John 3:3


Born in Cedarville, New Jersey, Frank Bateman Stanger was ordained by The Methodist Church in 1938, and served Methodist churches in his home state until, in 1959, he became executive vice president of Asbury Theological Seminary. Fie holds the B.A. degree from Asbury College, Th.B. from Princeton Theological Seminary, S.T.M. and S.T.D. from Temple University, and the honorary D.D. from Philathea College. He is author of the volume A Workman That Needeth Not To Be Ashamed. In denominational posts he has served as president of the New Jersey Conference Historical Society, Northeastern Judisdictional Methodist Historical Society, and as a member of the executive committee of the American Association of Methodist Historical Societies. He has also been a delegate to four World Methodist conferences.


There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus said unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.

It was a memorable interview between Nicodemus, one of the chief Pharisees, and Jesus Christ. The very circumstances surrounding it speak with eloquence. A man stood in the presence of God. A ruler of the Jews was seeking entrance into another kingdom, the kingdom of God. A teacher came seeking information from the Great Teacher. Moreover, it was night—a vivid figure of any soul outside the kingdom of God. But the wind was stirring, a spiritual symbol of the working of the Spirit of God.

Little wonder that this interview between Nicodemus and Jesus continues to be of vital significance. It is representative, on the one hand, of the continuing divine purposefulness in establishing the kingdom of God and, on the other, of man’s persistent quest to enter into that realm of spiritual experience which the Kingdom represents. So men in all centuries, and contemporary man is no exception, have sought the way into the Kingdom.

Article continues below

The kingdom of God is the master thought in the teaching of our Lord. Mark records: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the gospel.” The teachings of Jesus reveal the Kingdom to be that domain of life, personal or corporate, in which the will of God is done. In the “Lord’s Prayer” the Kingdom is equated with the will of God: “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” In the light of New Testament teaching and experience, the Kingdom is that realm of life in which there is deliverance from sin, power to live righteously, and delight in doing God’s will.

That man has ever sought to gain entrance into this kind of spiritual existence is not difficult to understand. For the kingdom of God is realism. Jesus makes himself and the Kingdom synonymous with life. He declares that living works satisfactorily only in the Kingdom way. “The kingdom of God,” He points out, “is within you.” It is built into the very structure of the self. The Kingdom is our “real” nature. The laws of the Kingdom are actually the laws of our being. Life will work in God’s way and in no other. Only as we co-operate with the nature of the universe do we live in accordance with our true nature. When we default against the Kingdom we default against ourselves. Sin is actually an attempt to live against the laws of one’s own created being and get away with it.

Even unregenerate man, living under the influence of an inherited sinful nature, recognizes his inalienable right, by divine creation, to attain such a level of existence as that expressed by the Kingdom.

For Nicodemus as a person, and as the representative of spiritually concerned individuals, the kingdom of God is tar more than a traditionally nationalistic issue. How often Nicodemus’ forbears and contemporaries had asked: “Wilt Thou restore the Kingdom to Israel?” But for him the issue was intensely personal: “How may I gain entrance into the kingdom of God?” Man in his patriotism may covet the Kingdom in a nationalistic sense. But man in the depths of his created being lias a longing for the Kingdom in a personal, spiritual sense.

Here, then, we discover the essential characteristic of the universal spiritual quest of mankind. Man, realizing that the kingdom of God and life are synonymous for him, knows that in his sinful state he is not a citizen of that Kingdom. So, conscious of the crucial conflict, he becomes desperately intent upon the resolving of this spiritual tension. This universal pursuit is the crux of the story of religion. Man is seeking continually to transform Paradise Lost into Paradise Regained. He is looking persistently for the Gate into the Kingdom.

Article continues below

Because of his sinful nature, man has attempted to follow wrong ways into the Kingdom. Nicodemus was a learned man, deeply religious, sincerely ethical, a leader in spiritual matters. Even so, the longings of his soul remained unsatisfied, and the result was spiritual death. He must find yet another way, the right way.

The kingdom of God is not entered along the way of special privilege. The gospel narrative tells of the mother of James and John seeking for her sons the promise of a place of privilege in the Kingdom. Here is our Lord’s response: “Can ye drink of the cup that I shall drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?… Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized: but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.”

Neither does the way of mere formal orthodoxy lead into the Kingdom. When one of the scribes, a paragon of orthodoxy, commended Jesus for His correct recital of the two great commandments, the Master replied: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” “Not far”—but not in it. To sanctimonius Pharisees Jesus spoke in the same vein: “You shut the kingdom of heaven against men: for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

Nor does he who follows the way of material security gain entrance into the kingdom of God. Because he had great possessions the rich young ruler turned sorrowfully away from Jesus. And Christ’s wistful comment was: “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”

Moreover, the way of good works does not lead into the Kinodom. The words of our Master in this regard were stern and decisive: “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were religionists of works: they held fast the traditions, they worshiped, they observed the ceremonial enactments, they tithed, they evangelized. But their righteousness was a formal, mechanical, legalistic, lifeless thing. Their works could not save them.

