The Meaning of Salvation
I don’t know what the word “salvation” means to you. You can be saved from many things, a car wreck, a plane crash, a fire, drowning, or any number of physical catastrophes. The Bible speaks of another kind of salvation, a salvation of your soul. It is a deliverance from sin, along with its guilt and its consequences, a deliverance from the greatest spiritual catastrophe, the fires of hell, a deliverance from the kingdom of darkness into the spiritual kingdom of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Salvation is a conversion, an inward conversion of the soul and spirit of a person. Jesus Christ calls this being born again. To understand this more clearly, let us visit an episode in the life of Christ Himself.
TO BE SAVED YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’
Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into 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 be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
This passage records a conversation between Jesus Christ and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was very religious, highly respected, and he had a position of leadership within the Jewish community but, more importantly, he had the beginnings of faith. He came to Jesus, having recognized that Jesus was a teacher from God. However, he was missing something, something crucial. Jesus said that unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. The Bible uses the terms “born again” (see John 3:3, 7; 1 Peter 1:23), “born of God” (see 1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:1) and “born of the Spirit” (see John 3:8) to represent the same thing, spiritual birth. Nicodemus was puzzled. He questioned how a grown person’s birth could be repeated. But Jesus wasn’t speaking of natural birth. Nicodemus had yet to learn that God’s creative power was not limited to the material and physical world. God purposed to create spiritual birth within the soul and spirit of men and women. Spiritual birth is to be born into a life of divine communion with God. It is an experience of holiness that prompts us to respond instinctively with prayer, worship and thanksgiving towards God. It is an emergence from spiritual darkness into spiritual light. It is the life-giving operation of the Holy Spirit upon a person, bringing them into spiritual existence in the kingdom of God.
Jesus said further; “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:7). It was not enough that Nicodemus was religious, pious, sincere, talented or morally refined. He may have been right in his relationships with other people, yet his relationship with God was non-existent. He had a great deal of knowledge of religious tradition, but he needed to humble himself and enter into a born-again experience from God. Jesus refused to recognize as true disciples those who would not see their need for a radical, total, inward change of heart. Jesus emphatically repeated; “You must be born again.”
Why is this so? It is because “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6). What does this mean? In scripture, “Flesh” can be understood to be two things. Firstly, it is our physical body and, secondly, it is our fallen sinful nature, which is, from the time of Adam, our inner rebellion toward God and His ways. The flesh is an inclination towards committing sin and sin alienates us from God.
Matthew Henry says:
The soul is still a spiritual substance, but so wedded to the flesh, so captivated by the will of the flesh, so in love with the delights of the flesh, so employed in making provision for the flesh, that it is justly called flesh; it is carnal. And what communion can there be between God, who is a spirit, and a soul in this condition?1
Just as a deceased man is dead to the world around him so, too, the natural man is dead to the spiritual things of God’s kingdom. He is dominated by his fleshly nature and he needs to be born again. The Bible explains the new birth this way:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
In these verses being “ … made … alive together with Christ …” is another reference to being born again. All who are dead in trespasses and sins need to be made alive.
Not only does the New Testament teach the truth of new birth but God, in the Old Testament, also spoke of a day when:
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness 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. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
Every natural man has need of the new birth. Why? Because he naturally has a “… heart of stone…” Only God can take out the heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. Only He can put His Spirit within us. This, and forgiveness of sins, is man’s greatest need. The Apostle Paul says; “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
To be a Christian is to be “in Christ” and this state of being is different and new. When someone is converted to the Christian faith and experience, he or she becomes “a new creation.” Their old life is over and “new things have come.” They are now a spiritual creature who is alive in God’s kingdom. To be in Christ is to be in spiritual union with Him. In this union, the record of a sinful life is blotted out and these ones are given a fresh start. They are also empowered to live a different kind of life than they had lived before. This is because God’s Spirit is now in them and just like a plant brings forth fruit so, too, the life of a Christian brings forth fruit, good fruit, the fruit of the Spirit. It is a state of salvation where the person is redeemed. The Bible says; “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23).
These fruits of the Spirit are the characteristics of a spiritual life expressed in a new-born person. They are evidence of Christ living within the life of one of His followers. That is why Paul could say; “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20). Paul here rejoices that Christ lives in him. The life that he is now living, at the time he penned these words, is a new life. We read further:
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
These verses say that we must be saved through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit. Friend, do you know this washing? Do you know this renewing? Have you undergone the inward cleansing and do you have a new heart from God? Have the old things passed away and are you a new creation? Or do you have a stony heart that is unspiritual?
Jesus confronted Nicodemus and said that unless one was born again he could not see God’s kingdom.
This was not a gentle nudge to encourage Nicodemus to try harder in his efforts to be a good person. It was a pointed confrontation which challenged everything Nicodemus stood for. It put a finger on the spurious nature of his human-based religion and his self-righteousness. Jesus told him of his huge need for real spiritual experience and heart-salvation.2 Jesus only gave him one option, he must be born again. It was a call for Nicodemus to completely turn over his life to Jesus.
Jesus confronted Nicodemus and now the challenge is extended to you.
If you have not come to God in repentance and faith, then the time to do so is now. What are you trusting in to give you favor with God? Salvation was bought for you at a tremendous cost. The blood of Jesus Christ was shed, not for crimes of His own but, instead, for your sins and mine. That same blood of Jesus stands ready to wash away all of your sins, if you will apply it. Yes, He died for you and me and then, after three days, He rose again, triumphing over death. Now it is your death that He is trying to save you from. I am talking about eternal death in hell. You must be born again. His grace is here, in this moment, to carry you over the gulf to the other side. He is here in this moment, this moment of faith. Still, you must choose it. It is time. It is time to be “made alive.”
Friend, pray to Him now. Cry out to Jesus in your own words and from your heart.
I offer this prayer for you:
Lord Jesus Christ, Author of Salvation, I come to you on behalf of this precious soul and, if they do not know You, I pray that You will aid them now in seeing their spiritual need and in calling on Your holy name. May they see that all of their good deeds and good intentions are not of the same value as Your precious blood that was shed for them on a cruel cross. You paid the price, the only price that is acceptable to Father God. Then You rose from the dead. You have the power to grant new life, new birth, and You have the power to form a new heart within them. As they acknowledge these things, and as they call out to You now, cause them to understand Your great love for them. Help them to respond to Your call, and Your pull, with faith. Help them to turn their lives over to Your full control and Your full lordship. As they call out for Your forgiveness, help them to make a solid and determined decision to follow You and Your plan for their life. As they call out to You now, meet them in this moment and make him or her a new creation. Lord, as they cry out to You, putting their faith in You, make all things new within them and may they say in truth “Christ lives in me.” Amen.
1. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary On The Whole Bible, Vol. 5 (Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers), 884.
2. John F. MacArthur Jr. The Gospel According To Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 43-53.Taken from The Gospel According To Jesus by John F. MacArthur Jr. Copyright © 1994 by John F. MacArthur Jr. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary On The Whole Bible, Vol. 5. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers.
MacArthur, John F. Jr. The Gospel According To Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.
Miley, John, D.D., LL.D. Systematic Theology. Vol. 11. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1989.
Scripture taken from the New King James version. Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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