How can we be saved? Jesus did not give us a checklist of works to do or thoughts to think. Instead, He defined salvation as a relationship with God. “Now this is eternal life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). We will not be saved by mouthing “sinners’ prayers” or other dead works and formulas of the mind. We are saved through right relationship with God.
What kind of relationship does God propose—one of our design or His? Throughout the Bible, God offers not a casual, random, sporadic connection but a permanent, covenantal, exclusive relationship.
A covenant is a binding contract that cannot be broken without ultimate consequences. God does not disseminate His redeeming love as a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” But what must we do to enter into this saving, covenant relationship with God?
What are our primary mediums for relating to God? When it comes to our friends, there are three primary mediums through which we relate—the phone, email and face-to-face. But we cannot email, call or schedule a face-to-face meeting with God. Instead, He has given us His enscriptured word, the fellowship of His Holy Spirit and direct interaction with His Body, the people in whom He dwells.
We cannot enter into a saving, covenantal marriage with the Lord Jesus until we have first divorced our sin-master in repentance (Rom. 7:1-4). We enact this covenant with Christ through water baptism, which is our pledge before God to remain in Him, forsaking all other lords. The baptism of the Spirit then opens our lives to the leading and guiding of the Lord, who “is the Spirit,” empowering a walk of faith whereby we put to death the deeds of the flesh. The body of Christ represents the primary context in which God will continue to express His living word, saving grace and redeeming love into our lives through concrete, enduring relationships of discipleship.
This paper will offer a brief and basic introduction to the key five aspects of a saving relationship with God—repentance, water baptism, receiving the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ and discipleship. Let’s begin with a brief overview of what Jesus did for us, and why it was necessary. Then we shall proceed to outline the five elements that connect us to His saving power.
God created the whole universe and every human being in order to display His glory. God is all-powerful (Jer. 32:17; Luke 1:37), but He defines Himself as love (1 John 4:16). The nature of His power is the voluntary appeal of love that knocks on each human heart (Rev. 3:20). Sadly, humankind rebelled against the voluntary relationship God gave them in Eden. Sin brought us under bondage to the devil and fear of punishment, by which the devil enslaves all people (Heb. 2:14; 1 John 4:18).
Life now persists on earth through God’s beautiful principle of sowing and reaping (Gen. 1:11-12; 1 Cor. 15:38). This is what has enabled all existing animal and plant species to survive the death that human sin brought into the world (Rom 8:22). If we removed the principle of sowing and reaping, all life would die out. But it is this same principle that stores up judgment for sinful people (Prov. 22:8; Gal. 6:7-8). We plant sin and reap judgment (Job 4:8; Hos. 10:13; 2 Cor. 9:6). God could not arbitrarily remove this life principle from His cosmos. But, out of compassion toward His creation, neither could He simply ignore the eternity of torment that His children were racking up for themselves as they marched blindly on the inexorable treadmill of habitual sin (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16).
At the very Fall of man in Eden, God promised Eve that she would have a descendent who would one day crush Satan’s head—crush his wisdom, authority and power (Gen. 3:15). In the fullness of times, the Almighty slipped into our world, hidden in the weakness whereby He would save, arriving as a helpless babe lying in a manger. At last, the God who is Spirit put on flesh to make Himself visible—knowable to all of the lost, bewildered souls (1 Tim. 3:16).
No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son of God in the bosom of the Father, He has revealed Him. (John 1:18)
Jesus was a two-fold being. In his humanity, He was God’s Son, but the Spirit living in Him was Almighty God Himself (Matt. 1:21; John 1:14; 10:38; 14:10-11; Rom. 1:3; Gal. 4:4; Col. 1:19; 2:9). Through Jesus, we learned how much God loves us as He gave sight to the blind, cleansed the lepers, fed the hungry and forgave sinners (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). Still, God’s greatest act of love went beyond even the greatest of miracles. He chose to balance the scales of justice by absorbing in His sinless body the full harvest of judgment that mankind had stored up for themselves (Rom. 4:25; 5:6-7; 1 Pet. 2:24).
Jesus disarmed satan at the cross through a demonstration of complete trust in God, freeing Him from satan’s efforts to manipulate Him through fear (John 12:31; Col. 2:15). He responded to His brutal tormenters in precisely the opposite manner as they expected. When slandered, He gave no retort. When struck, He did not strike back. Their mockery produced no indignation. His dying breaths were offered in prayer for His tormenters, showing all of us how to live and die free from satan’s tyranny of fear.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He did not open his mouth. (Isa. 53:7)
But that wasn’t the only way Christ disarmed the power of evil. Through mankind’s sinful yielding to satan’s temptation at the fall, satan gained a just dominion over fallen humanity. Satan’s power of death could therefore be justly exercised on humankind. But because Jesus had committed no sin, satan had no legal right to harm Him (John 14:3; 1 Pet. 2:22). So when Jesus submitted to His unjust death on the cross, nothing could hold Him in the grave. After three days, He arose to live an indestructible life. He had suffered in our place, paying our debt in full, inviting us to trust, love and know God without the dread of pending wrath (Heb. 10:20; 1 Pet. 3:18).
