Monthly Archives: June 2008

A Spiritual Journey, Part 1 – A Preacher Meets Jesus

Part One – A Preacher Meets Jesus

I had been a pastor for seven years when I asked Jesus Christ into my heart. This is my story.

I am an only child. My parents were always faithful churchgoing people. Our family was Methodist first, and then around 1976, when I was about 12, we started attending a Presbyterian Church. The two denominations were pretty similar in the “feel” of their services, though the Presbyterians tend to be a bit more “heady,” while the Methodists are more oriented toward the heart (you know, that famous story about John Wesley’s heart being “strangely warmed,” and all). Both denominations fall into the category of “mainline”, meaning the services were staid, quiet, reserved, “reverent”, traditional, and—for a young person—pretty boring. Both denominations lean liberal theologically, so they tended to interpret many parts of the Bible in a less literal fashion. At the Methodist churches we attended in those days, the sermons were heavy on psychology and sentimentality and light on references to the Bible or God, Christ, and spiritual matters.  Or so it seemed to us.  This is what led my parents to look for a different type of church to attend.

There was a Presbyterian Church across the street from where we lived.  I had visited one of their children’s programs several times with a friend and had liked it, and so my parents decided that would be a good church for us to visit.  The preaching there was more substantial than what we’d heard in the Methodist churches, and more biblically focused, but still liberal, heady, and dry for a young person. I don’t think it’s unfair to say I got very little out of the services. I don’t recall ever being aware of the presence of God there. As an older teenager I did learn to appreciate the hymns, and that has stayed with me and deepened over the years. I also remember a sermon or two preached there by the young associate pastor who worked with us kids.  But that was about the extent of what I’m conscious of getting out of those services.

To be fair, the people in that church, including the leaders, genuinely loved me and cared about me. They were (and still are) very kind to me and supportive. They saw my gifts as a young person and invited me to use them at an early age. As a teenager they had me playing my guitar and singing for services on occasion, helping out with the youth group, and even teaching Sunday school every so often. That Presbyterian church was one of the first places where I ever felt like I belonged.

My parents were a significant influence on my approach to spiritual things. During my early childhood, faith did not often appear to be a significant matter in our family. However, in my mid-elementary-school years my folks began to experience some deepening and renewal of their own faith, which culminated just before we moved to the Presbyterian church. From that time on they were (and are) essentially evangelical in their beliefs. So sometimes we almost felt like conservatives battling liberalism and unbelief in our denomination.

Our youth minister, whom I mentioned above, was an evangelical, though, and he had a strong influence on me as well. He reinforced a lot of what my parents taught me.

My perception in those days was that the emphasis was mainly on an intellectual approach to faith as opposed to an intimate relationship with Christ. The focus was on believing the right things and doing your darnedest to put them into practice–pulling yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps, so to speak. There seemed to be a lot of focus on serving Christ but not so much on knowing Christ.  Or at least that’s how I perceived it.  If more was presented, I confess I totally missed it.

In the Presbyterian denomination I grew up in, there was little emphasis on personal salvation. People are not confronted with questions like “Do you know the Lord?” or “Have you given your heart to him?” or “Have you asked Christ into your heart?” or “Are you saved?” There are no altar calls or invitations given in church and few evangelistic sermons. About all that was emphasized was making a “commitment” to Christ, and this mainly in terms of personal effort.

So there was little emphasis on the Person of Christ and coming to understand and know Him as a living Lord today who is active and a personal friend and companion. Little emphasis was placed on receiving the Holy Spirit and living the Christian life by His power. Most of the focus was on Jesus as portrayed in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and trying to imitate Him or to live according to His teachings.

Well, to fast-forward things a bit, this was my background as I entered seminary in the mid-1980s to prepare for full-time ministry. The seminary I attended (Princeton Seminary, a Presbyterian School a few blocks from Princeton University but not affiliated with it) was middle-of-the-road by liberal-Presbyterian standards, but would be liberal from an evangelical or perspective. We spent most of our time debating the truthfulness of Scripture, so it was not a place in which to become grounded in the Bible and spiritual things, certainly not a place in which one was encouraged to know Christ more intimately.

I think I went to seminary to face liberalism head-on. I had been exposed to it all my life and secretly had grave doubts about the evangelical beliefs my parents and youth pastor had tried to instill in me. In seminary I came in order to look liberal beliefs straight in the eye and see for myself what was the truth. At the same time, though, deep down something in me knew the liberal approach was a lie. But I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t defend biblical beliefs against it, which threatened me.

