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Grace Alone

Jesus’ forgiveness comes through Grace Alone. And what that means is this: there is nothing you or I have to do in order to earn forgiveness. In fact, there is nothing you or I can do to earn God’s forgiveness. 

And it’s that last part we tend to struggle with. 

Right? 

Because if I tell you there’s nothing you have to do to earn forgiveness…well, that’s good news! It means forgiveness is a free gift from God. 

But if I tell you there’s nothing you can do to earn forgiveness…then we realize that, yes, forgiveness is a free gift from God — but only God gets to decide who he gives it to. 

And we don’t like that part so much. 

Why not? 

Well, the shortest answer is: because we think that’s not fair. 

This is how we tend to think: “My salvation is very very important to me. In fact, it’s more important to me than it is to anyone else, since we’re talking about my eternal existence here; whether I go to heaven or to hell. So, because this is such an important and personal matter, I think I ought to have a vote!” So when we hear that only God gets a vote…we get a little nervous. 

Why? Why do we get nervous? 

Because we don’t want to trust God with our salvation. Deep in our hearts, we think God should trust us with our salvation. 

But, objectively speaking, who do you think is more trustworthy with something as precious as that: me? Or God? 

Obviously the answer is God. We know this in our minds, in our reason. That is the clear message of the whole bible: God is always more faithful, more reliable, and more loving than we could ever hope to be. 

So…knowing all this, why is it still so hard to accept that forgiveness comes from Grace Alone, from God Alone? 

There are two main reasons: 

On the one hand, for those among us who tend towards arrogance and self-confidence, there are control issues. We want to be God. And we don’t like to be reminded that we’re not. 

On the other hand, for those among us who have been crushed and devalued, who struggle to find any worth in themselves at all, there’s this question: “what if God decides I’m not worth saving?” 

And the truth is, we’re all a bit of a mixture of both extremes. We all tend to think we should be in charge of our own salvation; we also all sometimes wonder if — left to himself — God might not actually care to save us. 

And that is a scary thought. 

And so, because of our arrogance, and because of our fears, this beautiful concept of Salvation by Grace Alone can sometimes be turned into a curse in our minds. 

… 

The good news is we are not the only ones to struggle with this concept. Today, in the Gospel of John, we meet a man who also struggled to accept that salvation is a gift given by God’s hand alone. As we’re about to see, this man really wants to contribute to his own salvation. But Jesus says, “No.” 

Beginning in verse 23 of Chapter 2: Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. [24] But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. [25] He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.

And…what does that mean? 

Here we find a group of people who believe in Jesus’ name. And then Jesus looks at them and says, “ummmm…no.” And we’re all left wondering, “why not? Doesn’t Jesus want people to believe in him?” 

Well, yes, he does. 

But apparently there is something not quite right about these peoples’ belief, because as John points out in his writing here, Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. Jesus understands the human heart. He understands our pride and the fears that motivate us. And apparently there is something wrong with the motivation of these people. 

But what? 

Well, John goes on to introduce us to one of them: a man named Nicodemus. By listening in to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, we get to hear why Jesus would not entrust himself to them. We discover, through Nicodemus, what was wrong with his motivation and his belief. 

… 

So, this man Nicodemus comes along, and he is actually quite a powerful guy. He is a Pharisee — that means he is a theologian, an Imam, we could say — and he is Member of Parliament. And he sits down with Jesus one evening, and he starts by saying, "Rabbi — that means ‘CikGu’ — we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him." 

So, what is Nicodemus doing here? It sounds like a bit of polite flattery, right? A good way to start the relationship perhaps…but it also seems as if Nicodemus is fishing for information. After all, Jesus has just shown up suddenly in Jerusalem, and he’s doing all these miracles, and teaching this radical new theology, and who knows: maybe he’s even the Messiah! 

So Nicodemus is hoping that Jesus will say, “why, yes, you are correct: I do come from God. I am the Messiah, God’s anointed King. I have been sent from God to raise an army and rescue all good Jewish people!” 

And then Nicodemus is going to say, “great! See, I knew I was right to believe in your name! And you know how I knew? Because I’m a good Jew. I pay attention to God’s Word. And God’s Word clearly says that the Messiah will be able to perform amazing miraculous signs.

“So: when shall we get started raising an army?” 

See, Nicodemus is thinking Jesus will be really glad to have Nicodemus on his side. After all, Nicodemus is a theologian, and a Member of Parliament. He will be a great asset to the Messiah’s kingdom! 

