by J.C. Ryle
“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
“The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
“Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
“Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
“Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”—John 3:1–8.
The conversation between Christ and Nicodemus, which begins with these verses, is one of the most important passages in the Bible. Nowhere else do we find stronger statements about those two mighty subjects: the new birth and salvation by faith in the Son of God.
The servant of Christ will do well to make himself thoroughly acquainted with this chapter. A man may be ignorant of many things in religion and yet be saved. But to be ignorant of the matters handled in this chapter is to be in the broad way which leadeth to destruction.
Fearful Nicodemus Later an Open Disciple
Notice first in these verses what a weak and feeble beginning a man may make in religion and yet finally prove a strong Christian. We are told of a certain Pharisee named Nicodemus who, feeling concerned about his soul, “came to Jesus by night.”
There can be little doubt that Nicodemus acted as he did on this occasion from the fear of man. He was afraid of what man would think or say or do if his visit to Jesus were known. He came “by night” because he had not faith and courage enough to come by day.
Yet there was a time afterwards when this very Nicodemus took our Lord’s part in open day in the council of the Jews. “Doth our law judge any man,” he said, “before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” (John 7:51). Nor was this all.
There came a time when this very Nicodemus was one of the only two men who did honor to our Lord’s dead body. He helped Joseph of Arimathaea bury Jesus, when even the apostles had forsaken their Master and fled.
His last things were more than his first. Though he began poorly, he ended well.
The history of Nicodemus is meant to teach us that we should never ‘despise the day of small things’ in religion (Zech. 4:10). We must not set down a man as having no grace just because his first steps toward God are timid and wavering and because the first movements of his soul are uncertain, hesitating and stamped with much imperfection. We must remember our Lord’s reception of Nicodemus. He did not ‘break the bruised reed, or quench the smoking flax,’ which He saw before Him (Matt. 12:20). Like Him, let us take inquirers by the hand and deal with them gently and lovingly.
In everything there must be a beginning. It is not those who make the most flaming profession of religion at first who endure the longest and prove the most steadfast. Judas Iscariot was an apostle when Nicodemus was just groping his way slowly into full light. Yet afterwards, when Nicodemus was boldly helping to bury his crucified Saviour, Judas had betrayed Him and hanged himself! This is a fact which ought not to be forgotten.
A Miraculous Change Demanded
We should notice, second, in these verses, what a mighty change our Lord declares to be needful to salvation and what a remarkable expression He uses in describing it.
He speaks of a new birth. He says to Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
To possess the privileges of Judaism, a man only needed to be born of the seed of Abraham after the flesh. To possess the privileges of Christ’s kingdom, a man must be born again of the Holy Ghost.
The change which our Lord here declares needful to salvation is evidently no slight or superficial one. It is not merely reformation or amendment or moral change or outward alteration of life. It is a resurrection. It is a new creation. It is a passing from death to life. It is the implanting in our dead hearts of a new principle from above.
It is the calling into existence of a new creature, with a new nature, new tastes, new desires, new appetites, new judgments, new opinions, new hopes and new fears. All this, and nothing less than this, is implied when our Lord declares that we all need a “new birth.”
Our old nature is thoroughly fallen. The carnal mind is enmity against God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.”
We come into the world without faith or love or fear toward God. We have no natural inclination to serve Him or obey Him and no natural pleasure in doing His will.
Left to himself, no child of Adam would ever turn to God. The truest description of the change which we all need in order to make us real Christians is the expression “new birth.”
This mighty change, it must never be forgotten, we cannot give to ourselves. The very name which our Lord gives to it is a convincing proof of this—“a birth.” No man is the author of his own existence, and no man can quicken his own soul.
We might as well expect a dead man to give himself life as expect a natural man to make himself spiritual. A power from above must be put in exercise, even that same power which created the world (II Cor. 4:6).
Man can do many things, but he cannot give life either to himself or to others. To give life is the peculiar prerogative of God. Well may our Lord declare that we need to be “born again”!
This mighty change, we must above all remember, is a thing without which we cannot go to Heaven and could not enjoy Heaven if we went there. Our Lord’s words on this point are distinct and express: ‘Except a man be born again, he can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God.’
Heaven may be reached without money or rank or learning, but it is as clear as daylight, if words have any meaning, that nobody can enter Heaven without a “new birth.”
The Spirit’s Work in Salvation Intangible as the Wind
Third, we should notice in these verses the instructive comparison which our Lord uses in explaining the new birth. He saw Nicodemus perplexed and astonished by the things he had just heard. He graciously helped his wondering mind by an illustration drawn from “the wind.” A more beautiful and fitting illustration of the work of the Spirit it is impossible to conceive.
