The Essential Foundation - John 3:1–8

by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The following is an excerpt from Experiencing the New Birth: Studies in John 3 (Hardcover) by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, available March 31st 2015

Sunday morning sermon preached in
Westminster Chapel, January 16, 1966.

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:The same came to Jesus by night, and said until 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)

We have begun to consider this story, this particular case of Nicodemus, and I would remind you that we are approaching it from a particular angle. We are concerned about the condition of all those who are seeking the fullness that is to be found in our blessed Lord and Savior, and we are discovering how this fullness is to be received. In order to do that, we must consider some of the mistakes and errors that others before us (and we ourselves in our time) have made in this endeavor. So that is the way in which we are approaching the case of Nicodemus. He, obviously, is an example of this very matter, and we have seen where he was wrong in his approach. Now we have considered these various points in a general way, but we must go on to work them out a little more in detail and apply them, because this really is a most important matter. There are lessons to be learned from Nicodemus that apply in a special way to a certain kind of person who is religious, as he was, and who really is concerned for something bigger, something deeper, something more vital.

Let me, then, try to put the lessons in a more spiritual form. First I would lay down as a principle that one of the things we are taught here is to beware of the danger, if I may so put it, of trying to go on before we have started. I do not put it like that in order to be paradoxical. I literally mean what I say. Nicodemus was a man who was trying to go on before he had started.

Now here is the point at which the Devil very frequently misleads this particular type of person, the one who has been brought up in a religious atmosphere. The extraordinary thing, as we have all discovered from personal experience and in dealing with others and discussing these things with them, is that though we all eventually come to the same place, we come there in very different ways. People have varying difficulties and problems. For instance, there is the case of the man who has perhaps never been to a place of worship in his life. He was not brought up in a Christian home, never went to a Christian church, never went to Sunday school, and so on; he lived a purely worldly, materialistic life, but suddenly, in some mysterious manner, he is apprehended and arrested and becomes a Christian.

But there is another case of a man who has been brought up in a Christian home, who has been hearing about these things, knows the Bible, has gone to services, has gone to Sunday school, and so on, one who has this whole religious background. Well, by the nature of things these two men are going to face different kinds of problems and difficulties, and they are confronted by different pitfalls. And the Devil in his subtlety, knowing all about us and all about our background, knows exactly the kind of trap to set for each and every one of us.

Now here with Nicodemus we are looking at a man who is typical of the religious kind of person, one who has been brought up in all this. These are people who, perhaps meeting someone else or reading a biography or reading something of the history of the church throughout the centuries, come across a type and an order of Christian living that they recognize at once is quite beyond anything they have ever known and experienced. And being religious people with this background, they are anxious to be like that and to discover how that fullness is to be obtained, and immediately they set out to seek it.

There are large numbers of such people, and very often they can spend a whole lifetime in seeking and inquiring and following various leads, taking up certain interests, reading in a certain direction or attending certain types of meetings. Their motive is exactly the same as that of Nicodemus, and it is an excellent motive. They recognize something different, something higher, something better, and they are very anxious to attain this, but they never seem to obtain it. They say you can spend a lifetime in that condition, always seeking, never finding.

What is the trouble with these people? Well, the first problem is something that, surely, is taught plainly in this record concerning Nicodemus. It is the danger of assuming the vital thing instead of making quite certain that we have it. That is obviously the main trouble with Nicodemus; he acts on an assumption. His whole approach suggests that. If I may put it quite simply and plainly, this is really the danger of assuming that we are Christians when we are not. Now if we do not recognize that such a thing is possible, then obviously we are in this condition, and many of us have known this in our own experience. Perhaps you assume that you are a Christian. You assume it for the reasons that I have given. You say, “I have always been a Christian, never was anything else. I was brought up to be a Christian.” So the assumption is that we are Christians, and then all we need, of course, is some addition or modification of that which we already have. But that is one of the most fatal errors of which one can ever be guilty.

