Russell Moore serves as Dean of the School of Theology, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration, and Associate Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective and co-editor of Why I Am a Baptist. He has written articles for various publications including Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and SBC Life.
Text: John 2:13-3:21
What salvation is about is hearing a voice. It is about those in the graves hearing His voice like the sheep hearing the voice of a shepherd. This is one of the reasons why we cannot understand the sovereignty of God in conversion, because we think it is mechanical. It is the personal sovereignty of the Shepherd- of leading the people to be one flock. What you need to understand is that when God is moving through His Spirit, what God is doing is more than something individual, but that He is moving to something–one flock, one people, one Church.
John begins by picking up after Jesus had turned the water into wine. Jesus moves into the Temple where he deals with cleansing. He deals with those treating the house of God as a place of trade. The Gospel comes as a letter- as a story- and John moves you from the account of the Temple to the story of Nicodemus. He does this because the same principle is involved. Jesus comes into a Temple where the glory has departed and Jesus, in his zeal, declares to the people that they do not recognize the presence of God. Immediately, John turns us to an interview with Nicodemus. It is not about an individual quest, but God’s purpose to keep His promise.
Jesus begins speaking of the new birth- of the activity of God (regeneration). “Unless a man is born again . . .” “Don’t you know that it must be this way?” Jesus inquired. Flesh begets flesh. This is the testimony of the OT Scriptures (lineages/genealogies). So and so beget so and so, and he died, and so on. The Bible is showing you an entire picture of a humankind armed with its flesh- with its procreative ability to be fruitful and multiply through a reign of death. The will of the flesh can only beget flesh; only the Spirit can beget Spirit. You must be born of the Spirit.
Jesus spoke of something Nicodemus knew something about (kingdom of God). The kingdom of God is a specific covenant promise whereby God puts a ruler over you. He puts all enemies under his feet so that there is peace, holiness and knowledge of God like the waters covers the sea. Unless there is a transformation (a work of the Spirit) removing that heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh that beats and responds to the purposes and initiatives of God, you can never enter the kingdom of God. It is given only to those who are the holy remnant of Israel. So who exactly is that? Unless you are born again where the Spirit gives birth, your end is the grave, judgment and condemnation. A transformation must take place or else there is only hopelessness.
Jesus speaks of regeneration in the context and through the concept of judgment. Nobody has seen the heavenly places except the Son of Man. When Jesus then spoke of Jesus being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent, Jesus is speaking of judgment. It is saying that God will judge Israel. A serpent–a disturbing picture. The very idea of serpents and snakes is uncomfortable to people because there is a hidden horror in our hearts. Unless the Son of God is lifted up, there will be no salvation; if the Son of Man is lifted up as a curse, bringing the judgment upon himself- upon a just and holy God, then everyone who believes on Him will have everlasting life.
You can preach the new birth without ever preaching the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of condemnation- of repentance- in which the sinner not only sees the condemnation, but agrees with God on the condemnation regarding himself. The proclamation of Jesus taking upon Himself the sins of humanity- the way the wind blows- comes only through the proclamation and judgment of the Resurrection. One of the reasons why we do not see more conversions in our churches is because we are not preaching Jesus. You will not find Veggie Tales preaching about crucifixion or about substitution. You are raising Protestant liberals who will go to hell through moral lives who have signed True Love Waits cards. If you want to see how God works, it is through seeing yourselves through the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We speak only in terms of what Jesus suffered to get people to feel sorry for Jesus. Jesus doesn’t want you to feel sorry for Him. He willingly conquered death, hell, and condemnation.
When the Son of Man is lifted up, then you will see transformation. One of the most shocking thing going on in our churches is the rise of inclusivism which says that a man can go to heaven through never having heard of the name of Jesus. You will be shocked to see how many conservative Southern Baptists will say that a man on an island will go to heaven based on understanding God in creation or appreciating God’s law in their hearts. The only way that a man can recognizing his sinfulness is through the work of the Holy Spirit. If there is no proclamation of Jesus, there is no working of the Spirit; if there is no working of the Spirit, there is no repentance; if there is no repentance, there is no faith; if there is no faith in Jesus, there is no Gospel.
We not only have unbelievers who are comfortable with our preaching, but we have believers who are battling with guilt. God has already judged that guilt through the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus so that those in Christ find no condemnation. Whoever has Jesus has eternal life. The sovereign work of God is the free offer of the gospel. It includes the proclamation of the gospel to all places in all times. The gospel is to be preached to everyone. All who believe will be received into the kingdom. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God should not dampen the free offer of the gospel to all people. Jesus is speaking clearly that the sovereignty of God is to break us, to show us that in our witnessing and evangelizing that there is not a certain kind of person who believes in Jesus. There is not a certain kind of temperament who is likely to receive the gospel. However, through the power of the Holy Spirit, anyone can be saved. If we are going to recover the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, it will come only when there are a people who are crying, weeping and pleading for the souls of people. There is a temptation to preach sovereignty in the abstract- as a system to gather into our churches all the people who have the same view of sovereignty. The sovereignty of God is intrinsically related to God’s purposes in Christ.
As you who are sharing the gospel, what Jesus is saying about the sovereignty of the Spirit is the way you pierce through men’s hearts is not through a gimmick but through the gospel. You preach it again. And again. It is our only message. The Spirit works through the proclamation and revelation of Jesus.
Jesus also speaks of light. He says something that ought to be terrifying to all of us. He says, “This is the judgment.” The judgment is in the here and the now- in the person who sees the glory of the Lord, Jesus Christ, and turns away from that into darkness. He is using the exact same language as Paul in 2 Cor. 4:1-6. When light comes into the world, a reaction takes place, and the reaction is revulsion and self-protection. When the light comes on, we run away from it because our deeds are evil, in fear that our deeds will be exposed. We are desperately seeking to cover, to conceal, to hide–all with the plans to cover this with Christian language. Those who turn away from the light and turn towards darkness do so for a motive of self-protection- a motive to be one’s own ruler to satisfy desires and appetites and live independently of God’s universal claims. That is what we are up against, not just out there, but in our own hearts. That is what we were. That is the kind of sinners God judged at the cross.
The light hurts, disturbs, distresses, and exposes. This is the judgment. The light points to the judgment, and when the sinner is exposed by the light, it is a pride-destroying act. The light exposes the sinful wickedness of our own hearts, and when we agree with what we see through the light of the gospel, it is a merciful act of God. What conversion is through the activity of the Spirit of God, it is not appeasing a conscience, but piercing it through the message of Jesus Christ. You will never see that kind of transformation by making Jesus an add-on, of preaching moral reformation or of preaching systems of theology with Jesus tacked onto the end. You must turn and point that sinner to God in human flesh, Jesus Christ, and call them to be found in Him, lest you remain in the sentence of condemnation. The scandal of a crucified and resurrected Savior–this is the only message that will transform lives and bring revival. If you are teaching anything other than this, you are not offering the gospel and you will never see revival. It will bring a sense of tumult and division, but it is one that saves. [Moore addresses Biblezines].
The sovereignty points us to Jesus, discloses everything and moves toward an end. The message of the gospel is a message that ought to search out all our pride, arrogance, and self-sufficiency and destroy it. The way in which a young man who is called to ministry speaks of his home church tells me whether he will be faithful to the end. The sovereignty of God begins at conversion, but a sovereign God uses the gospel in the life of the believer all the way through the believer’s life. It does not end even at the resurrection of the dead; they are still proclaiming the gospel in the heavens. The sinner’s prayer is not something that is done during the beginning of the Christian life; it is the prayer of the Christian throughout his life. The gospel is not just to bring lost people to their salvation, but to bring saved people to their inheritance. If you want to see yourself made holy before God, preach Jesus to yourself. Listen to the voice of Jesus and be conformed into His image.
Sometimes we treat sovereignty as if it is a new trick we have learned- especially sovereignty of God in salvation. Every Christian must evaluate himself before the sovereignty of God. This is a humbly act of God, understanding that we were those just as lost as Britney Spears, just as condemned as Judas, and those who will stand before a sovereign King who will speak to us by a new name.