Finally Alive

What Happens When We Are Born Again

Editors’ note: 

This review was originally published in Themelios 35–1 (2010): 115.

This relatively short book, Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again, is John Piper’s response to the misuse of the language of regeneration in North America. Where “born again” is used as a label for professing evangelicals-or even those who simply report making some sort of commitment to Christ at some point in their lives-Piper believes, “[t]he term born again is desecrated” (16). The matter is serious because this loose and unbiblical use of the language of rebirth leads those observing the church to “defile the new birth with the worldliness of unregenerate, professing Christians” (15). If all who claim some sort of commitment to Christ are born again, it appears that being born again does not have the radical effect on life that the NT claims, for such professing Christians are regularly shown in surveys to be prone to the same sinful pursuits and habits as the world. Piper therefore sets out to provide a biblical definition of “born again” and its associated terminology.

Christians outside America may not have experienced quite the same misuse of language. They should be thankful, nevertheless, that circumstances in America have drawn forth this systematic treatment of a vital biblical theme. It certainly appears to this reviewer that confusion or simply ignorance on this topic is widespread in evangelical circles. It would be tempting to say that a serious study of the Bible’s teaching on new birth is timely, if it were not for the fact that it seems somewhat overdue!

Piper tackles the theme with his customarily thorough and systematic approach, starting with definition (“What is the new birth?”), moving through our need (“Why must we be born again?”), God’s action (“How does the new birth come about?”), the result (“What are the effects of the new birth?”), and the resulting imperative (“How can we help others be born again?”). Each question is tackled in a few short chapters, with each chapter based on a particular Bible passage. On the whole, the chapters are thorough and clear, and thanks to their length quite readable. There is no technical vocabulary, beyond what is necessary to expound the passages cited, and the book is on the whole accessible to those who would not usually plunge into works of theology.

Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again

Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again

Christian Focus (2009). 203 pp.

When Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again,” the devout and learned religious leader was unsure what Jesus meant. It would seem nothing has changed. Today “born again Christians” fill churches that are seen as ineffectual at best, and even characterized by the “mosaic” generation as “unchristian.”

Being “born again” is now defined by what people say they believe. The New Testament however defines Christians very differently.

Christian Focus (2009). 203 pp.

Piper’s emphases seem highly relevant to the contemporary church. He insists that to be born again is more than to offer assent to the truths of the gospel: “Jesus says, what happens in the new birth is not merely affirming the supernatural in me, but experiencing the supernatural in yourself” (31). Our churches are seriously infected by the prevailing naturalism of our society, and this is seen in the downplaying of the miraculous nature of Christian conversion. It is essential to say clearly that regeneration is a miracle. God is active in our world today and must be active if we are to see people entering eternal life.

I was particularly delighted to see the link between regeneration and union with Christ brought out clearly: “the Holy Spirit supernaturally gives us new spiritual life by connecting us with Jesus Christ through faith” (42). It is the life of Jesus into which we are reborn. If I had not been on a quiet train while reading this particular chapter, I probably would have cheered. As it was, I contented myself with a broad grin.

This being John Piper, the emphasis on the sovereignty of God in the new birth is present throughout the book. Again, I was delighted, particularly as it was made clear throughout that this does not in any way detract from the need for real human faith and real human evangelism.

Alongside huge appreciation of these important points, I do have some reservations. The structure of the book, which feels more like a series of expository sermons than a purpose-written manuscript, sometimes feels a little laborious. More seriously, while the structure has led to detailed engagement with the relevant biblical texts, it has not allowed for the treatment of broader theological and pastoral issues arising from the topic. As an example, Piper seems aware that discussing new birth as a divine action worked on us may well be unsettling, raising the question of whether we are really born again; he expresses his hope that this will not be the result for tender consciences.

For this reviewer, an explicit treatment of the question of assurance would have been invaluable. I would also have appreciated a fuller treatment of the issue of sin in the regenerate in this regard (the ten pages on the subject are excellent, but feel all too brief and under-applied) and some thoughts on the experience of new birth (for example, tackling the questions raised by people who cannot recall a particular conversion experience). Many of the answers to these questions are present in the text of this book, but the format has not permitted them to be drawn together and explored, at least not to my satisfaction, and I cannot help being a little afraid for readers of little faith.

The previous paragraph notwithstanding, this book should be read and recommended for its insight into a crucial theological concept and as a wake-up call to a Christianity which has lost sight of the need for God’s decisive and gracious intervention in each and every heart if there is to be real life in the church and real witness in the world.