In the last year, my new friends Ron and Debbie have been transformed by the gospel — indeed, born again! Each has been give new life, like the brand new beautiful life of a newborn baby. Just as a baby cannot give himself life, neither can we give ourselves life. It is all of God.
But oh, coming through the birth canal was a struggle for Debbie and Ron.
Debbie used to complain in Bible study that she had a headache and couldn’t sleep at night. Ron seemed confused and angry. When I had them both over for dinner, I remember how Ron leaned across the counter and said sternly to me: “What you have been teaching my wife is not what I have heard in church all my life!”
I knew we were on holy ground, and I cried out for the Spirit of God to help us. For if you have been taught religion all your life, it is confusing to hear the simplicity of the gospel. Ron said,
“You have told Debbie that all she needs to do is to trust what Christ did at the cross and she will have eternal life.”
Ron felt it was too easy. His hands were clasped together in tension on the counter. Moved with compassion, I covered his with mine and said: “That’s why they call it amazing grace.”
Torn between hope and incredulity, he asked, “So she doesn’t have to be good?”
I brought out the following sheet from Keller’s Gospel in Life and showed it to Ron. If the print is too small, you can go to this link:
In time, God brought each of them out of the darkness of amniotic gloom and into the light. I’ll never forget the message I got from Debbie. She pulled her car over on the side of the road, for she was so overcome by God’s love, and then she texted me:
3:00 P. M.
South of Egg Harbor.
I get it!
I don’t have to do anything — do I?
Debbie’s conversion reminded me of Chuck Colsen’s, who had to pull his car to the side of the road as he wept to be overcome by God’s love. He went on to write his riveting story of Watergate and being born again, entitled: Born Again.
At a Christmas tea we had this year, Debbie shared her testimony, and wept as she told how she felt so loved at that moment — and how God helped her to understand that it was all of grace. And at his mother’s funeral, Ron shared that Jesus was his Rock, his everything!
Tertullian, an early church father, used a helpful word picture. He said that the gospel is ever-crucified between two thieves: religion (or legalism) and irreligion (or anti-nominism, meaning against the law). Think of being very very good (religion) or very very bad (irreligion). Both are ways of trying to be our own Savior.
This last Thursday night I was in a men’s prison/hospital ward with my friend Linda Strom, praying with the men. We saw all three ways of life. One man was so angry, having been in a foster home where they were legalistic, religious, and abusive. Linda kept saying, “But that’s religion — not Jesus.” Others were determined to go their own way, the way of irreligion. And then, there were beautiful men transformed by the gospel. One black man, dying of cancer, prayed over Linda and me, bringing us to tears, for the Spirit of Christ, and the love of Christ, flowed out of him to us.
This week we are going to look at a Pharisee, Nicodemus, who was living the way of religion. We will also look at the Samaritan woman, who was living the way of irreligion. And Jesus presented the gospel to each — and each were transformed. Each were given the new life that only comes through the Gospel.
We can easily err on either side (religion or irreligion) both in resisting Christ initially, but also, on an every day basis in living the Christian life.
In my life, when I doubt God’s love for me, because of my repeated failures, I am reverting to religion — thinking He loves me because I’m good. And when I give into sin — thinking I cannot be happy unless I do what I want, then I am reverting to irreligion — thinking my idols will fulfil me better than the Lord.
It is also important to know, in sharing our faith, that unless we dismantle that we are not talking about morality (religion) people will think that we are. Watch this five minute video from Tim Keller:
1. What stands out to you from the above and why?
2. When you read over the sheet on the way or religion versus the gospel, how often do you veer into the religious column — and where?
Monday-Tuesday: Nicodemus — the way of religion
4. I thought Nicodemus might have come earnestly seeking. Keller, in the free sermon this week, thought he came to try to get Jesus on the side of the Pharisees. What do you think, and why?
Whatever our motives, God can use them as part of His wooing. So many people have studied Christianity to try to disprove it, but instead, come to faith. I have a dear friend who went to a Billy Graham Crusade on a lark, to make fun of him with her friends — and was born again. The wind blows where it will.
5. Read John 3:3-8 and describe the discussion and Nicodemus’ confusion.
In verse 5, Jesus says we must be born of “water and the spirit.” I used to be confused about the water part — some have said it was baptism, but that contradicts the rest of Scripture that we are saved by faith alone. D. A. Carson clarified this for me so beautifully. (A Commentary of New Testament Use of the Old Testament.) He said — Jesus’ words to Nicodemus about water and the spirit are right from Ezekiel where God promises he will take our heart of stone and turn it into a heart of flesh. Ezekiel is not referring to baptism, but to the power of God to wash us and make us clean — and then put His Spirit with us:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
6. Ezekiel is prophesying about gospel power. Find everything the gospel has the power to do according to the above.
7. This is a process – if you have put your trust in Christ, in what ways do you sense a new heart and a new spirit within you?
8. One of the ways do avail yourself of this gospel power to overcome sin is to consider the pictures of the water and the Spirit. Come daily to the Lord to be washed, asking Him to search your heart for any sin with you. Then ask Him, through His Spirit, to renew a right heart in you.
We don’t know when Nicodemus was born again, but later his life his evidences that he was. Not only did he stand up for Christ against the Pharisees, but he, along with Joseph of Arimethea, cared for Jesus’ crucified body.
During the time of the Puritans, when someone “prayed the prayer” and asked if he was born again, the Puritans wisely responded, “We’ll see.” As Alistair Begg says:
The gospel says we already have favor, so we do good out of humble gratitude.
Wednesday-Thursday: The Samaritan Woman. The Way of Irreligion.
The way of irreligion is not to turn to rules and rituals for salvation, but to think that our idols can rescue us. They could be good gifts like athletic ability or food or children. The Samaritan woman had hoped men could rescue her — and then, she meets Jesus and the birth process begins…
9. Read John 4:1-30 and summarize what happened in a few sentences.
10. How have you looked to people to fill up the emptiness in your life or to rescue you? What have you learned?
11. What does the gospel promise, according to John 4:14, that religion and irreligion never can? What do you think this means? (John 7:37-39 will help.) How does this work in your everyday life?
12. I find the third point in the gospel versus religion chart relevant here. We obey in order to get God — to delight and resemble Him. I find when I obey, I experienced more of the living water because I am not quenching His Spirit. What do you think about this — agree or disagree?
13. What evidenced of a changed life do you see in the Samaritan woman?
Friday: Optional Free Keller Sermon
14. If you have time, listen and share your thoughts.
15. Give an example of how you have a tendency to revert to religion. What lie are you believing? Give an example of how you have a tendency to revert to irreligion. What lie are you believing?
16. What’s your take-a-way and why?