Born Again
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Born Again

John 3:1–15  (ID: 3620)

In the early part of John’s Gospel, Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus, a Jewish leader who questions Jesus’ authority. Jesus answers him, making it clear that being “born again” is necessary in order to see the kingdom of God. Alistair Begg reminds us that the new birth of which Jesus spoke is essential and supernatural—a miraculous and mysterious work of Almighty God that brings about a complete change of heart and gives the believer a new family, a new identity, and a new mentality.

Series Containing This Sermon

“Truly, Truly, I Say to You…”

Twenty-Five Divine Declarations from John’s Gospel John 1:1–21:25 Series ID: 29001

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to follow along as I read from John’s Gospel and from the third chapter and from the first verse. John chapter 3 and from verse 1:

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘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.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”


We come to you, the Lord of the Word, as we come to the Word of the Lord. Accomplish, gracious God, the plans and purposes that you have for these moments. Meet us where we are. Enable us to see who Jesus is, what he’s done, why he’s come, and why it matters. And we pray in his name. Amen.

Well, we come this morning to the second of our “Truly, truly” studies. If you were here last Sunday, we made a start at this in the fifty-first verse of chapter 1, in which Jesus is explaining that the realities of heaven are brought down to earth in his person and in his work. And then you have in chapter 2 the wedding at Cana of Galilee, which is the first of the signs that Jesus gave concerning his identity, and then you have the cleansing of the temple. And then you have a very interesting little statement that comes at the end of chapter 2: “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” And then notice this: “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what [is] in man.”[1]

In other words, Jesus, because of who and what he is, understands not only the immediate identity of an individual—both facial characteristics and task and so on—but sees into the very heart of an individual. And in light of that, when you come to the first verse of chapter 3, it is interesting that John introduces us to this by saying, “Now there was a man.” “Now there was a man.” Chapter 2 ends, “Jesus knows what is in man.” “Now there was a man”—causing us to say to ourselves, “Well, I wonder if this man is from the category of those people at the end of chapter 2.”

And that is why we need to pay careful attention to the context in which we find our verse, which is verse 3: “Truly, truly”—or “I assure you,” or “In truth I tell you,” or “Believe me”—“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Now, the “Truly, truly” is simply Jesus’ way of saying, “All that I have to say is important, but I want you to pay particular attention to this.” There is, if you like, a solemnity to it and there is an importance to it that he wants to bring out.

The New Birth Is Essential

Now, what we should notice immediately is this: that what Jesus makes clear in this statement is that the new birth—being born again—is essential. It is essential. It’s not optional. It’s not an idea. It’s not an esoteric option for a certain kind of person, as we’re going to see. And in order to understand that, notice that the context in which this takes place is in this conversation with Nicodemus, who is, according to verse 1, the “ruler of the Jews”; in verse 10 he is “the teacher of Israel.” And it is this man who comes under the cover of darkness in order to meet with Jesus, who, as we have just discovered in chapter 1, is the Light of the World: “In him was life, and [this] life was the light of men.”[2]

You don’t need to introduce yourself to Jesus. Jesus knows you.

Is Nicodemus to be found amongst the category of those at the end of chapter 2—people who apparently were intrigued when they saw the signs? After all, if we’d been there and somebody had turned water into wine, we would have been intrigued as well. We would have been perhaps attracted to Jesus. But now, speaking for more than himself, Nicodemus responds to Jesus after the statement is made. But having led into it, he speaks to him, before ever Jesus says this, in a tone that is, I think, almost patronizing. He refers to him as “Rabbi”: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God.” Well, of course, later on in John’s Gospel we’re going to see that one of the things that people said in negative terms about Jesus was that he had never had any formal training. In chapter 7 it says the Jews were marveling, “saying, ‘How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?’”[3]

So, here we have “the teacher of Israel.” He comes to this individual, and he says to him, “Rabbi, we can tell… I mean, I’ve been talking with my friends, and there is definitely something very striking about what you’re doing.” That’s essentially what he’s saying: “We can tell that you’re a teacher. We can tell because… And you’ve come from God, because otherwise there would be no way that you could do these signs. We know that God is with you.”

