No one’s surprised to learn that I like to nit-pick, right?
But what is “nit-picking”?
Is it nit-picking when you pick out pieces of broken glass from your bowl of Captain Crunch? No.
Is it nit-picking when you cut away a slightly-warmer-than-medium, cooked piece of steak, and say to your wife, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly eat this over-cooked, charred piece of discount cow. What were you thinking?” Yeah. That’s nit-picking.
In case you need a dictionary definition, nit-picking is defined either as “the painstaking process of removing lice or lice eggs (called nits) from a person’s hair“ or as “looking for small or unimportant errors or faults, especially in order to criticize unnecessarily.”
The same word has those two definitions—one very literal—the other not.
So, when Jesus answered Nicodemus, saying, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3), surely you expect me to pick on the phrase “born again Christian.”
A “born again Christian,” as I understand it, is a believer, a Christian, who’s come to terms with sin and righteousness, repentance and faith, but a little later in life.
Sometimes there’s a story to tell or scars to show.
But a “born again Christian” trusts in Jesus for his salvation—I have no problem with that.
I don’t aim to pick at that particular nit.
However, when people use John chapter three as justification for the phrase “born again Christian,” that, I must pick at.
Because that’s not what Jesus intends here.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says: “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” (John 3:2).
I’m not sure if this has a technical term or not, but something similar to what Nicodemus does is used in interrogations. In normal conversation, if I say something like, “I shave the night before instead of the morning of…” you’ll immediately think of what you do, and, very naturally, you’ll want to tell me what you do.
I haven’t asked you a question—but I’ve got you talking.
Nicodemus employs flattery instead of curiosity, but Jesus doesn’t play along.
He doesn’t respond to what Nicodemus says—He responds with what Nicodemus needs to hear.
Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Now, Jesus isn’t telling Nicodemus—and us—that an older man, who’s rejected the faith and has a story to tell and scars to show—Jesus isn’t saying that that man needs to “recommit” his life to Jesus, or pray the sinner’s prayer, or go to the altar when he feels the so-called call of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus doesn’t mean “born again” as in “born again Christian.”
If you want verses that speak metaphorically to being born again, St. Peter writes—using a different word from what Jesus uses—in a few places about metaphorical rebirth. What St. Peter writes is similar to how we talk about “rising from the ashes,” or “a second chance,” “a second wind.”
Jesus is not speaking literally or metaphorically. He speaks theologically. He means “born again” as in “born from above” as in “be baptized.”
The wonderful problem, the wisdom of God and the foolishness of man, is that the word Jesus uses—like nit-picking—has two meanings.
The word ἄνωθεν (ahn-oh-then) means both “again” (like a re-do) and “from above” (from the heavenly places).
Jesus says, literally, either “Unless one is born again…” or “Unless one is born from above…”
“…he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus takes the first meaning, the literal one, saying, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4).
“Born again,” for Nicodemus, is literal because that’s what the word can mean. Does Nicodemus think of this as a type of reincarnation? Is there a ceremony where you get to emerge again with a second chance of getting it right? How can a man do this?
Jesus still doesn’t play along.
He doesn’t answer what Nicodemus asks; rather, He tells Nicodemus what he needs to hear.
Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again [that is, born from above, by water and the Spirit]’” (John 3:5-7).
Don’t marvel at that!
Jesus introduces nothing new here—He just gives more information about what He’s already said.
To be that word, ἄνωθεν, is not to born again, you get a re-do. Rather, to be that word is to be born from above, by water and the spirit.
The only place where water and the Holy Spirit are combined for a type of birth is Holy Baptism.
I say this not because it’s shocking to us but because it’s shocking to “born again Christians.”
Jesus is telling Nicodemus that unless one is baptized he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus is talking about being born from above, by water and the Spirit, in Holy Baptism.
This is not new to us.
St. Paul writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).
And Jesus says that if you’re not clothed with a white robe, if you don’t wear the wedding garment given to you by God, you’ll be cast into the outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth (cf. Mt. 22:1-14).
The literal, logical mind of Nicodemus will not hear this. Thinking with the mind of man, he ignores the mind of God and asks, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9).
Again, Jesus doesn’t answer the question Nicodemus asks but the one he needs answered.
Jesus says: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Amen, amen, 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. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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” (John 3:10-15). Beautiful stuff, right?
John chapter three is filled with some of the most easily recognizable verses in all of Scripture.
But how often do we realize that Jesus said “we”?
He says, “We speak of what we know, and [we] bear witness to what [we] have seen, but you do not receive [our] testimony…”
Then, Jesus says, “…If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:11-12).
We know who the “I” is, that’s simple enough.
But who’s the “we”?
It being Trinity Sunday, you have the answer.
