It’s a phrase that has been widely misunderstood for two thousand years, since the first time it was spoken:
“You must be born again.”
The new birth, or what theologians call regeneration, is one of the most stunning and crucial realities of the universe, one which every child of God should thoroughlly understand and rejoice in.
But that’s not how it is. Most church goers have vague, incomplete answers to such basic questions as:
What is the new birth?
Why must we be born again?
How does the new birth come about?
What are the effects of the new birth?
How can we help others become born again?
Those are the five questions answered by Finally Alive, a book by pastor John Piper that takes a comprehensive look at what it means to be born again. He lays out his goals for the reader:
When you are truly born again and grow in the grace and knowledge of what the Lord has done for you, your fellowship with God will be sweet, and your assurance that he is your Father will be deep. I want that for you.
If you know what really happened to you in your new birth, you will treasure God and his Spirit and his Son and his word more highly than you ever have. In this, Christ will be glorified.
In the process of believers discovering what really happened to them, the seriousness and the supernatural nature of conversion will rise and that, I pray, will serve a more general awakening of authenticity in the Christian church so that religious hypocrisy will diminish and the world will see real love and sacrifice and courage in the service of Christ.
If you want Bible-saturated, passion-filled answers to what really happened when you became born again, this is your book. It will both inform your mind and ignite your heart in greater love for Jesus and greater desire to see others come to Christ. It is available for purchase or available as a FREE DOWNLOAD from Desiring God Ministries.
Although it won’t make any “top ten” list of theologically correct movies, Weekend at Bernie’s does vividly teach one very important truth:
Despite your best efforts, there is a difference between someone who is dead and someone who is alive.
Think about it. Two guys go to a lot of trouble to make a dead guy look alive. They put clothes and sunglasses on him just like a person who’s alive. They talk with him. He goes to parties and out on a speedboat. He does a lot of things that live people do.
What’s more, everyone thinks he’s alive, from just casual acquaintances to his girlfriend to the hit man who is intent on killing him(again).
Yea, everything seems to be smooth sailing, except for one little detail: he’s dead.
So, what exactly is this teaching me about Christianity?
Simply this: Bernie has a lot in common with most people, including many people that attend a church each Sunday. They may dress like a Christian, talk like a Christian, hang out with Christians, and do “Christiany” things like tithe and serve the church. They may convince a lot of people that they are a Christian, maybe even themselves.
Yea, everything seems to be smooth sailing, except for one little detail: they’re dead.
No amount of dressing up or going through the motions was going to bring Bernie to life, and no amount of religious activity will bring a dead soul to spiritual life. That’s exactly what Jesus was getting at when he told the religious leader Nicodemus “You must be born again” in John chapter 3.
Don’t settle for a good religious “life” for yourself, or for anyone else you know. What you do or what you appear to be on the outside really doesn’t matter: it’s whether God has taken the dead spiritual heart of stone that you were born with and remade it into a living heart (Ezekiel 36:26).
Have you experienced God remaking your heart? Have you been born again? Then thank God, and seek to grow & live as someone now fully alive.
Or maybe you feel like Bernie, going through all the motions of being a good person, but somehow knowing that something is missing? Maybe what’s missing is a heart that is truly reborn. If so, then watching this video may help show you the path to a life that will last more than a weekend.
In the movie The Matrix, that hotbed of pop-pseudo-religious analogies, the heroes connect their brains (“jack in” to use their slang) to a huge computer network, immersing themselves into an immense virtual reality, the “matrix,” which is a duplicate of 20th century Earth. Since the computer network is controlled by the “enemy” which “enslaves” them, the typical pop Christian analogy has been that the matrix represents the cosmos, the current world system.
But since pop-pseudo-religious analogies just beg to be toyed with, why not turn it upside down? When the heroes are “jacked in”, they get new flawless bodies(always with very cool clothes for reasons that are never adequately explained), are able to perceive in new ways and acquire superhuman strength and abilities.
Question: when we become a part of the body of Christ, when we become a branch of His vine, when we “jack in” (sorry) to the Holy Spirit, how does it change us? Do we really perceive our spiritual strength, endurance, patience, love, self-control, and wisdom to be any different? Do we live knowing that we are intimately connected to a God of infinite power and wisdom, that we are jacked in to a new reality?
