Are you saved because you believe? Or, do you believe because you are saved?
Jesus’ counseling methods seem strange to modern ears, don’t they? His subject in this case was a man named Nicodemus (John 3:1-15).
Nick’s struggle was at the least, self-esteem issues, and at the most, anxiety. A “ruler of the Jews” (3:1) and “the teacher of Israel” (3:9), we might expect to find him a person of high confidence brimming with self-worth. In reality, we find quite the opposite: secretive, uncertain, and (although skilled in religious matters) confused about his self-worth. Jesus recognized his condition and addressed it directly: Nicodemus, you don’t need counseling, therapy or medication. You need one thing; nothing more, nothing less: You need to be born again.
What does this mean?
1. New birth is different than physical birth (3:5). Jesus says you must be born of water and the Spirit. Whatever that means, it is different than the physical birth.
2. New birth is initiated invisibly by the Spirit (3:6). Jesus plainly states, “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” This is not the first time John’s Gospel set forth this idea (John 1:12-13), nor will it be the last (John 6:63). In each instance, the work of Spirit-birth is both invisible and initiated by the Spirit of God: The Spirit loosens the chains that hold your heart captive, thus imparting spiritual life.
3. New birth produces visible results (3:7-8). Jesus likens the new birth to the wind. Both are invisible, yet both produce visible results. One visible result of the new birth is belief in God’s only Son (coupled with repentance). This is precisely why John 3:7 (new birth) precedes John 3:16 (belief). Simply put, you must be born again to believe.
Why is this relevant to me?
So, Nicodemus: Are you saved because you believe? Or, do you believe because you are saved? It’s a deep question, isn’t it? It’s a question designed to diagnose where your trust resides: in yourself (self-generated belief) or in God (Spirit-induced birth). Why is this relevant?
Some of our problems today are psychological, but many are not. They are spiritual. Jesus encountered struggling people in His day: a woman at the well struggling with acceptance (she had five husbands and was living with yet another man); lepers struggling with rejection; religious people struggling with perfectionism; a rich young ruler struggling with materialism; a possessed man struggling with rage such that he cut himself deliberately.
Just because they lived in the first century doesn’t mean they are all that different from us. Each of those people, no doubt, had related symptoms (anxiety, stress, rage, etc.). Each instance Jesus treated identically. He did not refer them to a psychologist, recommend long-term therapy, or prescribe medication. Those things can be helpful. Jesus, however, treated their heart-condition with one remedy: The gospel.
Sometimes, the gospel regenerated that heart (the woman at well, John 4).
Other times it did not (the rich young ruler, Mark 10:22). Nevertheless, Jesus’ treatment was consistent: outer transformation comes through inner transformation of the heart. Only the gospel can address that.
We should never discount the gift of modern treatments and medicine. But neither should we discount the power of the gospel. The gospel can regenerate the sin-captive heart. Jesus believed this. He set it before Nicodemus. Did Nicodemus respond to the gospel call on his life? That is a matter of debate that cannot be settled with certainty. What can be settled with certainty is this: Will you?
Chip Thornton is the pastor of First Baptist Church-Springville.