"It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks!"

Almost everyone has heard this truism. Many who have heard it actually believe it. Now that I have turned sixty and find myself in the "old dog" category, I don't believe it… or at least I don't want to believe it! Several of my greatest heroes have shown this doesn't have to be true — thanks Lynn, Paul, Sister Sanders, and Joe!

Jesus didn't believe it. When Nicodemus approached him one night, he recognized that Nicodemus was searching for truth — he came in the darkness to find the true light of God (John 3:1-2 & John 3:16-21). What Nicodemus didn't realize was that Jesus was about to call him to a radical re-start of his spiritual life, something Nicodemus couldn't hear at this point in his relationship with Jesus.

Nicodemus was the best of the best that Judaism had to offer. He recognized that Jesus had come from God (John 3:2). He was a Pharisee — someone dedicated to keeping the Law of God and separating himself from the sin of the world (John 3:1). He was also a high ranking leader and a respected member of the Jewish Ruling Council, also called the Sanhedrin (John 3:1; John 7:50-51). He also knew other "secret followers" of Jesus among the religious elite and the Ruling Council who had access to Pilate, the Roman governor (John 12:42-43; John 20:38-42). Jesus addresses Nicodemus as "Israel's teacher" (John 3:10).

So standing before Jesus was a great rarity: an influential and important Jewish religious leader with power who respects the words and actions of Jesus. Nicodemus isn't just any "old dog," he's a godly and powerfully important "old dog"! Yet Jesus doesn't soft-pedal what Nicodemus must have happen in his life. He must be "born from above."*1 Nicodemus had achieved his religious status through personal commitment and hard work. He couldn't allow himself to understand the phrase to mean "re-born from above" or "being re-born of God" (John 1:11-13) — what Jesus means by the phrase. Instead, Nicodemus is trying to figure out what he can do to make this new birth happen.

Jesus expands and clarifies what he means. Nicodemus needs to be baptized*2 and be reborn by the Holy Spirit if he is going to be a part of God's kingdom (John 3:5-7). John's baptism by immersion was only for hardened sinners and Jewish immersion was only for Gentiles.*2 Everything Nicodemus had achieved in his religion showed he was beyond such unclean living and debased existence. Yet that is what Jesus impresses on him. Nicodemus was pursuing the kingdom of God through religious performance. Jesus was saying that there was only one way for Nicodemus to find the kingdom: a complete life re-boot. He had to be completely remade by the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit alone makes a person a child of God (Romans 8:9). The Holy Spirit cleanses us of all sin, sanctifies us while making us holy, and justifies us as innocent and pure before God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). The Spirit comes to live inside of us and makes us the dwelling place of God in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We don't control the Spirit or determine how or when he will do his work in causing this rebirth; human effort and will cannot accomplish this (John 3:6-8). After Jesus' return to the Father, he poured out the Spirit on Pentecost to begin his new kingdom work in the world (Acts 2:32-33).

On that Pentecost as people realized their sin and religious error, they turned from their own way to Jesus as Lord and Christ and were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:34-39) — Jesus poured out the Spirit upon them and they were born into God's family (Titus 3:3-7). They experienced what Jesus called Nicodemus to do (John 3:3-7) and what John prepared people to accept (Mark 1:4-8).

In Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus, the seeds of this Pentecost response are anticipated.

  • An emphasis on needing to turn from our own ways of religious accomplishment to be born of God — flesh can only give birth to flesh; we must be born of God (John 3:6; John 1:11-12; Acts 2:33-37).
  • An emphasis on immersion — a willing participation in the Spirit's work of rebirth (John 3:5; Titus 3:3-7; Acts 2:36-39).
  • An emphasis on absolute trust that Jesus was "lifted up" on the cross for our sins and raised for our being made right with God (John 3:13-17; Romans 4:25; Galatians 3:26-29; Acts 2:33-36).
  • A primary emphasis that spiritual rebirth is the work of Jesus pouring out the Spirit and the Spirit completely remaking — "rebirthing" — us into a new existence as God's child (John 1:11-12; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Titus 3:3-7>.

Jesus believes — no, more accurately stated, Jesus knows — that old hearts, weary souls, men and women of every age can be reborn by the Holy Spirit into a new life in Jesus. The whole book of Acts gives testimony to this. Young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, are all remade by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. These people are brought into fellowship with each other — notice the beautiful phrase "fellowship of the Holy Spirit" (2 Corinthians 13:14) and made a part of God's family (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:26-29).

There is no new life in Jesus apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. Works-based justification along with status-based and achievement-based religion end up in the failed efforts of human flesh (John 3:5-6; Romans 7:21-25; Galatians 3:1-11). But thanks to Jesus our Lord, the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit brings us before the Father as his holy children (Romans 8:1-4; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Colossians 1:21-22) and brings us life that lasts until we see our Lord face to face and are caught up in the wonders of his grace forever (Romans 8:9-11; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:4).

