The expression "a born again Christian" is now established in common parlance in contemporary Western culture. The phrase invites serious questions. For example - "Are some Christians born again and others not?" - "How important is such an experience?" - and at a personal level "How can I be born again?"
The subject receives fullest coverage in the New Testament in Johnís Gospel chapter 3 - although the expression is also used in the epistles of James and Peter(1). John records the famous interview given by Jesus to Nicodemus, the leading Jewish theologian of his time. (Some translations miss the original emphasis of the Gospel writer that Nicodemus was the master teacher in Israel)(2). Readers will gain best value from this article if the Biblical account is immediately at hand.
New Birth - Mandatory or Optional?
The expression "born again" has been abused and cheapened in our generation. For example, ladiesí scent is now advertised in America apparently with the appealing slogan: "It makes you feel born again"!
However Jesus makes it clear in His teaching to Nicodemus that the effect of the miracle of the New Birth is more than skin deep! A manís character and destiny in time and eternity are affected by it. Furthermore this experience is not to be dismissed as just an optional extra which some people of excitable disposition desire. It is mandatory to becoming a forgiven man. "I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again"(3). Jesus reiterates this truth with two similar statements in the course of the next few verses(4). So just as the only way in which, say, a piece of furniture can be turned into a human-being would be by re-creation, so also the only way in which a man can be turned into a Christian is by re-creation, when God the Holy Spirit makes the heart of the new Christian His dwelling place(5).
We need to note that Nicodemus was a man of great intellectual powers, respectable, courteous, honest, responsible and well-taught Biblically. Yet none of these attractive characteristics individually or in aggregate could take him into the Kingdom of Heaven as a forgiven man and living under Christís lordship. At the time of this interview he still needed to be born again.
Because he understood so well that the New Birth is mandatory not optional for true Christian experience, Archbishop Leighton was surely right to state that those who have never been born again will one day wish that they had never been born at all.
New Birth - Human Achievement or Divine Choice?
Although everyman is decisively commanded to repent of sin and unbelief and to trust Christ alone for forgiveness and the New Birth, the Bible also teaches that in a mysterious and wonderful way God exercises choice as well. As the same Apostle writes in the first chapter of this Gospel: "To all who received Him, to those who believed in His Name, He gave the right to become children of God - children not born of human descent, nor of human choice or a husbandís will, but of God"(6). And this truth is reinforced by Jesusís illustration of the mystery of the wind being like the Spirit of God inducing New Birth(7). This Divine choice includes forgiveness, as well as Christians living godly lives and being fruitful in the service of Christ(8). Furthermore Christians are assured that God chose them for these privileges and responsibilities not during their lifetime, but "before the foundation of the world"(9). On this amazing and glorious truth Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of 19th century England, remarked:
"I am sure that God chose me, because I doubt if I would ever have chosen Him. And I am sure that He must have chosen me before I was born, because I doubt if He would have chosen me after!"
Mr Spurgeon clearly took his own fallen human nature seriously! And he would surely have endorsed these words of the Scottish minister, John Murray:
"There is a change God effects in a man or woman radical and reconstructive in its nature called the New Birth... a change that cannot be accounted for by anything but the almighty power of God. No combination, permutation or accumulation of earthborn forces can explain it."
C S Lewis described in his book "Surprised by Joy", how he was travelling one day on the top of a bus when "without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out....I felt myself, there and then being given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut....I chose to open....I say I chose, yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite." Thus Professor Lewis from his own experience testifies to what the Bible teaches about Divine sovereignty and human responsibility in producing a New Birth.
New Birth - Crisis or Process?
The time factor is often the subject of questions in relation to the New Birth. Does it occur instantly or progressively? The Bible does not give a distinctive answer. Certainly we identify prominent events by the day - we speak of a birthday rather than a birthmonth! Yet many human beings do not know the date of their birthday. Many of the soldiers with whom I served in the Union of Arab Emirates, when asked by the recruiting sergeant for the date of their birthday would offer a rather vague reply that it was "the year of the rains"! As it was realised that it was more important to recognise that they were alive and fit than to know the exact day they were born, they were enlisted into the Force gladly. Similarly in spiritual matters the crucial issue is not "When were you born again?"(although it is agreeable to know), but "Has the New Birth actually occurred in your life?"
It has been said that some Christians are born again at an obvious moment like the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus (which has one "m") - the M1!(10). But others are like the two disciples who travelled with the newly risen Christ on the first Easter Day on the road to Emmaus (which has two "m"s) and who had a more gradual experience - the M2!(11) Which road we travel is not important: what is of paramount importance is that we have been born again. If we are uncertain, it may be helpful to see if there are signs of spiritual life.
Signs of Life
When a biologist seeks to discover whether or not an animal or plant is alive - and this is not always easy to discern - affirmative evidence is sought from at least one of seven tests:
Thoughtful Christian readers will be able to discern a spiritual parallel with all these tests, but the Apostle John in his first epistle provides tests also:
The Apostle would have us believe that those in whom these characteristics are present have been born of God and those in whom they are absent have not. What would the Apostle say about you? Have you been born again?
This article closes with the quaint, but penetrating words which rest on the tombstone of an Anglican minister from Bedfordshire who was an associate of John Wesley:
LATE VICAR OF EVERTON
AND AN ITINERANT SERVANT OF JESUS CHRIST
WHO LOVED HIS MASTER AND HIS WORK,
AND AFTER RUNNING HIS ERRANDS MANY YEARS
WAS CALLED TO WAIT ON HIM ABOVE
Art thou born again?
No salvation without a new birth!
I was born in sin, February 1716.
Remained ignorant of my fallen state till 1730.
Lived proudly on faith and works for salvation till 1754.
Was admitted to Everton vicarage, 1751.
Fled to Jesus alone for refuge, 1756.
Fell asleep in Christ, January 22 , 1793.
1. James 1 v18; 1 Peter 1 v3,23
2. John 3 v10
3. John 3 v3
4. John 3 v5,7
5. John 14 v15-18; Romans 8 v9
6. John 1 v12-13
7. John 3 v8
8. John 15 v16
9. Ephesians 1 v4
10. Acts 9 v1-17
11. Luke 24 v13-35
12. 1 John 3 v9*
13. 1 John 5 v1
14. 1 John 2 v29
15. 1 John 3 v14
16. 1 John 5 v4
17. 1 John 5 v18*
*Some Christians have understandably found it difficult to reconcile these verses with 1 John 1v 8-9. They may be helped by the Jerusalem translation of 1 John 3 v9: "...does not make a practice of sinning". The following extracts on these two verses from Bishop J C Ryleís tract "Are you born again?" may also be helpful:
"If the Christian said he had no sin, there would be no truth in him (1John 1 v8). But he can say that he abhors it, and the great desire of his soul is not to commit sin at all. He cannot prevent bad thoughts from arising within him, or shortcomings, omissions, and defects from appearing both in his words and actions. He knows, as James says, that "in many things we offend all" (James 3 v2 ). But he can truly say, and as in the sight of God, that these things are a daily grief and sorrow to him and that his whole nature does not consent unto them..."
"A man who is born again is very careful of his own soul. He endeavours not only to keep clear of sin, but also to keep clear of everything which may lead to it. He is careful about the company he keeps. He feels that evil communications corrupt the heart and that evil is far more catching than good, just as disease is more infectious than health. He is careful about the employment of his time; his chief desire about it is to spend it profitably. He desires to live like a soldier in an enemy country, to wear his armour continually, and to watch for temptation. He studies to be a watchful, humble, prayerful man..."