I have often heard the question asked, “What does it mean to be a true Christian?” Does it mean you have been baptized and given the Eucharist? Does it mean you believe the right creeds? That you prayed to acknowledge Jesus as your Lord and savior, and you now have a personal relationship with Him? That you have had a powerful experience with God’s Spirit? Or that you do a good job at following the Bible’s teachings?
There are many definitions for what it means to be a Christian, so I am not going to try to answer that question. I’m sure there are people out there who would not define me as a good Christian, depending on their standards. That said, I think it is more important to have a clear idea about what it means to be “in Christ.”
The Doctrine of Regeneration
According to Dennis McCallum, lead pastor of the Xenos house church network, “The New Testament refers to believers over 100 times with expressions like ‘in Christ,’ ‘in the beloved,’ ‘in Him,’ or similar phrases.” These terms are frequently connected with believers being called “righteous,” “free,” “made new,” etc., all on the basis of their union with Jesus. On the contrary, according to Mark Driscoll, “Depending on which translation of the Bible you read, you will hear of non-Christians as referred to as sinners more than 300 times, but only on three occasions do you find a Christian referred to as a sinner, though in each instance it may actually refer to non-Christians.”
If we put all of this together, there seems to be a clear contrast made between “saints” and “sinners” based upon whether or not their identity is “in Christ.” In other words, there is not a spectrum of people ranging from those completely outside of Christ to those fully included within Him. Scripture seemingly suggests that we are either in or we are out. Righteous or unrighteous. Alive to God or dead in our sin (see Romans 6).
This is where the doctrine of “regeneration” comes in.
Theopedia.com says, “Regeneration is the spiritual transformation in a person, brought about by the Holy Spirit, that brings the individual from being spiritually dead to become a spiritually alive human being. Regeneration is another way of speaking about the new birth or the second birth.” This is clearly what Jesus was referring to in John 3:3 when He said “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
It seems that there is a type of transformation that we all need to undergo, which frankly is not a process requiring our cooperation. Rather, we recognize Jesus as our sole deliverer. In trusting Him with our lives we find our truest identity dramatically changed. We see as Paul wrote in 2nd Corinthians that “for our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.” No longer are we trying to protect our self-image or perfect it. Instead, we gave it up for His new nature. He took our failure and freely gave us His perfection.
This is more important than all the growth and maturity we will go through for the rest of our lives. This miraculous “rebirth” made us into something altogether different, long before all our behavior and thought-patterns could even start to change to match it. As it is written, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
At the core of our being, we are not the same as we use to be. At all.
Don’t Confuse New Growth With the New Birth
Catholic mystic Richard Rohr was recently quoted on Twitter as saying, “We aren’t born again. We are born again and again and again.” While I love this statement and see its poetic beauty, I think it risks being heard in a way which undermines how thoroughly changed we have already been made in Christ by His finished work.
Yes, we always surrender to God afresh. We always learn — especially about the grace which brought us into His secure embrace. We always grow deeper in faith, trusting Him more deeply. We live from encounter to encounter, revelation to revelation. We get better at obeying and embodying Christ’s teachings everyday, and we become more familiar with His Presence in the process.
We must be careful though that we do not forget that we are who we are because of His action. Our performance, our experience, our maturity do not define us as “in” or “out.” It is His regenerative work in our hearts that brought us to participate in Christ’s union with God. As Colossians 1:13-14 stated, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Our Confidence is Not in Ourselves
The point in emphasizing all of this is not actually that we will categorize people and exclude some of God’s children from His family. We are not trying to practice an us-verses-them mentality that tells others “our religion is the best.” The point is to point us all to Jesus, the One who is our only source of righteousness and oneness with God. If we trust Him to be our new life, our identity, our sanctification, then we are free from the insecurity that comes from trying to get it together ourselves.
We don’t have to master living well in order to breathe in His life. We get to cease from trying to prove ourselves — be it to others, to ourselves, or even to God. We are more than enough in Him. He has made us saints.
Titus 3:3-7 reads, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
We may not know all the right Christian teachings. We may not live the most Christ-like lifestyle everyday. And we may not associate with the most correct religious tribe. But we can have confidence knowing none of that defines our position before God. Only Jesus does, and we live in Him.
By grace through faith in Christ, we are complete. We have eternal life. We are accepted.
Once and for all time, we have been reborn.