|Parmigianino, The Conversion of Paul
The phrase "born again" is standard jargon in the evangelical lexicon, yet few understand what it really means. What exactly is "the new birth"? What is the difference between someone who has been "born again" and someone who has not?
The phrase itself goes back to a conversation that Jesus once had with a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, recorded for us in John chapter 3. Nicodemus was interested in learning more about this famous miracle worker, and was astonished when Jesus told him right at the outset of the conversation, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3; NKJV). Nicodemus was befuddled by this cryptic remark, and asked how it would be possible to reenter one's mother's womb and come back out again. Jesus went on to explain that what He was talking about was a spiritual birth, and that the agent of this birth was the Holy Spirit: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (v. 6).
So what exactly is the new birth? The apostle Paul gives us a description in Eph. 4:17-24. He begins by describing what the Ephesian Christians were like before they became believers. The Gentiles, he says, "walk in the futility of their mind" (v. 17). The word "futility" suggests that their reasoning processes routinely arrive at the wrong conclusions. Why is this?
Paul points to a variety of psychological factors. He says that their understanding was darkened, they were "alienated from the life of God," their hearts were blind, and they were "past feeling" (vv. 18,19). In other words, their hearts were unreceptive to the truth of God. This, in turn, ultimately led them to a lifestyle of licentiousness and greed. Once the external restraints were removed, their self-centeredness knows no bounds.
The genuine Christian, however, has experienced something different. "But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus" (vv. 20,21). When the gospel is being preached a variety of people may hear the audible words being spoken, but they do not all respond alike. For some, the message makes no sense. It is out of synch with their own perception of reality. But for others the message rings true in an uncanny sort of way. It unnerves them. They are undone. The have caught the awful sight of their own depravity, and finally understand why Christ had to die on the cross. The light breaks through, the way of salvation becomes clear, and they tearfully embrace it. "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God," as Paul says elsewhere (I Cor. 1:18). The difference is that in the case of the believer, Christ Himself has spoken to the heart with indelible force and conviction. He has been taught by Christ Himself.
So what, then, is the end result? First of all there is a clean break with the past: "that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man" (Eph. 4:22). But more than that, we are to "be renewed in the spirit of your mind" (v. 23). We acquire a new way of thinking: new motives and a new outlook on life. As Paul puts it in Rom. 12:2, we are not to "be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." The Christian life begins with an inward transformation. This, in turn, results in "the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:24).
How can one tell whether or not he has been genuinely born again? For someone converted as an adult it can be fairly easy. He knows what he was like before. He knows how he came to understand the truth. He is conscious of the decision he made. He is now experiencing a different life and a meaningful relationship with God. He has passed from death into life, from night into day.
But for a young person raised in a Christian home it can be a much more difficult question to answer. He has always been told what to believe. He has always been told how to behave. He is actively involved in a whole range of church programs. But is he saved?
Only he and God know what is really in his heart. But there are several things to look for. Since salvation involves a conscious choice to trust in Christ as your Savior from guilt and sin, there must be a cognitive understanding of the basic facts of the gospel, a consciousness of one's own sin and guilt, and a conscious decision to trust in Christ. There should presently be signs of spiritual life – a desire to know God, a prayer life, serious Bible study, and a willingness to serve others. In the final analysis you are spiritually what you are in your prayer closet. Where there is no regular, consistent prayer there is no relationship with Christ.
The question is an all-important one. Let each be honest with himself. "Examine yourselves as to whether your are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you are disqualified." (II Cor. 13:5).