“Born-again Christian.” Many believers use the phrase to describe themselves, based on the story in John 3. Many detractors, however, use the phrase as a synonym for “backward-thinking, ultra-conservative religious nut.”
Here’s a radical proposal: we need another term. And the life that goes with it.
As we’ve seen in earlier posts, the idea comes from Jesus’ words to Nicodemus the Pharisee. He tells the astonished Pharisee that if he wants to see God’s kingdom, he must be born “again” (John 3:3, KJV, NIV), “from above” (NRSV), or “anew” (CEB). These are all legitimate translations, but with slightly different shades of meaning.
Here’s the problem. The word “again” means “an additional time” — and this is the basis of Nicodemus’ misunderstanding. It’s obvious to him that a person can’t climb back into his mother’s womb to be reborn. And he’s right.
But of course, that’s not what Jesus means. He’s not simply talking about how many times a person must be born, but how, period — by God’s initiative and through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, in the context of his comments about being the one who came down or descended from heaven, representing our humanity as the Son of Man (3:13; see also 1:51), I think the translation “from above” makes more sense.
Jesus, as the true human, is the one who descends from above to be born below by the Spirit. Is this, perhaps, why John doesn’t have a birth narrative in his gospel? People already know the story of the Virgin Birth, but John wants to highlight something else. In the context of describing the eternal Word and Light coming into the world, John writes:
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. (John 1:12-13, NRSV)
Receive Jesus and become a child of God; be born, not in the earthly sense and not “again,” but “of God.” Taken together with John 3, we have an astounding parallel: as Jesus himself was born “below” but “from above,” so too are those who believe in his name.
Yes: because we have all been born once, we must be reborn or born again. But that language is more of a nod to the fact of our first birth than it is a commentary on what’s new about the second. Nicodemus, in his befuddlement, can only imagine a second birth from below; Jesus envisions a new birth from above.
Thus, a suggestion: perhaps we could follow the CEB’s translation, and replace the phrase, “born again” with “born anew.” The word nicely captures the double meaning of being born again, and yet in newness.
There’s something more than just terminology at stake, though. I don’t really care if we call ourselves “born again” or “born anew” — as long as we get the story straight. Part of the difficulty is that the word “again” carries with it the sense of an event that happened at a point in time. That in turn lends itself to a way of telling one’s story: On such-and-such a date, I prayed this prayer. At that point, I became a Christian, and I’m assured of going to heaven.
But let’s not forget: John specifically tells of people who supposedly “believe” in Jesus, but in a way that demonstrates a lack of true faith (e.g., 2:23-25; 8:31ff.). It’s hard to say, and harder to hear, but the physical act of praying a prayer in itself guarantees nothing.
We’re not born just to be born. Neither birth nor rebirth is an end in itself. We are born in order to grow up. When we speak of being “born again,” it’s easy to think, “Well, that’s done.” But being “born anew” is a bit more open-ended, lending itself to the question, “Why? For what purpose?”
And the answer is this: we’re not born to stay babies, but to grow up to be more and more like Jesus (cf., Eph 4:14-16) and to walk in newness of life.