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Get Rid of Your Religion!
How you have nothing to do with your salvation–John 3
Happy Easter–thanks for coming to our church. Today is a special day, even though church can be difficult–like the two brothers. A young pastor came to a church and he inherited a building program. The buildings were all built, and they were $1 million short—and the first big responsibility to this young pastor was to raise the $1 million to complete the building program.
Well he didn’t know how he was going to do that, but it just so happened that there were two men in the church who were rich contractors, and brothers, but they were horrible men. They came to church on Sundays, but the way they lived in the community and with their families was reprehensible.
Soon after his arrival, one of the brothers died. So the new pastor went to the funeral home and was ministering to the family, when the surviving brother came up to him and said, “Pastor, tomorrow in the service I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell everybody that my brother is a saint. If you will do that, I have this envelope here, and in this envelope is a $1 million check to the church, and it will pay the building program off. So here’s the building program if you tell everybody my brother was a saint.”
So the young pastor thought for a minute and said, “All right,” and took the envelope and put it in his pocket. The next AM on his way to the service, he stopped at the bank and deposited the check in the church’s account. When he arrived at church, he began his eulogy like this. “We are all aware that the deceased was an absolutely horrible person. He was insensitive and often verbally abusive to his children, who are sitting here today–they would bear testimony to that fact. This dear wife who remains was neglected on a consistent basis. Many of you know he cheated you in the marketplace time and time again. But I have to tell you something this morning,” the pastor said, “compared to his brother, he’s a saint.”
Yeah–I like that solution. But it also brings up a major issue. There are people who go to church who claim to know Christ, but don’t follow Christ, don’t live like Christ, and don’t obey Christ’s commands. They have a religion and not a relationship.
You say, what’s the problem with religion? If you glue wings on a caterpillar, does it make it a butterfly? If you sew legs on a tadpole, does it make it a frog? NO! When you put on religion, you may look like, feel like, and talk like someone who knows God, but you aren’t. There has been no internal transformation–only cosmetic change. Religion is putting on the appearance of being godly, without God.
Every genuine Christian regularly experiences the natural drift toward religious externals, and that is bad–but not as bad as those lost in religion. Those occasional church attenders are not genuine Christians at all, though they’ve prayed a prayer, made a decision, served in the past and claim to know Christ. That is why Jesus Christ wants you to get rid of your religion–because religion makes people think they’re going to Heaven when they are actually going to Hell.
Jesus describes what it will be like when religious types who think they’re Christians actually face Christ in judgment. Many make-believers will stand in front of Jesus, Matthew 7:22 and 23, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”
They thought they were saved. They thought they were doing things for Christ. They thought they were going to Heaven. But they weren’t because they’re religious, not related to God. That is why Jesus hates religion–and there is one event in the gospels where Christ destroys religion and shows us what it means to have a genuine relationship with Christ.
Turn to John 3, where Jesus tells us to get rid of our religion. As we open this chapter, Jesus has been proving He is God. John the Baptist just declared Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Lord appoints half of His disciples, turns water into wine–then He makes a whip and clears out the moneychangers from the temple.
This temple clear-out was so dramatic, it results in a meeting. The most religious man in Israel comes to meet with Christ, and as a result Christ shocks him out of His religion. Hang on, because Jesus is about to shock you as well. Christ is evangelizing the #1 teacher in Israel—“the” teacher. It is like sitting down with the pope to straighten him out.
Five times in the first half of this passage it says we must be born again–not walk an aisle, pray this prayer, sign this card, but born again. Do you know what that really means? Let’s find out–get rid of your religion. Why?
#1 You can do absolutely NOTHING to save yourself
Read verses 1 to 3, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’ 3 Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
This man Nicodemus was a very religious man. He was a Pharisee, the most religious type of person. In all of Jewish history, there were never more than 6,000 Pharisee’s total. Being a Pharisee meant Nicodemus kept all kinds of rules.
How many of you like rules? Some rules are good for you, right? Don’t stick your tongue in the light socket? Don’t spit on your friends! Don’t test a knife on your eyeball! Those are good rules. But Nic and his Pharisee friends loved rules so much, they added more than what God commanded. Yet they ended up losing salvation, missing Heaven, and teaching others the wrong way to God.
