If you want to make some United Methodists squirm, ask them if they’ve been born again. I do that periodically, just because it’s fun. I find a perverse delight in confronting dignified mainliners with an issue like being born again because, often, they don’t quite know what to do with that issue. Born again language, after all, does not often find its way into United Methodist liturgy and theological parlance. We have left that language, for the most part, to some of our other brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. As a result, we have created a line of demarcation between those who are regular Christians and those who are born again Christians.
Not long ago, I asked a United Methodist senior citizen if she had been born again. Her response was predictable: “No, no,” she said, “I’m not one of those. I’m just a normal Christian.”
Her words, I think, point to the key difficulty that many mainline Christ-followers have with the issue of being born again: We have a pathological desire to be normal. To fit in. To be like everybody else. We prefer to be typical citizens who keep their faith private, who have just enough Jesus to get into heaven but not enough Jesus to make them weird. We resist born again language because of the way in which that language has been linked to “abnormal” people that we find objectionable. And when we are confronted with the question of rebirth, our response is often something like this: “Am I born again? No, no, I’m not one of those. I’m just a NORMAL Christian.”
The problem, however, is that, in the third chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus offers a teaching that we can neither ignore nor dismiss: “You cannot see the kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “without being born again” (sometimes translated “born anew” or “born from above”).
When Scripture speaks of the kingdom of God, it is not describing a geographical territory, defended with walls and soldiers. Rather, the kingdom of God is a realm of being in which the Lordship of Jesus Christ holds governing authority, a realm in which the way of God is given priority over every other way. The kingdom of God, in other words, is a way of living in which Jesus Christ occupies the throne of human hearts to such an extent that his followers begin to incarnate his way of doing things in every segment of their living. And no one can participate fully in this kingdom, according to Jesus, unless he or she is born again.
And please note, Jesus offers no parenthetical qualifiers whatsoever. He does not say, “Oh by the way, if you are a dignified United Methodist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic who doesn’t care for the idea of being born again, that’s OK, we’ll find something more normal and comfortable for you.” We find nothing like that. Rather, Jesus’ teaching cuts across all denominational lines and all linguistic preferences in such a way that it confronts every single man woman and child who calls upon the name of Jesus for salvation. “NO ONE,” says Jesus, “can see or enter the kingdom of God without being born again.”
Being born again through JC means many things. At the very least, it means being justified (which is to be made right with God) and sanctified (which is to be made holy in Christ). When we allow those two biblical concepts to intersect, the intersection bears witness to the fact that rebirth in Christ means allowing ourselves to be inwardly transformed in such a way that we become people whose governing priority and whose joy in life is to be faithful to Jesus in all things. For some people, that will require a restructuring of their entire life. For other people (who are already kind-hearted) it will involve an internal reorientation. In every circumstance, however, rebirth will produce Christ-followers who are willing to think differently, act differently, conceptualize differently, prioritize differently, and live differently, all for the cause and kingdom of the One through whom they have been reborn.