Recently my family and I used an Applebee’s gift card someone had given us for Pastor Appreciation Month. As we sat down, I started to think about my Sunday sermon and the title. The title contained the word renovation. This word makes me think about those people who go into older or established houses and fix them up, turning the house into someone’s dream home.
The show Fixer-Upper came to my mind as my wife and I chatted about renovation. The show is a good illustration of my main point here. But the show (and those like it) serve as negative examples in this sense: what sinful humanity needs is not renovation or remodeling, but recreation.
The culture bends towards the idea that humanity is good at its core. We simply need to be better versions of ourselves. We need to go into the old rooms of our house (i.e. lives), clean them up, remodel, and engage in some personal renovation. If we do, we’ll be fine. Simply wash your face, look inside, and you’ll be ok when it comes to you and your Maker. Of course, some may clarify that we do this remodeling with God’s help and expertise. However, because we are basically good, we just need to clean things up a bit in order to be right with God.
But that isn’t what we find in the Bible. We find that things are so bad, the house is so rotted and ruined, that what we need is a wrecking ball. The whole house needs to come down and a new house erected in its place. To put this in more biblical language, what we need is to be crucified with Christ and raised to newness of life.
In short, men and women need recreation, not mere renovation.
In John 3, a religious leader approaches Jesus with a question. The theology professor approaches the son of a carpenter and says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (3:2). Now, this seems pretty good. He has acknowledged there is something special about Jesus. He has “come from God” and “God is with him.” But Jesus doesn’t respond by patting Nicodemus on the back. No, he responds in a way that throws him on his heels.
There seems to be more behind the statement of Nicodemus than meets the eye. And Jesus knows it. Nicodemus is after the identity of Jesus. In other words, Nicodemus is saying, “We know you’re from God, and God is with you. But are you more?” (D. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 187). It’s very similar to what we find in John 2:18, “So the Jews said to [Jesus], “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” That is, who are you? Why do you think you have the authority cleanse the temple?
In John 3, Nicodemus comes in the same vein, trying to figure out the identity of Jesus. The response of Jesus asserts that unless Nicodemus is remade, unless he is recreated, there is no way he’d ever know the true identity of Jesus. He tells him plainly, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3). Just a few verses later, he says it again, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (3:5).
In Jesus, the kingdom of God is already here, though the full glory of the kingdom has not yet arrived. However, if you have eyes to see, in Jesus you see the King of the kingdom. Only when you see him and believe are you fitted for the coming kingdom in all of its glory.
So why does Jesus say we need reborn? Why not merely renovated?
The reality is, we are dead in our sin and unable to come to God on our own. Ephesians 2 is clear, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air…” (Eph 2:1–2). We are dead in our sin. That doesn’t mean we don’t move or breath or make decisions. It means we are dead towards God and are actively running after the world and, whether we know it or not, towards the Devil and his ways.
To state it differently, being dead in sin means we are unable to comprehend the things of God. Paul writes, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). That is, when we are born into this world, we are born dead towards God, unable to “accept the things of the Spirit of God” and thus running headlong in the wrong direction.
Again, why can’t we simply look inside ourselves and course correct? Couldn’t we start using the right language, change our way of thinking, rearrange our affections, and be OK? Impossible. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin; or the leopard his spots?” (Jer 13:23). How do people who are dead in sin make any renovations at all? No, what we need is new life. New eyes. Renewed minds. New birth.
John Calvin drives this point home in his commentary on John’s Gospel. Because we need new birth, it means every part of our being is infected. Our thoughts, our actions, our feelings, and our words are tainted. The whole person is corrupted by the sin we inherit from Adam. Thus, Calvin writes, “Hence it is evident that we must be formed by the second birth, that we may be fitted for the kingdom of God” (Calvin, Gospel According to John, 114).
The show Fixer Upper is a fun show to watch. But it isn’t a show that teaches us what we need in order to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. We can’t simply rearrange our thinking, our actions, or our emotions and think we are fitted for heaven. We can’t simply course correct our thinking and see clearly the identity of Jesus, the King of the Kingdom. No, what we need is the new birth. We need the old self to die and the new self to be raised to newness of life.
Therefore, we pray and we preach. We pray God would give us the gift of the new birth by which we receive new eyes. We are (or should be) desperate for eyes that can see and savor Jesus. And once we’ve seen Jesus, we pray that by the powerful working of God’s Spirit, our preaching of the good news would bring the gift of the new birth to our neighbors and the nations.