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Four Unbiblical Substitutes for Being Born Again

My wife runs an in-home daycare. It’s really small; we just have two kids besides our own. And sometimes, one of the things the kids like to do is pretend that they’re dogs. So they’ll crawl around, say “woof woof,” and eat their so-called “dog food” (which is Cheerios that we put in plastic containers on the floor). They also do other different things as they pretend to be dogs. But even though the kids like to do a lot of things that dogs do, we all understand that doesn’t make them dogs. They’re obviously still people.

In a similar way, just because we do a lot of the things Christians do, that doesn’t make you a true Christian. That doesn’t get you to heaven. As Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:1-8, the only thing that makes you a true Christian is being “born again.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people have trouble understanding that. They try to substitute so many other things for being born again. I’d like to look at four of those things—four unbiblical substitutes for being born again.

The first unbiblical substitute is being involved in church. Just because you’re involved in church and serve in the church very actively in various positions, doesn’t mean you’re going to heaven.

Think about what Jesus says in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”

Do you see what’s going on there? These people are coming to Jesus and flattering him with religious language—“Lord, Lord.” Then they’re telling him about all the great things they’ve tried to do supposedly in service to him. But what does he say do them? “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Wow. If that doesn’t send chills down your spine, I don’t know what will. You can be super-religious and involved in all kinds of religious ministry, but don’t think for a second that’s any kind of substitute for being born again.

Moving on, the second unbiblical substitute for being born again is intellectual knowledge. It’s possible to know the Bible from cover to cover and believe—at least intellectually—that everything it teaches about Jesus is true and still go to hell when you die.

The Bible says in James 2:19, “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” In other words, even Satan believes all the right things about Jesus. He probably knows more about the Bible than anyone in our church, and he understands that it’s all true. So what makes you think God will let you into heaven because you believe things that even Satan believes?

The point of James 2 is that he won’t. There will be a lot of people in hell who believe intellectually that every word of the Bible is accurate. Intellectual knowledge isn’t enough. You have to be born again.

The third unbiblical substitute for being born again is having an emotional religious experience. Just because you have some sort of emotional experience that’s somehow tied to Jesus, doesn’t mean you’re on your way to heaven.

Jesus tells this parable in Luke 8:5-8: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” So the farmer sows his seed. That seed represents God’s message, the gospel message of Jesus and the salvation he offers. And that seed falls on four different kinds of ground.

A few verses down, Jesus explains what those four kinds of ground represent. Verses 12-15: “The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.”

Now, there are a lot of things to think about with that passage, but let’s focus on the seed that fell on the rock. Verse 13 says the seed that fall on the rock “hear the word” and “receive it with joy.” But unfortunately they have no root, and they eventually fall away.

Don’t miss that. Just because someone shares the gospel with you at one point in your life and you respond with great joy and even cry tears of joy and have this amazing emotional experience, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to heaven. You have to be born again. And even though being born again involves great joy, it also involves more that. It involves a true change in your heart that lasts.

Number four, as we continue on our list of unbiblical substitutes for being born again, is living a moral life. A moral life is no substitute for being born again.

Think about Nicodemus in our main text of John 3. Verse 1 identifies him as “a man of the Pharisees.” You may know that the Pharisees were a sect that was famous back in Jesus’ day for their rigid adherence to the Old Testament law. The Pharisees would not only meticulously keep the laws of the Old Testament but would even make up additional rules to follow. These people basically dedicated their lives to keeping the rules perfectly—dotting all their i’s and crossing all their t’s. But clearly, as we can see by the way Jesus confronts Nicodemus here, outward morality is no substitute for being born again.

So those are four things people often trust in to get them to heaven that don’t actually get them there. It’s not about being involved in church or even serving in a church. It’s not about intellectually believing that the Bible is true or having an emotional religious experience or living a moral life. None of those things are a substitute for being born again. And neither are other things we didn’t have time to talk about like being baptized. The only thing that matters is whether we’ve been born again.

Being born again refers to a change that happens within you that’s so radical, it’s as if you’ve been born a second time. You become a new person. And as a new person, you have new desires, new priorities, new perspectives, and new interests.

Being born again happens as we turn away from our sin and put our trust in Jesus to save us rather than in our misguided attempts to save ourselves. We simply look to him for salvation and the basis of who he is and what he’s done on the cross.

If you have any questions about this new birth experience, please email us at info@redeeminggracepittsburgh.com.