The Gift Only God Can Give Us

Dr. John Ankerberg: How can you be sure that you’ll spend eternity with God? We all know we’re going to die. The question is, will you be with God, or you’ll be someplace else? And today we’re talking about the gift that you can’t do without. Everybody likes gifts, right? You like a gift; I like gifts. But God said He’s giving away a gift that you can’t do without. 

And, Erwin, what is this gift? Jesus opened up the conversation about this gift because it was a gift that God does spiritually in the lives of people. And He was talking to a religious leader in John 3, and He expected this religious leader to know it right off the bat. But as you read the conversation, we will see that he did not know what Jesus was talking about. 

Dr. Erwin Lutzer: And, you know, John, in order to put this in context, He was speaking to Nicodemus who was a ruler of the Jews. That meant that Nicodemus had the responsibility of making sure the Jewish law was enforced. He was one of the top leaders. And he comes to Jesus at night, and probably the reason is because he didn’t want to be seen. Jesus was supposed to be his enemy, but he knows there is something about Jesus that intrigues him. 

He says, “I know that you are a teacher come from God, because nobody can do what you’re doing unless God is with Him.” Now, Jesus, who knows everything, doesn’t even really wait for a question. And this is so incredibly important, because Jesus said, “If you don’t have this miracle in your heart, you will not enter into the kingdom of Heaven.” Let’s hear it from Jesus Himself. And, by the way, Jesus is an authority on this. He is an authority on this. 

I remember being on a plane and witnessing to this person who said, “Well, I think if I do the best I can I’ll get to heaven.” I said, “Really? What is your authority?” I said, “Did God reveal that to you, because how could you possibly know what God’s requirements are?” And then I pointed him to Jesus who speaks to us with great authority. And everyone needs to listen to this, because Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 

And I’m going to pause here and simply say that there are many people out there who would say that they were born again because of baptism, or because of this, or a change of mind. John, as we shall see, Jesus is talking about a miracle that only God can do. Justification happens outside of us. It is God’s declaration that we are righteous. 

John Ankerberg: Legal declaration. Right.

Erwin Lutzer: The legal declaration. This is a work within us. They happen simultaneously, but they must be distinguished. Well, anyway, Nicodemus thinks of obstetrics. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” I have to pause here and say I was witnessing to a man in Germany, and I happened to know these verses in German. And he asked me the very same question when I told him he had to be born again. He said, “I’m old, how can I be born again?”

John Ankerberg: Right.

Erwin Lutzer: So, Jesus answers and says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

John Ankerberg: Yes, and I want to stop right there. Because some people associate that—you’ve got to be “with water”—as you have to be baptized. And that is the last thing that Nicodemus would have thought of. Now, Jesus expected him to know the Old Testament. After all, he is a Pharisee; he’s teaching the Old Testament, alright? So, He thought that he would know this upside and down. 

And let me give you two illustrations why this does not apply to baptism with water, okay, because in the Old Testament it’s never associated that way. Water is associated with God doing something in a human heart. I’ll give you two examples, okay? One is in Ezekiel 36:25-26. God says, “Hey, I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Let me give you another one, and that’s Jeremiah 33:8. God says, “I will cleanse them from all the iniquity they have committed against me and forgive all the wrong that they have committed by rebelling against me.” So, here God says, “I will cleanse you. I will change your heart.” And that’s what Jesus was expecting Nicodemus to get out of these words. 

Erwin Lutzer: And, John, to anyone who’s listening who depends upon baptism to be saved, their faith is spurious. It is a wrong faith. And it is not the faith that is necessary to get into heaven.

John Ankerberg: Right.

Erwin Lutzer: Now, let me be very clear. Obviously, Nicodemus would have thought of those verses.

John Ankerberg: That’s correct.

Erwin Lutzer: He would not have thought of baptism. And furthermore, Jesus says He’s not talking about two births. He doesn’t say “unless you’re born of water and born of the Spirit.”

John Ankerberg: That’s right.

Erwin Lutzer: He’s talking about one birth where there is water and Spirit. The cleansing of the Spirit and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. And so, in fact, John, it just dawned on me that if Jesus meant water, that meant that He was not even participating in His own teaching about salvation, because He didn’t baptize anybody.

John Ankerberg: And they were not baptizing anybody in the Old Testament either.

Erwin Lutzer: No. So, Jesus here is talking about a work of God in the heart, of cleansing and of the miracle. So, here is the way we can understand it. Human birth puts us into the human family, all right? And what we need is a divine birth that is a miracle of God to make us members of God’s family; children, sons and daughters of God’s family. And this is a miracle that must happen. 

You know, Billy Graham was preaching in Europe. And a famous theologian—Billy was preaching on this text—said, “Billy, there’s nothing wrong with your message, but I wish you wouldn’t emphasize that little word ‘must’.” And I heard Billy Graham in preaching saying, “But I emphasize it because Jesus emphasized it.” You must be born again.” And Jesus goes on to talk about the fact that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh”—we’re all born of the flesh; we’re born into the human family—and “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” So, we have to ask those who are listening again, John—we cannot overemphasize this really—we have to ask them again, “Are you born again?”

John Ankerberg: Right.

Erwin Lutzer: And don’t tell me that it happened when you were eight days old and baptized, or when you were baptized as an adult. It is true that in the book of Acts baptism was often associated with salvation, because it was assumed that if you believed you’ll be baptized.

John Ankerberg: Right.

Erwin Lutzer: But the thief on the cross proves to us that baptism is not necessary for salvation. It is faith in a Savior who is actually qualified to save us.

(Extracted from our series “How You Can Be Sure You Will Spend Eternity with God – Part 2.”

About Dr. John Ankerberg interviews Dr. Erwin Lutzer

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