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Lesson 14: Why Religion Can’t Save You (John 3:1-7)

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June 2, 2013

One of the greatest lies that Satan has foisted on the human race is that religion can save you. By “religion,” I mean adherence to the beliefs and practices of a religion in the hope that your performance will gain you right standing with God. Whether it is Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, or even Christianity, there have always been millions who mistakenly thought that obedience to their religion would earn them eternal life.

The four Gospels make it clear that the most difficult people to reach with the gospel are not the notoriously wicked, but rather the outwardly religious. There are numerous accounts of corrupt tax collectors and immoral people coming to salvation. They knew that they were sinners and that they could not save themselves. But it was the religious crowd that opposed Jesus and eventually crucified Him. They were blind to their own sins of pride and self-righteousness. Their religion served not to save them, but to condemn them.

But Jesus Christ did not come to promote religion. He did not flatter those who were religious by saying that He was glad to see their religious activities and that He, too, was a religious person. When the religious leaders complained that Jesus socialized with sinners, He replied (Luke 5:31-32), “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” He was not saying that some are righteous enough to get into heaven by their own good deeds. Rather, by the “righteous,” He meant the self-righteous. Their pride blinded them to their sin and kept them from coming to Jesus for forgiveness and salvation.

In our last study, we looked at John 2:23-25, where many believed in Jesus as they saw the signs (miracles) that He was doing, but Jesus didn’t believe in them, because He could see the true condition of their hearts. As I explained, those verses serve as an introduction to the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. John connects the stories by using the word “man” (or “men”). John says (2:24) that Jesus “knew all men,” and then adds (2:25), “and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” Remember, there were no chapter breaks in the original text, so the next verse (3:1) continues, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus….” There is also a connection between the people who observed Jesus’ signs (2:23) and Nicodemus’ opening statement to Jesus (3:2), “no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” A further connection is that Jesus’ knowing all men and what was in man is evident in His reply to Nicodemus. Jesus could see beneath Nicodemus’ religious veneer. He knew that Nicodemus’ religion could not save him. He needed the new birth. This encounter teaches us that…

Religion can’t save you because to enter God’s eternal kingdom you need the new birth by the Holy Spirit.

The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus runs from 3:1-21, but somewhere after 3:12, Nicodemus fades out as John records Jesus’ words about the Son of Man being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Probably the direct words of Jesus fade away after 3:15 and John’s commentary runs from 3:16-21. Today we can only look at 3:1-7.

1. Religion can’t deal with the fundamental human need, to be reconciled to the holy God and enter His kingdom.

John begins by telling us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and adds that he was a ruler of the Jews. This means that he belonged to the Sanhedrin, the ruling council in Jerusalem that consisted of 71 members from the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Sadducees were almost all from the aristocracy and were more political than religious. They held to some heretical religious beliefs. The Pharisees were largely middle class businessmen who were concerned about following the Jewish law and had separated themselves (the word Pharisee probably comes from a word meaning to separate) from the common people by their strict adherence to their many regulations and rules (Donald Hagner, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible [Zondervan], ed. By Merrill C. Tenney, 4:747). Nicodemus was apparently a leading Pharisee, because Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel” (3:10). He must have been a recognized religious authority.

John reports that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. There have been many speculations about why he did this. Perhaps the most likely is that he was afraid of what the other members of the council would think of him. He seems to have been a rather timid man (John 7:50-52; 19:39). Some suggest that since most of John’s references to “night” have a spiritual symbolism, he may be hinting at Nicodemus’ spiritual condition. Although he was a religious leader, he was in spiritual darkness (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 186).

Nicodemus seems to have been impressed by Jesus and the signs which He was doing. For a leader of the Sanhedrin to come to the quarters of an uneducated Galilean carpenter, address Him as “Rabbi,” and acknowledge that He had come from God was no small matter. Perhaps Nicodemus uses the plural “we” to refer to a few of his colleagues, but he may also be hiding behind them a bit so as not to signal too much interest on his own part (ibid., p. 187). But in spite of his complimentary greetings, Nicodemus’ view of Jesus fell far short of acknowledging Him as the Christ, the Son of God, which is necessary to receive eternal life (20:31).

The basic error of the Pharisees was to externalize religion (William Hendriksen, (John [Baker], 1:131). They invented all sorts of manmade regulations to add to the Law of Moses and took pride in their observance of them. Jesus blasted them for their hypocrisy as they fastidiously cleaned the outside of their cups and dishes, but neglected to deal with the sin in their hearts (Matt. 23:25-28).

As we saw in John 2:23-25, the important thing with the Lord is what is in our hearts. He sees and judges “the thoughts and intentions of our hearts” (Heb. 4:12-13). Later, when the Pharisees questioned Jesus about why His disciples did not wash their hands according to their traditions, He blasted them (Mark 7:6-8):

“Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”

Those who are into religion deceive themselves by thinking that their outward rituals and rules will impress God, while at the same time they dodge dealing with the sin that is in their hearts. But, of course, God sees right through it all. He requires “truth in the innermost being” (Ps. 51:6). So religion cannot gain anyone access to heaven because it only deals with external matters. No amount of rule-keeping or adherence to religious rituals can reconcile a sinner to the holy God.

