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The Gospel: What We Need [John 3:1-21]

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The Gospel: What We Need [John 3:1-21]

The last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at the gospel and how to define the gospel. We looked at the gospel telling us that the just and gracious God of the universe looked upon hopelessly, sinful people and sent His Son, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh to bear His wrath against sin on the cross and to show His power over sin in the resurrection, so that all who have faith in Him, will be reconciled to God forever. This is the gospel.
It is the gospel that many people know. The majority of us, I am guessing, know. However, the reality is that knowing, in and of itself, still does not constitute salvation. You can know all of those things and still stand before Jesus one day and hear Him say the words, “I never knew you. Away from me you evildoer.” The question still remains, “Okay, how does this gospel become appropriated, become a reality in our lives? How does this gospel become the power of God for salvation in each of our lives?” That is an eternally important question. That is what I want us to dive into, and I want us to hear Jesus’ answer to that question.
We’re going to look at John 3:1-21 and listen to Jesus give an answer to that question.
Stand for the reading of the word of God [John 3:1-21]
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” It is a stout statement, and it begs the question, “Have you been born again?”

What happens when we are born again?

What I want us to do is I want us to think about what it means to be born again, and I want us to go even beyond and even look right here before John 3. Look with me at John 2:23. Listen to what it says here. I want you to see how it is possible to believe in Jesus but be clueless when it comes to what it means to be born again.
Listen to John 2:23, “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.” There it is, they believed. Listen to verse 24, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men.” What an interesting phrase there. A lot of people believing in Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t entrust Himself to them.
An illustration we have of that is Nicodemus. He comes on the scene, and you get to verse 2. He knows, he believes that Jesus is from God, but he has no clue as to what it means to be born again. If Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again,” then I think it is an eternally important question to ask, “Have you been born again?”
In order to ask that question, we have got to look at what it means to be born again, and so that is what I want us to do. I want us to see in Scripture what the Bible teaches, what God teaches about what happens in the new birth, what happens when we are born again, because this is eternally important, and it definitely goes, obviously, beyond intellectual belief.
This is so huge because we are so accustomed to sitting in a room like this and hearing someone say things and then responding in our hearts or our minds and say, “Yes, I believe that.” However, what we have got to realize is you can sit in a room like this every single Sunday of your entire life, ever since you were a kid, and still not have the gospel appropriated in your life for salvation, still not be born again.
So, what is involved in being born again? So, what I want us to look at is what God does in our hearts when we are born again. All the things that we are going to talk about is what God is doing. Now I know there must be a response to the gospel on our part. We are going to get to that, but what I want us to see is that God is the supreme actor in salvation, and God’s grace permeates the whole picture of what it means to be born again.
Even faith at its core is a gift of grace, and I want us to see this because, well, you have heard me the last few weeks almost hammering in some ways on praying a prayer, signing a card or walking an aisle. I want to remind you that your faith is not based on a prayer and your faith is not based on a card or a conversation. Ultimately, your faith is not even based on a decision. Your faith is based on a God whose grace has totally captivated you, transformed your life. We are going to see that unfold.
God reveals our need
So, what happens when we are born again? I want you to think about it based on John 3 in four different ways.
Number one: When we are born again, God reveals our need. You have got to realize that Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a “member of the Jewish ruling council”, it says at the very beginning. This is a very well respected man. He is a devout man to say the least. He has spent his entire life learning how to enter the kingdom of God. He has spent his entire life teaching others what commands to obey, what actions to take to enter the kingdom of God.
It is what he has spent his life doing which really brings the gravity of what Jesus says in verse 3 to the forefront. For this guy, who is radically devoted to God, to His work, to hear Jesus say, “You have no spiritual life in you whatsoever.” In that one statement in verse 3, he undercuts the entire foundation of who Nicodemus is, what Nicodemus is doing with his life.
He says, “All of your religion in the end is really meaningless. It is just a cover-up of your isolation from God.” Is it possible that our religion today can be a cover-up for our isolation from God? Religion can be the means by which we have our ears tickled week by week by week but mask the fact that we are separated from God, and no matter how hard we try, we cannot get to Him.