Article continues below

What, then, is the right way, the only way, into the Kingdom? Christ’s own answer to this question leaves us with no doubt: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” A new spiritual mood is demanded. There must be a spiritual transformation as radical as birth. A new birth, through the Spirit of God, is the only way into the Kingdom.

In 1752 Whitefield wrote to Benjamin Franklin: “As I find you growing more and more famous in the world of letters I recommend to your unprejudiced study the mystery of the New Birth. It is a most important study and if mastered will abundantly repay you. I bid you, dear friend, remember that He before whose bar we must both soon appear has solemnly declared that without it we shall in no wise see His Kingdom.”

The New Birth has been described in various, yet suggestive ways. It has been spoken of as “that inward happy crisis by which human life is transformed and an issue opened up toward the ideal life.” Or, to use more theological language, “the New Birth is that great change which God works in the soul, when he brings it into life: when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the Almighty Spirit of God, when it is created anew in Christ Jesus.”

The Apostle Paul declares: “If anyone is in union with Christ he is a new being; the old state of things has passed away; there is a new state of things” (Goodspeed). Commenting on this Pauline declaration, Paul Tillich says: “The New Being is not something that simply replaces the old. It is a RENEWAL of the old which has been corrupted, distorted, split, almost destroyed—but not wholly destroyed. Salvation does not destroy creation; it transforms the old creation into a new one.”

The spiritual decisiveness of the New Birth can be understood more fully by noting three of its characteristic elements: repentance, regeneration, and conversion. Repentance is a change of mind concerning sin, a changed mind which results in the confession and forsaking of sin. This is man’s responsibility, and is a prerequisite for the exercise of the faith that saves.

Regeneration is a change in nature, solely a divine work. To use the words of E. Stanley Jones, “This New Birth, John (1:13) says, is ‘not of blood’—it cannot be inherited from the bloodstreams of our parents; nor of the will of the flesh’—you cannot get it by the efforts of the will, lifting yourself by the bootstraps; nor of the will of man’—no man can give it to you, neither pastor nor priest nor pope; ‘but of God.’ It is direct from God or not at all.”

Article continues below

Conversion, the inevitable response to both repentance and regeneration, manifests itself in a continuing change of life. This is effected through an active spiritual co-operation between God and man. Such a converted life is the essence of Christian discipleship. Even after we have been initially converted through the divine act of regeneration, we are only “Christians-in-the-making” in relation to the many areas of our lives which must be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Hence, we “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord.” Thus conversion is seen also as the process of spiritual maturity: we become more and more like Christ through his power which works within us.

In his description of Pilgrim after his conversion, John Bunyan makes clear what happens when a person becomes a Christian. Three “shining ones” appeared to Pilgrim. The voice of one spoke: “Thy sins be forgiven.” This is the forgiveness of sins. The second gave him beautiful raiment for the rags of sin. This is the beauty of Christ’s righteousness in one’s life. The third placed a mark on his forehead. This signifies his adoption into the family of God.

The steps along the way into the kingdom of God are well marked and decisive. First, there must be an intense personal desire: “I want to be a Christian.” Second, desire is manifest in confession: “I am sorry for my sins. I confess my sins to God.” Third, there is personal acceptance through faith: “I believe that Jesus Christ died for me. By faith I accept him as my Saviour now.” Then inevitably there results a wholehearted dedication: “I belong to Christ forever—I am his and he is mine.”

Human experience has revealed a paradox in this matter of entering the Kingdom. On the one hand, to those who are spiritually sincere and intensely desirous, who renounce all hope of salvation save in Christ, it is a simple way. But to those who persist in holding on to any self-efforts or who place any confidence in things other than the salvation Christ offers, it continues to be an imposing, foreboding, difficult way. Such individuals experience the probing meaning of Jesus’ words: “How difficult it is for those who trust in riches (or in other things) to enter into the kingdom of God.”

Article continues below
Comment On The Sermon

The sermon “The Way into the Kingdom” was nominated forCHRISTIANITY TODAY’SSelect Sermon Series by Dr. James D. Robertson, Professor of Preaching in Asbury Theological Seminary. Dr. Robertson’s overcomment follows:

This sermon has much to commend it. It deals with a great theme, the New Birth—the foundation and genesis of Christianity. It breathes a bracing evangelical spirit: the Kingdom is real, it is here, it’s for you; life can be meaningful now. This is a redemptive preaching of a high standard. It is grounded in the Word. It speaks with authority—authority, one feels, girded by the preacher’s first-hand knowledge of what he is talking about. It is, moreover, anchored in the stream of life—today’s life. Christ appears not one whit less vocal today than in the long ago; he is our great contemporary. Adaptation of the truth of the text is accomplished with verve and freshness. The preacher does not hesitate to express his orthodoxy in current terms. The oral style of the message has the marks of straightforward speech. Sentences are clear, correct, often forceful. The number and variety of extra-biblical materials suggests breadth of reading interests. Illustrations and quotations are well integrated into the sermon and are a vital source of illumination and power.

Psychologically, the sermon moves from a troubled insecurity, through sober reflection, into joyous hope. Early, the sense of personal involvement is aroused. The problem is aggravated by the exposure of “wrong ways” men follow in their search for the Kingdom. The description of the “right way” helps scatter the gloom which, for the serious seeker, may well be dispelled altogether in the great conversion hymn that concludes the whole.

