This is a question that Lutherans sometimes find difficult to answer. What makes it challenging is that, answering according to our understanding of Biblical teaching, we can confidently answer: “Yes, I am born again.” But since “born again” has become for some a code phrase for an exclusionary distinction we don’t agree with, we sometimes feel compelled to add something like: “But perhaps not in the way you’re thinking of.”
So let’s start the discussion where we always should — the Word of God. The phrase ‘born again’ appears a few times in the Bible, but most notably in a discussion (John 3:1-21) between Jesus and Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish leader who, like his fellows Jews, trusted that being a descendant of Abraham and obedient to the laws of Moses qualified him for God’s kingdom. Jesus admonished him:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (v 3)
Nicodemus interpreted this as a literal biological rebirth and was thoroughly baffled by that concept! To which Jesus replied:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (v5)
From this exchange, and the extended conversation which follows, it is clear that Jesus is speaking about a powerful spiritual rebirth, but one which involves both the water of Baptism and the Holy Spirit. Other passages such as Mark 16:16 and 1 Peter 3:21 intimately couple Baptism and salvation. Consequently, from the earliest days of Christianity, it was understood that spiritual rebirth occurs during the Sacrament (sacred act) of Baptism which God provides to bring us into His family.
When Luther’s objections against specific abuses in the medieval Roman Catholic Church precipitated the Protestant Reformation, other reformers questioned the whole idea of sacraments. To them, Baptism did not itself convey salvation, but rather symbolized the commitment of a believer who had been brought to faith by the activity of the Holy Spirit, in response to hearing the Word of God. Thus, while Lutherans, Catholics, and some other churches have a similar sacramental understanding of Baptism as a Means of Grace by which the promise of salvation is tangibly conferred, many Protestant Christians view Baptism more as a symbolic confirmation of a personal commitment already made – the sealing of a ‘decision for Christ’ that occurred at a particular moment in a Christian’s life.
Now, we Lutherans don’t dispute the possibility that saving faith can exist without Baptism – after all, the ancient patriarchs are numbered among God’s saved (Romans 4:3), and the thief on the cross was assured of his salvation (Luke 23:39-43), even though none of those were baptized. However, we also see that scripture is very consistent that salvation is entirely the work of God, and not attributable to any kind of human work – including our making a decision. Though God is certainly free to make exceptions, scripture speaks of Baptism as the normal ‘means of grace’ by which an individual is reborn as a Child of God. So if you ask a Lutheran whether he or she is born again they will properly point to their baptism as the event by which they became “born again by water and Spirit” as His adopted children and recipients of His promises of salvation.
But here’s the rub: for people who characterize themselves as “born again Christians,” (a relatively modern term) it is sometimes implied that unless one can identify the instance when one made an intellectual “decision for Christ” then one is not truly saved. That’s a problem for the many of us Christians who became part of the Body of Christ as infants baptized into the faith and raised in the Word of God: we cannot recall a time when we didn’t know the assurance of God’s promises of salvation. Though not at all disputing the legitimacy of a specific conversion experience, our own journeys have been ones of God having chosen us in Baptism, followed by lives of daily rebirth and renewal as children of God.
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)