Let me put it a little more theologically. It is the danger of seeking sanctification before we have justification. There is no greater danger, it seems to me, to the religious kind of person than just this. And oh, how often one can illustrate this in the long history and story of the Christian church. You go for sanctification without ever having been justified.

Or let me put it in another way that is still more relevant to this case. It is the danger of seeking sanctification before we know anything at all about regeneration, or to put it still more simply, it is the mistake of trying to grow before you have been born. It sounds ridiculous, and yet that is the very thing that so many are trying to do. They are trying to develop, they are trying to grow and increase, but they do not have any life. That is the obvious trouble with Nicodemus. He comes and says, “Now, master, 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.” And obviously he was going on to say, “Well now, what is this something extra? I want it. Tell me what to do.” But he is interrupted: “I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” let alone enter into it. You cannot begin to grow and to discover what is necessary to stimulate growth and development and increase unless you have the seed of life in you. This is a common error, and it is obviously a basic and fundamental one. It is the danger of having a concern about the application of Christian truth before there is any definite evidence of Christian life.

Now there are many tendencies that tend to encourage us to fall into this particular error, and I suppose that if we were to single out one more than any other as being particularly dangerous, it is the whole teaching that goes under the heading of mysticism. That is to many people, and especially to this religious type, a very attractive kind of teaching. You read of people—monks, hermits, anchorites, those in the past who were anxious to get to a knowledge of God—who had become very dissatisfied with their lives and discontented with things as they were in themselves and in the church. They felt that they must go all out for this knowledge of God, and they felt that the way to do that was to separate themselves from the world. They must undergo a very rigorous kind of life and existence—fasting, praying, sometimes wearing camel-hair shirts, and so on, all with the object of mortifying the flesh and encouraging the development of the spiritual life and understanding. And as the centuries passed, the teaching of these people became very systematized. They drew up their manuals of the devout life and books of instruction as to what one is to do. There are many such books always available on the market—The Practice of the Presence of God and various other books by mystics and about mystics—all designed to deal with the culture and the nurture of the spiritual life.

Such books have a great fascination for the religious type of person. They seem to show us what we must do in order that we may ultimately come to full knowledge of God, this summum bonum vision of God. You must go through various processes, “the dark night of the soul,” negation, and so on, and at last you come to the point of illumination.

There have probably been thousands (if not more) of Christian people—at least people brought up in the bosom of the Christian church—conscientious, intellectual people generally who, because they take these things seriously, have this feeling of dissatisfaction. Then they confront this teaching of mysticism, and they begin to take it up and to study it and to try to put it into practice. So they try to press on and on in this, but they never seem to find any satisfaction at all. And their whole trouble is the very thing that comes out in this story of Nicodemus: they are seeking sanctification, but they know nothing about justification. They are assuming that they are in the right relationship to God. They are trying to develop their Christian life. But the question is, do they have any Christian life at all?

Here is obviously something that demands our closest attention.

Let me give you some examples to illustrate what I mean. Was not this the whole trouble with Martin Luther before that great crisis took place in his life? He was assuming that he was in a relationship to God that was a right one, but he was dissatisfied. So he became a monk and did all that he did. But he came to the critical understanding that his whole process was wrong and that the teaching that he had been given was also all wrong. Suddenly his eyes were opened to this great preliminary truth, “The just shall live by faith,” and he saw that there is no starting in the Christian life until and unless you come to that point. His great problem was that of justification; he thought it was sanctification. He was concentrating on the road to sanctification, but it was all wrong. He was only put right and could only begin to grow and develop and become sanctified as he understood this great teaching concerning justification.

Now the particular reason for this in Luther’s case was that, brought up as he had been as a Roman Catholic, he believed that his baptism had given him new life, that it had regenerated him and so on. So it was inevitable that he should assume that he had the fundamental thing. But he came to see that he did not. He was a bit muddled even after that about the relationship of these two, but this is the trouble with that whole kind of teaching. It does tend to place our justification upon our sanctification instead of putting them the other way around.

