Born Again, and Again, and …

How many times can one man find Jesus?

Biship Eddie Long
Can Bishop Eddie Long be reborn a second time?

Photograph by John Amis-Pool/Getty Images.

Bishop Eddie Long, the Atlanta-area Baptist megachurch leader accused of sexual misconduct with several young men, announced on Sunday he is taking time off to focus on his family. His church, like many evangelical Christian churches, exhorts sinners to be “born again,” accepting Christ as their savior on the path to redemption. If a born-again Christian like Long has already been reborn, can he later become born again again?

It’s hard to say. Though more than one-third of U.S. Christians characterize themselves as “born-again,” the phrase isn’t clearly defined in the Bible. It gained currency in the 1960s and ’70s among evangelicals, who emphasized spiritual rebirth and a personal relationship with Jesus as a key to salvation. A prototypical example is Charles Colson, a villain in the Watergate scandal, whose 1976 book Born Again recounted how he had found Jesus shortly before he was sentenced to prison. In this sense, the term is most commonly applied to nonbelievers who convert to Christianity as adults. But it can also refer, colloquially, to Christians who stray from a righteous path and then experience a reawakening, as George W. Bush said he did after a conversation with the evangelist Billy Graham in 1985. There’s even a website, bornagainagain.org, for Christians who want to “rekindle the flames” of their religious conviction, akin to couples who renew their marriage vows.

Many religious scholars, though, are wary of using the term due to its ambiguity. Its primary scriptural basis is in John 3, when Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” What exactly the Savior meant by that is a matter of debate. Some denominations hold that it refers to baptism, since Jesus goes on to explain, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Others say baptism is only an outward sign: The real rebirth is the radical change that transpires in a person’s heart when he puts his full faith in Jesus and is renewed by the Holy Spirit. Either way, most scholars agree that someone who has truly been reborn in this sense can’t be reborn again.

Teachings vary from church to church, however, especially among Baptists, who reject a hierarchical church structure. Unlike many Christians, Baptists aren’t baptized as infants, but only when they’ve reached the age of accountability—often in their early teens—and publicly professed their faith. Eddie Long’s church, the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, couldn’t be reached for comment, but the “new birth” in the name likely refers to the conversion experience that goes along with being baptized. Thus reborn, those who stray would most likely be urged not to be reborn a second time, but to repent.

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Explainer thanks David Garland of the Truett Seminary at Baylor University and Vern Poythress of the Westminster Theological Seminary.