I wonder if you’ve ever been waiting somewhere, like at a bus stop, and you’ve had someone come up to you and ask if you’re a Christian. If you reply, “yes, I am a Christian.” The follow up question will often be something like, “But, are you born again?” The term “born again” is almost used as a denominational marker. It is used of a kind of Christian who worships in a particular way (usually involving putting your hands in the air), and who is more likely to approach people on bus benches to ask about their spiritual lives (sometimes handing out little pamphlets).
More traditional Christians usually have two responses to being asked if they are “born again”. One is plain dismissal. We roll our eyes and say to ourselves “oh, you’re one of those”. We label them as zealots, extremists, unsophisticated, overly emotional, and religious nuts. Once we label them, we can dismiss them and not actually take what they say seriously. We can give them a bit of a smirk and go on merrily with our day.
The other reaction is often self-doubt and anxiety. Am I “born again”? Is it not enough to be a Christian? What does it mean to be born again? I grew up in the church. I’ve been a Christian all my life? How do we do it? We can feel Nicodemus’ confusion, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
The 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon describes being “born again” this way.
“Regeneration is a subject which lies at the very basis of salvation, and we should be very diligent to take heed that we really are ‘born again,’ for there are many who fancy they are, who are not. Be assured that the name of a Christian is not the nature of a Christian; and that being born in a Christian land, and being recognized as professing the Christian religion is of no avail whatever, unless there be something more added to it-the being ‘born again,’ is a matter so mysterious, that human words cannot describe it. […] Nevertheless, it is a change which is known and felt: known by works of holiness, and felt by a gracious experience. This great work is supernatural. It is not an operation which a man performs for himself: a new principle is infused, which works in the heart, renews the soul, and affects the entire man. It is not a change of my name, but a renewal of my nature, so that I am not the man I used to be, but a new man in Christ Jesus. To wash and dress a corpse is a far different thing from making it alive: man can do the one, God alone can do the other” (Morning and Evening, March 6, Charles Spurgeon).
I have heard many people speak with a sense of guilt that they don’t think they have been born again. They don’t have a moment they can point to when they were “saved”- when they had an overwhelming experience with God that changed their life. And they are faced with this paradox that they can’t make it happen, it has to happen to them, but they need it in order to be saved.
I think both these reactions can have dangers. To dismiss the idea of needing to be “born again” means we are dismissing Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. However, we can also become caught up in a particular definition of what “born again” means and be crushed by the weight of it.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Darkness is very symbolic in the Gospel of John. Darkness is associated with the human ways of the world that ignore God and God’s ways. To be in the dark is to not see clearly- it is ignorance. Nicodemus is a leader of the Jewish people. He is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling council and law court for the Jewish people. By outward appearance Nicodemus is doing everything right. He takes the commandments seriously. He teaches them. He is high up the totem pole in his community. The equivalent for us might be someone who was born in the church and has always been involved. They have been wardens or sat on Parish Council. They might lead services. They might be a priest or a bishop.
It seems like something is missing for Nicodemus though. He seeks out Jesus who doesn’t have any of what Nicodemus has. Jesus isn’t a Pharisee. He doesn’t sit on an important council. He has been wandering around with a motley crew of fishermen and tax-collectors, while preaching. He’s only been doing this for three years. Based on outward appearance, Jesus should be going to Nicodemus for spiritual advice. However, Jesus’ ministry is filled with power. Nicodemus is humble enough to recognize that Jesus has something he doesn’t.
Sometimes we can be in the church and we think we are doing everything right. We tick off the right boxes, we a dutiful in the things we think we should be doing, but we still have that sense that something is missing. There is still an emptiness in it.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." “Born from above” can be translated as “born again”, or “born anew”. Nicodemus came to Jesus from out of the darkness and that darkness is still blinding him. He tries to interpret what Jesus is saying in a literal way- he starts talking about crawling into his mother’s womb as an old man.
In Jesus’ first statement he speaks about seeing the kingdom. This time Jesus speaking about entering the kingdom- "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The church has traditionally interpreted being “born of water” as meaning baptism. Baptism isn’t just a ritual where we get someone wet and speak the names of the Trinity over them. Baptism is a covenant where we are adopted as God’s children and we make certain vows as a part of belonging to this family. In Baptism we declare or belief in the Trinity as outlined in the Creed. We promise to study Scripture, to develop relationships with other Christians, to partake of communion, and to lead a life of prayer. We promise to resist evil and to repent of sin. We promise to proclaim Christ by word and example. We promise to serve Christ by serving others, and by seeking justice and peace for all people. Baptism is more than getting wet. It is the beginning of a certain kind of life.
The Church has also recognized that we need to be born of the Spirit. In the Bible there were people who were baptized, who then received the Holy Spirit in Pentecost. This has been ritualized in traditional churches through Chrismation and Confirmation. In Confirmation, those who were baptized as babies, confirm the promises that were made over us. We make the promises ours. And the Bishop prays for a particular filling of the person by the Holy Spirit to empower them to live the Christian life. In some churches this is not formalized and so they wait for an experience of the Holy Spirit that has a paradigm shifting effect.
I actually agree with both of these. I think a prayerful life dedicated to God should be marked with experiences. Some of these experiences are more dramatic than others. But these experiences cannot be conjured up. We can make ourselves ready for them by leading lives filled with prayer and Bible Study, and times of silence and solitude. But we cannot force it. It is outside our control- like being born- like the blowing of the wind. It is a gift. All we can do is open our hands to receive it, but our hands being outstretched does not mean we will receive it right in that moment. But neither should we expect to receive it if we fill our lives with busyness and distraction. Sometimes we can’t help this, but should be aware that this kind of frenetic activity can get in the way of experiencing God. Sometimes it is church stuff that is keeping us too busy!
This kind of encounter is not something God is trying to keep away from us. Sometimes we are too busy to receive it. Sometimes we receive it and we don’t realize it has happened. Some receive the Spirit like a bolt of lightning. Some receive the Spirit like a glowing fire that slowly burns away inside of them.
To those who dismiss the question “Are you born again?” I challenge you to consider it more seriously. Have you had experiences with God? Have you been open to those experiences? Could you be more open to experiencing God?
To those who are troubled that they don’t have a date and a time associated with when they were “saved”, I would say consider more your love for God. Do you have a relationship with God that is developing and deepening? That is more important than having a “moment” you can name. I believe and hope that I have been saved, that I’m being saved, and I will be saved. I believe and hope that I have been saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I believe and hope that I am being saved by the work of the Spirit in my life, transforming me into who God wants me to be. I believe and hope that I will be saved when I am face to face with Christ when my life ends. So in a sense we are not born again only once. We are born again all the time. The Spirit is constantly renewing us and drawing us into a deeper relationship with the God of deep sacrificial love.