Now that is one notable example, but there are others also. People like George Whitefield and the brothers Wesley and all the members of the Holy Club in Oxford were doing exactly the same thing. Here were men, particularly the Wesley brothers, brought up in an unusually religious atmosphere where Christianity was taken very seriously, and they were dissatisfied. So they met together as a body of students and graduates at Oxford, and their concern was to develop the holy life. And they went in for holy practices—fasting, visiting prisoners, self-mortification, going to preach to the pagans in Georgia, and all the rest of it. What were they trying to do? They were trying to promote their sanctification, trying to get this extra “something.” They were like Nicodemus. They said, “We are religious people, but there is something more, something better,” and they were searching and seeking after that.

But there again, as in the case of Luther, they came to the sudden realization that they did not have a foundation and that their whole endeavor had been wrong. Whitefield undoubtedly was so religious in his practice of these things that he ruined his health through too much fasting and so on. But the difficulty was that they were assuming that they were already in this life, and they were brought to see that they were not. And from the moment they saw that, and the centrality and the primary position of the doctrine of justification, they were put right, but not until then. They might have gone on spending the rest of their lives like that, as thousands are doing today, the so-called “religious” as distinct from the “laity.” And that whole body of teaching encourages one to go astray, because it assumes the vital factor even as Nicodemus did.

I could give you many other examples. I remember one personal one, if you will forgive it. I remember preaching in Toronto in Canada in 1932, and the first Sunday, having been welcomed by the minister, I felt I should inform the congregation, which was strange to me and I strange to them, that it was my custom to divide my ministry roughly into two halves. I said that on Sunday mornings I preached, as it were, to the saints, acting on the assumption that I was preaching to Christian people who needed to be built up and established in the faith. Then on Sunday evening I preached with the general assumption that I was preaching to unbelievers, preaching evangelistically and for conversion. Then at the end of the service I was standing at the door with the minister, meeting people as they were going out, when a very prominent old lady, a member of that church, astounded the minister, who knew her so well and regarded her as one of the pillars of the cause, by saying to me, “I am going to come again this evening.” She never went to the evening service, only to the morning one, as such people so often do. But she told the minister that she was coming in the evening, and he was amazed. “Oh no,” she said, “having listened to what was said this morning, I have come to the conclusion that I need the evening service.” There was evidently something in the morning service that made her query as to whether she was one of these people who needed to be built up or whether she was really somebody who needed to be born again.

I have often been told the same thing. People have come to me and said, “You know, when I first came here, I came assuming that I was a Christian. I had always thought of myself as a Christian. But the first thing I discovered here was that I had never been a Christian at all.” Some of them admit that at first they disliked this very much. They came under a kind of condemnation, and they resented it. But then they came to the point when they saw it was true, and they thanked God for it, and later they had their experience of regeneration and truly became Christians. This, then, is a very real danger. You assume you are a Christian and that all you need is to be built up, but there is nothing there. You cannot go on until you have started; you cannot grow unless you are born. What a fatal error that is!

But let us put it in other ways. It is this whole danger of thinking of Christianity in terms of ideas—ideas that we are to apply—rather than in terms of life. That is really the cardinal error. And how common this is. Christianity is thought of in terms of ideas, points of view, notions, and it is our business to get hold of these, to understand them and grasp them and then to proceed to put them into operation. I do not want to be misunderstood in what I am about to say, but I feel constrained to put it like this. There are far too many of us who are prone to think that way.

This was brought home very forcibly to me only last week by a man who has just become interested in these matters. He had come from a purely nonreligious background. He had never been taken to a place of worship as a child, but now as a student he has met others and is becoming interested in these things, and he made a most interesting and significant remark. He told me that while he was away recently on vacation, he had not been attending a place of worship too regularly. “Why not?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “you know there is a limit to the amount that one can take in,” and thereby he betrayed his whole position.

