“She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke, she doesn’t sleep around. She must be a born-again Christian.”
How many times have you heard that? Too many people in our post-modern culture would agree with that statement. Too many people are wrong. The truth is that our world is filled with many morally upright people who believe that their good behaviour equals good standing with God. The term “born-again” has been associated with strict moral conformity and conservatism. As a result, many people view any kind of liberalism as an enemy of the Christian faith. Today I’d like to debunk this falsehood for you. We shall look at the origin of the term “born-again” and deduce what it is and what it is not. Let’s read from the Gospel of John.
John Chapter 3 (ESV)
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 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?” 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. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
Nicodemus walks into the scene to meet the new prophet in town. He is a fan of this newbie’s work. How could he not? Dead raised to life, blind with sight restored, lame healed, demons fleeing in his presence. This was the old school stuff of Moses’ time. The Galilean’s religious CV was good and Nicodemus wanted to do some networking. As Nicodemus comes into the scene, we can clearly see who he is. Let us start with verse one.
VIP in the house!
Verse 1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
This verse speaks volumes. We already know so much about Nicodemus from this statement. One, he was a man. In his culture, men had higher status and privilege than women. In fact, it was considered a blessing by some Jews to simply be born a man. Two, he was a Pharisee. This means he was very educated and intelligent. He had the degrees, the post-graduates, the masters, the doctorates et al. Also, it means he was well versed with the scriptures. Pharisees were made to know the scriptures from a very young age. He was considered a spiritual leader because of this and a man who was in right standing with God. This also means he was a moral man. He did not drink and sleep around. He was faithful to his wife. He had a high standard of moral uprightness. He was the zenith of aptitude in behaviour. Thirdly, he was a ruler of the Jews. The NIV 1984 version says he was, “…a member of the Jewish Ruling Council.” This means he had political clout. Nicodemus was a public figure like a famous politician. This also means he was rich. Money got you certain privileges among the Jews. This also means he was old. Perhaps about 70 years old. Those in the Jewish Ruling Council were not young hot blooded juveniles like the revolutionaries who started coups against the Roman Government. By all means, Nicodemus was VIP high profile.
Now, compare that profile to Jesus’. Jesus was probably unschooled. And if he was schooled, he did not attend the Ivy Leagues of Israel. He most possibly went to the local Government funded community college that had lots of strikes. Jesus was a carpenter who quit his family profession to become a wannabe prophet. There was hope in the first-born son to carry the family mantle. Jesus charted his own path. Some historical sources suggest that Joseph, Mary’s husband, died when Jesus was still growing up. If this is true, then you can imagine how Jesus may have looked for not pursuing the carpentry full-time. Jesus was young, possibly 32 or 33 years old when he had this conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus was not rich. He hardly owned a horse to move around. He walked often or used a borrowed boat or a borrowed donkey. Jesus is undoubtedly the absolute opposite of a high profile citizen. He is the commoner. Yet, despite all this, there is something about the Galilean that is causing a frenzy in town. He has so many followers and he doesn’t even have a Facebook or Twitter account. Nicodemus, the Jewish Ruling Council (JRC) and the Pharisees, I bet, can sense an upstaging. They either play ball with the Nazarene from Galilee or have a face-off. Nicodemus chooses to play ball.
A man with good intentions
Verse 2 This 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.”
In this verse we see that Nicodemus comes at night. Most likely, members of the JRC and the Pharisees would not approve of this meeting, so he chooses to come at a time when he would not be accused of colluding with the enemy. In this verse, we also know that Nicodemus is not hypocritical. His words prove this and we know he was sincere. When the Pharisees spoke insincerely, Jesus responded to what they thought in their hearts and not to what they said with their mouths. So, Jesus’ response tells us that Nicodemus is speaking what he truly believes. He praises Jesus. He sees Jesus as ateacher from God. He endorses the miraculous acts of the unmarried prophet. We can see that Nicodemus has good intentions. He is not a spy.