Yes, we must be born from above… born of water and Spirit… born of God. And how sweet and precious is that birth by the Spirit's transformational power and presence!

*1 The phrase here means both "born from above" and "born again" John 3:30; John 3:31 where the same phrase is used to mean "from above". Clearly Jesus means "born from above" or "born of God," but in Nicodemus' confusion, he understands it as being born again.

*2 Baptism in the New Testament means immersion. The Greek word, baptizo means dip, immerse, or plunge. This understanding lies behind John baptizing where there was "much water" (John 3:23) and probably the identification of baptism with being "buried with Christ" (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12). While Jews would self-perform what were called washings for ritual cleansing in a mikveh or ritual religious purification pool, John's baptism was different. John actually baptized people — something normally reserved for only Gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism. As someone extraordinarily careful to be righteous and religiously accomplished, there was simply no way for Nicodemus to see himself needing baptism.

While it has become popular in the last several hundred years in evangelical interpretation to see "born of water" to mean "the waters of physical birth," a number of things mitigate against this interpretation:

  1. Jesus is not referring to two things in the phrase "born of water and Spirit," but one. Both water and Spirit stand under one preposition, linking the two as one event — this is technically called hendiadys and a reminder the two would not normally be grammatically separated as two separate and contrasting events, but one event characterized by both elements.
  2. Until the last several hundred years, the near universal understanding of the phrase "born of water and Spirit" was understood to refer to Christian immersion and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The modern interpretation of the water of physical birth occurring only in the last several hundred years.
  3. The context, as in all good biblical interpretation, must be strongly considered. In the near context of this passage, you have talk of John's baptism (John 3:22-23) along with Jesus baptizing (John 3:6) and Jesus' disciples baptizing (John 4:1-2). Then in prior context, you have extended discussion of John's baptism (John 1:19-34).
  4. The connection of the Holy Spirit with baptism (Acts 2:38-39; Acts 8:12-17; Acts 9:17-19; Acts 10:44-48; Acts 19:1-7) and also with water as an image of Spirit-filled life that runs throughout the New Testament (John 7:37-39; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Titus 3:3-7). Rather than seeing baptism as a work, the New Testament connects it to grace (Romans 6:2-14; Titus 3:3-5) and faith (Acts 2:33-39; Galatians 3:26-29; Acts 16:25-34).

Ultimately, however, all the debates about baptism and faith must give way to the emphasis of Jesus in the new birth: the essentiality of the Holy Spirit's coming! Without the Spirit, we are left to our own striving and accomplishment, something that is doomed to failure. We are saved by grace as we trust in Jesus' work and surrender our lives to him as Lord. The cleansing, rebirth, coming, and power of the Spirit are what make salvation real in the life of a disciple.

The cleansing, rebirth, coming, and power of the Spirit are what make salvation real in the life of a disciple.

Phil's response to comments below:

I appreciate the comments and questions. I believe Acts helps us in addressing the questions and statements here. What many of us want coming from a modernist mindset (that's all of us folks who grew up baby boomers or older) is a clean, clear, one-size fits all set of events. So different conservative, deeply committed Bible-believing groups kinda chose a horse and rode it and tried to make everything line up the same way every time.

The discussion about 1 event or 2 with Spirit and water baptism, baptism not being necessary in every case, the need for repentance with confession, and a host of other things can be brought into the discussion. However, I think we may be spitting hairs over things because we are approaching things as a modernist — wanting the order, the events, and the specifics to be very clear and color by numbers. But those of us who have walked with people and been a part of people coming to Christ know that the process is different for each of them, both because they are each a unique person coming from unique circumstances and because the way God brought the message of grace into each person's life can be different — remember the 3 stories of lost things being found in Luke 15 and let's realize this is just a picture of the Father's desire to save lost ones and what he will do to find them and rejoice when they are found.

What I want folks to recognize is that all throughout Acts and the New Testament letters we find further testimony to this. The teaching of Jesus does as well. All throughout there are a couple of key principles or movements in the coming of salvation in the lives of people who become Jesus' disciples. Each of these principles, elements, or movements are part of faith and shouldn't be split away from faith or it merely becomes a work we do between our ears to get heaven's goodies. These are shared as first, second, etc., just to distinguish the movements, not to set priority in importance — at least from my understanding. Each is a part of saving faith and inextricably linked to Jesus.

First, God — Father, Son, and Spirit — are sovereign and can do and have done many things to make sure truly seeking hearts find their way to Jesus and surrender to His Lordship and receive the Father's grace through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Father knows each heart and Jesus promised seekers would find. So we need to not paint God into a box or a formula so it is easier for us to explain and have a formula.