Right? 

Instead, Jesus goes off in an unexpected direction (verse 3): 

In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. "

What did he just say? 

Basically, Jesus just said, “ummmm…Nicodemus, I don’t care if you are a theologian, or a Member of Parliament, or even a good Jewish man. Nobody gets into God’s kingdom without being born again first.” And the phrase “born again” is literally, “born from above”, which means “born from God.” 

In other words: Nicodemus is not in charge of his own salvation. God is. 

Yes, Nicodemus believes in Jesus’ name; meaning that he believes Jesus is the Messiah. That’s good; he is correct. But his confidence — his faith — is not actually in the Messiah. It’s in his own cleverness, in his own Jewishness. 

Nicodemus is thinking, “I am a member of the right ethnic group; I am well-educated in God’s Word; I’m even a political leader in the nation. I deserve to be in the Messiah’s kingdom!” 

And Jesus has just told him, “actually, none of that qualifies you to join me. You have to be born from God first!” 

… 

Now, that is a pretty insulting reply to a powerful guy like Nicodemus. I mean, imagine this: one day, the Prime Minister of Malaysia shows up here and says, “hey, I’ve heard good things about CDPC, and (secretly) I actually believe Jesus is the Messiah, so I’d like to help! What do you need? Money? Permits? Whatever you need, I can make it happen!” And then we say, “well…it’s nice that you want to be on God’s side now, but actually we’re not sure that God is on your side. We don’t want your help. Sorry!” 

Well, that what Jesus just did to a government minister, a highly trained theologian, a well-respected Jewish man. 

Nicodemus, to his credit, tries to cover up Jesus’ rudeness. He pretends he misunderstood that part about being born from God. So he says, “ho ho ho, Jesus! You are so funny! [4] "How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" 

But Jesus is not being funny. So he says the same insult a second time, but with an extra clear emphasis on the “born from God” part: 

[5] Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 

“We’re talking about Spiritual birth here, Nicodemus, not physical birth. We’re talking about baptism with water and baptism with God’s Spirit. We’re talking about becoming a whole new spiritual person. And I’m sorry, but being a Jew doesn’t make you a spiritual person; being an expert in God’s Word does not make you a spiritual person; being the most powerful man in the world does not make you a spiritual person! 

“See: [6] Flesh gives birth to flesh — 

— men and women give birth to little men and women — 

“but only the Spirit can give birth to spirit! 

Then Jesus goes on to say, in verse 7: “Nicodemus, why are you so surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again’? 

“Why don’t you like this idea, Nicodemus? 

“Is it because it makes you feel powerless and afraid? Is it because you don’t want to trust God with your salvation? You’d rather trust yourself?

“I’m sorry you don’t like it, but that’s the way it is (verse 8): The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. And that’s how it is with everyone born of the Spirit." 

In other words, being born of God’s Spirit is just like physical birth: it is something that happens to you; it is not something you do for yourself. You cannot qualify yourself to be born; you just are. 

Friends, how many of you chose to be born into the family you were born into? None? Okay, good. That was the test round. 

Here’s the real question: how many of you chose to be born into God’s family? 

None? Good. 

Which means that the fact that we are here, together, in this room, as brothers and sisters, is an act of God’s amazing grace! None of us “deserved” to be born here! None of us were “qualified” to receive God’s Spirit: it happened to us. Nothing you did got you here! Isn’t that good news! 

And that, friends, is what we mean when we talk about Salvation by Grace Alone. 

… 

But still: if this is such good news, why is it so scary sometimes for us to think about how God alone gets to choose who is born of the Spirit? Is it because we don’t trust him to choose us? Is it because, deep down, we really think we ought to be in charge of giving birth to ourselves? 

Well, if you are struggling with this concept, don’t feel too bad: Nicodemus is really struggling with it too. Finally, in verse 9, he bursts out, “How can this be? 

“What are you talking about, Jesus? If what you say is true, then me being a good, Godly Jew doesn’t matter at all! Me being an expert in God’s Word doesn’t matter at all! Me being a highly respected political leader in my country doesn’t matter at all! If what you say is true, that snot-nosed kid in the marketplace who threw cow poo at me yesterday could enter God’s kingdom, while I don’t! That prostitute over there could suddenly be born of God’s Spirit and enter God’s kingdom, while I don’t! That shop-keeper, who is not a Jew and has never even tried to obey God’s Law could enter God’s kingdom, while I don’t!” 

