Real Christian vs. Religious
September 14, 1997
This is the first sermon based on the questions submitted by the congregation last spring. I don’t know who wrote this particular question but it’s a good one. The very wording suggests that there is a fundamental difference between being religious and being a “real Christian.”
Many people have trouble with that concept because they think that if you are religious, then you must be a “real Christian.” If you asked such people, “Are you a Christian?” they would reply, “I’m a church member” or “I’ve been baptized” or “I go to Sunday School” or “I go to mass every week. “ But those answers raise another important question: Is being a Christian simply a matter of outward activity?
At this point most of us would instinctively answer no because we’ve all known people who go through the religious motions and signed on the dotted line, so to speak, but who don’t act like true Christians ought to act. That is, we all know religious people whose religion seems to be only skin deep. It doesn’t touch the weightier matters of justice, kindness, compassion, grace, and practical holiness.
That leads me to ask a very personal question that I would like you to ponder as you read my words. Here’s the question: Am I a real Christian or am I just a religious person?
There are many religious people in the world and many different religions. This week I’ve been watching the funeral of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who gave her life in the service of the poor around the world. One cannot help but be moved by the enormous good she accomplished for so many people. I was also touched by the outpouring of love and respect paid by Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims who knew her and loved her. She was truly ecumenical in that if you were poor and needed her help, she didn’t inquire about your religion first, she simply offered whatever she had.
It’s one thing to be religious, it’s another thing to be a real Christian. As we think about this truth, I’d like to draw your attention to the story of a man who came to Jesus one night. The story is found in John 3. I begin here because this is perhaps the clearest example of a religious person who discovered when he met Jesus that his religion wasn’t enough to meet the need of his own heart.
Many people today are looking for supernatural reality. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God has put eternity inside the heart of every man. Pascal, the French philosopher, said there is a “God-shaped vacuum” inside every human heart. Man is incurably religious by nature. That’s why every human society-no matter how primitive-has some concept of a higher power, some vision of a reality that goes beyond the natural. On one level that explains why science has not eradicated religion from the earth. Science can never do that because technological achievement can’t meet the deepest needs of the human heart. Thus it is that even in America millions of people read their horoscopes every morning and millions more watch the Psychic Friends Network.
Earlier this year a book called The Bible Code climbed to the top of the best-seller list. Why would a book purporting to find hidden messages in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament sell hundreds of thousands of copies? Because people are hungry for spiritual truth and if they cannot find it by normal means, they will reach for anyone or anything that claims to give them an answer.
By the same token many people seek deeper reality through organized religion. They join the church, are baptized, confirmed, give their money, attend services faithfully, pray daily, read the Bible, and in general obey the rules of the church, hoping that by their outward performance they can find inner peace and a deep relationship with the God who made them.
But it doesn’t often work. Even the most religious person eventually discovers that religion alone cannot satisfy. All that feverish activity cannot produce peace of mind or guarantee acceptance with God. In the end, you end up looking to heaven and crying out, “Is that all there is?”
A Religious Man Who Needed God
With that we come to the story of Nicodemus and Jesus. Here is how John introduces us to this very religious man:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:1-2).
In order to understand this story, we need to know three things about Nicodemus. First, he was a Pharisee. If you are a student of the Bible, you probably have a negative view of the Pharisees. You may think that all the Pharisees were legalistic hypocrites who hated Jesus. But that’s not true at all. In the first century the Pharisees were widely respected for their intense piety and deep scholarship. They were the men who devoted their lives to the study of the Torah and its application to daily life. They truly wanted to obey God’s law. That meant studying the Bible for hours each day, praying two hours a day, giving a tithe of all they possessed, and in general, being scrupulously concerned about morality. There were only a few thousand Pharisees because not many men would make that kind of personal sacrifice. Those who did were held in high esteem as learned men.
