What’s all this “Born Again” business, anyway?

“Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus at night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?’” (John 3:1-3)

The first intriguing thing about this exchange is that Jesus answered Nicodemus’ main question, the one foremost on his mind, before he even got around to posing it. But, since He is God, we shouldn’t be surprised Christ could read minds. Secondly, Nicodemus’ reaction is still pretty much the norm among those who’ve yet to surrender their lives to our Lord. They furrow their brows and utter things like, “I beg your pardon?” “How’s that possible?” “You’ve lost me.” “Is it a metaphor for something else?” “What exactly does being ‘born again’ mean?” If a Christian isn’t ready to provide answers to those kinds of queries then he/she needs to spend more time in the Scriptures. I’m not implying we can all attain Biblical knowledge equal to a gifted evangelist like Billy Graham as far as explaining Jesus to a non-believer goes but it’s imperative we know enough to intelligently and logically defend our faith. That’s what I plan to emphasize in my essays throughout the weeks ahead. What do we say to someone who wants to know what’s necessary for them to become born again?

Sadly, many Christians aren’t sure what they believe. They have doubts. Now, doubts in and of themselves are not sinful. Timothy Keller wrote, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. It’s no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive.” I don’t know much but I do know one thing for sure. The more I delve into and study the Scriptures the less number of doubts I harbor about what the truth is. God isn’t hiding it from any of us. Ravi Zacharias wrote, “The Author of time, who lived in the eternal, was made incarnate in time that we might live with the eternal in view. In that sense, the message of Christ was not the introduction of a religion, but an introduction to truth about reality as God alone knows it. To deny Jesus’ message while pursuing spirituality is to conjure an imaginary religion in an attempt to see heaven while sight is confined to the earth. That is precisely what Jesus challenged when He said, ‘I have come that [you] may have life’ (John 10:10). His life spells living. Your life or my life, apart from Him, spells death.”

 

Nazi concentration camp survivor Corrie Ten Boom was a mere five years old when she told her mother “I want Jesus in my heart.” Her mom clasped her tiny hand and they prayed together. Corrie later wrote, “It was so simple, and yet Jesus Christ says that we must all come as children, no matter what our age, social standing or intellectual background.” It’s important we emphasize to unbelievers how easy God has made it for human beings to come before Him without fear of His condemnation. He accepts you as you are, warts and all. No qualifying exams to pass. No hoops to jump through. You don’t even have to change your clothes. You just have to exercise the same uncompromised trust an innocent toddler places in a parent. If a non-believer asks you, “What’s in it for me?” you might put into your own words this quote from Brennan Manning: “The drumbeats of doom in your head will be replaced by a song in your heart, which could lead to a twinkle in your eye. You will not be dependent on the company of others to ease your loneliness, for He is Emmanuel – God with us. And you’ll live with an awareness that the Father not only loves you, but likes you.” One of the biggest blunders a Christian can make when witnessing for Jesus is to turn something He made so simple into something unnecessarily complicated or confusing. When a broken person comes to Celebrate Recovery for the first time we leaders try our best not to overload them with too much information. We let them ask any questions they may have about the ministry and we answer them honestly without hesitation but we strive to keep in mind that we’re seed sowers only, not farmers. God has somehow orchestrated for them to be there and that’s enough for us. The last thing a believer should want to do is get in the way of what God’s doing in someone’s heart.

Yet when the appropriate time arrives we must be ready to tackle the subject of being born again without trepidation and we can only do that if we’re clear on its meaning ourselves. What it’s not is some kind of regenerative internal housecleaning we do on our own. There are dozens of shows on television these days about recycling, remodeling and reshaping all kinds of stuff. Experts are eager to demonstrate how to renovate your humble abode, restore a classic car or how to add a redwood deck to your patio. Billions of dollars are spent yearly on health club memberships, diet fads, beauty spas and a vast array of expensive cosmetics intended to make us look younger or more attractive. Then there’s the endless parade of TV advertisements we sit through for revolutionary miracle drugs and “exciting new” products guaranteed to help us with everything from mental depression to crow’s feet, from sexual impotency to toenail fungus, from seasonal allergies to hair loss, yada yada yada. The list is well-nigh endless. All aimed at consumers who hope to find something that’ll upgrade their appearance and/or improve their outlook on life. What I can’t help but notice is the lengthy roster of potentially harmful side effects that might tag along as a result of using what they’re urging the public to purchase and the announcer must mention every symptom. There’s always a catch.

In the same way Christians must be careful to not oversell Jesus as an instant cure-all that brings nothing but sunbeams and butterflies. Becoming born again has some serious side effects, too, and we can’t leave them out. We have an obligation to tell the truth and nothing but. Becoming a disciple of Jesus can bring all sorts of inconveniences, troubles, misunderstandings and unwanted hassles into your life. For example, some of your closest friends might start treating you like you have the Ebola virus. The Lord Himself warned that following Him can be detrimental to one’s safety. In Matthew 10:21-22 He said, “Brother will hand over brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by everyone because of my name.” Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:12; “…all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” It’s not a matter of if but when. Our Savior never pretended getting saved would make life become a carefree stroll on the beach and those who preach a gospel of prosperity and that salvation produces an end to hardships are false teachers doing a lot more harm than good.

