Faith, Salvation, Reprobation in John 3

Having performed His first miracle at a wedding in Cana, revealing His glory, instrumentally causing His disciples to believe in Him (John 2:11) -- thereafter, zealous for the holiness of His Father's house, He cleanses the Temple from those who had used that sacred place for making money (John 2:16, 17) -- Jesus is visited at night by a Pharisee named Nicodemus. (John 3:1) That the author records this visit taking place at night must hold some significance; perhaps our holy man was busy during the day and could only visit with Jesus at night; or perhaps he did not want to risk being seen spending intimate time with Jesus, and be thought of as a secret disciple, thus jeopardizing his reputation among the Jewish leaders.

Nicodemus addresses Jesus as Rabbi, stating that he and some other Pharisees ("we," John 3:2) know [οιδαμεν, to know or perceive as fact] that He is a teacher "who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." (John 3:2) Jesus responds, interrupting him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see [cf. John 3:5] the kingdom of God without being born from above." (John 3:3) Nicodemus had not mentioned any notion of entrance into the kingdom of God -- all he began to declare is that he and some other Pharisees understand that He is, in some special, immediate sense, sent from God. Suddenly, Jesus introduces the subject of the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God?

βασιλείαν is translated as kingship, kingdom, sovereignty, rule, especially "of God, both in the world, and in the hearts of men; hence: kingdom, in the concrete sense." (link) We shall, then, conceive of the kingdom of God as the rule of God, the realm -- including all creatures within that realm -- where God's will is carried out perfectly and in righteousness. In some sense God's kingdom has begun (Luke 17:21; 1 Cor. 15:24, 25); yet pure righteousness does not yet reign supreme and exclusively (2 Peter 2:13). Therefore we pray for the fulfillment of God's realized rule (kingdom) on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). The eternal, perfect, righteous reign of God is the kingdom of God.

I think we are safe to infer here that Jesus knows what is on the mind of Nicodemus, especially since Jesus is elsewhere declared as knowing what is "in" a person, and what is on the minds of people (John 1:47, 48; 2:24, 25). Nicodemus, misunderstanding Jesus' comment, asks how one can be "born again," or "for a second time," since that is physically impossible. Yet Jesus is not communicating physically but metaphysically. "Jesus answered, 'Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter [cf. John 3:3] the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.'" (John 3:5, 6) So, entrance into the kingdom of God finds no qualification with regard to the realm or works of the flesh.

At John 3:3 as well as John 3:5 Jesus uses two different Greek words in connection with being born again (or born from above, regenerated) and the kingdom of God: without regeneration no one can "see" (John 3:3), ὁράω, or "enter" (John 3:5), εἰσελθεῖν, the kingdom of God. Granted that the kingdom of God is not comprised of principles one adopts and affirms we can, then, dispense with the interpretation that Jesus is here conveying a message that regeneration must precede faith. That is a concept foreign to and must be interjected into the context. Jesus qualifies His statement regarding one being able to ὁράω (see) the kingdom by referring to one being able to εἰσελθεῖν (enter) the reign of God. Though ὁράω can refer to perception (John 7:52; Acts 8:23; 28:26), the word also refers to seeing with one's physical eyes (John 8:57; 9:7; 12:21; 14:7, 9; 16:22; 20:18, 25, 27, 29). In other words, Jesus qualifies and contextualizes what is meant by seeing the kingdom of God: it refers to entering the kingdom; hence, contextually, at John 3:3, 5, seeing and thus entering God's eternal and righteous kingdom requires the new birth.

For Calvinists, regeneration serves strictly one primary purpose, which is the granting of faith by God to His alleged unconditionally elect. We, however, not only see evidence in Scripture which contradicts the novel theory (cf. Col. 2:13), but also find in Scripture multiple purposes for the new birth. First and foremost, the person who, by grace through faith in Christ, is the recipient of the regenerative act of the Holy Spirit is also referred to as a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17): "created in Christ Jesus for good works" (Eph. 2:10) -- this new creation "which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator" (Col. 3:10).

The new birth brings about a cleansing of one's sins and an inner renewal: "through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5 RSV). Directly connected to this renewal is the accompanying salvation experience (John 3:16, 17; Col. 1:13; Titus 3:5). Such a person is given a new heart that desires to obey God (Jer. 17:9; 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26). This renewal is tantamount to a resurrection: such a one passes from death to life (John 5:21-27; 11:25; Rom. 6:4-5; Eph. 2:1-6; Col. 2:13; 3:1; 1 Tim. 5:6; 1 John 3:14; 5:12). Regeneration is the immediate cause of a new way of thinking and living for the glory of God; by grace through faith in Christ the new birth results in a new life (Acts 3:19; 15:3; 28:27).