There is much about the wind that is mysterious and inexplicable. “Thou…canst not tell,” says our Lord, “whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.” We cannot handle it with our hands or see it with our eyes. When the wind blows, we cannot point out the exact spot where its breath first began to be felt nor the exact distance to which its influence shall extend. But we do not on that account deny its presence.
It is just the same with the operations of the Spirit in the new birth of man. They may be mysterious, sovereign and incomprehensible to us in many ways, but it is foolish to stumble at them because there is much about them that we cannot explain.
But whatever mystery there may be about the wind, its presence may be known by its sound and effects. “Thou hearest the sound thereof,” says our Lord. When our ears hear it whistling in the windows and our eyes see the clouds driven before it, we do not hesitate to say, “There is wind.”
It is just the same with the operations of the Holy Spirit in the new birth of man. Marvelous and incomprehensible as His work may be, it is work that can in some measure be seen and known.
And now let us solemnly ask ourselves whether we know anything of the mighty change of which we have been reading.
Have we been born again? Can any marks of the new birth be seen in us? Can the sound of the Spirit be heard in our daily conversation? Is the image and superscription of the Spirit to be discerned in our lives?
Happy is the man who can give satisfactory answers to these questions! A day will come when those who are not born again will wish that they had never been born at all.
“Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
“Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
“If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
“And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
“That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
“And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
“For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
“But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”—Vss. 9–21.
We have in these verses the second part of the conversation between our Lord Jesus Christ and Nicodemus. A lesson about regeneration is closely followed by a lesson about justification! The whole passage ought always to be read with affectionate reverence. It contains words which have brought eternal life to myriads of souls.
Church Leaders Often Ignorant of Salvation by Grace
These verses show us, first, what gross spiritual ignorance there may be in the mind of a great and learned man.
We see “a master of Israel” unacquainted with the first elements of salvation. Nicodemus is told about the new birth and at once exclaims, “How can these things be?”
When such was the darkness of a Jewish teacher, what must have been the state of the Jewish people! It was indeed due time for Christ to appear! The pastors of Israel had ceased to feed the people with knowledge. The blind were leading the blind, and both were falling into the ditch (Matt. 15:14).
Ignorance like that of Nicodemus is unhappily far too common in the church. We must never be surprised if we find it in quarters where we might reasonably expect knowledge. Learning and rank and high ecclesiastical office are no proof that a minister is taught by the Spirit. The successors of Nicodemus, in every age, are far more numerous than the successors of Peter.
On no point is religious ignorance so common as on the work of the Holy Ghost. That old stumbling block at which Nicodemus stumbled is as much an offense to thousands in the present day as it was in the days of Christ. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God” (I Cor. 2:14). Happy is he who has been taught to prove all things by Scripture and to call no man master upon earth (I Thess. 5:21; Matt. 23:8–10).
God Loves Every Sinner
Second, these verses show us the original source from which man’s salvation springs. That source is the love of God the Father.
Our Lord says to Nicodemus, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
This wonderful verse has been justly called by Luther “the Bible in miniature.” No part of it, perhaps, is so deeply important as the five words, “God so loved the world….” The love here spoken of is not that special love with which the Father regards His own elect, but that mighty pity and compassion with which He regards the whole race of mankind. Its object is not merely the little flock which He has given to Christ from all eternity, but the whole “world” of sinners, without any exception.
There is a deep sense in which God loves that world. All whom He has created He regards with pity and compassion. Their sins He cannot love—but He loves their souls. “His tender mercies are over all his works” (Ps. 145:9). Christ is God’s gracious gift to the whole world.
Let us take heed that our views of the love of God are scriptural and well defined. The subject is one on which error abounds on either side.
On the one hand, we must beware of vague and exaggerated opinions. We must maintain firmly that God hates wickedness and that the end of all who persist in wickedness will be destruction.
It is not true that God’s love is “lower than Hell.” It is not true that God so loved the world that all mankind will be finally saved, but that He so loved the world that He gave His Son to be the Saviour of all who believe.
His love is offered to all men freely, fully, honestly and unreservedly; but it is only through the one channel of Christ’s redemption. He who rejects Christ cuts himself off from God’s love and will perish everlastingly.
On the other hand, we must beware of narrow and contracted opinions. We must not hesitate to tell any sinner that God loves him.
It is not true that God cares for none but His own elect or that Christ is not offered for any but those who are ordained to eternal life. There is a “kindness and love” in God toward all mankind (Titus 3:4).