How can we accept this great sacrifice sufficient to cover all the world’s sins? Do we receive this salvation through genetic pedigree, legal formulas invented by human minds, or mere mental assent (Titus 3:5)?
Jesus proposes salvation as oneness with Him through an enduring relationship of trust (John 1:12; 17:3). Yet our own human will and sinful nature compete for such a totally surrendered trust. Before we can walk with Christ in faith, making Him our saving Lord and sovereign, we must first dethrone the tyranny of sin, the reign of self-will (Rom. 6:6; Rom. 7:21-23; 8:5; Gal. 5:17, 24). This is repentance.
There can be no repentance apart from a terrible revelation of our sinful nature as the culprit who can only guarantee perennial failure (John 8:32; Eph. 2:3). Repentance is not merely feeling sorry for an evil deed; it crucifies the exalted Adamic will and nature that competes with God (Gal. 2:20).
Scripture likens repentance to the uprooting of a tree. That tree represents our deeply rooted plans, ambitions, worldview and will (Matt. 3:10). Our Adamic “tree” does not need a new management program. Regular pruning of symptoms only increases growth. No, the ax of God’s truth must completely sever the root of pride’s legitimacy, and the whole tree of our manifest will must come toppling down (Matt. 7:19; Luke 3:9).
Chronic sin persists when we live by a false sense of entitlement that leads to disappointment and self-pity (Gen. 4:6-7; 1 Sam. 28:23; 1 Kings 20:43; 21:4). Self-pity leads to judging others (as with Cain), ultimately producing envy, strife and even murder. Yet, suppose we quit explaining away the evil flowing from our hearts as environmental, circumstantial victimhood and instead take a long, unflinching look into God’s mirror of truth (James 1:25). When we do, we will see a grotesque specter gazing back at us. Many are afraid to discover how ugly and culpable they are. But Jesus says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).
Every promised liberation that does not first begin with revolting self-revelation is a fraud, ignoring that the source of man’s bondage to sin is the depravity of his own nature, his core, his heart. But one glimpse of our true nature in the sight of God, and we would shatter in contrition and abandon all efforts to varnish and make excuses for this core evil inside (Ps. 34:18).
God said, “Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.” “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:4-6)
Those who escape will remember Me—how I have been grieved by their adulterous hearts, which have turned away from Me and by their eyes, which have lusted after their idols. They will loath themselves for the evil they have done and for all their detestable practices. (Ezek. 6:9)
Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? (Rom. 7:23)
Repenting of the tyranny of our carnal man feels like death on a cross, but resurrection comes when Jesus empowers us to reign over that fallen nature through His Spirit (Rom. 6:14; 8:13; Gal. 5:16).
Our motive for overcoming ugly transgressions may flow either from pride or contrition. Yes, pride can drive “overcoming” efforts when it perceives beggarly sins as distasteful reminders of its own fallibility, thus undermining self-supremacy. Pride-driven efforts at overcoming will be marked by resentment and hatred—not for self-will but for the weakness of the carnal flesh that we seek to exalt. Pride despises—not the sin—but the shame it elicits in the eyes of others. It recoils at the ongoing need for correction or accountability. It buckles down with determined self-will, doggedly trying to slay the flesh with the flesh.
What we must learn to hate is not our weakness but our self-sufficient pride. Repentance will not remedy our vulnerability toward falling and failing. It will, instead, dethrone the pride that hates weakness and situate us in a relational context where victory is totally dependent on God’s Spirit, His Word and the grace that comes from other believers. Hatred of our weakness is a hallmark of unrepentant pride. The unrepentant heart hates its need. It seeks to conquer fleshly temptations in order to show itself strong. It hates these slavish proclivities, not as God hates them, but as belittling reminders of our fallibility.
In God’s eyes, overweening self-sufficiency may be a greater sin than all the more gross particulars of fleshly weakness. Yet the proud demand, “When am I going to be done with this and never have to fight it again?” Their weakness is starting to crack their self-image as a self-sufficient prince over their own existence.
But Paul speaks in the present tense: “I know that in my flesh, nothing good dwells.” Repentance reconciles us to weakness, bringing an acquiescence toward our needy condition that necessitates ongoing dependence on Christ and His Body, a reliance that we will never outgrow this side of heaven. Again, repentance ends our trust in self, not our need for God and others.
Victorious believers still bear constant awareness of weakness. But “the Spirit [comes to us and] helps us in our weakness. We do not know what prayer to offer or how to offer it as we should, but the Spirit Himself [knows our need and at the right time] intercedes on our behalf with sighs and groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
Repentance involves prayer, a broken heart, weeping, commitment, faith and many other expressions of active spiritual battle. Yet, so long as we continue to cast ourselves as unfortunate victims worthy of pity, consolation and compensation, repentance will never ensue. Repentance slays the wicked, wretched carnal man as the recognized chief villain and culprit of all our perennial failures.
So long as self remains at the center of all our passionate concern, mourning, regret and efforts, repentance remains impossible. In this unrepentant state of mind, we’ll pervert even God‘s liberating word, twisting it to be another confirmation of our own victimhood, inducing —not faith-driven escape velocity—but continued mourning over the one the Lord has condemned to death.