JESUS AND NICODEMUS

The renewed person is now "translated" and positioned spiritually in Christ (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 1:3, 4, 6, 12; Col. 1:13-14). Such a one now has a living relationship with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit (John 15:1-6; Rom. 6:5; 7:4; 1 Cor. 6:17; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:21-32). The new birth is the beginning of our justification (Rom. 3:28; 5:1, 9; 8:30; 10:10; 1 Cor. 6:11; Gal. 2:16); sanctification (Acts 26:18; Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11); adoption as a child of God (Rom. 8:15, 23; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5); and future glorification in Christ and final, ultimate conformation to the image of God's Son Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29-30; 1 John 3:2). To suggest, then, that the new birth merely makes the "gift" of faith possible is to entirely undermine and belittle its God-ordained purpose and benefits. 

Moreover, the novel theory of regeneration preceding faith renders a person saved prior to one's faith in Christ. This is utterly contradictory to the teaching of the New Testament, which insists that one is saved by grace through faith (Acts 2:21; 15:11 16:30, 31; Rom. 10:9, 10, 13; 1 Cor. 15:2; Eph. 2:5, 8, 9; Heb. 10:39). One is saved and thus regenerated (cf. Titus 3:5) by grace through faith, not to faith.

Jesus informs Nicodemus that "the flesh," or our fallen nature, cannot produce these spiritual effects -- only the Holy Spirit can perform spiritual realities (John 3:6, 7, 8). Jesus then informs Nicodemus that he should "not be astonished" at this teaching, even though he confesses that he is, and that he cannot understand the details (John 3:9). But Jesus answers, "Are you a teacher [Rabbi] of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" (John 3:10) From Jesus' perspective, Nicodemus should have known about the spiritual elements inherent in the rule, reign, or kingdom of God (cf. Ezekiel 36:26). 

Jesus then informs him that He and His disciples "testify to what we have seen; yet you [all, plural; i.e., the Jewish leaders] do not receive our testimony." (John 3:11) He challenges: "If I have told you [all] about earthly things and you [all] do not believe, how can you [all] believe if I tell you [all] about heavenly things?" (John 3:12) Their own disbelief and skepticism regarding the Person of Jesus blinded them to the truth. Still, Jesus continues to teach Nicodemus, "No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man." (John 3:13; 3:31) Here Jesus reveals His true, divine, eternal nature. He is no mere angel sent from God to deliver a message; He is the Messiah, the incarnated Son of God, the second Person of the Godhead. "And just 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." (John 3:14, 15) 

Were Jesus a mere prophet of God He deserves the death penalty for this utterance. A mere man points to God in order to receive salvation. Here, Jesus points to Himself as the Dispenser and the central, salvific Figure of eternal life: "that whoever believes in him," the Son of Man, Son of God, Jesus Christ, "may have eternal life." (John 3:15) No prophet of God, no angel of God, ever informs anyone to believe in himself. Only God can promote Himself with any divine integrity as the centripetal, Preeminent One, Lord over the salvation of souls. Jesus' life and ministry is merely the revelation of the heart of God for a lost world, as He desires the salvation of all, noted as "whoever" (John 3:16), a lost world He is not eager to condemn (John 3:17).

Again, Jesus insists, "Those who believe [πιστεύων, i.e., believes and continues to believe, since this is a present active participle] in him are not condemned [κρίνεται, i.e., remains not condemned, since this is in the present tense, also]; but those who do not believe [πιστεύων, i.e., presently disbelieves and continues in this disbelief] are [remain] condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:18) A world full of unbelieving sinners is loved by a holy and just God; He is ever-present to save the one who will by grace believe in Jesus Christ, the righteous. This holy God does not have to perform a gratuitous duty of condemning unbelievers -- they exist and stand already condemned in the state of their disbelief. The summation reveals: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath." (John 3:36)

Those who "disobey" Jesus (John 3:36) are synonymous with those who refuse to believe in Him. After all, Jesus confesses, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." (John 6:29) Our first obedience to God is the grace-induced response of trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. To disobey this primary command is the immediate cause of one experiencing God's wrath (John 3:36b). We stand already condemned, ready for an eternal, reprobated existence; and what we need is salvation from that present and future reality. Whoever denies this truth, this grace of God, thus denying Christ, also denies God -- yet, such a one not only denies God, but is found guilty of calling God a liar (John 3:33, 35; 1 John 5:10).

We may wonder about the effects of this meeting of Nicodemus with Jesus. Later we discover Nicodemus attempting to mediate between Jesus and the Jewish leaders (John 7:48-51); and, finally, we see Nicodemus "bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds" to the burial site of Jesus (John 19:39). Nicodemus is noted with Joseph of Arimathea, who was "a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear" of the Jewish leaders (John 19:38). I am confident that Nicodemus was a believer in Christ, and that he did indeed experience that "what is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:5).