Rebirth, as Jesus taught it

The apostle John recorded more than one event in Jesus’ life that the synoptic gospeliers did not record.  Here is a portion of one of these events:

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 have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”  Jesus answered and said to him,  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old?  He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

The mysterious notion of being born again has eluded believers–and, I suspect, unbelievers–for centuries. I doubt that Jesus intended us to go away from this story shaking our heads and going, “Whoa! That’s really mysterious. What did He mean?!”  Like the wind, though, the new birth is a bit mysterious.  And leading interpreters/teachers/preachers in various churches appear to have avoided one obvious element, preferring to enjoy the vagaries and to emphasize denominational dogmas.  We’ll come back to the obvious element.

I was recently reading the free online chapter of the book that is to be campus-wide reading material this year.  I don’t have too much of a context from this book, other than knowledge that it challenges traditional Christian viewpoints and praxis by its mere title, unChristian. Chapter 7, “Too Political,” observes that Christians are viewed by outsiders as being too politically involved.  For now, I’ll avoid comment in that area (although I have many thoughts bubbling!), directing my readers’ attention to excerpts from p. 160. One of the co-authors works for the Barna research group, and he has categorized U.S. citizens–as Barna does, for sake of discussion–as 1) Evangelical Christians, 2) Nonevangelical Born-Again Christians, 3) Other Self-Identified Christians, and 4) Those Outside Christianity.

Hmmm.  Hmmm again.

Did you wonder, as I, how one could be nonevangelical and be born-again at the same time?  I could almost imagine a converse category–I’ve known evangelicals who would not describe themselves as “born again” in the pop-Christianese sense of the latter term. But born-again and nonevangelical?  Let’s continue into these authors’ use of non-biblical terminology for things that are patently biblical.

They define this born-again-non-evangelical category as “those who have born-again commitment but do not share other [fundamentalist] faith perspectives.” OK, maybe I get it now. (We’ll leave alone the subtle difference between “evangelical” and “evangelistic.”)  If “born-again” designates a recognized level, or type, of Christian commitment, then maybe there could be those in Christendom who exhibit that devotion but who are not “evangelical”–a term Barna defines as accepting certain core theological perspectives, such as belief in the Bible’s principles, confession of sin and profession of faith, assertion of the existence of sin and of God and Satan, rejection of works-based salvation from sin, and affirmation that Christians have a responsibility of sharing faith with outsiders.

A couple of those criteria encroach on the sphere that is described by “born-again,” I think.  Now it’s getting trickier!  What is “born-again commitment,” exactly? And why do these authors use the expression “born-again” to modify commitment rather than, e.g, “salvation experience” or “conversion”? Again, a slogan from my past haunts me, but in a positive way: I prefer to “call Bible things by Bible names.”

And what did Jesus say about rebirth?  Nothing, directly, in relation to the concept of living committed lives. It seems to me that, for Jesus in his conversation with the upper-echelon Jew Nicodemus, rebirth was more about the process of getting “into” the new spiritual way than about living a new identity outwardly. And yet in so many evangelistic churches, one element of the process of Christian conversion/initiation/coming to relationship with Jesus is either ignored or outright rejected.

Whatever being “born again” is … however mysterious He intended or did not intend to be … it seems to me that 1) it is as significant to the spiritual life as the first birth is to the physical, 2) its effects are invisible and of God, and 3) it involves water.  That’s what Jesus said, isn’t it?


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