So in seminary I was on a personal quest. I spent most of my time and energy exploring and defending the authority of the Bible and its teachings in all my classes. In doing so I learned why liberal views don’t hold water and why it’s best after all to believe the Bible; and for the first time in my life I KNEW it, and these were certainly rungs on the ladder God was leading me up to bring me to know Him.

As an interesting side note, in one of my church history classes we were required to read a book by J. Gresham Machen from the 1920s called “Christianity and Liberalism.” This fact was rife with ironies. Machen had been a Bible-believing New Testament professor at Princeton who was forced to resign when the liberals took over the seminary during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy back in the ‘20s. In the book, Machen claimed that liberal Christianity wasn’t really Christianity at all, but instead a completely different religion, a false gospel masquerading as the Christian faith in modern guise. We were assigned this reading as an artifact of history, but for me it was a lifeline. While most of my classmates ridiculed Machen’s ideas, I was soaking them in and agreeing wholeheartedly with every word. This was but one of several discoveries I made at Princeton which served to unhinge the liberal agenda in my own thinking.

So I came out of seminary at least no longer threatened by liberalism, seeing it for the sham that it is, and with a lot more confidence in the truth of the Bible. But in many ways I had not experienced the realities the Bible conveys for myself. What I knew were intellectual ideas, more than relational and experiential realities.

When I finished seminary I wasn’t that keen on becoming a pastor, because I didn’t really feel suited for it, and I had a lot of misgivings about the Presbyterian denomination. I didn’t agree with infant baptism for starters, my classes in Reformed theology notwithstanding. I also disagreed with the fact that they ordained women as pastors, elders, and deacons, and with the feminist agenda that seemed to accompany this practice. This is not even to mention the homosexual activism that was going on in the denomination at the time, and still rages to this day. But my parents had paid all that money for school and I really didn’t know what else to do for a living, so I went ahead and looked for a church position in that denomination.

As a pastor I found that I didn’t know how to rely on God for the things I was doing–in fact, I wasn’t really even inclined to do so. So I felt pretty helpless and at a loss. The unbelief in the mainline church was so daunting, and I didn’t know how to address it in myself, much less in anyone else. I felt like the whole system was arrayed against knowing God, and perhaps it was….

I accepted my first call out of seminary in 1991, where I served as an associate pastor in a fairly large church. During my time there the senior pastor and another pastor on staff got into a big fight. In my youthful zeal and self-righteousness I took sides and got drawn into the conflict, too. It wound up being a very painful and disillusioning experience. Before it was all over, the entire presbytery in our region had been affected by this conflict. It was a huge, sad mess.

After 4 years at that church I left there (of my own accord, but after the major conflict I knew it was time to move on) and became the pastor of a small church in East Tennessee, still licking my wounds over what I had gone through in the previous church (not a good way to start one’s ministry in a new place…). In my new church I was dealing with a lot of pain and guilt from the conflict in the previous church, and felt very alone and unsure in the new situation. As a single pastor it was hard to find friends and hard to find potential women to date (how many young women really want to date a preacher, after all?). I felt abandoned, I guess.

This is when I began to really search for God. I was climbing more rungs up a spiritual ladder toward knowing Christ. One of the very ironic and good things that came out of my experience in seminary is that it actually served to increase my faith in the Bible as God’s Word. All I had been through as a pastor just made it more clear how true the Bible really is. By this time I was searching in earnest. I began to suspect that something significant was missing from my Christian life, but I didn’t know what it was.

I finally concluded that if I wanted to find whatever it was I was searching for, I was going to have to look outside my denomination. This is frowned on in Presbyterian circles because they think they have the smartest way. But I was to the point that I didn’t care anymore what my colleagues would think. I just wanted healing and deliverance, and had become willing to go wherever I needed to go to find it.

So in 1997 I started meeting with some of the other ministers in town for fellowship and prayer. Most of them were Pentecostals and Baptists. My parents had had some good experiences with charismatics in the Methodist church, and I had been close friends with several Spirit-filled kids in college, so I felt comfortable with them, even though my denomination probably would have thought they were flaky.

An Assembly of God pastor friend invited me to a prayer retreat for pastors in early 1998, and I decided that was just what I needed, so I went. I figured being with those folks for an extended period of time would help me find what I was looking for.

The retreat was great, and I had a chance to share my burdens and sins with the other pastors. They encouraged me to meet with a small group of laypeople and pastors who were there praying with those in attendance for healing and restoration.

