“Religion as Supplement vs Religion as Transformation”

John 3:1-15

May 5, 2019

Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service

Pr. Nicoletti


Our Scripture reading this morning is from the Gospel of John, chapter three, verses one through fifteen. Please listen carefully, for this is God’s Word for us this morning.

3:1 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?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 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.12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

This is the word of the Lord.

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]

Let’s pray …

Lord, we do believe that your word

is firmly fixed forever, with you, in the heavens.

Your faithfulness endures to all generations,

you have made this world and it stands as you will it to.

Lord, as your people, help us to never forget your precepts,

Because by them you have given us life.

Lord, we are yours save us,

for we have sought your ways.

Grant us life now through this your word.

In Jesus’s name. Amen

[Based on Psalm 119:89, 90, 93, 94]


Imagine tomorrow you are down the street from here – just down the road at sixth avenue and Pearl Street. And imagine you are in the Supplement Superstore there. And you are browsing the aisles, looking at the rows of bottles.

And suddenly a man loudly enters the store. And he is wearing a hospital gown, with a file folder under his arm. And he is breathing heavily. And he makes his way up to the counter, and drops the file folder onto the countertop, and looks at the clerk standing there, and says: “What do you have to fix class four congestive heart failure?”

And a panicked look flashes on the clerk’s face. And he says “Sir … we have some things to help with heart health, but we don’t have anything that fixes severe heart failure.”

And the man in the hospital gown gives him a confused look. “What are you talking about?” he asks. “I’ve been to places like this before. I’ve gotten vitamin C to help boost my immune system, I’ve gotten vitamin B12 to improve my mood, I’ve gotten calcium to help strengthen my bones. Now … what will correct class four congestive heart failure?”

The clerk isn’t sure what to do and he sheepishly picks up the folder the man had dropped on the counter. “Yes – that’s my chart.” the man says, “Good. That should help you pick the right thing.”

But the clerk looks more panicked as he begins to read it.

“Sir,” the clerk finally ventures, “this says that your doctor is recommending a heart transplant.”

The man looks at him with a puzzled look. “A heart transplant? That sounds insane. Transplant a heart? No … that can’t be. What I need is the right vitamin supplement. Now could you please stop messing around and tell me which one I need?”

I’m not a doctor … but I do know that supplements and transplants are two very different things medically speaking. They seem to be miles apart. There’s a range between them.

This morning we need to ask: If there is a similar range between religion as a personal supplement and religion as a transplant or transformation … then where would your approach to religion fall on that spectrum?

This past week I’ve been reading Michael Brendan Dougherty’s book My Father Left Me Ireland which came out at the end of April. It’s a moving memoir that leads one to think about family and country and culture. And in it Dougherty pushes us to recognize that the default view of religion in our culture is to see it as a supplement to our lives.

He describes what the culture told him about religion as he grew up: “The larger cultural formation […] encouraged a curator’s approach to life, which I took to be common among my friends. There was nothing we were obligated to believe. No type of life that was strenuously urged on us. […] We could draw on or reject our parent’s religion or be coolly indifferent. We could try on any number of identities. […] The important thing was that it be entirely a personal choice. And, if you were talented enough, that it didn’t screw up your earning potential in the future.” [Dougherty, 73-74]

Dougherty presents this picture of us as curators – like managers of a museum. We assemble an identity by bringing together a number of pieces and arranging them in a way we think will be effective and attractive. We assemble our own sense of self and put it on display for others. And as we do, religion might supplement the collection that we already have. Religious pieces might be added to round out the collection, to tie a few things together, to add some inspiration or thematic direction. But even when it is enhancing the overall effect … religion is a supplement. In other words, religion could be present, but it couldn’t overshadow other things like achievement, or earning potential, or being true to ourselves. It couldn’t be taken too seriously. [Dougherty, 79-80]

Religion in our secular age is treated as a supplement, not a transformation. It’s an interesting piece added to a curated collection. It is a vitamin bought at the store down the street to give you a healthy boost.

That approach may be dominant in our age … but it’s not unique to it.

And it’s about the same attitude that Nicodemus shows up with in our text this morning.

Nicodemus comes and sees Jesus as offering a supplement to his already established identity and religious life. And Jesus is having none of that.

We get this impression first in verse two, when he identifies Jesus as a teacher who has come from God. Nicodemus is respectful – he uses the title “Rabbi” to refer to Jesus – but he still places Jesus at a lower level than the Apostle John has told us he should be at. Nicodemus seems to see Jesus and his ministry as a potential supplement for his spiritual life. But he doesn’t seem to see it as anything that would lead to transformation on his part.

