The gospel calls sinners to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But does that mean salvation begins when a sinner responds to the message? Does it hinge on him exercising his faith?
We find an interesting answer in John 3. A man named Nicodemus came to see Jesus. He was an important religious ruler of the Jews, and a formidable teacher among the Pharisees. Scripture says he came by night, and we assume that was because he wanted to keep his meeting with Jesus a secret from his fellow religious leaders. He said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). He grasped the real purpose behind the miracles of Jesus—that they were evidence of His divinity. But Jesus ignored what Nicodemus said and went straight to the question that was truly on his heart (cf. John 2:24). Jesus always knew what people were thinking, and He knew what was troubling Nicodemus. The question burdening his heart was, “How do I get into the kingdom of God?” And before Nicodemus could put his question into words, Jesus answered: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
That prompted a follow-up question from Nicodemus, “How can a man be born when he is old?” (John 3:4). As a Pharisee, Nicodemus knew what it was to speak in analogies and parables—the religious leaders did it all the time. That was the normal pattern of spiritual discourse in those days. He knew it was a spiritual conversation, but he also understood that being born again is not something you can do for yourself. “How can a man be born when he is old?” In other words, the analogy of birth precludes any action on the part of the one that is born. You didn’t bring yourself into the world the first time, and you’re not going to be able to do it the second time. He understood Christ’s analogy, but it hadn’t brought him any closer to the answer he sought. Nicodemus wanted to see the kingdom of God, but he needed to be born again. He had to start again at the very beginning with new life, and he knew that was impossible on his own.
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Jesus took Nicodemus back to Ezekiel’s prophecy of the New Covenant, in which God says,
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:25–27)
Christ’s words alluded to the nature of new covenant regeneration. He essentially told Nicodemus, “You must be washed, you must be given a new heart, and you must have the Spirit planted in you.”
And unless God is the one who sovereignly gives you a new heart, gives you His Spirit, and washes you from above, you can’t enter the kingdom. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Flesh can only produce flesh. The new birth depends on a spiritual work of God. You cannot enter the kingdom unless you are born again, and people can’t summon their own spiritual birth.
Moreover, Christ explained that being born again cannot be manufactured or manipulated; it is an entirely divine prerogative. He told Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). Not only is the new birth available only through God, it’s ultimately up to Him when and where He creates new spiritual life.
Understandably dumbfounded and possibly somewhat disheartened, Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9).
Jesus replied, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that Israel’s religious leaders had just as much difficulty understanding God’s sovereignty as we do today. Christ’s point was not to insult Nicodemus, but to highlight the spiritual bankruptcy of Jewish religiosity, which had devolved into a system of external righteousness and empty piety. Our Lord was setting up a contrast between the legalism of the Pharisees and the true nature of God’s saving and transforming work.
If the conversation had ended there, things might have seemed hopeless for Nicodemus—and for every other sinner seeking redemption and forgiveness. But it didn’t end there. Christ continued, foreshadowing His own sacrificial death:
Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. . . . He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:14–18)
Jesus didn’t tell Nicodemus he needed to pray a special prayer, or prescribe him several steps to achieve spiritual wholeness. Instead, He simply charged him to believe. Christ’s words would have been earth shattering for someone who had lived his entire life in a legalistic system of works righteousness. The message was clear—there was nothing Nicodemus (or anyone else) could do to earn God’s favor or produce his own rebirth. It was all a work of God—one that could not be manipulated or manufactured by man. And yet, Nicodemus was responsible to believe. That’s the tension in Christ’s exhortation to be born again: Salvation is entirely God’s work, but it is nevertheless our duty to believe, and God will hold those who refuse Him responsible for their unbelief.
We see the same thing a few chapters later in John 6. In verse 37, Christ says, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me.” But in verse 44 He says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” So which is it? Are we saved because we came to Christ, or because God first drew us to the Son? Is salvation open to “whoever believes” (John 3:16), or is it completely out of our control, like the “wind blow[ing] where it wishes” (John 3:8)?
The answer lies in Christ’s metaphor of the new birth. No act of human will can forgive sins, transform hearts, renew minds, or cleanse souls. Apart from the work of God, we have no hope of salvation. Our only option is to echo the cry of the tax collector in Luke 18:13, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” But God doesn’t perform His redeeming work in opposition to our will, either. He doesn’t intervene and inflict His salvation on unwilling recipients. In His perfect plan, He sovereignly draws us to Christ. On our own, we would never choose to believe in Christ. But in God’s sovereignty, those He draws will, without fail, believe.
Despite the apparent tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, Scripture never equivocates on presenting these two great realities side by side, working in harmony. In fact, as we’ll see next time, Paul’s letter to the Romans celebrates it.
(Adapted from None Other)