What Does It Mean to Be Born Again?
What comes to mind when you hear the words born again Christian? I know what I hear. I think of a person who lived a really rough life, far from God. Probably involved in drugs and having a lengthy criminal record. The person encounters Jesus, has a dramatic conversion and a radical change in lifestyle. This is based on testimonies I have both heard and read.
I also think of a couple of sermons that I heard at the church I grew up in. One I heard just before I left the church was a message on why the minister never wanted to be born again. Since I knew the Bible talked about being born again I thought that was odd. About a decade later I visited the church. They had a new and younger pastor and he basically preached the same message, very critical of the idea of being born again.
Some people have very positive ideas of being born again and some people have very negative ideas of being born again. Since the concept is found in the Bible, we need to have some understanding. Whether you identify as born again, we need to understand what Jesus means by this.
Jesus and Nicodemus
The teaching on being born again is not found in a vacuum. It takes place in a conversation between two real people. When we think of the people Jesus spent time with, we think of the “sinners,” the prostitutes and tax collectors. That’s true but he spent time with religious people as well. One of those was Nicodemus who was a Pharisee. he would have been someone trained in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic traditions. It was Nicodemus who initiated this conversation. If I had to predict what their talk would look like, it would have been a friendly debate on the interpretation of a Bible passage. Most of the rabbinic writings are just that, and both Jesus and Nicodemus had experience in that exercise. But that’s not what happened.
Jesus instead states that one must be born again to be in the kingdom of God. This is not really based on an Old Testament passage so it left Nicodemus out of his element. What does born again even mean? Obviously Nicodemus didn’t understand. You can’t go back into your mother and go through the birth process again. Was Jesus making fun of Nicodemus?
Jesus goes on to explain that this second birth is a birth in the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was aware of the Holy Spirit. Special people in the Old Testament were empowered by the Spirit for certain tasks. But Jesus is talking about something more general. Everyone in the kingdom of God is to be born of the Spirit. That was pretty radical. It left no room for the hierarchy that the religious elite thrived on. According to Jesus, everyone must be born again. This is a difficult teaching.
What Does Being Born Again Look Like?
So Jesus expects all of his followers to be born again. But how does this fit with our expectations of a sudden conversion from a very sinful life? Should we encourage our children to have a life of crime before becoming a Christian so they can be truly born again?
A number of years ago I was leading a youth group event at a Salvation Army church. I was approached by some fundamentalist Baptists. They weren’t impressed that I was a pastor and so they challenged me as to when I became a Christian so they could test whether I was born again. I told them it was a process and they quickly stopped me. They said being born again was a specific moment and it I couldn’t identify it, I was not a Christian. I disagreed.
I was reading a commentary by N.T. Wright. He compared this to people who frame their birth certificate and hang it on their wall. The details of the where and when are important and they want everyone to know. But those who do not display their birth certificate should be doubted as to whether they were really born. The evidence is plain. The same is true for those who are born again.
But this leaves us with what being born again looks like. There are some people who are raised in the church and who just transition from their parent’s faith into their own faith. There are those who are converted from unbelief and who experience an immediate transformation in their life. There are others who are converted but who spend a lifetime struggling with their sins.
When I became a Christian I tended to emphasize the sudden transformation. If you are born again, all the old struggles of the past were gone. You may look like you did before but there was a radical inner transformation. The problem was when I saw Christians stumble. Does that mean that they were never Christians? Or does it mean that this transformation idea is false?
I have continued to wrestle with what it means to truly be a follower of Jesus. I have recently been reflecting on a dental analogy. If you had really crooked teeth, there are a couple of things you could do. You could go to a denturist and have all of your teeth pulled and replaced with false teeth. That is one way. Or you could go to an orthodontist and get braces. I had an overbite as a teenager. I had two teeth removed and the orthodontist would tighten my braces to close the gap. It was not pleasant and it took a long time. My question is: Is God a denturist or an orthodontist? Does he instantly replace the old with the new or does he do the long and painful work of fixing what is there? It seems that he is both and we are not to judge the experience of another.
I have heard the testimonies of people who were instantly delivered from any desire for alcohol. I have also heard the testimonies of those who can only take one day at a time and continue to fight against the temptations.
If we think of a continuum of holy living, what is important is not where they are on that line but what direction they are going. There may be a person who is highly respected but each day is becoming more greedy and selfish. Another person may have plenty of struggles but each day is becoming more and more like Christ. I use this not so much to judge others but to test myself. Do I see myself moving in the right direction, even if I have some struggles still?
Remember those ministers who preached against being born again? The problem they had was that they saw it as an experience after which God is done with us. But God is not the doctor who delivers but rather the parent who raises. I was never tempted to think once our children were born that all the work was done. It was just beginning. The same is true for being born of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit has a lifetime of work to do in us.
We tend to see born again Christians as a subset of Christianity. While I understand that as we identify born again Christians with a certain style, according to Jesus there are born again Christians and non-Christians. That doesn’t mean you have to use the label born again Christians. I will acknowledge there is plenty of baggage that goes with the label.
What Jesus wants is more than people who identify with a specific religion. Jesus wants people born not just of the flesh, but born of the Spirit. That new birth doesn’t have to be accompanied by a dramatic experience or the praying of a certain prayer. Nor do you have to identify the time and place of that new birth. What matters is that you see the evidence of the Holy Spirit working in you. You might not be where you want to be but that is okay. Development after natural birth takes time, why should second birth be any different?