So on the third and last night of the retreat, a group of five men prayed with me, two pastors and three laymen who were intercessors. The prayer time was actually led by one of the laypeople. I began by confessing to them some sins that were weighing heavily on my heart. Then we began to pray. During the time of prayer I was delivered from some demonic oppression I’d been fighting for several years. At one point the man leading us in prayer identified a demon that afflicting me and asked my permission to cast it out. I said yes, and so he commanded the lying spirit to go in Jesus name. I literally felt something in my chest release its grip on me and depart. Afterwards I felt released from a tightness in my chest that had been with me for several years. I was free!

All together, the confession, the prayers, and the deliverance were all very healing. I could tell God’s Spirit was truly at work.

A real surprise came a little later, though. At one point the man who was leading the prayer time asked me, “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?” I responded by telling him of my involvement in the church since my early teen years and that I had made some commitments to live for God around age 13.

“That’s good,” the man replied gently, “but it’s not exactly the same thing. Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?”

The truth was I couldn’t remember ever having prayed such a prayer in earnest. They don’t think like that in the Presbyterian church–asking Jesus into your heart. To be honest, I’d always thought the idea was a tad sentimental and not really necessary. I felt that what you believed about Christ and whether you trusted Him was the main thing. I was convinced that this man’s question to me wasn’t really that important, and that it was already taken care of in my life. So I answered that I couldn’t remember asking Christ into my heart but I thought the issue was already dealt with.

He replied, “Well, since you can’t remember a specific time, why don’t you do it now, just to be sure. Then in the future if anyone ever asks you this question again, you’ll be able to say yes.”

Now you have to understand, under different circumstances I might have tried to offer some “clever” arguments as to why I didn’t think I needed to pray a prayer like that. After all, by that time I’d been a pastor for seven years!

But in that moment it was pretty clear that God was at work, and I had no desire to stifle whatever it was he was doing. In my spirit I suspected the question was on target. So within myself I said, “Lord, if this is what you want me to do, I’m not going to fight it.” I agreed to pray and ask Christ into my heart.

Just the same, I wasn’t really expecting much to happen, because I did assume the matter was already taken care of. I was essentially praying the prayer as a formality. But I was in for a surprise, and a very pleasant one at that.

I bowed my head and prayed a simple prayer in my own words: “Lord Jesus Christ, I do want you to come into my heart, and into my life,” I began. Suddenly I felt a change in my heart, a sense of peace, love, and joy filling me up–a feeling I had never felt before.

As C.S. Lewis said, I was “surprised by joy!” All those years I had sought to serve God, but I had never felt or experienced his love for me until that moment. For the first time I began to understand what it meant to call God my Father.

Afterwards I was in wonder and amazement and floating on cloud nine like I never had in my life, and scratching my head over what had just happened. It was night time, and so after the prayer time I went back to my room at the retreat center where we were staying. As I brushed my teeth, I noticed the chorus to an old hymn was “playing” inside me. This had never happened to me before, for it wasn’t me singing the song, but something inside me was “singing” it. I stopped to listen.

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and He talks with me
Along life's narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.

The amazing thing is, this was not a hymn I knew that well or had ever sung very often (they don’t sing hymns like that much in the Presbyterian church). And yet that night my heart was singing it as though it was an old favorite. Then I remembered the Scripture that says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16-17, NIV). As long as I had been in the church, I had wondered what that verse was talking about, because I had never experienced the Holy Spirit testifying to my spirit that I was a child of God. I suddenly realized that this was exactly what was happening! The last line of that hymn says “You ask me how I know He lives–He lives within my heart.” The Holy Spirit was using my absolute favorite medium of communication—music—to give me a most important and excellent message! Truly God knows our deepest desires and how to speak to them…..

After my experiences at that pastors’ retreat I noticed some subtle but real changes in my life. For the first time I began to feel genuinely loved by God. I noticed that my prayers packed more power and punch. Scripture came alive in a deep and beautiful way. Passages I’d never understood before began to make sense. I was less prone to doubt than I had been before. I was also less prone to anxiety. And, much to my relief, my love life also began to take a turn for the better.

In the weeks that followed the retreat, I tried to better understand exactly what happened. It was certainly more than a mere “rededication” of my life, because after that time I experienced something I’d never known before–the reality of God’s love and presence in my life. Yet I thought I had known the Lord to some degree before those events: I felt that at times He had spoken to me and led me by His Spirit, and I had believed in Christ and sought to follow him.

