Posted by: dswerling | August 8, 2008

Being Born Again

Considering I’m not Roman Catholic and go to a Protestant Church, any reader might be surprised that I’m saying that one of the founding doctrines behind my branch of Christianity, “sola fide” (faith alone) is incorrect. My title may be misleading, so let me elaborate. It isn’t that the doctrine of sola fide in and of itself is flawed. I do believe that only the grace of God which is given only through having faith can achieve salvation. This is the only perspective that truly makes sense, because any alternative results in a nonsensical relationship with God. If it were through good works alone that we were saved, it would destroy the value of altruistic and selfless behavior, because such behavior would not be altruistic or selfless. Thus we would basically be “buying our way” into heaven, which is surely not a desirable way to get into heaven. Therefore it only makes sense that, at some level, it is through the gift of Grace from God which can only be attained by having faith which will save the sinner.

However, my beef with Martin Luther’s famous theological foundation is the modern conception we have of it. Luther originally created the concept of “sola fide” because of the incredible amount of debauchery within the Roman Catholic Church at the time. The point of this theological pillar was that going through the motions is not enough to achieve salvation, which is still true for any earnest believer. Receiving absolution after an insincere confession is worse than simply not going to confession in the first place. The Eucharist will do nothing for you if you have not freed yourself from Sin. We cannot achieve salvation simply by going to church or simply by passively being a nice person, we must go out and actively seek a relationship with God the Father, actively seek to help others. This is how we achieve salvation.

This is my chief objection to modern “Born Again” theology. Other than its complete ignorance of Church history (which is substantial) and inability to agree on the finer points of Biblical coherence, Born Again theology seems to adopt a very vague definition of a “conversion experience” and declare it completely adequate for salvation. This is, quite simply, misled and rather foolish. In the Gospels there are many more references to doing good works than to simply having faith. The most prominent “faith alone” passage ever stated is when Jesus tells Nicodemus “Amen I say to you, unless a man is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This is the passage often cited in support of born-again theology. However, there are two problems with this passage. First of all, there is no good reason to support the idea that Jesus was talking about anything besides baptism when he made this statement. He certainly does not mention some other different born-again idea anywhere else in scripture, in other instances he is usually cited as referring to baptism. More importantly, this idea is flawed because of discrepancies in scripture. For instance, Saint Paul’s conversion experience on the Damascus Road is probably the most powerful in the history of the Church! I mean really, if Jesus suddenly appeared to you in a vision, told you to stop persecuting His followers, then blinded you, wouldn’t you say this was a “born again” conversion experience? Born again theology would say that this was sufficient for imparting grace on Saint Paul, and he would have been saved through his faith alone. However, as soon as Saint Paul meets up with Saint Peter, the first thing he does is he gets baptized. Similarly, all of the early disciples who knew Jesus would have (according to born again theology) had grace imparted instantaneously, indeed almost thrust upon them! However, they are all told to be baptized, and Jesus never mentions any special sort of born-again ritual to them. This is one large problem with born-again theology.

Furthermore, Jesus’ statement here is not saying that if we only believe we can do whatever we want, and frankly that is what it is often taken to mean. First of all, what is the definition of “belief?” Pascal’s Wager states that (in an abbreviated form) it is more advantageous for us to believe in God because then if we die we are guaranteed salvation, while on the other hand we would not be if we were Atheists and happened to be wrong. However, most Christians would probably consider anyone who believed in God just because he or she wanted to be safe and avoid hell, but didn’t really care about having a relationship with God, a hypocrite. Belief does not seem to only be some arbitrary choice made in the logical mind, it is rooted deeper than that. On the other hand, belief is not (as Atheists often contend) simply irrational feeling, merely feeling something is right and refusing to change your opinion no matter what the cost. The problem I see with born-again theology in practical terms is that born-again Christians very often seem to assume one of these two extremes. Either they seem to make a purely intellectual choice that is without true depth or meaning, or they make a purely emotional choice that is closed off and cannot develop anymore. Neither of these extremes seem right to me.

It makes me sad honestly, to see this process happen. I do believe that when Jesus refers to Nicodemus having to be “born again,” he is speaking about a very deep, beautiful, important experience that people have which does confer grace upon them. However, in my own (very humble) opinion, this experience should be deep, sincere, and life changing. It should be located between the two extremes, the extreme of emotion and the extreme of intellect, a balance of both. I met a born-again Christian once named Chuck, who was a nice boy but was far from being an orthodox Christian. He never attended church and frequently behaved irresponsibly, particularly sexually. I asked him if he could kill someone and would still be saved. He said as long as he believed, he would be saved. However, I think this is an honest misunderstanding of the practicality of the issue. The point is, if someone truly was “born again of water and the spirit,” they never would kill someone in the first place. If a born again Christian did murder someone, we should not assume they are saved because they said they believed, we should assume that they didn’t mean what they said.

I do not mean to marginalize the experiences of many born-again Christians or claim that somehow they’re “living in sin” or they are in danger of eternal damnation. A true conversion experience which contains grace given freely by God is a wonderful thing, and would very likely constitute strong evidence of salvation. However, we should not be quick to jump to conclusions. Merely claiming we believe and then living our lives as if nothing else happened is not enough. The stakes are indeed higher for “born again” Christians. All of our lives are a journey and a struggle to receive salvation. For the Born Again Christian, they should display more fervor and enjoyment of this journey than the rest of us, and more desire to see God and do good for the sake of God than anyone else.

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