You would think that Jesus would be elated at the prospect of winning a member of the Sanhedrin as one of His followers. This guy could be a key disciple! Think of his influence! Think of how his testimony would impress the other religious leaders, not to mention the common people. But Jesus showed no excitement, no deference, and no eager politeness. There was not even any attempt at persuasiveness or accommodation. Jesus was no respecter of persons. Rather, He cut to the quick by telling Nicodemus:

2. To be reconciled to God, you must be reborn from above.

John 3:3: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” Jesus “answered,” but Nicodemus hadn’t asked a question! B. F. Westcott (cited by Andreas Kostenberger, John [Baker], p. 121) remarked, “The Lord answered not his words, but his thoughts.” Jesus knew what was in Nicodemus’ heart and answered him accordingly.

Three times (3:3, 5, 11) in this interview Jesus uses the phrase, “Truly, truly.” It transliterates the Aramaic, “Amen,” which came from a verb meaning “to confirm.” It was used to give assent to the words uttered by another, as we still use it today. Jesus used the phrase to give added significance and attention to what follows. Leon Morris explains (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 169), “It marks the words as uttered before God, who is thus invited to bring them to pass.”

The point that Jesus wanted to hammer home to Nicodemus is, “You don’t need further instruction in religion. You need to be born again! You need to see yourself as a sinner who needs more than moral or religious improvement. You need nothing less than new life from God!” As Jesus will go on to say, in effect (3:14-16), “You need to see Me as more than a religious teacher. You need to see Me as your Savior, lifted up on the cross to bring salvation to sinners.” Morris puts it (p. 212), “In one sentence He sweeps away all that Nicodemus stood for, and demands that he be re-made by the power of God.”

“Born again” is ambiguous and may also mean “born from above.” Both are true and John may intend that we understand both meanings. William Barclay (The Gospel of John [Westminster], 1:120) captures both meanings with “reborn from above.” The idea is that just as we were born physically, so we need to be born spiritually. Such a birth requires the power of God. Nicodemus, as a Jew and a Pharisee, would have been proud of the fact that he was not a Gentile, but had been born as a Jew. But Jesus shows him that being a Jew, even a religious Jew, is not enough. He needed a new birth as a spiritual child of God (John 1:12-13).

Jesus says (3:3) that we must be born again to “see the kingdom of God.” These verses (3:3, 5) are the only reference to the kingdom in John (except 18:36, with Pilate; 6:15, “king”). It’s a major theme in the Synoptic Gospels. Here it refers to the Messianic kingdom for which all Jews hoped. Ed Blum explains (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 2:281), “The kingdom is the sphere or realm of God’s authority and blessing which is now invisible but will be manifested on earth (Matt. 6:10).” To see the kingdom (3:3) is basically equal to entering the kingdom (3:5), with the slight difference that “see” implies spiritual perception (1 Cor. 2:14). Carson (p. 188) explains, “To a Jew with the background and convictions of Nicodemus, ‘to see the kingdom of God’ was to participate in the kingdom at the end of the age, to experience eternal, resurrection life.”

To be a proper subject in God’s kingdom, you have to be subject to the King, and that subjection begins here and now, not in the distant future. The problem is, those who are in the flesh are by nature hostile toward God and not able to subject themselves to God. As Paul explains (Rom. 8:6-8), “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because 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.” John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 108) infers that since our whole nature needs the new birth, there is nothing in us that is not sinful. Corruption has spread throughout.

Thus all the religion in the world cannot resolve our basic problem of being alienated from God, because religion is based on human works that stem from the flesh and feed our pride. To be subject to the King, we need the new birth that gives us a new nature that delights in obedience to God from the heart (Rom. 6:17-18). We need a radical transformation, not just some behavior modification. We need something that the natural man cannot produce. We need nothing less than to be reborn from above.

Nicodemus was amazed (3:7) at Jesus’ radical statement that he needed to be born again. He replies (3:4), “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?” It’s difficult to understand what Nicodemus meant by this question. Obviously, he did not believe that Jesus was suggesting that a person go back to the womb and be reborn physically. John MacArthur (The Gospel According to Jesus [Zondervan], p. 40) thinks that Nicodemus was really saying, “I can’t start all over. It’s too late. I’ve gone too far in my religious system to start over. There’s no hope for me if I must begin from the beginning.” He says that Jesus was demanding that Nicodemus forsake everything he stood for, and Nicodemus knew it.

