Based on a series of sermons preached in PCC Prayer Meetings in 2021
The first part of John 3 is very familiar to most of us. This is the account of our Lord’s night meeting with Nicodemus, a Pharisee. In their conversation, the Lord Jesus reveals the importance of the new birth. “Except a man be born again [or born from above], he cannot see the kingdom of God,” He insists (v. 3).
But that is not our focus in this study. Our focus is instead on what the Lord did not do.
Not too long ago, I preached on John 15, emphasising that every true disciple of Christ will bear fruit, even fruit that remains (Jn 15:16). I pointed out that this fruit is essentially the souls of men who were converted or edified through our labours. After that, there were a few enquiries about what that means. Does it mean we should all be able to name the individuals we have led to Christ directly? Should we all be doing street evangelism?
Years ago, I knew a pastor who essentially taught that. Those who heard him preach would—if they were conscientious—find themselves guilt-stricken if they had not led anyone to Christ, whereas those who had would congratulate themselves.
But is this what our Lord requires of us? To answer this question, let’s ask three questions. First, did the Lord lead Nicodemus to himself in our text? Secondly, what does our Lord’s encounter with other unbelievers teach us? Thirdly, what then shall we do to bear fruit that remains?
1. Did the Lord Lead Nicodemus to Himself?
Well, a fair answer would have to be yes, and no, isn’t it? Yes, our Saviour did explain to Nicodemus that sin is hateful to God, that He came to deal with the sin of the people, and that those who believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. In that sense, He did seek to reach out to Nicodemus with the gospel, and to lead him to Himself.
However, notice how the Lord did not ask Nicodemus to make a decision of faith at any point. Indeed, we have no indication by the end of our Lord’s encounter with Nicodemus that he had become a believer!
Later on in John 7, the Jewish council would mock and condemn the Lord Jesus, but Nicodemus would stand to defend Him. “Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” he challenged (Jn 7:51). And after the Lord Jesus died, Nicodemus would stand bravely with Joseph of Arimathea to give Him a proper burial (Jn 19:39). We can be sure He was converted. But we do not know if it happened on that night when the Lord met with him.
The Lord certainly did not lead him to pray a sinner’s prayer, which is something that many Christians regard as the gold standard for leading someone to Christ. “You must get the sinner to pray to receive Christ, or you have missed the opportunity,” I hear one say. “I am so glad that the Sunday School teacher was able to get my daughter to pray the sinner’s prayer,” I hear another. “Thank God, my father finally prayed to receive Christ,” I hear another.
Well, some may be genuinely converted in that instant. But how many are not, and yet are regarded as true believers just because a sinner’s prayer was uttered?
Did our Lord fail to lead Nicodemus to salvation?
2. How Did the Lord Reach Out to Other Unbelievers?
The Lord met with the Samaritan woman. She was converted, but did He lead her in a sinner’s prayer? No! Did He lead the other Samaritans in a sinner’s prayer? No!
The rich young ruler came to ask the Lord, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Was he eventually converted? We don’t know. Did the Lord present the gospel to him? No! Did the Lord lead him in a sinner’s prayer? No!
The four thousand and the five thousand men apart from children: did the Lord lead them to Himself by preaching the gospel? Perhaps! Did He lead them in a sinner’s prayer? No! He provided dinner for them.
Simon the Pharisee: did the Lord lead him to Himself? No! The Lord had a meal in his house, but there is no indication that he was converted.
The woman caught in adultery: did the Lord lead her to faith in Him? There is no indication, is there? The Lord says to her that He would not condemn her, and that she should sin no more, but did He tell her to believe in Him? No! Did He lead her in a sinner’s prayer? Absolutely not!
What was the Lord doing in all these instances? We may say He was tilling the ground. Some of them were undoubtedly converted, but from what we can see, most were not led to salvation directly by the Lord. It almost always involves the inscrutable work of the Holy Spirit sometime after they were prepared by the labours of the Lord.
3. What Then Shall We Do in Imitation of Christ?
a. It’s clear, isn’t it, that in the first place, the idea that we should lead sinners to pray the sinner’s prayer is foreign to Scripture. You will not find the Lord doing it, nor will you find the apostles doing it or even suggesting it. We must disabuse our minds of this error. We must not allow that wrong teaching to make us feel guilty for not leading anyone to pray the sinner’s prayer.
b. In the second place, it is clear, isn’t it, that it is not always necessary to present the gospel to an unconverted person whenever there is an opportunity to do so. If it were always necessary, our Lord would have failed at many points, including when the rich young ruler came asking Him what he must do to inherit eternal life.
c. In the third place, let us understand that to bear fruit that last does not only happen when we share the gospel or lead someone to Christ. The fact is that in the work of the gospel, “one soweth, and another reapeath” (Jn 4:37). As the apostle Paul puts it: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (1 Cor 3:6). Yes, the word of God is always involved, so one or more persons will always be instrumental in sowing the seed. But not everyone will be sowing the seed. Some will till the ground; some will water; some will provide the necessary environment.
d. Therefore, in the fourth place, it should be clear to all of us that, in general, several human instruments are involved in every conversion. Though Nicodemus and the rich young ruler were apparently not converted during their encounter with the Lord, what the Lord did must have prepared their hearts for conversion.
We don’t know whether the rich young ruler was converted. I think so. I think he may be Joseph of Arimathea. If so, our Lord’s word must have prepared him to turn from idolatry to find salvation in Him.
Now, someone may claim that he became a believer without human intervention. But ask him: “How did you come to believe?”
“Oh, I read a tract!” But where did the tract come from? Did not someone write it, did not someone publish it, and did not someone distribute it?
“Oh, I read the Bible I found in the hotel, and the Holy Spirit changed my heart!” How many persons wrote the Bible? How many were involved in its preservation down the ages? How many others were involved in translating it? Did not someone pay for its publication? Did not someone buy it? Did not someone place it in the hotel room for you? How many people were involved in your conversion?
I think you get the point. All these people were involved in your conversion. They were instruments in the hand of the Lord. They bore fruit by their labours. Of course, you could not have believed without the gracious work of the Holy Spirit giving you new birth, but it is a fact that many believers were working together under God’s providence to bring you to salvation.
e. So, in the fifth place, let us all seek to do our part. You may think that bearing fruit that last involves being witnesses for Christ and leading someone to Christ immediately. But no, you are bearing fruit that lasts when you play your part to contribute to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. Your prayer, your translation and interpretation, your monetary contribution, your presence at worship which encourages the preacher, your invitation to someone to come, your work at proofreading, your work at sending the bulletin for publication, your duty as an usher, your work in the PA, your work in counting money, your work in distributing tracts, your invitation to someone for coffee or dinner at your home! All these things will—in the Lord’s hand—be instrumental for the conversion and edification of His sheep and lambs today and tomorrow.