Yes, Nicodemus. That’s right. 

And that would obviously be good news for them, since they all deserve to go the other way. But why is it bad news for you? Could it be that you have an elevated opinion of yourself? 

Why should you assume, Nicodemus, that physical accomplishments like being a Jew, being a theologian, being an MP, should qualify you for a spiritual kingdom? 

Ah, but see that is the exact mistake Nicodemus is making. He thinks Jesus’ kingdom will be a physical kingdom. He thinks Jesus will raise a physical army, and fight a physical war against evil. 

And he is wrong

So Jesus insults him one more time, just to make the point clear. He says, in verse 10, 

“You are Israel's teacher, and do you not understand these things?” 

Basically: “You haven’t figured this out yet? Huh. That’s funny, I thought you were an expert in God’s Word?” 

[11] “I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. [12] I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 

Jesus is telling Nicodemus, once again, that he is not qualified to enter God’s kingdom, because he has not yet been born again from God’s Spirit. Jesus is saying, “I can tell you are not yet born again because you don’t understand what I’m trying to tell you! I’m talking about basic earthly concepts here, like the obvious fact that no child chooses when and how and where and to whom they are born. And if you can’t even accept basic earthly concepts, how are you going to understand heavenly concepts?” 

The only way you will be able to accept heavenly concepts — spiritual concepts — is if the Spirit of God lives inside you. The only way you can be part of a heavenly kingdom — a spiritual kingdom — is if the Spirit of God lives inside you. 

And you do not get to choose when, or how, or where, or if that happens. 

Salvation comes from God alone, from Grace Alone! And that is good news if you are a prostitute, or a snot-nosed street-kid, or a foreign shopkeeper who has never even heard of God’s Law! But it is bad news if you are a bit of an arrogant jerk, who thinks that he is better than most people. 

And unfortunately, friends, religious people often fall into that category. It happens to us so easily, just like it happened to Nicodemus. We begin to think, “wow! I know the bible really well!” Or, “wow! When I pray, people are miraculously healed!” Or, “wow! I recycle better than anybody I know. I am really caring for God’s earth properly.” And the next thing we know, we start to think that we are doing Jesus a favor by being on his side! 

And that pride in our physical performance shows up in our lives. That is what non-Christians are talking about when they, “ha! Those Christians are a bunch of arrogant hypocrites! They think they’re better than we are!” 

And all too often, they’re right. 

… 

The good news, friends, is that there is an antidote to that pride: Grace Alone. 

And in order to experience the power and the transformation that comes from this concept, let’s run a thought experiment right now. 

Okay? Are you with me? 

In your mind, throw away every accomplishment you think you’ve made. We are an educated bunch, so: pretend you have no education. You can’t read, so you’ve never read the bible for yourself. You have very little money, so you don’t even have access to a device that can read the bible to you. Which means the only way for you to learn about God is from what other people tell you. But you work seven days a week just to survive, so you can’t go to church; and you work eighteen hours a day, so you don’t even have the time or the energy to pray very much… 

But let’s go even deeper. Imagine that you were sold into slavery, and trafficked into Malaysia. You live in a very small room in Kuala Lumpur, where terrible things happen to you. And the person who owns you gives you drugs to control you, to keep you dependent so you won’t run away. 

And now, imagine that a stranger comes to you and says, “I’m going to buy you from your master. I’m going to take you home to my father’s house and make you part of my father’s family. We’re going to feed you, clothe you, educate you. We’re going to take you to the best doctors in the world, and the best psychologists, we’re going to heal your body and your mind of every disease you have picked up here. We are going to make you complete. We are going to give you every happiness. You will never experience this horror ever again. Do you want to come with me?” 

Now, friends, from that little room, from out of the slavery of drugs and abuse, how are you going to answer? “Yes, I’ll go with you! After all, I think you’ll find that I will be a tremendous asset to your father’s household. I work harder and longer than anyone I know, and with my extensive job experience…! Well, honestly I think you’re just lucky to be picking me up at this low price point.” 

No. That’s stupid. What would we say? We would say, “yes, I’ll go with you! But…why me?” 

And now, still in our thought experiment, imagine that the stranger says to you, “why you? Because it is my delight, it is my honor, it is my glory to rescue those who can never pay me back.” 