That may be, but I think D. A. Carson may be more on target when he suggests that Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was talking about at all. His amazement (3:7) at Jesus’ words that he must be born again may indicate a degree of bewilderment. In verse 12 Jesus indicts him for not believing what He has just told him. So Carson says that Nicodemus’ answer reflects incredulousness, which prompted him to answer with a crassly literalistic interpretation of what Jesus said to express a degree of scorn. R. C. Sproul (John [Reformation Trust], p. 38) goes so far as to suggest that Nicodemus was insulting Jesus by his reply: “What are you talking about? Are you suggesting that a man has to enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born? What a ridiculous idea that is.” So Jesus (in verse 5) further explains verse 3:

3. Spiritual rebirth requires cleansing from sin and new life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

John 3:5-7: Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”

The phrase, “born of water and the Spirit,” has been subject to numerous interpretations. I used to think that “born of water” referred to physical birth, so that Jesus was responding to Nicodemus’ question in verse 4, “Your physical birth as a Jew, Nicodemus, is not enough. You must also be born spiritually.” The problem with that view is that Nicodemus probably would not have understood “water” in this way. And, the Greek construction points to one birth, not two. “Water and the Spirit” (3:5) is the equivalent of being born “from above” (3:3; see Carson, p. 191).

Some think that it refers to Christian baptism. But Christian baptism didn’t exist at that point. Jesus was trying to explain things to Nicodemus, not confuse him with a doctrine which he knew nothing about. Also, to teach that sprinkling water on an infant causes the new birth would be to say that religion saves a person, which is the opposite of what is being said here!

Some say it refers to John the Baptist’s baptism. This is a possible interpretation if Jesus was referring to what John’s baptism signified, namely, repentance from his sins. In addition to the repentance of John’s baptism, a person must receive what John predicted of Messiah, that He would baptize both with water and with the Holy Spirit (1:33). But that seems like a subtle meaning that Nicodemus may easily have missed.

Others argue that “water” represents the Word of God (John 15:3; Eph. 5:25; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:22-25). But, would Nicodemus have understood it in this way?

Others say that “water” is a symbol for the Holy Spirit, so that both terms mean the same thing. This is Calvin’s view (p. 111): “By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit.” He would translate and as, that is, which is sometimes the meaning.

Since Jesus reproaches Nicodemus for not understanding these things (3:10), He was probably referring to the promise of Ezekiel 36:25-27:

Then 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 predicted a time when God would cleanse His people from their sins and give them a new heart and new spirit and put His Spirit within them so that they would walk in obedience to His Word. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus when He ratified the New Covenant with His blood and sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in all that believe in Him. Nicodemus, who knew the Old Testament, should have connected Ezekiel’s prophecy with Jesus’ words (3:3), “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is saying that there is a fundamental divide between the physical and the spiritual (3:6). Being born physically as a Jew, or in our terms, being born into a Christian family, is not enough. There must be a second birth that cleanses from sin and creates new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Carson puts it (p. 197), “What is in view is a new nature, not turning over a new leaf.”

Just as physical birth happens at a point in time, so with spiritual birth. But just as we don’t remember our physical birth, so we may not remember or be able to pinpoint the time of our spiritual birth. The way we can know that we’re born again is that we observe signs of new life in our hearts: faith in Christ and His promise of eternal life; love for God; a new desire for the things of God; thankfulness to God for His abundant mercy in Christ; hunger for God’s Word; love for God’s people and for all people; mourning of and hatred of sin and a desire for holiness. In short, you will have new desires for God that you did not have before the new birth. It is not that you will never desire again to sin, but rather that the new direction of your life will be marked by these new desires that come from the new birth.


Years ago, Bishop John Taylor Smith, a former chaplain general of the British army, was preaching in a large cathedral on the text, “You must be born again.” He said, “My dear people, do not substitute anything for the new birth. You may be a member of a church … but church membership is not new birth, and ‘except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” The rector was sitting on his left. Pointing to him he said, “You may be a clergyman like my friend the rector here and not be born again, and ‘except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” On his right sat the archdeacon. Pointing at him, he continued, “You might even be an archdeacon like my friend here and still not be born again, but ‘except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” You might even be a bishop like myself and not be born again, but ‘except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”

Several days later he received a letter from the archdeacon which read, in part, “My dear Bishop: You have found me out. I have been a clergyman for over 30 years, but I have never known anything of the joy that Christians speak of. I never could understand it…. But when you pointed at me and said that a person could be an archdeacon and not be born again, I understood what the trouble was. Would you please come and talk with me?” Of course, Bishop Smith did talk with him and the archdeacon responded to Christ’s call to salvation (H. A. Ironside, Illustrations of Biblical Truth [Moody Press], pp. 49-50).

What about you? You may be religious, but religion can’t save you. You must be born again. Don’t settle for anything less. Cry out to God that He would cause you to be born again (1 Pet. 1:3).

Application Questions

  1. Why is religion so appealing to so many people? What’s the draw?
  2. Is there a difference between “making a decision to accept Christ” and “being born again”? If so, what is the difference?
  3. Someone asks you, “How can I know if I’ve been born again?” How would you answer?
  4. Who is the easier one to witness to: A convict in prison or a lifelong member of a Christian church who has not been born again? How should your approach to each one differ?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Soteriology (Salvation)

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