READ : 1 Peter 1:1-12
The most fundamental Christian experience of all is summed up in the expression, “being born again.” What does that mean, and why do Christians talk that way? The apostle Peter explains.
Chuck Colson, the former White House “hatchet man” turned Christian evangelist and social reformer, titled his best-selling autobiography, simply, “Born Again.” In his case that well-worn phrase accurately described an almost incredible life change. Colson fell from the pinnacle of worldly power and prestige into the disgrace of a felon’s prison cell, but then emerged to a life of godly service to others, especially to prisoners throughout the world in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ.
But though Colson’s conversion was particularly dramatic, the experience of being born again is common to every believer in Jesus Christ. I have sometimes heard people use the phrase “born-again Christian” as if it were a description of one particular, rather exotic, species of believer, as in “So-and-so has become a born-again Christian.” The idea seems to be that there are ordinary Christians quiet, passive, rather harmless folk and then there are those radical, fire-breathing, born-again types. I think we all understand the kind of distinction that’s being made here, but we have to insist that according to the Bible it is a false distinction. There are no Christians except born-again Christians! Talking about Christians who haven’t been born again is like talking about mothers who’ve never had a child. Just as the act of having or adopting a baby makes one a parent, so the experience of being born again makes one a Christian.
After the opening greeting of his first general epistle, the letter we call 1 Peter, the apostle Peter gets right to the point of Christian life and experience in an outburst of thanksgiving and praise: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading . . . ” (1 Peter 1:3, esv). In describing Christians here as being born again, Peter is echoing language that Jesus himself used.
The third chapter of the Gospel of John tells the story of a visit to Jesus by a Jewish Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to call upon Jesus at night, which was unusual, perhaps because he was embarrassed about being seen with him or reluctant to risk his reputation by consulting with the upstart rabbi from Nazareth. But Nicodemus was attracted to Jesus’ character, and he was eager to speak with Jesus and learn from him.
He began their conversation by politely observing that Jesus must have been sent from God because of all the mighty signs he was performing. And Jesus responded abruptly with this: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). Needless to say, Nicodemus was taken aback. Here he had come for a quiet theological discussion and all of a sudden he is confronted with this radical demand. He tried to interpret Jesus’ metaphor literally, but Jesus wasn’t talking about physical birth. He was talking about a mysterious, inward, spiritual change that takes place in a person by the power of God. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. . . . The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5,8 esv).
The most fundamental experience of the Christian life – fundamental in the literal sense because it is the foundation upon which all else is built is the experience of the new birth. John Wesley, the great 18th century evangelist who founded the Methodist movement, was once asked why he preached so often upon Jesus’ words from John 3, “You must be born again.” “Because you must be born again” was Wesley’s simple reply.
So here is a foundational truth that is critically important to understand. This is how you become a Christian. You don’t become a Christian simply by being born into a Christian family or by having Christian parents, or by virtue of being a native of a so-called “Christian” country. You don’t become a Christian by joining a church. You don’t even become a Christian by making a personal decision to follow Jesus or by confessing your faith in Christ though, of course, believing in and following Christ are part of every Christian’s life. But you become a Christian only by being born again. This new birth is the work of God; he must act before we can do a thing. The Bible says that to “all who did receive him, who believed in his name,” Jesus “gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:12-13, esv). So the birth of God comes first and the receiving and the believing come later.
Born by the Spirit and the Word
But how does all this happen? As Jesus said, the new birth is of God. It is the mysterious action of the Spirit of God at work in the human soul. It cannot be fully grasped or understood by us, and it certainly isn’t under our control. The Spirit’s activity is like the wind; the wind blows wherever it wants, and the Spirit of God works wherever and whenever he wants. So we do not control him. In fact, we may not even realize it when it’s happening to us. To us it seems at first only that we find ourselves interested in Jesus, or that we are attracted to him. We then realize somehow that, well, yes, I really do believe in him. I want to follow him. And so I decide to confess Christian faith and join a Christian church. It seems like it’s all just our own decision, a series of choices that we ourselves are making perhaps even that we simply choose to ratify choices that others (like our parents) may have made for us.
But then, when we have learned more, we come to understand that we don’t make the first move at all; God does. Whatever choices and decisions we make are really only the result of the prior decision the Lord has made: to choose us for his own, and to send his Spirit into our hearts, giving us new birth and new life in Christ.
Christians experience this in different ways. We don’t all have dramatic conversions, like Chuck Colson did. I haven’t had that. If I may talk for a moment about my own experience of the new birth, I would have to say that I have never had a clear, night and day, before and after, 180 turn-around kind of conversion. I can’t tell you the exact day I became a believer. I can’t remember when I first gave my life to Jesus Christ. I can’t point to a specific time and place where I knew, right then, that at that moment I had been born again. So how do I know that I have been? I know because I know that I believe in Christ right now, I know that I love him, I know that I know . . . Him. And I know that I want to follow and serve him with all that I am and have. And none of that can happen until a person has been born again.
And what triggers that? What brings about this new birth in our hearts? There is one specific means that the Holy Spirit uses to give us new life and bring us to faith in Christ. A little later in chapter one Peter urges his scattered flock to love one another earnestly and with pure hearts, “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God . . . . And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23,25, esv). So the word of God, the Bible, and more specifically the message of the gospel is the means the Holy Spirit uses to cause us to be born again. “So faith comes from hearing, hearing through the Word of Christ,” (Romans 10:17 esv) wrote the apostle Paul. God’s word is the seed, Jesus said, that when planted in our hearts, brings new life within us. We are born again, not through participating in religious rituals or sacramental rites, not by repeating prescribed phrases or obeying formulas and rules, but by hearing and believing the gospel message about the miraculous life, the sacrificial death, and the triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If that’s true, it has some pretty profound implications. We all need to be born again! You cannot enter the kingdom of God unless you have been. So if you haven’t, you need to make this your most urgent priority. You need to expose yourself to the Spirit’s means and methods. Put yourself in his way so that he can do his work in you. Physical new-borns are found in nurseries; spiritual newborns are found in churches where the word of God is proclaimed, believed and obeyed. So find a church like that and listen to the gospel. Sit under biblical preaching and teaching. Read the word of God for yourself. And always pray for the Spirit of the Lord to have his way with you and to do his work in you.
And if you have been born again? Then praise God! It is the greatest gift he has to give you. And it lasts forever. We are born again to a living hope, writes Peter, through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, an eternal hope that guarantees our own future. As new-born children of our heavenly Father, we have been promised an “inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” kept in heaven for us (v. 4, niv). In the meantime as we live for and unto him we are being guarded by God’s power through faith until the time comes when our salvation will be fully revealed (v. 5).