There is an assumption among a number of Protestant Christians that to be “born-again” is the equivalent of a particular decision (which the Orthodox would term “repentance”) at a particular time in which we repent of our sins and ask Jesus to be the Savior of our life. Repentance is indeed Biblical, as is the phrase “born-again.” However the conflation of the two, in which a particular response at a particular time (always and necessarily at the “age of accountability” or later) is equated with the “born again” in Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of St. John’s gospel. That conflation is of very recent vintage, a Biblical interpretation dating back to the origins of the Evangelical Movement a few hundred years back. That is to say – it is a novel idea – not an item of Christian revelation.
There is nothing within the actual text of Scripture that requires such an interpretation. Indeed, Christ’s use of the phrase in St. John’s gospel, makes specific connection with “water and the Spirit.” The traditional interpretation of the phrase “born-again” has in fact always been to equate it with Holy Baptism. St. Peter’s reference to being “born again” (1 Peter 3:3-5) where it is written that God . . . “has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, . . .” is another reference to Baptism – for it is specifically in Baptism, St. Paul tells us (Romans 6:4-6), that we are united to Christ’s resurrection. This is the faith of Orthodox.
However, such a belief carries within it an understanding that Holy Baptism is more than a “mere symbol” or an “empty ritual.” It is the means given to us by Christ through which we are united with Him. It is also the understanding of the Church that the gift given to us in Holy Baptism should be continually received by us in the life of faith. But being “born again” is not to be reduced to a “spiritual transaction.”
At the heart of the matter is the question of what it means to be in relation to God. How is it that we are saved? What is the goal and purpose of the Christian life? Some versions of modern Christian thought have offered radical departures from classical Christian teaching – making salvation external to our life (in various forensic models) – or grounded in various transactional accounts (with emphases on our ‘decision’ for Christ).
Salvation is union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is Trinitarian. It transcends the will though it includes the will. It transcends the will just as the will is not the ultimate seat of our personhood. It includes the will just as the will is an important aspect of our existence. Those who have exalted the role of ‘decision’ in our salvation have also unwittingly diminished the personhood of those in whom the will is diminished (the unborn, the mentally impaired, etc.). The exaltation of the will, it would seem, is a by-product of a culture in which the most important role of human beings is as consumers. Salvation in Christ is not a product for our consumption. It cannot be marketed or reduced to something grasped by the will.
I think these are wise and generous words from Fr. Stephen. I also believe they overlap with The Book of Common Prayer's theology of Baptism. And while I do not wish to negate the importance of subjectively appropriating what has been objectively accomplished by Christ on the cross for our salvation, I also believe that we must not minimize the objective truth of Baptism by subordinating it to the human will. As I've noted elsewhere:
It is objectively true ... that I am "sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ's own forever" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308). It is objectively true that this happened for me on April 27, 1969 ("Good Shepherd Sunday"). And it is objectively true that this happened before my first birthday and thus before I was capable of making any kind of response to the gift of salvation I received in Baptism.
On the other hand, it is also true that, once I got a bit older, I became (and still am) capable of making the choice of saying "no" to this objectively given gift by traveling "to a distant country" and squandering my inheritance "in dissolute living" (Luke 15:13). Or, perhaps less dramatically, I can benignly neglect the gift, assuming that there's nothing I need to do to cooperate with God's work of salvation, putting the gift I've received on a shelf or in a closet, letting it gather dust while I go about the business of being the Lord of my own life.
I can reject the gift of God's acceptance of me. But even if I reject that gift, I cannot destroy it. "The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 298). The wayward son can always return to the Father's house. The neglectful can always return to the gift, blow the dust off of it, unwrap the package, take it out, and put it to its God-given use.
Have I been born again? Yes, indeed, I have been born again. I was born again - united with Christ in his death and resurrection, born into God's family the Church, and given the gifts of forgiveness of sins and new life in the Holy Spirit - when I was baptized on April 27, 1969 at Tunica United Methodist Church in Tunica, Mississippi.
And if you've been baptized with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, you've been born again, too.
Thanks be to God!