To be a consistent Calvinist, a person must believe that the Bible teaches God limits His redemptive love toward His creation and that limited love is more reflective of God being the sum of perfect love than God extending His salvational love to all of His creation. Of course, the perennial problem with the Calvinist’s perspective is the explicit claims of Scripture to the contrary. The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus provides an example of God’s universal salvational love and sets the context for probably the most well-known and beloved verse in the Scripture, which explicitly declares God’s universal redemptive love for all of His creation (John 3:16).[i] I intend to set the context by briefly summarizing vss. 1-13. Then I will note some observations drawn from vss. 14-15. The illustration of vss. 14-15 serves a twofold purpose; first, it provides illumination for properly understanding some of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus in vss. 1-13; second, it serves as Jesus’s chosen introductory and illuminative illustration for vss. 16-21.
In vss. 1-2, Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is a teacher and in vs. 3,[ii] Jesus, as the greatest teacher, begins to teach Nicodemus about the necessity of being born again,[iii] which is a spiritual or heavenly birth, vs. 5-7, in contrast to a physical birth.[iv] Nicodemus did not understand Jesus’ teaching about the new birth (vss. 4 & 9). Christ gives two examples to illustrate this great truth. First, Christ uses the wind (vs. 8) to example both the natural and supernatural (known and unknown) components of what He is saying.[v] Even though we know more about the wind today, the ultimate why and how the wind blows is only fully understood by God alone (creator), but man can know something about it by its effects.
The same is true with the heavenly birth, which is a work of God’s creative power with observable effects. Consequently, the message to Nicodemus seems to be a summons to trust Jesus’ words that human birth, even if it included such recognitions as pharisaical standing or Jewish descent, is insufficient to make one right with God. Even recognizing Christ as a teacher from God is inadequate. For any person to experience the kingdom, salvation, God must create a new life. There must be a heavenly birth subsequent to the earthly birth in order to partake of God’s kingdom, i.e. be saved. This requirement confused Nicodemus for obvious reasons, but most importantly because it left him having to face the glaring inadequacy of what he was, all he had done, and with nothing He could do to rectify his lacking. This truth left him with faith and faith alone. Trusting God to do what Nicodemus could not do.
Calvinists[vi] are prone to see this as teaching that regeneration precedes faith.[vii] William Hendrickson says, “It is very clear, therefore, that there is an act of God which precedes any act of man. In its initial stage the process of changing a person into a child of God precedes conversion and faith.”[viii] Actually Jesus’ answer only addresses the question of requirement (vss. 3 & 5 “unless” and vs. 7 “must”). It does not address the sequential relationship of faith and the new birth. As a Jew, Nicodemus believed that human birth or activities were sufficient for rightly relating to God.[ix]
It is that issue to which Jesus speaks. The requirement for experiencing the kingdom, becoming a child of God, requires a new creative act of God; this speaks to the ineffectuality of anything less than that for obtaining salvation rather than whether being born again precedes faith or not. As far as the sequential relationship of faith and the new birth in this exchange, one only sees that when one realizes, what Nicodemus must have realized, that dependence upon anything short of God’s creative work cannot result in salvation; that shocking and humbling revelation left Nicodemus, where it rightly leaves everyone who is exposed to the salvation plan of God and desires forgiveness, to disavow everything else and trust that God will do for man, what man cannot do for himself.
This discussion says nothing to indicate that one must be regenerated in order to exercise faith, but rather it places regeneration as an essential to becoming a citizen of the kingdom, experience salvation. What seems most clear is that revelation from God precedes trust and dependence on God to do what man cannot do for himself, thereby, placing man in a position to believe or disbelieve His revelation. It does not seem immaterial to note that Jesus said nothing about anything even remotely related to unconditional election or selective regeneration, which would have been exceptionally helpful if true.
In vs. 10, Nicodemus is scolded because the reference to wind should have also have caused him to recognize that time spoken of by the prophets, “The Old Testament prophets spoke of the new Age with its working of the Spirit (Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:25–27; Joel 2:28–29). The nation’s outstanding teacher ought to understand how God by His sovereign grace can give someone a new heart (1 Sam. 10:6; Jer. 31:33).”[x]
Vs. 13, Jesus makes clear that He and He alone can reveal these truths about the new birth accurately and explain how man can enter the kingdom of God even though man cannot cause himself to be born again. Israel, including Nicodemus, had become steeped in a works approach to God and the belief that being a Jew was in and of itself eternally superior to other lineages. Essentially, there are only two approaches to God; one is according to the wisdom of man (“the broad road”) and one according to the wisdom of God (“the narrow road”). The former leads to death and the latter simply trusts in God to do the work of salvation that leads to new eternal life, Matthew 7:13-14.
