The Inadequate Faith of Nicodemus (John 2:23-3:15)
Now there might be some confusion on why I have chosen to break up the passage as I have. We have to remember that first I do believe that the Word of God is the infallible Word of God and is clear and without error. However, the separations of scripture into verses and chapters are manmade additions that occurred many centuries later and although many times provides us valuable help, sometimes gets it wrong.
I see verses 23-25 as being an introduction of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, rather being a conclusion of the cleansing of the temple as the person that divided the chapters must have understood. I believe this is because the reason Nicodemus came to Jesus was because of the many miracles he was doing and those believing in him, and because the belief that Nicodemus had that was insufficient for saving faith is the same belief that many in the crowds had.
In verse 23, we see that many trusted in his name. But in verse 24 says Jesus, however, would not entrust himself to them.
Many trusted. Many people in John 2 believed in Jesus, but Jesus did not believe them. Many people in John 2 accepted Jesus, but Jesus did not accept them. Clearly, from the beginning of the gospel of John, this gospel that revolves around the necessity and centrality of belief in Christ, John makes clear to us that there is a kind of belief, a kind of faith, that does not save. Which makes sense because Satan and his demons believe and obey him, but are destined for the lake of fire.
This sets the stage for John’s introduction of Nicodemus in verse 1 of chapter 3. Nicodemus is a man that comes to Jesus and says in chapter 3 verse 2: We know that you have come from God as a teacher, we have seen the signs.
So Jesus looks back at Nicodemus and says, Your belief, your trust is insufficient for your salvation. You must be born again. (John 3:7)
This is shocking! Here is a devout, passionate, respected, law-following, God-fearing man. He had devoted his entire life to entering the kingdom of heaven. He prays to God. He studies God’s Word, he teaches it, and he lives it. And he does all of this in an effort to honor God.
This is a man that if he was to come to Flemingsburg Baptist Church, not only would we accept him with open arms, but we would make him be a deacon, serve on our committees, and teach our Sunday School classes. Yet Jesus says he has no spiritual life in him whatsoever.
This man of faith who believed in Jesus was dead in sin, and at that moment he was destined for Hell.
Is this possible? Is it possible for people to say they believe in Jesus, to say they have accepted Jesus, to say that they have received Jesus, but they are not saved and will not enter the kingdom of heaven? Is that possible? Absolutely, it’s possible. It’s not just possible; it is probable.
This is not just in John 2. This is Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 as He concludes His most famous sermon, and He says: “Many will say to me on that day…many!…will say, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and drive out demons and do mighty works in your name, and I will tell them, I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:22-23)
Jesus is not talking, in Matthew 7 or in John 3 about especially corrupt sinners, atheists, or agnostics. He is talking about deeply, devoutly religious people who are deluded into thinking that they are saved when they are not. He is talking about men and women who will be shocked one day to find that though they thought they were on the narrow road that leads to heaven, they were actually on the broad road that leads to Hell. People who believed, but were not born again.
Is this applicable to us today? Consider a recent study that found that 4 out of 5 Americans identify themselves as Christians. In this group of self-proclaimed Christians, less than half of them are involved in church on a regular basis. Less than half of them believe that the Bible is accurate. The overwhelming majority of them do not have a biblical view of the world around them.
But this study went deeper to identify certain men and women as “born-again Christians.” This group includes people who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus, and who believe they will go to heaven because they have accepted Jesus as their Savior. According to that definition, almost half of all Americans are classified as “born-again Christians.”
But what’s interesting is that out of this group of “born-again Christians,” researchers found that the beliefs and lifestyles of “born again Christians” are virtually the same as the rest of the world around them. Many of these “born-again Christians” believe that their works can earn them a place in heaven. Other “born again Christians” think that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Some “born again Christians” believe that Jesus sinned while he was on earth. And an ever-increasing number of “born-again Christians” describe themselves as nominally committed to Jesus—a trend that, by the way, is not just common in our country, but in many parts of the world where “Christian” is oftentimes more of a political or even ethnic label than it is a spiritual reality.
Now people have used research like this to conclude that Christians are really not that different from the rest of the world, but I am convinced that conclusion is inaccurate. The one thing that is absolutely clear from all of these statistics is that there are a whole lot of people in the world who think that they are Christians, but they are not. There are millions upon millions of people who believe in Jesus and think that they are saved, but they are dangerously deceived. And some, maybe many, of them have been deceived in the church.
