Faith, Conversion, and the Mysteries of God

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

John 3:8

One of the most common questions pastors hear is, “How do I know that I (or my children) belong to God?” The questions of faith and assurance have been ongoing since the days of the apostles. Paul addresses the topic, as does Peter, James, and John. But we should begin with the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus Himself.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus was unique. Nicodemus began by saying that Jesus was indeed a great teacher from God. Jesus’ response sounds esoteric, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus goes further, saying “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” We usually jump from there to v. 16, “For God so loved the world…” Yet this interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus goes for twenty-one verses. It is the first of Jesus’s dense theological/philosophical discourses in John’s gospel. These discourses are interspersed with miracles and interactions with individuals, some of whom are only mentioned in John’s gospel.

If Nicodemus was looking for assurance of God’s kingdom, why did Jesus speak to him this way? Because Jesus didn’t merely come to give assurance of life as it was. He came to open the door to God’s kingdom. Up until the time of Christ, the way to God was through the Mosaic law via the tabernacle/temple. Israel, God’s light to the world, had become clouded in darkness. The anticipated kingdom turned into a stumbling block. From the time of the prophet Malachi, the very words of God were shut off…until Jesus came.

Nicodemus knew about Jesus’ work beforehand and certainly was intrigued. Jesus’ reference to being born again hearkens back to the prophet Isaiah’s words in 66:7-14, which promises that the nation of God’s people would be (re)born and the Gentiles would have a part in it. The Jews thought that meant a massive conversion to Judaism, but Jesus corrects that idea. In John 3 He places the Jews in the same station as the Gentiles: both need to be born again, that is born of water and the Spirit. That’s where the message of John 3:16 – and the surrounding verses – are important. Jesus says that God’s love extends to the world, i.e. the Gentiles, not just to the Jews. All who are born into that nation belong to God. Nicodemus may have come to discuss the work and teachings of a local celebrity rabbi, but the answer he received was world-changing.

At that time the world for God’s people seemed a closed, dead place; the supernatural was suspended unless you entered through the devilish side, at the cost of your soul. Then Jesus came, piercing the suffocating darkness and establishing God’s kingdom, one miracle at a time. In John 2 we see Him literally open the way for Gentiles to come into God’s house. He cleansed the temple, throwing out the moneychangers who were taking up the temple space intended for the Gentiles, in order to swindle the people. Other places in the gospel see Him turning water into wine, multiplying bread and fish, casting out demons, and healing the sick. No natural or supernatural force could bind men once Jesus arrived. He didn’t come to help men feel better about life as it was – He came to offer a way out of the darkness, renew the cosmos, and restore people to God’s presence.

That brings us back to the question, “How do I know if I am a part of God’s reborn nation?” Jesus says that we must born of water and the Spirit. But being born is a passive action, not one we can initiate. He compares it to the wind that blows/moves where it will. We can hear and see the effects of it, but we can’t know or understand it. Being born again is a supernatural work of God’s Holy Spirit, one we can neither begin nor end. This mysterious work of God is what begets faith.

Yet the apostle Paul complicates our ideas of faith in places like 2 Timothy 3 when he tells Timothy to continue in the Scriptures which he has known since he was a baby.[1] How could Timothy know the Scriptures since infancy? Was he really that precocious, or is there something more going on? We know he had been taught by his mother and grandmother, but that doesn’t explain how one so young can have such knowledge. It’s a mystery, and the Holy Spirit is content to leave it at that.

Paul’s message to Timothy isn’t a lecture on epistemology (the study of how we know things) but an exhortation to continue in what he was taught from childhood. Many search for a specific time when they crossed the line from spiritual death to life, but that search is notoriously absent from most covenant members who from a young age are raised in the faith, outside of people like the apostle Paul.[2] The concluding words of Jesus to Nicodemus say much the same thing: the one who believes and “does the truth,” (Jn. 3:21) comes to the light. He didn’t say when or how – just that it happens.

Some Christians believe Scripture demands that we scrutinize faith, referencing Paul’s statement to, “Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5). Some pastors encourage their flock to question themselves regularly and evaluate whether or not they are really Christians. But that verse is not a universal exhortation to all saints everywhere. Rather, Paul is concluding a defense of his apostleship from rank hypocrites in the church at Corinth. They denied that he was Christ’s apostle because they wanted to continue living in sin. Paul’s message is, in effect, “You want to examine whether I am an apostle? You should stop living like the devil and start by questioning yourself first.”[3] This passage is appropriately applied to those who refuse to repent of their sin, but should not be used as a basis for ongoing self-flagellation for all saints.

Is conversion necessary? Certainly. Do we know exactly how or when it happens? For many, the answer is “no” and that is okay. We know the grace of Christ comes to us as the word is preached and the sacraments administered. The Spirit works and we receive His grace by faith and our union with Christ is strengthened. If you don’t have a recorded conversion “experience,” you’re in good company. Did the prophet Daniel have one? What about Isaiah, Hezekiah, John the Baptist, or Timothy? We’re not told. The work of God in the hearts of His children is a mystery in which we should delight. But Jesus doesn’t leave us to wonder, to gaze inwardly at our semi-dark hearts wishfully pondering, “He loves me/He loves me not.” Leave the mystery of faith to the Author and Finisher of your faith. Rather than looking at yourself, look to Jesus. Each day confess and repent of your sin, and follow Christ, or as the old hymn says, trust and obey. Rest assured, the one who began this work in you will be faithful to complete it.

Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor at Trinity Reformed Church. He taught history for fifteen years and has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is married to Amanda and they have four children: Phoebe, Simeon, Emmaline, and Olivia. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and fishing. 

[1] The word for childhood here is βρέφος, literally “since infancy.”

[2] Paul’s story of going from one who murdered Christians to being struck off his horse and seeing Christ is probably not what parents hope for in their child’s testimony.

[3] 2 Corinthians 13:1-10