That is what Jesus is addressing here. He is revealing Nicodemus’ need, and I think He does it in very different ways. I want you to see what He is talking about when He introduces this idea of new birth. What is He saying?
Well, first, of all, Jesus is saying the new birth is necessary to know God. You cannot know God apart from new birth, apart from being born again. That is what He is saying. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” You get over to verse 7, midway through, and He says, “You must be born again.”
Now, He is not just singling out Nicodemus and saying, “Well, this is different from everybody else, but you, in order to enter the kingdom of God, you must be born again.” He is saying this to every single one of us in this room. Ladies and gentlemen, in order for any one of us in this room to spend eternity with God, we must be born again. It is not an option. It is the way. You must be born again. The new birth is necessary to know God.
Second, the new birth is impossible without God. As soon as Jesus says that, Nicodemus is almost a little dumbfounded, struck. He responds, “How can a man be born again when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” We find out, obviously, that is not what Jesus is talking about. He is not talking about physically entering into His mother’s womb. Obviously, that would be impossible. However, Nicodemus is starting to get a little bit of the point that Jesus is trying to communicate, the fact that you can’t do this. It is impossible. It is impossible for you to give birth to yourself, to be born again yourself. It is impossible for you to cause that.
I mean, who really decides to be born? Any of you sitting around one day thinking, “You know, I don’t have anything else better going on. I guess I would like to enter earth now.” So, you decide to come in. Nobody decides that. You don’t decide to be born. This is the picture that Jesus is giving. He is showing Nicodemus that this is impossible for you to do.
This whole idea, this language, “born again” literally means “born from above.” He starts talking about the Spirit, which we will get to in a second. However, He starts talking about how this is something that has to happen to you from above. You can’t manufacture this. It is impossible without God from above, through His Spirit, giving you life.
This is the picture that we have of salvation all throughout the New Testament. Later at a different point, Matthew 19:26–27, Jesus is talking to His disciples, and they look at Him … it’s the rich young ruler passage … and they say “Well, then who can be saved?” Jesus looks back at them, and He says “With man it is not possible. But with God, all things are possible.” It is impossible without God; it is possible with God.
Actually, the New Testament tells us that before we were born again we are… morally evil [Luke 11:11-13]; spiritually sick [Matt. 9:12]; slaves to sin [John 8:34]; blinded to truth [1 Cor. 2:14]; lovers of darkness [Eph. 5:8]; children of wrath [James 4:4]; and spiritually dead [Eph. 5:14].
How does a dead person come to live???
This is the whole point of what Jesus is showing us in this picture of being born again. This is not something that we can manufacture. This has to happen from above. The Spirit of God has to do this in our lives and apart from the work of God, this is impossible. He is talking about our inability to enter the kingdom of God.
(((I know that this is very hard for us to stomach in a sense, because we are good, moral, American people who take our general understanding of American morality, give it a dose of church attendance and obedience to parts of the Bible, and make sure to avoid some of the things in the world. We put it all together, and we think, “Well, it is certainly not as bad as this sounds.” You put, on top of that, we are a do it yourself people, we look at this, almost like Nicodemus in John 3, and we say, “There has got to be something that I can do. There have got to be some boxes that I can check off to take care of this, some kind of rules I can follow to make this happen.” Jesus is saying there is not.
I know that this leaves some of us almost as frustrated to the core. “Okay, Brian, why do you keep telling us this? There is nothing that we can do to get to God. Morally evil, slaves to sin, lovers of darkness, we are spiritually dead … I get it. Nothing I can do, and even in my attempts to do that are deceptive, and they are cover ups for my isolation from God.” You could almost throw your hands up in the air and say, “Well, what am I supposed to do?”