Friends, spiritually speaking, before that stranger came along to purchase us, we were all slaves with nothing to offer God’s kingdom. We are all here today because God chose to redeem us, because he chose to give us birth by his Spirit. That is Salvation by Grace Alone, and it sets us free from the need to impress God or other people, or even ourselves. As long as we remember this, we will be protected from the temptation to boast about our accomplishments or think that we are better than others. 

The concept of Salvation by Grace Alone saves us from arrogance and pride. Those who are truly humble are delighted by it, because they already know they have nothing to offer anyway. But if, sometimes, we find ourselves feeling a bit uncomfortable about it, like Nicodemus did — then those are the moments we ought to examine ourselves and see if, perhaps, some small seed of pride has begun to take root…

… 

It is usually well-educated, well-fed, and successful people like Nicodemus who struggle with the idea that they have no control over their own salvation. And, friends, I’m looking around here today — I’m looking at myself — and I have to say, “that’s us.” So, to guard ourselves from pride, we must regularly take the time to repeat this thought experiment and remember that spiritually speaking we would still be slaves if Jesus had not come, and pointed, and said, “I want that one.” 

But I don’t want to overlook the reality that there are some among us who have been crushed, devalued, violated, abused in ways that damage the brain and the spirit. I realize that for you, in that thought experiment, your first answer might not be, “yes, I will go with you.” Because you might be wondering, “what if this stranger is a liar? What if I go with him and then he treats me even more terribly? What if he just wants to buy me so he can sell me to someone else for a profit?” 

After all, you think of yourself as completely worthless, so it is hard for you to believe that someone else might actually think you are worth something. 

Well, let me assure you: Jesus is that stranger. He is standing here in the door of your prison, and he is ready to pay any price to redeem you. He is not going to abuse you, or re-sell you for profit. 

But still you are wondering: “how can I know for sure?” 

The answer is here, in Jesus’ next words to Nicodemus (verse 13): 

[13] No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven---the Son of Man. 

Jesus is saying that he alone has the power to enter God’s presence, because God is his Father, and he is God’s Son. All other human beings must wait until their are chosen before they can enter the kingdom. But Jesus has the power to come and go whenever he wants to. 

And, even more importantly for us, he has the power to bring anyone with him that he chooses: 

[14] Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, [15] that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

Here, Jesus mentions an episode from the Old Testament, from the time of Moses. Poisonous snakes had invaded the Israelite camp while they were in the desert; thousands were bitten and died. They begged God for help, and God told Moses to make a model of a snake out of bronze and lifted it up on a pole. And if anyone who was bitten looked at the bronze snake and believed that God could heal them, they would live. 

Jesus is saying that, just like that bronze snake, he is going to be lifted up on a pole; and if anyone who is in slavery looks at him and believes that God can save them, they will live forever. 

This means two things to us, friends: 

First, you are valuable. Not because you are valuable, but because God has decided that you are valuable. God has decided to exchange the life of his own Son — a prince! — for the life of a slave. Which means that you are now as valuable as the Son of God. Literally. Because that’s how much God paid for you. 

Second, Jesus was lifted up on the cross two thousand years ago. Then he was lifted up to heaven to take his seat beside his Father. He is the King. Which means not only has he paid a king’s ransom for you, but he has the authority to bring you into his Father’s kingdom. 

This is the stranger who has appeared in the doorway of your prison: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He has just told you that you are free to join him. All you have to do is look at him and believe that he is who he says he is; that he is telling the truth. 

… 

So, in conclusion: Nicodemus’ mistake was thinking that Jesus was going to build an earthly kingdom, and in thinking that he, Nicodemus, had something to offer. If Jesus’ kingdom was a physical, political kingdom, then the physical, political things we do would count. 

But Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom of the Spirit before it is a kingdom of the earth. And only Spirit can give birth to spirit. It is only through the Spirit that we can enter God’s kingdom. And the Spirit is given by God’s grace alone: like the wind, we cannot predict when or where it will come. 

Which means we cannot choose to be born of the Spirit. We all must wait in the prison of our slavery for the moment when Jesus shows up to buy us and set us free. 

I know that some of you are probably wondering, “but what if he never shows up for me?” 

Well, if you are thinking this, then let me assure you: he has just shown up. The fact that you are here now, hearing this story about Jesus and Nicodemus, means that Jesus here right now. He is holding out his hand to you. He is ready to trade his life for yours, right now. 

All you have to do is believe him. 

It's Not You, It's Me

Christ Alone