Starting over

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Repentance, Conversion and New Birth

I cannot tell you when exactly I experienced conversion. Martin Luther could name the place, the date and the precise hour when was converted. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism also knew exactly when his conversion had taken place. Many Christians know when the crucial turning around in theit life took place. But, does the fact that I did not not have the same kind of experience as these people had, mean that I am not converted? Let’s look at what conversion is and what it does for us.

Adequately expressing supernatural truth in human language will always remain a challenge. Our words can, at the very most, only superficially touch upon the inexpressible realities of what God does for us and in us. Fortunately, we can often approach a particular issue with various metaphors, which each point to a certain aspect and thereby complement other approaches and help to flesh out a fuller picture. This is certainly also the case when we talk about what happens at the beginning of the Christian life. The two most fruequently used terms are ‘repentance’ and ‘new birth’. We do well to take a close look at the words that were used in the original biblical languages, because that will add to our understanding of these words. But, first of all, it is important to note that these words suggest that there is both a divine and a human element involved when someone becomes a christian. Repentance and conversion point to a change in ourselves which somehow is connected with our own free will. There is apparently a free decision we can make, a switch that we can voluntarily turn and a direction that we can decide to choose. But, this new beginning is at the same time something that does not result from our own initiative, but comes from outside us. It happens to us, if we open ourselves up to the Force that brings new life in the fullest sense.

A new direction

Let’s first look at what it means to repent and to be converted. Nowadays these are impopular concepts. If people talk about them, they often tend to downgrade them to the realm of likes and dislikes and external change. Some say: I have done nothing in my life that I need to feel sorry about! One cannot, however, understand the true weigth of repentance and conversion unless one has adequately grasped what sin really is and what our position is as long as we remain isolated from God and have not accepted his generous offer to take us from where we are to a totally new level. When we begin to understand the utter seriousness of sin and realize its absolute destructiveness, we also begin to see our dilemma. We observe our ‘sorry’ state and we will want to repent and get away from where we are. This repentance is not a superficial sense of misgiving or a shallow feeling of regret, admitting that maybe we should have tried a little bit harder in our efforts to overcome a few unfortunate tendencies. The apostle Paul refers to a much deeper kind of  repentance when he coines the term ‘godly sorrow’. This serious and heart-felt realization that we will lose everything if we do not turn around and make a new start, is the only kind of sorrow that will do us any good. It ‘leads to salvation.’ Any other kind of  sorrow is ‘worldly sorrow’, and this literally leads nowhere (2 Corinthians 7:8-11). ‘Godly sorrow’ is seeing the truth about ourselves and realising that we stand with the believers in Ephesus. Paul wrote to them (and to us): ‘You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world’ (Ephesians 2:1,2). This is pretty strong language, and rightly so, because sin is pretty strong stuff. No wonder that some of the words in the original Hebrew and Greek language, which are translated in English as ‘to repent’, have the connotation of to pant, to sigh, to groan and to have remorse. This kind of ‘godly repentance’ that encompasses our entire being, is the absolute prerequisite for receiving firgiveness for our sins, as the following chapter will make clear.

One of the Greek words that is also translated as repentance (the word metanoia) has a different nuance. It points to a change of mind and of purpose. It points, as one Bible scholar once so aptly expressed, to ‘a pilgrimage from the mind of the flesh to the mind of Christ.’  There is yet another subtlety of the Greek language that provides us with a further valuable insight. The change that we are to undergo results in a new ‘heart’—to a totally new approach to life and a fresh orientation in values and ideals—a ‘renewing of our mind’ (Romans 12:2).

Extreme make-over

The person who embarks on the pilgrimage with Christ is a ‘new person’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). But what does it mean to be a ‘new’ person? It goes beyond the most ‘extreme make-over’ one can imagine. It has to do, not with the way we look, speak and dress, but with the core of our being. It imports a heavenly quality of life into our existence. ‘New’ can simply mean ‘consecutive’ or ‘next’—as, for instance, one episode is followed by a new episode. When ‘new’ is used in such a way the original New Testament writers would use the Greek word ‘neos’. But when they speak of the ‘new’ person, who is ‘in Christ’, they carefully choose the word ‘kainos’, which stresses total intrinsic newness—a newness in quality. It is ‘a spiritual renewal’ of our ‘thoughts and attitudes’ (Ephesians 4:23). People who have received this ‘newness’ no longer live as they did before. They ‘no longer live to please themselves. In stead, they will live to please Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:15). They ‘display a new nature’, because they have become ‘new creatures, created in God’s likeness’ (Ephesians 4:24).

Make no mistake about it, however. This newness does not come about because of anything we can contribute. ‘All this newness of life is from God’ (2 Corinthians 5:18).  The new life comes from above, from a superhuman source. It is eternal life that has the imprint of  divine power on it. It is the abundant life that Christ came to offer, ‘in all its fulness’ (John 10:10). What more fitting metaphor could be found to refer to this miraculous new start in life as the new birth? Jesus introduced the term when he dialogued with Nicodemus, an important Jewish religious leader, whose name actually means ‘leader of the people’. Nicodemus acknowledged Jesus’divine credentials but his mind, theologically astute as it may have been, had not yet comprehended the good news of the Kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim. Jesus startled him with a statement that has since been repeated millions of times by preachers around the world: ‘Unless you are born again, you can never see the Kingdom of God’ (John 3:3). Seeing how Nicodemus failed to grasp the meaning of this profound statement, Jesus tried to fill out a few of the blanks. He added, ‘The truth is, no one can enter the Kingdom without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven. So, don’t be surprised at my statement that you must be born again. 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’ (John 3:5-8).

Allow for the supernatural

That is what we will have to accept: The Spirit is, like the wind, totally beyond both our comprehension and control. It breathes into our life from another world. Through the Spirit we no longer live as we did before. We can now live the ‘new’ life that fills any previous void in our soul. This ‘new birth’ in many ways resembles our natural birth. We receive life from beyond ourselves and we will need constant nurture in order to grow. This makes it such a striking metaphor. There is, however, a significant difference. With regard to their natural birth people ofte say that they did not ask to be born into this world! When it comes to this ‘new birth’, however, we may ask for this to happen. In fact, it does not happen, unless we ask for it. We can open ourselves up to it and  actually expect the new birth to take place.

This new birth, the gospel of John tells us, has to do with water and Spirit. The mention of water is, of course, a clear reference to the rite of baptism by immersion which is a demonstrations of faith on the part of the one who has repented, turned around and experienced this newness of life in Christ. [see chapter 36]. But, let’s not forget the Spirit-aspect of the new birth. The change that takes place in us is never complete. While it is essential that we turn away from ‘the world’ and exercise ‘godly sorrow’, when we ‘convert’ to a new orientation in life, in many ways this is only the beginning. There is always the risk of infant death or life-threathening circumstances along the way. The new-born person needs the righ kind of pastoral care and spirtual food. Growth must and can happen. As ‘the Spirit works within us, we become more and more like [Christ] and God will receive more and more glory’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Notice the last phrase in particular. Credit must be given where credit is due. God is the life-giver. He creates the newness of life. He provides the growth. He gurantees a perfect outcome. When, in eternity, we will look back on the new life that we received when we turned towards Him, we will gratefully continue to ackonwledge: ‘It was God, not me, who made it grow!’ (1 Corinthians 3:6).

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