Trinity Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| June 6, 2004| St. John 3:1-15
To talk about being a “born again Christian” is somewhat like talking about canine dogs, feline cats, or holy saints. It’s a redundancy. If you are born again, you are a Christian. If you are a Christian, you are born again. Only Christians are born again and the only way to become a Christian is to be born again.
But the term “born again Christian” refers to someone who holds to a particular point of view about how one is born again. So-called “born again Christians” refer to the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Then they proceed to set forth as God’s truth their own opinion of how this new birth takes place. They teach that a sinner can be born again by confessing that he is a sinner and then inviting the Lord Jesus into his heart to become his personal Lord and Savior. This is called the sinner’s prayer. If you have sincerely prayed this prayer they teach that you are born again. If you have not prayed this prayer you are not born again.
The Bible teaches something very different. When Jesus said to Nicodemus that he had to be born again to see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus responded with a question. He asked, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Of course, the very idea is absurd. He cannot. But Jesus wasn’t talking about a physical rebirth. He was talking about a spiritual rebirth. He explained to Nicodemus how that could happen. He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
It is not true that you are born again by praying a prayer to God. The Bible nowhere teaches that. You are not born again by something that you do. You are born again by something that God does. God joins the water of Holy Baptism to the Holy Spirit. Baptism thereby becomes the means by which the Holy Spirit effects the new spiritual birth. People who are by nature spiritually helpless are born from above by the power of the Holy Spirit and made into children of God. It is false doctrine to say that you become a Christian by means of praying a prayer. Only Christians can pray to God. The means of becoming a Christian is up to God, not us. God is the one who has joined the promise of the new birth to the waters of Holy Baptism.
“How can these things be?” So asks Nicodemus. He’s afraid to talk to Jesus during the daytime when others might see him. He wants instruction from Jesus, but he insists on knowing how God can do the things that only God can do. Jesus takes Nicodemus as He finds him. In teaching Nicodemus, Jesus teaches us. He teaches us that we are in no position to place the word of God under the judgment of human reason. What God says is so because God says so. God doesn’t need our approval or our understanding. “Most assuredly I say to you,” Jesus says. Literally, “Amen, amen, I say to you.” God is God and we are not and we do not learn anything from God when we insist on knowing how God’s words to us can be true.
Jesus is no mere rabbi or teacher sent by God. Jesus is the Word become flesh, true God and true man. As we confess in the words of the Athanasian Creed, Jesus is:
God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds;
And Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world.
It is by Christ’s authority that we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Father teaches us to listen to Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son. The Holy Spirit testifies to Christ. In Holy Baptism, we put on Christ, we are buried and raised with Christ, and we become Christians. We are Christians. This means that we are Trinitarians. As we confess, “And the true Christian faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.” In the third chapter of St. John’s Gospel the Triune God is clearly revealed. The Father sends the Son. The Son is lifted up on the cross. All who believe in the Son sent by the Father have everlasting life. But only those to whom the Holy Spirit grants the new birth of faith can look to the Son of God in faith. That which is born of the flesh is and remains flesh. You must be born again. Only the Holy Spirit can effect this new and spiritual birth.
Those who deny the Holy Trinity create idols in their own minds so that they can have a god who will submit to their own standards of reasonableness. Those who create false gods – and all gods are false gods except for the Holy Trinity – insist to their gods that they explain to them how this or that can be. They can no more submit to the mystery of God’s revelation in Christ than a man can enter into his mother’s womb to be born a second time. The spiritual birth is just such a mystery of our faith. You aren’t born again by making a deal with God whereby you give him your heart and He gives you salvation. You are born again by grace and by grace alone.
God’s grace defies standards of human reasonableness. What is reasonable to us is often false. That an outward washing of the body could be the means for a cleansing of the soul is unreasonable. How can water do such great things? But it is not the water indeed that does these things. It is the word of God that is in and with this water. God’s word teaches us about God’s grace. Human reason consistently denies God’s grace. To deny baptismal regeneration – that is, to deny that we are born again spiritually in Holy Baptism – is to set human reason above the clear word of God as both judge and jury. The word of God is clear. Baptism is a washing that is of water, but not of water only, but of water and the Holy Spirit. The church has always taught that John 3:5 refers to Holy Baptism. The text cannot rightly be interpreted to refer to anything else. Because we cannot understand how God regenerates us by placing His name upon us in the washing of Holy Baptism we may be inclined to question that He actually does so.
