Once is not enough

For all the emphasis among Christians on being “born again,” you’d think the Bible would have more to say about it.

The apostle Peter writes of new birth (1 Pet 1:3, 23 — the word is “regenerated”) and many verses in the New Testament speak in some way of our new life in Christ. But for the actual idea of being born again, we have to refer to Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3.

As we saw in the previous post, Nicodemus the Pharisee approached Jesus at night. Jesus answered Nick’s question before the astonished man had a chance to get it out: anyone who wants see God’s kingdom has to be reborn.

The word John uses can mean either to be born “again” or “from above.” Either way, Jesus’ words are a mystery to poor Nick, whose Pharisaic training hasn’t prepared him for this conversation. He responds with wooden literalism: “What do you mean by ‘born again’? How can an old guy climb back inside his mother’s womb?” (vs. 4). St. Augustine had a snarky response: Maybe you think it’d be easier for a toddler?

If I had been Jesus, I might have rolled my eyes. But he answers:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ (vss. 5-7, NRSV)

It’s not clear what Jesus means by “being born of water.” Some see a reference to baptism here. But this would be before the practice of Christian baptism, and it’s hard to see why Jesus would insist that one would have to be dunked by John the Baptist to see the kingdom.

I prefer a different reading: Jesus is contrasting ordinary human birth with rebirth from above through the Holy Spirit. That would nicely parallel the contrast between flesh and spirit in his next sentence. It also reminds me of what John has already told his readers:

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave 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 God. (1:12-13)

No doubt, Nicodemus already considered himself a child of God, born as a descendant of Abraham. But that happy fact, Jesus insists, doesn’t get you membership in God’s kingdom. Everyone has to be born, but where the kingdom is concerned, once is not enough.

Somewhere along the way, Nick got the message.  Later in the gospel, we read about him defending Jesus to the other Jewish leaders (7:50-51). And sadly, John then tells of a confrontation between Jesus and some of the Jews who had believed in him. They, like Nicodemus, took it for granted that they were born as descendants of Abraham and therefore as God’s children. When Jesus questioned their assumption, they were quick to take offense — and it all went downhill from there (John 8:31-47).

To be a child of God is something we must never take for granted. We can’t be born into it by human means. And it’s not because of anything we’ve done.

Not even praying a “Jesus prayer,” as if those words were some kind of magical incantation to bend God to our will, as if they had saving power in themselves.

If we are children of God, it is because of what God has done, by his will and through his Spirit. He alone is the one who gives new life.