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Nicodemus didn’t understand the idea of being born again. We Christians might consider exercising more grace toward this man, since we struggle with comprehending it ourselves.

Nicodemus came to Jesus one night cloaked by the darkness of night because he was feared he might lose his position and status. Nevertheless, he jeopardized himself because he wanted to know more about the Savior. And, just like you and me, he didn’t know what he didn’t know, which was—and let’s be honest, is—a common conundrum concerning our relationship with God in the flesh. How many times have you read Jesus’ response to someone in the Gospels and asked, “What do you mean, Lord?”

When Nicodemus found Jesus, he said, “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” (John 3:2). What do you think Jesus’ response to this would be? How about, “I only do the works that I see the Father doing so He may be glorified.”

Nope. Not even close. Jesus responded, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).1

Right. Okay. That must mean that Nicodemus, although acknowledging that Jesus was from God, was nevertheless unable to see the kingdom. Well, Nicodemus, to his credit, went with the flow, even though He did not understand what Jesus was talking about. “Nicodemus 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?’” (John 3:4).

Let’s be fair here. If you had never heard of being born again, wouldn’t this be a natural question to ask? Here are Jesus’ three responses to Nicodemus’ question:

First, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (verse 5). Jesus is elucidating the idea of being born again to enter God’s kingdom. It’s a birth that involves being “born of” water—we’re thinking water baptism here—but it’s more than that. It is a work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, it’s a spiritual thing.

Second, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (verse 6). Jesus continues to clarify. This “born again” is a spiritual work and doesn’t have anything to do with a work of the flesh. Jesus is probably referring to being born a righteous-by-the-law Jew, which offers no efficaciousness concerning seeing or entering God’s kingdom.

Third, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 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” (verses 7-8). Jesus enlarges on this born-again idea. It is a spiritual event, and you don’t know how it happens, where it will happen, or when.

It is this last truth that I would like us to consider.

Sometimes evangelicals fall into a ricky-ticky, formulaic strategy for answering an unbeliever about how to become a Christian. Repent, ask forgiveness from God, confess your belief in Him, and in some quarters, reception of Jesus into one’s heart. This requires a spoken declaration of faith, and the verse used to promote this is, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:10). There is truth here, certainly, but what is the nature of that confession? Is it parroting a prayer or some words? Is it true that the evangelist must hear the sinner say, “I repent”? Is it possible that belief and reception of Jesus doesn’t necessarily require an on-the-spot confession, “I believe in Jesus”? For instance, let’s consider the Samaritan woman. When was she born again? Did she ever say, “I repent’? Did she ever say, “Lord, forgive me for my sins”? After her conversation with Jesus, in which He called her out for her sin while supplying details about her married (and unmarried) life, this happened: “So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’ They went out of the town and were coming to him” (John 4:28–30). In her encounter with Jesus, somewhere, somehow, this woman believed in Jesus and then became an evangelist. There was no neat and tidy born-again process here. In fact, I think many evangelicals would only be satisfied by her positive answer to the question, “Did you receive Jesus into your heart?” But Jesus’ words are true. The born-again experience is like the wind. We don’t really know where or how it happens, and requiring a rote answer to a question won’t nail down that holy wind work.

How about Zacchaeus? He climbed up into a tree so he could see Jesus, who told him He wanted to stay at his house. After they had gathered, this happened: “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’” (Luke 19:8-10). Do we see any tight, orderly line of confessed repentance, request for forgiveness, and spoken belief in and reception of Jesus here? No, but Jesus said salvation had come.

How about the Ethiopian eunuch? After Phillip told the eunuch the good news of Jesus beginning in Isaiah 53, this happened: “And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him” (Acts 8:36–38). Phillip is translated away, and the eunuch leaves rejoicing. Confession of sin, request for forgiveness, and a spoken declaration of faith are not explicitly present.

How about the thief on the cross? All he did was rebuke the other criminal on the cross who was railing at Jesus and then said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The thief’s request for life in Jesus’ kingdom was sufficient to gain entry.

The proof that people are born again is not simply hearing them parrot words, as scriptural as they may be. Conversion is a spiritual event. As Jesus said, like the wind, we don’t know where, when, or how it happens. It’s foolish for us to think that requiring certain words to be spoken is the definitive evidence of salvation. Remember, the uncomprehending Nicodemus stood up for Jesus before the chief priests and Pharisees (John 7:50-51) and honorably attended to Jesus’ body after His crucifixion (John 19:39-42).

 

1All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

 

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