This is the first of several sermons throughout the next two years in which I will reflect on what I learn at the GCTS Ockenga Fellows retreat. The Gordon-Conwell Ockenga Institute is named after the seminary’s first President, Dr. Harold John Ockenga, and exists to help the church bring about cultural renewal and transformation. Our first session was on the Great Awakening and Ministry in New England, so I look forward to sharing some of what I learned in this sermon.
Why are you here? Why have you come to church tonight? Did you come because your friends are here? Did you come because your boyfriend or girlfriend or parent asked you to come? Did you come for the music or the sermon or because you think church is important? I come for the cheese and crackers.
A man named Nicodemus once visited Jesus under cover of darkness to find out who Jesus is. He was a Pharisee and “a member of the Jewish ruling council.” Nicodemus was an intelligent man, a man who knew the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament today), a man who had standing and authority. I think it’s fair to say that he was probably a good man too. We would call him “open-minded” today. Many of the Pharisees brushed Jesus off, but Nicodemus doesn’t do that. He goes to Jesus because he wants to know who Jesus really is.
Do you see a little of yourself in Nicodemus? Are you interested in who Jesus is? Are you intelligent, at least moderately so? Are you a good-person? Are you open-minded? If yes, then can I say this of you?…
You’ve come to Jesus wondering who he is. (v1-2)
You’ve come to church to find out who Jesus is. And maybe if you already believe in Jesus you’ve come to church to remember who you think Jesus is. But there’s one problem with Nicodemus. He is spiritually blind. Nicodemus came at “night.” By including this detail the author of this gospel, John, isn’t just recording when it happened, but telling us a little something about the spiritual state of Nicodemus.
Why do we do things at night? Because we don’t want people to see us. When we were teenagers my brother and a couple friends and I got dressed up in camouflage and tried to sneak from one end of my hometown to the other end of town under cover of darkness without anyone seeing us. People spotted us in the first thirty seconds. Nicodemus doesn’t want to be seen. But that night isn’t just on the outside. It’s inside too. Nicodemus’s heart is dark. He’s spiritually blind (John 11:10). He doesn’t know who Jesus is.
John 3:1-2 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (NIV®)
Nicodemus doesn’t come outright and say it, “Who are you Jesus?” but you can see it implied in his statement. “Rabbi, we know you are from God because you do miracles… but who are you really?” Have you ever asked Jesus that, “Jesus, who are you really?” I hope you’re asking it right now because Jesus is going to answer you different than you expect. Do you want to hear how Jesus answers Nicodemus?
To get into God’s kingdom you have to be born again. (v3-4)
John 3:3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (NIV®)
Instead of telling Nicodemus who he is Jesus calls him out, “Nicodemus, you’ve got it all wrong. You think you’ve figured me out but you don’t know what it’s all about.” It’s like Jesus is pointing at you and saying, “You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t know half of what you think you know.” Most of us assume if we’re good people we’ll go to heaven. Nicodemus assumed that because he was born Jewish and knew the Scriptures that it would turn out okay for him, but Jesus says you have to be “born again” to see God.
If you’re a normal human being like Nicodemus you probably think that’s the most ridiculous statement you’ve ever heard.
John 3:4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (NIV®)
Last week I went back to the seminary I attended, Gordon-Conwell, to participate in the 1st of seven retreats as part of the Ockenga Fellows program. At this retreat we discussed ministry in New England. One of our teachers shared a study (that although is now dated is interesting).
“Fewer people in New England say they have had a “born again” experience – 16.5% compared to 36.5% for the nation. (General Social Surveys, 1972-1994).”
Monica told me that once when she invited one of her coworkers at her old job to Christianity Explored, the woman took the invitation, read it over, looked at Monica in horror and said, “You’re not one of those born agains are you?” To which Monica said, “Yep, I am…” It was awkward.
Now the Ockenga study didn’t define what born again means. They say it’s some kind of “experience” but the Barna Group’s 2015 State Report of Massachusetts says how many people are “born again” in Massachusetts and they define it.
“Born again: say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believe that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their savior.”
