Delivered by spiritual c-section
Delina Pryce McPhaull
There are some people that are born into Christian homes and regularly attend Bible-teaching churches whose spiritual rebirth seems to come naturally. Some of us, though, had a rockier spiritual gestational period. My husband and I describe the born-again experience that we each had as a spiritual cesarean section. I am certain many former Adventists can relate.
In ignorant bliss, we swam in the toxic amniotic fluid of false doctrines. A steady dose of great controversy worldview entered our blood stream through an umbilical cord attached to a false prophet. Our peculiar spiritual deformities were considered special and superior.
Then God Himself did the miraculous. He cut through and pulled us out. We were spiritually born again. It was real, but it wasn't something we did. We didn't induce labor, break the bag of water, or push. We didn't deliver ourselves. The Holy Spirit gave birth to our spiritual life (Jn 3:6).
But what exactly is the rebirth? What does the term "born again" really mean? And how does it happen?
Anyone who claims they can describe the intricacies of how one is born again is naive. John 3:8 says plainly, "The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can't tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can't explain how people are born of the Spirit." Nevertheless, we can rely on Scripture to define what rebirth means as well as what it doesn't mean.
Being born again is not physical. It is 100% spiritual and ‚literal.
I had just attended the quiet, still, and somber funeral wake of a dear family friend, but the minute I got home and opened the door, I was greeted by my three children (ages 4 and under) shouting, "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" Right then it struck me—the stark contrast of going from death to life. It's unmistakable.
Although we usually think about life and death in that order—life then death—the Bible talks about our spiritual lives in the reverse: death, then life.
Ephesians 2:1-3 describes our condition before being born again: "Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God's anger, just like everyone else."
We are born with dead spirits and are objects of God's wrath. Those who are not born again are, quiet literally, the walking dead and living in obedience to the enemy.
In Colossians 2:13, Paul describes it this way: "You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins."
"But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God's grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus." (Eph. 2:4-7).
This rebirth was prophesied in Ezekiel 36:26 where God gathers a scattered Israel, redeems and promises them, "I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you." Not only that, God promises the infusion of the Holy Spirit. "I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations" (Ez. 36:27).
These same promises of a new spirit (ours) and an indwelling Spirit (Holy) are granted to gentile believers. "When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior," (Tit. 3:4-6).
Being born again is real. It's not just a figure of speech or an analogy. It is an actual something that happens to our spirits. Theologians call it regeneration.
Being born again is not belief in the right doctrines.
Perhaps the most direct passage with which to understand the phenomenon of rebirth is through Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus recorded in John 3.
Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness to interview and evaluate Him up close. "Rabbi," he said, "we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you." Nicodemus had an intellectual understanding that Jesus was legitimate. He acknowledged that His teachings were from God, and cognitively He processed the evidence. But Jesus conveyed to him that right understanding would not get Nicodemus into the Kingdom.
A person can intellectually know the right things and not be born again. Conversely, one can be unclear about the details of the truth and be born again. The act of rebirth does not depend on one's comprehension of it, nor is rebirth defined as the comprehension of a concept or set of beliefs.
Furthermore, it is not enough to believe intellectually that Jesus is who He says He is, the Son of God—Messiah. Right thinking and sound doctrines aren't the keys to the Kingdom. "I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God," Jesus tells Nicodemus (v.3).
We must be born again.
Nicodemus responds to Jesus in a way that shows that he is thinking in the physical realm. "How can an old man go back into his mother's womb and be born again?" But as we've discussed already, the rebirth is wholly spiritual.
Being born again is not "right living."
Having grown up Adventist, my understanding of being born again was fuzzy at best. "Born again" was a term that I heard mostly used by "non-Adventist Christians", and the precise meaning eluded me. I understood it to mean repentance, a change in behavior, a change in motivation for "right living," something akin to conversion or a turning point in one's actions and habits. Ellen White writes, "Their (the Pharisees) great need was that very change which Christ had been explaining to Nicodemus,—a new moral birth, a cleansing from sin, and a renewing of knowledge and holiness."1 The idea that new birth and repentance are synonymous gives the impression that you can be born again, again and again and again, repeatedly.
"New birth represents a turning. It's a repentance," preached Doug Batchelor in a sermon.2 "God is calling us to be new creations." But that is not how the Bible describes the new birth. We are new creations when we are born again. It's not something we accomplish through diligent and disciplined effort.
There's no doubt that being born again will result in new behavior, but being born again is not defined by that behavior.
"He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.
"So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!" (2 Cor. 5:15-17).
There's no such thing as a born-again spirit that is stillborn.
But Adventists are convinced those who are born-again will be open to keeping the Sabbath and incorporate all of the other Adventist lifestyle standards (abandoning jewelry, meat, alcohol, and so on). Ellen White writes in the Testimonies:3 rebirth "will give us willing obedience to all His requirements. This is true worship." At another time she writes, "‘Marvel not,' said Christ to Nicodemus, ‘that I said unto you, Ye must be born again' John 3:7. God must create in man a clean heart before he will walk in His statutes and keep His commandments to do them. A new moral taste has to be created before man will love to obey the law of God."4 By framing rebirth as a desire to meet "His requirements" (code words for "God's law" which are code words for the "10 commandments," which are code words for "the Sabbath"), they deny the New Testament passages that say believers don't live in relation to the law at all, but instead live by the Spirit.
Being born again is not repentance or conversion.
The lines between born again, conversion, conviction (trust), repentance, and baptism are blurry in Adventism. A paragraph explaining the ritual of baptism on the denominational website5 states, "Through baptism we are truly born again in Jesus."