The attitude is this: here is a subject, here are a number of teachings and ideas; so you listen, and you make your notes, and you are exactly like a student taking up any other subject. At first, of course, students find it very difficult. They are entering upon the study of a new subject that they never touched before; they do not know anything about it, and there is a limit to what one can take in. That is quite all right. You get tired; you get brain fatigue and so on. So you can only take in a certain amount, and you have to try to ration this in order that you may go on and develop.

But I maintain that is not true when you come to this particular realm, and that is where the fallacy comes in. It is the fallacy of assuming that we must do this, it is our grasping ideas, then masticating them, as it were, and they become a part of us, and then we proceed to put them into practice. Of course, Christianity does involve a teaching, but not in that way. There is something else here, something extra, something that the world knows nothing about—the Holy Spirit and his action and his operation. So as I have often said to such people, “Attend church as regularly as you can.” “But,” they say, “I find I cannot take it in.” I say, “Don’t you worry about that.” Experience has taught me—and it is one of the most wonderful things about preaching and about the whole pastoral office—that some side-glancing remark has often been the very thing that the Spirit has used to bring a person to a knowledge of the truth. The minister rightly prepares his sermon, he has order, he has logic, he has development, and the danger, of course, is to think that is what is going to do the work. No, it is not; that is merely the scaffolding. The Spirit does the work. And one is therefore often humbled and corrected by finding that something that one merely said as an aside is the very thing that was used by God.

In other words, we are not left to ourselves; this is not a subject, this is not a matter of ideas. This other element, this spiritual element, matters above everything else. Sometimes I am almost tempted to criticize those of you who takes notes in the service. I mean just this: it is right, I know, in a sense to take notes; it helps you think these things over and work them out. But let me give you a warning—be careful lest while you are taking notes you are missing out on the Spirit himself, and he is altogether unheard. I am simply emphasizing that the Spirit is more important than the knowledge the preacher gives, and that is where this realm is altogether different from every other realm.

Let us put it like this: the danger for the religious person is to go in for a study and a knowledge of the Bible, and it is possible to have a knowledge of the Bible that is really expert, and yet you have never known its meaning, you have never seen its teaching. There are people who have an almost perfect knowledge of the letter of the Scripture but have never known the message of the Scripture. You can attend Bible schools and classes, you can attend colleges, and you can get knowledge and information that is purely intellectual, and in the meantime you may know nothing about the message at all; you may have missed the spirit and the meaning completely. This is a very terrible danger, this notion that obviously Nicodemus had of some extra idea, some additional knowledge. It is the danger of this purely intellectual approach that forgets the heart, the whole man, the emotional, feeling element.

Or let me put it like this, and this is equally true and has been true of large numbers of people: it is the danger of putting a decision in the place of regeneration. I mean that you can decide to go in for religion, you can decide to go in for what you regard as Christianity. You listen to a sermon, you read a book or something like that, or you talk to people. They put the truth before you, and you are convinced about this thing intellectually, so you decide to go in for it. So you change your way of life; you join this society of people who are interested in this matter, and you become one of them. And that is something that not only can be done but that many people do. They not only do it in evangelistic campaigns, they do it in ordinary church services, they do it in private conversations. They take up religion, and they think they are taking up Christianity.

Now I am mentioning this because I am asserting that it is possible for us to do that while remaining unregenerate. It is entirely our action. There has been no vital operation in the soul; there is no seed of new life placed in such a person.

I make that statement on the grounds that throughout the years one observes what happens, and I have been in meetings that have been very deeply concerned about this matter. I have been interested in organizations that have had to inquire into a phenomenon like this, organizations working among a certain class of person and getting large numbers of decisions. Here are people who appear to be converted and to have become truly Christians, and they are active and zealous in the cause. But then these people have to go into a different kind of life; they go out of the atmosphere where they have been and go out into the world and work with various kinds of people, and they not only cease to practice what they have been doing before, they deny everything that they believed and pour scorn and ridicule upon it. They not only drop it, they become antagonistic to it.

