What is the Difference Between a Real Christian and a Religious Person?

John 3

November 11, 2008 | Ray Pritchard

Listen to this Sermon

Let’s begin with a simple question. What percentage of Americans believe in God? You probably won’t be surprised to know that the number is very high. One recent survey puts it at 94%.  That means that almost 19 out of 20 people in the U.S. believe in God. It also means you won’t run into very many atheists at the supermarket. Let’s try a second question. What percentage of Americans call themselves Christian? That number is also high, but not as high as the number who believe in God.  Approximately 83% of those surveyed claim to be Christian.

A study of the poll results suggests something like this. Almost everyone believes in God and most people consider themselves Christian. It appears that for many people being a Christian is primarily a matter of birth (“I’m a fourth-generation Presbyterian.”) or church affiliation (“I joined a Baptist church 20 years ago.”) or perhaps even of citizenship (“I’m an American and this is a Christian nation so I must be a Christian, right?”).  When the question is asked, “Do you consider yourself to be ‘born again’ or evangelical?” the percentage answering yes drops to 37%. Evidently there is a big difference in the minds of many people between being a Christian and being “born again.”

And that brings us to the question posed in the title: What’s the difference between a real Christian and a religious person? The question itself comes from an unsigned slip of paper turned in during a congregational survey. Whoever wrote this question deserves an A+ for creativity and for getting right to the point. The 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 have signed on the dotted line, so to speak, but who don’t act like true Christians ought to act. 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 a very personal question that I would like you ponder as you read this message.  Here it is: Am I a real Christian or am I just a religious person? 

It’s one thing to be religious; it’s another thing to be a real Christian.
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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. 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.

A Religious Man Who Needed God

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 two 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 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.

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 21th 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 about 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. No one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.Nicodemus 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.

We need a vital experience of spiritual rebirth.
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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 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? Let me put the question to you directly: 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 the religion part down pat, but Jesus said, “You must be born again.”

All of us need to be born again.
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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’d like 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 for 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.  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 his 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 men 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.

Nothing else matters until you come to the same conclusion about your life. As long as you go blithely on your way thinking that everything is OK with your life, you can never be born again. It simply cannot happen 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. Nicodemus could not send 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.

God makes the same offer to you that he makes to the entire world.
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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 Jesus Christ 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 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 the New Birth

You may be saying at this point, “I’d like this kind of personal relationship with Christ, but I don’t know where to begin or what I should do.” This week Dr. Billy Graham celebrated his 90th birthday. Many years he wrote a little tract called Four Steps to Peace with God. These four steps summarize how a person can be born again.

Step 1:  God loves you and wants you to know him. The most famous verse in the Bible comes from Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus. 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 fall short of God’s glory.” 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 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 that 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. While serving as a guest host on a national radio program, I took a call from a young girl named Angela who asked how you can know you are saved. I quoted 1 John 5:13, which says that you can know you have eternal life through believing in Christ. I told Angela that salvation depends on trusting Jesus Christ. It’s more than just believing facts about Jesus. To trust in Christ means to rely completely upon him. Trust is what you do when you fly in a plane. You trust the pilot to get you back down on the ground safely. You trust a doctor when you take the medicine he prescribes. You trust a lawyer when you let him represent you in court. God says that when you trust Jesus Christ in that same way you are saved from your sins. All you have to do is trust Christ completely and you can be saved. When I asked Angela what she thought about that, she blurted out, “Wow! That’s amazing.” Yes it is. It’s the most amazing truth I know.

All you need is nothing.
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Tim Keller offers this helpful explanation of what it means to truly trust in Christ:

Faith is transferring your trust from your own efforts to the efforts of Christ. You were relying on other things to make you acceptable, but now you consciously begin relying on what Jesus did for your acceptance with God. All you need is nothing. If you think, ‘God owes me something for all my efforts,’ you are still on the outside.

I love this sentence-“All you need is nothing.” Ponder that for a while. Keller is right. As long as you think you contribute something to your own salvation, you can’t be saved. But when you stop trying and start trusting-when you “transfer your trust” from yourself to Jesus Christ, you can be saved.

Trusting Jesus for salvation means to trust him so completely that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there.
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Let’s review those four steps to the new birth.

1.  Do you understand that God loves you and wants you to know him?
2.  Do you admit you are a sinner and unable to save yourself?
3.  Will you accept the death of Christ as the sufficient payment for all your sins?
4.  Are you ready to trust Christ as your Lord and Savior?

Let’s return one more time to 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.

With all my heart I urge upon you the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Here is the good news of the gospel in one sentence. Your life can be transformed through Jesus Christ!

–Some are trapped in bitterness.
–Some are trapped in addiction.
–Some are trapped in sinful habits.
–Some are trapped in deep personal confusion.

Some are like Nicodemus-very religious, very decent, very moral, very hardworking, and 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 even as you read these words. In a matter of moments your life can change forever.

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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 will be declared “not guilty” and “justified” in the eyes of God (Romans 4:5). Fifth, 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.

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 come to Christ on your own and put your faith in him as Savior and Lord.

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. Ponder the words of this little verse:

Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
I risk my whole eternity.

That is what it means to be a Christian. It means trusting Christ so much that you risk your eternity on what he did for you in his death and resurrection. I have sometimes told people that trusting Jesus for salvation means to trust him so completely that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there. Are you willing and ready to do that?

A religious person has religion; a Christian has been born again through personal faith in Jesus Christ.
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Perhaps it will help you to form your words into a very simple prayer. Even while I encourage you to pray this prayer, I caution you that saying words alone will not save you. Prayer doesn’t save. Only Christ can save. But prayer can be a means of reaching out to the Lord in true saving faith. If you pray these words in faith, Christ will save you. You can be sure of that.

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 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 have prayed this prayer in sincere faith, you may want to put your initials by the prayer along with today’s date as a reminder that you have come to Christ in faith. I also encourage you to tell someone else today that you have trusted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.

Let’s return one final time to our original question. What’s the difference between a real Christian and a religious person? A religious person has religion; a Christian has been born again through personal faith in Jesus Christ. It’s as simple as that. Religion is good but Jesus is better. And he’s the one who said, “You must be born again.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?