Second, we need to admit that we have made faith into less than what it was in the early church. Our individualistic society has offered a response to Jesus that can largely be between the ears because we've made belief little more than what we think in our heads. This allows evangelists to talk about decisions they've helped people make for Jesus when Jesus is really concerned about us making disciples — people yielded to His will, following His teaching, leading other people to Him, and teaching those people how to live for Him. James talks about the devil having that easy kind of intellectual faith that doesn't manifest repentance or submit the heart to the Lordship of Christ. When we look at our culture, there are many people who call themselves Christians because they've been taught what they think about Jesus is faith and that it doesn't require any obedience or submission to His will or His teaching or His way of life. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made clear that at judgment, there are going to a lot of these folks who are disappointed and surprised. Thankfully, it is not our job to decide or judge anyone's heart, but we are taught by the Lord to check the fruit of a person's life. Salvation isn't just being saved from sin, but being save for a life with the Lord.

Third, in Acts, we see a cluster of things that are part of a person's salvation response — sorry, I can't think of another way to describe it. Each is fundamentally important and for some reason, different religious groups want to split up these four and pick one as their focus. Yet for me, these are not supposed to be divorced — Jesus puts them together, the apostles put them together, and the book of Acts shows them all as important.

There is a willingness to recognize Jesus not just as Lord of all, but Lord of me — I turn to Him and commit to honor Him because of Who He is and also because of what He has done for me. You can call this repentance. You can call it confession of Jesus as Lord and a surrender to His Lordship. However, no matter what we call it — Acts describes in several ways — we recognize that without Jesus we are lost, that our way is not going to save us no matter how religious or non-religious we are, and we turn our hearts and lives over to Him to find the abundant life He longs to give us. This repentance, this turning to Jesus as Lord, is a necessary dimension of true and biblical faith.

There is trust — belief that demonstrates itself through investing our life — in Jesus' death burial and resurrection. Paul calls this "first importance" in salvation and what we believe. We confess our faith to show that trust. We give up our own attempts of being righteous on our own, because we believe that Jesus paid the price to make us righteous and invites our lives to be joined to His. This revolutionary trust is absolutely a necessary ingredient in our response to God's grace and Jesus' work in life, death, and resurrection — it is a necessary dimension to true and biblical faith.

Thee is baptism in the name of Jesus and a sharing in His death, burial, and resurrection as we all on His name to save us. Baptism is not something we do. It done to us. It roots us in a physical experience to keep our faith from simply slipping into some individualistic Gnostic or Docetic form of faith where bodily actions don't matter and unimportant. It becomes an experience of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and in what saves us. This practice was part of Jesus' last command and was practiced all throughout the book of Acts, quite often with an emphasis that there was no delay from the person's time of faith.

There is baptism in the Holy Spirit — we are cleansed, made holy, and made righteous by the sanctifying work of the Spirit as He makes us God's holy place of dwelling, His holy temple in which God lives in the form of the Holy Spirit. This means we are the people and the place where God lvies and dwells and works in us to bring us to maturity in Christ — which is the real work work of the Holy Spirit — as we begin to display the fruit of the Spirit's presence in us.

Now I could pile up a bunch of Scriptures on each of these, but it would be a lot simpler to just read Acts the the letters of Paul and we'd find this for ourselves. My plea is for us to quite fussing and fighting over our primary emphasis we prefer of these four and recognize the importance and role that each of these four play and then go celebrate them as they happen in the lives of others and invite more people to come meet Jesus and share in all four of these streams of mercy that merge into one movement of God's saving grace.

We can argue about order — but Acts talks about receiving the Holy Spirit at water baptism (Acts 2:38), also has people baptized and not receive the Holy Spirit till the apostles come and lay hands on them (Acts 8), and then Cornelius and his household receive the Holy Spirit so that Peter knows he needs to baptize them in water and include them in the family of God (Acts 10-11). The Philippian jailer is told he must believe to be saved, but like the Ethiopian in Acts 8, he is either taught or recognizes that he and his household need to be baptized in water and so they are baptized immediately despite the inconveniences, and then they rejoice because they have come to faith (Acts 16). In each of these, the show of submission/repentance is clear in every case as is the absolute trust in Jesus to save. So instead of arguing about order or what we can leave out and be saved, let's honor Jesus, learn from the early church, and trust God is way big enough to figure all the exceptions out without making the exceptions the rule.

I can tell you I was dunked under water many times by my buddies at a swimming pool, in a lake, and even in a stock pond. I got wet in each of them. But I was saved because I shared in baptism trusting the Spirit would remake me and that what Jesus did alone could save me, so I wanted to live for Jesus and honor Him with all I am. As Carrie Underwood sings, "There Must Be Something in the Water" — and this case, I think that "something in the water" was me, as I experienced the Holy Spirit and trusted Jesus as He met me there and pledged to live for Him as My Lord. Since then, everything has been different... or in my circle of buddies we like to say, "Things were way more better!"

Grace and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord!