Agnosticism About How We Are Born Again

Scripture text: John 3:1-21

In my last blog, I argued that there is no such thing as a purely objective exegesis of a Biblical text.[1] Church tradition influences what we hear in a Bible text just as much as do the non-religious cultural assumptions we bring to the reading of the Bible.

I gave several examples to illustrate my point. Most were frivolous. They do not much impact serious doctrines or the preaching of the church. However, I want to use this blog to discuss one example where church tradition does affect how we understand a crucial text in the life of the church.

The text is John 3:1-21. This is the dialogue that Jesus engages in with Nicodemus, a Jewish ruler who visits him in the night.

In the dialogue, Jesus makes the startling statement (using the King James Version wording), “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). Then in verse 5, Jesus repeats his statement in a slightly modified version. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

This text has been central to the work of Christian evangelism, especially the evangelism practiced by the Baptist churches in which I grew up. But what does it mean to be “born again”? Here, I want to contend, is where church tradition influences what we hear when Jesus speaks these words.

For example, popular usage is “born again.” That’s what we usually hear in evangelical churches and on a lot of TV evangelism. Because this usage has become so common, most Christians never stop to ask if it is the best translation of the Greek.

The word the King James translates as “again” is the Greek word anothen. Anothen can indeed mean “again,” with the emphasis on something repeated. But anothen has a double meaning.  It can also mean “from above.”

That meaning seems to be primary in the Johannine text. When Jesus repeats his statement in verse 5, he replaces anothen with the words “of water and Spirit.” Those words in verse 5 are clearly pointing to something spiritual, coming from God, rather than a repeated event. And so the New Revised Standard Version translates anothen in verse 3 “from above” rather than “again.”

Now one can argue that maybe Jesus meant both meanings when he used anothen. But why don’t we hear evangelists using the two phrasings interchangeably? Why the preference for the words “born again”? I think the wording of the King James Version (whose influence particularly in fundamentalist churches is paramount) influences the wording of the preaching and evangelism that one hears in such churches.

But that’s not my major beef with how this text is heard. Where church tradition affects the understanding of this text lies in the “how” we understand that being born again takes place.

When we hear evangelical Christians talk about being “born again,” generally what they have in mind is some kind of conversion experience. And the more dramatic the conversion, the more authentic it is understood. When one is born again (in these church circles), the change is so dramatic in a person’s life that one can truly say, “Once I was blind, but now I see.”

Usually the conversion experience is seen as something highly emotional, dramatically emotional, as one passes, for example, from a life of despair to a life of intense joy. And if one does not experience such a dramatic emotional reversal in one’s life, there is a tendency to be suspicious as to whether the conversion was real or not.

I would contend that such an understanding of conversion is highly influenced by church tradition, the tradition of conversion that comes out of the great revivals of the successive Awakenings in 18th and 19th century America. Those revivals did often produce night and day reversals in people’s spiritual lives, often accompanied by intense weeping and ecstatic joy.

And so in a lot of evangelical churches there is an assumption that such experiences are what “born again” means and looks like. We read John 3:1-21 in the light of that assumption. We read that meaning into our exegesis of the text.

But I would contend that is reading a meaning into the text that is not there. When Jesus says we must be born from above in order to enter the Kingdom of God, he is indeed speaking of the necessity of fundamental transformation of the human spirit in order to enter into life in God’s Kingdom. That transformation is fundamentally a spiritual one, as is clear in verse 6 when Jesus says that what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Jesus, however, does not flesh out how we experience being born of the Spirit. How we understand the “how” is heavily influenced by church traditions in reading Scripture.

The revivalist tradition will link the “how” to the dramatic conversion experience I mentioned earlier. The Catholic sacramental tradition will link it to the experience of baptism. And for some Christians, I believe, the “how” is not linked to any one moment in time, but to a series of small conversion moments that go on through a person’s lifetime.

That may be indeed the experience of some Christians raised in a practicing Christian family. For such Christians, they may not be able to point to any one moment when they passed for darkness to light. That has been happening for them in small increments all through their lives. But that does not mean they are not converted or born from above. The Spirit has been at work in their lives in a quiet, gentle way, not in a dramatic, convulsive way.

Now I argue this for an important pastoral reason. We do a disservice to the people in our churches or in the outside world when we assume that God only works in one way to bring people into the experience of being born from above. We need to be humble and somewhat agnostic when we are talking about “how” God effects rebirth.

We need to be humble out of love, for we can create needless spiritual distress in people when we assume God can only act in one particular way and we so preach. I have known a number of people in the Baptist churches in which I grew up who worried excessively about their salvation because they had not had the dramatic, emotional conversion experience that preachers assumed when they talked about being “born again.”

The decisive evidence for the kind of conversion that Jesus speaks of as being “born from above” is not the character of the spiritual experience, but the results of it. The Apostle Paul talks about these as the “fruits of the Spirit.” He characterizes them as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23). If these qualities are evident in a person’s life, then one is born again, however that experience came to happen.


[1] Exegesis is the technical term Bible scholars use to describe the process of a close reading of the Biblical text to determine what the author intended to say, not what we want the text to say.

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