Faith and relevance in the 21st century

What did Jesus really mean when he said you must be born again?

I reluctantly call myself a born-again Christian. I say ‘reluctantly’ because of the huge cultural baggage such a label brings, not to mention the likelihood of being written off by all and sundry outside the church as soon as you give yourself such a label. But I still have to say that I am a born-again Christian because to deny it would be denying something very deep about who I am. I know what it is to be reborn of the Holy Spirit, I surrender my life to God each day to do with as He wills, and I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that He died for my sins and that he was physically resurrected. But if someone asked me how I would describe myself in terms of my Christian faith, I would definitely not refer to myself as a born-again Christian. I would much prefer to say that I am a follower of Jesus.

It’s interesting that evangelicals like me get so hung up on being born again. Why is that so? Jesus mentions the new birth twice in the Gospels, and that is in the same conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. But Jesus says “follow me” 87 times in the Gospels, and the kingdom of God is mentioned 110 times. Why don’t we get as hung up on the importance of following Jesus or about finding out what the kingdom of God is about? I suspect it is because we have a wrong interpretation of what Jesus’ whole message was.

Before we explore this further though, a little clarification is required. We need to clarify what describes someone who says they are a born-again Christian. To most people outside of Christian circles, a ‘born-again Christian’ is someone who is probably into converting people, who doesn’t smoke, drink or have sex before marriage, and who is known as being judgmental. And while that label is unfortunately all that a lot of us Christians are known for, being born again is of course much more than that.

In evangelical circles, talk about being born again has to do primarily with individual salvation. It is about a personal relationship with Jesus that assures you of salvation, which more than anything else means going to heaven when you die. The date and time you are born again refers to the time this personal relationship with Jesus starts. It is when you make a commitment to Him and give your heart to Him. On the whole, it means you have accepted that God loves you, that you are a hell-deserving sinner in need of salvation, that Jesus died for your sins, and that you have repented and accepted Him as your personal Saviour and Lord. These steps are otherwise known as the ‘four spiritual laws.’

It is worth saying too that, in much of the United States, saying you are born again guarantees you a majority of the Christian vote, so it is a very politically astute thing to do. But that of course presupposes a certain cynicism on the part of this author. The fact is that most U.S. Presidents who have claimed to be born again have in fact had a genuine faith in Christ, despite what many of their policies have been. Jimmy Carter was the first in the 1970s, soon after Chuck Colson’s book Born Again was released. Since then, Ronald Reagan and George W Bush have expressed their personal faith, as has Barack Obama. In the latter case though, there is less talk about his being born again than about him simply having a genuine faith in Christ (Sadly there is also a significant proportion of the US population that are convinced that Obama is a Muslim – something to do with the fact that he spent some of his childhood in Indonesia – the largest Muslim nation on the planet – and his middle name is Hussein, something Christian fundamentalists are quick to point out). So, whatever you think of their politics, US Presidents from both sides have expressed a genuine faith in Christ.

But it doesn’t just go back to the US. John Wesley preached a sermon on the new birth in the 18th century, and a Menno Simons spoke about it in the 16th century. It seems that the new birth has been an issue that Christians have talked about for many centuries. And why not? After all, Jesus did talk about it. Even though it was by no means his most important topic, the fact is he did say it, and therefore we have an obligation to take it seriously.

So having said that, let me add that I believe in the new birth. Because Jesus said it, I take it seriously. I believe in being born again. The problem I have though is that what Jesus said has been so misinterpreted over the years that it has caused much confusion and tension both within and outside of Christendom.

So what was it that Jesus was talking about that night in his conversation with Nicodemus that is recorded in John 3? To answer this question honestly, it is absolutely imperative that we remember that we are reading about an event that happened 2,000 years ago in a completely different culture to our own between people with completely different worldviews to our own. I cannot stress enough that when we come to the Bible, we simply must take what we read in context. That is why a simple reading of this passage on its own and without taking into account the context of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, is fraught with danger. It is not too extreme a statement to say that taking verses out of context like this is how heresies start. As has been said many times, a text taken out of context is a pretext. Or, as someone else has said, a text taken out of context is a sure sign you’re being conned!

In our Western culture, we look at life through the lens of individualism, and so, as mentioned above, we see the message of Jesus as being primarily about a personal relationship with God. But this is not how people in 1st century Palestine viewed life. In fact their worldview was pretty much the total opposite of ours today. For them life was all about living in community. Hospitality was a huge part of life. Identity meant who you were in relation to the group you belonged to and had nothing at all to do with ‘finding yourself’ or any of the nonsense that we hear today in many churches about improving your self-esteem. What this means for understanding the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus about being born again therefore has enormous implications for how we understand the Gospel, because it is on this little verse in John 3:3 that much of our understanding of the Gospel is based.

