July 14, 2019
One member of our church recounted to me a visit she had with some folks from another local church who had come knocking on her door. They asked if they could speak with her about spiritual concerns. Because this member of our congregation is gracious and hospitable, she conversed for some time with her guests. In the course of the conversation, they asked her if she was “born again.”
Later, when she recalled the question to me, she confessed that, because she was not sure what her guests meant, she did not know how to reply. Was she a born-again Christian or not?
Others of you have mentioned to me that you have friends or relatives who describe themselves as born-again Christians. Some have seemed puzzled by the phrase, as if it suggests that there are various types of Christians, some born-again and some not. So what does it mean to be born again?
On one level it means simply to start life anew. We started living when we were born, so if we are born again, we start living a new way. For some people, the impact of initially connecting with Jesus is so dramatic, so emotional, that they describe the experience as if they started to live a new life, meaning they pursue new values, new interests, new spiritual vitality. In some instances they become practically a new character. The change is so all-encompassing that they sense they have started living anew or again.
Admittedly, in other religions people similarly describe their conversion as a rebirth. A Hindu or a person who believes in reincarnation could claim that they have been “born again,” in some cases more than once. So what do Christians mean when they ask, “Have you been born again?”
In simplest terms, when a Christian asks if you have been born again, they want to know if you are a Christian. In other words, “to be born again” means, the same as, to become a Christian. Although this phrase is quite popular, particularly among Evangelicals, the expression “being born again” is only one among many used in the New Testament to portray the process of being committed to Jesus. For example, the Gospel of Matthew describes being committed to Jesus as becoming a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 28:15-16). Luke describes becoming committed to Jesus as entering the kingdom of God (Luke 18:17). John describes becoming committed to Jesus as believing in Jesus (John 20:31).
Mark describes becoming committed to Jesus as following Jesus (Mark 9:34). In his history of the early church, Luke is the first to use the word “Christian” to describe followers of Jesus (Acts 11:26). Paul uses several terms to describe becoming a Christian: being saved (Ephesians 2:8), being justified (Romans 5:1), being baptized (Romans 6:3), being adopted as God’s child (Ephesians 1:5), being reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21), receiving the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14-15), being redeemed (Galatians 3:13), being grafted into God’s [family] tree (Romans 11:17).
Therefore, if you wanted to know if a person is a Christian, you could ask “Have you been grafted into God’s family tree?” or “Have you entered the kingdom of God?” or “Have you been born again?” They all mean essentially the same.
Although the phrase “being born again” is currently a popular way to describe this process, the phrase is relatively rare in the New Testament. It only occurs five times. In a short letter addressed to Titus, in 3:5 Paul wrote: “[God] saved us through the washing of rebirth, in other words, being born again.” In the First letter of Peter, 1:3 we read: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth…” Again later in the same letter, we read (1:23): “You have been born anew, or born again.”
Being born again occurs the remaining two times in the conversation between Jesus and a nighttime guest, Nicodemus. Nicodemus initiates the conversation with a flattering acknowledgement addressed to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one is able to perform the signs you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus deflects attention from himself and redirects the focus of attention back onto Nicodemus’ search for insight by saying: “I tell you the truth, no one is able to see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:1-3).
Nicodemus is taken off guard. He came to talk about Jesus, not himself. So he raises a common sense question: “How is a person able to be born again when old? How outlandish to imagine someone crawling back into his mother’s womb?”
But Jesus is insistent. Once more he reiterates his odd statement, directed specifically at Nicodemus: “You must be born again” (3:7).
Based on these five occurrences, we have a strong precedent, even coming straight from the lips of Jesus, to describe becoming a Christian in terms of being born again. But why? What about becoming a Christian is similar to being born again, or being born at all? Why is being born again a helpful way to describe becoming a Christian?
In order to explain why being born a second time is a useful description, let’s review some features of being born the first time. Then we can make some comparisons between being born a first time and being born a second time.
In the first place, birth is one event in our lives for which we can take no credit. I was born because of what my parents did, because my mother carried me inside her body for nine months, because she went through labor for me, and because a doctor and some nurses helped me get out. I cannot take any credit for what my father and, especially, what my mother did. They, along with a little help at the end from hospital staff, were responsible for my birth.
Now, when it comes to being “born again,” the same trait is true. Just as none of us can take credit for our birth in the first place, so none of us can take credit for being born again or becoming Christians. We do not qualify to be called Christians because we are good people, because we admire Jesus as some great ethical teacher, or because we come to church regularly. None of these reasons are suitable because they all suggest that we can give birth or, should I say, rebirth to ourselves. None of these reasons are applicable because they all suggest that we can take the credit for being born again.