And to carry this poor excuse for a movie metaphor one step farther, consider this: when the hero Neo first jacks in, he neither realizes nor appropriates his new powers. He doesn’t act supernaturally because he doesn’t realize he can, that he has the ability. And one of the enemy’s attacks on him is to try to convince him that he is not any different, that he is just an ordinary man. Sound familiar? How often do we live in the here and now, almost totally in our flesh, our old man, not even cognizant of our new heart or the Spirit within us? What would happen if we would intentionally try to live totally dependent on the Spirit, every second conscious of and “jacked in” to the abiding presence of Jesus?
In The Lord of the Rings, Narsil was a sword created for great adventure and battle in the hand of a king, but was shattered by a dark enemy. All thought that its beauty and strength and been destroyed. But all was not lost: it was reforged and given a new name, Anduril, given back strength and beauty and destiny in the hand of a new king.
I see a little bit of a parallel with the human heart. Created by God for His service and glory, but that pristine strength & beauty & destiny was shattered by the enemy’s deceit & our rebellion at the fall. But God, not content to see His work unmade to destruction, through the miracle of regeneration has reforged the hearts of His children in the fire of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and given us all a new name (Revelation 2:17). Look into your heart—do you see a blade reforged? If so, then rejoice and put yourself into the trusted hand of your Lord. If not, then seek out the only One who can reforge you, for you cannot do it yourself.
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 ESV)
Wasn’t this a strange way for Jesus to start a conversation? A prominent rabbi comes in, and confesses to Jesus that he is a “teacher come from God.” At first glance, you might think Jesus might reply, “Yes, you’re right, you’re very perceptive.” “Yes, you have seen the truth.” or at least, “Why do you say that? Why do you think I am from God?”
But, as Jesus often did, he throws Nicodemus something seemingly out of the blue— “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Where did that come from?
If you examine Jesus’ conversations, He often challenged unbelievers along the path of their perceived but wrong opinions. To the rich young ruler he first challenged him about his notion of what being “good” was. To Nathanael he challenged his image of what the Messiah would be like. To the woman at the well he challenged her idea of what thirst was really all about. To Pilate he challenged his idea of how an innocent man would speak before him.
So Christ immediately challenged Nicodemus on his opinion of what spiritual sight was. Specifically, Nicodemus had studied the Scriptures all his life, and was intellectually one of the most learned men in Israel. In addition to his learning, he had lived an exemplary holy and pious life. If anyone in Israel was qualified to know who would be truly from God and who wasn’t, both Nicodemus himself and any other Jew would have said, “Yes, Nicodemus can see.”
But Jesus jumps in and in effect says, “You’ve just said you can see that I’m from God. But you can’t. You’re blind. All your knowledge and all your holiness can’t give you spiritual sight— only being born again can allow you to see the kingdom of God.”
This statement completely blows Nicodemus and his world away. The fact that spiritual sight can’t be attained though even his lifetime of diligent effort— he just can’t comprehend it (well, duh, because he doesn’t have any spiritual sight.) But the spiritual blindness of humanity is a fact. Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
It is only after God directly intervenes in our life through the new birth that we can see, as Paul says in verse 6, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Nicodemus was convinced he could see spiritual reality, but he couldn’t until he was born again. When someone is born again, their eyes are opened to a whole new world of spiritual reality, just as in the movie The Matrix Neo sees his reality in a whole new and deeper way after he is reborn:
So, how should believers respond to this truth from John’s gospel?
First, we need to be thankful to God that He has in His mercy chosen to allow us to have spiritual sight.
Second, we need to pray and strive to use this spiritual sight, to see the Kingdom of God as we journey in this world, in the situations we deal with and the people that we minister to.
Third, we need to know that the battle to bring people to see the Kingdom of God, to see the truth of the gospel, is not just a battle with their emotions or minds or wills, but with spiritual blindness, a battle where we must pray and ask God to remove their blindness and grant them spiritual sight.
For the next several Thursdays I will recap selected lessons from a “practical soteriology” series I did years ago which I entitled “Changed by God.” I have found that many Christians understand they are saved from hell, and some understand that they “have been born again” or have the Holy Spirit living in them, but relatively few have a “big picture” view of all that God worked in their lives as a result of their salvation.