Jesus takes His second example from Israel’s history, vss. 14-15. Nicodemus would have definitely been aware of this historical event. This example speaks to both the requirement (God giving new life) and the sequential relationship of faith (man’s part) for receiving God’s creative offer. To wit, it serves to clarify further the need for faith on man’s part to trust that God will work the miracle of providing new life to the dying in response to simple faith. The significance of this event is seen in that it is the incident that our Lord Jesus used to provide understanding of the preceding verses and most poignantly to rightly understand vss. 16-21, which maintain the same sequential relationship of faith and the reception of new life—salvation.
Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life,” (John 3:14–15). The degree to which Jesus used this historical event to illustrate the reality and purpose of His death on the cross is highlighted by the words kath?s[xi] (vs. 14) translated “As” (meaning “just as”) and hout?[xii] (vs. 14) translated “even so” (meaning “in the same way”), and hina[xiii] (vs. 15) translated “so that” (meaning “in order that” i.e. for the purpose of). Many have pointed out such things as the serpent was a type of Christ in that the serpent of brass was like the deadly serpents, but without the poisonous venom, and Christ was like man but without sin, (Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22–24). We know it pictured the cross of Christ most emphatically because Christ so states. In like manner, we know that the illustration illuminates the purpose of His being lifted up and the process whereby the new life created by God is applied. Vs. 15 tells us the purpose (“so that” introduces the purpose clause) of the lifting up of the serpent and Christ is so that one can believe and receive deliverance (new life) from God. That is to say, Jesus’ use of the historical example lucidly demonstrates the sequence of faith and reception of God’s deliverance. Consequently, I believe Christ’s use of this illustration serves as the crucial interpretive grid for vss. 16-21.
Both those who reject Calvinism and Calvinists alike believe that Christ was lifted up “so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (vs. 15). The crucial difference is that Calvinism believes that only the limited unconditionally elect, exclusively atoned for, and selectively regenerated can do so because otherwise sinful man not only will not but also cannot believe unto salvation; in contrast, those who reject Calvinism believe that God has unconditionally and unlimitedly grace-enabled one and all to be able to look in faith and be saved. Essential to these two understandings is that Calvinism believes a person receives new life (is born again) prior to being able to exercise faith whereas the rest of us believe that a person exercises faith prior to receiving new life, and that reception of the new life (being born again) is actually conditioned upon grace-enabled faith.
Calvinists seem quite inclined to recognize only the similarities between this event and the death of Christ that are consistent with Calvinism as illuminative comparisons.[xiv] However, Jesus seems to emphasize a more extensive connection since He explicitly spoke to the sequence of faith and the reception of new life in vss. 14-15, to which this historical illustration speaks specifically and corroboratively so that the non-prejudiced obvious conclusion is that the grace-revelation of the seriousness of sin and God’s judgment (man’s plight) occasions the opportunity of faith, which precedes the reception of life. Correspondingly, both Jesus’ words and this historical illustration are in harmony with the previously mentioned reality that either faith or disbelief is the only recourse for man once faced with what the seriousness of his sin requires, a creative new birth by God. This understanding is also in perfect harmony with God’s universal declaration of love in vs. 16. Equally important, the historical illustration clarifies who is included in the “whoever” of vss. 15-16. Consequently, Calvinism’s disregard of those obvious aspects of the illustration that further clarify who is included in the “whoever” and that the sequential relationship is one of faith preceding regeneration is unjustifiable and telling indeed.
These verses recall the incident in Numbers 21:4-9. Vss. 1-3 teaches that God gave Israel a great victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Vss. 4-5 tell us that the Israelites became impatient with Moses, God’s leader and therefore God, and were griping and complaining (Numbers 20:4). God then judged their ungratefulness and rebellion, sending poisonous snakes among them. If a person was bitten by one of the serpents, he died, and many of them did die (vs. 6). God’s judgment prompted them to repent and plead for Moses to intercede for them (vs. 7).
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived” (Numbers 21:8–9). This illustration seems crucial in determining whether the Calvinists’ or Extensivists’[xv] view is most reflective of what Christ’s death accomplished and what God’s love desires.
The following are some observations drawn from the biblical presentation of this event in order to provide a biblical lens through which to understand the relationship of revelation, opportunity, faith, salvation and the required new birth. This approach seems far superior to Calvinism’s superimposed limited interpretive grid of unconditional election. Keep in mind, Jesus chose to compare His crucifixion to this example.