God told the Jews to rest on the Sabbath, so they didn’t work, but they began to make up rules about not working. What kind of rules did they come up with? They couldn’t spit in the dirt on the Sabbath, cause the spit would move the dirt–moving dirt is like plowing and plowing is work, so you had to only spit on a rock when you spit on the Sabbath. That’s how a Pharisee lived in every area of life–really proud! They’d keep so many laws, they thought they could earn their way into Heaven. They thought if they lived good enough, God would be pleased with them. Nicodemus was a Pharisee.
Nicodemus was also a scholar. Because Nicodemus is a Greek name, we know he was educated in both Jewish and Greek schools of thought. He was possibly top of his class. The name Nicodemus comes from the Greek word nike, which means victor over the people. He was a politician, a ruler of the Jews, part of the Jewish congress called the Sanhedrin. And history even tells us Nicodemus was from a high-ranking Jewish family. This man was externally the best of the best–an Einstein. Nicodemus was the team captain of religious people–the best. Yet being very religious, Nicodemus was unhappy, empty, spiritually blind and a hypocrite.
Jesus told us in Matthew 23 that the Pharisees were the worst kind of hypocrites–they looked good on the outside, but rotten inside, they were sons of Hell producing more sons of Hell. His life was a pile of manure. Paul tells us in Philippians his life as a Pharisee prior to Christ was all dung.
Think about this–Nicodemus was wealthy, influential, a very good teacher, a ruler, the most respected in his society. When you say Nic, you’d think if anyone is going to make it to Heaven it will be Nicodemus. But the reality was, Nicodemus was miserable, headed for Hell, and really messed up.
Notice when Nic came to visit Jesus in verse 2–at what time of day did Nic visit Jesus? At night–this is where we get the English phrase Nic at Night. Coming at night in the Greek means Nic came at night. We don’t know why he came at night, but we do know anytime you come to Jesus is good–amen? He is the only Pharisee who ever came to Jesus in the gospels. It is like the pope coming to Jesus.
What does Nic ask? Read verse 2, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” He says to Jesus, “It’s obvious to us You are a prophet from God. Hey Jesus, You do miracles–miracles are intended to confirm You are from God and speak God’s words. Therefore God has to be with You, Rabbi!”
But like many people, the question Nic asks is not the question he really wants to ask. In his heart Nic really wants to know–how do I get saved, how can I get into your kingdom, and how can I really be forgiven and end up in Heaven? Nic is saying, “I am at the top of my game, I attend synagogue, I keep the rules, I have prayed prayers, but I am a hypocrite and I know it–I am outside but want in. What do I need to do?”
Because Jesus is God in the flesh and filled with the Holy Spirit, He perceives Nic’s real question. Jesus doesn’t answer the question Nic asks out loud, but Jesus answers the question in Nicodemus’s heart—shocking. Verse 3, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
“Born again” is listed five times in verses 1 to 10–yet because it is a pop culture term, we’ve lost its true meaning, so let me help you understand born again by asking this question. What physical contribution did you make to your own birth? Answer—nothing. Jesus tells this religious hypocrite, “What you want you can’t do–you can’t birth yourself. Something must happen to you that you can’t do. You must be born again, but there are no steps you can take.”
The point of the analogy is, you do nothing–you make no contribution to your first birth or your second birth. You see, to be born again literally means to be born from above, to be born from God, birthed into a totally new person. Salvation is a work of God, not men, not you. Nic wants to know what steps he has to take that he hasn’t taken, and Jesus says something has to happen to you from God Himself.
The door of salvation only opens from the inside–that’s true. When Jesus says you must be born again it is not a command, it is a statement of fact–not a step to take, but a fact to accept. All your religion, all your emotional thoughts about God, all your giving, prayers, synagogue attendance and all you have accumulated in your life, Nic, means nothing–it is all dust in the wind.
The new birth is not achieved by men–you do nothing. You didn’t born yourself, and you do not born again yourself. You ask, “What can I do to be saved?” Nothing–you must be born from above–God must save you. Whoa–this is shocking! Don’t leave yet, it gets better.
Get rid of your religion, friends–religion makes you think you’re right with God, because you decided something once. And Christian religion is convenient, casual and comfortable. But being born again from God alone transforms you from the inside out, giving you a new heart that’s committed to Christ 24/7. So to be saved . . .