If a discourse is to be intellectually respectable its content must be structurally clear. In this instance the idea unfolds in the light of the preacher’s aim. The sense of advance and the prospect of arrival significantly fashion the thrust of the message. It gets off to a dynamic start in the terse, suggestive description of the night meeting, in which Nicodemus’ role shadows forth our own restless seeking after the kingdom of God. The aim of the sermon is at once made clear: to help man find the way into the Kingdom. But first it must be made plain just what Everyman, in the person of Nicodemus, is really seeking, and why he is seeking. The Kingdom is explained in terms of life lived in God’s way through Christ possessing us, and man is seen as so constituted that he cannot live his life satisfactorily in any other way. But man, conscious of the gulf between his present sinful state and his attainment of Kingdom status, has ever sought to initiate on his own a way into the Kingdom. Here follows a brief treatment of “wrong ways.” Till now, all has been preparatory to the setting forth of “the right way”—the way of the New Birth. The New Birth is emphasized as a “Divine Must”; it is defined from several standpoints; it is further explained by breaking it down into its elements; then the steps necessary to its attainment are presented. Before his final word, the preacher takes his truth and, setting it squarely in the midst of our times, makes us face up to it. It is the one thing needful in our generation. It bears a message of perpetual relevance. The sermon ends on a high note—a poem in which a greatly beloved Christian describes exultingly his own conversion experience. This is a God-exalting, triumphant, resounding appeal—altogether a forthright and effective sermon.

Article continues below

J. D. R.

The contemporary relevance of the New Birth must ever be kept in mind. What Jesus said to Nicodemus centuries ago he continues to say to “John Smith” and to “Mary Jones.” The words of our Master which filled that moonlight-flooded conference room still constitute the pertinent spiritual message of sanctuary and chapel, of mission hall and private oratory. As Paul Tillich has said, “If I were asked to sum up the Christian message for our times in two words, I would say with Paul, it is the message of a ‘new creation.’ ”

Modern psychology says that a man must be “born again.” For life is shattered and broken. Life is fragmentary and has gone to pieces. Life needs to be reintegrated into a satisfying unity. But psychology, apart from the reality of Christian experience, cannot provide the means of reintegration. For purposes of scientific experiment Carney Landis of Columbia University once submitted himself to a full psychoanalysis. In the course of the experiment he asked his analyst, “What is normality?”

“I don’t know,” replied the analyst, “I never deal with normal people.”

“But suppose a really normal person came to you?” Landis asked.

“Even though he were normal at the beginning of the analysis the analytical procedure would create a neurosis,” the analyst admitted.

Article continues below

The experience of the New Birth brings spiritual unity to the personality. The soul, previously in conflict because of sinful desires, and disoriented toward God, receives a new nature which manifests itself in a new sense of direction. The life, formerly tied up inwardly and stunted, receives release and incentive through spiritual conversion. A prominent man in India said of E. Stanley Jones, “We always know where Dr. Jones in his messages is coming out. Even if he begins with the binomial theorem he will come out at conversion.” Upon hearing this, Jones commented, “Most assuredly I come out at conversion, for life comes out there.”

“Except a man be born again” he cannot enter the kingdom of God. “Except a man be born again” he cannot enjoy the kingdom of God. “Except a man be born again” he is not in possession of the spiritual power to live as a citizen of that Kingdom. “Except a man be born again” he will not see the kingdom of God in its consummated glory.

How expressively, in his conversion hymn, Charles Wesley has described the experience of the New Birth! The “poet of the Methodist Revival” was ill at the time, in the home of a brazier named Bray, on Little Britain Street in London. Like his brother John, Charles had been seeking earnestly the rest that comes from vital, personal faith. It was on Whitsunday, May 21, 1738, three days before his brother’s Aldersgate experience, that he entered into the kingdom of God and found his spiritual rest. The following morning he penned this moving description of his spiritual conversion:

And can it be that I should gain

An interest in the Saviour’s blood?

Died He for me, who caused His pain?

For me, who Him to death pursued

Amazing love! how can it be

That Thou, my Lord, shouldst die for me?

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light:

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread,

Jesus, with all in Him, is mine;

Alive in Him, my living Head,

And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach th’ eternal throne,

And claim the crown, thro’ Christ my own.

In the life of every man, the kingdom of God can become a glorious reality when Christ’s words are taken seriously; “Except a man be born again.…”


Who set the morning stars to singing

And caused their light-years to commence?

Who packed the atom’s annihilative power

In such minute circumference?

Who gave the earth to its diurnal spinning

With a divinely cosmic shove?

Who brought the moon to bear upon the tides

And ranged the firmament above?

He is the holy just Jehovah

And we His creatures sin-defiled.

Nor can we by finite endeavor

Our ruined souls make reconciled.

But Deity divinely loving

Purposed before the world’s foundation

His Son to be our sin atonement

And reconcile His lost creation.

Now I can face Jehovah-Jireh

When space and time in Him are ending,

And with His universe triumphant sing

Redeemed creation’s song ascending.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.