Is the concept of being “born-again” unique to evangelicals? Does it apply to United Methodists?
Let me begin by offering a clarification. United Methodists are evangelical! From its beginnings, Methodism has always been part of, and often at the vanguard of the broader movement within Protestant Christianity called "evangelicalism." Wikipedia defines "evangelicalism" as: a tendency in diverse branches of Protestantism, typified by an emphasis on evangelism, a personal experience of conversion, biblically-oriented faith, and a belief in the relevance of Christian faith to cultural issues. (http://wikipedia.com/wiki/Evangelicalism).
Declaring the good news of God's salvation through Jesus Christ offered freely to all who wish to receive it is at the very heart of who we are as United Methodists. We declare that good news with the expectation that it will lead persons to an experience of conversion, of "entirely turning over" their lives to God by becoming disciples of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. And we expect that all disciples of Jesus Christ are transforming the culture in which they find themselves, individually and collectively, as they bear witness to and become agents of the work of God's kingdom in the world. We are evangelical!
Where we may be different from some other evangelicals (including some, but not all Baptists) is that we understand conversion to be a lifelong process, a continual turning of our lives and wills over to God for God's use and purposes. And to begin that lifelong process, we must, as the scriptures teach and John Wesley reminds us, be "born again."
In his sermon, "The New Birth," Wesley compares the new birth to natural birth. Before we are born we cannot see, we cannot breathe the air, we cannot hear with understanding, and we cannot feel with any certitude what exists outside the womb. But once outside the womb, the entire world opens up to us, and we experience what we could never have known before. So it is with the new birth. Prior to this gracious act of God in our lives, we cannot see God, we do not breathe the air of the Spirit, we do not hear deeply God's gracious word of forgiveness and God's call to holiness, and we have little ability to feel the work and movement of the Holy Spirit. But after being born again, the very Being of God opens up to us, and we begin a journey into holiness (sanctification) that changes everything about our relationship to God and our neighbors.
Baptism by water and the Spirit is the sign, and for many (though not all!) the usual channel of this great gift of God. "By Water and the Spirit" reminds us that:
Baptism is the means of entry into new life in Christ (John 3:5; Titus 3:5), but new birth may not always coincide with the moment of the administration of water or the laying on of hands. Our awareness and acceptance of our redemption by Christ and new life in him may vary throughout our lives. But, in whatever way the reality of the new birth is experienced, it carries out the promises God made to us in our baptism.
United Methodists can, do, and should proclaim God's call to salvation in Jesus Christ and offer of new birth by water and the Spirit to all. It is the new birth that makes God's salvation real and vital in our personal lives, and through our personal lives, alive to the world.
Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards
Taylor served as director of worship resources with Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church from 2005-2018. He is an elder in the Indiana Conference, appointed in extension ministry to United Methodist Communications.