What does it mean to be converted and born again
The term "born again" has become popular in some Christian circles over recent years. Charles Colson, Nixon's "hatchet man", who went to prison for his part in Watergate, became a Christian through that experience. Today he is president of Prison Fellowship which has a Christian ministry to prison inmates around the world. He entitled his biography Born Again. Billy Graham has written a best seller, How To Be Born Again. The term has even crept into secular usage. Someone who has found a new lease of life may describe themselves as "born again". In some Christian circles the word is often associated with a more enthusiastic brand of Christianity. Thus, in popular thinking, we have some Christians who are "born again" and some who are not.
The term "conversion" has been around for a lot longer, and in its Christian usage describes that experience whereby a person changes from not being a Christian to being an active believer, whatever one may understand by that process.
The purpose of this booklet is to clear away some of the fog associated with the use of these terms. I will look first at the use of the terms in the New Testament. After all, if we believe that in some sense the Bible is a revelation of God and his purposes for us, it will be good to find out what he thinks about the matter. Then I will look at human experiences of conversion in order to clarify some of the misunderstandings that exist about it.
Conversion in the New Testament
The old Authorised Version of the Bible translates Jesus' words in Matthew 18:3 as follows: "Except [you] be converted and become as little children, [you] shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." The word in the original Greek of the New Testament that is here translated "be converted" simply means to "turn around". It is the word used when Jesus turned around in the crowd. It is used 39 times in the New Testament. In 18 of those instances it is used in the sense of turning from sin to God. It implies a turning away from something and turning to something. For instance Paul, writing to the Christians in Thessalonica, says, "you turned to God from idols" (I Thessalonians 1:9). We could say that conversion in the New Testament means turning away from those things that are inconsistent with a relationship with God, and turning to God, giving him his rightful place in our lives.
This word is always used in the active sense ("to turn") and never in the passive ("to be turned"). The expression "be converted". in the above text from Matthew, is a bad translation. A good modern translation, the New International Version, reads: "unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Conversion, turning, or changing our ways, is what we have to do in the process of becoming Christians. It is very similar in meaning to the word "repent" in the Bible.
Being "born again" in the New Testament
Being "born again" in the New Testament refers to something God does when we turn to him with repentance and faith. The expressions "born again", "born of the Spirit", or "born of God" are used about 15 times in the New Testament of becoming, or being, a Christian. It is one of John's favourite ways of describing a Christian, but Peter uses it twice and Paul once.* John tells us how a Jewish religious leader, Nicodemus, came to Jesus at night. He probably came at night because it would be unseemly for one in his position to be seen associating with Jesus, who was considered to be a stirrer by the authorities. In the discussion that followed, Jesus said to him, "I tell you the truth, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). The Greek word translated "born again" could equally well be translated "born from above". What did he mean?
*John 1:13; 3:3, 5,6,7,8. Galatians 4:29. 1 Peter 1:3, 23. 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1; 4, 18.
"It is not the turning over of a new leaf, but the receiving
of a new life - not just a new start, but a new heart"
The Bible emphasises two things that God will do for us when we submit our lives to Jesus. The first thing he will do is to forgive our wrongdoing. Paul is fond of using the word "justify", which is a legal term meaning that we are acquitted of all the charges against us - declared innocent. "Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). Jesus paid for our sins on the cross and now credits to us his own perfect righteousness. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). A wonderful transaction!
The second thing that God does is to come in the person of the Holy Spirit to literally live within us, his Spirit uniting with our human spirit. This experience of receiving the Holy Spirit is what Jesus is talking about when he says we are to be "born again". In fact he went on to call it being "born of the Spirit" (John 3:5,8). This experience is also spoken of as a resurrection, "God. made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions" (Ephesians 2:4); as receiving eternal life, "God has given us eternal life" (1 John 5:11); or as being recreated, "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Before we receive the Holy Spirit there is a gulf between us and God. We are "dead in. transgressions and sins" (Ephesians 2:1). After we receive him we are united with him in an intimate relationship. We are "born" into his family - we have spiritual life - a new relationship with God, who is now "Father", and a new relationship with other believers who are our "brothers and sisters". We also have a new spiritual home which is "heaven".
It is interesting that, whereas John and Peter use the metaphor of being born into God's family for this experience of becoming a Christian, Paul prefers the idea of adoption. "You received the Spirit of adoption. And by him we cry. Father" (Romans 8:15 - literal translation). The first metaphor emphasises our union with God, sharing his nature by his Spirit within us. The metaphor of adoption puts the emphasis on our legal standing, with all the rights and privileges we share as children of God.
This experience of reconciliation with God and transformation, through spiritual birth, is made possible for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was foretold 600 years before those events by the prophet Ezekiel, to whom God declared, "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities. I will give you a new heart. I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees" (Ezekiel 36:25-27). It is not the turning over of a new leaf, but the receiving of a new life - not just a new start, but a new heart.
As the American evangelist, Billy Sunday, put it, "A lot of people think a man needs a new grandfather, sanitation, and a new shirt, when he needs a new heart." It is not necessarily a change in our temperament, or our abilities. These come to us largely through our physical birth. Neither is it the addition of some new attribute. Rather it is an inner transformation springing from a new relationship with the living God. Its chief effect is on our motivation, goals and values. Ultimately, as we grow in that relationship, it can transform every area of our lives.
If you have found religion hard work, a bore, uninteresting, or merely a duty you feel you ought to do something about, then maybe you need to go back to the beginning. Plutarch told the story of a man who attempted to make a dead body stand upright. He tried various schemes of balancing, and experimented with different postures. Finally, he gave up, saying, "There's something missing on the inside." For the relationship with God to come alive, as Jesus said, "You must be born again" (John 3:7). The life must be given to us by God; we cannot generate it ourselves.