There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.John 3:1-3
The first words we hear from Nicodemus when he comes to Jesus by night are very telling. When he says “we know,” he is speaking as a ruler of the Jews and a scholar of the Pharisees.
These prominent religious leaders of the day thought they had derived a system to justify their personal place in heaven. They would claim that a lineage traceable back to Abraham is a certainty of their place in glory. They also believed that their superior knowledge of the law, and adherence to it, gave them a greater right to be with God than others. They, no doubt, were quite proud of their system of salvation.
When Nicodemus says “we know…,” he is not praising Jesus as the possible Messiah. He is bragging that he knows the law well enough to recognize that Jesus must have come from God!
Throughout this chapter, Jesus will repeatedly rebuke Nicodemus for his lack of knowledge of scripture (which was the very thing at which Nicodemus claimed he was superior). The problem with the logic of the Pharisees; and any other decisional, will, or works based systems of salvation; is the lack of the fundamental understanding of what happened to mankind when Adam transgressed in the Garden. Man was made totally depraved and unable to bring himself out of this condition. The Bible calls it a death in trespasses and sins.
A person who is spiritually dead cannot perceive or act on spiritual things. Any system that teaches that fallen man can reconcile himself to God does not understand how far we fell in Adam. Without grace, we are not just sick in sin, we are DEAD in sin.
With the single statement, “ye must be born again,” Jesus refutes not only the doctrine of Nicodemus and the Pharisees but every system of self-justification and will or works based salvation there is. Simply put, the only way to see or enter into the kingdom of God is by a marvelous and irresistible act of grace performed on a person by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit.