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06 December 2018

You must be born again.

What “born again” means to pagans and Christians.

BORN AGAIN |bɔrn ə'ɡɛn| verb: Become Christian.
2. Convert to a stronger faith in, and a more personal relationship with, Christ Jesus.
3. Become a zealous [or overzealous] Christian.
4. noun: A Christian who underwent one of the above experiences.

Certain Christians insist you’re not a real Christian unless you’ve been “born again.”

These same Christians look at me funny whenever I talk about Christians who weren’t born again: “There’s no such thing,” they say. Actually there are: Some of us grew up Christian. From as far back as we can remember, we were raised to believe in Jesus and follow him, so we did. We went straight from childhood faith (where you trust Jesus because you’re told to) to personal faith (where you individually choose to trust Jesus) without any abrupt born-again experience at all. It was seamless… well, if there is a seam, Jesus knows where it is, but we don’t.

For me there was a born-again experience; I was a little kid, but I nonetheless chose to trust and follow Jesus. I’m aware there was a time before that when I didn’t. (I’m also aware there were times after that when I didn’t, but that’s because I’m a sinner, not because I’m not Christian.) But my experience, believe it or don’t, is actually atypical. Most Christians have never had a come-to-Jesus moment where they abruptly switched from paganism to Christendom. More often they phase into Christianity. They gradually believe. Or, like those who grew up Christian, they always believed.

So why do these born-again Christians make such a big deal about becoming born again?

Bluntly, bad theology. These folks were taught if we lack a born-again experience, we aren’t actually Christian. They were taught the way we know we’re Christian isn’t by the fact we produce good fruit, like Jesus taught; it’s by the fact we said the sinner’s prayer and were born again. They point to praying the sinner’s prayer as proof of salvation. It’s not. Not even close. Anybody can pray a version of the sinner’s prayer, and be pretty sure we it at the time, but if we’ve no relationship with Jesus thereafter, we didn’t mean it. Sad to say, there are a lot of fruitless Christianists who think they’re born again, but their works show they’re not.

If you’re fruitless, whether you’ve said a sinner’s prayer or not, you do need to be born again, and I recommend you get right on that. Repent, turn to Jesus, get forgiven, receive the Holy Spirit, start following him, and produce good fruit. Till then, it doesn’t matter what you imagine you remember of a born-again experience. If it didn’t turn you into a Christ-follower, it didn’t take. Do it again.

And if you are a Christ-follower already, you don’t need another born-again experience. You’re good.

Everybody got that?

What Jesus taught on the subject.

The term “born again” comes from Jesus’s discussion with a fellow rabbi, Nicodemus. In the King James Version and others, it’s called “born again.” I went with “re-generated,” which sounds a bit like Doctor Who but it’s an accurate translation of ghennithí ánothen/“procreated from the beginning.”

John 3.1-13 KWL
1 A person named Nicodemus, a Judean senator, was sent by the Pharisees.
2 Nicodemus came one night to speak to Jesus, and told him,
“Rabbi, we’ve known you were sent from God as a teacher.
When God isn’t with them, nobody’s able to do these miraculous signs you do.”
3 In reply Jesus told him, “Amen amen, I promise you:
When anyone’s not re-generated, they can’t see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus told him, “How can an old man be generated?
They can’t enter their mother’s womb to be generated a second time.”
5 Jesus answered, “Amen amen, I promise you:
When anyone’s not generated by ‘water’ and Spirit, they can’t go into God’s kingdom.
6 What’s generated by flesh is flesh. What’s generated by the Spirit is spirit.
7 Don’t be confused by my telling you, “It’s necessary for you to be re-generated.”
8 The Spirit breathes where he wants. You hear his voice, but don‘t know how he comes and goes.
Likewise with everything generated by the Spirit.”
9 In reply Nicodemus told him, “How are these people able to be generated?”
10 In reply Jesus told him, “You’re Israel’s teacher, and you don’t already know this?”
11 Amen amen: I promise you we know what we’re talking about.
We saw what we’re testifying about—and none of you accept our witness.
12 If people won’t believe it when I tell you of earthly things,
how will you believe it when I tell people of heavenly things?
13 Nobody’s gone up to heaven but the one who came down from heaven:
The Son of Man.” [Who’s in heaven.]

