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Born Again Christians


by the Rev. Dr. William Woofenden
retired faculty member at the 
Swedenborg School of Religion in Newton, MA
In the October, 1994 Issue of Our Daily Bread

I don't think I have ever heard a New Churchman (Swedenborgian) identify him- or herself as a "born-again Christian." At least, not anyone who has group up in our church. And I suppose the reason for this is that most of us probably identify the phrase, "born-again Christian," with what we vaguely think of as Christian fundamentalism - and even though we might be hard pressed to define the term, most of us don't seem to want to be called or thought of as fundamentalists!

Having said that, let me be quite transparent and tell you right off that what I have in mind this morning is to try to reshape our thinking a bit in regard to the identifying phrase, "born-again Christian," attempting not only to remove any sense of stigma about the name, but - further than that - to urge strongly that there is a strong warrant both in Scripture and in our church's teachings to encourage each of us to want not only to become born again Christians, but to wear the title with pride. Is it possible that in our dread of being thought of as "odd" or "different," we are at the same time missing the great challenge and true goal of Christianity?

The apostle Paul had something quite relevant to say on this when speaking to the neophyte Christians at Corinith. His words were: "If anyone among you thinks that he is wise by this world's standards, he should become a fool, in order to be really wise. For what this world considers to be wisdom is nonsense in God's sight. As the scripture says, 'God traps the wise in their cleverness' [Job 5:13] and another scripture says, 'The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are worthless' [Psalm 94:11]. [I Corinthians 3:18-20]

As we read Swedenborg's descriptions of regeneration or rebirth, what may not be entirely clear to us is that although what is described is an orderly process, unfolding as life progresses, the end result is a radical change in the person - a change so radical that the Lord chose to liken it to the event of birth: to being born again. That is the basic need, the one absolute requirement, if one is to become more than a nominal Christian.

The first step, by whatever means can be found, that a person must take is to become convinced that a complete change - a fresh start - has to take place if the person is to survive spiritually. This need applied equally to individuals, nations, and institutions. For example, when the Protestant Reformation took place, it shocked the Catholic church into instituting the Counter Reformation, during which some of the major abuses that had characterized that organization were faced and eliminated within Catholicism itself. And this awakening to reality is probably the principal reason why the Church of Rome did not collapse completely at that time.

In every individual life, there must be a similar turning point if we are ever to develop in ourselves a life of true religion. Depending on the spiritual state of the individual, the steps leading up to this turning point may be more or less severe - more or less shocking.

Modern psychiatry sometimes has used a technique known as "shock therapy," in which the patient was literally shocked electrically in the hope that this might return him to an awareness of reality. But this is a technique of desperation and often was anything but effective. A technique of psychoanalysis or depth analysis now seems to be used much more commonly, and seems usually to be more effective. Here the patient is led to re-live memories and desires, to probe into his unconscious, as an aid to self-understanding and the resolving of mental conflict.

Either of these methods, together with many shades in between, is intended to help a person become aware of the need for a radical change within himself. The great shortcoming of these and other secular methods, from the point of view of the church, is - not surprisingly - that, more often than not, they fail to define this awareness of the need for change as a religious responsibility.

If, to the sense of awareness, we can add the realization of our obligation to God to change our ways, we then have the necessary context for the Christian experience of conversion. This word "conversion," in its Latin form, means literally to "turn around," to face in the opposite direction.

The prophet Isaiah defined conversion - being born again - when he wrote on behalf of the Lord, "Wash yourselves clean. Stop al this evil that I see you doing. Yes, stop doing evil and learn to do right." [1:16]

Those last words in particular we should note: "Stop doing evil and learn to do right." Once we reach the stage in which we are willing to admit that all is not well in the way we are living our lives, then this is the order of action we must follow. That is, once we reach a turning point - whether it involves only one part of our life or several parts - the first thing we must do is this: Stop doing evil.