In light of God’s revelation regarding the nature and actions of man, and that many of those at the time of the incident had not been faithful to trust and obey God’s promises for years, there may well have been some who rejected the offer because of pride, a sense of independence, believing they would somehow survive, or maybe a doctor would find a cure. Additionally, since the group was undoubtedly rather large, it is probable that some could not actually see the pole as clearly as others could, maybe some were blocking the visions of others, some may have had cataracts, but they could all exercise a faith prompted look. Maybe some were even far enough away that they heard of God’s offer second or third hand. Regardless, while all may not have seen everything clearly, and none could fully understand the work of God; all could look by faith and receive healing.[xvi]
Although earlier in his conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus was utterly confused; it seems quite plausible that this historical illustration played a part in Nicodemus’s understanding of how to become a true disciple of God (John 19:39). It appears that this example made the truth of John 3:16-21 compellingly clear to him, and when he saw Christ high and lifted up, his works as leaving him hopelessly damned, he simply trusted God and left the business of the required new life to God His creator and deliverer.
[i] See discussion in various commentaries of whether Jesus continues speaking in vs. 16-21 or John is now speaking.
[ii] Regarding the word “see,” vs. 5 uses the word eiserchomai meaning “enter” or “enter into” for the same idea. “See” “Often the verbs mean ‘to perceive’ in such senses as ‘to experience,’… ‘to realize,’ ‘to know.’ Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), 710. William Hendrickson, a Calvinist, notes the same meaning of see, “There must be a radical change. And unless one is born from above he cannot even see the kingdom of God; i.e., he cannot experience and partake of it; he cannot possess and enjoy it (cf. Luke 2:26; 9:27; John 8:51; Acts 2:27; Rev. 18:7).” William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, vol. 1, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 133.
[iii] “The meaning of an?then, frequently rendered ‘again,’ is an intriguing matter. The Greek word an?then here is multidimensional and can mean ‘again’ or ‘from above’ as well as the less likely ‘rom the beginning.’” Gerald L. Borchert, John 1–11, vol. 25A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 172–173.
[iv] One’s position regarding whether water refers to physical birth or is conjoined to spiritual birth is not germane to my article. You may read any commentary to find the various views including arguments for and against baptismal regeneration. What is clear is that a new birth subsequent to human birth is essential.
[v] The word wind and spirit are the same word in the original, pneuma.
[vi] The view that regeneration precedes faith seems to be the dominant view among Baptist Calvinists and is significantly prevalent throughout the Calvinistic spectrum, but not all Calvinists endorse that view.
[vii] Any reliance upon analogizing the spiritual and physical birth is without merit, see my article Calvinism’s New Birth Analogy is Unconvincing posted 10/20/14, sbctoday.com.
[viii] William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, vol. 1, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 133.
[ix] Nicodemus’ confusion regarding the concept of the new birth can also be partly attributed to his unfamiliarity with such expressions. We find this today even among Christians whose particular tradition does not use such terminology as regularly as others, like Baptists, do.
[x] Edwin A. Blum, “John,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 281.
[xi] ????? sometimes functions as a comparative particle (1 Thess 4:13; 1 John 3:12), but most often as a subordinating conj. (cf. BDF §453), where the most important function is also comparison. ????? can therefore be translated (just) as and so far, just as. Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 226.
[xii] ????? can refer to the foregoing, usually in a correlative construction….When used absolutely ????? means (with reference to the foregoing): thus / in this way, or accordingly / therefore; Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 549. Also, ???? hout? and ????? hout?s; adv. from 3778; in this way, thus:—even so(1), exactly(2), exactly*(1), follows(2), in such a manner(1), in such a way(4), just(2), like this(5), like*(1), same(2), same manner(1), same way(5), so(125), such(2), then(1), thereby(1), this(1), this is the way(2), this is how(1), this effect(1), this manner(4), this respect(1), this way(22), thus(7), way(7), way this(1). Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries: Updated Edition (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998).
[xiii] ???a; ????b: markers of purpose for events and states…‘in order to, for the purpose of, so that.”’ Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 784.
[xiv] For example, Hendrickson says, “Now, in John 3:14 the words “As Moses … so must the Son of man” clearly indicate that the event recorded in Numbers 21 is a type of the lifting up of the Son of man. This does not mean, however, that we now have the right to test our ingenuity by attempting to furnish a long list of resemblances between type and Antitype, as is often done. In reality, as we see it, only the following points of comparison are either specifically mentioned or clearly implied in 3:14, 15 (cf. also verse 16):
[xv] The debate seems to be whether the salvific work of God is exclusive or extensive. An Extensivist believes that man was created in the image of God with otherwise choice and that God’s salvation plan is comprehensive, involving an all-inclusive unconditional offer of salvation and eternal security of the believer; reception of which is conditioned upon grace-enabled faith rather than a narrow plan involving a limited actual offer of salvation restricted to the unconditionally elected, or any plan that, in any way, conditions salvation upon merely a humanly generated faith from fallen man.
[xvi] Like the vulgarization of the cross today (merely a piece of jewelry or an iconic symbol of darkness), some turned this act of God’s grace into paganism (2 Kings 18:4).