Are We Really Born Again?
I vividly remember tattooed punk rocker Joy Whitlock’s1 words. At Highpoint Church in Memphis, Joy gave her testimony before being baptized. She spoke repeatedly of “the new Joy” as opposed to “the old Joy.” Her own father baptized her and told us in a few words how great a change had happened. She and he said God had radically changed her; but I submit that mainstream Christianity fails to truly embrace the basic doctrine of conversion, also known as the second birth. If we fully believed it, then the second birth would play a much more prominent role in our theology and our spirituality.
King Jesus declared to Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”(John 3:3) When Nick protested it as absurd, the King replied, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”(John 3:5) Paul taught it. James taught it. Peter taught it. John taught it. The early Christian bishops taught it too. Yet in my experience, modern Protestantism seems to pay it only lip service, rather than embracing it as a fundamental aspect of salvation and spirituality. The second birth should be a “verily verily,” as our King put it, not a marginalized topic of curiosity.
ARE WE REALLY CONVERTED?
When I came forward as an adult for baptism two decades ago in a Southern Baptist congregation, an evangelist quizzed me to determine whether I was a true believer—a Southern Baptist prerequisite for ritual immersion. Yet nothing he asked me made any reference to whether I had been “converted.” That is to say, he showed no interest in whether my life exhibited evidence of having been transformed or born of the Holy Spirit. “Conversion” to him (and to a great many of us) only meant that I ascribed to a set of doctrines. The evangelist only wanted to know whether I believed that Jesus paid the penalty for my sin and whether I trusted in a substitutionary sacrifice as ensuring my post-death safety.
As the years passed, I absorbed stacks of information about the Bible and about its standards for moral conduct. In three different denominations, I learned techniques for avoiding sin and learned about habits that encourage living morally. Yet in two decades of adult indoctrination, no one ever clarified whether I had truly been “born again,” much less tell me how that event could affect my daily life. I wonder if any readers or contributors at Conciliar Post heard consistently in their tradition about the second birth and its centrality to faith?
I know of only one movement in Protestantism that comes close to embracing the centrality of the second birth: The “Exchanged Life” teachers, a movement with serious problems. 20th century Chinese church planter Watchman Nee laid the groundwork for Exchanged Life teaching with two books in particular, “The Spiritual Man” and “The Normal Christian Life.” Nee’s teaching relied heavily on a literal approach to Romans 6:6, claiming that the unbeliever’s spirit truly dies at the moment of conversion.2
While many Protestants testify of great spiritual growth via Nee’s books and the Exchanged Life movement, serious concerns remain. The Exchanged Life movement often centers its teachings on the doctrine that the Holy Spirit replaced the sinful spirit of the believer. Exchanged Life teachers proudly claim that they do not teach the deification of believers, yet they present believers as having three parts: body, soul, and spirit, with that third part being the Holy Spirit.3
BORN AGAIN SPIRITUALITY
I do not offer a theological dissection of Romans 6 to correct the Exchanged Life approach. Scripture does however present the believer as having two identities, the “old man” and the “new man;” see Ephesians 4:20-24 and Colossians 3:9-10, 2nd Corinthians 5:17, and Galatians 6:15. The Apostle Paul commanded us to reckon ourselves dead and resurrected in King Jesus in Romans 6:11, the first command in all of the epistles. In Luke 9:23, King Jesus Himself commanded everyone who claims to be His follower to take up his cross (death) day by day.4 Without sincerely embracing the Verily Verily doctrine of the second birth, I submit that we cannot understand, much less obey the foundational commands of Luke 9:23 and Romans 6:11.
Notably, Scripture presents the change from the old man to the new man as a past event which demands an ongoing response.5 The believer is a new creation, a new person who must be renewed daily; see 2nd Corinthians 4:16, Romans 12:2, and Colossians 3:10. By marginalizing the second birth, we have overlooked perhaps the central exercise of Christian spirituality: the command to renew our identity every day. We forget that we have verily verily been born of the Holy Spirit. Our behavior proves our forgetfulness. Paul therefore commanded us to reckon ourselves as resurrected (Romans 6:11) and then to offer our body-parts to God as His tools of righteousness (Romans 6:13, 19).
In the West, I submit that our theology of atonement is to blame for our negligence regarding the second birth. Perhaps the word “atonement” itself betrays our error. John Wycliffe coined the word “atonement” to translate katallasso in Romans 5. Yet Western understandings of atonement depend not on Romans 5, but Romans 3. Romans 5:10-11 says that we have been down-changed (katallasso) by the death of our King. Katallasso is most often translated as “reconciled” or “atoned,” but is a compound verb, literally “down-changed.”
Just as money can be down-changed from one denomination to another, so likewise, an alienated spouse can be down-changed from an enemy to a lover. Therefore Paul said in 1st Corinthians 7:11 that an alienated wife must either remain unmarried or be down-changed (reconciled) to her husband. A wife does not require a penal substitution in order to be katallasso to her husband. Spouses do not require a legal penalty to be carried out on a third party in order to reconcile. They need only to be down-changed from enemies into devoted lovers.
Laced throughout the Scriptures are variations on the word dikaios which can be translated as “righteous” (having a right relationship) or “justified” (being legally cleared of guilt). Modern New Testament translations freely jump between those two contexts of relationship and justification for the same word, enabling the reader to find terms of jurisprudence wherever the translator prefers rather than a uniform approach to the word. If we truly embrace the Verily Verily doctrine of the believer as born again, I submit that we have no need for the relatively new theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. If we have been born again, we have been down-changed from Adamic rebels into Anointed (Christian) children of righteousness.
I submit that Paul never presented a court case in which we are declared not-guilty because someone suffered our legal penalty. He told a tale of transformation in which we are rendered wholly different. In Adam’s rebellion, we were established (kathistemi) as rebels. In Jesus’ obedience, we were established (kathistemi) as obeyers, righteous ones (Romans 5:19). All humanity was summed-up in Adam, therefore all humanity is rebellious and the object of God’s wrath (Romans 1:18). All believing humanity is summed-up (literally “up-headed” in Greek, anakephalaio) in Jesus, being therefore obeyers and the object of God’s love; see Colossians 3:11 and Ephesians 1:22.
Western theology has for several centuries theorized a court-case-atonement that Scripture never presents. Rather, we were born into rebellion and the wrath of God, reborn into righteousness and the generosity of God. Scripture never claims, nor does it makes sense to say that we were reborn as not-guilty.
I have not offered these thoughts for the purpose of squabbling about theological nuances and singing “I told you so” in regard to atonement theology. The sad effect of Penal Substitutionary Atonement has been our negligence of the second birth. And by such negligence, we have failed to teach the central commands of Christian spirituality in context, the command of our King to embrace our own cross daily (Luke 9:23) and the command of His apostle to reckon ourselves as resurrected humans (Romans 6:11). By obedience to these commands, our minds are renewed daily to the truth that we have been established (Romans 5:19) as righteous, obedient ones.
John’s first epistle beautifully calls us to remember that those of us are like, who have been born of God.6 We walk as Jesus walked (2:6). We love our brothers (2:10). We do God’s will (2:17). We receive the Holy Spirit’s instruction (2:27). We practice righteousness (2:19). I could continue referencing the book, but John is consistent in his topic. I submit that we act like the world in large part because we do not count ourselves as dead to world and reborn of the Spirit. We do not daily reckon our resurrection because we think a simple court case formed our atonement, rather than a transformation so radical, it must Verily Verily be a second birth.
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance” 1Peter 1:14 ESV