In typical evangelical style, I used a mnemonic, with a little creative coercion getting the seven letters of C.H.A.N.G.E.D. to stand for seven principal facets of God’s saving work in the lives of His children.
Here is the outline for the entire series:
Changed by God
Next Thursday I will cover the “C”— Chosen.
And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:18-24 ESV)
At first glance it looks like Jesus is telling this man that all he has to do is sell all his possessions to gain eternal life. But look closer. Jesus is simply giving him an example of why he can’t inherit eternal life. It’s as if I went to a NBA coach and asked him, “What must I do to be on your basketball team?” Let’s say this coach wanted me to try and see how hopeless it would be for me to be a NBA player, and he said, “Let me see you dunk a basketball.” I might become “very sad,” because I would realize there was no way I could dunk a basketball. Obviously, I can’t be in the NBA just because I can’t dunk a basketball— that’s just an example. I can’t be in the NBA because my entire being would be a complete failure in a NBA game. I don’t have what it takes.
In the same way, Jesus just took an example, an example he knew would sting this man’s heart, an example of how “no one is good except God alone,” how there was no way in his own efforts this man could merit eternal life and enter the kingdom of God.
The actual “one thing” the man lacked was the ability to value Jesus and the treasure of heaven above this world. The man turned away, because he knew that he didn’t, indeed he couldn’t value Jesus above all. So it is with all of us— we all lack the ability to value God above anything and everything else in our lives. Humanity lost the ability to choose God above all the moment that Adam and Eve chose the fruit above God.
The good news of the gospel is that God has made a way for our hearts to be regenerated, a way through faith in Christ for us to be born again so that we might once again learn to cherish Him above all else. This one thing we all lack and can never attain God Himself has graciously provided for us if we will come to Him in faith.
Conversion: n 1: an event that results in a transformation 2: Something that is changed from one use, function, or purpose to another.
Conversion—this was the word often used by Christians of previous centuries to describe the change from death to life when someone truly becomes a child of God. While we often use words as “believer” “saved” “born again” or “accepted Christ”, often “converted” was their term of choice. The emphasis is not on words said or aisles walked or prayers prayed or church membership affiliation or any sort of belief, but on a transformed life. A changed heart was the measure of whether a soul was bound for heaven or hell— conversion.
How different this way of thinking about salvation was from the today’s typical American view was brought into sharp relief as I have been reading through The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter. In it he describes in detail the line of questions he would ask of every member of his parish as he would visit them in their homes. Instead of four spiritual laws or even “If you knew you would die today, why should God let you into heaven?”, Baxter used the following explanation and questions (slightly modernized by me with words emphasized by me):
The Holy Spirit, using the Bible, enlightens a man’s mind, and softens and opens his heart, and turns him from the power of Satan to God, through faith in Christ. He that is truly converted, has had a light shining into his soul from God, which has showed him the greatness of his sin and misery, and made it a heavy load upon his soul; and showed him who Christ is, and what he has done for sinners, and made him admire the riches of God’s grace in Christ. He has now such a sight of heaven, that he despises all this world as garbage. This is the case of all who are truly converted and who shall be saved.
Have you ever found this great change upon your own heart? Did you ever find the Spirit of God, by the Word, come in upon your understanding, with a new and heavenly life, which has made you a new creation? Have you experienced such a change as this upon your soul?
I find Baxter’s model for evangelism both fascinating and disturbing. Fascinating, in how acknowledgment of belief or correct theology or even an experience per se is not the point at all for him. The point is solely on whether a person’s heart has been changed in a specific way, in that the person sees that he has been changed and has become a new creation and that his heart is different (admiring the riches of Christ, despising the world).
I find Baxter’s model disturbing when I think how many people in our churches who have “prayed the sinner’s prayer” “walked the aisle” and can tell you the day and date they were “saved” would be unable to look within their heart and see the change that Baxter speaks of. Can you?
This recent post by the guys at GetReligion really made me think. The article is about some recent publicity concerning a woman who was a former stripper who is now trying to evangelize other women in her former line of work. She was interviewed on Fox News as follows:
She recently held her ground on “Hannity & Colmes” on Fox News. “Can you be a stripper and a believer at the same time?” Alan Colmes asked.
“The question,” she answered, “is can you be a glutton and a believer at the same time? Can you be a liar and a believer at the same time? Yes.”
