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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
 www.frcsr.com/fellowship/melville/
 
Title:Conversion only comes by being born of God
Text:CD 3/4 art 11 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Unclassified
 
Preached:2021-09-19
Added:2021-12-06
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Bible Translation: ESV

Book of Praise:  2014

Hymn 61:1

Hymn 61:2

Psalm 108:1,2

Hymn 80:1,2,5,6

Hymn 9

Read:  Ezekiel 36:22-28;  John 3:1-21

Text:  Canons of Dort, Chapter 3&4, art. 11

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Have you been converted?  Are you born again?  What does it mean to be converted?  And how does it happen?

To be born again is one of the most widely spoken phrases when it comes to evangelical Christianity.  Many people will divide Christians up into those who simply call themselves Christians and those who really are Christians - and those who really are Christians are "born again."  In one sense they are right.  In John chapter 3 it was the Lord Jesus himself who said to Nicodemus,

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."

But what did the Lord Jesus mean when he said "you must be born again", and what do many people think it means today?

  This afternoon we will turn to the Scriptures to gain a better understanding of what the Lord Jesus meant about being converted or born again.  And as we turn to John chapter 3, Ezekiel 36 and other passages of Scripture, we will learn that what Jesus meant by this is very different to how it is often spoken about.  Because whereas in much of evangelical Christianity being born again is described as that moment that you have accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour and that moment that you have asked the Holy Spirit to enter your heart, Jesus makes it clear that conversion is not your work but God's.  Turning to God's Word this afternoon, and making use of what the church confesses in chapter 3&4, article 11 of the Canons of Dort, I preach God's Word to you under this theme:

Conversion only comes by being born of God

1. The need for conversion

2. The way of conversion

 

1. The need for conversion

It was night time when Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, a teacher of Israel, came to see Jesus.  Nicodemus had a high opinion of the Lord Jesus and he came to learn more about him: who he was and what he had come to do.  And so Nicodemus said to Jesus in John 3:2,

“Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Perhaps Nicodemus thought he was being charitable when he said this.  Perhaps he thought that Jesus would appreciate it, appreciate being called a Rabbi by a man as important as Nicodemus.  Perhaps he thought this would set a good tone for the discussion: stating up front that this Jesus of Nazareth had come from God, was sent by Him.  It is not that Nicodemus was lying when he said these things: no doubt he really did believe that Jesus had come from God.  For Nicodemus too had seen the signs, the miracles that Jesus had done, and he could conclude nothing else but that God was with Him.  Nicodemus, therefore, was one of those people that John 2:23 speaks of:

 “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.”

Along with others of the people of Israel, to a point, Nicodemus believed in Jesus, he believed that He had come from God.  But this “believing in Jesus” was not a true faith in Jesus.  For neither Nicodemus, nor the others that John 2:23 spoke of understood who Jesus is or what He had come to do.  And so Nicodemus too was included in that number that John 2:24 refers to,

“But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people.”

These people – including Nicodemus – believed in Him because they saw the miracles.  They believed in Him so much that even Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a ruler and a teacher of Israel, come out and tell him, “You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with Him.”

  But Jesus knew that those who claimed to believe in Him – including Nicodemus – did not truly believe Him, did not receive Him as the Messiah, the One who had come to save them from their sins.  And therefore the Lord was not flattered by the attention He was receiving from Nicodemus.  And so Jesus answered Nicodemus and said,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  (John 3:3)

Nicodemus might have come to have a religious discussion with Jesus, to hear what He had to say.  But the Lord Jesus cut to the chase.  Seeing Nicodemus for who he really was, He said to Him,

“Nicodemus, I know who you are.  I know what you are like.  I know your heart.  And Nicodemus, unless you are born again, you will not see the Kingdom of God.”