As I thought and prayed about it, I came up with several ways to talk about this change I experienced:

1) Originally I had believed in the Lord intellectually and felt I had some level of relationship with him, but He always felt pretty distant. It’s almost like before asking Christ into my heart, I had something like an Old Testament relationship with God. I believed in Him and knew a lot of facts about Him. I believed He had given the Bible and that it was His Word. I believed in and knew His laws and tried to live by them. I even believed Jesus was the Son of God and had died for the sins of the world (it was harder to get my mind around the idea that He had died for my sins). I knew the Holy Spirit was given to live in believers and I even believed in the gifts of the Spirit. But the idea that God truly loved and accepted me was a foreign concept. Talk of God as my Father, or of His grace, didn’t mean much to me. I had rarely, if ever, experienced the reality of God’s presence in my life, or His power. Love was not much of a reality in my life. I didn’t feel loved by God, and I didn’t have much love to offer others. I wasn’t capable of giving or receiving love. I related to God from my mind and was hardly even aware of my heart. I didn’t know that we relate to God through our hearts. My heart and mind were split off from each other. I was a man divided from himself, and didn’t even know it.

As I thought about all this an analogy occurred to me from the business world. Before I asked Jesus into my heart, it was as if a business deal had been all set up and fully negotiated, but we had never actually “closed the deal.” It seemed “the deal” was actually “closed” that night when I prayed to receive Christ. I began to conclude that Jesus does not force His way into our lives. He wants to be invited.

2) The difference between the “before” and “after” in my relationship with Christ was sort of like the difference between a couple who are engaged and a couple who are married. Both couples have some kind of relationship with each other, but only the married couple has been united to one another. At some point we need to actively receive Christ in order to be united with him for eternity and sealed with his Spirit. It is not until then that we can truthfully say that we are “in Christ,” and He is in us. Before my experience at the pastor’s prayer retreat I had never understood the Christian life as a spiritual union between Jesus Christ and myself.

3) Before, as I said above, I had more of an Old Testament relationship with God: I knew him, but I feared him. I saw him more as judging than as loving. After my conversion I came to know him in the New Testament sense, as my loving Father. The difference is subtle but important.

4) Perhaps the best explanation–certainly the most biblical one–is to simply say that I was “born again” or “born anew” (John 3: 3), which in the Greek also means “born from above.” Scripture makes it clear that this is a work of the Holy Spirit, not something we human beings can do for ourselves. And it happens when we receive Christ: “…to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1: 12-13). Before receiving Christ I had trusted him to some extent with my intellect but had never actively received him into my heart and life.

5) One other Scripture I discovered for the first time after my experience was Eph 3:16-17: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (NIV). There it is, right in the Bible, and I never knew it.

6) Before receiving Christ, I struggled with doubts about my salvation. After my experience at the pastors’ prayer retreat I had assurance of salvation, because the Holy Spirit had testified to my spirit that I was a child of God.

On that last night of the pastor’s retreat, as I lay in bed unable to sleep due to the excitement and wonder of all I had experienced, I knew I had a choice before me—whether to keep this change and this new discovery to myself, or to share it with others. Sharing it would be risky. It might raise questions about my legitimacy as a pastor. If I had been mistaken about my relationship with Christ all those years, would people want to follow me anymore? How would my congregation respond? On the other hand, though, it would be a shame to keep such great news to myself. I realized that if I had been mistaken about my relation to God all those years, I was probably not the only person like that. I concluded that there were probably a lot of other people in churches who had never truly encountered Jesus in a personal way.

It really wasn’t that hard of a decision. Good news is hard to contain. I decided to take the risk and be open about my experiences. I’ve always been a pretty open person anyway, so it would have gone against the grain to keep such a wonderful experience all to myself, especially since I had finally found what I’d been searching after for so many years! It occurred to me that perhaps God had even allowed this to happen to me so I could share it with others. So I decided to tell what had happened to me that night.

The pastor’s prayer retreat ended on a Thursday. At the closing session in which we were sharing what God had done in our lives during the retreat, I couldn’t contain myself and burst out with it before my fellow pastors. The room erupted in exclamations of surprise and delight, in “Hallelujahs” and other acts of praise. One of the other pastors there, who led a large Evangelical Free church in Knoxville, asked me to come and share my testimony in the evening services at his church. I agreed, and we made plans for me to be there that Sunday night.

After the retreat it was back to regular church responsibilities, back to “reality,” as they say. I decided to share my experiences with my congregation in the Sunday morning service.

When the day came, I was a bit nervous, because I wasn’t sure what their response would be. After all, this was a Presbyterian church in a liberal denomination, so I just didn’t know quite what to expect….

(To be continued….)

Part 2 of this story can be found here:

The New Birth

The following is a sermon I preached at a United Methodist church in East Tennessee on June 1, 2008.