This is a fact, a phenomenon; it is called leakage that takes place in Christian unions in universities. And the statistics with regard to evangelistic campaigns show exactly the same thing. There are a given number of professions, but if you examine the position in a year, in five years, you will find an amazing story. There are evangelists who say that they do not expect more than 10 percent of their converts to stand. What about all that? Our eyes are made to concentrate upon a very great and a very real possibility. You can have a temporary persuasion, a kind of intellectual conviction; if a number of people are going in for this, then you do the same thing.

People take up cults in exactly the same way. Many of the cults that are round and about us today can give the same sort of statistics of converts, people who have joined them. You are familiar with many of them; they come to your houses selling their books and so on, and they can give you facts and figures. They can tell you of the additions that are taking place, people who say that they have suddenly been taken hold of by this; they have seen it, and they go in for it and are most zealous and active.

But you can even do something like that in the realm of the Christian church. You can say that you believe these things, and you can become a great church worker, but that does not of necessity prove that you really are truly a Christian. You can be in the position of a man like Nicodemus who thinks that he can decide to take this up and add it on to what he already has and so on. Many, it seems to me, are relying simply upon a decision that they once made. They made that decision, and they think that it has somehow put them right. All I am concerned to say is that you can make a decision without being regenerate, and if you are not regenerate, you are not a Christian.

And we see this, it seems to me, on the very surface of this story of Nicodemus. It is a very real thing, and it is very dangerous. It is a point about which the Protestant Reformers, and the Puritans after them, were very concerned. They talked about “false professors.” They were very fond of preaching on the Parable of the Ten Virgins, for we must never forget that the five foolish virgins were as satisfied that they were right as were the five wise ones. They were astonished and amazed to be shut out, and our Lord himself teaches us that there are people who at the final day of judgment are going to have a great shock. They are the people who will say, “Lord, Lord, have we not done this-that-and-the-other?” And he will say, “I never knew you; depart from me.” There is nothing more dangerous than to attempt to proceed in the Christian life without being absolutely certain that you have the life within you.

That, then, brings me to my last point, which can be summed up by citing the failure to realize that this is a gift of a new and a divine kind of life; it is altogether different. It is the failure to see this that accounts for so much of the trouble. Our Lord puts that here in this great statement in verse 6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” They are as different as that. We must get rid of all the natural ideas with which we have started. It is not something you go in for, it is not something that you understand and get hold of its principles and then proceed to apply them. That is one of the great troubles, is it not?

That was the trouble with an ancient heresy that goes by the name of Pelagianism. It is to expect Christian conduct from people who are not Christians, and that is very common today. People regard Christianity as a body of teaching that others can apply. They say that people become Christians by recognizing the truth of these principles and then trying to proceed to put them into practice and to persuade others to join them in doing so. So you try to get the state to apply Christian principles. But the state is not Christian. You try to get members of the state to act in a Christian way, but they cannot do so unless they are first and foremost Christians. No men or women can live the Sermon on the Mount as they are; it is impossible. It was surely preached in order to show that. Before you can live the Christian life you must be a Christian. And not to recognize that is to fall into that ancient heresy of Pelagianism.

So what is this Christian life? Well, as our Lord makes plain and clear here to Nicodemus, the glory of this is that it is something that happens to us. It is not something we do; it is something that is done to us. “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.” You cannot give birth to yourself. Becoming a Christian is something that happens to you. The new birth is a new creation. It is comparable to the original creation, something being made out of nothing, something being produced. Not by man but by God! “Born again”; born from above; “born of the Spirit.” “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” So it is taken right out of our hands.

