I listened recently to a talk given by Tim Keller who has a way of reducing “mysterious” ideas to plain English like few are able to do. In this talk, he tackled the Christian concept of being “born again”. People who walk in some Christian circles may take for granted what it means to be “born again” (or maybe not!), but anyone who grew up outside the evangelical influence may have very little idea what it means.
“Born again” is a buzz word to be sure. It is used ubiquitously to mean a certain “brand” of Christian, sometimes, or even a certain political persuasion, which is really a bastardization of the meaning of the phrase. The phrase has its roots in a particular passage of Scripture and is meant to convey the idea of a paradigm shift of sorts.
It is often assumed to mean a religious experience accompanied by emotions and religious fervor, but that really isn’t quite what the phrase originally meant, or even what it really means at its essence. Being born again might be accompanied by emotions and religious fervor, but not always. I think of CS Lewis, who I would consider a “born again Christian”, when I say that “being born again” isn’t always accompanied by high, religious emotions:
“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalene, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised By Joy, ch. 14, p. 266).
Indeed, CS Lewis is not alone in finding the doorway to Christianity being rather more of a cross than a resurrection. Of course, the cross always precedes the resurrection.
Aside from the idea that being born again is primarily an emotional experience, people often think of it as signing onto a set of morally rigid religious principles. The words from CS Lewis might tend to support that idea, but that would be wrong as well. In fact, it really couldn’t be any further from the truth.
To get a clear idea of what “born again” means, we should go back to the text where the term was introduced. (John 3:1-15)[*] Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, a local religious leader and one of the ruling elite. When many people think of the term born again, we often picture people who have hit rock bottom in their lives. We think of people who last it all, who turn to religion for comfort. Nicodemus doesn’t fit that model at all.
The fact that Jesus told Nicodemus, in particular, that he must be born again carries with it some significance that we should not miss. Just a chapter later, when Jesus encounters the adulterous, marginalized Samaritan woman at the well, he doesn’t tell her she must be born again. He uses a different metaphor when he talks to her:
“[W]hoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
These are metaphors for the same thing – eternal life that Jesus offers to those who believe. (See John 3:15) The woman at the well certainly knew her lowly condition, but she likely didn’t know that any real hope was available to her. As a Samaritan, she knew well how the religious Jewish elite considered her. As a woman of many husbands, she wouldn’t have even been accepted in her own circles. Thus, she was drawing water in the heat of the noon day, after more respectable woman had been there and gone.
That Jesus tells Nicodemus, not the woman at the well, that he must be born again, is deeply significant. Unlike the woman at the well, Nicodemus had privilege. He was male, a leader in the community, morally upright in the eyes of the world and no doubt wealthy. He wasn’t a person in need. He wasn’t scrapping by on the fringes of society. He had not squandered his life chasing fleeting pleasures. He was solid, respectable and envied.
Nicodemus wasn’t likely looking for a social, cultural or emotional fix. As part of the religious leadership, he was educated and learned. He had social, cultural and political influence.
So when Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again, Jesus was turning the world and its expectations upside down. The suggestion is that even Nicodemus, the person who had accomplished an enviable station in life, must start over – like a newborn – to enter the kingdom of God.
The message in this story is that, it doesn’t matter how well off, how educated and accomplished, or how morally superior a person is; the only way to see the Kingdom of God is to be born again – to start over. We can’t be good enough on our own to warrant entry to the kingdom of God. If we feel that we can achieve it on our own merit, we are out of touch with the reality.
The reality is that none of us are righteous, no one. (Romans 3:10) It isn’t a matter of comparison; it doesn’t matter that I might be better than the next guy; none of us are capable of entering the Kingdom of God on our own merit. This is the message.
“[B]y grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:9)
While it may seem unfair, perhaps, to such a man as Nicodemus who had attained a level of piety that most would envy, the gift of God is equally available to all who will receive it. That this may have been hard for Nicodemus to accept is likely true. Perhaps, this is why Jesus also said to a group of religious leaders:
“[T]he tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31)
Being born again might be received with emotional gratitude by some – by those who know truly how destitute and far they are from the Kingdom of God – but those who think they have “arrived” may be reluctant to accept the statement: you must be born again. This is the significance of Jesus saying these words to Nicodemus,
Being born again isn’t always an emotional experience, at least not one to cherish, for that reason. It means giving up the accomplishments we think we have earned. It means starting over in our thinking and orientation. It means giving up being the captain of our own souls and giving ourselves unconditionally over to God – even those things we think we have earned on our own.
But what good is it to gain the whole world if we lose our souls?
For these reasons, I like the testimonies of people who understand the cost of being born again. Being born again will cost you your self. It will cost you your own views of the world that protect you from moral accountability and safety from an ever present God. Being born again isn’t an emotional experience at its core; it is a complete paradigm shift: from a world centered around you to a world centered around God.
And God is ever gracious to accept us, regardless of our condition. He takes us one and all, the prostitute and Pharisee, the good and the bad, the saint and sinner – because we are all in the same boat as far as God is concerned. There is no difference.
CS Lewis speaks of his own conversion this way:
“I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?… The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation”. (Surprised By Joy)
In the end, the important thing is not what we have accomplished, but what God has accomplished in us. When we have given ourselves to God, we are born again. When we have given up our dreams, and our hopes, and our wills, and our very selves to Him, we are His, and all that He is becomes ours. “The mark of faith is not tradition; it is conversion.” (The Catholic Church and Conversion, GK Chesterton)
Being born again is the ultimate light bulb moment. Everything changes and is illuminated by it.
Ultimately, being born again isn’t just a change in our thinking, though the change is certain. It is nothing that we accomplish, and everything that God does in us. We don’t change ourselves anymore than we gave birth to ourselves. We simply give ourselves over to the God who made us and who is waiting to transform us into his own children. This is called regeneration. It’s like the caterpillar changing into the butterfly except that this change isn’t inevitable, like it is for the caterpillar. We have to participate in the change by giving ourselves up to God. He does the rest.
Postscript: Many years after his conversion (being born again), CS Lewis remarked:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
This is the ultimate test of the born again paradigm shift: an inner change takes place that is not of our own doing. One day we realize that we now see differently. The Son has risen, and He illuminates our world in a whole new way.
[*] 1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”