That must have shocked Nicodemus!  Nicodemus had not expected this, he did not think that he would be talked to in this manner.  For Nicodemus was a good man.  He knew the Scriptures.  He knew the law.  Nicodemus, we can be sure, was a man of integrity, a man of high morals.  As far as his outward appearance is concerned, he was a man to look up to.  But Nicodemus had a problem.  Like so many in Israel at that time, Nicodemus thought that he was good enough just as he was.  Nicodemus thought that the Lord would be pleased with him, he thought that the Lord would welcome him into His kingdom with open arms.  Nicodemus did not see himself as one who needed to be saved, as one who needed to be changed.  We can safely assume that he had not gone to the River Jordan to be baptized by John, for he did not see the need to receive the baptism of John, the baptism of repentance.  After all, wasn’t he was a law-abiding Pharisee?  Wasn’t he first in line, ready to receive one of the best seats in the Kingdom?  What then was this talk about being born again?  Nicodemus did not get it.  And so he asked the Lord,

“How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  (John 3:4)

I do not believe that Nicodemus was being facetious here:  he really did not understand.  What is the Lord talking about: “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God?”

You see the problem with Nicodemus is that while the Lord Jesus saw straight through Him, Nicodemus did not.  Nicodemus did not truly know himself.  He did not understand that not only was he not good enough in and of himself to enter the Kingdom of God, to inherit eternal life, but he was in urgent need of a radical transformation, he had to become a new person.  Put simply, he had to be born again.

And that is something we need to hear also.  We cannot ignore what our Lord Jesus says where.  We cannot think this applies to others but not to us.  Because in and of ourselves we are no different to Nicodemus.  And if Nicodemus, a covenant child of Abraham, a Pharisee and the teacher of Israel, a gifted man who knew the law, who could recite the first five books of the Bible off by heart, a man who was highly esteemed and a man of integrity, if this Nicodemus could not enter the Kingdom of God unless he was radically changed, yes, unless he was born again, then what about you and me?  Is it any different for us?

  We need to be careful, we need to beware.  There is the danger that we think that we are ok.  There is the danger that, like the Jews in John 8 we say “We have Abraham as our father” that is, “We are covenant children!  We are OK!  We don’t need to change!  We don’t need to think too much about all this talk about conversion or being born again.”  There is the danger that we think that there is not too much wrong with us, that we just have to change a little bit here, change a bit there and be more committed, a little more faithful.  There is the danger that we think that so long as we do the right things, that all will be well on the last day.  But brothers and sisters, that is not true!  The Bible teaches us that

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick."  (Jeremiah 17:9)

The Bible teaches us that

"The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him."  (1 Corinthians 2:14)

The Bible teaches us that

"Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin" and that we are of our "father the devil" when we do his desires.  (John 8:34,44)

And therefore it is of absolute importance that we are born again, that we are converted, that we are changed from being slaves to sin to children of God.

The need for conversion, therefore, is clear.  But how can this take place?  That brings us to our second point,

2. The way of conversion

Every time a person is baptised in church, we read the form for holy baptism and we hear the words,

“First, we and our children are conceived and born in sin and are therefore by nature children of wrath, so that we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we are born again.  This is what the immersion or sprinkling with water teaches us.  It signifies the impurity of our souls, so that we may detest ourselves, humble ourselves before God, and seek our cleansing and salvation outside of ourselves.”

It is important that we understand this. It is important that we realize that it takes a lot more than a change of behavior to enter the Kingdom of God.  It takes a lot more than trying to be a good person.  We don’t just need a bit of a change here and there, a bit of a push-start to get us going again:  we need to be renewed, we need to be born again!  But how?  How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?  It was in answer to this question that Jesus said in verse 5,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

To be born again, therefore, is not something for you to do, but it is something that God does in you.  He is the One who causes you to be born again.  And the Lord describes this rebirth as being “born of water and the Spirit.”  And to be born of water and the Spirit is to be made clean, it is to be made new.  It is to be born again not in an earthly manner, but to be born from above.

