A Proper Scope, a Proper Shape
by Patrick Lafferty
Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
Some call it a refreshing change. Others—a fool’s errand. In the wake of the 2010 national election, representatives from across the political spectrum coalesced into a movement lamenting acrimony erupting from an already bitterly partisan environment. They came together under the banner of the “No Labels” coalition, believing that the only political discourse with any hope of doing good was that led by politicians shorn of their party affiliation. To establish oneself as a Democrat or Republican, as a Green Party member or a Libertarian—even as an Independent—was to invoke all manner of encrusted associations with one’s perspective in the minds of those with whom one sought to build consensus. Since those associations were often misrepresentations of actual beliefs, or which became excuses for others not to engage in a dialogue, deliberative democracy was often derailed before it even left the station.
The No Labelers weren’t asking members to set aside their convictions—only their voiced affiliations. From their perspective, the stereotypes and the caricatures elicited by announcing one’s political affiliation meant those affiliations no longer had any meaning. And if they had no meaning, then they no longer mattered.
The phrase “born again” has experienced a similar overlaying of a number of false associations. Every political cycle, Gallup, Barna, Zogby, and the other pollsters employ the “born again” category to describe some respondents, but they rarely define the term. Consequently, the designation is often clumsily associated with a particular political party, or a particular view on the age of the earth, or a particular form of educating children. The essence of the phrase gets lost in a sea of innuendo and misrepresentation that leads some to wonder if Christians ought to dispense with the term entirely in their own self-description. If the meaning of the term has been obscured, does it really matter anymore?
What does it mean to be born again? And why does it matter? Despite contemporary misrepresentation, there’s a simplicity to its profundity.
The inquiry into the profile and the power of the Spirit continued last Sunday, specifically about His work in our rebirth. Nicodemus and the Prodigal illustrate well what it means to be born again.
To be born again is to be awakened deeply to certain realities by the Spirit of God. Like the Prodigal, it means discovering how the entire orientation of my heart—not just my behaviors—is fundamentally at odds with the One who gave me life. The estrangement from Him is not only deleterious to me but also offensive to Him.
Simultaneous with that discovery is the disconcerting awareness that I am powerless to remedy the situation. My heart wants what it wants, no matter how often or how vehemently I seek to coerce myself into wanting something differently.
In my helpless distress I then learn that the very One from whom I am fundamentally estranged is precisely the same One who wants to intervene on my behalf—both to set aside what keeps us at odds and to renew my very heart that I might live in a true communion with Him.
Finally I come to understand that in order to effect both reconciliation and renewal, there would have to be a gesture of great cost by the One who made it. That costly gesture came in the person of Jesus. His death expunged what kept me from God, while the Spirit reoriented my heart toward God.
The awakening to those realities may occur in an instant like a lightning flash; or it may emerge like watching the sun come over the hill. Whether instant or gradual, the above represents the essence of being born again.
So why would it matter to understand the meaning of rebirth?
For one it gives our obedience a proper scope. To a conflicted Nicodemus Jesus speaks unequivocally when he says that rebirth by the Spirit is necessary to seeing the “kingdom of God” (vv. 3,5). In Christ God refashions the individual human heart, but as we alluded to last week, His reconciling us to Himself is for the purpose of being aligned with His intention to bless the whole earth. The kingdom comes upon us by faith in Jesus, but the authority and influence of God (“kingdom” for short) is meant to spread not just to us but also through us into the world.
Understanding the meaning of rebirth also gives our obedience a proper shape. As Mark mentioned two weeks ago, Jesus deconstructed Nicodemus’ framework for how one entered into the favor of God. Not by any fastidious piety would one enter, but only by acknowledging our utter dependence on the grace of God to receive the “right to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). The protocol for becoming His own must shape our lives as His own. Rather than our obedience compelling His favor, His favor is intended to compel our obedience. Only by seeing clearly into what He has done in our rebirth have we any hope of living obediently to His Law in a right frame. Those deeply aware of their liberation are the ones truly freed to obey without reservation.
It’s not our mandate to rehabilitate the world’s perception of what it means to be born again. Since we will always be misperceived, misrepresented, and maligned, setting aside the label of born again is no solution either. But the more we understand the meaning of rebirth and why it matters, the more this world will come to see the essence of true faith in Christ.
Is this your understanding of rebirth? Does that understanding give the proper scope and shape to your obedience?