#2 Christ ALONE does the work of saving you Verses 4 to 8
Nicodemus gets it–look at verse 4, “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’” Some of you ladies are saying, “Hey, it hurt the first time when they were 8 pounds, there ain’t no way I’m rebirthin’ no 160 pounder–just shoot me.”
The Pharisees taught using analogies, so Nicodemus gets this—“This is impossible, I can’t get saved! What you’re saying, Jesus, is this–to enter the Kingdom is impossible for me, right?” He gets it. “My entire life of teaching, giving, helping others is all meaningless–I can’t birth myself or rebirth myself–I can do absolutely nothing.”
Jesus then makes it really clear by quoting the Old Testament in verse 5, “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’” Meaning, God must wash and cleanse you by the water of the Word of God and transform you by His indwelling Holy Spirit in order for you to be saved. Jesus says, “I have to do this for you, Nic–you cannot wash out the sin of your heart and mind.”
Some think “born of water and the Spirit” in verse 5 refers to a woman’s water breaking in childbirth. Others even say it is referring to water baptism. But Jesus is describing a passage on the new birth that Nicodemus knew well in Ezekiel 36:25—turn there. Here’s how salvation works–in Ezekiel 36:25 notice the “I wills”. Why–because this is a work of God, this is the monergestic work of God from heaven, God alone saves. Nic knew this passage which lists “I will” five times. God is speaking in Ezekiel 36:25, “’Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.’”
That is John 3:5–the water and the Spirit. The water and the Spirit is simply a reference to the new creation, the regenerating work of God He does on His own in the heart of a sinner. Then Ezekiel continues in 36:26 to 28, “’Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, [I will, I will, I will, and only then] and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. 28 …you will be My people, and I will be your God.’”
That’s the water and the Spirit of John 3:5. This is a divine work laid out clearly in the Old Testament. The Lord never gives any hope to Nic that he can do anything for his own salvation–why? To stop this sinner in his tracks, to come to an end of himself and have nothing to offer Christ. Why must God do this? Verse 6 and 7, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
You in your own strength, your own flesh, can impact flesh. You can work out hard at the gym and become really buff, like me. You can work hard to look like a Christian on the outside. But Jesus says in verse 6, there is no way your internal spirit is going to be transformed unless My Spirit converts you. You can’t do anything that will affect your relationship with God, or shift you from Hell to Heaven in eternity by your own efforts.
Do not be surprised, listener–do not marvel, Nicodemus. A drowning man can’t rescue himself, and anyone drowning in sin (and we all are) cannot save themselves. You can’t in your own strength/flesh make yourself right with God. Every person here is so sinful, you’re unable to respond to God on your own. The Bible is very pointed about this in Romans 3:10 to 12, 23, “There is none righteous, not even one; 11 there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; 12 all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. 23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
How many of you’d be willing to drink from this pretty glass? What if I told you, I scooped the water out of the gutter? Now how many of you would drink it? But it still looks pretty. You see, you can clean up on the outside–you can look pretty. But you still need to be cleaned up on the inside–washed new. God will not accept you, even if you act really religious, because your heart and mind are still sinful and must be cleaned up internally. Religion can make you look good on the outside, but only God can transform you to be good on the inside.
You know what I am talking about. You smile at your boss outside, but you want to smack ‘em for being a jerk on the inside. All of us have lied, cheated, stolen, lusted, hated, and lost our temper. And all of us have thought hateful, selfish and proud thoughts. We are all evil internally, and only Christ can transform us internally.
Yet Jesus doesn’t say yet how to be born again. You’re not in control of this any more than you’re in control of the wind. Look at verse 8, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
One hundred percent of salvation is based upon God, if and when He chooses to save. As sinners, we are put in a place to realize we can do nothing. And to prove it, Jesus describes wind. Wind is invisible, unpredictable and uncontrollable! You can’t summon the wind–you can’t make wind obey you, or come to you. God must save you, and you can’t control God.
