Probably the favorite Calvinist proof text for their doctrine of irresistible regeneration is John 3:3, 6. Here Jesus directly addresses the doctrine of the new birth. Calvinists and most Biblical theologians correlate the new birth with regeneration. Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can “see” or “enter” the Kingdom of God unless they are first “born again”. Calvinists see in Jesus words the teaching that regeneration precedes faith. They point to two aspects of what Christ said to Nicodemus which they believe demonstrate that Jesus was teaching that the new birth precedes faith.
First, Calvinists lay great stress on the parallel between spiritual birth and physical birth. They will often argue that a sinner can no more decide when he will be reborn than a child can decide when he or she will be physically born. The problem with this approach is that Jesus nowhere says that we are to understand his words in this way. What about labor pains? What about the passage through the birth canal? What about conception? Should we also seek to draw parallels from these aspects of physical birth? If not, then why not? How do we know which parallels should be drawn, and which should not. The best approach is to let Jesus instruct us.
Christ’s emphasis in these passages is the need for new life and does not deal with the issue of how that life is attained until later in the chapter. If we follow Jesus’ discourse we will discover that Jesus answers the question of whether we should draw such a parallel with physical birth. All we can rightly deduce from John 3:3, 6 is that no one can see or enter the Kingdom of God until they are born again. He does not tell us how one becomes born again until later in the passage. We need to be careful not to read our doctrinal biases into Christ’s words before he has had an opportunity to further explain them.
Second, Calvinists lay great stress on the word “see”. They argue that one cannot believe in Christ until one first “sees” the Kingdom. They believe that “seeing” must precede “believing”. Since one cannot “see” the Kingdom of God until one is born again, then it would seem logical that one cannot believe what they “see” until they are born again. This is the more significant Calvinist argument. But will it stand up to scrutiny?
There are a few problems with this argument. First, “seeing” the Kingdom of God does not necessarily mean “seeing” the need for the redemption offered in the atonement of Jesus Christ. One does not necessarily need to fully comprehend the nature of God’s Kingdom in order to recognize one’s need for a redeemer. This is a false correlation that is not supported by the text. Second, it seems better to understand “see” and “enter” as metaphors for full experience. The Greek word for “see” in this passage is also used as a means of “experiencing” something in other passages. In Acts 2:27, 31; 13:35 and Heb. 11:5 the word is used of experiencing either death or corruption. It is used in 1 Pet. 3:10 for experiencing “good days”. It is used for experiencing “sorrow” in Rev. 18:7 (especially note how John uses “see” in John 3:36 and 8:51 for experiencing eternal life).
The TDNT (the one volume abridged addition) says of eidon [which is used in John 3 and the other passages mentioned above] and horao [another word for "see"] that:
Often the verbs mean “to perceive” in such senses as “to experience,” “to note,” “to establish,” “to realize,” “to know,” “to judge,” “to mark,” “to heed”. (pg. 710)
Calvinist D.A. Carson says of “see” in John 3:3:
To a Jew with the background and convictions of Nicodemus, “to see the kingdom of God” was to participate in the kingdom at the end of the age, to experience eternal, resurrection life. The same equivalence is found in the Synoptics (cf. Mk. 9:43, 45 ‘to enter life’, parallel to 9:47 ‘to enter the kingdom of God/); it is particularly strong in the Fourth Gospel, where ‘kingdom’ language crops up only here (3:3, 5) and at Jesus’ trial (18:36) while ‘life’ language predominates. One of the most startling features of the kingdom announced in the Synoptics is that it is not exclusively future. The kingdom, God’s saving and transforming reign, has in certain respects already been inaugurated in the personal works and message of Jesus. (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According To John, P. 188 )
Since Jesus uses “enter” to further describe “see” it seems unreasonable to conclude that Jesus is speaking of anything other than fully experiencing God’s Kingdom. He is describing the transition from one sphere of existence to another.
This was especially relevant in light of the Jewish understanding that they would experience God’s Kingdom on the basis of being a descendant of Abraham. Nicodemus would have approached Jesus believing that he was already entitled to a share of God’s Kingdom on the basis of the promises given to Abraham in Genesis 13:14, 15 and 17:18. The Jews believed that when the Messiah came they would simply move into His Kingdom on the merits of God’s promise to Abraham’s descendants and on the merits of obedience to the Mosaic Law. While the Jews believed that they could earn heaven on the merits of their works, they seemed to primarily believe that they were unconditionally promised the eternal inheritance simply because they were circumcised Jews. F. Leroy Forlines describes this important Jewish understanding of salvation.
