December 17, 2008

What About the New Birth?

The moniker "born again" has become an almost universal term to identify people with a generally evangelical Christian faith and perspective. It has come to have an abstract and universal application for those who have had a conversion experience to Christianity. It's interesting that this term has come be used so widely because, as a metaphor for conversion, it doesn't figure prominently in the New Testament. Given the prominence of the term "born again" in the contemporary religious scene, it is worth exploring its biblical origin and meaning.

The term "born again" is grounded in a conversation between Jesus and the Jewish Pharisee Nicodemus recorded in John 3. Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one is able to see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above or born anew (3). Nicodemus is quite surprised at this news and asks how one is able to be born after growing old. He adds, perhaps rather sarcastically, whether one is able to enter again into his mother's womb in order to be born again. Jesus responds telling him that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of both water and spirit (5).

This conversation raises the question: Why did Jesus choose to use birth language to describe the work of the Spirit of God to convert and transform a person? Why didn't he just use the language of conversion or tell Nicodemus about the sinner's prayer? The answer to our question comes in an understanding of Nicodemus' cultural context. As a "teacher of Israel," Nicodemus would have believed that his birth as an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, would guarantee him a place in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God was understood to be the reality of God's reign most likely through a Messiah figure in which Israel would be exalted above those who had oppressed her and all the nations of the earth. Jesus chooses the language of birth precisely because it is his birth as an Israelite that Nicodemus is counting on in order to gain a place in the kingdom of God. Jesus is telling him that his natural birth as a Jew is not worth counting on. Rather, the Spirit of God must do a work in him that is properly described as undergoing a new birth leading to a new life and a new kind of existence. To enter the kingdom of God, one must both be born of water (or of a woman) and be born of the Spirit.

So, the term "new birth" is a fitting label for those who have been converted to Christ and entered into the new life of the Spirit. It was not, however, such a universal and abstract idea in its origin. Rather, the language was chosen for the specific context in which it was used. It does remind us that, like Nicodemus, there is nothing in us that fits us for a place in the kingdom of our Lord. Instead, the Spirit of God must do a work of transformation to bring us into new life.

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