The phrase “born-again Christian” has become a fairly common phrase in the English-speaking world, particularly in America. It’s often used pejoratively to describe a particular flavor of Christianity . . . one characterized by emotional conversion experiences and usually accompanied by an especially conservative outlook on life. A “born-again Christian,” in other words, is someone outside the mainstream of “normal” American culture.
For Jesus, the phrase itself would be confusing. For him, if you’re born again, you’re a Christian, and if you’re a Christian, you’ve been born again. There’s no such thing as a Christian who hasn’t experienced the new birth. “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” he told Nicodemus.
Even more, he uses the concept to describe a radical change of life–probably even more radical than our secular friends would understand. Conversion isn’t a process by which one becomes a better person–getting rid of a few bad habits and replacing them with better ones. Jesus isn’t talking about a moral improvement project.
He’s talking about digging up the roots and starting over, to use a different metaphor. It’s recreation, not reformation.
Perhaps that’s why Nicodemus responded somewhat incredulously. “Born again? Me?” He was one of the good guys who’d checked off all the boxes. Religious? Civic-minded? Influential? Wealthy? Yes to all of them. “Why would I need to be born again?”
Jesus wanted him to know (and he wants us to know) that being a part of God’s kingdom is something incredibly radical and can only be accomplished by the work of God’s Spirit.