Jesus replies: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

As the footnote in your ESV will tell you, John gives us an ambiguous phrase in Greek which could mean “born again” or “born from above.” And John likely means both. It is a second birth but also a birth from above. And as a second birth from above it indicates a transformation far beyond what Nicodemus has in mind.

Nicodemus responds with incredulity in verse four: “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 then elaborates: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus has now claimed that to be the kind of person who can see and enter the kingdom of God, one needs not a religious supplement, but a religious transformation: a new birth from above.

And three areas of transformation are hinted at: transformation of one’s mind, one’s heart, and one’s primary community.

First, a transformation of one’s mind or vision is alluded to. Nicodemus’s first words to Jesus indicate his assumption that he can rightly see what is going on – that he can rightly see Jesus’s works and draw right conclusions from them. Jesus responds by telling him that without transformation he cannot even see the evidence of the reign or the kingdom of God. His mind needs to be transformed.

Second, a transformation of one’s nature is alluded to. Jesus confronts Nicodemus with the claim that he cannot enter the kingdom of God – he cannot rightly come under the reign of God as a right subject of God – unless his nature is first transformed: you cannot enter the kingdom of God without the new transforming birth.

Third, for John’s readers, if not for Nicodemus, there is a reminder that Jesus brings a transformation of one’s people – one’s primary community. While it would not have had the same meaning for Nicodemus, for John’s early Christian readers, it’s hard to believe that when they heard about being born of water and the Spirit, that the reference to being born of water would not have led them to think of their baptism. And their baptism was a ritual washing and purification, yes, but it was also a ritual entrance and rebirth into the household of God. They were given a new community: the Church.

Nicodemus has come to Jesus for a spiritual supplement or two. That is what he shows up asking for. But Jesus has to tell him that he is like the man with class four congestive heart failure at the Supplement Superstore. He does not need a supplement. He needs a heart transplant. He needs a total transformation of his mind, his heart, and his community.

And when Nicodemus is confused, Jesus doesn’t cut him much slack. Jesus is pretty adamant that Nicodemus should already know this – in verse ten he says, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”

Why is Jesus so harsh with Nicodemus here?

Well, there seems to be at least two reasons. First, logic should have led Nicodemus to this same conclusion, and second, the Hebrew Scriptures should have led him to this conclusion.

So first, Jesus explains that the logic is pretty straightforward. In verse six and seven he says: “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.’” One commentator puts it like this – he says: “In interpreting what Jesus says to Nicodemus, we should be mistaken if we fail to recognize the basic simplicity of the ideas involved. A man takes on flesh and enters the kingdom of the world because his father begets him; a man can enter the kingdom of God only when he is begotten by a heavenly Father. Life can come to a man only from his father; eternal life comes from the heavenly Father through the Son whom he has empowered to give life.” [Brown, 138]

Jesus seems to be saying that based on the simplicity of this logic Nicodemus should not marvel.

But beyond the logic Jesus lays out, it also seems clear that he expects Nicodemus to have learned this from the Hebrew Scriptures. In verse nine Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” And Jesus responds: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”

Jesus seems to expect that a religious teacher of Israel, one familiar with the Scriptures, should already understand these things.

But where would Nicodemus have found these concepts in the Hebrew Scriptures?

Commentators emphasize different passages, but I think D. A. Carson is right when he says that the most important text Jesus likely had in mind was Ezekiel 36.

Remember, when Jesus spoke of what people needed in order to see and enter the kingdom, he spoke of radical transformation (in the form of re-birth), he spoke of water and the Spirit being connected with that transformation, and then there was also an implied reference to the formation of a new community.

In Ezekiel 36:24-28, this is how God speaks of restoring his people – he says: “24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

The same concepts and components Jesus is talking about in John three are also seen in Ezekiel thirty-six. Transformation is described as being given a new heart rather than a new birth from above, but the idea of deep transformation is the same. The transformation is linked with the cleansing of water, with the Spirit, and with the formation of a renewed community.

In other words, what Jesus is saying is not new. And Nicodemus should not have been so surprised.

