Born Again?

by Kim on October 25, 2007

Last Friday I was browsing through the “Religion” section in Swansea’s Waterstone’s bookshop, amused to find Alister McGrath’s new book on “The Protestant Revolution” wedged among some Buddhist texts, when a guy reading from a Bible he’d taken from the shelf started talking to me. Having established that I was a Christian, he asked me if I was born again. “Is there any other kind of Christian?” I responded.

My point was that “being born again” is not a distinct category of Christian, demarking one kind from another, it is simply a vivid image for being a Christian as such. A born-again Christian is, in fact, a tautology, like wet water or a round circle.

The term “being born again”, of course, comes from John 3:3ff., where our Lord says to Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being gennethe anothen.” But here is the irony: anothen can mean both “again” and “from above”, and Nicodemus actually takes the wrong semantic option (inanely asking, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”), as is clear from Jesus immediately speaking of “being born ex hudatos kai pneumatos (of water and Spirit)”, and then, first, contrasting what is “flesh” with what is “Spirit”, and then, second, relating what is Spirit to what is from “heaven”, i.e. to what is “from above”.

All of which is not to deny that “rebirth” is a powerful and biblical image for being a Christian - it most certainly is. But if Jesus is speaking of any “experience” in John 3 - which is the bottom line for self-styled born-again Christians (and what my bookshop interlocutor was really enquiring about) - it is not a subjective one that is de rigueur in order to be a “real” Christian, but the quite objective experience of baptism, as is clear from the Johannine reference to “water and Spirit”.

Coincidentally, when I came home from Waterstone’s, I had my lunch and then continued reading Jon Meacham’s excellent, judicious historical study of faith and poltics in the US, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (2006). Writing of Lincoln (who never belonged to a church) and the Civil War, Meacham observes that “The slaveholders were far from godless - which offers a cautionary tale about the uses of religion in public life.”

He then tells the tale of Frederick Douglass, who “experienced the bitter mix of slavery and faith firsthand. During the summer of 1832, in Talbot County, Maryland, Douglass’s master went to a Methodist revival meeting and, Douglass recalled, ‘there experienced religion’ [my italics]. On hearing the news, Douglass said that he hoped that the conversion might lead to emancipation or, failing that, at least to a gentler life for the slaves on the place. ‘I was disappointed in both these respects,’ Douglass wrote. Christianity ‘neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before.’” Mind, the master would quote scripture as he beat his slaves til the blood ran.

By way of contrast, Meacham cites John Quincy Adams, the sixth President, whom William James would describe (according to psychological type) as once-born rather than twice-born. Post-White House, at the age of seventy-four, finding “impulses of duty upon my own conscience, which I cannot resist,” Adams defended before the Supreme Court the slaves who had mutinied on the Amistad. He represents, suggests Meacham, “a particular breed of believer, one who takes solace in scripture but does not necessarily think the Bible is the only field of battle in life’s wars.”

Jesus said, at the climax to the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Moral: If you, as a Christian, are asked whether you are born again, the answer, depending on the circumstances, is either (a) “Well, yes. Duh!”, or (b) “Well, yes. But so what?”

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }


Wood 10.25.07 at 9:37 am

Anothen” does have an idiomatic force - the nearest English would be “from the top”.

Can Jesus not be punning, and using both meanings at the same time?


Kim 10.25.07 at 10:14 am

Hi Wood,

Yes, because Jesus was a great punster, and John a lover of double-meanings (as well as irony). So while the total context, I believe, does suggest “from above” as the primary meaning of anothen, “again” is no doubt in there too as an enriching (if to Nicodemus confusing) ambiguity. And as I say, regeneration is an entirely biblical metaphor.

What the post is really trying to do is (a) to say that we can/should speak of being “born from above” - or (taking a cue from you, thanks) being “born-upstairs”! - and (b) to wrest back the metaphor from a group that has not only unilaterally comandeered the expression - and over-egg it and use it polemically to boot - but also misunderstand it as referring to a special “experience” that one must have in order to be a “proper” Christian.


dh 10.25.07 at 3:05 pm

Well, I believe that the person asking Kim “Are you Born Again?” with reference to the observation that Kim was a Christian is really asking “Are you a Christian in name only or are you one who has given ones heart, soul and mind over to Christ?” Many people say they are Christians but really aren’t. Many people say they are Christians just by going to church or praying everyday. Even one person who I ask if he was a Christian responded by saying “I live in America don’t I?” All of these attitudes, beliefs and understandings is what makes people ask an additional question with the “Are you a Christian?” with “Are you Born Again?”. I believe correctly that Salvation is at conversion when makes a covenant commitment to place ones heart, soul and mind under the the Lordship of Christ. Not everybody is “Born Again” not every person who says “I’m a Christian” is a Christian or even “Born Again”.