Second, Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council. This was a select group of 70 men who served as a kind of combination Congress and Supreme Court. They adjudicated various disputes and settled legal matters so that the Romans wouldn’t have to get involved. As you might expect, only the leading men were elected to such a prestigious position. The fact that Nicodemus was part of the ruling council meant that he must have been highly respected by his peers. In 20th century terms, he was like a United States senator or a Supreme Court justice.
That’s the man who came to see Jesus one night in Jerusalem. But why come at night? Perhaps because he knew that Jesus was controversial and he couldn’t risk being seen publicly. Or perhaps he wished to have time for a lengthy personal interview. I’m sure there were elements of curiosity mixed with a sense of duty. After all, this upstart rabbi had been gaining followers by the day. As a leader, he had an obligation to find out more about this man.
Surely there is more to the story than that. The fact that he risked his own position to come to Jesus speaks of his own personal need. Note what he said, “I know you are come from God because no one can work these miracles you do unless God is with him.” Nicodemus here admits that Jesus has been sent from God. He is no mere man, he’s more than a teacher from Galilee. In Jesus Nicodemus recognized the mark of divine parentage.
Being Religious is Never Enough
All of it is meant to lead us to this important conclusion: Being religious is never enough. If it were, Nicodemus wouldn’t have the time or the interest to meet Jesus. But he comes because, despite all his religious activity, there is still an aching void in his heart. Could it be that Jesus himself can fill that void?
That brings us to the answer Jesus gives to this cultured, educated, well-respected religious leader:
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:3-5).
Let’s focus on the key phrase “born again.” In the original language it has a double meaning. The word can mean “again” or “above.” In this case, both meanings apply. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the only way to find what he is looking for is to be born again from above. Despite all his learning, Nicodemus is utterly baffled by this thought. Is it possible to re-enter his mother’s womb a second time? No, that’s not what Jesus meant. He’s not talking about a second physical birth, but about a second spiritual birth. You are born once physically. That physical birth introduces you to the physical world. But if you want to enter the kingdom of God (the world of spiritual reality), you need a spiritual birth.
Lest Nicodemus misunderstand this truth, Jesus added an important fact: “You should not be surprised at my saying, ’You must be born again’” (John 3:7). Notice the tense of that statement. You must be born again. The new birth is not optional for any of us. Jesus didn’t say, “I recommend that you be born again” or “You should be born again if after investigation it seems to meet your personal need” or “I think it would be a good idea to be born again.” No! Jesus used the urgent language of forceful command: You must be born again.
Before we go on, let me remind you that Jesus spoke these words not to some immoral outcast, but to one of the most religious men of his day. By any human standard Nicodemus was a very good man and certainly a man we would admire for his intense devotion to God. Yet Jesus told him, “You must be born again.”
Have You Been Born Again?
If he needed to be born again, what about you and me? Well, let me put the question to you directly: Have you ever been Born Again? Surveys suggest how most people will answer. Roughly one third will say yes, one third will say no, and one third will not be sure. Surprisingly, those percentages tend to stay the same whether we’re asking people on the street or regular church members. So what’s your answer? Have you ever been born again?
Just in case I haven’t made myself clear, I’m not asking about your church membership, your baptism, your confirmation, your giving record, your Sunday School attendance, or your personal morality. Nicodemus had all those things down cold, but Jesus said, “You must be born again.”
I know it is easy to misunderstand what I am saying because being born again is big news. Recently I read where Deion Sanders-the all-star cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys-now says that he is born again. Someone sent me the sports page from one of the Dallas newspapers where the reporters covered the story of his conversion. As I read it, the story sounds genuine to me, but I could not help noticing how the writers struggled to come to grips with the whole notion of the new birth. To some it sounds like a cop-out, to others the final step before joining some weird suicide cult.
But as far as Jesus is concerned there is nothing strange about it. All of us need to be born again.
* Good people need the new birth.
* Religious people need the new birth.
* Church members need the new birth.