There are many who see the words to be “born of water” to refer to the water of baptism and in one way that is true since baptism teaches us about the need to be born again.  But the sacrament of holy baptism was given to the church after Christ spoke with Nicodemus, not before.  And yet when Nicodemus asked “How can these things be?”, Jesus responded to him saying,

“Are you the teacher of Israel and do not know these things?”

So Nicodemus should have known and understood.  And so we should not immediately think of the water of New Testament baptism when we read those words, but think back to the water of cleansing as it is found in the Old Testament.  And then when we think of this water of purification or cleansing in connection with the Holy Spirit, our thoughts will be directed to one Old Testament passage in particular, to Ezekiel 36.  In Ezekiel 36 the LORD gave the promise to the people of Israel who were in Exile in Babylon or a time of future renewal.  It says in Ezekiel 36:25-27,

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. “

But do you see what the Lord promises here?  He says “I will sprinkle clean water on you.  I will cleanse you.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.  I will do it!”  And that is the miraculous blessing of rebirth.  A lot of people get that wrong.  A lot of people think that being born again is something that you have to do, a decision that you have to make.  But it is not like that:  just as you did not cause yourself to be born the first time, so you can not choose to be born a second time.   Conversion only comes by being born of God.  And how does God do that?  How does God cause one to be born again?  That's what the Canons of Dort teaches us in chapter 3&4, article 11.  Turn with me to that article and we will read it once again.

God carries out his good pleasure in the elect and works in them true conversion in the following manner. He takes care that the gospel is preached to them, and powerfully enlightens their minds by the Holy Spirit, so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God. By the efficacious working of the same regenerating Spirit he also penetrates into the innermost recesses of man.  He opens the closed and softens the hard heart, circumcises that which was uncircumcised, and instils new qualities into the will. He makes the will, which was dead, alive; which was bad, good; which was unwilling, willing; and which was stubborn, obedient. He moves and strengthens it so that, like a good tree, it may be able to produce the fruit of good works.

So what God does to bring about this conversion, this being born again, is that first "he takes care that the gospel is preached to them."  As Romans 10:14 says,

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?

But the preaching will never bring about conversion unless the Holy Spirit takes that preaching and effectively works it in one's heart.  1 Corinthians 2:14 says,

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

  And so the Canons of Dort says, God takes that preaching and "powerfully enlightens their minds by the Holy Spirit, so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God." 

  And what the Holy Spirit does, then, is "he opens the closed and softens the hard heart, circumcises that which was uncircumcised, and instils new qualities into the will. He makes the will, which was dead, alive; which was bad, good; which was unwilling, willing; and which was stubborn, obedient."  That's what he does, and that's what it means to be born again, to be truly converted.

Back to John chapter 3, however, when  Nicodemus heard of the need to be born again, he asked Jesus “How can these things be?  How then can you be born again?  How can you be converted?”  And Jesus gave him the answer:  “Nicodemus, these things can be – can only be – through Me, your Lord and Saviour.  You cannot enter your mother’s womb to be born again.  Nor do you have the ability in and of yourself to be born from above, to be born of water and of the Holy Spirit."

  So where then does that leave us?  In the first place it leaves us with the recognition that regeneration is the work of God alone.  But secondly, as the Lord does his work in us, and as he changes us, our eyes will be opened to the fact that what we could not do, God has done for us by sending his Son.  And therefore God calls us to look to our Lord Jesus Christ, to believe in him and have life in his name. 

  When Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again, he didn't simply leave it at that but he explained that this is what he, the Christ, had come to do.  He said in John 3:14,15

“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.”

And that's the call that goes to me and you and to all our loved ones, indeed to all people, also those who are not yet born again.  That's the call of the gospel that must be made.  Since we cannot save ourselves, we need to look to another, we need to look to Jesus Christ.  It is not hard, really.  It is not a difficult message, not a difficult thing to do.  Look to Jesus, to the One who bore our sin, to the One who was lifted up for the salvation of His people.  Conversion only comes by being born of God.  And this God calls you to lift up your eyes and see your Saviour.  Trust Him.  Believe in Him.  For the promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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