“Regeneration” must include confession of Christ as Lord and Savior with ones heart, soul and mind. Many people believe in their mind and have a “head knowledge” of Christ but have not placed ones heart, soul and mind for life change. Otherwise people would just do good Christian things and be a Christian which clearly is not Biblical. “Behold I stand at the door and knock if anyone opens the door I come into him and sup with Him and he with Me.” For myself it WAS a moment in time when I invited Jesus into my heart. My life was clearly changed. For me to look at my Christian life and say it wasn’t in a moment in time would do a disservice to my Faith and my commitment to Christ let alone what Scripture says.

THe doing the will of the Father in heaven is to place ones entire life over to the Lordship of Christ. Many people who say “Lord, Lord” are those who have a head knowledge of Christ, who believe there are other ways outside of Christ to Christ, who believe doing good deads outside of ones Faith to Christ or who think that just by being Born phyaically (aka the individual who said “living in America”) to Christ.

“If we confess with our mouth the Lord Jesus and Believe in our heart that God has risen from the dead you shall be saved.” Many people who say “Lord, Lord have only done the first part by just “confessing with their mouth the Lord Jesus” alone. One must do that AND “Believe in ones heart that God has risen from the dead” for Salvation, to be saved, to be “Born Again” and be a “Christian”. Scripture seems very clear.


Ben Myers 10.25.07 at 3:06 pm

T. F. Torrance has a delightful anecdote about this: some fundamentalist-type-of-character was pressing him with the question “but are you born again?” And Torrance’s reply went something like this: “Yes, I was born again when Jesus born in Bethlehem!”


Ben Myers 10.25.07 at 3:07 pm

Sorry, that should be: “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem”.


Kim 10.25.07 at 4:03 pm

Thanks for that, Ben,

Analogously, the correct answer to the question “When were you saved?” is: “At noon on the first Good Friday.”


dh 10.25.07 at 5:06 pm

Sorry, not EVERYONE was saved or “Born Again” on Good Friday. The OPPORTUNITY for EVERYONE to receive Salvation, Born Again was made available to all at that time. (Actually I would focus on His life AND death ABD Resurrection in that Christ being alive alone would not have given the opporttunity alone in that Christ would not have been obedient to God to die and be resurrected if Christ kept Himself from having that happen to Him. “Without the shedding of blood there can be no remiscion of sin.”) This isn’t “fundamentalist” because Scripture is clear that one enters Salvationv by confession and belief in ones heart, soul and mind. REad Romans it is very clear, read Revelation 3:23 that John attributes to Jesus.

Fact is not EVERYONE is saved/Born Again/Christian.


dh 10.25.07 at 7:05 pm

Sorry, if I gave anyone the impression with the capitalization that I was yelling. I used the capitalization for emphesis not for yelling or anger. None of that was in my heart. I’m being honest. If anyone was offended by the capitalization I apologize. That is the honest truth, that I was not angry or yelling.


Kim 10.25.07 at 7:07 pm

Hey, DH, do you know the one about Peter and the boys receiving the saved at the gates of heaven; and suddenly they hear all this cheering coming from the back; and they head there, and the cheering gets louder and louder; and they see this huge commotion with hundreds of folk singing and dancing; and they stop this gleeful guy running their way, and say, “Hey, what’s going on there?”; and the guy says, “It’s Jesus again, Pete, helping the damned over the fence!”


Steve 10.25.07 at 7:59 pm

In contrast to DH’s characterization, I find that the question “are you born again?” is really asking “are you an Evangelical?” (with a big E). And in my experience, like in any other group of Christians, there are Born Agains who are following Jesus, and Born Agains who are just Born Again.

