Bible's definition of 'born again' is different from American culture's definition, says Tim Keller

Tim Keller
Timothy Keller, author and founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, giving remarks at The Gospel Coalition National Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana on Monday, April 1, 2019. |

The Bible does not define “born again” the same way that most Americans think of the term, according to notable Presbyterian pastor and author Timothy Keller.

Keller gave a speech on Monday at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference, held in Indianapolis, Indiana, and centered on the theme of “Conversations with Jesus.”

For his message, Keller focused on John 3:1-16, in which a prominent Pharisee named Nicodemus met with Jesus and learned that he must be born again to enter Heaven.

Keller noted that for most Americans, hearing that someone is a “born again Christian” will make them think of a specific “type of person.”

In particular, Keller said, when many Americans think of born again they think of “emotional” people who worship with raised hands and crying or “people who have had very broken messed up lives” who now go to morally strict churches, or “knee-jerk conservatives.”

“So generally, when people in America hear the term born again, they think it’s for a type of person, it’s a kind of person,” noted Keller.

Keller explained that John 3 “indirectly and directly undermines that completely,” referring to the American perception as a “patronizing idea.”

Timothy Keller
Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New York City and best-selling author, speaks at The Gospel Coalition's 2019 National Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana on Monday, April 1, 2019. |

“First of all, it indirectly does it just by giving us Nicodemus,” explained Keller, noting that Nicodemus did not fit the perceived type of person who becomes born again.

“He was a member of the council of the ruling Sanhedrin. He would have been a very high status figure. A wealthy figure. By no means an emotional person.”

Keller added that Nicodemus would not have been “a broken type of person,” noting that as a Pharisee, Nicodemus “wouldn’t have needed more moral structure” and that for a Pharisee, which often invokes “knee-jerk conservative,” Nicodemus was surprisingly open-minded.

“He comes to Jesus, Jesus who has no pedigree, did not come up through the ranks, hasn’t studied under any rabbis, has no credentials,” Keller noted.

“[Nicodemus] calls him ‘rabbi.’ And then he clearly wants to enter into a dialogue with Him. This is one of the most open-minded men you’d find in the Gospels.”

To be born again does not mean “you need more morality and religion in your life,” according to Keller, but rather being born again is “a challenge to morality and religion.”

“It’s saying you’ve got all the morality and religion in the world, Nicodemus, and you need to be born again,” Keller told those gathered.

“He doesn’t say ‘you’re an awfully, awfully moral guy. You’re at least three-quarters of the way to Heaven. But you can’t make it all the way, you need some kind of spiritual vitamin supplement’ … no, no, you must be born again. Nothing you have done counts.”

Keller said the passage “directly” undermines the American perception by noting that Jesus said “no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they’re born again.”

“No matter how good you are, no matter how pulled together you are, you must be born again,” said Keller. “But it also would mean no matter how messed up you are, no matter how broken you are, you can be born again.”

Keller went on to note that when one becomes born again, they developed a “new identity” and a “new sensibility,” with “spiritual truth” a person might have heard before but did not comprehend now becomes understandable.

“I cannot tell you how, after years and years of ministry, when somebody who has come to church all their life starts to say ‘something is happening. I knew these biblical texts all my life, but now they just seem almost like somebody turned the lights on,’” said Keller.

“Or ‘I’ve read this. I’ve read this verse, but now suddenly it’s just hitting me now. I don’t know why. I’ve never saw this before. I don’t know why I’ve never saw this before.’ But more than that, what they usually mean is ‘I always knew God loved me, but I’m actually starting to sense that.’”

Dan Delzell, pastor of Wellspring Church in Papillion, Nebraska, also tackled the question of knowing when one is born again in an opinion piece published by The Christian Post in 2016.

In his column, Delzell said that being “born again” is “not a matter of feelings” but instead is about “relying upon the promises of God.”

“And if you are relying upon your works in order to be accepted by God and forgiven of your sins, then you are not yet born again,” wrote Delzell.

“No one gets born again by relying on the law. The only way to be born again is to rely on the cross. That is, to accept the payment Jesus made on your behalf.”

Delzell went on to designate the question of whether a person is “trusting in the cross for salvation” or their works as “the first and biggest indicator of whether or not you are born again.”

“In addition to trusting Christ alone for salvation, a person who is born again will sincerely want to live for Christ,” continued Delzell.

“A born again person does not view his salvation as a ‘license to sin.’ Anyone who looks at Christianity that way is not born again. Believers don't live for sin, but rather, they live for Christ.”

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