Until every piercing word is a dart pinning down our own selfish nature, we are not discerning rightly. Until we see ourselves as God sees us—a wretched, rotten, black-holing, blame-shifting, grasping, blinded, selfish sinner—we will never be ashamed of our carnal nature enough to crucify him. As long as the carnal mind brokers all reality, twisting our narrative to make us the victim, repentance eludes us.
Repentance begins with a genuine acknowledgment that we don’t know ourselves, followed by a sincere desire to see who we are, in truth, begging God to show us, and then having the courage to fix our gaze unflinchingly at the horrible reality and specter of our blackened, corrupt heart. Self-revelation produces profound shame and shattering brokenness, followed by a persistent zeal to undermine, disempower and annihilate sin’s reign—that alone can be called repentance.
Until we take the slashing sword of God‘s truth and thrust it willingly into the deepest corners of our own guilty hearts, we are simply liars in search of another pacifier.
No effort at “repentance“ should be considered remotely sincere apart from revolting self-revelation, followed by terrible shame and admission of guilt producing in us an unstoppable commitment and tenacity to slay the actual culprit of our demise. Any painful revelations that make us weep for ourselves, our losses, our mistreatment, and our difficult life are, at best wicked Esau counterfeits from satan, standing fraudulently in the place of liberating, transformative, life-giving repentance.
The penitent sinner must be violently stirred in his soul—not by all the wrongs he has suffered—but by his rebellion and insult to God’s grace. We will not find repentance through self-encouragement, rationalizations or self-pity. Scripture commands us to stop laughing and start weeping, to become deeply grieved over the magnitude of our sin.
Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. (James 4:9)
But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deut. 4:29)
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance. (Ps. 32:3-7)
God extends no grace to the excuse-maker. But the one who will acknowledge his sin and declare the truth of God’s indictment will sense the foundations of his “sand castle” shifting, cracking and crumbling. Rather than recover his pride and composure, let the penitent collapse the whole edifice of his sufficiency apart from Christ—through fervent prayer, groaning, weeping and contrition.
Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken…and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. (2 Kings 22:19).
For He wounds, but He also binds; He strikes, but His hands also heal. (Job 5:18)
Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am frail; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are in agony (Ps. 6:2)
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18)
I said, “O LORD, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against You.” (Ps. 41:4)
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. (Ps. 51:17)
The LORD is near to all who call on Him, to all who call out to Him in truth. (Ps. 145:18)
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Ps. 147:3)
God’s voice beckons us down a road our flesh adamantly warns will end in death—death to our dreams, joys, love and life. Saving faith persists against all our clamoring, protesting, self-preserving instincts as we advance toward total surrender and loss—doggedly trusting that this path alone leads to life.
When Jesus cleansed the temple, the religious leaders challenged and rejected His authority. For Christ, this response signaled that they had not obeyed John’s earlier call to repentance by laying the ax to the root of their own authority (Mark 11:28-30). When we dethrone self-supremacy, we can suddenly recognize and receive the gracious authority sent by God (John 6:29; 7:17). We no longer challenge the cleansing of our personal temple but welcome and even seek it. More than anything, repentance abolishes the tyranny of self-will (Phil. 3:19; Rom. 6:17; 8:5; 16:18). Thus, it allows us to become part of the kingdom of God, the place where only one Lord reigns as King (Matt. 4:17; 6:10; Mark 1:15).
To pursue kingdom life as unity among brothers without first ending self’s authority is to make ourselves a double agent—feigning submission to our common Lord while pursuing the agenda of a subversive sovereign. In short, we must lay down our crowns before Christ can be crowned King of kings and Lord of lords in our lives and in the church (Rev. 4:10).
Christ wants to induct us into His glorious kingdom of love. Repentance identifies our own nature as the competing god whose reign must end. Repentance leads us through acknowledgment, confession and forsaking to demonstrate our rejection of self-will and commitment to Christ. Once this turn is complete, it’s time to commit, as when a person renounces their former country and becomes a citizen of a new nation. Our baptism constitutes a life-long vow to abide in repentance, to die daily.
In his epistle, Peter speaks of baptism as the “pledge” or the “answer” of a good conscience (1 Pet. 3:21). He further explains that water baptism corresponds to Noah’s flood, where the ungodly were judged and eight souls brought safely through the water (1 Pet. 3:20).
In what sense is water baptism a pledge? Peter here uses the Greek word: eperotema, meaning “the formal answers given in a court case by one adjured for testimony.” This vow to God renounces sin’s lordship and establishes our covenant unto obedience with Him. Baptism answers the question, “Who is lord of your life?”—not merely verbally but also demonstrably: plunging our fallen flesh under judgment waters.
Baptism, as Paul says, unites us with Christ’s death—the death by which He suffered judgment and condemnation on our behalf (Rom. 6:3). In baptism, we submerge the tyranny of our sinful nature into the agony that Christ suffered. Baptism marks a change of ownership over our own lives (1 Cor. 6:20). Slavery to corruption ends as we become bondslaves of Christ, led as captives in His triumphal procession (Rom. 6:22; 2 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 4:8).
