The mere phrase causes many to giggle, or perhaps just look at the self-identified “born again Christian” a little, well, differently. Sadly, this happens even within the Church at large.
Yes, the term “born again Christian” is often used, typically refering someone who, as an adult, or perhaps a teenager, came to understand and believe the Gospel message, repented of their sins and believed in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Others who have been raised in the Church their whole lives and yet have never had that “born again” experience might not feel that they need to be “born again,” as they feel as though they’ve been Christians their whole lives, that they’re in Church every Sunday, so being “born again” is just for sinners who repent and come to believe in Jesus. In fact, although many such “lifelong” Christians might be loathe to admit it, if they are honest with themselves, they feel somehow better off, or superior in some way, than those “born again Christians.” Even if it just means thinking to one’s self, “Well, it’s good for them that they were born again. They needed it. I’ve always been a Christian, though, so I don’t need to do that.”
After all, a “lifelong” Christian has always had it right. They’ve always known better. They didn’t have to learn things the hard way. Right?
Let me just declare that I know the above thought processes to be true, regardless of whether or not anyone will admit them, for two reasons:
1. This is the South. Christian “identity” in the south is nearly considered a vital organ to the the southern body. That’s why nobody raises eyebrows when country singers mention Jesus or being “washed in the blood” in songs on the same album with their songs about booze and loose women. It’s “ethnic Christianity,” not unlike the “ethnic Catholicism” we see in Latin American countries.
There’s often this unspoken attitude in southern churches, “Oh, yes, he’s a little wild, but he’s a good boy. He loves Jesus. His momma and daddy are Christians, and he was raised in the church. He’s just sowin’ his wild oats right now.”
But everyone who was in church every Sunday while the wild one was sleeping off his Saturday night hangovers will be celebrating when he finally gives up his wild ways and gets “born again,” yet there might be many other folks in the church — those “lifelong Christians” who wouldn’t call themselves “born again” who might think about how happy they are that they knew better. They don’t need to be “born again,” they think to themselves.
After all, they’ve been Christians their whole lives. They’re at church every time the doors are open, for goodness sake!
2. I’ve been there. Yes, I fully admit that there was a time in my life when I thought I didn’t need to be “born again,” because I was already a Christian. “I’ve been a Christian since I was born!” I would think to myself. Being “born again” was for those really bad sinners. You know, the ones who would stay out drinking, or sleeping around, or smoking, or talking real ugly. Or maybe they were criminals and had stolen or beat somebody up, or even worse. Or maybe being “born again” might be for those who never went to church. They needed to be “born again.” But not me.
What astonishing ignorance!
And yet that was me. And I think I can also say with certainty that I’m not the only one in the world (or the south) who’s been guilty of such foolish thinking.
I would submit that you cannot be a Christian until you are “born again.” As such, if anyone calls himself a Christian, he must realize he was born again before he was even able to recognize Christ as His savior.
In John 3, our Lord tells Nicodemus that, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1-3)
That’s John 3. Yes, one and the same John 3 in which we find the favorite verse of so many southern Christians. (Do I even need to name it? I’m sure everyone knows which verse it is.)
And I can just hear that dear, old, lifelong, church-going Christian say, “Well, you do have to born again if you’re not already a Christian. But if you’ve been a Christian your whole life, that verse isn’t really meant for you. That verse is for people who need to get saved.”
Actually, this whole line of thinking betrays the meaning of what Jesus is saying.
For so long, I thought Jesus was issuing a command when He said, “You must be born again.” (John 3:8)
But it’s not a command. It’s a statement of fact. Jesus is explaining the qualification for entering the Kingdom of God. He’s not telling someone to go and get born again, as though it’s something they can just go do, like deciding to walk a mile, or deciding to buy a carton of milk.
Let’s look at the passage in context:
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus asks a very reasonable question when he says, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
This is where we come to the meat of the meaning.
When you were born from your mother’s womb, was it based on any decision you made to leave the cozy shelter you’d called home for nine months and to come out into the wide open world?
Or was it because, by the grace of God, your mother conceived (your father obviously playing his part), and her pregnancy came to term, and so, by God’s design of creating new human life, you were born?
Obviously, you had no part in the decision to be born into this world.
Just has you had no part in the decision to be born to the parents that you inherited, nor the nation you were born into, nor the year in which you were born.
You were blessed with the gift of life even before you were able to understand what the word “life” meant, and it wasn’t based on any decision you ever made.
So, when Jesus says, “unless one is born again,” is He expecting that to be a decision-based rebirth?
No, He isn’t.
Being born is something that, by the Grace of God, happens TO you, not something that happens because of some choice you make to be born.
Just as your faith is fully and completely a gift of God, based entirely on His Grace and not one bit on anything you did to earn it.
Later in John’s Gospel — in chapter 6 — after Jesus explains how He is the Bread of Life while at the synagogue at Capernaum, His disciples question the things He had said, finding it challenging after having grown up with their lifelong thinking of Jewish theology. Jesus responds by saying:
63 “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:63-65)
So it is, that the Spirit that gives life. And the flesh is no help at all.
If you are truly a Christian, being “born again” is a default part of the package.
You had to be “born again” by the Spirit’s power before you were even able to have faith and respond to the Gospel by repenting and believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior. It is the Spirit that enables us to live rightly before God. Another term for being “born again” is regeneration, as is seen in this passage:
3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)
We were dead in trespasses and sin, as the Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph 2:1-3)
But we can now rejoice, all of us who are Christians, because we are all born again, given new life in Christ:
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:4-8)