If that is the case, then I want to encourage you. You are getting to the heart of what it means to be born again. If this frustrates you, brings you to a point of desperation and hopelessness and helplessness spiritually, then that is the point. That is a good thing. If you don’t feel the wrestling with that, if you don’t feel the weight of that, if you don’t feel the weight of that desperation, then be worried. Be worried because you have bought into what Nicodemus had bought into, and it is a self-sufficient path to God, and it is not possible without Him.)))
Which leads to this third truth about the new birth: The new birth is necessary to know God, impossible without God and the new birth is dependent on God. Ladies and gentlemen, you cannot be born again apart from a desperation for God in your sin, a realization of your need. Nicodemus asked, “How can this be?” It is the last words we hear from him even in verse 9. “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. The whole point of John 3:1–10, what it is focusing on … it is not … you don’t see it in the first part of this passage: “Well, Nicodemus, here is how you can be born again. Do this.” Instead, Jesus is focusing on what is done to you; what you need to happen from above, Nicodemus says.
This is part of … don’t miss it … this is part of the gospel; it is part of the good news because the reality is the gospel is a picture of God coming to you right where you are. It’s not God sitting back and saying, “Let’s meet halfway in the middle.” He comes right to where we are in our darkness, and He shines His light. He comes to us in our death, and He gives us life. He does this. This is really good news. That God in His mercy and grace would come and meet us where we are to give us birth when there was absolutely nothing we could do.
When you think about how this truth … this is a couple of tangents, but it is worth at least just thinking about it for a couple of seconds. You think about how this truth radically affects our worship. We realize that we gather together in a room like this … we realize that the only reason that any one of us is in the place where we find ourselves right now, singing the songs that we are singing, is because of the grace and mercy of Almighty God. If it were not for Him meeting us right where we are, we would all be spiritually dead and headed to eternal darkness. That gives us great cause to worship. God, help us to realize that.
You think about how this affects missions and evangelism. You think about the hardest heart in the office where you work, the person who is so opposed to the thoughts of God or conversation about God. You think about that person and realize that the power of the Spirit of God can take the hardest heart, meet it where it is and radically transform it for His glory.
There is not one person in New Florence that is beyond the bounds of the power of the Spirit of God. Not one person in the nations.
We can go to anyone, even though their lives are completely against the gospel. At the moment when we share the gospel with them, it is the power of God for salvation. The Holy Spirit will take that gospel you preach to them, and you can know that there are people who God is going to open their eyes and bring them out. It gives great confidence to us.
This is the picture. Being born again happens when God reveals our need. Has God revealed your need for Him? Has He brought you to a place of total desperation?
God changes our hearts
Second … God reveals our need, and second, God changes our heart. Now, Nicodemus is confused, wondering how this happens, and Jesus, well, it looks like He is kind of clarifying things, but Nicodemus is still confused in verse 9. However, this is what Jesus says to try to clarify. I want you to listen to His words in verse 5. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God …” He uses that phrase again, “… unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
We are about to talk about this picture of water and Spirit throughout the Old Testament. We are going to see what this picture of water and the Spirit means, but it suffices to say at this point, Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “Nicodemus, you have spent your entire life trying to reform your life and your character and your beliefs from the outside in, trying to do it all right, get it all right. The reality is you need something to happen in you from the inside out. You need a change of heart.”
{{{Now, from the very beginning of even thinking about this, before we dive into the Old Testament, I want you to think about how huge this is because of the way we have so pictured salvation and Christianity today. When we talk about becoming a Christian, coming to faith in Christ, we talk about coming to this point where you do this religious ritual, whether it is praying a prayer or making a decision, this or that, and what we describe salvation as, at that point, what you do is you let go of the things of the world that you love and you reach for the things of God that, if you are really honest, seem laborious to you and don’t seem that exciting. They certainly don’t seem as exciting as the things of the world do, but you know you have got to do these things in order to save your skin, so you reach for these things. You pray this prayer. You make this decision.
Now, you have got a dilemma. You really still want all of these things of the world, but you are supposed to live according to these things. So, now, you start this process of a supposedly Christian life where you try and you try and you try to like these things of God. You try and you try to like them, but you find yourself not finding any joy in Him. You find yourself running back to these things over here. You end up thinking, “Well, I am living a defeated Christian life, but at least I am saving my skin by trying to get it right.”