Various Christians have speculated “procreated from the beginning” more accurately means “born from above.” The Mormons even have this harebrained idea God created his children in heaven, at the beginning of time, and over time puts us into our bodies. Since Nicodemus’s response to Jesus has to do with getting back into one’s mother and being born a second time, clearly that was how Jesus’s idea of re-generation came across: Not born from above, but born a second time. And Jesus emphasized that idea: We physically get generated by “water” (the Hebrew euphemism for semen). We also gotta be spiritually generated, or re-generated—clearly by the Holy Spirit—before we can see God’s kingdom.

What’s this re-generation look like? Well like I said, Evangelical Protestants presume it looks like “the born-again experience”: You say the sinner’s prayer, promise to turn your life over to Jesus forever, and presto-changeo you’re born again.

But no. It looks like the Spirit entering your life and growing good fruit in you. Which sometimes starts after you said the sinner’s prayer… and sometimes long after. Years later. After maybe a decade or two of following Jesus half-heartedly, and then you get convicted to follow him whole-heartedly, and finally fruit begins to grow. In other cases it starts years before, ’cause the starts working on some people before they know they must specifically turn to Jesus. (Cornelius, fr’instance. Ac 10.1-2) The Spirit doesn’t have to follow our Evangelical timelines, y’know; he breathes wherever he wants. Jn 3.8 It ultimately becomes a relationship between us and him—sort of a partnership, with him doing all the heavy lifting—but he’s the one who initiates things by re-generating us. We don’t generate ourselves; we don’t re-generate ourselves either. It’s entirely the Spirit’s deal.

The “born-again experience.”

True, when people repent and turn to Jesus, it can be a profound experience. A moment we’ll look back at for the rest of our lives, and mark as significant. It’s when we became Christian! It’s a “spiritual birthday,” as some Christians put it, and sometimes even celebrate it same as a birthday. Two birthdays. Kinda greedy of them. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Anyway I’m not saying we should make nothing of it. It’s great that we turned to Jesus! He said the angels rejoice when a sinner repents. Lk 15.10 So should we. It’s okay to make a big deal of it. We should!

But the ancient Christian expectation was we mark it with a baptism. Not with the widespread Evangelical practice of putting off one’s baptism till later—sometimes for years. John the baptist, and the apostles in Acts, didn’t wait any time at all between repentance and baptism. They got you wet right away. Because they expected that would be the experience we connect with turning to Jesus.

But today’s Evangelicals have largely made baptism its whole separate thing. They’ve replaced the baptism experience with what they call the “born-again experience.” That’s when you repented and turned to Jesus… and suddenly you felt saved. You felt joyful about it. Your “heart was strangely warmed,” as John Wesley described it. Suddenly the world looked all new and fresh and different to you. You loved Jesus like never before. You wanted to follow God like never before. You couldn’t put down your bible; you had to read it cover to cover, Genesis to maps. You loved everybody.

Basically you had a new convert’s zeal. Which happens to lots of people who discover they’re finally where they oughta be, and are thrilled about it. The very same thing happens when people fall in love; the only difference is you’re not horny. (Well, you better not be horny. ’Cause yikes.)

Does this experience come from the Holy Spirit? Nah. Problem is, Christians are convinced it totally does come from the Holy Spirit: It’s the experience of being born again! That’s what it feels like!

Except no it doesn’t. The scriptures say absolutely nothing about it feeling like anything. Because it doesn’t feel like anything. That’s why John baptized people: So they would feel something. Because humans gotta have something tangible to make up for the fact spiritual things aren’t tangible. That’s precisely why God has sacraments.