Scores of people, some that attend our church and others that are far away from our church, still today assume that they are saved simply because of a prayer they prayed, because they raised their hand and were told that they were saved, walk an aisle, or got dunked in our baptistery. Their assurance of heaven remains in those events instead of the life change that should occur when the author of all creation comes into your life and causes a new birth.
Now, I want to be clear (absolutely clear). It’s not (it’s absolutely not) that praying a prayer in and of itself is bad. Surely, calling out to Christ for salvation involves prayer. Surely, many of us were truly saved when we called out to God in prayer like this. Now it doesn’t necessarily have to look like what we’ve labeled a “sinner’s prayer” today. We don’t necessarily see such a prayer in Scripture, but Scripture definitely exhorts us to urge people to call on the name of the Lord and be saved.
Similarly, it’s not that making a decision in and of itself is wrong. Surely there is a point in time at which we are justified before God through faith in Jesus.
But the question that John 2-3 begs us all to ask is, “What kind of faith are we talking about?” What kind of faith are we calling people to? Are we calling people to biblical faith? In a day of rampant easy-believism that creates cultural Christians who do not know Christ, who have never counted the cost of following Christ, we must be biblically clear about saving faith, lest any of us lead people down a very dangerous and potentially condemning road of spiritual deception.
Which leads to the question, “What is the difference, then, between false faith that marked the crowds in John 2, and saving faith according to Christ in John 3?” What is the difference between false, superficial faith, and true, saving faith?
So back to our passage with Nicodemus. Jesus begins by telling him that despite all of his work, despite all of his effort, and despite all of his motives, Nicodemus was dead in his sin. This is a fundamental starting point of the Gospel; a right understanding of man’s condition before a holy God. If we do not get this right, if this is not clear, then we will deceive people.
Francis Schaeffer was once asked the question, “What would you do if you met a modern man on a train and had just one hour to talk to him about the gospel?” Schaeffer replied,
I would spend 45-50 minutes on the negative, to really show him his dilemma—that he is morally dead—then I’d take 10-15 minutes to preach the gospel. I believe that much of our evangelistic and personal work today is not clear, simply because we are too anxious to get to the answer without having a man realize the real cause of his sickness, which is true moral guilt (and not just psychological guilt feelings) in the presence of God.
This is huge. Jesus did not start by saying, you don’t want to go to Hell do you? Jesus starts with the reason why he needs to be saved and what he was being saved from, his sinful nature. This is where Jesus started with Nicodemus, and it is where we must start in the gospel.
This is man’s problem, and we must make it clear. Our problem is not that we have messed up a few times. Our problem is not that that we have made some bad decisions. Our problem is that we are dead in sin.
So what can save us from this state – raise your hand, say these words, sign this card, walk this aisle? We all know that none of these things alone can save us. What we do not need is superficial religion; we need supernatural regeneration. We are dead in sin, and we need to be born again.
So how can a man be born again? Scripture resounds with a clear answer to that question. Two primary words: repent and believe. The first words out of the mouth of both John the Baptist and Jesus in Matthew 3 and 4: “Repent.” First words that Peter says in Acts 2 when the crowds ask, “What shall we do?” He doesn’t say, “Bow your heads and close your eyes.” He says, “Repent” (Acts 2:38). He says the same thing in Acts 3:19: “Repent…and turn, that your sins may be blotted out.” Acts 8:22: “Repent of wickedness.” Acts 26:20: “Repent and turn to God.” Acts 17:30: “God commands all people everywhere to repent.”
Repent and believe. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” – Acts 16:31. And that’s the word that’s used all over John 3 and this entire Gospel. Seven times from verses 11-21: “believe, believe, believe, believe, believe, believe, believe.” Repent and believe.
Jesus calls us to repent, to turn from sin and self, and to believe, to trust in Jesus as the Savior who died for us, the Lord who rules over us, and the treasure that we seek that brings us the most joy in this life and the next. This is how we are saved.
This is what it means to be born again, to be born of water and of the Spirit. To be cleansed of all our sins, just as God promised through Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses” (Ezekiel 36:25). And to be filled with His Spirit: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you…I will put my Spirit in you” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Oh, what a grand and glorious moment, when a dead sinner comes to life through a divine Savior! In a day of rampant easy-believism, we need to tell everyone that Jesus will cost you everything you have, he might say to you like he did the rich young ruler to sell all you have and follow Him, or he might ask you to give your life like he did with his disciples and millions have followed suit since then… But we declare that He is Worth it and that he is more valuable than anything this earth can offer and that for us to live is Christ and for us to die is gain. (Platt, 2012)