Gaining clarity on ‘born again’
Saturday, June 18, 2011
As another election season begins to take shape, people of faith take great interest in the religious thoughts and beliefs of various candidates. Of particular interest to many professing Christians is whether a candidate professes faith in Christ and, perhaps even more significantly, exactly what that candidate believes it is that makes one a Christian.
At times these candidates are identified — either by themselves or others — as either “Christian” or “born again Christian.” But is there a difference? Is it possible to be a Christian — a follower of Christ — without being “born again?” And what exactly does it mean to be “born again?”
In the third chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus is talking with a religious man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus tells Jesus he believes that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. He also declares his belief that Jesus is a worker of miracles. To this, Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (John 3:3).”
Nicodemus is perplexed. He wonders how it is possible for a person to be born more than once. Believing incorrectly that Jesus is talking about physical birth, Nicodemus asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born (John 3:4).”
After clarifying that he is not talking about physical birth but about spiritual birth, Jesus declares that it is impossible for one to “enter the kingdom of God” unless one is “born again (John 3:5-7).” This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus progresses to the popular and oft-quoted John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” To experience everlasting life one must be “born again.”
Strictly speaking, to be born again is to be born “from above,” to be born of God. To be born again is to cross over from spiritual death to spiritual life. It is the same truth the Apostle Paul writes about in Ephesians 2 describing one’s natural state of spiritual death which God “makes alive” through Christ (Ephesians 2:5). The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel has the same imagery in mind in Ezekiel 36 where he writes of God’s giving one a “new heart” and a “new spirit,” taking out one’s “heart of stone” and replacing it with a “heart of flesh,” a heart malleable to the things of God (36:26).
To describe a person as “born again” then, is to describe every true Christian. Indeed, one cannot be a Christian without being born again. The phrase “born again” is synonymous with the very word “Christian” and is not meant to be used adjectivally as though being “born again” were to describe merely one kind of Christian. There is no other kind! To quote Jesus: “You must be born again (John 3:7).”
The Rev. Todd Linn is pastor of First Baptist Church in Henderson, Ky.