We are confronted with two seemingly contradictory concepts in the New Testament concerning the Jewish viewpoint of their own salvation. The first is the concept of unconditional salvation of all Jews as the seed of Abraham. It was this viewpoint that caused John the Baptist to say, ‘Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with your repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, we have Abraham for our father; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham’ (Mt. 3:9; see also Jn. 8:33-40). The other viewpoint is that they were depending on their own works. This viewpoint is set forth by Paul when he said, ‘But Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works’ (Rom. 9:31, 32). (Quest for Truth pg. 347-emphasis his)
Forlines then goes on to argue that even the Jewish view on justification by works was in the context of the corporate righteousness of Israel. The Jews then did not view salvation as individual but as corporate, based on the promises made to Abraham and on the corporate righteousness of Israel. He explains,
It appears that these two observations about salvation among the Jews are mutually exclusive. However, from all that I can gather, Jews were not as concerned with harmonization as some of us are. They were more content to let some loose ends dangle in their thought. E.P. Sanders astutely observes, ‘Rabbis were not concerned with the internal systematic relationship of their statements.’ (ibid. 348)
He then concludes with,
Their concept of unconditional corporate election of all Jews was by far the more basic of the two thoughts. All the rest of their thoughts must be weighed in the light of that foundational thought. (ibid. 348)
This is the cultural context in which this dialogue between a leading Jew and Jesus takes place. Jesus is correcting two fundamental misconceptions of the Jewish understanding of salvation. They will not inherit the Kingdom of God unconditionally. They must be changed. They must be reborn. This change does not take place corporately but individually, “No one [individual] can see” or “enter” the Kingdom of God without first being reborn. The Kingdom of God is not unconditionally guaranteed to them. They cannot enter the Kingdom until their sin has been dealt with, for the Kingdom of God is a holy Kingdom. There is need for real atonement before one can enter into the life of God’s Kingdom. Since sin brings death “you must be born again”. How does this happen? Nicodemus asks Jesus this same question in verse 9, “how can this be?”
Jesus quickly directs Nicodemus to the necessity of atonement. He says in verses 14 and 15, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” So how does one attain the new life necessary for seeing and entering the Kingdom of God? He must look to the lifted up Messiah and believe in him. While Calvinists lay great stress on the analogy of spiritual birth with physical birth, they virtually ignore the implications involved with the analogy of the bronze serpent that Jesus specifically used to answer Nicodemus’ question of how one becomes born again (vs. 9).
The Israelites in the desert were dying from the deadly venom of snake bites. The only way they could escape certain death was to look to the bronze serpent that God had provided for their healing. Those Israelites were dying until they fixed their gaze on the bronze snake. Jesus correlates this “looking” to the snake with “believing”. When someone believes in Christ the blood of atonement is applied, the curse of sin and death is broken, and new life begins. If the Calvinistic interpretation of John3:3, 6 is correct then Jesus chose a poor analogy to explain to Nicodemus how the new life begins. If their view is correct then we must also believe that the Israelites in the desert were not given life as a result of fixing their gaze on the bronze serpent, but were rather first given life so that they could then look to [or "see"] the serpent. In this view they looked to the serpent because they had already been cured of the venom’s deadly effects. They would not have looked to the serpent to secure life; they would have looked to the serpent because they had already been given life. I would venture to say that no Calvinist believes that the Israelites looked to the bronze serpent because they had already been cured and given life. Since this is the illustration that Christ chose to explain the nature of his atonement and the means by which we attain life, it is absurd to believe that Jesus was teaching that the new birth precedes faith in John 3:3, 6. Consider the parallels,
The Bronze Snake:
The Israelites had to look to the bronze serpent to escape the deadly effects of the venom and experience life, “Anyone who is bitten can look at [the serpent] and live…when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake they lived.” [Numbers 21:8, 9]
The Crucified Messiah:
Only those who look to the Messiah’s atonement by faith in His blood will escape the deadly effects of sin and experience new life, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son [as a necessary atonement], that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” [Jn. 3:14-16]
Rather than allowing Jesus to explain His own teaching, the Calvinist wants to “explain” what Jesus meant before He does. If we want to understand what Jesus meant by His comments in John 3:3, 6, we only need to keep reading. If we can resist the temptation to read our theology into his comments we will soon discover that one is born again by believing in Christ and thereby appropriating the benefits of His atonement. Only after the blood of the “lifted up” Messiah is applied through faith can one begin to experience the eternal life that begins at the new birth.
When Jesus said that no one can “see” or “enter” the Kingdom of God unless that person was born again, He was teaching the necessity of the application of His atoning work. Only when sin is dealt with in the life of the individual can that person experience life and move into the sphere of God’s holy Kingdom. Jesus made it clear that the soul cleansing benefits of His atoning work are given only to those who “believe” in Him.
Nicodemus may have walked away confused and frustrated but Jesus perfectly explained to him why the Jewish view of salvation was inadequate. The only way for anyone, Jew or Gentile, to attain the life of the Messianic Kingdom is for them to personally put their faith in the atoning work of the Messiah. While John 3:3 and 6, when read in the context of the entire chapter, lends further weight to the Arminian view, it fails as a proof text for the Calvinistic doctrine of regeneration preceding faith.