Bob Dylan has finally confirmed in an interview what he has been saying in his music for 18 months: He is a born-again Christian.

Dylan, 39, said that he accepted Jesus in his heart in 1978 after a "vision and feeling" during which the room moved: "There was a presence in the room that couldn't have been anybody but Jesus."

He was initially reluctant to tell his friends or put his feeling into songs, but he was so committed to his gospel music by late 1979 that he did not perform any of his songs during a tour. He said that he feared the old material might be "anti-God."

Believing now that the old and new songs are compatible, Dylan again sings such stinging rockers as "Like a Rolling Stone" alongside such born-again treatises as "Gotta Serve Somebody."

Sitting in his Los Angeles hotel room before a concert, Dylan, whose family is Jewish, sat on a couch and smoked a cigarette as he discussed his religious experience.

"The funny thing is a lot of people think that Jesus comes into a person' s life only when they are either down and out or are miserable or just old and withering away," Dylan said. "That's not the way it was for me.

"I was doing fine. I had come a long way in just the year we were on the road [1978]. I was relatively content, but a very close friend of mine mentioned a couple of things to me and one of them was Jesus.

"Well, the whole idea of Jesus was foreign to me. I said to myself, 'I can't deal with that. Maybe later.' But later it occurred to me that I trusted this person and I had nothing to do with the next couple of days so I called the person back and said I was willing to listen about Jesus."

Through a friend, Dylan met two young pastors.

"I was kind of skeptical, but I was also open," he said. "I certainly wasn't cynical. I asked lots of questions, questions like, 'What's the son of God, what's all that mean?' and, 'What does it mean -- dying for my sins?'"

Slowly, Dylan began to accept that "Jesus was real and I wanted that. . . I knew that He wasn't going to come into my life and make it miserable, so one thing led to another . . . until I had this feeling, this vision and feeling."

Dylan, the most acclaimed songwriter of the rock era, had been unwilling to grant interviews since the release last year of the gospel-dominated "Slow Train Coming" album, suggesting that anyone who wanted to know what he felt could simply listen to that work.

The album was a passionate testimony to Christiam salvation, devotion and doctrine. Though the album became one of Dylan's biggest sellers, many of his fans felt confused, even betrayed: The man who once urged his audience to question all authority was suddenly embracing what some believed was the most simplistic of religious sentiments. Furthermore, some critics argued, Dylan's attitudes were smug. Surely, many insisted, this was just another peculiar turn in Dylan's every-shifting persona.

Even when he returned last spring with another gospel album, the less commercially successful "Saved," rumors abounded that he had abandoned the born-again beliefs. But Dylan's shows on his present tour have refuted that speculation. Ten of his 17 songs on opening night were from the last two albums.

In the interview, too, Dylan stressed that his beliefs are deeply rooted: "It's in my system."

At the same time, Dylan showed that he has not lost his questioning spirit.

Asked about the political activism of fundamentalist Christian groups like the Moral Majority, he replied, "I think people have to be careful about all that. . . It's real dangerous. You can find anything you want in the Bible. You can twist it around any way you want and a lot of people do that. I just don't think you can legislate morality . . . The basic thing, I feel, is to get in touch with Christ yourself. He will lead you. Any preacher who is a real preacher will tell you that: 'Don't follow me, follow Christ.'"

Dylan still seemed uncertain about discussing his religious views when he began his tour in Los Angeles on Nov. 9, sidestepping questions on the topic at a news conference backstage after the opening show. But once he touched on the subject in the hotel interview, he spoke freely.

It would be wrong to infer that Dylan has become a "Jesus freak" stereotype. During the interview and during other, more informal chats he spoke with equal zest about various matters, including the decision to do his old material again.

"This show evolved from the one we did last year," he said. "It is probably going to evolve even more. Some people say you should have several acoustic numbers all in a row, just me and a guitar."

Q. Any of your songs that you couldn't sing today? Any song that you couldn't relate to?

A. "I don't think so. I could probably sing them all, even 'Queen Jane Approximately.'"

Q. Why didn't you do any of the old songs on the 1979 tour?

A. "I truly had a born-again experience, if you want to call it that. It's an overused term, but it's something that people can relate to. It happened in 1978.