John 3:1-15

3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicode’mus 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 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 anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can 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. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (Revised Standard Version)

For those of us who grew up in the church, this may be a very familiar passage. Because it’s so familiar we can miss aspects of its meaning.  Therefore this morning I want to take a fresh look at this story to see what we might learn from it.

The first person we meet in the story is Nicodemus. What do we know about him?

Verse 1 tells us Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which means he was devoutly religious. This same verse also calls him a “ruler of the Jews.  ”In verse 10 Jesus calls Nicodemus “a teacher of Israel. ” This implies that he must have been fairly well-known as a spiritual leader, someone who was respected as a teacher in spiritual matters. So from these few facts we can surmise that Nicodemus was no lightweight; he was known and respected as a spiritual leader.

In light of this, the fact that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night (verse2) is significant. Some of Nicodemus’ colleagues among the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people were suspicious of Jesus and thought he was leading the people astray. It appears Nicodemus was concerned about what his colleagues would think about him coming to consult this controversial rabbi, and so Nicodemus comes to see him quietly at night.

We can also see, though, that he must have had some level of spiritual awareness, because he tells Jesus, “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” (verse 2). Nicodemus recognized Jesus as a man who had been sent by God. One of the themes in the gospel of John is that Jesus is the man who came down from heaven, and this verse indicates that Nicodemus was perceptive enough to see this.

Jesus doesn’t mince any words with this man. In fact, he doesn’t even give Nicodemus time to ask a question or tell Jesus why he came. Jesus cuts to the chase; He tells Nicodemus he must be “born anew” (v. 3).

The fact that Jesus says such a thing to this prominent religious leader is significant: Even though Nicodemus is a spiritual leader of his people—even though he’s a teacher, and a man of some understanding—Jesus tells him there’s more. There’s more to being a part of God’s kingdom than Nicodemus has yet discovered.

Nicodemus questioned what Jesus meant about being born anew. It would be worthwhile for us to consider the issue for a moment.

You probably know that the New Testament was originally written in Greek and that all our English Bibles are translations of the Greek manuscripts into English. In John 3 verses 3 and 7, where the text speaks of being born anew, the Greek word translated “anew” is anothen.

This word can also be translated “again”. Of course, this is the wording we most often hear with respect to this phrase: “born again”. The idea of being a “born-again Christian” has almost become a cliché. However, we see here that being born again is a biblical idea.

The Greek word “anothen” can also be translated “from above”. So Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be “born anew”, “born again” or “born from above.” Each of these translations tells us something about what Jesus meant.

“Born anew” and “born again” have similar meanings. We can tell Nicodemus understood Jesus’ statement in this way because of his question in verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus understood Jesus to be saying he needed to be born again.

The translation “born from above” is helpful also, because it helps us know what kind of birth we’re talking about. It’s a birth that’s not merely of this earth, but instead is “from above.” We can interpret this to mean that the new birth is from heaven. We’ll say more about that in a moment.

When we hear Jesus tell Nicodemus “you must be born anew” or “born again,” our response might be a bit like that of Nicodemus: “What do you mean I must be ‘born again?’ How can someone be born once they’ve grown up? Can a person enter a second time into his or her mother’s womb and be born?” Let’s take a few moments to consider in more depth what kind of birth this new birth or second birth is.

Our best indication is found in verse 6, when Jesus says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here Jesus contrasts two kinds of birth.

First he refers to our natural birth when he says “That which is born of the flesh is flesh….” Every person is born into this world in the natural manner: Parents conceive, the mother carries the baby to term (hopefully) and eventually the mother gives birth to a healthy baby from her womb. This natural birth that every person goes through to come into this world is what Jesus is referring to when he says “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.”

But then Jesus goes on to say that “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here he’s talking about the second birth, or the new birth. So from this we know that when Jesus says “you must be born again” he’s talking about a spiritual birth. This fits with the idea of being “born from above,” which we talked about a moment ago. When he speaks of “that which is born of the Spirit” he’s referring there to the Holy Spirit. The new birth is a spiritual birth coming “from above,” when a person is born of the Holy Spirit.

This goes along with what 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.” Scholars have debated what Jesus means here by being “born of water.” Some say the reference to water refers to the waters of baptism. Others claim Jesus is referring to the natural birth, as we think of when we say that the mother’s “water broke” just before giving birth.

Since Jesus is talking here about what must happen in order for a person enter the kingdom of God, and since he contrasts the natural birth with the spiritual birth in verse 6, I don’t believe being “born of water” here is referring to the natural birth. I think it’s safe to say that the water Jesus mentions in verse 5 is the water of baptism. Jesus is saying that in order for a person to enter the Kingdom of God they must be baptized and spiritually reborn. (Note: We should not take this to mean that baptism is necessary for salvation. But that is a topic for another sermon.)