You cannot decide to be born again. There are people who give that impression. They say, “You decide for Christ, and you will be born again.” That is putting it the wrong way round. It is impossible. If you could decide for Christ you would not need to be born again. We are told, “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). The princes of this world did not recognize him. The only person who can believe in Christ is the one to whom these things have been revealed by the Spirit, the Spirit who “searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10). You must be “born again.” You cannot even decide that, because if you could, as I say, it would indicate spiritual understanding. But here is a man who does not have any understanding of this at all. The fact that he is told that he must be born again means he must be made from the very beginning, from the foundation; there is nothing to build on. It is an entirely new creation.

There, then, is the fundamental thing, and of course, because of that, it is something very mysterious. “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” “Don’t marvel at this; don’t be surprised at it. I am not talking about the flesh.” Nicodemus thinks he is and makes his clever debating point: “How can a man be born when he is old?” He is thinking in fleshly terms. That is the mistake. This is not flesh, this is Spirit; it is a different realm. “Don’t marvel at this.”

And then our Lord goes on to use that extraordinary comparison: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth” (John 3:8). There is a mystery about it. You see the effects and results, but you do not understand. And the one who is “born of the Spirit” is like that. My dear friends, you are outside the realm of understanding; you are above it, beyond it. It is not irrational; it is suprarational. This is divine. This is a realm, as Pascal came to see, that is “beyond the limits of reason.” “The supreme achievement of reason,” he said, “is to bring us to see that there is a limit to reason,” and here we have reached the limit and are beyond it. This is the realm of the mysterious, the supernatural, the divine, God acting. And we do not try to understand here; we just stand in amazement and astonishment. We realize that it would be utter folly for us to try to understand at all; that would be an assertion of something still in us. We cannot and we do not attempt to understand. We are outside the realm of intellect, and thank God we are.

Can you not see that if this were not true, Christianity would be the prerogative of certain special people; it would be the special prerogative of intellectuals, able people. If it is all a matter of ideas and understanding and being able to take in philosophic concepts and then trying to persuade others, those who have ability have a great advantage over everybody else. But that is not Christianity. There is as much hope here for the unintelligent as for the intelligent. There is an equal hope for all. That is the glory of the Christian faith. It includes all classes, all types, and all kinds. Why? Because it is the action of God, not the action of man. It does not presuppose anything in us, except that we are lost and helpless and hopeless. It is all his action. The Spirit operates like the wind. So you are not just taking ideas and making notes and then grasping them and putting them into practice. Not at all! Something possesses you, and you are aware of the fact that God has been dealing with your soul and that you are a new man.

All you and I can realize is this: there is something that we do not have if we are not truly Christians. We realize our need of something, and there is only one thing we can do, and that is, as Nicodemus did, to go to him and just wait and listen. You must go to him, as I said earlier, but you cannot do any more than that. You will even find that your motive for going was wrong and that your whole approach was wrong. Do not worry about that, he will put it right—he does that. All we can do at that point is to have the feeling within us that there is something there. We do not understand it, we do not know what it is, but we do not want to argue any longer, we do not want to be clever; we are just aware of bankruptcy and of need, and we listen, we wait.

The next thing is that you know it has happened to you. How do we know this? I hope to go on with that later, but when it happens, you know it has happened, and when it has happened you can begin to grow. “Being justified by faith” you can begin to consider development, sanctification, advance, growth in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord (Rom. 5:1). But if you try—as I vary my picture—to build your building without a foundation, it will collapse, it will be nothing. You cannot grow until you are born. You cannot proceed on the journey until you have started.

So this great word comes to us, and it comes in the form of a question: Have we been born again? Have we received the life of God in our souls? It is no use proceeding a step further until you are certain and sure of the answer to that great preliminary question. Otherwise if you try to grow he will stop you, and he will say to you, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see [let alone enter] the kingdom of God.”


Excerpt from Experiencing the New Birth: Studies in John 3 (Hardcover) by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

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