This question and its answer begs several questions:
What is a “believer”? That is actually at the heart of Mr. Colmes question: If you say you believe in Jesus, does that make a difference in your life?
Isn’t it interesting that he asked that question of a Christian? He would have never asked that question to someone practicing Wicca, because there is nothing in their belief system that would really label that as “sin.” And he never would have said that to a devout Muslim, because the nature of their religion and their devotion to it would make “stripper” and “devout Muslim” simply inconceivable, if not punishable by death in many countries. But it was an honest question to ask a Christian, that the possibility existed that someone could say they believed in Jesus and yet reject or ignore the moral law of the Bible.
Put another way, what if she answered the question by saying, “How could you possibly ask that question? Everyone knows that anyone who believes in Jesus couldn’t possibly reject his commands. After all, he said to the adulteress, “Go and sin no more.” No one who believes in Jesus would do otherwise.” Yea, Colmes would have given her a “what planet did you step off of” look, because “believing in Jesus” comes mighty cheap in our culture today.
This points out the problem in using the word “believer” to start with. I can “believe” just about anything I choose to about Jesus, and the things I believe about Jesus may have no relationship to reality at all, but I can still call myself a believer and a Christian, and few there be in evangelical-dom that will publically or privately call my hand.
Another problem is the poor understanding of the whole concept of regeneration, that at conversion something happens more than “belief”, that one who truly is regenerated passes from death to life, receives a heart of flesh to replace their heart of stone, and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Truly being born of the Spirit is much, much more than “believing.”
Ok, on to her response. She basically tries to reframe the question as stating that sexual immorality is no different than gluttony or lying, and that it is clear that Christians are routinely guilty of those sins. As far as her answer rejects sinless perfection as a possible state in this life and warns against hypocritical judgement of one sin while ignoring another, it is in the right direction.
But her response falls far short of adequate, as my allusion to “Go and sin no more” earlier points out. The fact that we will always be saint and sinner, Simul justus et peccator (to use Luther’s Latin), has been recognized for centuries. BUT, sin must be ruthlessly fought against in our lives, “mortified” as the Puritans would say. To say that someone can be a follower of Jesus, but still be “working on” whether or not being a stripper is wrong, or acknowleding it is wrong but still developing a good plan on getting out of the life, is ludicrous. A true lover of Jesus should desire to do anything, make any sacrifice, suffer any hardship, to rid themselves of anything that comes between them and their precious Lord.
To follow Jesus really should mean that we follow Jesus. As Dallas Willard said in The Divine Conspiracy, our churches ought to have large signs on the front that say, “We Teach All Who Seriously Commit Themselves to Jesus How to Do Everything He Said to Do.” May it be so in our churches and in our lives.
I was reading this passage from the autobiography of George Mueller the other day and noticed that he used the word “unconverted” for someone outside the faith. And I thought, there’s a word you don’t hear much in 2006, the word “conversion” to describe our passage from death to life. I believe it was a common term a century ago, but then people started getting “saved” instead of “converted”, then people started having a “personal relationship with Christ” instead of getting “saved”, and if you’ve been scanning the blogosphere lately apparently some people don’t even want to use the name “Christian” anymore. It seems to me that there is a pattern here: each term is a little less radical, a little more “seeker friendly”, a little less life transforming and a little more flesh accomodating.
I wonder if part of this change in phraseology could be caused by a watering down of our soteriology, our understanding of the nature of salvation. What do most evangelicals really think happens at “conversion”? How is a converted person different than an unconverted? Are they merely “saved” from hell? Do they just have a “relationship” with Jesus? Or are they converted, transformed, totally regenerated, given a new birth and a new life?
Which, for someone disturbed reason, made me think of your friendly neighborhood Spiderman. After his encounter with a certain radioactive spider, what happened to him was a total transformation of every part of his being—not one cell was left untouched, might I even say that “all things were made new”? I wonder if he would describe what happened to him as merely being saved from an old life? I wonder if he would describe what happened to him as a personal relationship with the spider? Might he even want to call himself “smallinvertebrateman” so not to offend or scare anyone that had a thing against spiders?
If Jesus Christ has brought us from death unto life, let us kindly but clearly voice it as His ambassadors and witnesses. But if we do not yet clearly understand the incredible, miraculous nature of justification, adoption, & regeneration, let us first get that straight before we attempt to share the gospel with others.