So taken as a whole, we see that Nicodemus is looking for something from Jesus that will supplement the life he already has, while Jesus is telling him that if he wants anything to do with the real God, the true God – not the God who complements his personal identity collection like an accent piece, not the God who only promises to boost his mood when needed like a B12 supplement – but if he wants to know the real and true God, he needs to be transformed. He needs heart transplant surgery. He needs to be born again from above in such a way that it transforms his heart, his mind, and his primary community.

The question for us is: In what ways can we tend to be like Nicodemus? How can we approach God, or Christ, or religion, as a supplement to our lives rather than as a transformation to our lives?

Let’s consider that question for three different types of people. Let’s ask what our text has to say to:

– those who know they are just looking to religion as a supplement to their lives,

– those who know Christ should transform their lives, and

– those who want to see Christ transform someone else’s life.

So first, those who know they are looking to religion as just a supplement to their lives.

Typically, in this camp, people come to religion for some help in their lives in areas they see lacking. They approach religion kind of like a metaphysical multi-vitamin. They need a religion that has some moral structure and support to help strengthen their resolve to be a better person. They need a religion that will provide encouragement and a sense of purpose to carry them through the discouragements and trials they may face in life. They need a religion that will provide a community so that they don’t get too lonely.

And when they think this way, they can approach religion or choosing a church like a customer at a Supplement Superstore, walking through the aisles, pulling different bottles off the shelf to look over the contents, and when they find the right mix, that’s what they go with. You look for the church, or preacher, or religion that provides just the right amount of moral instruction, emotional encouragement, and community connection to meet your needs without too many unwanted side-effects – without too many demands on you that you’d rather avoid.

Many people in our culture think of religion this way … and it’s understandable why. Because this is the understanding of religion that most of us have been taught by our culture from childhood. Religion can be helpful. But don’t take it too seriously. Shop around. Find what “works for you” – what boosts your ethics, mood and relationships. And go with that.

As Rachael Sheldon reminded us in her testimony at Easter, this is a religious perspective called moralistic therapeutic deism. It is moralistic in that it gives us moral direction. It is therapeutic in that it gives us encouragement in life, both in our outlook and in the community it may provide. And it is deism in that God is there … but he is relatively distant. He doesn’t require too much of us.

Our culture likes to treat religion as a supplement. You have your life goals and religion will give you a boost in achieving them: living a moral life, receiving peace and encouragement, being part of a caring community.

If what I’ve described here is what you are looking for … then I need to make it clear that that is not what Jesus is offering. Jesus says that when we come to him for a supplement, we are like the man in need of a heart-transplant looking for help at a Supplement Superstore. Our spiritual problems are far worse than we are admitting to ourselves. Jesus says that instead, we need radical transformation.

Our hearts need to be reordered and transformed so that God and God’s kingdom are the most important things in our lives, and not a means to another end. Our minds need to be transformed so that we realize that we do not come to God dictating to him whom he is, but rather we come expecting him to tell us who we are. We need to have our community and relationships transformed so that the people of God, those who have had their lives transformed by Christ, becomes the most important community in our lives, because we realize that no bond is deeper than the one that comes through Christ, indicated by our shared baptism and expressed in our shared faith.

If you are here this morning considering Christ as a supplement to your already established life … a boost to a few areas of life … a metaphysical multi-vitamin …

Jesus says he is not offering that. More than that, Jesus says you need much, much more than that.

What if he is right? What if God is real … if God is active in the world … if God has a plan for this world? If that is true … then isn’t his kingdom, his work, and his reign more important than whatever goals of comfort, achievement, and worldly success you have for your own life?

If God is real and active in this world then doesn’t it make sense that your life should be transformed to adjust to him, rather than that you should be shopping for the god who will best conform to your personal needs?

Jesus says that unless you are born again from above, born of water and the Spirit, unless you are given a new heart, unless your heart, mind, and relationships are transformed, then you cannot enter the kingdom of God.

That’s what our text has to say to the first group.

The second group are those who know Christ should transform their lives … but they are frustrated that they’re not experiencing more of it.

They see the call and the promise to transformation that Jesus holds out and they are frustrated that they don’t see more of it in their own lives. They are still struggling with the same sins, the same doubts, the same flawed patterns of thought.

If that is you this morning, then there are things for you to do. You need to battle sin, to resist temptation, to preach the gospel to yourself when you doubt, to seek to allow the Scriptures to shape your thought life. You should do all those things.

But our text reminds us that the power to change is not ultimately from you but from God, and our text should encourage you with the fact that if you have trusted in Christ, then that power is already at work in you.

When we are discouraged with our growth, we can often look at where we are and where we are aiming for and be discouraged by the distance. But if you are a follower of Christ, then our text this morning is a reminder of what God has already done in you. It is an encouragement to consider the fact that God’s transforming power has already been at work in you, in your heart, your mind, and your relationships. You have already experienced the new birth from above.

If you came to know the Lord later in life, consider where you are now versus where you were before you were first transformed by Christ. He who brought you this far, he who already did so much, will he fail to continue to work in you? Pursue holiness while clasping onto that assurance with both hands.

And if you grew up in a faithful Christian context and have embraced Christ from the heart from as early as you can remember, then take a moment to consider where you might be right now had it not been for that. You know your sins and temptations. You know your foolishness and flaws. Where would they have led you if Christ had not provided a new heart, a new mind, and a new community at such an early age? And if he worked that transformation already, then will he not bring to completion what he has begun in you?

For those who have already trusted in Christ our text offers an encouragement that the power to bring further transformation to our lives is already present in us by the Spirit.

The third group I mentioned are those of you who know the Lord, and who now want to see Christ transform someone else’s life as well.

Maybe it’s a friend, maybe a coworker, maybe a family member. For you, our text this morning brings out three things you need to recognize about the one you want to see come to know the Lord.

You need to recognize their perspective, you need to recognize the power you do have, and you need to recognize the power you don’t have.

First, recognize their perspective. Now … everyone’s perspective is different, of course. But it’s helpful for us to keep in mind that in our culture, in our setting, most secular people will assume a supplemental view of religion. They will assume moralistic therapeutic deism. And they will assume that that is why you believe what you believe as well. They will assume that you hold to your faith because it is what “works for you” … not because it has laid hold of you and transformed you, but because it enhances your life and helps you reach your other goals.

So, you need to recognize their perspective.

But second, you need to recognize the power you have, which among other things is the power to undermine their assumptions. Because if you really allow Christ to bring transformation to your life, if you really seek that … then you will begin to undermine their assumptions about the nature of your faith.

If they see that you believe what you believe not primarily because of the ways it encourages you, but because you believe it is really true, and you have allowed Christ to upend the very basis of your knowledge, to transform your epistemology – so that, for example, you hold to beliefs that you personally struggle with … that you have a hard time believing … and you believe them not primarily because you can see how they help you, or because they make you happy, but because your mind has been transformed to trust Christ’s word over your own – if you do that and people see that in you, it will undermine their assumption that you too approach religion as just another helpful supplement.

If they see that you will do things that disadvantage and hurt you in this world – in terms of your time, or your money, or your opportunities – but they see you do it anyway because you believe it is right, and because Christ has called you to do it, if they see that the gospel has transformed your heart and life, rather than just giving you a few moral axioms to help you feel good about yourself … then it will undermine their assumptions that your faith is just a moral supplement for you.

And if they see you really commit yourself to the new community of the church … not because the congregation is seen as a good supplement to your life after you have done a careful pros and cons list – a cost/benefit analysis – but instead that you are committed to a church community even when they frustrate you … that you are committed to relationships with individuals there even though some of them are not the kind of people you would prefer to spend your time with in another setting … but that you are committed to the church because you believe what the Bible says that it is the family and the household of God, and the heart of his kingdom … that too will undermine their assumptions that your Christian faith is of a supplemental nature.

Those are the things you need to recognize you have some power over.

But as you share Christ with others, and long to see them transformed, you also need to recognize what you don’t have power over.

You cannot change their hearts. You cannot bring about the new birth from above by the water of the Spirit. Only God can do that. Our calling is to fulfill our role and to rely on God and pray to him to do the work of bringing about the new birth in someone.

And that distinction leads us to the general question, with these things all being considered, of what we are to do.

Key in our text is that we are not to look to Christ for a spiritual supplement, but to look to him for a total transformation. Whether we want that for ourselves or another … what are we to do about it?

Here we need to watch out for two common mistakes.

One is the mistake of thinking that we can make the new birth come about in ourselves. In the Arminian theological framework, we choose to put our trust in Christ and this causes the new birth.

The problem is that this is a pretty difficult interpretation to get from what we’ve read in John.

In our text this morning we read Jesus say: “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.”

In other words, … just as where the wind is going from one minute to another is a mystery, and we cannot understand it or control it (which was even more true in the ancient world), so we cannot know what the Spirit will do in his work of bringing about the new birth, and we certainly can’t control it.