In a recent article in Ministry Magazine (an Adventist magazine for ministers) rebirth is defined in this way, "A spiritual rebirth: trust in divine forgiveness through Jesus Christ, which leads to a life of loving obedience to God, proper self-understanding, inner peace, and harmonious relationships."6
The Revelation Seminar materials used by many local Adventist congregations to teach members and to recruit new ones described being born again as the "conversion experience." It is called "‘being born again' because when born again we have no past. At conversion, a person is cleansed from sin and starts all over as a newborn baby, in a changed relationship with God".7
But being born again is a distinct something outside of forgiveness of sin. It's not our old self wiped clean (that presumably can be sullied again), it is a new spirit that is birthed—one that is united with the Holy Spirit.
In fact, it is because of the spiritual awakening of rebirth that we are even able to respond to the voice of our Shepherd and to live by His Spirit.
Being born again cannot be induced by us.
In Adventism, there was also a notion that rebirth is something that a person can initiate. But how can a person with a dead spirit even desire to request rebirth from God?
Well-known Seventh-day Adventist evangelist HMS Richards encapsulates the new birth like this: "The sinner's part is to believe, exercise faith, to repent, to confess Christ, to step forward in obedience, to accept baptism, and to live in obedience to all of God's Word. God's part is to give him a new nature. This is called new birth. (Read John 3:3-8)."8
New birth, however, is not a partnership between God and us. It is not something we do together. It is something that He does. He is the Creator of this new life. The Spirit must give us life.
Similarly, Nicodemus was looking for direction on what he could do, but Jesus explained that being born again is something that happens to a person, not something that one initiates. You can't induce the birth of your spirit.
"Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life," John 3:6.
Barriers to understanding
If I'd read this article 10 years ago, all of this "spirit talk" would have sounded like the unintelligible adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons, "wa wa wa wa wa wa wa."
I used to believe the Adventist teaching: "body + breath = living soul." The breath in that equation—also called "spirit"—the "thing" that returns to God at death (Ecc. 12:7) was, in my Adventist understanding, mere air. I didn't know the Bible teaches that we possess a spirit that can (and does, at death) exist independently of the body. I didn't know that this spirit can be dead when the body is alive, and alive when the body is dead. In my Adventist worldview, even an intellectual understanding of true rebirth was impossible.
When a person believes that his spirit is more than air, he can also believe John 5:24 which emphatically states that those who have received eternal life "have already passed from death to life." (Notice the tense. It is not future; it's present.) For this reason, Jesus declares in John 8:51, "I tell you the truth, anyone who obeys my teaching will never die!" And in John 11:25-26, Jesus explains to Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die."
1 Peter 1:23 says, "For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God."
The regenerated spirit is immortal, beginning its everlasting life at the point of rebirth, not at a future resurrection. Ephesians 2:6 says believers "are seated" (not will be seated) with Christ in the heavenly realms because we are united with Him. I've yet to find a text that even suggests that this spiritual life is something other than immediate and permanent.
The Adventist "state of the dead" and "nature of man" doctrines aren't the only barriers blocking the truth about rebirth. Many of the distinctive Adventist doctrines depend on the belief that humans do not possess an immaterial spirit.
If we indeed have an immaterial spirit that receives eternal life when we believe, then the investigative judgement loses its teeth. If one stops believing that one's works and law-keeping are judged in an investigative judgement, then it no longer makes sense that Sabbath-keeping is what seals a person for salvation. And if one ceases to believe three of the four Adventist pillar doctrines, the fourth (Spirit of Prophecy) falls by default. For how can Ellen White be a true prophet if she disagrees with the Bible and actively developed and promoted these erroneous beliefs?
When one understands the relationship between spirit and body, one can also understand why Jesus was sinless and why He could not have sinned. He is God and was not born with a spirit that needed to be born again. Understanding this concept in biblical terms also helps us to see how God was truthful when He told Adam that he would be sure to die if he ate from the forbidden tree. Adam and Eve died a spiritual death (their spirits were alive when God breathed the breath of life into them) when they disobeyed.
God in His Sovereignty was unimpeded by any spurious beliefs that I was born believing. He gave me a new birth. Indeed, He regenerates and births a new creation in us. He gives us the spiritual eyes to see truth and the motivation and desire to choose Him.
The new birth is what makes us a part of God's family. It's the only way to legitimately call God, "Father".
There are people who have spectacular stories of when they were born-again. They know precisely the moment, day, and time when they were reborn and had saving faith. They experienced the violent windstorm of Pentecost (Acts 2:2). The wind gales of grace blew and swept them off their feet.
Others experience a cooling breeze and can only tell you in retrospect what happened.
Sometimes rebirth happens when a friend or a stranger shares the gospel; sometimes it happens when a person is reading the Bible; sometimes a song or a book or a movie provide the moment when a person comes to spiritual life. The "how" is God's prerogative and is as unexplainable and unpredictable as the wind.
Truly, it doesn't matter if one is born in a hospital, birth center, house or car, naturally or by c-section. When God is the Deliverer, the birth is a miracle of eternal life. †
Copyright 2011 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Casa Grande, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised October 17, 2011. Contact email: email@example.com
Delina and Ben McPhaull met in 1999 and married in 2004. Delina is a writer and stay-at-home mom of their three children, Maxton (age 3), and twin girls Maxwelle and Maxine (age 1). In March, 2010, Ben resigned from pastoral ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist church and is founder of Quarterlife Ministries, which promotes biblical literacy among young adults. The McPhaull family worships at First Baptist Church of Burleson in Burleson, Texas. You can find links to their blogs at McPhaull.com.