Now, what we need to understand, amongst other things, is this: that Nicodemus, as an orthodox Jew, understood that the kingdom of God would arrive at the end of history. The Jews looked forward to the passing of the ages and finally in the age to come. So he knew that there was a coming kingdom, and given his background, he had a pretty strong view that his credentials for entering into that kingdom were probably pretty good. After all, he was from an elite background. His relationship with his contemporaries was that he was a leader among them, that he was a member of the right race, that he had been keeping all the right rules. Because he understood that the way of salvation for one of these religious and orthodox men—the way of salvation—was to be found in observing the law, in keeping the traditions, and paying attention to the rules that God had set. Therefore, his mindset is “When that kingdom comes, I can be pretty confident that even if the grade is on a curve, I’ve got a pretty good shot at being a member there.”

Now, Jesus knows Nicodemus. How do we know? Because of the end of chapter 2: “He himself knew what was in [a] man.” You don’t need to introduce yourself to Jesus. Jesus knows you. And Jesus then preempts any further courteous dialogue by essentially sweeping away the ground from underneath the feet of Nicodemus. He knocks down everything, essentially, that Nicodemus stood for by declaring his need to be born again. Can you imagine what that was like? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “You can’t see this, Nicodemus. With all your background, you can’t.”

Now, that’s the immediate context of the statement in the text. Let us pause for a moment and acknowledge that we come to this in a context as well. We come to phraseology like this with at least forty or fifty years of background material in relationship to the whole notion of what it means to be “born again.” “Born again” has been applied to all kinds of things—the renovation of companies and the renovation of sports teams and so on. But in terms of its contemporary application, the Jesus Movement of the ’60s, more than any other period at least in my lifetime, brought to the fore this question, this notion of being “born again.” Classically, Colson—Chuck Colson, the “hatchet man” for the Nixon administration—Colson finally gave the title to his book Born Again, which was right at the very center of all these things.

And if we’re honest, we recognize that it became viewed as for a certain type of person, for a certain type of Christian. You could either be a Christian, or you could be one of the kind of crazy Christians, the “born again” Christians, who are regarded as the emotional segment or the needy segment or, God forbid, the political segment. But the media managed to segregate the notion—to say, “Now, there are plenty of people who have got this buttoned down without all of that other stuff.”

And that’s the context to which we come, or in which we come. And in that mindset, the Bible makes it clear that being born again is not optional; it is indispensable. We’re asking the question “What does Jesus say?” What does Jesus say? Jesus says, “Truly, truly, you must be born again, or you will never see the kingdom of God.”

Now, Nicodemus responds, you will notice, despite the fact that he’s a bright fellow. And it’s intriguing that he responds in this particular way. He shows no spiritual insight at all. He responds literally to things. Just as a side note, this is a feature of John’s Gospel. Already in chapter 2 you’ve had this juxtaposition between the figurative and the literal. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” And they said, “Well, how could you build a temple in three days?” He said, “I’m not talking about a physical temple. I’m talking about my body.”[4] You go into John chapter 4, and Jesus says, “There is living water.” And the lady says, “Give me the water. I don’t even like coming to the well in the middle of the day!”[5] He’s not talking about water in the well. And in the same way here, he’s not talking about physical birth: “How can a man be born when he[’s] old?” Is this Nicodemus’s way of dismissing it, of saying, “That’s a ridiculous idea”? “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Well, the fact of the matter is that the Old Testament—the Old Testament, which Nicodemus was familiar with—provides essentially the background for what Jesus then says in verse 5: Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” I’m not going to delay on this, but if you take notes, you can make a note of Ezekiel chapter 36. And there in Ezekiel 36 you will see that the word of God through the prophet of God speaks of a cleansing that will come, speaks of a new heart that will come, speaks of a radical transformation that will be brought about by God in the lives of people.[6] And that, of course, would be familiar material to Nicodemus himself.

I’m not going to get into a debate about whether we’re talking here about baptism—which I don’t believe we are—or any other thing along those lines. My understanding of verse 5 is that it is a recapitulation of verse 3. He’s not saying something different. He’s saying the exact same thing: to be born again of the Spirit of God, the water—to be born of the water and of the Spirit—is a picture of spiritual cleansing that comes in the new birth. The sprinkling of water is an outward sign.

Now, with all of that said, we have only said one thing: Jesus says this is essential.

The New Birth Is Supernatural

Secondly, we observe that that to which he refers is supernatural. It is supernatural. Verse 6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” Notice the contrast: “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” He said, “I’m speaking to you about a spiritual reality. You have responded by asking, ‘Can we do this again physically?’ Clearly, we can’t. Now let me say it to you again.”

Human birth produces people who belong to humanity. Human birth produces people who belong to the earthly family of humanity. Jesus says spiritual birth gives birth to spiritual people. That’s the contrast. Nicodemus should have understood this in light of Ezekiel. And that is why Jesus says to him, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” In other words, “Nicodemus, why would you be surprised by this? After all, you’re a teacher of Israel. You’re one who understands the background to things. And this is your response?”

You see, we’d already noted when we labored our way through the first chapter, trying not to do so, that this picture has already been given to us: “He came to his own, … his own people did[n’t] receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”—verse 13 of 1—“who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but [born] of God.”[7]

This is a supernatural reality. It is the work of Almighty God bringing about a radical change in the nature of an individual—a change that the individual cannot bring about by themselves. That’s what Jesus is saying. It’s not external renovation. It’s not cleaning your act up. It’s not even illumination—being attracted, being intrigued. It’s certainly not baptismal regeneration, which some of you still hold on to—a dangerous position in which to take your security, as if somehow or another our condition before Almighty God could be made right by the activities of some inferior being in the course of earthly ministry. Not for a moment! Becoming a Christian is always and in every case a miracle, because God is the cause of the change. It is God who does it.

Now, you don’t have to just tie yourselves to John 3. You’re students. You can read the Bible. You must read your Bibles and see if this is so. When Peter, who had a checkered background up to the time of the resurrection, if you like, finally writes to the scattered Christians of his day, this is where he begins: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope.” That’s 1 Peter 1:3. When Paul writes to Titus to help Titus make sure he’s doing a good job in pastoring his church, [Paul] says to the people, he says, “You know, you need to be much nicer than you are in society. You need to be far more engaged with people. You need to be marked by the identifying features of your relationship with the living God. Because,” he says, “remember, we ourselves were once foolish. We were once foolish. We were once disobedient. We were once of an entirely different department. We were once by nature without hope and without God in the world. But when the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared, he made us brand-new by the washing of regeneration.”[8]

Becoming a Christian is always and in every case a miracle, because God is the cause of the change. It is God who does it.

Now, that word, which is used both in 1 Peter and here in Titus—I’ll give it to you. It’s a Greek word. It’s palingenesía. Palingenesía. If you want it in English, as it were: p-a-l-i-n-g-e-n-e-s-i-a: “regeneration.” Now, “born again”: generation, re-. Okay? So it’s “born again.” It’s re-generated.

Now, as I’ve been thinking about this all week, I always go to the guys that help me most—so Sinclair Ferguson is top of the list. And I was greatly helped by listening to him answer a question that was posed. The question was this: Is there a difference between regeneration and being born again? Classically, Sinclair replies, “Well, yes and no.” And he simply points out that the New Testament uses the term “regeneration” in terms of cosmic renewal. Remember, Jesus says to his followers, “In the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his … throne”[9]—when the world is cosmically renewed, when there is a “new [heaven] and a new earth in which [dwells] righteousness,”[10] when everything is put back together the way God intends for it to be—in that day, that is that great work of regeneration.

So, what, then, is the regeneration of being born again? It is essentially this: it is the bringing of that cosmic reality into the present experience of an individual. The same power by which God will re-create the entire universe is the power that is brought to bear in the life of an individual when he re-creates us as the children of God—so that being born again, in terms of New Testament theology, is essentially our participation in the inauguration of that great, final, cosmic renewal. “Now [we are] the [children] of God, [but] it doth not yet appear what we shall be.”[11] Because “when he appears we shall be like him.”[12]

Now, this actually can lead to all kinds of conversations. For example, the Greeks and the Stoics, they used the word palingenesía. They used it to talk about the way in which the world was constantly regenerating itself. So, it would go along for a little while, and then there would be a palingennesia, and then it would go along for a little while, and then it would drift back down into where it was before, and then there would be a need for another one.

