From the start, the Gospel [of John] speaks of those who “receive” Jesus as the Light and “believe in his name,” those who are given “authority to become children of God” by virtue of having been born…of God” (1:12-13). Two chapters later Jesus tells Nicodemus, “unless someone is born from above [or “of water and Spirit”], he cannot see [or “enter”] the kingdom of God” (3:3,5). But what exactly is the relationship between being “born of God,” or “born from above,” and “receiving” or “believing in” Jesus? Which comes first? Is a person reborn because he or she believes, or does a person believe as a result of being reborn? Conventional wisdom assumes the former as a matter of course, and the word order of 1:12-13 seems on the face of it to support this. Yet those verses make no explicit causal connection either way between faith and rebirth, and as Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus runs its course, evidence for the opposite view begins to surface. “Receiving” Jesus’ testimony is mentioned in 3:11, and “believing” is repeatedly urged in verses 12, 15, and 16. Finally, the stark alternative of “believing” or “not believing” in him is clearly set forth (v18), and then restated (in language reminiscent of 1:9-13) as either loving or hating the Light, either “coming to the Light” or refusing to come (vv19-21). The person who “hates the Light” does so because he “practices wicked things,” and refuses to come “for fear his works will be exposed” (v20). By contrast, the person who “does the truth comes to the Light, so that his works will be revealed as works wrought in God” (v21).
On this note the interview with Nicodemus–if Nicodemus is still anywhere in the picture–comes to an end. In sharp distinction from the other three Gospels, in which Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:27//Mt 9:13; also Lk 5:32), he does come to call, if not explicitly “the righteous,” at least those who “do the truth”–as against those who “practice wicked things.” Those who come to him in faith (that is, “come to the Light”) demonstrate by so doing that they are already “doers of the truth,” not by their own merits to be sure, but because their works have been “in God” (en theo, 3:21). They do not prove their faith by their works–at least not yet–but on the contrary prove their works by their faith. To this extent, John’s Gospel turns some versions of Reformation theology on their heads! It is not as radical as it sounds, however, for the point is simply that God is at work in a person’s life before the person “receives” Jesus, or “believes,” or “comes to the Light.” This is evident in the account of the man born blind–the Gospel’s classic case study on what it means to be “born of God”–where the point made is not that the man was a sinner who “believed” and was consequently reborn. On the contrary, Jesus insists, “Neither this man sinned nor his patents”–that is, his predicament was not the result of sin. Rather, the purpose of the healing was “that the works of God might be revealed in him” (9:3)–that is, God was already at work in his life, and his eventual confession of faith 9:38) would reveal that to be the case. He did not believe in order to be “born of God.” He believed because he was “born of God.” This interpretation is confirmed by Jesus’ repeated insistence that “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (6:37), “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him” (6:44), and “no one can come to me unless it is given him from the Father” (6:65). The initiative in human salvation is God the Father’s and his alone.
While it is true that John’s Gospel centers on a call to decision, the hearer’s decision cannot change but only reveal what has gone on before–the working of God the Father in those who will eventually become his children. Jesus can speak of “other sheep” whom, he says, “I have,” even though they have not yet believed (10:16), and the Gospel writer can envision scattered “children of God”–born of God,” therefore–who have yet to be gathered into one” (11:52). Perhaps the words of old Simeon in another Gospel put it best: Jesus in the Gospel of John comes “so that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed” (Lk 2:35). The accent is not on “conversion” (the words for “repent” and “repentance” never occur), or even the forgiveness of sins, but on revelation. The coming of Jesus into the world simply reveals who belongs–and who does not belong–to his Father, the God of Israel.
J. R. Michaels, The Gospel of John (Eerdmans 2010), 40-42.