There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “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.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:1-15
The Athanasian Creed is a masterpiece, whether judged by its sound theology, its beautiful poetry, or the clarity with which it confesses the most profound mystery of our Christian religion: the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is good that we confess this creed on Trinity Sunday. Christians are Trinitarian.
All Christians are Trinitarian. As we confess in this creed, “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.” We must be perfectly clear about this. Unitarians are not Christians. Mormons are not Christians. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Christians. United Pentecostals are not Christians. All of these groups deny the Holy Trinity. No one who denies the Holy Trinity is a Christian. All Christians worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.
Some have criticized the Athanasian Creed for teaching salvation by works. But it does not teach salvation by works. It says:
At his coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.
This is what the Bible teaches. Everyone will be judged according to his works. This does not mean that we become righteous by doing good works. It’s the other way around. Only those who are already righteous by God’s gracious reckoning are capable of doing good works. Who are they? Who are these Christians whose deeds God graciously acknowledges on the last day? They are those who are born from above. They are born again.
Just as all Christians are Trinitarian and those who are not Trinitarian are not Christian, just so all Christians are born again and those who are not born again are not Christian. The term “born again” Christian is a redundancy. If you are born again you are a Christian. If you are a Christian you are born again. Let us review the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus to learn from Jesus why we must be born again and how this new birth takes place.
Nicodemus was a highly educated, dedicated, and sincere seeker of the truth. That’s why he went to Jesus. He went at night. He was a Pharisee who had status in the religious community and he did not want to risk losing it by being seen with Jesus. Jesus was not popular with the Pharisees. But Nicodemus respected Jesus. He began the conversation by complimenting Jesus. He said he was a great teacher whose signs demonstrated that God sent him and was with him. Nicodemus sought to ingratiate himself but Jesus would have none of it. He responded bluntly: “You must be born again.” If you are not born again you cannot enter into God’s kingdom. Nothing you do before you are born again has any true spiritual value because what is born of the flesh is flesh. Unless the Holy Spirit comes into you and changes you into a new person, you are bound in sin, captive to death, a servant of the devil, and utterly incapable of doing anything good or God-pleasing. You must be born again because you are a lost sinner bound in sins from which you cannot set yourself free.
Nicodemus could not take it in. As a Pharisee he understood what it meant to do one’s duty. Religion was a matter of obeying the rules. The very idea that he was spiritually powerless was unthinkable. So he heard Jesus’s words about being born again and leaped to the false conclusion that Jesus was talking about a physical birth. No, Jesus said, I am not talking about a physical birth. I am talking about a spiritual birth.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Pay close attention to what Jesus says here. He does not say that one must be born of water and of the Spirit as if there is one birth that is of the water and another birth that is of the Spirit. There is only one “of” here – one preposition that joins together two nouns – the two nouns being water and Spirit. Water and spirit go together. It isn’t water over here and Spirit over there. It is water and Spirit joined together. That’s what Jesus said. The new birth that the Holy Spirit brings about he brings about through holy baptism.
Does this mean that everyone who is baptized is born again? No, it doesn’t mean that. It is possible to be baptized and to reject the Holy Spirit in unbelief. In such a case, baptism does one no good. The benefit of baptism is received through faith. Jesus says,
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
The Christian looks to the Son of Man lifted up on the cross. The Christian looks in faith. It isn’t a casual glance. It is a look of trust, confidence, and assurance. There, as the Son of Man is lifted up, all the sin that poisons our souls and draws us away from God is forgiven and we are reconciled to our Creator.
When we look to the Son of Man lifted up on the cross we see the Holy Trinity. Only a Trinitarian, that is, only a Christian can understand. See Jesus lifted up on the cross and see the Father. There is the Father’s love, for he sent his Son into this world to suffer and die for us on the cross. We can call him Father because he gave us his Son. You see the Father where the Son of Man is lifted up on the cross.
You see the Son. He who is lifted up to die is the eternal Son of the Father. He is Mary’s Son, our brother. He bears our sin. You see him, you look at him, and you see your sin forgiven. It is for you that he dies. It is your sins he bears. It is your debt he pays. Look at Jesus lifted up for you and see your righteousness before God. No sin can poison you when the sin-Bearer bears the sin away.
How can you see the Father? How can you see the Son? How can you look and see the Son of Man lifted up to die and in that death see life? The Holy Spirit shows you. He shows you that from that crucifixion come forgiveness of sins and eternal life. These are the gifts the Holy Spirit gives us.
He gives these gifts in Holy Baptism. That’s how baptism can be how we are born again. St. Paul calls baptism a washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit. St. Peter says it saves us. So does Jesus. And here Jesus joins the water of baptism to the new birth brought about by the Spirit.
Many so called “born again” Christians deny that baptism has saving power. They teach that babies should not be baptized because babies cannot believe. When you press them on that claim, they define faith in such a way as to exclude infants. Faith is a decision, they say. They define faith psychologically as a phenomenon that babies cannot experience. They deny both the power of baptism and its benefit for infants. But they are wrong.
Concerning the power of baptism, Jesus’s clear words settle the matter for us. Jesus says that we are born again by water and Spirit. To be born again is to be brought to faith by the Holy Spirit and given a new life to live. It is a life lived under grace in this world and in glory in the world to come. It is a life in which we know God and God knows us. It is a life of joy, of hope, and of peace because we are living under the shelter of the cross.
Concerning faith, the Bible doesn’t teach that faith is a decision. Faith is trust. Here in our text, faith is looking. Look to the cross. Look and see. He died for you. You don’t have to figure it out. You don’t decide to make it real. You look. You believe what God says.
People deny baptismal regeneration (which is the fancy theological term for being born again in baptism) and infant faith because, like Nicodemus, they try to figure it all out. Jesus warns against that. He says:
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. . . We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.
Don’t try to figure out how. You’ll never figure it out. Neither faith nor God can be examined under a microscope. We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. It is impossible to force God into the boundaries of our finite minds. We confess the truth about him in the creeds. We know that what God says is so. We cannot know how. We let God worry about how.
Eight days ago God blessed us with another grandchild. This morning she will be born again of water and the Spirit and enter into the kingdom of God. The name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit will be joined to the name of Mary Katherine Preus. By means of Holy Baptism she will become a Christian, a Trinitarian, a child of God, and an heir of eternal life.
All who believe and are baptized
Shall see the Lord’s salvation;
Baptized into the death of Christ,
They are a new creation.
Through Christ’s redemption they shall stand
Among the glorious heavenly band
Of every tribe and nation.