Paul used a slightly different expression when describing what happens when a person chooses to follow Jesus. He said that we died with Jesus and rose again with him to new life.
All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his… Now, if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (Rom 6:3-8).
This passage is a fuller description of the process of becoming a follower of Jesus than the phrase “born again”. When we are united with Jesus by committing to follow him and trusting in his death and resurrection, we are raised with him to a new life. But that is the second step in the process. In the first step, we are united with him in his death. When we die with Jesus, we are dying to our old life controlled by sin and self. We cannot gain the new life, without dying to our old life first.
Baptism is a good way of describing this two-pronged process. We go under the water, symbolising our death to our old life. We come out of the water, and the Holy Spirit comes down on us as an expression of the new life we have in Jesus.
Paul understood the current and future aspects of the new birth. He explained that those who trust Jesus died and rose with him. He also stressed that we must continue to put off the old life and put on the new life as we grow in Jesus and serve him in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature… since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Col 3:5,10).
We must keep on putting to death our sinful nature and continue to put on the life of Jesus as we grow in faith and obedience.
The “new” birth is a work of the Holy Spirit. We cannot see him see him working because he is invisible to human eyes. Some people may have a deeply spiritual experience, but others might not. So if a person says that they are born again, we have no way of validating if it is true. This means that using “born again” as the criteria for distinguishing true Christians from people who are not true Christians does not make sense. A criterion is only useful for discerning between people if it can be observed.
Jesus had a different way of distinguishing those who are truly his followers. He said,
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).
The best way to identify the true followers of Jesus is to look for those who are loving each other as Jesus loved us. His followers will be implementing his new commandment to love one another. The benefit of this criterion is that it is easy to observe. If people are loving each other in a sacrificial way, it will be obvious. Even people of the world will be able to discern who is real and who is not. A modern problem is that many people who claim to be born again are not very good at loving one another. Unfortunately, the world has realized that and is ignoring Jesus because of it.
Nor should we describe what kind of Christian we are using a criterion that is invisible.
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