It was in consequence of that love that Christ came into the world and died upon the cross. Let us not be wise above that which is written or more systematic in our statements than Scripture itself. God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. God is not willing that any should perish. God would have all men to be saved. God loves the world. [John 6:32; I John 4:10; Ezek. 33:11; II Pet. 3:9; I Tim. 2:4]
No Salvation but by Atoning Death of Christ
These verses show us, third, the peculiar plan by which the love of God has provided salvation for sinners. That plan is the atoning death of Christ on the cross.
Our Lord says to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
By being “lifted up,” our Lord meant nothing less than His own death upon the cross. That death, He would have us know, was appointed by God to be “the life of the world” (John 6:51). It was ordained from all eternity to be the great propitiation and satisfaction for man’s sin. It was the payment, by an Almighty Substitute and Representative, of man’s enormous debt to God.
When Christ died upon the cross, our many sins were laid upon Him. He was made “sin for us.” He was made “a curse for us” (II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). By His death He purchased pardon and complete redemption for sinners.
The brazen serpent, lifted up in the camp of Israel, brought health and cure within the reach of all who were bitten by serpents. Christ crucified, in like manner, brought eternal life within reach of lost mankind. Christ has been lifted up on the cross, and man looking to Him by faith may be saved.
The truth before us is the very foundation stone of the Christian religion. Christ’s death is the Christian’s life. Christ’s cross is the Christian’s title to Heaven. Christ “lifted up” and put to shame on Calvary is the ladder by which Christians “enter into the holiest” (Heb. 10:19) and are at length landed in Glory.
It is true that we are sinners—but Christ suffered for us. It is true that we deserve death—but Christ has died for us. It is true that we are guilty debtors—but Christ has paid our debts with His own blood.
This is the real Gospel! This is the Good News! On this let us lean while we live. To this let us cling when we die. Christ has been “lifted up” on the cross and has thrown open the gates of Heaven to all believers.
Salvation Received by Faith
These verses show us, fourth, the way in which the benefits of Christ’s death are made our own. That way is simply to put faith and trust in Christ.
Faith is the same thing as believing. Three times our Lord repeats this glorious truth to Nicodemus. Twice He proclaims that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish,” and once He says, “He that believeth on him is not condemned.”
Faith in the Lord Jesus is the very key of salvation. He that has it has life, and he that has it not has not life.
Nothing whatever beside this faith is necessary to our complete justification; but nothing whatever except this faith will give us an interest in Christ.
We may fast and mourn for sin and do many things that are right and use religious ordinances and give all our goods to feed the poor—and yet remain unpardoned and lose our souls. But if we will only come to Christ as guilty sinners and believe on Him, our sins shall at once be forgiven and our iniquities shall be entirely put away. Without faith there is no salvation, but through faith in Jesus the vilest sinner may be saved.
If we would have a peaceful conscience in our religion, let us see that our views of saving faith are distinct and clear. Let us beware of supposing that justifying faith is anything more than a sinner’s simple trust in a Saviour, the grasp of a drowning man on the hand held out for his relief. Let us beware of mingling anything else with faith in the matter of justification. Here we must always remember faith stands entirely alone.
A justified man, no doubt, should always be a holy man. True believing should always be accompanied by godly living.
But that which gives a man an interest in Christ is not his living, but his faith. If we would know whether we are justified by Christ, there is but one question to be asked: “Do we believe?”
Lost Because of Wicked Rejection of the Light
Fifth, these verses show us the true cause of the loss of man’s soul. Our Lord says to Nicodemus, “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
The words before us form a suitable conclusion to the glorious tidings which we have just been considering. They completely clear God of injustice in the condemnation of sinners. They show in simple and unmistakable terms that although man’s salvation is entirely of God, his ruin, if he is lost, will be entirely from himself. He will reap the fruit of his own sowing.
The doctrine here laid down ought to be carefully remembered. It supplies an answer to a common cavil of the enemies of God’s truth. There is no decreed reprobation excluding anyone from Heaven. “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” There is no unwillingness on God’s part to receive any sinner, however great his sins.
God has sent “light” into the world, and if man will not come to the light, the fault is entirely on man’s side. His blood will be on his own head, if he makes shipwreck of his soul. The blame will be at his own door, if he misses Heaven. His eternal misery will be the result of his own choice. His destruction will be the work of his own hand.
God loved him and was willing to save him; but he “loved darkness,” and therefore darkness must be his everlasting portion. He would not come to Christ, and therefore he could not have life (John 5:40).
The truths we have been considering are peculiarly weighty and solemn. Do we live as if we believed them? Salvation by Christ’s death is close to us today. Have we embraced it by faith and made it our own?
Let us never rest till we know Christ as our own Saviour. Let us look to Him without delay for pardon and peace if we have never looked before. Let us go on believing on Him if we have already believed. “Whosoever” is His own gracious word—“whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
(From Expository Notes on the Gospel)