It’s just another semantic label to determine whether you’re in the right tribe, but it has nothing to do with having any sort of faith in Jesus.


dh 10.25.07 at 10:21 pm

Well, I guess one must define following Jesus. What Scripture says is “Without Faith it is impossible to please God.” Also, Scripture defines that “I am the way the Truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” in conjuction with “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Follwowing Jesus is more than just doing the “works” of Jesus but it (like Scripture says) requires Faith in Jesus and like the Scripture mentions before “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and Believe in your heart that God is risen from the dead you shall be saved.” To me this is way beyond just Evangelical or non-Evangelical. I know many Catholics who believe like I do with regard to Salvation. The terms would be different but the concept would be the same nonetheless.

I’m sorry that is your experience with the question. When I ask the question I truly don’t have the term or concept “Evangelical” in my head. To me it is all a matter of Scripture says. To me Scripture includes what Jesus said in the Gospels and ALL of Scripture in that Jesus has always been (aka John 1:1 which directly refers to Christ as part of the Trinity). Even Christ through the Apostle Paul refers to Jesus as God in the passage I reference.

Kim, interesting statement you have here. I don’t see anywhere in Scripture that shows Salvation and Atonement after physical death. If it did I would agree with you. I can only go by what Scripture says on the subject. Also, Kim how do you explain Jesus saying at the Great White Throne of Judgement saying to those who say “Haven’t we prophesied?, haven’t we healed the sick? Haven’t we done all of these wonderful WORKS in YOUR NANE? and in that day I will say “Depart from Me I never knew you.” I don’t believe Scripture makes any confirmation for your belief about “Helping the damned over the fence.” Only those who are “Written in the Lambs Book of Life” does it mention being “over the fence”. In fact Scripture says directly what will happen to those whose names are not written in the Lambs Book of Life. I humbly say to you Kim and others that if God says directly what will happen I can only go by that. For me to “second guess” or come up with an alternative to what God directly says is not a sign of Faith in God and His authority as Lord of our lives.

Again this “Faith” I’m talking about is beyond an “Evangelical” term but is what is Biblical and Scriptural. I can only go by what Scripture says directly. Anything else is just “fleshly” or “man’s wisdom”. I know many “non-Evangelical’s” whoe happen to believe like I do that one must be “Born Again” and who Believe that not all will be “Born Again”. It is not an Evangelical term even though Evangelicals happen to believe like I do. I know non-Evangelicals who believe like I do.

Steve, did I mention “Evangelical” before your post? At the same time, I’m empathetic that your experience has been a negative one with regard to the “question”. If you could look at the question for what it is and what it says directly in Scripture and also Scripture in light of Scripture I think you can see where I’m coming from and how it is not solely an “Evangelical” term, belief, concept, etc.


dh 10.25.07 at 10:25 pm

Also, I need to add, this isn’t my “characterisation” but what God says in His word. I can only go with that.


PamBG 10.25.07 at 10:59 pm

In contrast to DH’s characterization, I find that the question “are you born again?” is really asking “are you an Evangelical?” (with a big E).

And what I hear is: ‘I’m asking if you’re a Real Christian ™ and I have my own personal criteria for what that entails. Once you have answered my question, I’ll be the judge of whether or not you’re a real Christian.’

I reckon this sort of mindset works like conversion: Only the power of the Holy Spirit can change the person’s mind so I generally go for anodyne non-confrontation rather than conversational engagement. If I am feeling feisty, I might simply say ‘No,’ smile sweetly and walk away.


dh 10.26.07 at 3:55 pm

Pam, I agree only the power of the Holy Spirit can change a person’s mind. However, I do believe God calls us to share the Gospel and part of that is the question “Are you Born Again?”. Also, one of the gifts of the Spirit is discernment and Scripture says “By their fruits you shall know them.” When one sees true “Faith” in a person than, while it isn’t 100% because humans are not all knowing, we can get an idea of “knowing them”. I also believe God can use people under the power of the Holy Spirit when asking the question “Are you Born Again?”

I still don’t understand answering “no” to the question “Are you Born Again?” To me it appears like “Hiding your light under a bushel.” “Let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and reward you openly.” “Be ready to give an answer of the hope of your calling.”

Again the “criteria” is not my criteria, nor is it me being the judge but is what Scripture says directly and the recognition of “fruit” of the Faith that is in a person from Scripture. “Without Faith it is impossible to please God.” “If you deny Me I will deny you before My Father in heaven.”


PamBG 10.26.07 at 6:52 pm

I still don’t understand answering “no” to the question “Are you Born Again?” To me it appears like “Hiding your light under a bushel.”

I don’t understand why someone would want to go into a bookshop and ask a total stranger if they are born again.