So to sum up, when Jesus tells Nicodemus “you must be born again” he’s saying to him: In order for someone to enter the kingdom of God a person has to be born in a spiritual sense. They must be born of the Holy Spirit.

To learn more about this idea of being born again, let’s look at another passage in the gospel of John, John 1: 9-13.

9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (RSV)

Here John is talking about Jesus coming into the world. He says that Jesus “was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (verses 10 and 11). But then notice what it says in verses 12-13: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Here we see another reference to the new birth, when John speaks of being “born of God.” John tells us that the way to become children of God is by being born of God.

What the gospel of John is talking about here and in chapter 3 is becoming a Christian. And what we see in both places is that in order to become a Christian a person must be born again.

We have heard talk over the years of “born-again” Christians, but these verses let us know that really there is no other kind. If you want to be a Christian, if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, if you want to be a child of God, says the Bible, you must be born again. Notice it says “you must be born again.” Not you “may” or you “might want to be”, but “you must be born again.” And lest we think Jesus was only addressing this thought to Nicodemus, we should take note of the fact that when Jesus says “you must be born anew” in verse 7, the word “you” in the Greek is plural. So it means “you all must be born again.” (You didn’t know Jesus was a southerner, did you?  😉 ) Taking this into account, the full meaning of verse 7 is as follows: “Do not marvel that I said to you, Nicodemus, that you all must be born anew.”

Jesus wasn’t just telling Nicodemus he had to be born again. He was saying that any person who desires to become a Christian needs to be born again.

Why? Why do we need to be born again?

The answer goes all the way back to the book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve were deceived by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed God’s command, and ate of the forbidden fruit, their disobedience caused them to die spiritually. This gave them a sinful nature which also passed to their children and on down through the generations, so that every person who’s ever been born has a sinful nature that separates them from God.

Every person who is born into this world is born spiritually dead. When we come into this world our spirits are dead. That’s why Jesus said we must be born of the Spirit in order to be saved. In order to enter God’s kingdom we have to be born into it via the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit revives our spirit and brings it to life, giving us new life, the life of Christ.

Back in the days when kings ruled the earth, the normal way to become a king was that you had to be born the son of the king in order to succeed to the throne. Kingship was normally passed on by blood through birth.

When we become Christians, we become children of God, who is the great king of all the earth. God invites us to become his children. But in order to do this, we have to be born into his kingdom.

So how does this happen? How do we become born again? Let’s look again at John 1: 12-13.“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

John says that those who were given power (the Greek word also means “right” or “authority”) to become the children of God were those who “received” him, those who “believed in his name.” This is how we are born of God, by receiving Christ and believing in his name. Let’s look briefly at these two ideas.

First, what does it mean to receive Christ? We must begin by remembering that Jesus is a person. He’s not a concept or an idea or a thought, but a person. Yes, he’s risen from the dead and ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven. But the Bible teaches that Jesus comes to us spiritually and makes his home with us if we love him. Consider these verses from the 14th chapter of John:

18 “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

If a stranger comes to your house, you have a couple of options as to how you will respond to them. You can turn them away, or you can receive them into your home and show them hospitality. If you get to know them well, you may begin to show them love and in a sense receive them in a deeper way, into your heart.

John 1 says that when Jesus came into this world, many didn’t receive him. They rejected him. They didn’t believe he was who he said he was, they didn’t believe or accept his teaching, they didn’t receive him in any way.

The chapter goes on to say, though, that there were some who did receive him. These were the ones who “believed in his name.” In Bible times, someone’s name represented everything they were. To believe in Jesus name is, among other things, to believe in everything that he is. These people believed Jesus was who he said he was. They believed and accepted Jesus’ teaching. They received him into their homes and into their lives and showed him hospitality and love.

Unfortunately, the idea of believing in Jesus is often misunderstood. The Greek word translated “believe” in the New Testament is the word pisteuo, which really means to “trust” or to “have faith in.”

Too often people think that believing in Jesus is just intellectual assent; that is, merely believing in Jesus as an idea or a concept; believing facts about Jesus—that he was born of a virgin, died on the cross, rose again, saved us from our sins, will get us to heaven when we die, etc. These facts about Jesus Christ are all true, and we do need to believe them.

But when the Bible talks about believing in Jesus, what is meant is trusting in him, having faith in him. Jesus Christ is a living person, more real than you or I. And we can have a relationship with him, just as you would have a relationship with a very special friend; or with a father who loves you and looks after you and watches out for you and has the best advice and wisdom for you. In order to be born again we are called to place our trust in this very special friend, to put our very lives in his hands.