We already know that our birth is one event for which none of us can take any credit. We were not born the first time because we tried extra hard to behave correctly inside our mother’s womb. We were not born the first time because we kept the Ten Commandments for prenatal care. We were not even born the first time because we performed better than other fetuses. None of these reasons account for why or how we were born.
No one qualified for being born the first time, so likewise no one qualifies for being born a second time, or for becoming a Christian. As long as we imagine that we can give birth to God’s relationship with us, we are misreading the process of birthing.
It is by virtue of what God the Father did and what Jesus did and what the Holy Spirit does that anyone and everyone, including good, decent people, are born again, or if you prefer, are saved, or redeemed, justified, grafted onto the family tree, or adopted into God’s family, in other words, become Christian. To piggyback on what Jesus said to Nicodemus, which of us can give birth to the divine spirit? Which of us came down from heaven to bring God’s will to life on earth? Which of us gave up her or his only son to save the world? Which of us has the patent on eternal life? Becoming a Christian, like being born, is something done for us, not by us.
That is not to deny that we have some role to play in the birth or rebirth process. The newborn child is expected to respond. No wail is more welcomed than the gasping squeal of that daughter or son announcing their arrival. But none of us would confuse who is responsible with who is responding.
Likewise anyone who claims to be born again, cannot claim responsibility for what is happening. We are responding to what God has done, what Jesus did, and what the Spirit does.
There is another sense in which being born again is a helpful way to describe becoming a Christian. Although I have observed only two births, I have heard enough stories to surmise that not everyone passes through the birthing experience in the same manner. The length and intensity of labor may vary; the birth may be achieved through natural means or by a Caesarean section; the child may come out head first or feet first. Being born differs from baby to baby.
When Ruth, our oldest, was born, she was alert, wide-eyed, and quite calm during her entrance into the world. Her eyes surveyed the birthing room as if she was trying to soak in her new surroundings. Classical music played softly in the background as we joyously saw her for the first time.
In contrast to that serene scene, Cameron’s arrival was dramatic. He was not alert upon his arrival. He was not even breathing. The nurse, thank God, noticed his inertia and initiated action. Our joyful expectation was abruptly interrupted by the nurses’ brisk orders calling for suction and the urgent prayers of two worried parents pleading for their son’s life.
Ruth and Cameron were born in markedly different manners. Birth can come in many ways. Similarly, rebirth can come in many ways. As anyone who has seen a birth can testify, and as can anyone who has been born again can testify, every birth—slow or fast—is a miracle.
For some, the miracle of becoming a Christian can be gradual, calm, and slow. The realization, little by little, dawns that Jesus has paved the way for God’s best wishes to come true. An assurance comes gradually that Jesus’ death and resurrection have brought to life God’s dreams for us. We awaken one day sensing our spirit is attuned with God’s spirit. We come to endorse that God has acted decisively in Jesus to set the world, including ourselves, back right.
For others the process of becoming a Christian can be dramatic and instantaneous, tearful and intense. Practically overnight one becomes a new person, sold out to comply with God’s plans, eager to make amends for past sins, and resolved to abide by God’s standards in the future. The change is so overwhelming that people can’t help but notice we are different.
But after time the process becomes less important than the product.
Some remember the drama of becoming a Christian vividly. They can recount the day and hour when life changed. Others cannot recall when the event took place. They simply know their life is currently intertwined with Jesus and invigorated with God’s Spirit. Recalling what process you underwent may be encouraging to recall, but not necessary to remember. I do not recall how I was born the first time, but I am alive now. I do not need to consult my birth certificate to verify that I am alive. I remember some details about how I was born the second time, but living out my commitment to Christ now is more important than recalling how it began fifty years ago.
More challenging than pressing our memory about what happened some time ago is pressing the question “What am I doing about it now?” Am I now devoted to God, who so loved the world that he gave his Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life? If you are a Christian now, whether you use the phrase born again Christian or not, you may have come to realize, as I have, that we can never be born again enough. There are some features of God’s parenting that have yet to mature in us. There are traits of God’s DNA that have yet to show through us. There are more aspects of God’s Spirit yet to come to life in us. For there is more of God’s life we have yet to experience.
Thus, whenever someone claims to be a born again Christian, I remember that being born is a good beginning, but there is more to living than being born. I readily confess that many parts of me have yet to be born again and others are not born again enough. Being born again is not a badge to wear or a way to identify who is in and who is not. Being born again is only one step in living, sometimes a memorable step, sometimes long forgotten. Growing up is the challenge I face now, not trying to remember or label how it all started. Getting along well with God is a big enough challenge for a whole lifetime.