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Gospel centred sermons, based on the lectionary often in advance.

My thoughts on being born again from 1999

Mar 8, 2017

Was thinking about my sermon for Sunday and was reminded that way back in 1999 when I was doing some chaplancy at the Gladstone Campus of CQU I was asked by a student on the CQU Christian list (remember lists) about the importance of being "Born again".

The student we will call Dave asked 

My question is "What does it mean to be born again?" I know that many who subscribe to the list consider  themselves to be born again but I am also aware that there are many who donot and even some who are totally opposed to the notion. (I have seen "Why do born again Christians make you wish they had never been born at all" written in the list) Being born again from above is very clear in scripture as a requirement for one to enter into the Kingdom of God. What does this mean to you? The last thing I want to do is to start a big us versus them or them versus us conflict, but I am just asking what it means to those who call themselves born again, likewise to those who do not.

My response was:

Dear Dave &c

The notion of being "born again" appears in only two places in all of Scripture. John 3:4‑8 and also in 1 Peter 1:23. (Although this depends on the translation.) The idea of being saved/receiving salvation appears hundreds of times. Four good examples in John are 3:17, 5:34, 10:9, and 12:47. Ideas such as "redemption" (strong in the Old testament), "justification" (strong in Paul especially Romans and Galatians), and "reconciliation" (also strong in Paul in Romans, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians and Colossians) all appear more frequently in the Scriptures.

 Despite only appearing in these two places being "born again" really grabbed the attention of evangelical Christians. I first really became aware of it as a constant catch cry in the '80s as a teenager. People were constantly asking me and each other if they'd been "born again". The trouble with it was that it was used over and over again and sometimes by the most unlikely people.

 One of the most famous examples was Ronald Reagan the US President through most of the '80s. It was said he was "born again" and he seemed to be a great favourite of conservative evangelical Christians. It turned out that he hardly ever went to church and his wife Nancy regularly consulted with an astrologer.

 The attraction of "born again" is that the words are simple even if the concept isn't so straight forward. They are much simpler than "redemption" or "justification". The idea of new birth, of being remade, of beginning again, is a very attractive one. It's even big in "New Age" thinking where you can go and get rebirthed in a special session. Being "born again" catches the imagination.

 Perhaps the most useful thing to do is to look at the passage from John. Nicodemus comes to

Jesus at night perhaps because he is afraid of the other pharisees on the Jewish council. He has seen something special in Jesus but is obviously struggling to understand.

 In answer to Nicodemus' statement "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him." (NIV) Jesus says "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again\from above. " (NIV\NRSV)

 The word used for "again" here is one which usually is translated in John and elsewhere "from above"  although it may also be translated "from the top", "from the beginning", and "from heaven" as well as "again". The other examples in John are 3:31 (from above NIV/NRSV), 19:11 (from above NIV/NRSV), and 19:23 (from top NIV/NRSV). Galatians 4:9 is the only other place where it is translated "again" in NIV, KJV, or NRSV.

 Nicodemus comes from a world view which sees that the most important thing is to obey the Law. The aim of the pharisees was to make the people of Israel be totally obedient to the Law even if only for one day. Many of them believed if that was to happen then the Messiah would come. The most important question for the pharisee in any moral or ethical situation was, "What must I do?".

 So when Jesus says to him "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again\from above." Nicodemus doesn't understand. He has to deal with Jesus' reply in his own terms. Perhaps he thought like this, "Jesus must be saying that I must do something, but it is impossible to be born again, I can't do that." So his reply was  "How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" (NIV)

 But Jesus hadn't meant him to think that he had to do anything. Instead Jesus was saying "you must be born from above". That is you must be remade by God, not by your own actions, morality, obedience to the law, etc. So Jesus  replies "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." (NRSV)

 God is not on our piece of string. By our prayer, our worship style, our good works, our service in the church and in the community or even our repentance, we don't make God do anything. Instead it is God the Holy Spirit who remakes us on God's own initiative. We have no more control over God than we do the wind and the weather. Pulling the piece of string achieves nothing.

 Dave  you suggest that "Being born again from above is very clear in scripture as a requirement for one to enter into the Kingdom of God." Perhaps I am wrong, and forgive me if I am, but it sounds to me as if you are making the same mistake Nicodemus makes. To say that it is a "requirement", is to say that being born from above, is something we do or initiate, rather than being about God remaking us. Jesus makes it clear, here in John, that the only requirement is to believe in Jesus. (The famous John 3:16)

 Jesus illustrates this by referring to the story of the bronze snake on the pole from Numbers (21:4‑9). In that story the people are saved from death not by any good action of their own, even by their repentance, but by looking at a bronze snake on a pole. It makes no real sense, just as the Son of God becoming human for us, living as one of us, dying on the cross, and being raised for us, makes no real sense. None the less in order to be saved, all we need do is believe. "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. " (Jn 3:17) (Some Christians say that even faith is God's initiative, but I won't go into that here.)

 The reason I don't like the term "born again Christian" is because it is often used  to exclude people. One of the most glaring examples of this is that evangelical Christians will often speak of Catholics  as not being "Christian" because they are not "born again". This is despite the fact that most Catholics confess and believe that  Jesus is their Lord and saviour. Now I am not a Catholic and I do not believe in the intercession of the saints, the sacrifice of the mass, or the Catholic understanding of priesthood, but I believe Catholics to be Christian. This is because Catholics believe in Jesus and hold the teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus to be central to their belief. And if they are believers then they have been born from above/again!!!

 Well everyone, I'm not sure if all the above will be that helpful, but this is my contribution to Dave's question.