On Evangelism and Soteriology
By Scott Fiddler
The Word: John 3:1-3
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews;
2this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “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.”
3Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4Nicodemus said to Him, “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?”
5Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into 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 be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
8“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.”
“Nicodemus wants to talk theology; Jesus wants to talk about Nicodemus’s salvation.”
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus he acknowledges that Jesus’ signs indicate Jesus has come from God. (v. 1). This statement reveals Nicodemus’s internal conflict: If he believes Jesus has come from God, shouldn’t he abandon the Pharisees and follow Jesus? Rather than wait for the theological question that is sure to follow, Jesus, cuts straight to the issue of Nicodemus’s salvation. The pivot is so abrupt as to border on rudeness. Nicodemus wants to talk theology; Jesus wants to talk about Nicodemus’s salvation.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless a person is born again he cannot “see,” i.e. experience, the kingdom of God. (v. 3). Nicodemus doesn’t get it, so he attempts to eliminate the obviously impossible meaning that one must be physically reborn. (v. 4.). Jesus explains further that a person must be born into the world (by the breaking of water that happens when a woman gives birth) and then be born spiritually. (v. 5).
We don’t come out of the womb serving Jesus. We all go our own way in rebellion against God until we repent, believe on Jesus, and are reborn spiritually. Accordingly, whenever a person says he or she has “always been a Christian” we should dig deeper. Natural birth happens at a particular point in time, and Jesus compared salvation to birth.
In response to Jesus’ statements about being born again, I can imagine (between verses 6 and 7), Nicodemus’s mind racing as he wonders how a person can be born of the Spirit. Theologians for the last two thousand years have contemplated the nuances of how salvation occurs. Arminians (e.g., Baptists, Methodists) argue salvation happens primarily as a result of man’s will in accepting the grace of God, while Calvinists (e.g. Presbyterians) believe God is more active in our repentance.
Jesus, apparently sensing what its going on in Nicodemus’s mind, cuts off his speculation by telling him he can no more understand such things than one can understand where the wind comes from or where it goes. Why speculate about how it happens? What matters is that you must be born again to enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus is a model of evangelism. I love how Jesus essentially ignores where Nicodemus’s is going to turn the conversation to issue that really matters. Non-christians who want to talk theology with Christians are often wrestling with God at a much deeper level than they let on. It is incumbent upon Christians to recognize this and turn the conversation to the real issue.
The other take away from this passage of Scripture is that when Jesus does get to the theological issue of how salvation works, He refuses to analyze or explain it. In the Parable of the Seed, Jesus told His disciples, that after the sower sows the seed, “he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know.” Mark 4:27. We don’t need to understand how it happens. We only need to trust that it does and keep sowing seeds.