If that were not clear enough, in John 1:13 we read that those who experience this new birth from above “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

In other words, we do not initiate the new birth – God does.

So, though we need the new birth, we cannot control it in order to make it happen either in ourselves or in someone else.

But on the other end, the second mistake we may be tempted to make is to assume that there is then nothing we can do but wait fatalistically to see if the Spirit will bring the new birth to us or someone else.

This is the error of hyper-Calvinism – to rightly see that God is sovereign over the new birth, but then wrongly conclude that there is nothing for us to do.

And we know it is wrong to conclude that there is nothing we should do, because Jesus indicates to Nicodemus what he thinks Nicodemus should do.

Jesus does not indicate the mechanics of the relationship between what Nicodemus does, and the new birth God brings … he simply asserts that Nicodemus is reliant on the new birth, that Nicodemus can’t control the new birth, and that there is something Nicodemus should do. Jesus leaves the relationships between those things a mystery … and so we will leave it as such this morning as well.

What, though, does Jesus tell Nicodemus to do? He tells him to believe his testimony, and to look upon him in faith on the cross.

In verses eleven through thirteen he says: “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.”

Jesus here is challenging Nicodemus to rethink how he receives Jesus’s words. Nicodemus is acting as if he and others have access to heavenly realities – as if human beings could climb into heaven and observe transcendent reality and bring their observations back to earth and compare notes.

Jesus says that is not the case. Jesus tells him that the only access Nicodemus has to transcendent truth is by revelation. The one who has come down from heaven has to reveal it. And that one is Jesus.

If we are seeking transformation from God, we need to recognize that we are reliant on him for revelation from Jesus about who God is. That is the first thing we are to do.

The second thing we are to do is to look to Jesus Christ on the cross. We get this in verses fourteen and fifteen. Jesus says: “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.”

The reference here is to Numbers twenty-one. In that passage of the Hebrew Scriptures Israel rebels against God. As a judgment God sends deadly serpents among them to bite them. And then, as a rescue from the judgment, God tells Moses to make an image of a fiery serpent on a pole, and as people look on it in faith and repentance, they will be saved – the serpent’s bite will not kill them.

They had earned judgment, but by looking at an image of that judgment in faith and repentance, they would be saved.

And in the same way, Jesus is reminding us that we have earned judgment. It is because of our sin that our hearts are so sick that this transformation is needed. And to be saved we are to look on an image of the judgment we deserved: the image of Jesus on the cross. As we look to him in faith and repentance, we are saved.

Jesus in our text this morning tells Nicodemus and tells us, that our hearts and souls are terribly sick and need transformation, not just spiritual supplements. We are helpless to perform this heart transplant ourselves, but the Spirit of God can do it. And our role is to trust Jesus’s Word, and look to his work on the cross in faith – trusting that Jesus has there received the judgment that we deserved. And we are to do that anticipating that in the very ability to look to Christ in faith and repentance, the Spirit is already transforming our hearts and minds, and will then continue the work that he has begun.

We don’t hear from Nicodemus again in chapter three.

But he comes up in chapter seven, defending Jesus against the chief priests and the Pharisees as they are clamoring to have him arrested.

And then he shows up again in chapter nineteen, at the tomb of Jesus, where he arrives with supplies for the burial of Jesus’s body.

Nicodemus, a man of influence among the Pharisees soon found himself opposing the powerful men he had once counted himself among, and eventually found himself showing up at the tomb of Jesus. His allegiance would appear to have been transformed. His primary community went from the Pharisees to the band of men and women following Jesus. His mind shifted from the arguments of the Pharisees to the words of Jesus. His heart and actions shifted from his role as a respected teacher, to one willing to serve Jesus even at a time when it was risky to do so. John is not explicit, he doesn’t say it directly, but it would seem that he wants us to see that Nicodemus was indeed transformed, just as Jesus described.

We too have the words and deeds of Jesus before us. The question is: will we receive it?

Will we come before God looking and longing for the transformation only his Spirit can bring – whether we need to receive it for the first time, or to receive his continuing work in us from the transformation we have already received?

Will we root our lives in renewed hearts, minds, and communities?

Or will we come looking for a spiritual supplement … a metaphysical multivitamin?

That is the question we each need to answer as we sit with Jesus and Nicodemus this morning.


This sermon draws on material from:

Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John. vol.1. Anchor. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966.

Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Dougherty, Michael Brendan. My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search For Home. New York, NY: Sentinel, 2019.