I’ve met many a Christian who was worried and disappointed because they didn’t have any born-again experience: When they repented and turned to Jesus, they didn’t have the same warm fuzzy feelings that other Christians testify about. It makes ’em worry, “So was I really born again?” Well do you have the Spirit’s fruit?—then you were. Do you lack the Spirit’s fruit?—then repent. But it’s not about feeling stuff! It’s about whether the Holy Spirit is currently making you a new creation in Christ Jesus. I hope he is.

(And I needn’t mention—but I will—those Christians who hide the fact they had no born-again experience by inventing one. That kind of hypocrisy has gotta stop. Because it’s exacerbating the problem: It’s making more people feel like they missed out, or aren’t even saved, if they lack this experience. And the fictional experiences are sometimes so exaggerated, who can realistically live up to them?)

Nah; forget about the born-again experience. Focus instead on the other kinds of God-experiences we should have. Like having our prayers answered, or being given stuff to prophesy, or seeing miracles happen. You know, the powerful fruit. When you’ve seen that stuff, you won’t even care about not having any “born-again experience”—you’ve got a far better testimony than that.

So don’t worry about that “missing experience.” If you haven’t yet been baptized, quit stalling and go do that already. If you wanna be zealous for God, get off your duff and start serving him, and once one of those God-experiences happen, you’ll be so jazzed you’ll top any born-again experience. Follow Jesus and grow some fruit.

The pagan “born-again” experience.

Lastly, a heads-up. Y’know what “born again” means to pagans? It means that third definition I listed at the top of this piece. It means a zealous, or overzealous, Christian. It means a Christian who’s gonna start raving at them about how they need Jesus: “Oh,” they moan, “you’re one of those born-agains.”

Overzealousness is a work of the flesh, folks. It’s why we see it in Christian newbies: They’re new! They haven’t produced good fruit yet. They think their enthusiasm is contagious—“Jesus is awesome! Why doesn’t everyone want to follow him?”—and are blind to the fact it’s really not. Only Christians think it’s neat. Everybody else finds it off-putting or annoying. Antichrists especially find it irritating.

It’s why we gotta temper some of the newbies’ zeal. Yes, they’re excited about Jesus, and that’s good. Yes, they’re gonna want to share him with everyone, and that’s good too. But the sharing will easily turn into proselytism—because, as new believers with very little fruit, they’re not always gonna remember to be kind and patient and compassionate. That’s not good. That’s why newbies make lousy evangelists.

I know; I’ve heard people claim newbies make the best evangelists: They’re so full of fire and excitement! They wanna share Jesus with the world—so let them, before the eagerness wears off! Look at the Samaritan whom Jesus met at the well: As soon as she found out Jesus is Messiah, she went and told her whole town! Shouldn’t we duplicate that behavior?

Obviously those folks are ignoring another story from the gospels: The man Jesus cured, then told to stay quiet. Who disobeyed Jesus and told everyone. Why’d Jesus let the Samaritan go tell everybody about him, but order this Galilean to keep his mouth shut? Because Jesus knows people: He knew the Samaritan would tell people about him without being a jerk about it. He didn’t know any such thing about the Galilean.

Some newly born-again Christians are excited about their newfound relationship with Jesus, but already have the maturity and wisdom to recognize not everybody is gonna be all that excited for them, or believe they of all people intend to change, or wanna meet Jesus themselves. They’re realists. As such, these people are ready to evangelize. Others aren’t.

Wise evangelists know it’s safe to turn some new Christians loose on the world… and the rest of ’em still have to grow up. It’s the ones who haven’t grown up, who nag their friends about Jesus and push their new religion in everyone’s faces—and worst of all, condemn everybody for not living up to their standards, and think Jesus wants us to act that way—which cause pagans to groan, “Aw crap, he’s been born again.” We’ve been far too irresponsible with our “baby Christians,“ folks. It’s like a bad parent who doesn’t realize their kid is turning into the school bully. Rein ’em in.