What Is Conversion?
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” —John 3:3
We want Immanuel Church to grow by conversions. When then is Christian conversion? We’ve got to include that in the Immanuel playbook. What could be more important for a church than conversions? Let’s pray for conversions. And let’s find out right now what a real Christian conversion is. Here’s the question. What is conversion? And here’s the answer. Conversion is a miracle that makes a nice person into a new person. We see it right here in John 3.
Conversion is more than a high opinion of Jesus.
Verse 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.'” Nicodemus knows that Jesus is no ordinary man. He’s curious about that. He’s respectful. He knows that Jesus is a man to be reckoned with, someone to listen to, someone connected with God. He believes that Jesus has wisdom from God and power from God. But his view of Jesus is vague. He has a high opinion of Jesus, but no clear understanding of what Jesus is really about. Nicodemus is like many good-hearted people in our city. They have a positive opinion of Jesus. But that is not faith. They are not converted.
Conversion is more than Bible knowledge.
Nicodemus not only thought well of Jesus, he was also a biblical scholar. Verse 10: “Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not know these things?'” Some translations make the word “teacher” indefinite – “a teacher.” But the ESV is right to make it definite: “Are you the teacher?” Jesus is making a strong point. Nicodemus was a recognized teacher among God’s people: “You are the Reverend Doctor Nicodemus, with a Ph.D. in Bible, and you don’t understand what I’m talking about?” It is possible to be a light to others in darkness and still be unconverted. How many people in our city have a high opinion of Jesus and even knowledge of the Bible, and yet they are unconverted?
There is no more urgent question in Nashville today than true conversion to Christ. What does Jesus want everyone to know about conversion?
Conversion is essential.
Verse 3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Verse 5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Verse 7: “You must be born again.” Nicodemus was a Pharisee (verse 1). The Pharisees were nice people. They were not villains. They were the model citizens of their day, holding it all together. But this model citizen was not born again. One of the major weaknesses in American Christianity today is that our churches receive as members model citizens who are not born again of the Holy Spirit. A. W. Tozer said, “One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organization do not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team. The first requisite is life, always.” And that essential life comes not from us but from God. That essential life is not model behavior but a new taste for God that comes only from God and enlivens our hearts and floods our beings with newness that takes command of our very destiny. The Bible says that when people converted like that come together as a church, they are a living miracle together, “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). A church lives and thrives not primarily by fellow feeling for one another, important as that is. But a church lives and thrives primarily on felt union with Christ by the Spirit. Conversion from well-behaved death to heart-awakened life in Christ is essential.
What then does it mean to be born again of water and the Spirit (verse 5)? Jesus is thinking back to Ezekiel chapter 36, where God makes a promise. He says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, …and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will put my Spirit within you” (Ezekiel 36:25-27). Water and Spirit – you see it here in verse 5. Jesus is saying that this inner washing by the Holy Spirit is how we come alive to God. What does he mean?
Here’s what he understands. When God created man in the Garden of Eden, he gave us passions and appetites and pleasures at two levels – the spiritual and the physical. Both were good, but the physical was servant to the spiritual. Physical passions are good servants, but horrible masters. Adam found that out, when he turned away from God. He sinned, and it messed with him deep inside. When he sinned, something inside him died – his God-passion, his God-enjoyment, his reverence and faith. God was no longer his joy; his perception of God darkened. And that changed everything about him – and us. We like to think we’re good people who make bad decisions now and then. The truth is, we’re bad people proving it. It goes all the way back to Adam. When he sinned against God, his appetite for God died. And what did he have left? Physical appetites. They stayed. And they ruled him. He became a slave to them. And all the tragedy throughout history is because of that itch inside us that demands our obedience. Without aliveness to God, our earthly desires are out of line. Pascal described this way of life as “licking the earth.” We treat earthly things as if they were ultimate things, and they drag us down. The Bible calls it idolatry. Then God says, “From your idols I well cleanse you.”
What is an idol? Not necessarily an object in a temple. It’s a desire inside us that rules us. An idol is a desire for a good thing, a God-created thing. And idol-worship is putting our hope in good things as if they could be God to us. We can treat a career, for example, as if it had a divine power to reward us and satisfy us. All the way back in Adam our God-fascination died, and that’s why we’re compulsive about the things of this world. We’re not free. We’re not relaxed. We build our identity on money, but it doesn’t pay off. We get our self-worth from our kids, but they let us down. We suck pleasure out of sin, and then we have to spit it out of our mouths. There’s only thing scarier about living like that, and it’s staying like that. The Bible says we need to be cleansed of these idolatrous desires that make us miserable. We need to be converted back to God-fascination. It’s essential. How can we see the kingdom of God, if the kingdom of God is the last thing we even want to see? We need God to clean us out and give us a new heart that longs for him. That is conversion, and that is essential.
Conversion is a miracle from God.
Verse 6: “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus is not talking about turning over a new leaf and just trying harder. That which is born of human moral potential is just more human moral potential, which is failure. Jesus is not saying to Nicodemus, “Let me help you be an even better Pharisee.” Jesus is saying, “God the Holy Spirit is able to give you a new nature.” God is able – and he’s the only one who can – God is able to free you from the treadmill of niceness and make you new again, alive to God.
That is both good news and bad news. Bad news first. Your eternal destiny hangs on the decision of Someone Else. Apart from God’s grace, every one of us is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), dead to God, bored with God, allergic to God. We’ve all heard that we need to “make a decision for Christ.” Absolutely. Let’s do so! You can step over that line today. You can turn today from a vaguely positive attitude to Jesus, and you can fall at his feet and call him your Savior and Lord. You can become definite about him today. But in this passage, Jesus is taking us even deeper. He’s talking about something that underlies our very capacity to make that decision for Christ. Only God can touch us at that level. We need him that much. That humbles us.
Now the good news. The One who can kick-start your heart, the One who can resuscitate your God-connection, the One on whom your eternal destiny hangs – he loves you. He looks with mercy on people who perceive him as the problem. He loves you. He is your hope. Turn to him. Ask him to cleanse your heart of your self-defeating idols. Ask him to give you a new heart of passion for God. You have robbed yourself of your original self. But God can give you your God-centered self back. Ask him to. He promises to be merciful to all who seek him. He has given this gift to so many. He is able to give it to you.
Conversion makes a nice person into a new person.
Verse 1: “There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus.” Verse 8: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus was a nice man, like so many people in Nashville. But God isn’t out to make us nice; he’s out to make us new. But we can control him and understand him as much as we can catch the wind. This means that when you’re born again, you can’t expect all your friends to understand. They may be very nice people. But with every good will in the world, they cannot grasp what has happened to you and why you love to live flat-out for the Lord. Religion they understand, but they have never tasted the goodness of the Lord the way you have. And so you say, “I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause, I’d rather be faithful to his dear cause, I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame, I’d rather be true to his holy name, than to be the king of a vast domain and be held in sin’s dread sway; I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.” If your heart understands that, God has performed a miracle in you, and he will never leave you.
How does the miracle actually happen at our conscious level? What is our part? Jesus tells us right here in verses 14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” That’s what he wants you to do. Look. Look at Jesus. Look and believe. When the people of Israel sinned and were stung by serpents, Moses put a bronze serpent up on a pole, and everyone who looked lived. Even so, at his cross Jesus identified with you in your sin. He who had no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:17). Your part is simply to look. Looking is the most profound spiritual act. Look away from yourself. Look at Christ. He is the miracle-worker.