Roger Severino

Christianity is not Conduct, Creed, or Cult. It’s a New Birth: Reflections on John 3

The Old Testament had promised that one day God would pour out His Spirit on His people. The Book of Ezekiel, for example, references God putting His Spirit in His people in chapters 11, 36, 37, and 39.When the Spirit’s outpouring is realized at Pentecost, Peter references a prophecy from the Book of Joel.

But prior to Pentecost, the Spirit is prominent in the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus. John the Baptist said that the Messiah would baptize the people with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove at his baptism. He performs miracles in the power of the Spirit. In the Upper Room discourse (John 14-17), Jesus tells His disciples about the coming Spirit, and what his role will be.

In John 3, Jesus has a conversation with a learned religious leader named Nicodemus. He tells him that unless one is born again (or possibly “born from above”), one cannot see the Kingdom of God. Jesus goes on to clarify that this new birth is accomplished by the Holy Spirit (see vv. 5-8). Out of all the ways Jesus could have described entrance into God’s Kingdom, why did he chose this metaphor of being born again? Perhaps it undercuts the idea that moral behavior, correct beliefs, or religious ritual are sufficient. It’s about transformation. Just as a caterpillar must go through a metamorphosis to become a butterfly, so a person must experience transformation to become a follower of Jesus.

If Jesus gives us instructions about what it means to enter God’s Kingdom, we should heed this, correct? Out of the many decisions in life, this is one we don’t want to get wrong. So, what Christianity is not may be as important as getting a correct handle on what it is.

First, it’s not a code of conduct. It’s not simply about being a “good person,” trying to live a moral life, or trying to follow the 10 Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount (which is impossible anyway).

Second, it’s not simply a creed – that is, simply believing the things that Jesus taught, or the doctrines of the church. James 2:19 says: “You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe—and they shudder.” Mental assent is not the same thing as saving faith.

Finally, it’s not simply about a cult. Now, I know that we usually use the term cult to refer to a sectarian group that does not hold to the core doctrines of historic Christianity, or has practices that are very controlling or out of the ordinary. But as a general term, the word “cult” means religious worship and observance. So, being a follower of Jesus is not simply about going to church; nor does participating in baptism and the Lord’s Supper automatically make you a follower of Jesus.

Jesus says it’s like being born again. There is a transformation of our personhood that is accomplished by God’s Spirit. Now, it does not have to be a dramatic occurrence. Many who have been raised in the faith have allowed God’s Spirit to work in their lives over time, a more gradual process. The evidence is not necessarily an emotional conversion, but a changed life that desires to become more like Jesus. The Apostle Paul gives us a great litmus test of the Spirit’s work in our lives. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22).

Do you call yourself a Christian because of conduct, creed, or cult? Or have you experienced the new birth? What evidence do you see of God’s work of transformation in your life?

  • The terms conduct, creed, and cult are gleaned from John Stott’s Christian Basics (out of print).

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