This post was first published in December, 2018. —ed.
Words of comfort are sometimes the worst form of cruelty. We see it every time the world soothingly affirms destructive sinful behavior. And Christians can make the same grave error whenever the fear of offending a brother overrides the need to confront him. Instead we ought to follow the example of Jesus, who consistently demonstrated that telling the truth and confronting error is the most loving course of action—even when it hurts. And his conversation with Nicodemus exemplifies that.
Nicodemus had dedicated his entire life to working his way into God’s kingdom. But Jesus pointed out to him that because spiritual rebirth is a work of the Spirit, it is beyond the control of either human works or human willpower: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The effects of the wind may be observed, but its boundaries cannot be discerned by human senses, and the wind itself can neither be harnessed nor directed by human efforts or ingenuity. The Holy Spirit’s ministry operates in a similar fashion. He is sovereign and moves where He wishes, not at the whim of any human agenda. His workings are not contained in—or automatically dispensed through—any religious rituals or ceremonial protocols. In fact, the Spirit isn’t moved by what we do at all, but by His own sovereign will.
To a typical Pharisee, what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus would likely have come across as highly offensive. Jesus was attacking the very core of Nicodemus’s belief system, plainly implying that Nicodemus was lost, spiritually lifeless, and ultimately no better off in his rigid Pharisaism than an utterly immoral Gentile without God—indeed Jesus said that very thing to the Pharisees quite often.
This was a direct answer to Nicodemus’s questions (“How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”). Jesus was telling Nicodemus, in language Nicodemus was sure to grasp, that not only was He not speaking of any superficial or fleshly self-reformation, but He was in fact calling for something Nicodemus was powerless to do for himself. This punctured the heart of Nicodemus’s religious convictions. To a Pharisee like him, the worst imaginable news would be that there was nothing he could possibly do to help himself spiritually.
Jesus had basically equated this distinguished Pharisee with the most debased and dissipated kind of sinner. He had described Nicodemus’s case as utterly hopeless. Talk about harsh!
But that is, after all, the very starting point of the gospel message. Sinners are “dead in [their] trespasses and sins . . . by nature children of wrath . . . having no hope and without God” (Ephesians 2:1, 3, 12). This is one of the universal effects of Adam’s sin on his offspring (Romans 5:12). We are born with sinful tendencies and fallen hearts—“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). “All of us like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6).
Furthermore, Scripture says we are hopeless to redeem ourselves, atone for our own sin, reform our hearts and minds, or earn any kind of merit in the eyes of God. Romans 8:7–8 says, “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” That describes the fallen condition of all humanity, not merely a special, notorious class of particularly sinful people. Even the very best of people, apart from Christ and His Holy Spirit, are helplessly in bondage to sin. Even those who in the eyes of the world manage to seem respectable, altruistic, or “good” by comparison are not really good at all by the divine standard. (As Jesus told the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:17, “There is only One who is good.”) Therefore sinners in their fallen state are under God’s condemnation, with no hope of redeeming themselves.
Let’s face it: the idea that the entire human race is fallen and condemned is simply too harsh for most people’s tastes. They would rather believe that most people are fundamentally good. Virtually every popular arbiter of our culture’s highest, noblest values—from Oprah Winfrey to the Hallmark Channel—tells us so constantly. All we need to do, they say, is cultivate our underlying goodness, and we can fix everything wrong with human society. That’s not terribly different from what the Pharisees believed about themselves.
But Scripture says otherwise. We are hopelessly corrupted by sin. All who do not have Christ as Lord and Savior are in bondage to evil, condemned by a just God, and bound for hell. Jesus not only strongly implied those very things in His opening words to Nicodemus; before He had finished fully explaining the gospel that evening, He made His meaning explicit: “He who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18, NKJV).
Nicodemus needed some good news—and Jesus was about to deliver just that.
(Adapted from The Jesus You Can’t Ignore)