We all need to be born again, and if we’re going to go to heaven, we must be born again. Without it, none of us will ever see the kingdom of God.
As you read this message, I’m going to ask you to slow down for a moment and ponder the next sentence because it could change your life. Nicodemus represents all of us. He stands in the place of every good, decent, law-abiding, upstanding citizen who ever lived. He was a good man who knew about God but he didn’t know God personally. That’s the enigma of his personality. His story reminds us that religion is good, but the new birth is better.
We need what Nicodemus needed because we stand in exactly the same place. We need a vital experience of spiritual rebirth. In short, we need what Jesus talked about 2000 years ago.
You Must Do What Nicodemus Did
That brings me to the central issue of this sermon. If you want what Nicodemus found, you must do what Nicodemus did.
1. He admitted his need. He did that by taking a personal inventory of life and realizing that despite all his best efforts, something vital was missing on the inside. In summing up his virtues-which were many and genuine-this good man came to the conclusion that he needed “something else” in his life. He didn’t know what it was, he couldn’t put his finger on it, but deep within he sensed that his religion-sincere though it was-could not fill the gaping hole in his heart.
I pause to say that nothing else matters until you come to the same conclusion about your life. As long as you go blithely on your merry way thinking that everything is OK with your life, you can never be born again. It simply cannot happen to you because you do not feel your need for God’s intervention in your life.
You must start in the same place that Nicodemus started-with a sense of your own desperate need of God.
2. He came to Jesus personally. By that I mean he came on his own, by himself, individually, man to man. He sought and found the Son of God. This leads me to comment that Nicodemus could never have sent someone in his place. Nor could a committee have met his need.
Salvation involves a personal, individual commitment of your heart to Jesus Christ. No one can do it for you and you can’t make that commitment for anyone else.
3. He trusted Christ completely. I realize the text doesn’t reveal to us the fact of his conversion but I think it may be fairly inferred from the fact when next we read of Nicodemus, he is helping Joseph of Arimathea take the dead body of our Lord down from the cross (John 19:39). This means he had “crossed the line” and was now willing to identify with Jesus publicly. The most famous verse in the Bible-John 3:16-occurs in this passage and promises eternal life to those who “believe” in him-that is, in Jesus Christ. To believe means to rely on Christ so completely-to trust him so utterly and selflessly-that you are casting all that you are and all that you have and all that you hope to become on Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.
Nicodemus did this. So must you if you would be born again.
Four Steps to Peace With God
Let me make this clear from another source. Many of you are familiar with the Four Steps to Peace With God by Billy Graham. These four steps summarize how a person can be born again. Two steps deal with God and two steps deal with man.
Step 1: God wants to give you peace and eternal life. John 3:16 tells us that God offers “eternal life” to anyone who will believe in Jesus Christ. God makes the same offer to you that he makes to the entire world. He truly wants you to be forgiven and to spend eternity with him in heaven.
Step 2: Your problem is sin, which separates you from God. Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That simply means that no one is perfect because all of us have sinned in thought, word and deed. Do you know how many sins it takes to send you to hell? Just one-and most of us can take care of that first sin before we ever get out of bed in the morning.
Step 3: God’s remedy for your sin is the cross of Christ. Romans 5:8 says that God demonstrates his love toward us, in what while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. By his death on the cross, Jesus Christ took your place, died the death you should have died, and paid the penalty for all your sins.
Step 4: Your response is to trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Revelation 3:20 reminds us that Christ stands at the door of your heart knocking, knocking, knocking. Perhaps you’ve seen that famous painting of Christ standing outside a lovely English cottage. He’s obviously come for a visit but no one will let him in. Everything seems normal in the painting until your pause to look at the door. Something is missing. There is no doorknob! Why? Because the door to the heart is always locked from the inside.
Christ is a perfect gentleman. He will not barge into a life that does not want him to come in. He always waits for someone to open the door.