Human good intentions and good works mean nothing
Verse 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
This verse has to be the non-sequitur of the year! What are you talking about, Jesus? The man just said you are from God and applauded your ministry. What is this born-again business you’re talking about? But you see, Beloved, it is not a non-sequitur. In fact, we know this to be true because the scriptures say, “Jesus answered him.”Answered what? Nicodemus did not ask any question! Well, not on the surface, but deep down he did have a question. Every soul that is apart from God is asking a question and Jesus has the answer. And the answer is what Nicodemus received: ‘You must be born again.’ Verse 3 tells us the definition of born-again. Jesus parallels it to seeing the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is heaven. Seeing the Kingdom of God is entry into heaven. It is eternal security. It is eternal safety of our soul after death. It is spiritual insurance. It is right standing with God. It is forgiveness of one’s sins. It is being safe from the fires of hell. It is salvation, Beloved. And Jesus says to get this salvation/ eternal security/ spiritual insurance/ forgiveness of sins/right standing with God, you must be born again! And his implication in his conversation with Nicodemus is that Nicodemus is NOT born-again. Nicodemus, the possibly-70-year-old, respected leader, spiritual elder, political ruler, morally upright example, church-attending, God-believing MAN is not born again. Let that just sink in. How can you believe in God so passionately, serve him in ministry, be a good person like Nicodemus but still not be born again?
Jesus is changing history here. Jesus is implicitly declaring to Nicodemus that none of his goodness can inch him closer to heaven. In fact, he is hell-bound. And if a good man like Nicodemus is hell-bound, what makes you and I think we are going to heaven because we are good guys? Have you achieved moral uprightness like Nicodemus? I doubt it! Are you 70-years-old, well respected, incorrupt and religious? I doubt it. And even if you do surpass Nicodemus’ high moral record, I say unto you today as Jesus did to Ol’ Nic, “You must be born again.” Good intentions and good works cannot save a human soul, Beloved. In fact the prophet Isaiah said in chapter 64 verse 6 that all our good deeds are but filthy rags before God. Being born-again is morally radical. It’s beyond the do-this and do-not-do-this. The Gospel of Jesus is not an addition to morality; it’s a revolution of it. So when someone says, “She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke, she doesn’t sleep around. She must be a born-again Christian”, they have not grasped why Jesus came. Jesus came to live the perfect life that Nicodemus couldn’t live and died the awful death that Nicodemus should have died. And Nicodemus must see that despite his goodness, his soul is still as black as coal and in need of salvation just like the hooker making money by selling her body. So, if she doesn’t drink, smoke or sleep around, it just means that she doesn’t smoke, drink or sleep around. It is not a guarantee that she is in right standing with God. Wait a minute, Ernest, you say. Are you saying you can be born again and live an absolutely carefree sinful life? Absolutely not! A moral life is an inevitable RESULT of being born again; but it is not the DEFINITION of being born again. All morality outside the salvation of Christ is the product of a life that is still spiritually dead. To be born again is a rebirth of your inner-man- it is a renewed Spirit. Jesus even explains it to Ol’ Nic.
Verses 4-5 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?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
All morality that hails from that spirit-changed life is purely focused on God and not on self. Being born-again is not a spiritual CV of your accomplishments. Being born again is a spiritual pardon to be free despite the sinful crimes you committed. Your morality is therefore a response to the joy of freedom and not a response to your track record of being a good person. Nicodemus is being told by Jesus that he must start his life all over again and that his goodness track record means nothing. For someone whose life is in order, being born-again is an offensive insinuation. It suggests that they need God yet their lives seem perfectly okay. As far as they are concerned, this born again business is for the broken, desperate, drug junkies, poor, weak and unsuccessful folks. They’re wrong. being born again is for everyone. And for those who do not accept it, Jesus teachees in Matthew 21:31 “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (NLT). The Gospel is good news to the prostitute. If you tell the prostitute that she must be born again, that she must start all over afresh, she will fall down in awe because she needs a fresh life. But for the good guys, Jesus is just a good teacher- period! In fact that is exactly what Nicodemus called Jesus in verse 2- a teacher. And Jesus challenges him that he is more than Nicodemus thinks. To suggest that Jesus is more, that he is God is offensive to many. Jesus, in verse 13 blatantly states that He is God, come from heaven and not just another teacher. Beloved, at the heart of the gospel, you don’t become a good person so that God can become good to you, rather, you are transformed into a good person because God was good to you first.
How can I be born again?