Ladies and gentlemen, this is not biblical Christianity. What happens in the new birth is God changes your heart. You don’t need to improve the old nature. That is not salvation. That is not what the gospel is about. It’s not about improving the old nature. It is giving you an entirely new nature. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. He puts a new heart in you. He transforms your heart so that you begin to love the things of God. He gives you new desires and new longings, new loves, new affections.
I am not saying that this happens all at once, and you never have any desire at all for the things of the world any more. This is, no question, a process of sanctification, However, suffice to say at this point, the point that we are born again, God gives us a new heart. It is not a picture where we have to begrudgingly do these things. It is we want God, and the more we want God, the more we see the beauty of God, and as we grow in this, the more we realize how the things of this world pale in comparison.}}}
There are many places in the Bible that talk about this picture of water and the Spirit. A perfect picture of what John is talking about in John 3 is in Ezekiel 36, we have got to realize that in the Old Testament, water is a picture … it is a symbol of purification in the Old Testament. It is a symbol of being purified of all that defiles you.
Suffice to say, we don’t have time to go in depth into this, but John 3 is not talking about baptism. It is not talking about water baptism. It is nowhere in the context. It is not the picture of what is going on in John 3. I want you to see the picture of water in the Old Testament.
Ezekiel 36 verse 24. This is God speaking to His people. Listen to what He says. He says, “For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.” Listen to verse 25, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” Have you got the picture? “I will take water, sprinkle clean water on you, and cleanse from all your impurities, from all your idols.” This is the picture of what God does when He changes our heart.
Born of water and the Spirit. What does that mean? First of all, it means that He cleanses us. This is a picture of water. He washes us. Titus 3:5 says that He washes us. He cleanses us from all our impurities, from all our sin. This is what happens when He gives us a new heart. He cleanses us from impurities. That is huge. It is very important to have our sin washed away, to be forgiven of our sin, to have it wiped away. That is the picture. He cleanses us. When He gives us a new heart, He cleanses us, but it doesn’t stop there.
Remember water and the Spirit? Remember what happens right after this in verse 26 of Ezekiel 36. God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new …” What? “… a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” What an incredible picture.
When God changes our heart, He cleanses us, number one, and second, He indwells us. He says, “I have put my Spirit in you. I give you a new heart, a new spirit. Not a heart of stone any more, but a heart of flesh that is tender toward me.” You get to the rest of this chapter, then Ezekiel 37, which you have got an incredible picture of the Spirit breathing life, and that is the picture that God is giving us here, a new covenant. That’s what was happening. That is what salvation is about. He cleanses us and then He indwells us. This is what happens when God changes our heart.
What happens in the new birth is God changes our heart. Yes, He cleanses us, but He also fills us. He puts His very Spirit in each of us, and He begins to change who we are, change our desires so that our lives are going to look differently. This is why, back in John 3, Jesus starts talking about … kind of compares the Spirit … the work of the Spirit to the wind. You don’t see the wind. You see the effects of the wind. You see the effects of the Spirit and what He does to change our hearts, at that point, when He opens our eyes, when He changes our desires, when He brings us from death to life and sets us on an entirely new course because we have a new heart.
(((((This is one of the reasons why you do hear me talk about praying a prayer at different points. Again, I remind you that I am not saying that praying a prayer of salvation is bad. I am not saying that if you did that your salvation is null and void. It is not what I am saying, but I am saying this idea of, in order to come to faith in Christ, you need a preacher to lead you in a prayer; you need somebody to help close the deal in your heart. That is not true.
When the Spirit of God comes upon you and changes your heart, reveals your need to you, changes your heart and cleanses your heart and puts His Spirit in you, the last thing you need at that point is somebody to tell you what to repeat after them.