Merrill Kitchen, former Principal of the Churches of Christ Theological College in Melbourne, and someone who has led many tours to Israel and the Palestinian Territories for many years, reminds us that, contrary to our general understanding, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “you must be born again”, were actually directed to Nicodemus’ whole community. The literal translation is “All of you must be born from above”. The main point of their conversation was not so much about the new birth, but about who was now included in God’s kingdom. Kitchen goes on to say that the strong ethic behind the command to ‘be born again’ or ‘born from above’ is about redefining who ‘the chosen people’ are. No longer is being a child of God a matter of national identity. Remember that Paul says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. Remember too that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a respected Jew, so hearing Jesus say that God’s chosen ones also now include anyone who wants to be included would have been shocking news for him. It was a radical change to everything he would have grown up with and had ingrained into him.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus also needs to be read in conjunction with the rest of the gospels so we can see their overall message. And the overall message is clearly that, with the coming of Jesus, everything has changed. Here was someone who ate and drank with despised tax collectors and ‘sinners’ in a society in which who you ate with mattered enormously. Here was someone who hung out with the poor and outcast in a society in which to be poor was a clear sign of your sinfulness. And here was someone who touched and healed lepers in a society in which such people were unclean and to touch them made you unclean as well. Everything was turned upside down with the coming of Jesus. Those who were last would now be first, and those who were first would now be last. This is the main point of the coming of Jesus, not whether or not you remember praying the ‘sinners prayer’ and that being the day you were assured of a ticket to a place in the sky when you die.

In Jesus the kingdom of God has broken into history. It is a kingdom of love, justice, peace and mercy – all characteristics of the very God of Jesus himself. As Scot McKnight says in his recent book One.Life, while the church talks about accepting Christ, Jesus talks about following him, and while the church aims at getting people to heaven when they die, Jesus aims at getting heaven actively involved in history now. We have seriously misread much of the message of Jesus, and this includes his message about what it means to be born again.

A useful illustration of this misinterpretation is told by Steve Chalke in his book The Lost Message of Jesus. Chalke relays a story in which a small group had gathered one evening to talk about how they became Christians. As they shared their stories, a common theme began to emerge. Each of them could recall a specific day in their lives when they had prayed a prayer and ‘given their heart to Jesus’. That was the day they claimed they had been born again. Then one lady in the group dropped a bombshell by saying she had always been a Christian. This caused quite some scepticism in the group. How could she have always been a Christian? There must have been a point at which she ‘crossed the line’. But she said no, she had grown up in a Christian household and had always had a love for Jesus. As she continued to share, her love for the Lord was obvious to the others. Their worldview had been shattered.

Now what this story is not saying is that there is no need for people to be born again. And this story is also not saying that this woman was not born again. It was clear that she had a passion for Jesus and had indeed been born from above. It was clear that the Holy Spirit was in her heart. The fact that her experience did not conform to that of the others in the group did not negate it one bit.

The experience of this lady could be related by many thousands of genuine followers of Jesus. I can somewhat relate to it as well. I too made a ‘decision for Christ’ when I was about 15. At the time I had a Sunday School teacher who was a used car dealer, and he would turn up at the church every week with a different car. As I was his only student most of the time, he and I would sit in his car and he would teach me about Jesus. One day, after what must have been a year or two of meeting like this, he asked me if I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour. Having grown up in the church I just said “yeah”, as if it was not such a big question. But as soon as I said this, his eyes widened, a huge smile broke out across his face and he shook my hand profusely, saying how wonderful it was that I had just accepted Christ. Of course I had no idea what all the fuss was about. In my mind I had just affirmed something that I had always thought was true of me. Things fell into place a bit more for me a couple of weeks later when someone else at the church said to me that they had heard I had ‘made a commitment’ recently. Realising that he must have been referring to the strange moment in the car with my Sunday School teacher, again I just said “yeah” (being a pretty shy teenager my vocabulary wasn’t the greatest!).

It was only after these events that I went home and thought that now that I had done this thing I suppose I had better start reading the Bible. And so began a love affair with God that has waxed and waned over the years and has become deeper than ever over the last 5 years or so.

My story would be similar to many others, perhaps to yours. And while I would say that I was definitely born again around that time, I’m not sure that it was that day in the car with my Sunday School teacher. Maybe it was, because something definitely changed in me from soon after that. Up until then I hadn’t taken seriously the claims of Jesus. But after that, and when I started reading the Bible, my whole worldview began to change and I wasn’t the same person.