Now, then, let’s review those four steps to peace with God.
1. Do you understand that God wants you to have peace and life?
2. Do you admit you are a sinner and unable to save yourself?
3. Will you accept the death of Christ as sufficient payment for all your sins?
4. Are you ready to open the door of your heart and invite Christ to come in?
“Take Me to the Cross”
It all comes back to the Cross, doesn’t it? In one of his sermons Dr. Graham tells of a little boy lost in one of the large cities of northern England. When a police officer found him, the little boy was weeping because he couldn’t find his way. The officer began suggesting various streets, shops, and landmarks, hoping something would jog the boy’s memory. But nothing worked. Finally the officer remembered that there was a church in the middle of the town with an illuminated cross that stood above the skyline. Pointing to the cross, he asked the lad, “Do you live anywhere near the cross?” Suddenly brightening, the boy cried out, “Sir, take me to the cross and I can find my home.” Millions of people today need to come to the cross of Christ and when they do, they will find their way home to God.
I close my message with the question I asked in the beginning: Are you a real Christian or just a religious person?
– A religious person goes through the routine but doesn’t have the reality inside.
– A real Christian knows Jesus Christ because he or she has been born again.
What is your relationship with Jesus Christ? Do you know him personally? Many wonder, “If I die, what will happen to me?” That’s an important question because all of us will die sooner or later. Think for a moment about the terrible tragedy that befell Princess Diana two weeks ago in Paris. When she left the hotel that night, she had no idea that she would be dead before the morning. She never dreamed that she would soon stand before God. But it happened suddenly and tragically. The same thing may happen to any of us at any moment. Who here can be sure of lasting even one more day?
With all my heart I urge upon you the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Here is the message of the gospel in one sentence: Your life can be transformed through Jesus Christ!
– Some are trapped in bitterness.
– Some in addiction.
– Some in sinful habits.
– Some in deep personal confusion.
Some are like Nicodemus-very religious, very decent, very moral, very hardworking, very good by all the standards of goodness and yet you wonder deep inside, “Is that all there is?”
Jesus said, “You must be born again!!!” That can happen to you right now. In a matter of moments your life can change forever.
What will happen if you are born again? First, your sins will be forgiven by God (Ephesians 1:7). Second, you will be given a brand new life-the abundant life Jesus talked about (John 10:10). Third, you will never face God’s judgment-you will never go to hell (John 3:18). Fourth, you can know you are going to heaven when you die (1 John 5:13). All these things are given to you by God the moment you say “Yes” to Jesus Christ. Will you do that right now?
You must make a personal decision about Jesus Christ. No one can make it for you. Your parents may be godly people, but that doesn’t make you a Christian. You may have many fine Christian friends, but they cannot believe in your place. When it comes to the new birth, no one can be born again on your behalf. You must choose Jesus for yourself.
To make matters crystal-clear, this is not about joining the church. Nor is it an invitation to be baptized or to take communion or to give money or to anything else that might be considered religious. I am asking you to trust Jesus Christ and him alone as your Lord and Savior.
Would You Like to Be Born Again?
Would you like to be born again? It could happen right now. You can start over right now. Your life can change in this moment. I’m going to print a simple prayer that you can pray to God. Please remember that words mean nothing unless they express the desire of your heart. But if you truly want to be born again, this prayer will help you express that desire to God. I encourage you to read it through first and then say it out loud as a spoken prayer to the Lord.
Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner. I realize my sins have separated me from God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe he died on the Cross for my sins. I believe he rose from the dead on the third day. Here and now, with all my heart, I trust Jesus Christ as my own Savior and Lord. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and save me. Make me a brand-new person and give me a brand-new life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
If you prayed the prayer, I encourage you to sign your name and the date to this sermon and then keep it as a reminder of the decision you have made. I also encourage you to tell someone else today that you have trusted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Ask that person to sign as a witness of your decision to invite Christ into your life.