In the US, you get this phenomenon at its worst, because it is associated with evangelical Christians who have an ultra-conservative cultural and political agenda. You’ve heard of the Religious Right, with its idolatrous identification of America as “God’s own country”, its twinning of faith with patriotism, its hardly hidden racist agenda, not to mention its election-winning support for Donald Trump. Fortunately, the UK has been spared this kind of distorted nationalist, nativist faith. Unfortunately, we have not altogether been spared abuse of the term “born-again”.
Above all – yes – the way the term is used by some Christians to make themselves feel more Christian and others feel less Christian. Apparently it is not sufficient to say (as Jesus himself rephrases being “born again”) that you have been “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5), that is, that by baptism and faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit, you have been incorporated into the church. No, to be a “real” Christian, you’ve got to have a special conversion experience, usually dramatic, often dateable, and frequently expressed in public “testimonies”, punctuated with proof texts from accredited Bibles. Otherwise you’re suspect.
And then there is this: because the focus is on personal experience, our theology of mission, which includes God’s global work of reconciliation and liberation, becomes truncated. Evangelism is reduced to Christian cloning – inducing the “born-again” experience in other people and directing them to so-called “Bible-believing” churches; salvation is marketed as “fire insurance” (“Turn or Burn”, as the bumper-stickers so invitingly put it), or at least as the spiritual “equivalent to a healthy retirement fund” (Beverly Gaventa); while a commitment to justice and peace, as well to ecumenism, is completely marginalised.
The huge irony is that all this is quite unbiblical, for justice for the poor, peace among the nations, and a passion for the unity of God’s people – these are fundamental, not negligible, let alone expendable, biblical themes. Justice/Peace is the central message of all the great prophets – Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah. And the theme of the ministry of Jesus is – what? The “kingdom of God”, which is a corporate concept and refers to the establishment of shalom, not just in souls but in bodies, not just for individuals but for communities, and not just for some after-death or post-apocalyptic future but for the here-and-now. Or do we need reminding of the manifesto of Jesus, proclaimed in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth (no altar call – the congregation tried to kill him), his “mission statement”:
God’s Spirit is upon me:
God has chosen me to preach good news to the poor;
to announce pardon for prisoners and sight for the blind;
to unchain the enslaved and emancipate the oppressed;
to announce: “This is salvation! Right here! Right now!”
And St. Paul, following Jesus’ great prayer “that they may be one” – again and again the apostle fervently pleads for a common purpose among Christian communities.
That is what mission is about: not about saving my butt and getting sinners, via my church, out of the Pit because “the Bible tells me so”, but about witnessing to the fact that in Jesus Christ God is renewing, reconfiguring the whole universe, inviting people to join in his cosmic programme of reconciliation, and encouraging churches to demonstrate God’s shalom by embodying in their life what Jonathan Sacks calls the “dignity of difference”. Each of our experiences of coming to faith – these are no doubt different. But this vision of the one church and the new creation – that is what binds us to Christ, to each other, to the world.
So to be “born again” – well, let’s look – closely – at the famous text in the encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus in John 3.
First, observe how Jesus begins by pointing Nicodemus to the “kingdom of God”. Right from the get-go we’re not talking about personal salvation and getting to heaven, we’re talking about the new world that is God’s work in progress.
Second, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without” (John 3:3) – without what, exactly? In the Greek text, “without being born anothen”. Anothen may certainly mean “again”, but it more commonly means “from above”. So the question is: what does anothen mean in this context? Nicodemus obviously takes it to mean “again” – hence his bewilderment at the idea of entering a womb twice. But what if we take anothen to mean not “again” but “from above”? Then what Jesus tells Nicodemus links perfectly with what John tells us in chapter 1, where we read that Jesus, the incarnate Word, gives to all who believe in him the “power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man but” – of what? – “of the will of God” (John 1:12-13), the God who, in John’s up-and-down heaven-and-earth cosmology is “above”. And then what Jesus tells Nicodemus also links perfectly with what John tells us at the end of chapter 3, where in a single verse (31), he refers to Jesus as “the one who comes from heaven” (v. 31c) and “the one who comes from” – you guessed it! – “anothen” (v. 31a), which clearly means not “again” but “above”. Thus not “born again” but “born from above” turns out to be the better translation of anothen – as, in fact, many Bibles in English now acknowledge.
But look, I’m not the word police! By all means let us speak about being “born again”. Paul never does in his letters, but the First Letter of Peter does (“born anew”). Rebirth is actually a quite fantastic image. It speaks vividly to the point that Jesus is making to Nicodemus, namely that faith is, well – “Wow!” – like a new-born emerging from darkness into daylight, a new world alive with possibility, because (as the mysterious Mr. Smith declares on arriving from London in the small 18th-century town of New York, in the cracking Francis Spufford novel Golden Hill) – because “what I am is all in what I will be”. To speak of being “born again” is not a problem unless you make it a problem by reducing its meaning to a specific experience that all Christians must have. Being “born again” or “from above” – they are both powerful metaphors of transformative faith. But the how of faith is not important.
Only two things are important. Firstly, the that of faith, which finally demonstrates its authenticity not in our personal experiences and “testimonies”, however compelling – we are, after all, notoriously unreliable narrators of our so-called “inner lives”, and Christians have form in being rather egocentric about salvation – but in the outward, public, and often costly practices of grace and actions of love. “Only a person who obeys believes,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ.”
And, secondly, the object and the content of faith around which the that of faith orbits. The object of faith: Jesus, of course, but Jesus “my personal Saviour” only insofar as he is identical to Jesus the strange, disturbing, feral figure that stalks the pages of the New Testament, the one with a fondness for those who aren’t in my gang, otherwise he is simply the Jesus of my personal fantasies. And the content of faith: the quite specific teaching of Jesus – for an overview, that Nazareth Manifesto, and, for more detail, the radical demands of the Sermon on the Mount and those subversive tales-of-the-unexpected we call parables. It’s no good crying “Lord! Lord!” or claiming Jesus “lives in my heart” unless that Jesus and what he teaches actually matches the person and project of the Jesus of the Gospels.
Finally, remember that the new birth is just that – a birth, a beginning; but discipleship – that’s a daily departure from the safety of the neonatal unit and a lifetime of growing up, leaving home, taking risks – like old Abraham and Sarah, whose road trip from Haran to who-knew-where, further and further, is the defining journey of biblical faith.
So the next time someone asks you if you’ve been “born again”, don’t feel intimidated and don’t be shy; rather modestly but boldly say, “Of course – I’m a follower of Jesus! But following Jesus – and keeping up – that’s the arduous journey of a lifetime. Are you too on the way?”