Likewise, receiving Jesus means opening our hearts to him and receiving him, his very life, his very being, into our very selves.  Letting all that He is fill all that we are. THIS is what it means to be born again.

And so the question I have for you this morning is: Have you been born again? Have you received Jesus into your heart and life? Have you believed in his name, not just as an idea, but as the Lord of the universe and your closest friend?? Have you invited to Jesus to come and live inside you, to fill you with Himself?

The Bible says that unless a person is born again, they cannot enter the kingdom of God. Simply being born into this earth of natural means is not enough. Every person is born that way. But in order to become a child of God, we have to be born of God, born of the Holy Spirit.

This means God has no grandchildren. Every new person who comes into this world must be born of God themselves. We don’t become Christians automatically, simply because our parents were Christians, or because we grew up in the church. The only way we become Christians is if each one of us personally receives Christ ourselves and puts our trust in him.

Friends, there are a whole lot of people who have gone to church all their lives but have never come to know Jesus Christ personally. They may have been faithful in their church attendance but have never received him. They may even be leaders in their church, just as Nicodemus was a teacher of the Jews, and yet they have never placed their faith in him. To every one of us Jesus says “you must be born again.”

I want to tell you a story from my own life. I grew up going to church. My parents were Christians. They had grown up Methodist, and as a child our family attended the Methodist church. For reasons I won’t go into, when I was about 12 our family became Presbyterian (a fact for which I hope you all will forgive us. 😉 ). So my formative teenage years were spent in the Presbyterian Church. I was confirmed in that church and became very active in the youth group. Around the age of thirteen I began to make some conscious decisions to try to live the way I believed God wanted me to live based on the teachings of the Bible.

From then on I was at church almost every time the doors were open. As a teen I tried very hard to live a righteous life. I became a leader and song leader for my youth group, and taught Sunday school on occasion with the younger kids.

In college I continued to serve with youth groups as a leader and during the summers I worked as a camp counselor at our church camp, eventually working my way up to the position of head counselor. I felt like my efforts as a spiritual leader at the camp were well-received, and so I concluded this was perhaps an indication that maybe God was calling me to be a leader in the church. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a pastor, but I felt drawn to some form of church leadership.

So my senior year I decided to go on to seminary. I applied to become a candidate for ministry in my denomination and began applying to seminaries. When I was accepted at Princeton seminary I decided to go there.

After seminary I was ordained as a pastor and served two churches. My years of ministry were filled with personal struggles of various types. I found that the beliefs I had weren’t sufficient to deal with the struggles I was facing. I felt like something was missing from my life, but I didn’t know what it was.

I had entered the ministry in 1991. In about 1996 or ’97 I heard a sermon on tape by the pastor of a fairly large church in Knoxville on this very same passage from John 3 about being born again. As I listened to the tape, I concluded that whatever this experience was of being born again, I had not had it. I didn’t know what it was, but whatever it was, I was pretty sure I had not experienced it. So I began to pray, “Lord, whatever it means to be born again, I don’t think it’s happened to me, but I would like it to happen, so would you bring it about in my life? I want to be born again.”

In 1998 I was invited by some other ministers in the town where I lived to attend a prayer retreat for pastors. There I had a chance to share some of my burdens and struggles with the other pastors, and they prayed for me.

On the third night of the retreat, I learned of some men there who were praying for pastors in a more personal way, and so I sought out these men and asked them to pray with me. As I shared my struggles with them and we prayed, I felt my burdens beginning to lift. I was being released from spiritual bondages and sins I had been carrying around for a long time. It was a wonderful, freeing experience, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room was palpable.

During this prayer time, one of the men turned to me and asked, “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?” At this point I had been a pastor for seven years, so the question kind of took me by surprise. I might have been tempted to dismiss it, but because God was working so powerfully in my life, and because I was in such obvious need, I took the question seriously.

I responded that I wasn’t sure I ever had asked Jesus into my heart, but that I had made a decision to serve Him as a young teenager. The man replied gently that this was good, but it wasn’t the same thing. And so he put the question to me again: “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?”

I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever asked that exact thing, but I think it’s already taken care of.”

“Well,” he replied, “since you’re not sure, why don’t you take a moment now and ask Jesus into you heart. Then if anyone ever asks you about this again in the future, you’ll know for sure.”

I agreed. I bowed my head, and he encouraged me to say a simple prayer in my own words. So I prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, you know I love you and I want you to be in my heart. And so I ask you now to come into my heart,” or words to that effect.