This is what makes Christianity different than all other faiths. Every religion on the planet tells you to work hard and live good in order to get right with God. But the Bible teaches that salvation, getting right with God, being forgiven, going to heaven is actually impossible for people to accomplish—you can’t do it. Like jumping up in order to touch the ceiling, or standing outside and trying to jump over this building–you can’t do it, because it’s humanly impossible. Christianity says you can’t live good enough to know God, get to heaven and be forgiven–Christ must do the work for you, and Christ must call you to Himself. You can’t birth yourself.
Nicodemus must be having a theological headache at this point. Look at what he says in verse 9, “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’” This is not what I thought–I thought I could do it. I thought I could be righteous enough. Maybe you’re saying, “I thought I could pray a prayer, make a decision, walk an aisle and I am in. This sounds impossible–there is nothing I can do to be saved!” Again, you didn’t having anything to do with your physical birth, and you have nothing to do with your spiritual birth.
In verse 10, in order to cut through his religion, expose his sin and pierce his heart Jesus exposes Nic’s pride and self-righteousness, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?’” Hey Nic, you are a teacher and you don’t get this? Jesus holds Nic responsible for not knowing–he should know.
At this point Nic is shut down–he doesn’t say another thing. But thankfully our Lord then turns to those gathered there and addresses them, since the “you” in verse 11 turns to plural–the Lord is speaking to a group now, and to us here . . . don’t miss this.
#3 You must BELIEVE in Christ to be saved
Hang on friends–in the first ten verses, Jesus says you must be “born again” five times. God alone must save you, and you have nothing to do with it. Now in the closing eleven verses, Jesus says you must believe seven times.
The Bible teaches that God is sovereign, and you are responsible. Who wrote the Bible, God or man? Yes! Is Jesus Christ God or man? Yes! Does God sovereignly save you, or must you believe? Yes! You must believe. Jesus actually confronts their unbelief in verse 11, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony.”
This group who is listening continues to refuse to believe. The problem, Nic, is not that you can’t believe, but it is that you won’t believe. And Jesus shows just how crazy their response is in verses 12 to 13, “’If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.’”
Jesus tells them, “Do you realize who you are talking to? This is Jesus, not some prophet sent from God–this is Jesus Christ, God come in the flesh giving you firsthand info from God. This is the scoop from Heaven–straight from the heart of God. But you all, you leaders and others, you refuse to believe it.
Jesus says in verse 12, “I’m giving you a simple earthly illustration about being born again, and you don’t get it. So now if I tell you about the Trinity and their role in salvation, you’re not going to get that”—why? Because unbelief produces ignorance, and unsaved people are ignorant of God–they are dead to God. They’re alive physically, but dead spiritually and must be born again to become alive to God.
I’m telling you about eternal life, but you reject it. I’m telling you how to get to Heaven, but you don’t care. So what can I do to be saved? Believe–you must look to Christ. Verse 14 to 15, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.”
Imagine you’ve been delivered from slavery by a series of miracles, but as you’re leaving the place of bondage, you complain against God. Because of your hard heart, God sends fiery serpents to bite you. They bite you, and many of your friends have died or are dying. So you tell God you are sorry, you repent of your complaining heart–so God tells Moses to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, and all you have to do to be healed is to look at this bronze serpent. Just depend on God’s provision to be healed.
What would you do–look at it, right? Yes, if you want to live–but a religious person would react differently. A religious person might develop serpent medicines, make vows to avoid serpents, fight the snakes with a group of snake haters, design snake charms to carry with you so you don’t get bit, put snake hating bumper stickers on their car to tell everyone you hate snakes. But that is religion–true faith is to look to the means God set up. Faith is to depend upon the provision God made for you to be healed.
The answer is, just like the Jews were to merely look to the means God established to save them (a bronze serpent on a pole), so we are to look at the means God set up to save us. That is a Savior who died on a cross, like a pole, for your sins. We are to depend on Christ alone–to believe on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our sins that separate us from God.
Verse 15, “That whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.” Believe in verse 15 is more than intellectual ascent, it is to put your entire life in God’s hands; to entrust yourself fully to Christ alone. When my boys were young, I used to have them jump to me on from the stairs–sometimes six, eight, even ten stairs high. I caught them every time. Not once, though I was tempted, not once did I say, “OLE!”
Just like I would ask my boys to jump to me and they entrust themselves fully to me, to believe, we must completely abandon all efforts of our own and trust completely in Christ to rescue us. But why should we? Verses 16 to 18 give us two motivating reasons . . .
