Thursday, November 03, 2011

Am I Born Again?

I believe I have completed all I need to say at this time on the issue of Blessings. I may do a historical treatise on curses in the future, which could be fun. There was a liturgy of public cursing in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, believe it or not. I do not believe that has any real bearing on purposes of answering my hate mail letter, so I will put that off to some later time. There is also the issue of the specific versus the general blessing, but that is also another topic unto itself.

I will now in the next few blog entries attempt to answer some of the other questions not having to do with the Blessing of animals that were posed in that original letter. The questions became much more snarky and personal as the letter went on, but giving the benefit of the doubt, I think they were valid questions at least from the writer's particular theological point of view. They are questions I get asked from time to time from my more, shall I say, Evangelical brethren. I use the term Evangelical not in any sort of diminutive way but for lack of a better descriptor. I have heretofore discussed the "squishiness" of the term. To be fair, I think such folk would apply the term to themselves and self identify as such.

To that end, one of the questions asked in the letter is (and I quote directly, punctuation and all), "Are you born again and do you read God's word-Do you really know what it says?"

"Are you born again?" is a question that is very loaded in terms of the American religious scene. It references the 3rd chapter of Gospel of John. You can read the whole passage here. Again, I link from my letter writer's beloved King James Version. (For those so inclined, there are numerous other translations, such as the RSV, NRSV, and the English Standard.) The key verse is verse 3, which reads in the KJV as follows: "Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Interesting, American Evangelicals that favor the King James Version gravitate to the use of "born again." You will notice that in some of the later translations, that phrase, "born again," is ambiguous in the Greek. The Greek word can mean "again" or "from above," or even "anew" in some translations. The Greek is purposely ambiguous and can mean both "again" and "from above." Given John's portrayal of Jesus as a much more Socratic style debater and teacher (as opposed to the more Jewish Rabbinic style in the synoptic gospels), I would argue the ambiguity is intentional on John's part.

More literalist King James style American Christians often fail to grasp this ambiguity.  They also fail to tackle the next thing Jesus says in that passage. In Verse 5, Jesus elaborates further, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." So, being "born again" from Jesus' words here is only the first step. Being born again allows you to see the kingdom of God, but you have to be born of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God."

This is where a good number of strands of Christianity "get off the train," as it were, and disagree with our more Evangelical brethren as to the meaning of what it means "to be saved." If you have a good Gideon bible (and if you've been to any Hotel room anywhere in the Western world, you've probably seen one), in the appendix, there is often this section about "How do I be saved?" (or words to that affect) which ultimately leads to the (presumably unsaved) reader to say the "Sinner's prayer."

An example is something like this from Wikipedia: "Heavenly Father, I know that I have sinned against you and that my sins separate me from you. I am truly sorry. I now want to turn away from my sinful past and turn to you for forgiveness. Please forgive me, and help me avoid sinning again. I believe that your Son, Jesus Christ, died for my sins, that He was raised from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. I invite Jesus to become my Savior and the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward. Please send your Holy Spirit to help me obey You and to convict me when I sin. I pledge to grow in grace and knowledge of you. My greatest purpose in life is to follow your example and do Your will for the rest of my life. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen."

That prayer, or one like unto it is, according to the "Let Jesus into your Heart and ye shall be saved" crowd is all you need to be saved and you go to heaven. Period, end of discussion. This sort of theology and understanding of salvation is a relatively modern contrivance. Christianity got along quite well for near on 1800+ years without this model of salvation. There are many historical and theological strands that feed into this understanding, e.g. Luther's Justification by Faith alone, various forms of Protestant Pietism, the Arminian-Calvinist debates, John Locke's primacy of the individual and individual rights, etc.

My critique as an Anglican is that this "Are you Born Again?" mentality is particularly American in that it is a very "Individualistic" salvation model. That is to say that I am saved as an individual. I think of that old Gospel song, "All I need is Jesus." While a great hymn, the inference is that I do not, as an individual, need the Church or its Teachings, the Christian Community, or the need to worry about doing any actual good deed like feeding the poor. As long as I said the Sinner's Prayer back in 1983 when I was 13 years old at a Bible youth camp, then I am saved. Whether I have set foot in a church since or have lifted a finger to give to the poor in all those years is completely irrelevant, so the thinking goes. I am born again, and I am saved.

Now, let me be clear. I am not trying to be snotty. I know a good number of Christians who firmly believe that all you need is to give your life to Jesus and say the sinner's prayer. They are very good, committed Christians, and I wish them all God's blessing. I have no doubt that God speaks to them and through them in God's own way. I can disagree with them, and I can try to show them what I believe is the revelation of God to His people, but ultimately I am just a signpost, an icon if you will, that points to God's Path. What they believe is not, ultimately, for me to judge.  

Now, having said that, I come back to answer the original question of "Am I saved?"

My answer is always, "Yes, but..." By that, I mean, yes, I believe I am saved, to use the Evangelical terminology, but I am saved every day. I confess that I have sinned and continue to sin, despite my best efforts. I pray that God saves me from my sins every day, became I am constantly in need of keeping my eyes on the prize. I constantly need to see the Kingdom of God before me. I often wander off and start worrying about other things, so I believe I constantly need to be born again or born from above. To me, being saved is not a one time event, as if the Sinner's prayer is some magical incantation that I utter once and forever thereafter I've become a prince charming and live happily ever after. Confessing of sins and acknowledging that I need Jesus is only the first step; it is not the last step towards salvation. I am saved at Baptism, wherein I join with Jesus in his tomb and am resurrected with Jesus. I am saved through the grace of God in the Spirit when I perform good deeds and help others. I will be saved when Jesus comes again in power and great glory.

Do I know what God's Word says? By the grace of God, yes, I know what has been revealed to me. Herein is the mystery of faith, "Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again."Does that mean I know it all? By no means. But to my writer, I would ask, "Do you know what God's Word says, and like Nicodemus, do you know what it means?"

So am I saved? Yes. I believe I am saved, but everyday and in every way because I believe that is what God's Word says.

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