If it’s for the purpose of witnessing to me, then the person has made the fundamental mistake of not bothering to get to know me. Yes, you’re right it might not be very nice but I did say that’s what I’d say if I was feeling feisty. Then again, I’m probably not ‘born again’ by such a person’s standards, so it’s probably a true statement.


dh 10.26.07 at 8:07 pm

Pam, I think we are more agreement than you realize. I think one needs to look at the nature of the person asking the question. I personally believe the guy asking the question was having “small talk” with Kim because the guy at least seem to recognize that Kim was a Christian (even thought God knows the heart perfectly, we only “understand dimly” :) ) If a person was a streetcorner and was asking each person one by one I would have even more agreement with your conclusion on this issue than your apparent disagreement with me regarding someone who is trying to get to know someone as an aquaintence who happens to ask “Are you a Christian?” with a second question “Are you Born Again?”. In fact I have mentioned those same two questions when talking with people. However, I try to discern the Holy Spirit in those times and try to make a stron “acquaintance bond” first before asking the two questions. I have found when I do this the questions come naturally and not forced. Pam, does my actions and questions with regard to “Evangelizing” seem appropriate within that context. Do you have any agreements, disagreements or suggestions with regard to how I “share the Gospel”? I think I agree with you it should never be forced unless God has called us by the Holy Spirit for particular ways of Evangelizing. A blanket statement regarding particular forms of Evangelizing can be totally wrong in that the Holy Spirit might be wanting a person to do a certain orthodoc or unorthodox was of Evangelizing? I personally believe that the “fruit” afterwards is the issue to determine “appropriateness”. What do you think? I would be interested in your opinion in that this discussion seems enjoyable. :)

In my opinion also. I try to give people who are “Evangelizing” a break. At least they are mentioning to people the Gospel. I know people who have come to Christ under these circumstances that you don’t seem to prefer and whose lives have been changed and who received Salvation. I know one ex-hells angel who got saved and anyone afterwards would agree the guy got saved but it was with a very unorthodox and a not recommended way by being shoved to the wall and asked “are you going get saved or not?” Again these issues require discernment by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways but always moves in a way that is consistent with Scripture. All we can do is base these things within Scripture and the Holy Spirit combined. It is clear just going to church doesn’t make one a Christian or going to church and doing good deads for Christ alone save a person. One must have a proper understanding with heart, soul and mind of Christ, God and the Trinity by Faith in conjunction with giving of ones heart, soul and mind to the Lordship of Christ for Salvation. Pam have you done these things with heart, soul and mind? I get the impression that you have but I don’t know. I can only know by asking and after speaking with you all of these many months. I thought I would ask because we seem to know each other enough for me to ask. I have assumed that you were “Born Again” but I thought I would ask directly this time not in a way to prevent getting to know because I believe I do know you enough to ask. The same question goes for you Kim, Richard, etc.:)

P.S. Richard what do you think about having a post where people can share their conversion? Where people can share how they became a Christian/Born Again, etc.? I would suggest it might require a little extra “administration” on your part for those more “extreme” than myself. Maybe limiting those who disagree with a particular reply to “questions” as opposed to comments alone. Maybe making a standard for this particular thread “comments can be shared only in conjunction with questions” and thereby promoting more dialogue and extra care for this type of thread. What do you think? I have found it very encouraging and has energized my Faith to here how people became “Christians/Born Again/Saved. etc.”


PamBG 10.27.07 at 12:03 am

DH, why do you want to know if I’m born again? That’s a serious question. What are you going to do if I’m not? How will you establish a caring relationship with me that demonstrates the love of God to me?

That pretty much sums up my point.


dh 10.29.07 at 4:16 pm

Pam, I only asked that in that I DO believe that we have a caring relationship with you. I HAVE shown that in such a way that shows the Love of God to you. The point of asking is to share the Gospel and to share the love of God with you. Being “Born Again” IS God showing His love to us. Jesus says “Go ye therefore and preach the Gospel. Baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you and lo I am with you even unto the end of the age.” So for me asking the question is part of that.

However, I agree with your point. One shouldn’t ask the question until one gets to know them, the Holy spirit prods a person and it is correctly discerned to be from God and if one has an attitude of love when we ask someone “Are you Born Again?”. I totally agree with that point.

Also, I only asked to have a thread for people to share their testimony of how they became a Christian for encouragement. I love to here fellow Believers testimonies. It encourages me in my Faith. It was just a suggestion.