And what the Bible says is no, the ultimate one is already secure and is taken care of, and it is that reality pressed on an individual life that is being described here. In the new birth, what God did cosmically—which will eventually be appearing—he does personally. It is a complete change of heart and character produced in a person by the Holy Spirit. It is the power of God to regenerate the entire world, brought into your heart now. It is miraculous, and it is at the same time mysterious: “The wind blows where it wishes, … you hear its sound, … you do[n’t] know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The New Birth’s Is Experiential

Now, let me say a third thing. Incidentally, when the wind blows, and you don’t know where it’s coming from or actually where it’s going, what it’s doing, if you have umbrellas up on your back patio and it blows good enough, you see the effect of the wind. You can’t go, “Hey, wind, no, stop that.” Jesus can. It’s got something to do with palingenesía, incidentally. But the fact of the matter is, we can see the effects of the wind.

Now, let me say this, and then I’ll have one final point—and don’t get these two in the wrong order: it is absolutely essential, it is supernatural, and its effects are experiential. Its effects are experiential. So we’re talking about the impact. The wind we cannot grab ahold of, but we see what it does. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Well, we could spend an entire series working on the effects, the impact of the new birth. But let me just say three things.

Experientially, what happens is that we get a new family. We get a new family. That’s John 1 again: “he gave [them] the right to become [the] children of God.” This is who you are. You’re a child of God. You’re a child of the King, in Jesus. You have been adopted into his family. That is it right there: a whole new family.

And you think about this: even though churches are weird places—and we’re not unique in that regard—and there are all kinds of strange people there, at the end of the day, you’re still my family. You’re my family. “For here my friends and [family] dwell.”[13] You’re stuck with me! This is an eternal stuck. I mean, you can move out of the neighborhood, but you can’t get away because of what is done.

You see, Saul of Tarsus was born again. And then he had a whole new family. In fact, his family was the company that he thought were a bunch of nuts. He was going to kill them, destroy them, imprison them, and now he’s in there sitting with them. And anybody’s going, “What the… What happened to you, Saul?” He says, “To me to live is Christ, … to die is gain.”[14] He goes, “Yeah, I… Whew!” A new family.

Secondly, a new identity. It’s almost the same thing, isn’t it? “God so loved the world,” you see in verse 16—we didn’t read that far—“that he gave his only Son, that who[so]ever believes in him should not perish but have [everlasting] life.”[15] I met with a very elderly man some weeks ago now. We talked about heaven. We talked about life. We talked about things. And he said, “What am I to do?” I said, “Well, in some senses, there’s nothing you can do.” I said, “But do you believe? Have you ever put your name in John 3?” I said. He said, “I don’t know what you mean.” I said, “Well, it would be like this: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that James Jenkins, who believes in him, should not perish but have everlasting life.’”

You see, identity is a huge part of our existence, isn’t it? You come into a setting like this as a stranger or go into a new office or to a new lab or to a new school, and we want to make sure that we have the requisite identity—people spending a fortune to manufacture ourselves in the right way. The identity that we have in Jesus is not an achieved identity. It is a received identity.

New family, new identity, and new mentality. New mentality. You see, when our nature is renewed by the Spirit of God, it inevitably changes all kinds of things: our view of the world, our understanding of our place within the world, the nature of significance, and so on. One of the songs that we could have sung this morning was one that we haven’t sung in a while, which has the lines “All I once held dear, built my life upon—all the things I yearned and longed to own—all these things I now count in an entirely different way,”[16] because of Jesus—essentially coming out of Paul’s words: “I was a Hebrew of the Hebrews. I was a Pharisee. I had a good school. I had a good intellect, had a good background—all those things.” He said, “But you know, this has changed. This has changed.”[17] What happened to him? He became religious? No, he was religious. He was completely religious. Nicodemus didn’t need to become religious. Nicodemus didn’t need to become intelligent. Nicodemus needed what only God can give: he needed to be born again.

Charles Simeon, for fifty-five years—or fifty-four—the minister in the church in Cambridge, was asked by a member of his congregation, “Well, what, then, do you think is the indispensable sign of regeneration?” Do you know what he said? “A humble, contrite spirit.” Self-abasement. Self-abasement! “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”[18] “A wretch”! You’re wretched by nature, and so am I. He doesn’t set his love upon us because of who we are or what we’ve achieved or what we’ve done or where we’re going. Not for a moment!

The identity that we have in Jesus is not an achieved identity. It is a received identity.