If we don't stop - and it will probably be necessary that we force ourselves to stop - lying, or cheating, or stealing, or hating, or coveting, or whatever other wrong things we have been doing, all the praying, or Bible reading, or church attending, or giving to charity, or any other socially acceptable sort of action we engage in, will be useless, so far as our individual spiritual state is concerned. Reformation is the first and unavoidable step toward eternal life. It is the necessary prelude to being born again.

And reformation is something which each person must ultimately work out. No matter how much others may love us, or how much we may love others, becoming a real born-again Christian is a highly individual thing. I'm not suggesting that we can do it alone. The constant help of the Lord and the loving sympathy and support of our friends and family are vitally needed. But the decision and the actual work of reform are things no one else can do for us.

To the person whose life seems a hopeless tangle, the awareness of that fact may come with terrifying overtones. It might go something like this: "How can I, who can't even go through an evening without a cigarette (or a drink, or a candy bar, or what have you) hope to wipe out systematically all my real vices?" Although I don't pretend to be able to answer adequately in the time available today - even if I were to go on for another hour or so - that question born of despair, perhaps I can at least point to an answer.

First of all, the process must be a gradual one. No one can change - in a day, or a month, or a year - from a state dominated almost completely by self love into a state almost completely freed from selfish influences. If, in fact, such a change could be effected suddenly, it would amount to the destruction of that person and the magical creation of another. There would be no process, no continuity. Personal identity would be lost en route.

The actual changes in one's spirit must be as imperceptible as those changes in which the elements of our physical body are removed and replaced day by day, but so gradually that we are hardly aware of what is going on. That is the "pointer" I had in mind - that although the end result is a radical change in one's inner being, the process of change is intended to be very gradual. I personally find that fact to be a great source of comfort to me, and I hope it will be to you as well.

But even gradual changes will never take place unless we get the initial message: So my present purpose is to insist on the necessity of conversion, of a turning point; the necessity of our awareness that in at least some of our thoughts and desires we are all headed in the wrong direction; further, that once we become aware of the need to turn around, we must make ourselves do just that: turn around! Nothing else will work! No amount of subterfuge, of rocking back and forth in place, of substitutes or halfway measures will do.

The old army command, "About face!" applies here. For, just as it is in the army, whether we understand fully the reason for it or not, we must obey. In the case of the conversion process involved in being born again, the understanding - we are assured - will come in the doing of it.

Scriptures

Nicodemus said to Him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.

"For God so loved the word that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish by may have eternal life."

John 3:4-16

Reading from Swedenborg

A person is born into all different kinds of evil, and so into all different kinds of falsity. Therefore, by oneself, one is condemned to hell. But to be pulled out of hell, one must be reborn from the Lord This rebirth is what's called "regeneration."

Now, to be reborn, we must first learn the true things which come from the Church, from the Word, or from the teachings out of the Word. The Word, and teachings from the Word, show what is true and good, and truth and goodness show what is false and evil. Unless we know these things, we cannot possibly be regenerated, since we remain in our own evils and the resulting falsities. We then call the evils good, and the falsities true.

That is why the recognition of what is true and good must come first, and the person's understanding must be lighted up. People have been given a mind so that they can be lighted up by the knowledge of goodness and truth. This is to enable them to receive goodness and truth into their motivation, and become good. The truth becomes good when a person wants it, and acts on it because he wants it.

So it is plain how goodness is formed in a person, and that unless one is involved in goodness, one is not born anew, or regenerated. And when we are involved in good in our motivation, we also have the truth appropriate to that good in our understanding. One's mind actually works together with one's motivation: Whatever a person wants, that is what he thinks when he is alone. This is what is called the joining of truth and goodness, or the heavenly marriage.

It is the same whether you say "wanting what is good," or "loving what is good," since whatever we love, we want. It is also the same whether you say "understanding" the truth which comes from goodness, or "believing" it. It follows from this that in a regenerated person, love and faith act as one. This joining together, or marriage, is what is called the Church, and heaven, and also God's Kingdom. In the highest meaning, it is called the Lord within a person.

Arcana Coelestia [Heavenly Secrets] #10367

 

Music: On A Distant Shore
1999 Bruce DeBoer

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