The advance “moral of the story” is this: Neither a sinner’s-prayer utterer nor a membership-placer be!
From John 3:
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He 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.”
Members of some religious groups read the first part of John 3 and become inspired by the vague notion of being reborn. As they consider this important spiritual concept, some may head off into fanciful ideas of what spiritual rebirth is, or isn’t. Rather than paying too much attention to this idea or that, though, let’s listen in on the continuation of the conversation, as revealed by John the apostle:
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.“
Now, there’s a lot in this account of the interaction of a clout-toting Council member with a no-account rabbi, and I don’t presume to deal with all of it here. I do suggest that it is apparent, based on one aspect of the recorded response of Jesus, that there are two things at work in the rebirth process — that is, two primary elements to be attended to, as one moves from the world into Jesus’ way: 1) water and 2) God’s Spirit. It further seems — and this part may temporarily rattle some of my forbears and nearer siblings — that the second thing, God’s Spirit, is the more emphasized here.
In other words, the role of water is not to be obliviated or reduced to “optional” status — after all, Jesus Himself indicated “water” in same breath as “Spirit” and submitted to immersion Himself — but the Spirit of God should probably be seen as the primary, spiritually active element in the process of coming into the Kingdom. In the case of the water, there is, and should be, human effort. In the case of the Spirit, the activity is God’s, not ours; this reality had been prefigured in John 1:12-13. As with the wind, it’s kind of hard to discover its origin or trace its exact path.
The water (1) and the Spirit (2) appear to work sequentially, or at least together somehow.
P.S. We might also note that Jesus doesn’t once mention the so-called “sinner’s prayer” … confirming my understanding that, despite millions of unfounded opinions to the contrary, the sinner’s prayer and utterances like it have nothing to do with what is presented in scripture about putting on Jesus Christ and identifying with His spiritual family. Oh yeah, and other local-church routines for “becoming a member,” such as “placing membership,” catechism classes, confirmations, West Side Church 101 classes, and so forth, have much less place in this conversation than a humble prayer acknowledging sin and need.
(There. How many people could I offend in a couple of paragraphs? Being a neo-protestant has its risks as well as its benefits.)