At that moment, as I prayed those words, I was aware of a benevolent spiritual presence filling my heart with a peace and a feeling of cleanness and joy and love that I have never known before. Jesus Christ had answered my prayer and come into my heart, just as I asked him to!

Later that night, after the prayer time was over, when I went back to my room in the conference center where the retreat was being held, I was filled with joy and excitement and wonder! As I lay in bed that night I found myself asking, “Lord what has happened to me???” As I lay there, the Lord began speaking to my heart about what had happened in my life. Over the days and weeks that followed, as I studied the Bible to find explanations for what I had experienced, I concluded that I had finally experienced this new birth Jesus talks about in the third chapter of John. I had been born again, born of the Spirit.  That prayer I had prayed a couple years earlier had been answered.

From my own experiences I’ve concluded that being born again involves a personal encounter with God. It isn’t necessarily something that happens just by being in church every Sunday or by doing spiritual activities like prayer and Bible study. I did all those things and more as an active church member, and as a pastor; and yet I never experienced the new birth through those things alone.

You may find it hard to believe that someone who grew up in church, was active in youth group, went to seminary, and became a pastor could do all that and yet never come to know Jesus Christ in a personal way. But I’ve become convinced there are lots of people who’ve been in church all their lives but have never been born anew. They are elders, and deacons, and Sunday school teachers, and church board members, even pastors, bishops, and seminary professors. They are good, responsible religious people like Nicodemus, but just like him they need to be born again.

Since you all are Methodists, I’ll close with a story from the life of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. (You all probably know this story better than I do, and might be able to correct me on any details I get wrong.)

Wesley grew up in the Church of England, and at the age of 22 made a profession of faith. After this Wesley decided to pursue a career as a priest.

Eventually John Wesley became the leader of a group of Oxford university students started by his brother Charles called the Holy Club. These young men were very zealous in their desire to live a holy and spiritual life, and so they adopted a very strict regimen of Bible study, self-denial, and acts of service. This group later became known as “Methodists” because of the method of spiritual discipline they rigorously pursued.

In 1735 Wesley decided to come to America to be a missionary to the Indians. On the trip across the ocean, one day a storm came up and everyone on board thought they were going to die. Wesley himself was very fearful of death at this time in his life.

During the storm the young preacher noticed a group of Moravian Christians from Germany who remained calm and serene. Wesley was impressed by their faith and concluded they had something he didn’t have, something he wanted.

In Wesley’s own estimation, that first trip to America was a failure. The response to his ministry was not as he had hoped, and in 1738 he returned to England. Once back home, Wesley sought out some Moravians like those he had met on his trip to America, and began attending their meetings.

You’ve probably heard the famous story about how one day, while attending one of these meetings held on a street called Aldersgate, as someone was reading a passage from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, Wesley felt his “heart strangely warmed.” After this spiritual experience, Wesley’s life was profoundly changed. He discovered a new power in his preaching, as people responded like never before. Eventually a revival a broke out that continued for 50 years.

Scholars have been divided over exactly what the experience was that Wesley had at Aldersgate. Some have said it was salvation, some have said it was sanctification; others have concluded it was the filling of the Holy Spirit. But one thing is clear—after this experience, Wesley was never the same. His life was forever changed. He knew the power of God in his life as never before.

Through my own experiences and the testimony of others, I’m convinced that the new birth, being born again, is a personal encounter with God. If you’ve had it you will know, because your life will be changed.

It may happen different ways for different people. But the point is have you had it? Do you know that you know that you’re born again?

When a baby is born, mother and baby go through a very painful and wrenching process of labor. (Since I’m a man, I’ll never know what this is like in a personal way, but the ladies can tell us). The mother never forgets the labor she went through with her children.

I think it’s the same way with spiritual birth. You know when it happens because it is significant and memorable.

If you have any doubt in your mind that you’ve been born again; if you have any uncertainty as to whether you’ve met and gotten to know Jesus Christ in a personal way, I encourage you to seek to know him personally. If you’re unsure, why not ask Him just to be certain. Tell God, “Lord, I’m not sure I’ve ever had this experience of being born again, but I would like to.” If you’re not sure you’ve asked Jesus into your heart, why not pray a simple prayer asking him to come into your heart and live inside you.

For years I thought the Christian life was me trying real hard to live the way I was supposed to live. Today, even ten years after I met Jesus Christ, I am still learning that living the Christian life is not trying our best to live as Jesus wants us to live. Instead, it’s inviting Jesus Christ to come and live inside us, and letting Him live His life through us.

I encourage you to seek to know Jesus Christ personally. Feel free to ask me about this if you want to know more.