Baptism is a demonstrative vow that binds us to the relationship that saves us. The vow cannot be legitimately separated from a saving relationship with Christ, just as a wedding vow loses all significance if separated from the lifelong marriage covenant of love. If baptism is not unto abiding relationship, it is meaningless. Love is the content of marriage but survives only within covenant commitment. Similarly, love and grace through faith are the content of our saving relationship with Christ, enabled and preserved through baptismal commitment.
The saving relationship God desires to have with His people is a marriage covenant (Isa. 62:4-5). As in a traditional marriage, the vow of commitment at the altar corresponds to a shift in authority and identity. The bride transfers her submission from her father’s authority to her husband’s, and a name change marks this shift (Acts 4:12; Rev. 3:12). In Biblical culture, names universally denote authority, authorship and authorization. The name of Jesus—that name that is above every name—is paramount in baptism because it indicates that we are willingly coming under His authority. Our saving faith is not disconnected from the available agency of His name. Instead, John told us, “As many as received Him, He gave the power to become sons of God, to those who believed in His name” (John 1:12).
For the ancient Hebrews, names were more than labels. Names revealed the essence or heart of a person. When a person’s heart was fundamentally changed in the Bible, God often changed their name to correspond—Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel and so on. God gives us His name; He reveals His essence, making His presence and power available to us when we invoke His name (Exod. 3:15; 1 Kings 8:29; John 17: 6, 11; Heb. 1:4; Phil. 2:9). The Bible commands us to “praise His name” because His holy presence resides in His name (Ps. 22:3; 99:3; 148:13). If this were not so—if His presence was not in His name—such a command would be condoning idolatry.
In the Great Commission, Jesus evoked the language of Isaiah 9, where Isaiah declared of Christ, “For a Child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us; and the government will be upon His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6-7). The singular entity of the Son would be born, and He would be called the “Father” and the “Counselor” and “Mighty God.”
Jesus refers to this endless increase of God’s authority and reign when He parallels Isaiah in Matthew 28. He uses singular pronouns when He declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The apostles knew that Jesus was the promised “Child” to be born whose name would be Wonderful Counselor, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. The apostles did not parrot Jesus’ words when He told them how to baptize in Matthew 28. Rather, they obeyed His words, recognizing that “Jesus” was the singular name He referred to (Acts 2:38; 4:12; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11).
What is more, these apostles knew that Jesus, of course, was the name of the Son (Matt. 1:21), and they had heard Him say that “I have come in my Father’s name” (John 5:42). They had also heard Jesus pray, “Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, the name which Thou hast given Me” (John 17:11). The apostles no doubt recalled how Jesus had said that the Father would send the Holy Spirit “in My name” (John 14:26). So they knew exactly what name He was speaking of when He gave the command in Matthew 28. This is why every baptism recorded in the New Testament, beginning with Acts 2:38, is performed in the name of Jesus. “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” See also Acts 4:12; 8:16; 10:48; 19:3-5; 22:16.
In Luke’s version of the same Great Commission, he summarizes Christ’s instruction: “Repentance and remission of sins would be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
At baptism, we preemptively judge our carnal man, who has died in repentance. We say, “Lord, this man will no longer reign over my life; I am putting him under the cross of Christ.” At the cross, Jesus suffered condemnation—judgment on our behalf (1 Pet. 3:18-22). So when we place our old life under the judgment of the cross, we cannot ever take it up again. We have called down the penalty of the cross upon our carnal man, the sinful nature, who ruled our old life (Gal. 3:13). The carnal man is put to death in repentance by the sword of truth (Acts 2:37; Eph. 6:17). He must be dead before being buried in the floodwaters of baptism.
Baptism is an answer we live out, a demonstrative response. We can speak words to God, but there’s a time when spontaneous words are not enough, when deliberate promises must be spoken and enacted.
Baptism demonstrates covenant—verbally and bodily. When we stand in the waters of baptism, we say to God, “The tyranny of self, the pharaoh of sin that ruled my life, has died. I no longer make excuses for him or explain him away. I’m not his armor-bearer or his guard dog. I will never hold a shield in front of his heart when the sword of the Spirit would pierce him with conviction. I no longer identify with this man of sin. I have no aim, purpose or life outside of Christ.” And when we rise out of the waters of baptism, this symbolizes the resurrection, the Holy Spirit giving us power over the sin nature that we buried in the water.
We recognize that we will still commit sins and need to repent and be forgiven for them. But our baptismal pledge promises never to allow the sinful nature to rise from the grave and retake the throne because we have called the curse of the cross down upon him. Romans 6:16-19 says that the reign of sin in our lives is broken when we have come to repentance.
How do we know if we have indeed come to repentance? Willfulness, stubbornness and defensiveness are survival instincts of a sinful nature that is still alive. When we resort to defensiveness and a competitive desire to explain that we’re “not that bad,” we’re trying to resurrect the old man we consigned to the grave. When the casket is lowered into the ground in a funeral, this is called the “committal.” The baptism vow must be a committal, a commitment, to bury the carnal nature “six feet under,” never to be exhumed.