And you will notice in the text when you read it on your own at home, Nicodemus comes back to him, and he says, “How can these things be?” That’s a good question. It’s the right question. And Jesus said, “You[’re] the teacher of Israel and yet you do[n’t] understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and [we] bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.”

Nicodemus’s failure wasn’t a failure of intellect. It wasn’t that he couldn’t understand. It was a failure, an unwillingness to believe Jesus’ testimony. That’s why he says: “You do not believe. You do not receive our testimony.” And he says, “If I’ve told you about earthly things… What I’m telling you now is the entry thing. And if you can’t even get the entry thing, if you stumble at this point, what use is there going to be for me to start to explain to you the details of life in the kingdom? Why would you be concerned about life in the kingdom? You’re stumbling over what I’m telling you about the only way of entry into the kingdom.” It’s like people when you’re talking to them over coffee or something, and they want to talk to you about “Well, what about the state of UFOs? What about the thing… Two of those, five of those.” For goodness’ sake, come on Friday night; we’ll help you with that. But for now, let’s talk about what Jesus says. What does he say? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again…”

The New Birth Is Individual

Now, finally, and just quickly… So, I wrote down these words: I wrote, “essential, supernatural, experiential, and individual.” Individual, to make the point that this is not like Sun Myung Moon—that you go away to a conference somewhere, and all of a sudden, you’re all swept in some great surge or something. No, the reality of this is individual. Everybody is born as an individual.

John Stott has a wonderful little piece where he says no infant has a say in being born. True. You remember on the Johnny Carson show, he said he was arguing with his son. And his son said, “I didn’t ask to be born!” And Johnny Carson says, “Yeah, and if you’d asked, I would have said no.” No infant contributes in any way to their birth. Their birth is not conditional upon their acceptance of it or their rejection of the idea. Some arrive kicking and screaming. Some just seem to emerge without fuss or bother. We would never know the date of our birth if our parents hadn’t told us.

The reason we know we’re born, although we don’t remember the occasion, is that we’re enjoying life today. That’s how we know. It doesn’t matter at all if, although you know you have turned to Christ, you do not know the date when you did so. Some do, and some don’t. But here’s the deal: the new birth is not something we do; it is something God gives. Because you will notice that Jesus is not here demanding that Nicodemus experience the new birth in the instant. He’s not saying that to him. What he is actually saying to Nicodemus, and forcefully articulating it, he’s saying, “This is what must be experienced to enter the kingdom of God.” So if you ask, “How can I be born again? What can I do?”—technically, the right answer is “There is nothing you can do.” If you ask the question, “What must I do to be saved?” the answer is to believe. What God does by way of initiative and what we do by way of response is inextricably woven together.

Professor John Murray, who was Sinclair’s great idol and teacher, says, “The gospel of Christ is … sovereign, efficacious, irresistible regeneration. … Unless God by sovereign, operative grace had turned our enmity to love and our disbelief to faith, we would never yield the response of faith and love.”[19]

You see, Jesus is reminding his friend, again, from the Old Testament. Nicodemus would get this. This is famous—Numbers 21. “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” “You remember that,” he says to Nicodemus. “You remember that they had been all bitten by the snake, that they were all filled with the venom of the snake. And God in his mercy and his grace, using the means of a serpent, says that everyone who looks to the serpent will be free.” Who looks! Says Calvin, “The true looking of faith … is placing Christ before one’s eyes and beholding in Him the heart of God poured out in love.”[20]

Now, when you think about birth and you think about the nature of birth, you think about even the way Jesus called his disciples in chapter 1—all these different ways and backgrounds and bits and pieces. Wesley was a preacher of the gospel before he was converted. He was a graduate of a fine university. He had the Bible under his grasp. He was moving around in America, teaching people everything. And then he goes one evening to a Bible study in Aldersgate Street, and he says, “And there my heart was strangely warmed.” He couldn’t explain it. They said, “Well, what does that mean?” He said, “Well, I can’t really tell you all about it, but I know that I was once this.”

If you ask the question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ the answer is to believe. What God does by way of initiative and what we do by way of response is inextricably woven together.