They report 22% of Massachusetts considers itself “born again” in comparison to 41% nationwide. That means that roughly 1/5 people consider themselves born again Christians, which is actually kind of encouraging to me. But is that what Jesus means by being born again? This is what I think Jesus means.
The Holy Spirit must completely cleanse and transform you from the inside out. (v5-7)
John 3:5-7 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ (NIV®)
That seems a little confusing. Let me explain. In verse 5 Jesus says you have to be “born of water and the Spirit” and then in verse 7 he tells Nicodemus that he shouldn’t be “surprised” by this. Because Nicodemus knows the Hebrew Scriptures well (the Old Testament), he should know that the prophet Ezekiel foretold being cleansed by water and the Holy Spirit.
Ezekiel 36:25-27 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (NIV®)
You don’t have to be baptized with literal water to be born again. Water is a symbol of God’s cleansing power and the Holy Spirit brings God’s transforming power. Here’s my definition of what it means to be born again.
To be born again is for the Holy Spirit to come and dwell in you, cleanse you of your sins, and to completely transform you from the inside out through faith in Christ Jesus.
To be a true Christian God’s Holy Spirit has to enter into you, cleanse you of your sins, and change your heart, which leads to your whole life being changed—or what we call “being born again.” I don’t think Barna’s definition of being born again is wrong. We must believe in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection. But we can’t separate that from the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives us faith in Christ and works through the faith we have to give us a new spiritual birth—to change our lives.
The Greek word for “again” in “born again” (v3) can also mean “born from above.” You need the Holy Spirit to come down from heaven and turn you into a heaven-bound creature. I want you to ask yourself. Am I born again? Has the Holy Spirit come and cleansed me of my sins and is he completely transforming me from the inside out? Elsewhere the Bible tells us that those who are born again:
- Do what is right (1 John 2:29)
- Turn from their sins and to God (1 John 3:9; 5:18)
- Love one another (1 John 4:7)
- Overcome the world by faith in Jesus (1 John 5:4-5)
- Believes Jesus is the Messiah — God’s only chosen Savior. (1 John 5:1)
Do you obey God? Are you turning from your sins? Do you love one another? Do you have faith in Jesus? Do you believe he’s the only way you can be saved? These are all signs of being born again.
As part of the Ockenga program we read a biography of George Whitefield, who was the greatest preacher during the first Great Awakening in England and the Colonies in the 1730s and 40s. If there’s one central message of his preaching it’s that you must be born again. Whitefield preached in a time when people had forgotten the importance of the heart. They had begun to just go through the religious motions. If they went to church and were good people, surely they were safe, right? No! Whitefield boldly told them that the Holy Spirit had to completely transform their hearts from the inside out.
This was a radical message for that day. The message of the “new birth” completely captivated the whole country. When George Whitefield preached thousands came to hear him. When people heard George Whitefield was going to preach, they would leave their plows in the field and ride as fast as they could to find him. Whole plumes of dust would gather in the sky from all the people and their wagons. And when he preached people wept and cried out as they realized how sinful they were and their need to be born again. And once this message arrived people wanted to hear more.
There’s one story of a pastor in Scotland who was kind of a boring preacher. He didn’t attract large crowds. But his church heard about the message of being born again and he began preaching on it. Whitefield came and preached and they experienced a revival. That’s why I’m trying it today! I wanted to share a few paragraphs from one of George Whitefield’s sermons called On Regeneration from 2 Corinthians 5:17. Regeneration is the theological term for being born again by the Spirit. In this sermon Whitefield talks about Nicodemus coming to Jesus and explains why we have to be spiritually reborn.