Getting the life-altering news out about Jesus will always be job one for Christians. Therefore, presenting it in a clear, unambiguous way is vital. As mentioned, a lot of folks are eager to acquire anything that might help them look or feel better physically but even more are frantically seeking something profound that’ll satisfy the deep spiritual longing that never subsides. Many have turned to psychiatric therapy sessions or self-help programs to quench their ongoing thirst for fulfillment. Others have explored exotic religions or joined “new age” spiritual movements/cults, trying to discover and set free their inner selves. Too many have gone in an even more fruitless direction, seeking to subdue their yearning for truth and peace by sedating it with alcohol and/or drugs or by overindulging in mind-numbing sexual promiscuity. While all those things may provide temporary relief from reality none of them can offer what only the God in whose image they were formed can. Why is that? Billy Graham wrote, “Simply because man cannot renew himself. God created us. Only God can recreate us. Only God can give us the new birth we so desperately want and need.” The only way to escape the tyrannical clutch of our sinful nature is by letting God transform us into brand new creatures. Nothing is more important. Nations will continue to rise and fall. Governments and dictatorships will continue to come and go. Scientific breakthroughs and sensational theories about how the universe came into being will continue to be breathtaking today and woefully outdated tomorrow. The great I AM has already seen how it all goes down from beginning to end. Nothing we do surprises Him. He’s the constant that never changes.

So “the point” has to be something bigger and beyond this material orb we’re riding on. And the Bible tells us precisely what “the point” is: Every one of us has a place and a purpose in God’s master plan but it’s up to us to get with the program. And we do that by becoming born again. If someone continues to stumble over that concept tell them this fact: Christianity is the only religion that dares make the outrageous claim that the God who created the universe exists not just as some kind of external “force” that demands obedience, but as One who literally lives inside us, transforming us from the inside out and opening up a channel of direct correspondence to Him. That only gets accomplished by undergoing rebirth. Christ taught all who’d listen that each individual is special and loved by the Heavenly Father. And, because of His love, He refused to stand idly by and watch the human race slide into murky swamps of misery, hatred and destruction. He did something about it. Boy, did he ever! “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God not only provided mankind with a way to transcend this wicked, corrupted world but a way to actually experience serenity and joy in the here and now! Jesus didn’t fly back to heaven right after walking out of the tomb without saying farewell. On the contrary, He left us a present we can open any time we need it. He said, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…” (John 14:27). Not only that, He sent God the Holy Spirit to live in each and every man, woman and child who surrenders their life for Him to use as He sees fit.

There’s no set way somebody comes to be fully born again. Sometimes they have a spiritual epiphany and it’s instantaneous. With others it happens over a period of time as they slowly accept the truth that Christ is the only chance they have to live a meaningful life. Some, like me, get baptized as a youngster but then get distracted by the temptations of the world, think they know everything there is to know and end up decades down the line complaining, as did King Solomon, “I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind! (Ecclesiastes 1:14). The Holy Spirit was living in me the whole time but I didn’t allow Him to resume turning me into a new creation until I was almost sixty. I foolishly caged Him up for years but He was patient with me, nonetheless. Others get born again in their teens and never stray. Everyone has to walk their own path but all paths are dead ends unless they lead to Christ. Whether we’re born again at age 8 or 80 is moot. At that moment we start over as a new creation with a clean slate and boundless opportunities to serve the Lord. And it works. I’ve seen marriages mended, relationships restored and hope rekindled in people’s hearts. All because they quit resisting, realized our Savior has washed their sins away and finally began living their life anew.

Perhaps you’re still hovering on the perimeter, peeking through the fence and questioning this “born again” thing’s authenticity because it just sounds too good to possibly be true. Maybe you continue to trudge around with a nagging emptiness in your gut you can’t even describe. Life’s been okay, you guess, but there’s just something major missing and you’ve been looking for whatever it is for as long as you can remember. You ache to find your purpose. Happiness always seems to be slow to arrive and quick to leave. Inner peace is a phantom. Maybe it’s more severe than that. Perhaps nothing’s ever worked out for you. Your existence has been one of doing your best to survive one heartbreak, tragedy or letdown after another and you’re sick to death of being lied to. Then again, maybe you’re just a curious agnostic. Let me say up front that reading this short essay won’t save you. Only Jesus Christ can do that.

The aim of this upcoming series of blogs will not be to impress philosophers, Biblical scholars or learned theologians. Those guys swim in the deep end. There are as many opinions and theories concerning what the “new birth” or “regeneration” means as there are Christian church denominations. Some emphasize the method God employs to bring us to faith. Some stress the importance of a person’s individual search for faith. Some insist becoming born again is a single event while others opine the process is spread out over a lifetime of peaks and valleys. Fact is, most of the details are a mystery and it’s no sin to admit we only know so much and then we hit a brick wall. Our limited minds are finite and there are myriads of things we don’t have the capacity to wrap our brains around. But that’s alright. We don’t have to know where oxygen comes from to be able to enjoy the benefits of breathing it into our lungs. Dr. Graham wrote, “However much the theologians may disagree about fine points of doctrine, the central truth of the new birth is clear: Man apart from God is spiritually dead. He needs to be born again. Only by God’s grace through faith in Christ can this new birth take place.”

I pray that what I write is of practical value to both believers and to those who don’t yet believe. To say I’m underqualified to say everything that needs to be said about this subject is a gross understatement. I hold no doctorate degree. I’m still, bit by bit, learning more about the Father in heaven every day by reading His Word. My goal is to offer help to anyone who sincerely desires to find out more about God, the Son and the Holy Ghost by pointing them to the Bible. I do know that Christ knocks on the door of every heart, waiting to be invited in. I’d like for others to get to know the Jesus I’ve come to adore and worship. The Jesus I didn’t know for the majority of my life because, like many others have discovered, He’s not who I thought He’d be. Philip Yancey wrote, “…all the contorted theories about Jesus that have been spontaneously generating since the day of His death merely confirm the awesome risk God took when He stretched Himself out on the dissection table – a risk He seemed to welcome. He says, ‘Examine me, test me, you decide.’” It’s a genuine joy to see lives changed and I’m privileged to observe that occurring at our local Celebrate Recovery meetings all the time. I want everybody on the planet to be born again because I’m convinced it’s what God wants, too.

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