Assume you sat for an important exam paper and failed. Imagine if the consequence of failing is a huge fine or punishment from the school master. You seat several retakes and make-ups of the exam paper but you still fail, some even worse than others. You realize that this exam, no matter how hard you read, you will never pass. Now imagine Christ Jesus comes into the exam room. He sits the same paper and he scores 100%. Instead of writing his name of the paper, he writes ERNEST WAMBOYE WAKHUSAMA. The paper is marked and the 100% marks goes to me- Ernest. Then Christ takes all the papers I failed and erases my name and writes his own name on them. The school master looks at the result papers and promotes me to the next level because “I passed my exam”, but in reality it is Jesus who prepared perfectly and passed it. I get recognized for the 100% but I did nothing to earn it. I win awards and I even graduate. The school master takes all the papers I failed and sees Jesus’ name on each of them. Jesus is forced to pay for the number of retakes and make-ups. He faces the punishment I deserved. He misses all the blessings and awards he should have gotten. He is punished for the papers I failed- every single one of them. And the punishment for Jesus was not just a mere denial into university or missing a graduation, Beloved; the punishment was his death. He died for you and me. When you understand that your sins caused the death of God and his sacrifice on the cross moves you to genuine repentance, you become born again- no matter what you’ve done in life. Admit that you are a sinner. Admit that in light of God’s holiness you cannot be saved. Realize that your goodness cannot save your soul. Depend on the only good man that ever lived the earth- Jesus Christ, who was God incarnate. Accept his punishment for your sins. Accept the righteousness he gives you. Ask him for the forgiveness of your sins and for eternal life.
An encounter with Christ Jesus is not a mere social media friend request or a networking introduction. Every reaction to the real Jesus Christ is extreme. Being born again is not reformation; it is transformation. Reformation would need more 10-commandments. But transformation requires blood to be spilled. When Christ was crucified on the cross, he did not cry out “My hands, my hands!” or “My feet, my feet!” Notwithstanding the ripped flesh, the punctured skin, the holed limbs, the pierced brow, the split veins and the 110-pound crossbeam on his weary shoulders, the pain of the cross was not a mere physical torment. The separation of a son from his father because of an infraction-your infraction, was a heavier burden to bear for Jesus. Why? The separation caused by our sin went against the intimacy the Son and Father shared. It shattered a divine relationship, it fractured a holy union, it broke an eternal bond, it tore a spiritual muscle and it ruptured sacred tendons. He became sin so that you could be the righteousness of God. And for that overwhelming pain of separation that no physical suffering can match, it prompted the Son to cry, “My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” The father forsook him for you. Christ was not only tormented and separated physically from the father, but also in every other way and mostly spiritually, so that you would be painlessly (in every way and mostly spiritually) rejoined to God. The cost of repair for your soul was staggering, Beloved. If the cost to make reparation for our souls was so great, could we have the guts to admit that our sin that caused that restitution is equally great? Beloved, our most moral acts could still put Christ on the cross and make him go what he went through. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And by all, we mean everyone (even the “good guys”) are hell-deserving as far as God’s standard is concerned. The cross wasn’t a mere death penalty that you would have endured if Christ didn’t come. The cross was a solution for a price too high that you couldn’t afford. It was atonement for a debt too high for which you couldn’t recompense. It was a clearance of the errors that you couldn’t mend so that you would receive a clean sheet and not stand accused before your Creator. It was a divine shedding of blood that is a cost too huge to compensate with any human moral effort, worldly riches or saintly kindness. The cost for the repair of your soul was staggering. You must be born again!
The God of the Gospel is both infinitely holy and infinitely loving. He killed two birds with one stone on that cross, self-righteousness and sinfulness. He humbles us out of our false sense of morality and he affirms us out of our inadequacy of righteousness. The former restructures our hearts, the latter reverses our values and they both remove our sin. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves. It is the gift of God, not by works so that no man can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9.
Being born-again is not a change in leaves and flowers; it is a change in root. Focusing to make the leaves and flowers pretty may work for a while but it will not bring internal change. However, changing the root will give you brand new leaves and flowers. Being born-again is a root transplant. “But the plant will die!” you say. Exactly! When we get born again we die- the old is gone and the new has come because we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). If you want mangoes in your orchard of oranges, you need new trees. You need new roots. Watering the orange trees, fertilising them and working very hard to prune them will only give you fatter oranges. Too many people are trying to water more, farm more yet God is saying, “Stop! Let’s plant afresh.” New root! And new root gives you new motivation for a moral life. Any believer’s passion to live a life pleasing to Christ should be primarily fuelled by love for God and being moved by what he did for you on that cross. Nicodemus understood this and in the end in John 19, we see him touching the corpse of the Saviour. Despite the religious rules of his time on touching dead bodies and being impure and cursed, Nicodemus realizes that his heart is far more impure and cursed without the man that bled for him. You too are so without him, Beloved. He came for you. He died for you. You must be born-again.