You Must Be Born Again: Reclaiming the Theology of Conversion

Grace and peace to you in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I had a conversion experience this past weekend. Granted, I have been a follower of Jesus for a long time. I first “made the decision” when I was 7 years old, and was baptized in a large Southern Baptist Church in Texas. Years later, as a teenager, I belonged to a couple of churches that were part of the “Charismatic Movement”, and they believed in frequent baptizing, just to make sure you were getting it right. Finally, when I was stationed at a camp in Baghdad, Iraq in 2009, I chose to be baptized in a small ceremony on Easter Sunday. The last is the one that I consider my “real baptism” or my “true baptism.” Up to that point, I didn’t understand what the sacrament of baptism really represented – I thought it was just a thing that you did when you “got saved”. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties and early thirties that I realized that “getting saved” wasn’t a one-time event – it was a lifelong process of surrendering your life to God, and truly allowing Jesus to become the Lord and Master of your life.

But, in this long process and journey of surrender, I have never had an experience quite so powerful as the one this past weekend. Though I had what I considered a “true baptism” in the desert in 2009, I don’t think I ever had a “true conversion” of my own heart. I dedicated myself to living as a follower of Jesus, always caring for “the least of these” and seeing Christ in the worst of sinners. I have tried to love my enemies, to bless those that persecute me. I have tried to live by those qualities that Jesus called “blessed”: peacemaking, meekness, purity of spirit. I have tried to earnestly live a life without sin, especially those sins which harm others in their commission. And, most importantly, I have tried to spread the love of God that is found in Jesus Christ to every person that I meet, and to live that life of radical, sacrificial and unconditional love.

But, my spirit was always rather stubborn when it came to receiving this love. I have been surrounded by people who love me, who think the world of me, who affirm me constantly. Yet, I have never allowed that love in – I always viewed the love of God as something that I gave rather than something I received. Put another way: I tried to let the love of God flow from me, rather than through me.

So, I felt the love and grace of God powerfully during my conversion experience, and it made me realize that the restlessness of my soul was always because I did not find my rest in Him. (That’s a paraphrase of an Augustine quote, and one of my favorites.) And, it made me realize the importance of conversion in the Christian – or Yeshuan, if you prefer – life.

We Progressive-types tend to shy away from talk of “conversion” or being “born again”, because those terms are so firmly rooted in the conservative evangelical culture that many of us have been spiritually and emotionally hurt by. And, I think we do a great disservice to our theology when we do so, because the power of conversion is something that is absolutely essential in the life of a follower of Jesus. When you read the Gospels, you can see that power of conversion in all of the original disciples. In the Acts, you can see the power of conversion in the Damascus Road experience of Saul of Tarsus. Conversion caused Francis of Assisi to give up a life of luxury to become a beacon of faith, love and simplicity. Conversion caused John Wesley to put himself at odds with the Church that he loved to start a new movement in the American colonies and beyond. History is full of examples of women and men who had conversion experiences, and then went on into a radical way of living.

But, these conversionsĀ  were never a matter of praying a prayer with a pastor or raising their hand and walking down to an altar. While true conversions can happen like that, too often those types of “conversions” are a conversion of the head, rather than the heart. We have made “getting saved” and being “born again” into an intellectual game of “Do you agree to believe all of these intellectual propositions, and to say out loud that you believe them, so that you can get into Heaven?” And so, the words are said, the words are believed, and a person walks away from the altar or the baptismal pool largely unchanged. They have been made a convert to Christianity, but they have not become a Disciple of Jesus Christ.

My thinking about “heart conversion” or “soul conversion” led me back to the Gospel of John. Now, I’ve never had a great love of John’s Gospel, because it focuses almost exclusively on Christology and spends far less time on the teachings of Jesus. It’s also the Gospel that many people use to exclude others from the grace of God, with such passages as John 3:16 and John 14:6. So, I prefer Luke, I enjoy Mark, I am fascinated by Matthew, but I merely tolerate John.

However, there is a story at the beginning of the Gospel of John that has always resounded with me, and it resounded with me even louder this weekend. It is the story of a Pharisee of some authority and influence coming to Jesus in the dead of night to try and figure out what was so compelling about this teacher from Nazareth. It was a dangerous move on his part, as Jesus had already put Himself on the wrong side of the religious power structure, but he came anyway.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again if he is to enter the Kingdom. And Nicodemus asks – possibly rhetorically – “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he climb back into his mother’s womb?” I imagine Jesus chuckling a bit, but then He tells Nicodemus that a man must be born of water and the Spirit.

