This Lent, we have the privilege to walk through several stories in the Gospel of John, which demonstrate to us the power of God for salvation to all who believe. We’ll stop in John 3 today, where we meet Nicodemus who learns the grace of the Kingdom of God. Next Sunday, we’ll hear about how important forgiveness of sins is for entrance into the Kingdom. Then we’ll ponder the nature of sin with the man who was born blind. Finally before Palm Sunday, the Lord will bring us down to the very grave before raising us up with Lazarus, whom He calls forth from the tomb. That brings us to the Palm Sunday procession in John 12, which was largely populated by people who had seen Lazarus rise.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, because he thinks he can identify the things of God. After all, he’s a trained expert in them. It stands to reason if you want to know about God, you study the Scriptures and that makes you well-qualified to know what God is doing. But Jesus points out the fatal flaw in man-knowing-God. Human understanding doesn’t recognize the fullness of God’s work of salvation. It can behold the miracles, but not the fuller reality behind them. “You must be born again.”
Without being born again, people profane God’s Name. Without being born again, they just go through the motions of religion because its what their family does, or it’s to get their spouse off their case, but they are only inspired by the order and the moral example the Bible gives. Likewise, without being born again, people shun religion and say it’s nothing but judgmental people. They turn away from God because they either view Him as an angry judge or as something that people in the dark ages made up in the name of social control.
“You must be born again” says that we are born incapable of recognizing God’s work, rightly knowing how God thinks, or even understanding how to read His Word (even if it’s in plain English). By the Holy Spirit we see the fullness of God’s heart. He doesn’t just love the people who meet certain criteria. He loves these people of the flesh—sinners with real lives that have real doubts, guilt, fear, etc. He loves the world, and if you are in the world, He loves you.
His love, though, doesn’t come to us merely on human terms; it come on God’s terms. If it were on human terms, it would be subject to our biases—who we think is worthy of His kingdom. The recognition of God’s love in Christ is wider than human expectation, and it is better.
Unfortunately for us, hearing these words in 2020, “love” has been mutated into a strange version of its original intent. Love is a strong feeling, love is permissiveness, love is…altogether human. But we heard this in last week’s Epistle reading, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Human love takes that to mean a blank check, that between the Old and New Testaments, God had a change of heart and decided to not be so hard on people. Instead what it really
means is that God loved us enough that, in spite of our wretchedness, our rejecting Him, that He still gave the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son. That was what we truly needed to be saved.
Our salvation being the result of God’s work alone is called monergism—meaning God alone has the power to save. And this makes us uncomfortable. It makes us uncomfortable to be out of control of something so important. The Spirit moves where He wills. “He creates faith when and where it pleases God in those who believe” (Augsburg Confession V).
Because God doesn’t hold out on His salvation based on what we’ve done, we can take confidence that He forgives the sins of all who have been born again. But how do we know when we’re born again?
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” This refers back to the incident with the fiery serpents in Numbers 21, when God sent serpents to bite the people who grumbled against the Lord so that they died.
It means that all who feel the pangs of death and acknowledge that they have offended not just social standards or their own expectations for themselves, but have sinned against God. All who believe this—not only that He exists and He saves theoretical sinners, but that He has saved you, a sinner, have eternal life.
Today it’s all too common to over-simplify this message, and cheapen the Gospel into Good news for bad situations, regardless of sin. But how much this harms people, because if sin is not serious, then why was Christ condemned? If sin doesn’t actually lead to us perishing, then why was God’s Son treated so cruelly?
Today the Church is challenged two-fold: one that God receives sinners, and two that God calls sinners to repent. If you lose either of those points, you miss out on the Gospel. This is why the cross remains such an enduring and powerful symbol for God’s Church. It’s more than two lines to form the lower-case ‘t’ on “co-exist” bumper stickers. The cross shows the darkness in all people, and what God did to bring us back to Himself. Every human attempt to do this has resulted in disillusionment or delusion. Some get “burned out on religion” because all they hear is a demand to do more, be better, and stop sinning. Others will want a message that says God just wants us to accept each other as we are.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”