PamBG 10.29.07 at 5:00 pm

DH, in the nicest way I can possibly muster, I certainly don’t believe that you and I have a loving relationship. We don’t know basic things about each other.

You have to be my friend to love me and you have to meet me to be my friend.

Love is not a sound-bite. It’s a ‘doing thing’.


dh 10.29.07 at 6:31 pm

Pam, you don’t think having discussions is a “doing thing”? However, I see what you are saying. I will say that that is the joy of the internet. We can have positive discussions and show love to others without seeing them. THe only reason I mentioned the “question” is because of the many months of positive discussions, interactions, etc. To me that is a form of love. The love of having multiple months of positive discussions into the heart of each others thoughts, attitudes, etc. and the encouragement therein. To me doing includes taking the time to write to share ones heart.

You mentioned “you have to be my friend to love me”. It is my understanding that we must love everybody. Now that doesn’t mean condoning things that are wrong but love nonetheles. I love people who are not my friends. I love the missionaries around the world who are persecuted but I don’t know any of the personally let alone “friends”. One doesn’t have to be friends to receive or show love. When someone helps an old lady across the street who doesn’t even know me that is “showing love”. It still seems odd that you don’t see our discussions over the many months the way I do.

The point is one really needs to have a loving close acquaintence to ask that type of question I mentioned. One doesn’t necessarily have to be “close friends” to ask that question. I shared the Gospel one time with a Jewish person. We hit it off on one day of discussion so much I shared the Gospel with him. He wasn’t taken back in fact he appreciated it. I only spoke a total of 30 minutes with him, he wasn’t a friend, etc. However, I believe it was right, correct, loving, etc. for me to do that and yes “ask would you like to accept Christ as your Savior?” Remember, he never was taken back, etc. I spoke with him last month and he totally thanked me for the track I gave him (in that I didn’t give him a track 12 months earlier when I spoke with him). I don’t do this sort of thing all the time but when the situation is there, proding from the Holy Spirit is there, then we as Christians should respond to share this “Good News” of Salvation by being “Born Again”.


PamBG 10.29.07 at 11:51 pm

DH, I think that Christian discipleship calls us to behave in a loving way toward everyone. What constitutes ‘loving’ may be different depending on who the person is. I don’t personally believe it’s possible to love someone I’ve not met (I’m not speaking exclusively about romantic love). It is, however, possible to behave in a loving way.

After what I’ve said in the past about having been hurt very badly by evangelicals, the discerning reader might figure out that using evangelical terms is probably not the best way to bring me into a relationship with God.

Do I think I have a personal relationship with Jesus? Yes. Do I think Jesus is my Lord and Saviour? Yes. Have people told me repeatedly that I’ve not submitted myself to Jesus as my Lord and Saviour? Yes. So go figure. I don’t know the answer to your question. I assume that God knows the answer. And I hope that he is more mercy-filled and grace- filled than the Christians who think I’ve not measured up to their expectations.


Benji 12.29.07 at 10:02 am

Pam, I think dh has no bad intentions at all. If you could try to understand what he was saying in a more positive way, you’ll see how he just cares. Let’s not stop anyone from caring for somebody; that’s what the world badly needs these days.

dh, in my opinion, was just asking like “have you eaten already? Coz if not then I have some bread here.” That’s it. A simple “Yes, I have but thank you.” would have been enough. :)

Caring doesn’t require identity. In the first place, we care not to get to know the person but to help the person. Help is appreciated; thanked for.

Happy new year!


PamBG 12.29.07 at 2:51 pm

Pam, I think dh has no bad intentions at all. If you could try to understand what he was saying in a more positive way, you’ll see how he just cares.

I have never said nor thought that DH has bad intentions. I understand that his intentions are good. I’ve come out of the tradition of ‘I love you so much I want you think as I think’. That’s fine as it goes. It makes for a very frustrating conversation, however, and there really isn’t anything to say to such an approach to ‘conversation’.


Kim 05.20.10 at 4:29 pm

I started reading your comments, John (can I call you John?), but then reckoned that Jesus would probably return before I finished them. If you don’t forgive me, I’m pretty sure he will. (I’m pretty sure he will even forgive me for not capitalising the “h” in “he”.).


Kim 08.13.10 at 8:50 am

I’ve just finished reading that - well, skimming it - well, rapidly scrolling it down. Is it still today?

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