For, supposing we were, as Nicodemus ignorantly imagined, to enter a “second time into our mother’s womb, and be born,” alas! what would it contribute towards rendering us spiritually new creatures? Since “that which was born of the flesh would be flesh still;” we should be the same carnal persons as ever, being derived from carnal parents, and consequently receiving the seeds of all manner of sin and corruption from them. No, it only means, that we must be so altered as to the qualities and tempers of our minds, that we must entirely forget what manner of persons we once were. As it may be said of a piece of gold, that was once in the ore, after it has been cleansed, purified and polished, that it is a new piece of gold; as it may be said of a bright glass that has been covered over with filth, when it is wiped, and so become transparent and clear, that it is a new glass:
Whitefield is saying the Holy Spirit completely transforms our lives. He goes on to apply what it means to be born again. He says you can be committed to public and private prayer, taking the Lord’s supper, and even fasting, but although those things are good, what matters is being born again by God’s Holy Spirit. You can even be a moral and good person and call yourself a Christian, never hurting anyone, but that doesn’t mean you’re born again.
We may indeed depend on the broken reed of an external profession; we may think we are good enough, if we lead such sober, honest, moral lives, as many heathens did. We may imagine we are in a safe condition, if we attend on the public offices of religion, and are constant in the duties of our closets. But unless all these tend to reform our lives, and change our hearts, and are only used as so many channels of divine grace; as I told you before, so I tell you again, Christianity will profit you nothing.
In other words, we don’t practice religion for religion’s sake or to be good people. We read our Bibles and pray and go to church to encounter the living God, and have the Holy Spirit change our lives.
Let each of us therefore seriously put this question to our hearts: Have we received the Holy Ghost since we believed? Are we new creatures in Christ, or no? At least, if we are not so yet, is it our daily endeavor to become such? Do we constantly and conscientiously use all the means of grace required thereto? Do we fast, watch and pray? Do we, not lazily seek, but laboriously strive to enter in at the strait gate? In short, do we renounce our own righteousness, take up our crosses and follow Christ? If so, we are in that narrow way which leads to life; the good seed is sown in our hearts, and will, if duly watered and nourished by a regular persevering use of all the means of grace, grow up to eternal life.
We don’t want to place our confidence in religious rituals, but we continue to do them as a pathway to knowing and experiencing God. So my challenge to you is the same as George Whitefield’s challenge to his listeners. Examine your heart to see if you’re seeking Christ Jesus. Search inside for the Holy Spirit’s working in you to bring you to repentance of your sins and faith in Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit must completely cleanse and transform you from the inside out.
Some of you are listening to this sermon and you are Christians, and you’d like to see a revival like the one Whitefield saw with thousands of people coming to Christ Jesus. Is it possible? Our last verse says this:
John 3:8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (NIV®)
God’s Spirit can change us. (v8)
The word for “wind” and “Spirit” are the same Greek word, “pneuma.” Just like we can’t see the wind but can experience the wind as it blows all around us, whipping our hats off and making our noses cold, so we can feel the Holy Spirit as he changes us from the inside out. In some ways the work of the Holy Spirit is incredibly subjective because the work is on the inside, but we can see the outward effects as we watch a person grow and change and become a little more like Jesus.
God’s Holy Spirit can change a person’s life. God’s Holy Spirit can change a city’s life. I believe God can start a revival here in Westford with just one person. Are you the one person? Are you someone who needs to be born again tonight? If yes, right now as I’m talking or when I pray the closing prayer come sit in the front row and we’ll have a conversation. No one will judge you. We’ll rejoice with you! Come on down. We don’t bite.
While you’re debating that inside your head I want to address Cornerstone. Notice the last line, “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” There’s something uncomfortable about that. If the Holy Spirit is this mighty wind that comes and goes and is full of God’s power, shouldn’t we be a little more like that too? It’s easy to get locked into a routine ministry inside these four walls and to forget the power the Holy Spirit has to blow afresh in our community. God can bring revival, but it’s going to require us following him as he blows out into our town, out into our frontlines, out from these four walls. If you want to experience the power of the Holy Spirit anew, you can also come on down and sit in the front row and we’ll pray during the closing song.
If you need to be born again, come on down. Come sit in the first row of chairs. You can even come down while I’m praying. Nobody will judge. The Holy Spirit must completely cleanse and transform you from the inside out. Let’s pray.
Pastor Jonathan Romig preached this message at Cornerstone Congregational Church. You can download a PDF copy of this sermon above, which includes further endnotes and references. Click to listen to sermons or to read our story.
Photo credit: Bolton Library & Museum Services, Bolton Council via artuk.org