The Holy Spirit of God is more than sufficient, at that point, to cause your heart, even if you have never prayed once in your life, to begin to cry out to God a prayer for salvation that flows and gushes out of you when the Spirit of God is working in you. God forbid that we would interfere with the work of the Spirit of God and try to get somebody to do what we want them to do. This is the work of the Spirit of God and let’s look at the Spirit, what the Spirit is doing. Let’s rejoice in how the Spirit is showing Himself strong, how the Spirit is filling somebody.)))))
God enables our belief
If you are born again, God reveals our need, and He changes our heart. Third, God enables our belief. Now these first ten or eleven verses that we have been talking about in John 3 have been talking about what God does in giving us life and bringing us to be born again … what you see in 10–11 is a shift throughout the rest of this passage that we just read to one key word.
That word is “believe.” It is mentioned, I think, seven times. It is the same word, idea that we talked about last week: The gospel is what God did, so that all who have faith in Christ will be reconciled to God forever, faith alone. In fact, in Romans 3 … the end of Romans 3, and then you get into Romans 4 … twenty different times, over twenty times, you see “faith” and “belief” mentioned. Scripture is very clear that this is the means by which the gospel is appropriated in us.
However, we come back to this idea that we have already established though, that belief is more than intellectual acknowledgement to certain truths. That is where I want us to see … this believing, having faith … I want us to see in the context of the whole picture of what it means to be born again.
When we are born again, He reveals our need for Him. Something that only He can do to open our eyes; in our moral evil, spiritual deadness, He opens our eyes. He changes our heart. Something only He can do: Sprinkle us, cleanse us and indwell us. The means by which He does this, the means by which this is appropriated, is belief in the gospel, faith in Christ.
So, this is where we see our response in salvation, our believing in the context of God’s act in salvation. They go together … don’t miss this … they go together all throughout Scripture. People, theologians, many people love to debate, “How much does God do, and how much does man do in salvation?” Not a contradiction, but a mystery here, to realize that faith, no question, is our act. We believe, and we are held accountable for whether or not we believe. All of us in this room, our eternal destiny hinges on whether or not we believe. We are responsible for that. Nobody can believe for us. We believe or not believe. Faith is our act, but that act of faith takes place within the context of God’s acting, within the context of God’s grace and God’s mercy, and they go together.
“Well,” you say, “Preacher, how do they go together?” What happens in salvation is, God in His great sovereignty, performs a miracle in our lives by which the Holy Spirit transforms us and, in no way, says, “Well, I am going to do this, and you are going to do this.” This is a picture of God in His great mercy, in His great wisdom, bringing about salvation in a way that shows His glory.
What I want you to see, all over Scripture, John 6:44, Jesus says to His disciples, to a whole crowd of people, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Then, you get to the book of Acts, and you see how the gospel is advancing. Listen to Acts 16:14. It is talking about Lydia. Acts 16:14 says that “God opened Lydia’s heart to the gospel message.” Incredible phrase. She hears the gospel message, and God opens her heart to it. She responds to the gospel, yes. God opened her heart to the gospel, yes.
Acts 11:18 says, that “God granted Gentiles repentance unto salvation.” God granted them repentance. Repentance in and of itself was a gift from God. Acts 14:27 says, “God opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” Acts 15:9 says, “God purified their hearts.” God did it by faith. So, the picture is faith is the means by which this is appropriated, in the context of all this picture of being born again, in the context of God’s grace and mercy.
So, what happens in faith? Very simply, in faith … and it is all based on the context of His grace … by His grace, in faith, number one: We turn from sin. What happens in saving faith and belief? We turn from sin. It is the whole picture. It is as simple as John 3 gives us here this picture of light and darkness. We loved darkness, but when our eyes were opened, we saw the light. God showed us His beauty and His mercy and His grace through Christ, then we turn from darkness. We don’t keep dwelling in darkness. You turn from darkness. That which you used to hate, you now love. We turn from sin.
