This is a great question that deserves attention. In my 10+ years of Youth Ministry I have found that this is one of the top questions that puzzle young people. I believe one of the reasons it gives them difficulty is because it is ingrained in our psyche to approach God through the lenses of personal performance or achievements. This viewpoint is classic religion, believing that God will love and accept you based on your obedience to do good works. Further, religion views God as a means to an end. We become consumers looking to get things from God rather than seeing God as the gift. Religion leaves a person unsatisfied and uncertain because they never know when or if they have done enough to stand confident before God.
The gospel gives certainty about salvation. The gospel is completely different than salvation because it is not about you but about Jesus. You are accepted and loved based on the perfect life of Jesus and the finished payment of sin from His death. Jesus lived the perfect, righteous life that is required of us and He paid the punishment of death which we deserve for our sin. Because of Jesus, we can humbly stand confident before God. It is by grace through faith that we are saved, not by works so that no one can take pride in themselves (Ephesians 2:8-9).
As you continue to explore what it means to have certainty in salvation it may be helpful to examine the life of a curiously religious man named Nicodemus. To start with Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Pharisees were a religious sect of Judaism that interpreted the Law with extreme careful exactitude (Josephus). They sought strict adherence to the words of Scripture. They even went so far as to add traditions to the Law to assist in obedience to God. Good Pharisees kept company with positive role models with good values (Matt 9:11), practiced spiritual disciplines of prayer & fasting (Matt 9:14), attended religious functions (Matt 12:2), memorized Scripture (Matt 23:5), were influential among upper class and religious groups (Matt 23:7), were adventurous missionaries (Matt 23:15), gave tithes (Matt 23:23), morally pure (Matt 23:24-28), knew only God forgave sin (Mark 2:7), protected God’s name (Mark 2:7-8), practiced religious traditions (Mark 7:5), prayed for signs and miracles from heaven (Mark 8:11), sought God’s wisdom on divorce and marriage (Mark 10:2), paid government taxes (Mark 12:13-15), practiced hospitality (Luke 11:37), separated from evil influencers (Luke 18:11), condemned adultery (John 8:3), investigated the legitimacy of healings and prophets (John 9:13), and on top of all that had doctrinal truth believing the resurrection (Acts 23:8).
All of that to say that Nicodemus was a Pharisee who approached Jesus with questions about God. One of the realities about religious people is that even they have unanswered questions. Nicodemus knew Jesus was from God because of the miracles and teaching He was doing. But his opinions about Jesus were not personal. He did not fully engage Jesus with commitment but with curiosity.
Through examining Jesus’ response and interaction with Nicodemus you can understand what it means to have certainty with God in your faith journey (salvation).
You can know for certain because of Jesus’ authority (3:1-4).
Nicodemus approached Jesus with curiosity and perhaps some hesitation. As a Pharisee he was intrigued about Jesus’ teaching and actions. He viewed Jesus as a Rabbi (teacher) and a miracle worker from God. Yet, he was unsure of Jesus’ full identity as being the Messiah.
Jesus’ responded with authority. In the original language, John used the words “Amen, Amen. I say unto you…” as a sign of Jesus’ assurance and certainty in His teaching. Jesus can be certain about the truth of His teaching because He is more than a Rabbi or prophet from God – He is God. Jesus is the divine Son of God (in the flesh 1:14).
Today there is resistance to identify Jesus as more than a good teacher or messenger of God. However, when examining His teaching and His actions one can clearly see that He claimed to be God. So, to believe Jesus’ words is to believe the words of Almighty God. Jesus has the full authority of God who says you will see the kingdom of God and be set free from sin through a faith that is “born again”. Being born again means having a renewed and forgiven spirit, and a renewed authority to live under. Whether than living for self, you are now living for above – the kingdom of God. Therefore, your certainty of salvation does not come from your performance but from the power and Lordship of Jesus.
You can know for certain because of Jesus’ awakening (3:5-8).
As Jesus continued to tell Nicodemus that he had to be born again to see the kingdom of God, this caused confusion for Nicodemus. He thought this meant he had to enter his mother’s womb a second time. Jesus gave further explanation saying that this new birth would not be physical but spiritual; “of water and the Spirit”. Jesus was describing a person who would be cleansed and forgiven of sin so that their failures do not define their identity but they had a renewal or awakening from God’s Spirit.
God’s Holy Spirit brings an unidentifiable awakening in a person’s life. Jesus describes the Spirit as a blowing of the wind that is unpredictable yet unmistakable. Two points to make regarding God’s Spirit to bring awakening in your life.
The first, though His presence is somewhat subjective He will always be a complement to God’s Word. In other words, the Spirit will never be, do or lead someone to contradict the character and commands of God. It is more than an emotional experience that will explode at first encounter leading to odd religious hysteria. Jesus is testifying of things of the greatest reality (v.12).
A second point to make is that God does not hide Himself from those who truly want to seek Him. God’s Spirit is available to all those who surrender to God on the basis of repentance and faith (v.15-18). Being born again and awakened to new life is not another religious ritual to perform… raise hand… walk an aisle… check this box type of mentality. What Nicodemus needed and we all need is an awakening of Jesus in the very depths of our being. This is more than mental assent but a heartfelt devotion that forever changes your identity.
You can know for certain because of Jesus’ actions (3:9-21).
As Jesus finishes His conversation with Nicodemus there becomes a teaching, whether from Jesus or John is to be determined, that further describes how born again life is cultivated. Salvation is attained on the basis of God loving the world and sending His Son for all those to believe in Him. Another way to describe what this message has been saying is that religion starts with man; salvation starts with God. God is the originator of new life because it was His idea to create and love the world. He demonstrates this through the sending of His Son.
Therefore, your certainty is not based on your actions or moral performance. It is based on Jesus being lifted up (v.14) and for all those who believe in His finished work on the cross will have eternal life.
TAKING IT HOME
– Who would Pharisees be compared to today?
– Do you think Nicodemus followed through in his faith? Why?
– Why is Jesus’ identity more important than a good teacher or a prophet?
– What are some common misconceptions about being “born again”?
– How is the Holy Spirit unpredictable yet unmistakable?
– How can you test to see if someone is acting or living based on the Holy Spirit? (Give several examples)
– Why does Jesus’ death on the cross finish or complete all the action required for salvation?
– Are you certain of your salvation? What unanswered questions do you have regarding “born again” faith?
– Who is your Nicodemus – someone you should seek to share and explain faith to?