For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. John 3:16-21
A few weeks ago I shared my nomination for Best Gospel Passage as Titus 2:11-14. This flies in the face of the majority of Christendom who prefer John 3:16. My stated position is that the former gives a more complete version of the work of grace. Not wanting to be completely dismissive of most believers Favorite Verse, I now take up John 3. Yes, there’s my issue: I can’t blithely quote verse 16 without the context of the whole of John 3.
The conversation with Nicodemus centered around the way to see the kingdom of God, which is contingent on being born again. Jesus explained that ‘born first’ is birth via the flesh, the birth of our natural selves. But to be ‘born again’ is birth via the Spirit. Nicodemus experienced a brain tilt over this concept and Jesus gently chided him since he was a Pharisee, one who was responsible to teach the people of Israel the ways of God. Rather than giving an intellectual explanation of how one is born again, Jesus told Nicodemus that what he really needed was to believe in Him. He cited an incident from Israel’s history as an illustration: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) The incident He referred to is found in Numbers 21:4-9 When I read this story, I find the worldly thought patterns that crop up by auto-pilot asking their regular type of questions: “How does that work? How does a bronze snake on a pole cure people of deadly snake bites?” I am bent to want to understand rather than believe. I think Nicodemus was thinking like me and Jesus doesn’t satisfy that desire for him or for me. He puts a much higher premium on belief and gives understanding in time, sometimes not until after the Day of Christ.
Because my above-mentioned thought patterns are persistent, I proceed to try to understand what it means to believe. I wonder this both to reassure my own heart, since so much depends on it and also to better teach others. I am commissioned to preach the gospel and I want to help others understand how to believe, too. But John 3 doesn’t indulge this desire to understand. Instead of straining to get the scripture to give me what I want, I have to yield to the Spirit and let Him instruct me with what it actually says. Verse 8 says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” It took me years before this ‘aha’ broke in on me: I had no choice in being born of the flesh. It was an occurrence that happened through the choices of other people. My responsibility has been to take what I was given and make good on it. This is particularly relevant for me because the choices those other people made were never intended to result in ME. That was an unlooked-for consequence. This has caused me periodic seasons of existential crisis. So for me to acknowledge my healthy response is no small thing nor was it automatic. That said (that ‘born of the flesh’ is not voluntary), what makes us think that to be born of the Spirit is? The weight of scripture reinforces to truth that it is solely the choice of God. Our responsibility is to make good on it.
So here’s the wrap up of my rambling thought (trust me: the real-time process was very long and rambling): Instead of trying to figure out what it means to believe in order to be born again, being born again is the work of God and, if I have been, I will believe. Belief is the indicator of the saving work of God, not the initiator. My Wesleyan Arminian upbringing made it hard for me to get around to this, but I want my thoughts to flow with the Word, not a tradition. For years, the Spirit has kept pressing upon me the sovereignty of God and I have struggled with existential angst similar to that of my natural birth. The last verse of John 3 brings me to a place of peace: “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” God births His own through the Spirit and the hearing of the Gospel brings the response of belief in those He has drawn to Himself. I don’t choose them. They do not choose themselves. He does it. We respond. That is the end of the matter.