God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—We, Jesus says, We speak of what We know and We bear witness to what We have seen, but you do not receive Our testimony.
When you reject the Holy Spirit, when you reject the teaching of God, you reject the Father and the Son who, together, sent the Holy Spirit to convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (cf. Jn. 16:8). The Holy Spirit is to lead you in and teach you all truth (cf. Jn. 16:13).
When you reject the Son, you reject the Father who sent the Son—commanding Him to speak all that He has spoken (cf. Jn. 12:49).
When you reject the Father, you reject the eternal and Triune God who created all things with your everlasting salvation and peace in mind (cf. Jn. 6:40).
That’s what’s at stake for Nicodemus.
The logic of man, at enmity with Jesus, silences the mind of God, denying divine truth, objective truth, but—into that world, into this one, our world—thus says the Lord: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17). Beautiful stuff, right?
But do you know what follows? Jesus continues.
He says, “Whoever believes in [me] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:18-21).
Jesus teaches that Baptism saves. He teaches that Baptism is necessary if you want to enter the kingdom of God.
He teaches that God the Father sent Jesus the Son to be lifted up on the cross that all who look on Him would be saved.
Jesus teaches that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness instead because they want neither to change their sins nor to let their sins see the light of day.
It’s easy to think yourself good when you refuse, out of hand, to call your sins what they are—when you refuse, out of hand, to call your sinful condition what it is.
It’s easy to think yourself free from scandal when you define scandal as everything you haven’t done.
I like to nit-pick. You know this.
The phrase “born again Christian” is an easy target—especially if John chapter three is its basis.
“Born again” can mean either born a second time, literally, or born from above, but here, it can’t be taken metaphorically.
Jesus means you need to be born from above, by water and the Spirit, in Holy Baptism or you cannot enter the kingdom of God.
That’s what He means.
But lest I a scandal make, we must say more.
Our churches teach, according to Scripture and the Augsburg Confession, that baptism is necessary for salvation.
When we say this, when we teach it, someone always wants to know what happens when someone dies apart from Holy Baptism.
A not-so-simple response wouldn’t answer that question but ask another:
What kept him from coming to church for the length of his life to be baptized?
When a child dies prior to baptism, our comfort is that God is merciful. David’s child dies prior to circumcision, the Old Testament baptism, yet David confesses that he will go to see his child—in the resurrection—because God is merciful (cf. 2 Sam. 12:23).
Now, we neither support the killing of children (with the hope that they might go to heaven in the back of our heads), nor do we automatically damn all children whom the Lord does not give—living, breathing, and hungry—into the arms of his mother.
Be fruitful and multiply, says the Lord.
And, God is merciful. He says that, too.
That’s the not-so-simple answer.
The simpler answer would go like this:
Thus says the Lord, “We speak of what we know…but you do not receive our testimony” (John 3:11).
There’s no reason for a child, given into the arms of his mother, to die without having been baptized unless they reject God.
So, why wait?
I’m familiar with all arguments sentimental on this point, and I liken them to this:
What do you do after you wake up in the morning?
Don’t say—we don’t need to hear that—but I trust that you have an answer in mind.
Would you ever wait all day, for someone to get home, before doing what you do first thing in the morning?
Of course not, you’d explode or starve.
You don’t wait for what is most important.
Properly understood, there is no Law against love.
And I mean that this way: the Gospel is not like the Law.
With the Law, you must do it all or you’ve done none of it. St. James writes, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). That’s the Law.
But, St. Paul writes that the free gift is not like the trespass (cf. Rom. 5, esp. vv. 15-16).
The Gospel is not like the Law—in this way:
If the Law taught that Baptism is necessary for salvation, and you weren’t baptized, then you’re not saved. Period.
But Baptism is not the Law.
This is the way the Gospel works:
You can hear the Word of God and be saved.
Notice, I haven’t said anything about Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or private Absolution.
But that same Word that you hear and believe unto salvation tells you to go to church, to be baptized, to confess your sins, and to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus for the forgiveness Jesus earned and freely gives.
Thus says the Lord.
Why would someone who believes the Word ignore it?
Why would a man who believes in God act as though he does not?
So, yes—unless one is born from above, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Baptism is necessary for salvation.
That’s the simpler answer.
But the simplest may be this: there’s no reason not to be Baptized. Therefore it is necessary.
There’s no reason for a husband not to love his wife. Love, therefore, is necessary.
There’s no reason not to breathe. Breathing, then, is necessary.
And we don’t hear those as strict, freedom-sucking commands.
We hear those as sources of joy.
There’s no reason not be baptized. Baptism, then, is necessary.
I like to nit-pick. True statement.
But it’s not nit-picking when it concerns the Gospel and the salvation of souls.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Trinity Sunday, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt