How do I share the gospel with those who are religious?

Have you ever talked to someone about the Lord and have him tell you how religious he is? Or did you ever witness to someone and have the person inform you that he felt he had to work his way to heaven by being good? How do you respond to that? Or did you ever present the gospel to someone only to have them say, “I believe all of that,” even though you sensed he didn’t really understand?

How are we to reach a religious person who thinks he is already saved when he is not? Jesus teaches us by example in John 3:1-15 when He talks to a prominent religious leader who thinks the way to heaven is by doing good works. His name was Nicodemus and he had a difficult time realizing the difference between religion and relationship.

The first way to approach a religious person about Christ is to… 

1. CONFRONT HIM WITH THE TRUTH ABOUT HIS NEED FOR SPIRITUAL BIRTH (3:1-12). After Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night expressing his admiration of Jesus by affirming that Jesus’ ministry is blessed by God, Jesus says to him: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3). When Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus to be talking about physical birth, Christ confronts him with the need for both physical birth (“born of water…that which is born of the flesh is flesh,” 3:5a, 6a) and spiritual birth (“born of… the Spirit…that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” 3:5b, 6b). Some people teach that because God loves everyone, all people will go to heaven. But this is contrary to what Jesus is saying. Christ makes it clear that you must have two births to enter the Kingdom of God: physical birth and spiritual birth. 

From Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, we learn the following truths:

Being born again is not about human efforts. If anyone “deserved” eternal life, it would appear that Nicodemus had all of the right qualifications. He seems worthy of eternal life. But this conversation reminds us that salvation is not about human effort or merit. 

Position does not get you to heaven. Nicodemus was “a man of the Pharisees” (3:1), one of the seventy-one who comprised the Sanhedrin – the Jewish Supreme Court. He was a part of the religious elite. He had a distinguished religious position. But a certain position does not get you to heaven. Being a pastor, a Sunday School teacher, a member of the board at a non-profit organization does not save you. Being born again is not about human efforts. It is not about positions.

Popularity does not get you to heaven. The name “Nicodemus” means “a conqueror or victor of the people.” Nicodemus was well known and respected in the community. He was popular. He was recognized as a spiritual leader. Mothers pointed to Nicodemus and told their children, “There is a good man. You grow up to be like Nicodemus.” He was extremely popular. But popularity does not save you. Being recognized as a “Christian” person or as a spiritual leader does not save you. Being born again is not about popularity.

Prestige does not get you to heaven. Jesus identified Nicodemus as “the teacher of Israel” (3:10).  He was the one to whom people turned for spiritual answers. He was recognized as the spiritual adviser, the religious guru, the one who spent his life studying the Scriptures, but he did not possess eternal life. He knew the Scriptures, but he did not know the Author of the Bible. He was not born from above because prestige does not save you.

Piety does not get you to heaven. Nicodemus possessed great religious knowledge. As a member of the Pharisees, he knew and lived what was considered right and wrong. His first words to Jesus, “we know” (3:2) express a certain level of spiritual knowledge. Yet the reality is that Nicodemus did not know. He was ignorant of spiritual truth. He was religious to the core. The Pharisees went to drastic measures to make sure they obeyed the letter of the law. They fasted and prayed and studied the Scriptures. They lived spiritually disciplined lives, but they were lost. He was religious and lost. Do you know why? Piety does not save. You can come to church, tithe, go to Sunday School, lead a class, be a deacon or trustee, read your Bible, pray, witness, and practice spiritual disciplines and yet still be lost. You can do all the things that pious people do and be without Christ. Piety does not save. I have heard so many people say, “I live a good life. I try to do what is right. I go to church, etc.,” but pious living, good living does not get you to heaven. Why? 

Because you are still a sinner who deserves to die forever in hell. The Bible tells us,“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”(Romans 3:23). Regardless of how good we are, we have stilled sinned. We may have sinned one time or a hundred times, but we have still sinned! And sin demands a penalty. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death.”A just God cannot overlook sin any more than a just judge can overlook a violation of the law. No matter how good you are, you are facing eternal separation from God in a place called hell.     

After we have confronted the religious person with the truth, we then 2. CONFRONT HIM WITH GRACE (3:13-15). Jesus had authority to teach about heavenly things because He lived in heaven (3:13). No one has ascended to God. Instead, God has come down to us in the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus knows best how to get to heaven because He lived there. No one knows better how to get to your home than you. To find out how to get to heaven ask the One who lives there, Jesus Christ. What does He say? 

14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:14-15). Why do you suppose Jesus used Moses and the serpent illustration from the Old Testament? Perhaps Nicodemus had just finished teaching the passage in the synagogue? Whatever the reason, Jesus turns Nicodemus’ attention to Numbers 21. The people of Israel were on the way to the Promised Land. They were complaining against God and were dissatisfied with the manna He sent them. To discipline them, God sent poisonous snakes among the people, resulting in many physical deaths (Numbers 21:4-6). Moses then asked God to remove the snakes. God told Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten when he looks at it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). 

In a similar fashion, all of mankind has been struck down by sin. Sin has sunk its fangs in our spiritual souls and the venom has made its way to our hearts and we are dying in our sins. But God saw our hopelessness and lifted up His Son on the cross to die for our sins. To be born again and experience eternal life, Nicodemus needed simply to “look and live,” just as in Numbers 21 one had to “look and live.” Jesus explained their “look”as simply believing in Him: “That whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:15).

To Nicodemus, the admonition to look and live would have been both personal and effective. Having fasted, prayed, faithfully attended the synagogue, observed the feasts, and honored the Sabbaths, he was tempted to look at what he had done to give a him a right standing with God. Instead, now he discovered he must look to Christ alone for eternal life. He must believe in Him. Being born again is all about a personal relationship between a holy God and a sinful people. 

How can a holy God have a relationship with a sinful people? Because God came down to earth (3:13). And why did He come down? That He might be lifted up on the cross (3:14) to die for our sins so that those who look up or believe in Him, should not perish but have eternal life (3:15). Faith alone in Christ alone gets you to heaven. 

Have you been born again? Is there anything keeping you from trusting in Christ now as your only hope of heaven? There are four obstacles that can prevent any religious person from coming to Christ:

1. PRIDE. A religious man was told he must be born again. Religious people don’t like to be told this because they want to look to what they have done, not what someone else has done to get them to heaven. When I tell a religious man all he must do to get to heaven is believe in Jesus, he says, “But I’ve lived a good life.” 

2. TRADITION. We often hear a religious person say, “What will my family and friends think” if I go against what we have been taught and trust Christ for eternal life?” Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, a teacher, a religious leader. He couldn’t trust in this miracle-worker. His colleagues would reject him. 

3. IGNORANCE. “No one ever told me this before.” Many religious people have not been told that all they must do is look to Christ in faith to get them to heaven. 

4. MISUNDERSTANDING. Many religious people have said, “Don’t you think I’ll get to heaven if I believe in Christ plus my good life?” The only condition for eternal life is belief or trust in Christ (period), not plus something else. 

Nicodemus reminds us that the best of people are not so good they can earn their way to heaven. God takes us to heaven on the basis of His Son’s performance, not ours. He offers eternal life only on the basis of grace – favor we do not deserve. Grace with anything added to it ceases to be grace (Romans 11:6). If we trust in anything in addition to Christ for salvation, then we’ve fallen victim to Satan’s deception. Christ and Christ alone saves. When presenting the gospel to the religious, confront them with the truth of their need for a Savior – they are sinners who deserve eternal separation from God. Then share God’s grace with them – that Christ died for them and rose again, and they can have eternal life simply by believing in Christ for it.