Are all born again?

Note: this is a re-post of a Surprising God post that appeared first in April, 2011. Because I have received questions about this issue, I'm repeating that post here, with a few updates. For much greater detail on what this post summarizes, I commend to you the essay by Gary Deddo, titled "Clarifying our Theological Vision." Also see the "GCI Weekly Update" article titled "Living the Redeemed Life."

A blog reader asked if the understanding that all humanity is included in God's love and life, means that all people are already spiritually alive (i.e. "born again"). My answer is this: to be included in God's life and to be born again are related, but not the same. Let me explain.

Time and again, Scripture proclaims that what God has done (through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost) transforms all humanity. Here are some of the verses of Scripture speaking to this stunning reality (the Good News!): Rom. 5:15, 18; 6:10-11; 2 Cor, 5:14-19; Eph. 1:3-10, 2:4-9; Col. 1:19-20, 3:1-4, 11; 1 Tim. 2:5-6.

Jesus Ascending (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

I hasten to add that we do not rely on select "proof texts" for this understanding. Rather, we must take into account the full story of God and humanity told in Scripture, by which we come to know Jesus for who he is, and for what he has done; and the effect this has on all humanity (and, indeed, the whole cosmos). The above cited verses give a brief summation of this truth, which is the "scarlet thread" that runs through and gives coherence to all of Holy Scripture. The ancients referred to this thread as "the rule of faith."

Paul's argument concerning this rule of faith, which is the core message of the gospel, is compelling: Because Adam, representing all humanity, sinned, he took all into sin, and humanity, in Adam, fell (became alienated from God). But Jesus (the Son of God incarnate), who upholds all humanity as its Creator and Sustainer; and represents all humanity as human himself (in his vicarious humanity), took Adam's place as head of humanity and in doing so reversed the fall, restoring humanity to its privileged position with God. According to Scripture, God reconciled all humanity to himself in Christ.

What Jesus accomplished for us, as one of us, is not what might be true for us "if...."; but what is true for us (and all people), because of who Jesus is (the God-man) and what Jesus has done on our behalf. His work is an accomplished reality (and that is very good news!).

But does this reality that God has reconciled all people to himself mean that all people are spiritually alive (what the apostle John refers to in John chapter 3 as being "born again")? In answering, we must be careful to make the distinctions Scripture makes, in the ways it makes them. Above, I cited Col. 1:19-20, which states that through Jesus (and what he has done as fully God and fully human), God has reconciled all humanity to himself. Accordingly, we speak of all people everywhere as "included in God's love and life." They are not cut off from God; they are not condemned before God (Rom. 8:1); indeed he has forgiven them all and keeps no record of their sins (1 Cor. 13:5). This reconciliation is a universal truth, meaning that it is true for all people irrespective of their present, personal view of and relationship with God. This truth is grounded not in personal (subjective) experience-action, but in the objective reality of who Jesus is (God in union with all humanity via what theologians refer to as the hypostatic union) and what the God-man Jesus has done in and through his vicarious (representative-substitutionary) humanity.

However, note Col. 1:21, which speaks to a personal (individual/subjective) experience. Here people who are objectively included, are said to have been (prior to their personal conversion) "alienated from God" - "enemies in their minds" toward God. What gives? How can those who are included, forgiven and accepted by God be said to be God's "enemies"? The answer is that God views all people - believers and unbelievers alike as reconciled to himself. He sees them this way because he has taken action himself, through his Son, to bring about this new status for all.

However, not all know of this reconciliation. Individual non-believers remain in the "dark" about this reality - they continue, despite their inclusion, to be alienated from God in their darkened (closed) minds. And so, many people, though beloved of God, do not know of their true identity. And this lack of knowledge is evidenced by their "evil behavior" (Col 1:21). Their true Father is God, but they are behaving as if he is not. Their true identity, from their perspective, remains "hidden in Christ" (Col. 3:3).

It is the present ministry of the Holy Spirit (who was "poured out" on "all flesh" at Pentecost nearly 2,000 years ago, Acts 2:14-17) to reveal the truth about humanity to those who do not yet know it, enabling them to believe and thus to be released from the "alienation" that is in their minds toward their true Father. To come to know this truth - which means to come to deeply experience and to put one's trust in the Source of this truth - involves being "born again" (more accurately translated "born from above"), a miracle to which John, starting with a quote from Jesus, makes reference in John 3:3-8 (NASB):
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born 1again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." 
This re-birth, via the agency of the Holy Spirit, is a stunning transformation (see Rom. 12:2 and 2 Cor. 3:16), which opens a person's mind and heart to receive the truth of who Jesus is, and what he has done for them (and for all humanity), and thus who they truly are. To believe this (through faith) does not create this truth - rather it opens their hearts and minds to come into alignment with it (or, as John likes to say to "know the truth," which "sets them free"). The Bible refers to this realignment of thinking as repentance (the biblical meaning being to "change one's thinking"). And that changes everything.

Through this Spirit-given gift of repentance/transformation, one's reconciliation with God is not created (Jesus accomplished that for us all with God long ago). However it gives one entrance into a personal experience of who they truly are, and that experience makes them "spiritually alive." Note Jesus' words, again quoted by John: "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life" (John 5:24).

Does the phrase, "has eternal life," mean that the person is given this new life at the point of personal belief? Or does it mean that through belief, they "get hold of" the eternal life that is already theirs in Jesus, made possible by what Jesus did long ago? I believe the latter is true. In the objective (universal) sense, we can declare that we were born again the day Jesus rose from the dead 2,000 years ago. However, in the personal (subjective) sense, we can say that we were born again the day the eyes of our heart were opened to see and in seeing believe who Jesus truly is and thus who we truly are in him.

Both the objective and subjective senses are very real, but note that the personal has no meaning or reality except for what Jesus did for us, with us, and to us, long ago; and what he now continues to do with us through the Holy Spirit who at our conversion unites us to Christ in a new, deeper (born again) way. Awakened (illuminated/born again) by the Holy Spirit to our life in Christ, we are made "spiritually alive" - a miraculous transformation---something like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis...

Born again, and now in the light, we are able to see what had been true for us all along, but could not be seen in the darkness of our alienation from God. Now able to see, we rejoice with a "joy unspeakable and full of glory" (1Pet 1:8, KJV). In the light of this glory, everything is brand new. And everything begins to change. As the song Amazing Grace declares, "I was lost, but now I'm found; blind, but now I see."