But that questioning is dangerous. It is such questioning that leads people right out of the Church by calling into question the Holy Trinity because we cannot understand how this mystery can be true. There have always been Unitarians of sorts who deny the doctrine that there is only one true God who is three distinct but inseparable persons. The Jehovah’s Witnesses mock the Trinity. They say that the devil invented the teaching that God is one divine being and three distinct persons. Many Protestant theologians deny the true deity of Jesus Christ and the personality of the Holy Spirit. Those who bow down before the god of reason insist that God cannot be above our comprehension and they will not submit to God’s truth when they cannot be in control of it. Since they can make no sense out of the Trinity they deny that God is Triune.
But God must be Triune. The One who sends His Son to be our Savior must be God because salvation is from God alone. It is sin that comes from us. Rescue from sin comes from God. Death comes from us. Life comes from God. The Father must be God because the Father is the Source of life, forgiveness, salvation, and every good and perfect thing there is.
God must be Triune. The One who is sent to be our Savior must be God because only God can save us. If the Son is not God He isn’t begotten of the Father and He is only a man. And if the Son is not God He cannot destroy sin and death by bearing all our sin and dying our death. If the Son is not God, looking to Him and trusting in Him for eternal life is plain foolishness, for who would trust in a mere man who claims He has eternal life to give?
God must be Triune. The One who regenerates us, giving us the new birth by which we can enter into the kingdom of God must be God because who can create spiritual life but God alone? Is not spiritual life as great a gift as physical life? The Creator of all that exists has created nothing in all of creation as wonderful as the faith that looks to Jesus for eternal life and trusts in Him. Consider the vastness of the universe, the meticulous order in creation, and the immeasurable power displayed in the natural world. All of this speaks of God’s intelligence and might, but nothing God has done in all of His creation can compare to what God does in bringing us to faith.
The reason many people refuse to baptize babies is because they reason to themselves that a baby cannot believe in Jesus. Neither can an adult. Nobody can. Faith is not a human achievement. It is usually the case that adults will come to faith before they are baptized. In the Scriptures, faith and baptism are always joined. The order of things – whether we first believe and are then baptized or are first baptized and then believe – is not the point. It is the relationship between faith and Holy Baptism that is important. They go together because faith receives what baptism gives. We don’t baptize babies because we see any evidence for their faith. We cannot see evidence for an adult’s faith. Oh, we can hear a good confession of the truth and we can watch to see if a man or a woman lives a life to support that confession. But we cannot see the faith that is confessed and we cannot see if the deeds are fruits of faith or hypocritical posturing. Faith is invisible to everyone but God. God knows those who belong to Him. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” (Mark 10:14-15) Jesus said, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6) In these words the Bible clearly teaches infant faith. We don’t baptize babies because of what we can see in the baby. To be born again is to undergo a spiritual rebirth into God’s kingdom that only God can see. But we believe this is what happens on the strength, not of our reason, but of God’s word.
It must have appeared to be utterly unreasonable for the victims of poisonous vipers to look up to the bronze serpent on a pole and be saved. But God commanded Moses to put a bronze serpent up on a pole so that those who were dying from the venom of poisonous snakes would live and not die. Those who looked lived just as God said they would. The serpent on the pole was a sign of Christ on the cross. Faith is as simple as looking. But the looking is not the looking of reasonable men and women seeking rational evidence upon which to build their faith. The looking of faith is the looking of a sinner dying from the poison of his own sin. Within him there is no hope. There is only death. Faith looks to Jesus who drank the poison of the world’s sin, suffering its bitterness, guilt, and shame, and overcoming it by His innocence. The looking of faith is the receiving of God’s grace. It is the receiving of God Himself. This faith has no dimension. It is not so high or long or wide. It simply receives. It doesn’t do and in its doing trust in itself for doing. It rests in God’s doing. There it is confident and secure. There it finds new life every new day as Holy Baptism remains the washing of regeneration by the Holy Spirit that flows like a river throughout life. This faith worships the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It despises all other gods as worthless idols.
This past Thursday as I was admiring one after another beautiful church in Kiev in which by many mosaics, paintings, and icons the mystery of the Holy Trinity is confessed with breathtaking beauty, I looked beyond the golden dome of a church to see a particularly ugly statue. It was a huge monstrosity featuring the victory of Soviet man over the capitalist oppressor (or something like that). God is beautiful. Man without God is unbearably ugly. But baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit we are beautiful. We are clothed in the righteousness of Christ Himself and we are beautiful. The faith of every Christian is precious to the One who created it. We are tossed here and there by doubts and plagued by sins from the inside and persecution from the outside and our faith is precious to God. As we celebrate Trinity Sunday we celebrate as well the faith that God, through Holy Baptism, continues to establish in our hearts. We are truly born again, born from above, and have inherited the kingdom of God.