Or you take the man born blind in John chapter—9, maybe? And you’ve got that big fuss and a bother. They’re pressing on his parents: “What’s going on with this guy? What has Jesus done to him? And what about you? What do you have to say for yourself?” He says, “I don’t know what I have to say for myself. I can say one thing. I know one thing: once I was blind, but now I can see. That’s all I can tell you. That’s my testimony. I was a blind man; I am a seeing man.”[21] That’s what happens.

You see, people are listening to me and my colleagues teach the gospel. They’re going to one day say, “I was in a gospel church. I heard this Scottish guy preach. But I never heard the gospel.” Why? Because I didn’t preach it? No, because you never heard it. Because God didn’t unstop your ears. He didn’t open your blind eyes. You can stare at it in your face and read it in the text and stand back from it.

Spurgeon probably is the greatest illustration of how Jesus ends here—and with this illustration I will end too. Spurgeon was fifteen years old. He said,

It was … a day, never to be forgotten, when I first understood that salvation … could not be of myself, but must be through One [stronger] and [better] than I. … I heard … that the Son of God had taken upon himself our human nature, and had, by his life and death, [provided] a perfect salvation, finished from top to bottom, which he was ready to give to every soul that was willing to have it, and that salvation was all of grace from first to last, the free gift of God through [the] blessed Son, Jesus Christ.

January 6, 1850. His school is closed, and the winter has taken a bite in the greater London area. He’s going to church, but he can’t get to the original church. He goes to a different one—a Primitive Methodist Church down a street in Colchester. He enters the room:

There were no more than a dozen or fifteen people present: even the minister had failed to arrive because of the weather. It was the wrong church, the wrong congregation, the wrong weather and the wrong preacher. Into the pulpit climbed a thin-looking man … Spurgeon was never to know anything about him. He announced his text as Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God and there is none else.”[22]

Spurgeon records, “He had[n’t] much to say.” All that he could really do was continue to quote the text:

My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, “Look.” Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it[’s] just “Look!.” Well, a man [did]n’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look… A child can look. … However weak, or however poor a man may be, he can look. And if he looks the promise is that he shall live.

And Spurgeon says, “He went on in his broad Essex accent, ‘… You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. … No, [he says, “Look at me”].’”

The preacher managed to spin that out for ten minutes and then, running out of anything fresh to say, looked at his congregation and picked on Spurgeon, “Young man, you look very miserable,” he said. “Well,” said Spurgeon, “I did look miserable, but I had[n’t] been accustomed to hav[ing] remarks made from the pulpit about my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, [and it] struck right home.” The preacher went on, “and you will always be miserable—miserable in life and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.” And then he shouted at the top of his voice as I think only a Primitive Methodist can, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but … look and live!”

Spurgeon said,

I [at once] saw … the way of salvation. I know not what else he said—I did[n’t] take [any notion] of it [at all]. …

Oh I could have looked until I … almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and [at] that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung [of his grace and his mercy].

“Truly, truly, I say to you,” Jesus says, “unless one is born again he cannot see, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” How gracious of God! How good! How amazing is our salvation!

Father, “turn [our] eyes upon Jesus”; enable us to “look full in his wonderful face,” that “the things of earth” might “grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”[23]

And may grace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one who looks, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] John 2:23–25 (ESV).

[2] John 1:4 (ESV).

[3] John 7:15 (ESV).

[4] John 2:19–21 (paraphrased).

[5] John 4:10–11, 15 (paraphrased).

[6] See Ezekiel 36:25–27.

[7] John 1:11–13 (ESV).

[8] Titus 3:1–5 (paraphrased).

[9] Matthew 19:28 (ESV).

[10] 2 Peter 3:13 (ESV).

[11] 1 John 3:2 (KJV).

[12] 1 John 3:2 (ESV).

[13] Isaac Watts, “Going to Church” (1719).

[14] Philippians 1:21 (ESV).

[15] John 3:16 (ESV).

[16] Graham Kendrick, “Knowing You” (1993). Paraphrased.

[17] Philippians 3:4–7 (paraphrased).

[18] John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779).

[19] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 99–100.

[20] John Calvin, The Gospel According to John: 1–10, trans. T. H. L. Parker, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 74.

[21] John 9:19, 25 (paraphrased).

[22] Thomas Geoff, “The Conversion of Charles Haddon Spurgeon: January 6 1850,” Banner of Truth, January 1, 2000,

[23] Helen Howarth Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” (1922).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.