This is the gospel invitation that is all over, especially at the beginning of Acts, but all over the book of Acts. Acts 2:38, the people ask after Peter preaches the first Christian sermon, “What do we do?” He looks at them, and he says, “Repent and believe.” Acts 3:19, “Repent and turn to God.” Turn from sin.
Second, by His grace, we trust in Christ. We turn from sin, and we trust in Christ. Just like in the Old Testament, this goes back to verses 14 and 15 in John 3, just like the people who were dying of snake bites looked at the serpent on a pole. It was by looking at that serpent on a pole that God brought salvation. They are believing in His provision.
Same thing for us. We look to Christ as the only one who can reconcile us to God, the only one who can cleanse us from sin, the only one who can make it possible for us to have a new heart. It all revolves around the gospel. You turn from sin, and you trust in Christ. This is the heart of the gospel.
It is Acts 16:31 and Paul and the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Trust in Christ, and they both come together in this picture of God enabling our belief. We trust in Christ to reconcile us to God.
So, it begs the question, “Has this belief, has this faith in the context of God’s grace, been a reality in your life? Is this turning from sin and trusting in Christ alone to save you a reality in your life? It is part of what happens in the new birth. God reveals our need, He changes our heart and God enables our belief
God transforms our lives
All of that leads to this last part of the new birth, and I want to show you, and I want you to follow with me very, very closely. In the new birth, God reveals our need. In the new birth, He changes our heart. In the new birth, He enables our belief. Fourth: In the new birth, God transforms our lives. Now, new birth, begins a process of transformation. I am not saying in any way, as soon as the new birth happens, that everything is right.
However, I want to show you something at the end of John 3. Listen to verse 21, “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” What a great verse. “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light.” We have been talking about believing. “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly what he has done has been done through God.”
Now, I want to show you two truths here. Here’s what happens when God transforms our lives. Number one, He transforms us for our eternal good. Now, we have already talked about this some, but this is the picture of darkness and light. All throughout the book of John especially, you see this contrast between dark and light. Darkness is that which represents evil, and the light represents that which is good. So, what happens is, you used to love evil, and you used to love darkness, but what happens when you are born again is now you begin to love that which is good. You begin to see that which is good. You begin to experience that which is good. This is the beauty of it.
I mean, you think about it. Before you came to Christ, before you trusted in Christ, before you were born again, you loved food and fellowship and TV and sports and all the things that this world has to offer, and God was over here, and He was a thought. He was an idea, but nothing more than that. Maybe a topic for discussion.
What happened is, when God changed your heart, He transformed your life, so that now, you begin to see that He is good, that He is satisfying and He is glorious; He is worthy, and He is all that is good for you. Compared to Him, even the best things that this world has to offer, even the best things begin to fade in comparison. This is the picture of how God transforms our lives for our eternal good to experience the light, to experience He who is good. Our satisfaction is found in Him.
Transformation happens at the point when we are born again, and we begin to see this, which leads to the second part of this. John 3:21. God transforms our lives for our eternal good, and second, God transforms us for His eternal glory. Did you catch what John 3:21 says? It is a great phrase at the end. “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that …” Here is why, “… so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through …” Who? “… God.” What is God doing in the new birth? He is showing His power. God is showing His glory in the new birth. He is making it clear that only He could have done this. This is why the new birth is the picture that we have in John 3.
It is the same picture that we ended with last week. Christ on the cross. Christ died for God, for the sake of God, to show the glory of God, so that He might be just and justify those who have faith in Jesus. Christ died for God’s sake more than Christ died for your sake. The beauty of it is, though, these two things are not in contradiction with one another. Our eternal good shows His eternal glory. The more we are satisfied in Him, the more we see and experience His goodness. The more He shows that this is only happening because of Him. Our eternal good, His eternal glory going together.
Here is the beauty. When God brings about this transformation, this change in our heart, when God reveals our need, enables our belief, what happens is God gets great glory because He takes someone who is spiritually dead and makes them alive. He takes someone who is morally evil, and now, they love that which is good. God gets great glory in this whole process. It is the way it is designed. He transforms us for our good, His glory.
Have you been born again?
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