I’ve been saved for 30 years and I’ve been exposed to many “Gospel presentations” by pastors and teachers and evangelists. And if you listen closely to how it is often presented, you discover that different preachers have different ways of presenting Jesus. I’ve been asked to “accept Jesus as my personal Savior,” “ask Jesus into my heart,” “invite Jesus into my life,” and “make a decision for Christ.” I’ve been invited to walk down to an altar, pray a prayer, raise a hand, sign a card, and get dunked in a baptismal, all by various pastors or teachers, all as ways to get saved or evidence that I was saved. I’m sure many of you who have grown up in the church or been around church folk awhile have heard these terms of salvation or been accustomed to them, maybe even used them yourself. It may surprise some of you that none of these terms are found in the Bible.
No, the gospel Jesus presented was a call to discipleship, a call to follow Him, a call to take up our cross, die to self, and walk in obedience. Jesus didn’t plea with people to make a decision or pray a prayer. The gospel Jesus presented was “good news” of liberation of sin bondage and for forgiveness for repentant sinners. It was a gospel that challenged the righteousness of religious hypocrites and brought hope for those held captive by their sin. This gospel declared, “Go and sin no more” and “Follow me.” Yes, this was truly good news, but by no means did it just involve some religious ritual of walking an aisle, signing a card, or reciting a prayer as evidence of faith leading to salvation in Jesus Christ.
The sad news is, not everyone who thinks they are truly believers in Christ are truly His. Jesus said in Matthew 7, 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Because of an acceptance of a diluted gospel, we have those who make professions of faith and fill our pews thinking they are true followers of Jesus, yet their life shows no indication that He is Lord. Jesus call to follow Him was anything but easy or shallow, resulting in a quick response. Jesus turned away more followers than He won; He came to challenge the status quo, meeting an individuals’ needs and always ready to shoot down a person’s self righteousness, see through shallow commitment, warn against false faith, and reveal wrong motives.
We see this clearly in John 3, when Jesus encounters Nicodemus, the Pharisee, under cloud of night, probably in order to prevent backlash from other Pharisaical leaders. Maybe he came for confirmation from Jesus; maybe he came to challenge Jesus’ knowledge. Jesus knows Nicodemus’ background; Nicodemus came from privilege, he knows the Bible, he has kept the law. Yet Jesus deals with Nicodemus as an unbeliever and one who is resting on his self-righteousness.
Jesus is not presenting an easy, pray a prayer, shallow believism message to this teacher of the Law; on the contrary, Jesus is challenging everything Nicodemus stood for. He challenged his Biblical knowledge, his self-righteousness, his works-based religion. Nothing short of a life transformation, a rebirth, could save him. Nicodemus even approached Jesus with a sort of “confession of faith”: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher and come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do.” Nicodemus knew his Bible, he seen the miracles, he knew Jesus was from God. Jesus knew the hearts of men (2:24) and, ignoring Nicodemus profession of faith, declares to him that he needs to be born again. Jesus didn’t confirm, deny, or acknowledge Nicodemus’ comment. He went right to the heart of the matter: You need to be born again.
What Nicodemus asks Jesus is profound: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Let’s not think Nicodemus is being sarcastic or just plain dumb in asking this. What he’s really saying is, “What do you mean? I was born this way. I’ve lived my life this way. I can’t start over. This is my life.” Jesus is commanding Nicodemus to forsake everything he stood for, and Nicodemus knew it, as evidenced by his question. Nicodemus rested on his works, his knowledge, his rituals, his “faith.” Yet Jesus is saying that nothing short of life transformation will enable him to enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus wasn’t referencing physical birth or literal water. He was referencing the Old Testament water of purification, sprinkled on the altar. Nicodemus was familiar with the Old Testament, and he knew its practices. In Ezekiel 36:25, God says, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you” and then says later, “I will put My Spirit within you.” These statements bring the idea of water and of the Spirit together: “I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” This is the Old Testament promise of regeneration by water and the Spirit. And the result is in verse 27, that God will “cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” That is Jesus call to follow Him.
We don’t know how Nicodemus responded. Yet we know the message has been consistent throughout the Bible. The message is that God graciously saves repentant sinners who come to Him by faith. This is plain, there’s no secret, nothing hidden. Nicodemus came with a profession of faith by saying, “We know you have come from God as a teacher” and Jesus responds, “No, you don’t, you need a life transformation.” This regeneration is not an option, but necessary. And this leads us to one of the most outstanding statements in the Bible, John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” What does it mean to believe in Christ? It’s more than just affirming who Jesus is, like Nicodemus did. It’s more than praying a prayer; it’s more than walking an aisle. Real faith has at its heart a willingness to obey. Later in chapter 3, Jesus says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” That is the true test of real faith – does it result in obedience? Jesus contrasts belief with disobedience. Disobedience is the same as unbelief. Real faith obeys.
I’ve shared this story with the worship team and I think it truly shows what faith that results in obedience looks like. In the 1800s, there was a man named Charles Blondin. He was in a circus troupe that came from Europe to the United States. He was a tightrope walker, and when he visited Niagara Falls, he became obsessed with stretching his tightrope across the Falls and walking across it. He wanted to be the first man to walk across on a tightrope, and he was. 1100 feet in length of 3-inch hemp stretched across, over 200 feet off the ground. 100,000 people showed up to see him do it the first time. He kept doing it over and over again. So as it got old, he would go in the middle of the rope and do tricks, such as doing flips, lying down, doing hand stands. One time, he pushed a wheel barrel across the rope. One time he put a coal oven on his back, carried it out into the middle of the falls on this rope, and cooked an omelet. He spoke to the crowd; he asked if they believed he could go across it. He asked if they believed he could walk across with someone on his back. And he did. He took his manager on his back across the rope. He would do this repeatedly, and one time, the Prince of Wales was there and saw Blondin walk his manager across the rope. When Blondin finished and came to the side that the Prince of Wales was at, he asked him if he believed he could do it again. The Prince obviously replied of course, because he had seen him do it, he heard about it, there was no doubt he could do it again. So Blondin said to the Prince, “Hop on.”
This it the kind of belief that Jesus speaks about, not from just walking an aisle, praying a prayer, signing a card. This belief results in reliance upon Him, submission to Him as Lord and follows His call to discipleship, trusting in Him and obeying Him. Question is, will you “Hop on”?