Necessity of New Birth

By Jill Riley

In 1806, during their westward exploration, William Clark, half of the famous Lewis and Clark explorers, carved his name into a 200 foot high rock formation, named “Pompey’s Pillar.” Two years ago I stood just a few feet away from Clark’s signature.  I enjoyed the beautiful expansive view, breathed in the fresh wind and reveled in the fact that I was standing inside a moment of history.  Clark’s signature is tangible proof that something of significance happened here.

On May 8, 1980, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord.  I made a commitment to serve God with my whole being, until my present meets eternity. The moment of my salvation is etched into my memory in no less tangible ways than Clark’s name on that stone pillar. I know that “event” is real and was the beginning of conversion.

However, it appears the salvation “event” has gone the way of poodle skirts and zipper neck ties; fading out of popularity and into obscurity.  Is publicly declaring one’s salvation decision no longer the culturally agreed upon starting block of faith?  It seems salvation has become a largely personal, independent, self-defined occurrence. There is no altar, no confession of sin and faith, or church celebration. What an odd disconnect from the historical precedence of the Church. To many, simply believing in God is enough. No other pomp necessary.

Since there is no membership card, special tattoo, or secret handshake that signifies whether a believer is REALLY a believer, how are we to know who’s “in” and who’s not? The book of Acts, specifically the story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) gives us useful insight. The Ethiopian went to Jerusalem, worshiped in the temple and was reading the Words of the prophets of God when Phillip was sent to him.  Clearly the Ethiopian believed in God but it was Phillip who introduced him to Jesus.

If simply acknowledging the power and supremacy of God the Father in worship and showing devotion to Him constituted salvation then obviously the Ethiopian was saved before he even met Philip. Baptism should have/could have been offered in that moment.

However, in Acts 16, when Paul and Silas’ jailers asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” they replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” There! A salvific mandate to believe in God the Son, Jesus. THE requirement. The Ethiopian did not receive salvation or begin conversion until the moment he believed in Jesus.

It is about Jesus. Plain and simple. Jesus: human, real, crucified, died, and rose again.  Anything less is a Cliff notes version of the greatest love story ever written.  At what particular moment a congregant chooses to believe in Jesus Christ is not my concern. I am simply content to extend invitation and serve them at the Lord’s table.

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13 thoughts on “Necessity of New Birth

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  1. William Clark stood just a few miles from our home in north Cannon Beach, Oregon, on top of Tillamook Head, looking out across the deep blue Pacific, on his way down to a native tribal village just a few blocks from our home, to trade for whale blubber. “Clark’s View” is today marked by a sign on top of a steep bluff in the forest. Your post this week Jill offers such a grand view of that singular event in the life of a soul, the moment of new birth, when we humble our lives to take our stand with Jesus. Thanks for your words of wisdom and good insights into conversion! Many blessings to you.

  2. Such a huge topic. I wonder if the significant difference that you’re articulating between one’s general belief in God versus belief in Jesus specifically, centers on the movement that follows our “yes?” There’s a “come, follow me,” and a “go and do likewise” aspect to one’s faith and belief in Christ – the life of discipleship. In a sense, one’s belief and one’s embodiment or living out of that belief cannot be separated. To believe in Jesus means that there is no dichotomy between the two. Thus, the privatization of faith is antithetical to a life committed to Christ.

  3. Jill, are you suggesting that we *should* have more of an event to our conversion? We used to have to be able to cite the date and time of the big day, or else it didn’t really “count,” so I tend to get a bit gun-shy about expectations in that direction. But perhaps we now swing too far the other way…focusing primarily on the *process* of conversion might actually appear to diminish how radically Christ transforms our lives.

    1. In Bible college kids were making up their “date” to satisfy the requirement of their personal statement of faith. Of course, many didn’t remember when they first come to knowledge and acceptance of Christ. So, while I miss the pomp and circumstance of the past when everybody publicly welcomed a new believer into the family, I do not believe that a public confession is necessary. An esteemed professor, who shall rename nameless, explained in Cov theology about those who where like light switches when it came to conversion; their conversion was as obvious as light/on – light/off. That’s how it was for me. Not so with everybody. So, required? No.

      However, I do think that we may have swung too far the other way. Because I find frequently that people who profess to “believe” actually believe in God but haven’t really come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ as savior. It disrupts and disturbs my soul to think accept that believe as a full conversion? I know, that sounds judgey. And as Gail stated, perhaps that is the first step of many towards a complete knowledge of the savior. It still just seems incomplete to me.

      When we talk about our conversion and belief openly in the community of believers I think it helps us to learn and challenge one another in topics such as these. If conversion is secret and privatized are we cheating the Church of opportunity to know and grow together in this very basic tenet of faith?

      1. Ah yes. You seem to be getting exactly at the heart of this affirmation. It’s necessary to be reborn! And I totally agree that in our efforts to avoid that hypocritical extreme of making up conversion dates to match some formula, we can allow our “belief” to become a bit heady…at least I have. Wrestling with this affirmation is challenging me on that front.

  4. I think that many evangelicals have become uncomfortable talking about being reborn for several reasons.
    – Being “born again” sounds trite to some because it perhaps has been overused.
    – If not overused, it carries baggage of being connected only with a part of evangelicalism that feels too conservative for some.
    -To talk about the necessity of new birth leads to questions such as what is the fate of those who have no faith in Christ.
    – Jill, you apologize for not wanting to sound too “judgey” but that is also why we are afraid to talk about the necessity of new birth – the fear of seeming judgmental or being considered a bigot.

    1. Stan – I think the fear is more attached to “evangelical baggage”. My hope is that in our eagerness to adapt language to become more “modern” and leave behind the baggage that we haven’t evolved ourself beyond the necessity of new birth. And I find that your other statement is true also. To talk about hope, eternity and heaven then we must also acknowledge judgement and hell, which is unsavory and unpleasant. So, your words are true – Can we talk about being reborn with pride? Outloud? Confidence?

  5. One of the hallmarks of the evangelical movement is conversion at the center of the Christian experience. Early in the American experience, that emphasis upon conversion became a reliance upon instantaneous transformation – an immediate ecstatic experience of spiritual transformation and moral expurgation. That “anxious bench” notion of salvation misses all the work prior to conversion – the work of the spirit through friendship, sacrament, inner nurture, worship, conviction, etc. Any theology of conversion must make room for both – the moment when God’s love is clear, AND the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit through all the means of grace God employs to draw us.

    1. I want to correct a sentence…I did not mean to say “all the work prior to conversion,” but “all the work prior to the ecstatic experience that is part of conversion.”

  6. Really interesting stuff here…Thanks Jill for raising this issue. I’ve been thinking about this myself…

    When I talk to folks about how they came to faith in Christ, I like to use the metaphor of the Damascus Road or Emmaus Road…and if they are unfamiliar with these stories, I try to relate the two stories of how people came to new faith in Jesus in these two different ways. One being dramatic and one being more gradual, or as a process. I find this language helpful because people do have different experiences, and as you point out, Jill, more and more folks are describing their faith in Christ as a “journey.” I believe that the New Birth does occur for those of us who claim faith in Christ, and this is in fact a necessity…however, the pathways are not always the same. In our new faith community we often say, “There is one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ, but there are many paths to Jesus….” What has your pathway been? Damascusish or Emmausish?

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