First God loves you
In the same way my boys will jump to me because they know I love them, you can entrust yourselves to Jesus because God loves you. Read verse 16 in context, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him.”
God loves you and me so much He sent His Son to die in our place. We deserve to go to Hell because of our sinfulness and rebellion against God’s will for our lives. The wages of sin is death, and since we all have sinned just once, we must spiritually die. But God loves you enough to have His Son take the punishment you and I deserved for our sins. The free offer of the Gospel is broad enough to include the worst sinner who believes.
I could not send my son to die for your rebellion–I don’t love you that much. But God loves you that much. You’re a criminal on death row, and Christ took the injection for you. The second reason why we must entrust ourselves to Christ alone . . .
Second You’re condemned to Hell if you don’t
Verse 18, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” When you watch baseball, you want justice, right? When the pitcher throws a strike, you want the ump to call it a strike–when he doesn’t, you scream for justice.
In the same way, our Creator has designed a perfect life for us–when we rebel against it and go our own way, justice must fall. We must be punished–we must be condemned to Hell forever. And if we don’t surrender our lives to Christ, that punishment will be ours, no matter what else we do.
So you ask, “Chris, how can I know for certain whether I’m a genuinely, internally, born again, transformed Christian, and not an external, look good on the outside, religious phony? Good question–is it because I sign a card, walk an aisle, attend church, pray a prayer, intellectually think Jesus is God, or got baptized? No! Verses 19 to 21 give us three clear tests from God–ask yourself . . .
Test #1 Do you admit you are sick with sin?
Verse 19 says, “And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil.” To come to Christ means having your sins exposed to God’s light. It means admitting you are sinful to the core–not merely mistake prone, or “nobody’s perfect”. But admitting you have rebelled against God and deserve Hell for everything you’ve done, said, and ever thought that was contrary to God’s Word.
First John 1:8 and 9, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” A religious person excuses sin, blames others for sin, and diminishes the awfulness of sin. A true Christian, in detail and thoroughly as far as they can know, admits their sin, confesses sin, repents of sin–they did when they came to Christ, and they still do. Are you still admitting sin?
Test #2 Have you assessed what you truly love most?
Verses 19 to 20, “And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” A religious person appears to love good and hate evil, but in their heart they love evil and hate good.
Do you give others the appearance of hating evil, but secretly you love it, privately you enjoy it, covertly you participate in it? This is how you tell where your children are from the heart–when you’re not around, do they want to obey Christ, or do they seek ways to disobey Christ? How about you? When Christ awakens you He changes your heart—your “want to” is different. You have a new heart that wants to obey.
Second Corinthians 5:17, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Romans 6:17, “Though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart.” Do you want to obey, and does it show in how you live?
Test #3 Are you seeking to follow God’s Word in everything?
Verse 21, “But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” The true Christian seeks to live obediently, because they want to please God in everything they do. First John 2:4, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” First John 5:3, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”
When God’s Word says to do something, do you do it? When the Bible says not to do something, do you avoid it? When you fail to obey, do you still want to obey? The Bible commands you to faithfully attend church, do you? The Bible commands you to faithfully serve/give to others, do you? A true Christian has a new heart that wants to obey–even when you don’t.
Are you truly a born again Christian, or merely a religious, make-believing Christian? What happened to Nicodemus? He stood up for Jesus before the Sanhedrin in John 7. He later declared his allegiance to Christ by burying Christ’s body along with Joseph of Arimathea in John 19. Between John 3 and John 19, the wind blew and Nic was saved. Church tradition tells us Nic was baptized by the apostles, served Christ, was expelled from the Sanhedrin and banished from Jerusalem, reduced to poverty, and finally beaten to death by a Jewish mob. But he was forgiven by God, cleansed, washed new and born again. God had awakened his heart, showed him who Christ was, and Nic responded with belief–he gave his life to Christ. All his sins fell upon Christ and the cross, and now he enjoys eternal life with Christ forever in heaven.
Ask God to open your eyes. Ask Him to help you depend upon Christ alone–not to have a religion, but a relationship with the living God. God must save you, but He loves those who ask with sincere hearts. Plead with Him to give you new life now, and eternal life forever. Let’s pray.