I always knew there was a God or a creator of the universe and a creator of the mountains and the sea and all that kind of thing, but I wasn't conscious of Jesus and what that had to do with the Supreme Creator."

Q. After you had the vision, I understand you attended a three-month Bible course at a church in Los Angeles?

A. "At first, I said, "There's no way I can devote three months to this. I've got to be back on the road soon.' But I was sleeping one day and I just sat up in bed at 7 in the morning and I was compelled to get dressed and drive over to the Bible school. I couldn't believe I was there."

Q. But you had already accepted Jesus in your heart?

A. "Yeah, but I hadn't told anybody about it because I felt they would say, 'Aw, come on.' Most of the people I know don't believe that Jesus was resurrected, that He is alive. It's like He was just another prophet or something, one of many good people. That's not the way it was any longer for me. I had always read the Bible, but I only looked at it as literature. I was never really instructed in it in a way that was meaningful to me.

"I had assumed that these feelings came to you at a crisis point in your life, a time when you were desperately needing something else to believe in.

"No. I had gone so far that I didn't even think there was anything left. I thought, 'Well, everybody has got their own truth.' What works for one man is fine as long as it works for him. I had given up looking and searching for it."

Q. But didn't you go to Israel? You seemed to be seaching for some religious. . .?

A. "Not really. If I was searching, it was just . . . get down to the root reality of the way things really are, to pull the mask off. My thing was always to pull the mask off of whatever was going on. It's like war. People don't look at war as a business. They look at it as an emotional thing.

"When you get right down to it, however, war -- unless one people need another people's land -- is a business. If you look at it that way, you can come to terms with it. There are certain people who make a lot of money off of war the same way people make money off blue jeans. To say it was something else always irritated me."

Q. Did you start telling friends about it when you went to the Bible classes?

A. "No, I didn't want to set myself up. I didn't want to reflect on the Lord at all because if I told people and then I didn't keep myself going, they'd say, 'Oh well, I guess it was just another one of those things that didn't work out.' I didn't know myself if I could go for three months. But I did begin telling a few people after a couple of months and a lot of them got angry at me."

Q. Do you have any fear that what you're saying now may come back to haunt you in five years -- that you aren't really committed?

A. "I don't think so. If I would have felt anything like that, I think it would have come up to the surface by now." f

Q. But we've seen so many rock stars get involved with gurus and maharishis and then move on.

A. "Well, this is no maharishi trip with me. Jesus is definitely not that to me."

Q. What did you think about some of the hostile reviews to "Slow Train Coming"?

A. "You can't look at reviews."

Q. Do you see how people could think some of the messages in the album were heavy-handed?

A. "It's in my system. I don't really have enough time to talk about it.

If someone really wants to know, I can explain it to them, but there are other people who can do it just as well. I don't feel compelled to do it. I was doing a bit of that last year on the stage. I was saying stuff I figured people needed to know. I thought I was giving people an idea of what was behind the songs. tI don't think it's necessary any more.

"When I walk around some of the towns we go to, however, I'm totally convinced people need Jesus. Look at the junkies and the winos and the troubled people. It's all a sickness which can be healed in an instant. The powers that be won't let that happen. The powers that be say it has to be healed politically."

Q. What about some of the new songs? Some seem only remotely religious.

A. "They've evolved. I've made my statement and I don't think I could make it any better than in some of those songs. Once I've said what I need to say in a song , that's it. I don't want to repeat myself."

Q. So, you can work from a larger canvas again?

A. "Yeah, but that doesn't mean that I won't keep singing these songs."

Q. Is music still important to you?

A. "Music has given me a purpose. As a kid, there was rock. Later on, there was folk-blues music. It's not something that I just listen to as a passive person. It has always been in my blood and it has never failed me.

"Because of that, I'm disconnected from a lot of the pressures of life. It disconnects you from what people think about you. Attitudes don't really make too much difference when you can get on stage and play the guitar and sing songs. It's natural for me. I don't know why I was chosen to do it. I'm almost 40 now and I'm not tired on it yet.

"I didn't mean to deliver a hammer blow. It might come out of the way, but I'm not trying to kill anybody. You can't put down people who don't believe. iAnybody can have the answer I have. I mean, it's free."