For some time now it has been pointed out by researchers that the claim to be born again does not result in the transformation of people’s lives. The headline “Born Again Christians Just As Likely to Divorce as Non-Christians” has been widely circulated in books like Ron Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why are Christians Living Just Like The Rest Of The World? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005). Sider reports that according to Barna research only 9% of Christians tithe, of 12,000 teenagers who took the pledge to wait for marriage 80% had sex outside marriage in the next seven years, and that white evangelicals are more likely than Catholics and mainstream Protestants to object to having black neighbours. In other words, claiming to be born again doesn’t make much of a difference in people’s lives. They are pretty much like everybody else. They may go to church on a Sunday, and may be part of a Bible Study group and observe the trappings of evangelical religion, but its religion is not a transforming power.
John Piper (Finally Alive, Christian Focus, 2009) offers a devastating alternative explanation. It is not that the research is wrong. He agrees that it is “appallingly right”. But in the light of what the Bible says about being born again, and especially what the First Epistle of John says about the way the new birth transforms people’s lives, he concludes that the Bible says “the research is not finding that born again people are permeated with worldliness; the research is finding that the church is permeated by people who are not born again”.
That has profound implications for those of us who claim to be evangelical and who believe in the necessity of the new birth. If Piper is right, many people who claim to be born again are actually, as the Puritans described them, “false professors”. In spite of what they claim, their hearts have never been supernaturally transformed. It is not that Piper is advocating some form of perfectionism and claiming that being born again makes us perfect in this life. Christians are not, and will never be, perfect, this side of heaven. But he says that people need to understand the seriousness and supernatural nature of true Christian conversion, and that it makes a difference in people’s lives. It results in faith, love and joyful obedience to God. If people are to finally enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3) and if the church is to let her light shine so that people may give glory to God (Matthew 5:16) then it is crucial that people not only understand but actually experience the new birth.