Baptism must be in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness or remission of sins. Remission of sins corresponds to removing our condemned identity and adopting Christ’s.
Acts 2:38 says, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins.” When a woman marries, her husband’s assets become her property, and her liabilities become his responsibility. In the same way, God offers to us, “Do you have debts you can’t pay? If you lose your name and become part of Me, My assets become your possession, and I have already paid your liabilities at the cross.” He gives us forgiveness as we come into covenant with Him. And as long as we remain in covenant, all our liabilities are His responsibility, and all His assets are our possession.
But we must remain in covenant. If our baptism is merely a “marriage of convenience,” it is legally considered to be fraudulent. Many Christians attempt to defraud God by going through the motions of baptism but refusing to remain in relationship with Him. They believe they’re legally married to Christ as a result of having undergone certain rites. They assume He has covered their sins. But the mere act of baptism doesn’t save anyone: instead, legitimate baptism binds us to a relationship with God that alone can save us.
The covenant of baptism is with the body of Christ, not with men (Isa. 62:5; Acts 2:41; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal 3:27). Men will fill places in the body, but they will die; some will fall away; others will rise. But our covenant with Christ and His church endures. Christ and the church, His bride, are one (Matt. 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 13:20; Rom. 7:4).
Our love for God is precious, but as water dissipates without a vessel, our passion will dissipate without a covenant. Covenant commitment becomes the durable form, designed by God Himself, into which we pour our lives and love, and our love will then endure throughout our days.
When a child hurts himself, he instinctually cries out, “Daddy!” Only his father will turn and run to his aid. Living in that child is the DNA of his father. He is begotten of his father, giving him the right to appeal to him as “Daddy.” Paul tells us that God has sent His Spirit into our hearts, enabling us to call God our daddy—Abba (Rom. 8:15).
Though we were born of earthly fathers, we can be born again and receive the spiritual DNA of our heavenly Father. This is why we must receive God’s Spirit—to become God’s sons. Rebirth changes our parentage, transforming us from slaves of fear into sons of God (Rom. 8:14-17; John 1:12-13).
Jesus was the first to introduce rebirth. One night a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin visited Christ, paying Him many compliments. But Jesus discerned that what this teacher of Israel sought was to restore the old Davidic kingdom to Israel. Like many other devout Jews, he wanted to throw off the Roman yoke and restore Judea to be a godly nation. Still, Jesus declared that the teacher could not see or enter God’s kingdom until he underwent a spiritual transformation—rebirth.
Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit, so don’t be surprised when I say, “You must be born again.” (John 3:6-7)
Christ was clearly showing that the kingdom was spiritual. Only through spiritual rebirth could Nicodemus experience the kingdom he sought. But Jesus gave a clue to the confused teacher concerning what to expect of this “rebirth” promise. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it is coming from and where it is going; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). In this promise, Christ says that when someone is born of the Spirit, it’s like the blowing of the wind. You don’t know where it’s coming from, but you hear its sound.
Jesus also likened the Holy Spirit to an inner fountain springing from someone’s heart. He told the Samaritan woman that the water He gave would become an inner fountain, welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). At the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus appeared on the last day, when they celebrated the promise that the Holy Spirit would one day be poured out. Jesus promised that the Spirit would flow from our innermost being like rivers of living water (John 7:38). He also described receiving the Spirit as being filled with power (Luke 24:49), and John likened it to being “baptized in fire” (Matt. 3:11).
For millennia, the Spirit anointed people (2 Chron. 20:14; Ezek. 11:5), situationally filled them (Judg. 15:14; 1 Sam. 10:10-11; 19:24), inspired their prophetic writing (2 Pet. 1:20-21) and blessed them. But rebirth would be something brand new. Jesus was the first human born of the Spirit (Matt. 1:20), but He would not be the last. He would be the firstborn of many brethren (Rom. 8:29). When He pointed His disciples towards this climactic event of receiving the Holy Spirit, He reassured them. “You know Him, for He has been with you, but He will be in you” (John 14:17).
At Pentecost, all the disciples’ hopes were realized as the Holy Spirit moved among them like a mighty rushing wind (Acts 2:2). For the first time in history, the most unruly member of the human body (James 3:6-8) surrendered completely to God’s power. Men and women spoke, not by their own initiative or intellect, but as the Spirit gave utterance through unknown tongues (Acts 2:4). This was a new level of trust, a new degree of surrender, marking the birth of the spiritual kingdom on earth.
Peter, who had formerly been a slave of fear, cowering and even denying Christ before a servant girl, had now been clothed with power from on high. He stood and declared to a great multitude that they were witnessing—not drunkenness, but what God had promised through Joel—the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Peter finished his message by telling the crowd that the Promise of Holy Spirit baptism was for them, their children and all the Lord would call (Acts 2:14-36).
To repeat, Jesus had said that rebirth was like the moving of the wind: you wouldn’t know where it was coming from or going to, but you would hear a sound (John 3:8). This “wind” and “sound” was seen and heard at Pentecost (Acts 2:6). But Jesus said it would occur “with everyone” born of the Spirit (John 3:8). And Peter promised it was for all (Acts 2:39). Nothing in the Bible limits this experience to just a handful or to just a certain era in the past.
The Gentiles soon received the Spirit just like the Jews had at Pentecost (Acts 10:44-46). It seems the Samaritans did also (Acts 8:14-17)—even believers from Ephesus (Acts 19:6). After 1800 years of relative spiritual powerlessness, God has visited His people again with the experience of Pentecost. Over 500,000,000 Christians worldwide have experienced exactly what believers experienced at the birth of the church.
We cannot see or enter the corporate realm of God’s spiritual kingdom on earth except through the power of the Spirit (John 3:3,5; Rom. 8:9,11; 1 Cor. 15:50). Spirit immersion places us in the Body (1 Cor. 12:13) and opens our ear to the voice of our King—for “Now the Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17).
Once God has led you through repentance to break in contrition, deny self and embrace His lordship, it is time to seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
We are assured by God: “In the day you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you” (Jer. 29:13). Paul says that God ordained our life circumstances to make us seekers, so that we would “feel after God and perhaps find Him.”
God is Spirit. He doesn’t say think after or talk after; He says feel after.
The greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. But there is an order to this love. It starts with the heart, the emotions. This is why Jesus says, “Unless you are converted and become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And Paul says, “With the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness.” A child is not analytical, exalted in his intellectual prowess. A child is emotional, responding from his core. Our pursuit of God must be the same, flowing from a broken heart.
You cannot meet Him or receive Him without a spiritual encounter. Still, if you will call on His name in faith, drawing near with the sacrifice of your lips through prayer, James promises, “He will draw near to you” (James 4:8).
You’re wanting to feel God’s presence enter the room and envelop you as you seek Him. Jesus prayed with “loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7). And we are instructed to “call upon the name of the Lord” (Rom. 10:13; 1 Cor. 1:2). This word “call,” means: to shriek or scream. Make no mistake, we will not be heard because of our volume. But if we are broken, hungry and desperate for God, we will seek Him with all our strength. We will not mutter heartless demands and call them prayers. Instead, we will allow the Holy Spirt to pray through us with “utterance too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
When Jesus promised the arrival of the Holy Spirit, He assured the disciples that they would recognize Him. “You know Him because He has been with you, but He will be in you” (John 14:17).
You have felt God’s presence. You have sensed His nearness and detected the power of His anointing. While singing a song, your heart was strangely warmed. While listening to preaching, the hair lofted on your arms and you knew you were hearing God’s voice. Perhaps in still, quiet moments even in nature, the Lord approached you, and you knew it. You’re not seeking something different but more of the same. You want to encounter God as you have in the past, but go further in that experience, letting Him take you beyond your limits into full immersion in His presence.
As you begin to pray and knock, expecting that the door will be opened into heaven’s courts, you will begin to feel God’s presence. Allow His presence to anoint your prayers, your praise, your gratitude and worship. Be responsive to every impulse He gives you in this state—to kneel or weep or raise your hands or pace or cry out. Let Him be Lord of your prayers. As you yield to His anointing, you will sense that He is taking you to a place of power and expression that you have no control over.
Trust His presence and leading more than your mind, your fears, your images. Let Him have you…down to your core, your very voice and tongue.
Don’t be afraid. You don’t know where the wind is coming from or where it’s going, but God does. Be content to hear its sound and know that He has taken full possession of your entire being. What a gift!
For millennia, God had promised that He would establish a place for His name and glory—a temple that would serve as heaven’s embassy on earth.
But you will soon cross the Jordan River and live in the land the LORD your God is giving you. When He gives you rest from all your enemies and you’re living safely in the land, you must bring everything I command you—your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, and your offerings to fulfill a vow—to the designated place of worship, the place the LORD your God chooses for His name to be honored. (Deut. 12:10-11)
“May You watch over this Temple night and day, this place where You have said, ‘My name will be there.’ May You always hear the prayers I make toward this place. May You hear the humble and earnest requests from me and Your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where You live, and when You hear, forgive.” (1 Kings 8:29-30)
Mankind would focus their prayers toward this temple, make their sacrifices and experience God’s glory at this temple. At the center of the temple was the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s contract with man unto oneness. The ark of the covenant was called God’s throne, where His presence dwelt. Still, a stone building was never God’s final plan, though it served as a type and shadow of the reality that was to come. Scripture tells us that the “Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (1 Kings 8:27, Acts 7:24; 17:24).
When Jesus was born, He became the individual expression of God’s final temple. “And the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of an only begotten of a Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God lived by His Spirit in the “tabernacle” of Christ’s human life. At the center of Christ’s living temple was a covenant of trust. Enthroned in that covenant was the very presence and glory of God. Christ’s humanity is called the “veil” of the temple that screened visitors from the glory that once dwelt above the ark (Heb. 10:20).
In John’s gospel, Jesus spoke of His life, saying, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will build it back again.” John explains this statement: “They did not understand that He was speaking to them about His body” (John 2:19, 21). Christ’s individual house would afterward become a tremendous corporate house—God’s final temple (Matt. 16:18).
Christ envisioned that those who had died to sin in repentance, committed their lives in baptism and been filled with the empowering Holy Spirit would then be configured according to the heavenly design of a glorious temple. Paul would write to Gentile believers, “So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are His house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus Himself. We are carefully joined together in Him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through Him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by His Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22).
Peter also said, “You are living stones that God is building into His spiritual temple. What’s more, you are His holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God” (1 Pet. 2:5).
What is the difference between a heap of stones and a stone building? It is the order or design by which the components are arranged or assembled. So we see that God has “placed the members in the Body just as He wanted them to be” (1 Cor. 12:18; Eph. 2:21). The body of Christ is now the place of God’s name—of our sacrifice and His glory (1 Kings 8:29; John 2:19; 1 Cor. 3:16-17). It is not a building designed or constructed by man; God designates a special place where each of us belongs (Matt. 16:18; Heb. 11:10). To become part of this design is to become part of Christ, for this is His Body. As fingers cannot choose where they attach to the body, our carnal flesh cannot decide how it is joined to Christ. We must submit to His design.
God reveals His relational order to us when He shows how people should treat each other and honor one another—spouses to each other (Eph. 5:22-25; Col. 3:18-19), children to parents (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20), disciples to elders (Matt. 28:18-20; 1 Pet. 5:1-5; Heb. 13:7, 17; Eph. 4:7-12; Rom. 6:17) and so on.
The “full measure of the stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13) is never individually attained. It is a corporate pursuit (Eph. 3:18), realized as the many members become “one” through a God-given design. Independence, envy, competition, self-seeking—these fruits of un-repentance only serve to break apart the stones of God’s temple, even while masquerading as “freedom.” God can only compose “lively stones” that have repented and rejected their own design, ambition and will (1 Cor. 12:24). Such people determine to no longer pursue or impose their views of what, for example, a marriage or family should be; they’re instead eager to discover the heavenly design for human relationships.
Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16-17)
If you have renounced your carnal will and the destructive fruits named above, then God will open your eyes to see His kingdom, His bride, His church (John 3:5; 1 Cor. 2:14). He will reveal to you the specific relationships where you belong. These promptings of the Spirit will reveal God’s abiding place of salvation for you, the context where faith can survive and commitments endure.
Many Christians throughout history have marveled at the difference in power between the Acts of the Apostles and the present day. But Pentecostal power only came when they were “of one mind and one accord” (Acts 2:4). God pulls the stones from the rubble, mortaring lives together through commitment and fashioning a temple made by His own hands. For Christians who will submit to this recovery of heavenly pattern and design, a promise of great power and glory awaits. Each time God’s temporary houses—the tabernacle and temple—were built precisely according to pattern, the glory of God filled those structures so that no human could even enter (1 Kings 8:11; 2 Chron. 7:1). God’s glory dissipates through all the gaps and fractures in our unity, sanctity and order. But if we will submit to the five-fold ministry and wise master builders, God will free us from thrashing immaturity, unite us as one indivisible man and fill His beautiful house with glory and power.
Seek not your individual improvement alone; seek the kingdom of God, the body of Christ, and its restoration. The restoration of this temple is the realization of God’s heavenly Jerusalem on earth, the city of peace, set on a hill that cannot be hidden.
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy. (Ps. 137:5-6)
Because I love Zion,
I will not keep still.
Because my heart yearns for Jerusalem,
I cannot remain silent.
I will not stop praying for her
until her righteousness shines like the dawn,
and her salvation blazes like a burning torch.
The nations will see your righteousness.
World leaders will be blinded by your glory.
And you will be given a new name
by the LORD’s own mouth.
The LORD will hold you in his hand for all to see—
a splendid crown in the hand of God.
Never again will you be called “The Forsaken City”
or “The Desolate Land.”
Your new name will be “The City of God’s Delight”
and “The Bride of God,”
for the LORD delights in you
and will claim you as his bride.
Your children will commit themselves to you, O Jerusalem,
just as a young man commits himself to his bride.
Then God will rejoice over you
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.
To briefly summarize what we’ve said thus far, repentance uproots the tree of our autonomous will that competes with God’s sovereignty. In baptism, we commit to keep that dead man, that uprooted tree, under the judgment Christ suffered on the cross. Through the infilling of the Holy Spirit, we become sons of God. We are “born again” because God put a measure of His own self in us when we are baptized by the Spirit, granting us power over sin and life in His presence (Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 4:6). These three phases represent our initial obedience to the gospel—Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17). This realizes the steps the Old Testament could only symbolize through the order of the temple where the blood sacrifice was made at the altar, then came the laver of the water before anyone could enter the Holiest of Holies. Or the three steps of God’s great salvation exodus when the obedient put blood on the doorpost, then passed through the Red Sea, then followed the powerful witness of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by day.
Even so, this powerful conversion is not the end of our journey but only the beginning (Prov. 4:18; 1 Pet. 1:9). This initial participation in the gospel marks our birth into the kingdom. Still, it is a tragedy when a baby is born but never matures past infancy. God’s secret wisdom and final work on the earth is to compose the corporate body of Christ as a mature man, a body just as submitted to the Father as Jesus was on earth (Eph. 3:10; 1 Cor. 2:7). This mature expression of Christ’s body will finally display God’s glory to principalities and powers, marking the conclusion of the cosmic conflict that has raged from the fall of satan until now (Eph. 3:8-12; Eph. 4:13).
When Jesus commissioned His followers to spread the gospel to all people, His goal was not only the private, personal salvation of isolated individuals randomly scattered all over the world. Rather, His first object in the commission was, “Make disciples” (Matt. 13:52; 28:19). Disciples are made from people who have undergone repentance, baptismal commitment and Spirit-infilling. The verb “disciple” means to train, instruct, teach and conform to a specific course or discipline.
Peter calls Christ’s forecast of Spirit baptism “the promise” when he says that we become “partakers of the divine nature” through these “great and precious promises” (Acts 2:39; 2 Pet. 1:4). It’s clear that we partake of God’s nature when we receive a deposit of His Spirit into our hearts. Yet it’s perhaps more challenging to comprehend how discipline factors into this participation in God’s character.
Hebrews 12:10 says, “God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.”
Once repentance uproots the tree of our rebellious will, the new man, reborn in the likeness of God, is planted and begins to grow from the soil of our broken hearts. Still, Jesus warned that this new beginning, sown by the incorruptible seed of God’s word, would face inevitable threats—hardness or shallowness of soil, and weeds and brambles of persistent sin (Matt. 13:24-29, 36-43). Discipleship enables us to partake of God’s holiness, His majesty and divine nature because it confronts and removes the weeds of sin that would choke out the fragile sprout of the Spirit that’s been sown in our hearts.
We can see this weeding dimension of discipleship in the life of the great apostle Peter. Despite his high calling, unmatched gifting and power in the Spirit, he nonetheless battled the weed of hypocrisy when visiting the Antioch church. We can imagine that brambles of pride, vainglory and hypocrisy would have tried to overcome Peter’s spiritual life. Still, God sent discipleship through His servant Paul, who dealt a lethal blow against the mechanisms that would have made a mockery of Peter’s ministry (see Gal. 2:11-14).
Jesus tells us that the pure in heart will see God (Matt. 5:8). Hebrews says that without sanctification, no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). James declares that the unstable, double-minded man receives nothing from God (James 1:5-8). And Paul says that an active five-fold ministry removes this instability caused by human deceit (Eph. 4:11-16). From all this, we can conclude that discipleship—confrontation of sin from brother to brother—represents the ongoing work of sanctification, cleansing us by the washing of water with the word.
Many love to repeat how we are saved by “grace.” But they imagine a fictional “grace” akin to a permit or an exemption from consequence. Paul depicts grace very differently. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). For Paul, grace was an active agent, teaching (literally discipling) us to resist evil.
Peter shows that this training, discipling, saving grace is administered to the saints through the church. “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10). Peter writes in his epistle of sacrifice, suffering, loving your brother fervently and serving one another this “manifold grace,” summing it all up by saying, “This is the true grace of God” (1 Pet. 5:14). He implies by this that there are counterfeit “graces,” graces that might promise freedom but won’t bring salvation. True grace is an active grace that moves in manifold ways among and through a body of believers to bring them and others to a mature expression of God’s image.
We have been saying that discipleship uses the hands of Christ’s body to weed our character so that brambles of sin don’t choke out the presence of God that makes us His sons (Rom. 8:14). Paul says, “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal. 4:6). Again, “As many as are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).
If our sonship is based on the presence and leading of the Spirit in our lives, we understand why the writer of Hebrews would say, “If you are without discipline, you are illegitimate and not sons at all” (Heb. 12:8). Why? Because the Spirit cannot thrive in our lives except in a discipling environment that constantly addresses the threats to its survival. Tragically, the writer of Hebrews is warning saved Christians that to reject discipleship is to retroactively undo adoption, turning oneself back into an orphan—a spiritual bastard, separated from the promised Holy Spirit (John 14:18).
Just as a natural father has no right to train children except his own, discipleship expresses spiritual fatherhood more than any other activity because it reveals the ownership and claim God has on us to rebuke, adjust and change us into the image of His Son. A rebuke that exposes faults growing like weeds will dishearten those who still place confidence in the flesh. But those aware of the fallen nature that they must constantly crucify have adopted a new identity as a born-again child of God. They accept correction as proof of the Father’s investment, care and acceptance. To see their carnal man exposed does not utterly destroy their faith and peace but merely reminds them to keep that specter in the grave so that the nature born of God may mature in His likeness (Heb. 12:8-11).
In conclusion, God’s precise orchestration of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:24) will prove impossible until believers accept the need for ongoing change after rebirth. The church at large presently resembles an orphanage, not a mighty army or a fitly-framed temple. Few have been willing to embrace the loving confrontation of discipleship that could save them from the weeds of resurgent brambles and train them to be sons in the Father’s house. And lastly, saving grace, true grace, must include discipleship because our union with Christ through the Spirit cannot survive except in a cultivated heart where confrontational correction faithfully removes pride, fear, envy, lust and all the thistles of sin.