Now, there are several ideas that stand out here. “Water and the Spirit” can be taken to mean a couple of things. The symbolism of water is very important in the Bible, as both a source of life and a source of cleansing. So, “water and the Spirit” could be interconnected in this statement, meaning that a man must be cleansed and reborn in the Spirit” in order to become a citizen of God’s kingdom. It could also mean that a man must first be born of water (the natural birth through the waters of the womb) and then the Spirit (the “second birth” that Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus.) Both of these interpretations are important, though I lack the theological education to discuss them in detail. For the purposes of this blog, I will tend towards the second interpretation.

We think of being “born again” as a completely benign experience, and yet there is a great deal of pain in the birth experience as well. Some people refer to birth as “birth trauma”, because of the excruciating trauma to both mother and child during birth. There is water, there is blood, there is pain, there is disorientation. The mother gives something up that she has carried for nearly a year. The child leaves the warm comfort of the womb and moves into a world that is unfamiliar, strange, blinding, and uncomfortable.

So, when Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again”, it conjures up a number of feeilngs and images for me. I was fortunate enough to witness the birth of both of my sons. There was great joy when they came into the world, but the joy only came after a great deal of pain. Before a child can feel the love and comfort of the arms of his or her parents, they must first endure the absolute indignity and discomfort of being expelled from a place of peace.

So many of us live lives of spiritual comfort. We sit comfortably in church, we walk about comfortably with an intellectual “blessed assurance” that we are special and will spend eternity in paradise. But, so few of us have ever experienced that pain of leaving, the blinding light of a new world, the experience of being naked and vulnerable in a cold, unfamiliar place.

For me, this process of being born again was painful. Even though I have long understood on an intellectual level that the Christian life is not meant to be comfortable, and preached that understanding, I don’t know that I have ever really stood naked before God. I am no stranger to vulnerability, and yet I have always held onto my walls. I have always created a “safe space” for myself, both emotionally and spiritually, that I can retreat to when the cost became to high, when the experience became too uncomfortable.

How many of us share in that state of closure in our spiritual lives? How many of us have a place in our hearts and spirits that we have not allowed God to touch? How many of us have of us have never felt the love and comfort of our Father’s and Mother’s arms, because we are unwilling to endure the pain?

I sat in a darkened sanctuary, with a group of other men, and we all cried and wrestled in our spirits. There is nothing more beautiful than a group of men crying, in total vulnerability, when society so often demands that we repress those emotions. We cried in pain, because we were suddenly leaving the comfort of our old spirituality, our years of religion, and being forcibly brought into a world of blinding Light. We were spirtually naked and vulnerable, many of us for the first time in our lives. We were being forced to give up our place of safety, our walls of defense.

But, something happened amidst the crying and the pain. The arms of the Father reached down and clothed us in His Love, and we were held both gently and firmly in those arms. And, in the darkness of the sanctuary and the Light of this new birth, we sang, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.'”

There is an old Roman saying, that is powerful in its truth, though some of that truth has been lost over the years. The saying goes: “Blood is thicker than water.” It has been used to emphasize the absolute importance of natural family, but that is not what the saying means. It is better explained as: “The blood of battle is thicker than the water of the womb.”

We were all born in water, but when we are reborn, we are born in blood and Spirit. That blood is the redeeming blood of Christ, and the Spirit is the Spirit of His love and grace. And that blood that we are “born again” in is thicker than the water of our mother’s womb, the Spirit more comforting and healing than the arms of our natural mothers and fathers. It forms bonds that cannot be broken.

After this painful, wonderful experience of rebirth, this group of men held each other as brothers in something that is so much stronger than natural family. We held hands with one another. We whispered words of comfort and love into each other’s ears. It was an experience unlike anything I have ever experienced, even with the pain and the discomfort that accompanied it.

The Kingdom of God that we were all born into is a Kingdom of the here and now, as well as a Kingdom to come. And that Kingdom was best expressed in the vulnerability and love that we were allowed to share with one another, the affection of True Brothers that we allowed ourselves to feel. This Kingdom changes the heart, not just the mind. It changes the world today, not just the world of eternity.

I hope that each of us can experience this beautiful, terrible, wonderful experience of being “born again.” I hope that these words will never again be toxic or poisonous to us, just because they have been used in a way that hurts. I hope that we can hold hands and embrace one another as True Brothers and Sisters in this world, rather than simply waiting desperately for the next. I hope that we will allow the Blood and the Spirit to tear down our walls of safety and comfort, and that we will be willing to stand naked and vulnerable together before God.

Will you be born again with me, Sisters and Brothers? Will you go through the pain, in order to be wrapped and held by the arms of the Father? This is my prayer for you, for me, and for the world.

Let it be so.

Michael Brian Woywood