Whether I became born again that day in the car or whether it was some other time, the fact is that as I began to surrender my life to God each day, something shifted deep within me. For me it was a process. You see, I think we need to be born again every day. It is not just a once-off event. Being born again is about conversion, conversion to the way of Jesus. It is becoming more Christlike as we submit our lives to Him. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, in his book The Call to Conversion, says that conversion is a daily process of being moulded into the image of Jesus. For me, it is only as I surrender my life to God each day and ask God’s will and not mine be done for that day, that I live the life that I am meant to live, the life that I am convinced that God wants me to live. And it is a life lived in relationship with others. It is not a life lived in isolation, as if it was just me and God. Following Jesus is only done in community with others who are also on the journey, the journey from self to God. It is the type of life that wants to include and not exclude, that wants to love and not just be loved. And it is a life of humility that, as Ross Langmead says, realises that what we know is just a glimpse of what there is to know.

Being born again involves a daily dying to self, taking up our cross and following Jesus on the costly, sacrificial way to life. It is a journey of constant searching, of constant discovery, and it is a journey that never ends. In Jesus the kingdom has come. Through the life, death and resurrection of this man, everything has changed. Salvation is not just for a chosen few anymore; it is open to everyone. All are welcome at the banquet table. It was this that was the point of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Yes Nicodemus had to be born again, but that was a peripheral issue. What Jesus was saying to the learned Pharisee was that it was not just Israel that was looked upon favourably by God anymore. It had nothing to do with who you were and how ‘holy’ you were. Anyone and everyone could now come in and feast at God’s table. How often we become like the Pharisees, thinking that we are ‘in’ and those who haven’t made a definite commitment and can recall the day and time it happened are ‘out’.

If Jesus had wanted us to be so focused on whether or not people are born again according to our faulty definition of it, I think he would have mentioned it more than twice. But his clear emphasis was the kingdom of God. When Jesus came into contact with people and they were healed, their healing was not just physical; it was social and personal as well. In Jesus the kingdom of God was among them. We do need to be born again, but that means nothing if we are not following in the footsteps of the Son of God, loving the loveless, walking with the poor, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner, and reaching out to all with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus.

Am I a born again Christian? You bet I am, but only in the sense that Jesus meant it, not as most evangelicals define it. The fact that I don’t pinpoint it to a single day and time doesn’t mean anything. What matters is that I am inclusive as Jesus is, that I surrender my whole life to Jesus every day and seek to follow Him, to go where He sends me, and to walk where He walks, with the poor, with the outcast, with the ones that nobody else wants to know. In the words of the old song, I want Jesus to walk with me. I need Jesus to walk with me. I want this world to be a better place and I want to work with God to make it so, to help bring the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus’ message to Nicodemus about being born again was a radical message of inclusiveness. It doesn’t matter what type of life you may have lived in the past. It doesn’t matter whether you are a top-of-the-town millionaire or a cleaner at the local school. Those status symbols don’t matter in God’s kingdom. There is no difference between the person who has used and abused people their whole life and the one who has grown up in a Christian home and never smoked a cigarette. In God’s kingdom there are no favourites. This is what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus and it is the life that He calls us to as well. God help me to live such a life.

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  1. Robin

    Born again was a popular phrase in the late 70’s and in my home country, the Philippines, it was a big movement in the churches. I accepted Christ when I was 13, I grew up as a lukewarm Catholic and had problems with anxiety in my early teens. My father introduced me to an old friend of his who was a political activist jailed for his subversive views – he found God in prison. This man laid his hands on me and said “accept the Holy Spirit”, I assented and he gave me a Bible. This event changed my life, after this my whole outlook began to change. I guess this is what the phrase born again means to me, a specific time when you awake to God.

  2. soulthoughts

    Thanks for your comment Robin. I also grew up as a lukewarm Catholic, and I can relate to your experience of being born again in terms of your whole outlook on life changing.

    It is views like yours – the views of the Global South – that need to be heard more. Most of the theology we read is from Westerners who generally don’t have much of an idea about how the majority world lives. To have a better understanding of Jesus and the New Testament, we need to see it through the eyes of those who were alive at the time. The conditions of these people are closer to today’s majority world than to the West today.

  3. Siufung

    Thanks Nils for the article. And thank you Robin for your thoughts. On the one hand, I share Robin’s experience of the Holy Spirit. One thing we often neglect in John’s gospel is that the notion of being born from above is associated with the notion of being born of the Spirit. It seems to me that that’s the experience of many who are “born again” (ie. “born from above” in the original language and cultural setting). But I also agree with Merrill that in the original setting the audience of John would have understood being born from above as God’s call for Israel to return to him. It was a call that “the Jews” in John’s Gospel kept rejecting. But to be included into God’s people one must be born of the Spirit, and that could happen only through Jesus, the Lamb of God and the Word who came to dwell among us. I think it helps to read the whole of John’s Gospel again so that we can put these themes together.

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