testament, if he were a true follower of Christ he would have been able to say something much more meaningful about Jesus than [v.2], “…Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Nicodemus distinguishes himself from most of the Pharisees by admitting that God sent him and is with him, but this is faint praise in light of what Jesus had done. He doesn’t call him a prophet, much less THE prophet who he knew was to come, nor does he ask Him if he is the long-awaited Messiah. By contrast, the uneducated man born blind in John nine calls Jesus a prophet, but the scholar Nicodemus is much more conservative in his assessment. He, like the other Jews around him had seen signs and believed at some level, but it’s safe to say that at this time in his understanding, Nicodemus was what today we would call a “seeker.” John portrays him as part of the crowd that Jesus refused to entrust himself.
So what are we to make of John calling people “believers” whose superficial faith rests only in signs and wonders? We get a big part of the answer from John 8:30-32. Jesus has in this text been in dialogue with the Jews and the Pharisees in particular and after teaching on his authority as the Son of Man he responds to the crowds. It says in verse 30, “As he was saying these things, many believed in him. But notice the next verse where he continues, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and [v.32] you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Do you hear that eternally important distinction John makes between those who “believe” on the basis of the teaching and/or work of Christ and those who are true disciples of Jesus? The difference is just what we saw two weeks ago in James isn’t it? Those who “abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” There is a vast gulf separating someone who, on the one hand, sees a miracle or hears an impressive teaching and mentally ascents to the divine power of it and on the other, hears the teaching and chooses to abide or remain in that teaching—to obey that teaching—to suffer persecution for a truth that has traveled the 18 inch instance between their head and their heart.
This text teaches it is not biblical to say as some have said within evangelicalism, “I’m a genuine believer in Jesus, I’m just not a disciple—I’ll be in heaven, I just haven’t accepted Jesus as Lord.” Books have been written exposing that heresy. Let me just point to one text in Acts 11 that dispels this false division between a “believer” and a disciple. In the last phrase of Acts 11:26 Luke tells us, “…And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” A Christian is a disciple and according to Jesus a disciple is one who abides in the word of Christ. If you are not a disciple submitting to the Lordship of Christ by abiding in his word, you are simply not a Christian. If you have believed otherwise, you have been misled and you must rid yourself of that spiritually lethal lie. The first point is simply what we saw in James. It is possible to have a faith that does not save.
The second point answers the question “How does a person get their faith to travel those 18 inches from their head to their heart?” The answer, as we’ll see is that WE don’t make that happen. GOD does that by miraculously giving us a new, faith-producing heart. Let’s read beginning with 3:3, “Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." 4Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" 5Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'” There is so much in these five verses but the point that we need to see for this morning is saving faith is made possible by a supernatural-life-imparting work of God through the new birth.
In these verses Jesus does what he so often does with the Pharisees. They come to him with a question but he deflects it and instead shifts to what he knows they need to hear. Christ seizes control of this conversation rooted in a context of superficial faith and he says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is befuddled by this kingdom teaching and asks Jesus how an old man (presumably like he was) could be physically “re-wombed” and re-birthed. Jesus simply repeats with slightly different words what he said before. [v.5] “Jesus answered, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” When Jesus says a person must be born of water and Spirit, he is probably hearkening back to Ezekiel 36 where God through the prophet speaks of the New Covenant Jesus knew he would initiate. In verse 25 God promises, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
In John 3:5 Jesus is simply reiterating the promise of the new birth found in the New Covenant that, like water cleanses us and gives us a new heart and a new Spirit. Paul in Titus 3:5-6 echoes this teaching where he says of Jesus, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” This is a spiritual rebirth—it is not a spiritual make over or remodeling. This is God’s work of spiritual creation out of nothing. God removes our unbelieving hearts of stone and replaces them with new, faith-yielding hearts—hearts that are tuned in to His frequency of faith and that can believe the gospel. This is what Jesus implies when he says in verse six, “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” You can’t remake unbelieving fleshly hearts to enable them to savingly believe. Jesus says in John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail—[the flesh profits nothing.]” This is a new, God-wrought spiritual birth.
The logical flow of this teaching points to the truth that the new heart must come first and then saving faith springs from this new heart. First, we see the inadequate faith of the Jews and Nicodemus, then Jesus gives his teaching on the new birth. Jesus is incensed that the teacher of Israel doesn’t know the Old Testament truths (assumedly on the New Covenant texts that promise a new heart). He declares their unbelief of him in verse 11 and in verses 13-16 he looks ahead to his saving act when he will be lifted up on the cross where he will save not only the Jews but the world. Don’t miss the sequence here. First, Jesus teaches on new birth and only later does he follow with his famous declaration in 3:16 about believing on the One God had sent into the world. John also teaches the new birth must come before faith in 1 John 5:1 where he says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him.” The tenses of the verbs in the original language force us to interpret this text like this, “Everyone who now currently believes [present tense] that Jesus is the Christ has in the past been born of God [perfect tense].” The capacity to exercise saving faith comes from the new heart that has been born of God. Being born of God causes saving faith to rise within a person, NOT the other way around. God doesn’t start with saving faith. He first creates the new heart which is enabled to show forth saving faith.
Dead hearts produce dead faith—new, living heaven-born hearts produce living, saving faith. The question is: “why is this so important to this discussion of true and false assurance?” We see the answer all around us in the evangelical church today. Today, many people (I believe) wrongly think that because they decided to “believe in Jesus” God has given them a new heart. In that understanding, faith is primary, regeneration is secondary. That’s backwards and what it tends to do is to make the primary ground of assurance whether a person “believes in Jesus.” The presence of faith has become for many in the church today the only determinative factor of their place in the kingdom. We have seen from John’s gospel how perilous that is because there were all sorts of people who “believed” in Jesus at some level but were not genuine followers of Christ—their faith was dead because their hearts were dead. Many people believed who weren’t true disciples of Jesus according to 8:30-31.
On the other hand, if one of the main tests for assurance of salvation is (as I believe Jesus teaches in John three) a new, born-from-above heart that will help cut through the confusion and bring us to a better, more biblical standard. Jesus brings up this standard in verse eight and again in verses 19-21 and that brings us to our third point which is: Saving faith that comes from a born again heart shows itself in the radical reorienting of a person’s life from self to God. Jesus hints at this in verse eight and develops it in verses 19-21. Jesus says in verse eight, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus is using a natural phenomenon, the wind to illustrate the Spirit’s work in the new birth. He is saying this work of the Spirit in the new birth is as D.A. Carson says, “neither controlled nor understood by human beings.” Even though now the science of meteorology and climatology help us to better understand the wind, no one has been able to control the wind—“it blows where it wishes.” The implication is the new birth is not something a person can control or manipulate by praying a prayer or by compelling God to save them because they have sufficient faith. But, and this is the point—the EFFECTS of the wind are, again quoting Carson, “undeniable and unmistakable.”
Just as the wind inevitably produces sounds and movement, likewise someone who has been born of the Spirit will show undeniable and unmistakable signs that God is working in them. John reiterates this truth several times in First John. In 2:29 we read, “If you know that he [God] is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” Chapter three, verse nine, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” Chapter four, verse seven, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” Chapter five, verse four, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world— our faith.” Truly born again people are undeniably and unmistakably different in character than those who simply “believe” but who have no new heart.
Jesus expands on this in verses 19-21 where he contrasts those who are in the kingdom with those who are not. He says, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.” Jesus is speaking as the Judge and he gets to the very heart of unbelief. He says it’s not mental, it’s moral—it’s spiritual. In this narrative Jesus balances God’s sovereignty in salvation with man’s responsibility in salvation. The bible teaches the paradox that in salvation God is sovereign and man is responsible. We see God’s sovereign control in salvation in Jesus’ words about the uncontrollability of the work of God’s Spirit in regeneration in verse eight. We see man’s responsibility in salvation because they hate the light in verses 19-21.
The human reason people refuse to come to Christ is because they are light-hating, wicked people who, if they were to come to the light of Christ, their deeds would be exposed and that word also means “convicted, reproved and rebuked.” People don’t want to feel ashamed, convicted, reproved or rebuked so they stay in the false safety of spiritual darkness. Those however who come to Christ are people whose hearts have been radically reoriented to stop living for themselves but instead live for God. We see this powerfully in verse 21 where Jesus says, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.” Don’t misunderstand. This person doesn’t come to the light because he wants the spotlight to show everyone how righteous they are. NO! That is precisely what this is NOT saying. A person who has experienced the new birth has been given a heart that more and more wants to shine the spotlight on God. This person “comes to the light so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out IN [or by] GOD.” This person delights to highlight the truth that GOD is carrying out works in and through them. Their motivation has changed from being self-glorifying to being more and more GOD-glorifying. They increasingly hunger for God’s glorious works to be revealed in and through them. This is what saving faith springing from a new-born heart brings—a radical change in orientation from self to God. It’s a gradual progression but this is the undeniable character of saving faith and of the new heart that only God can give.
To review, it’s possible to have a faith that does not save—many in Jesus time did and today is no different. Second, saving faith is a living faith made possible by a supernatural, life-imparting work of God through the new birth and third, saving faith shows itself in the radical reorienting of a person’s life from self to God. In light of that, where do you stan d with God this morning? Are you born again? Does your life more and more reflect a desire to bring glory to God and not yourself? Are you in some way expressing what First John says are the unmistakable marks of those who are born of God? Do not be deceived into thinking that just because you in your mind “believe in Jesus” and have prayed some prayer you are in the kingdom. Do you have new life in Christ? That’s the question and if you have spiritual life, you will show spiritual vital signs. If you are in the faith and you have a born again heart, rejoice—God has, with no help from you recreated you, He has cleansed you, He has miraculously birthed you into his family into his kingdom.
If you are here today and have reason to doubt the genuineness of your conversion, my word to you is to call on the Lord in the desperation of your unbelief. Repent of false, non-life changing faith and ask God to give you a new heart that will beat for him and not for yourself—a new faith in place of the inadequate faith you have been assuming is good enough. May God give us the grace to know the truth and be set free to live for His glory.
Page last modified on 12/28/2003
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