What It Means to be Born Again

Christians often talk about the need to be born again, but you may be wondering what the term “born again” actually means. If so, read on!

Commonly, we are taught that anyone who isn’t born again is going to Hell. As I’ll explain, that isn’t quite what Jesus said. Even so, He was talking about salvation. For that reason…

 

You Must Be Born Again

 

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Jesus in Conversation with Nicodemus by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

This term “born again” appears only in John 3. This, of course, is also where we find the most famous verse in the Bible—John 3:16. The term “born again” may also be translated as “born from above.”

Jesus introduced this topic as He talked with Nicodemus, a religious leader. Nicodemus had come to talk with Jesus at night. He might have been embarrassed to be seen talking with Jesus in a public place in the daylight.

Nicodemus told Jesus, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could could do the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus wasted no time telling Nicodemus what He needed to know:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)

Nicodemus was confused upon hearing these words. We can’t blame the poor fellow. After all, most of us haven’t fully understood it even after having read Jesus’ response. I will demonstrate this by reviewing how most Catholics and Protestants have understood this term.

Catholic leaders took it in stride. As they saw it, the “kingdom” that Jesus spoke of was Roman Catholicism. As a result, Catholics seldom show any concern about being born again. Presumably, they all entered the kingdom through water baptism as infants.

Protestants, including myself, feel that the Catholics have misinterpreted this passage. We’ve associated the born again experience with individual salvation more than with church affiliation.

Most Evangelicals interpret the “kingdom of God” as referring to Heaven, with the only alternative being Hell. Evangelicals incorporated the idea of being born again into their other-worldly understanding of salvation, which is largely about how to get to Heaven by praying a prayer of repentance and confession. Their reasoning went something like this:

  • Anyone who, enabled by God’s grace, sincerely prays the sinner’s prayer will go to heaven.
  • Nobody can go to heaven without having been born again.
  • Ergo, everyone who prays the sinner’s prayer must be born again.

This was obviously not intended to be a detailed study, but only the sum and substance of Catholic and Evangelical teaching on this topic.

Do you suppose that either the Catholics or the Evangelicals based their understanding of the new birth on a thorough study of John 3:1-21? As we shall see, this does not appear to be the case. Little attention has been paid to what Jesus actually said about the born again experience, which I’ll tell you about in this post.

One problem with the Evangelical interpretation is that the Bible does not present salvation in a formulaic manner, such as through a single prayer that is used consistently in the New Testament. People in the Bible who came to believe in God were always expected to show it by a changed life (Jas. 2:14-26). As I will explain, it’s no different in the case of born-again Christians. Jesus expected believers to show their spiritual nature through how they lived, as a result of their ongoing relationship with God.

Another problem is that, when referring to the kingdom of God in this conversation, Jesus couldn’t have been talking about a distant, other-worldly heaven.

How do I know this? In the context of that time and culture, the Jews were looking for a Messiah Who would establish an earthly kingdom. Even John the Baptist expected that since he had preached that the kingdom of heaven was “at hand.” This term wouldn’t be used to describe a kingdom for which multiple generations would have to wait more than 2,000 years.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, was expecting God to appoint His chosen race of people to reign in this earthly kingdom. The Pharisees thought the Jews were God’s people. Nicodemus must have assumed that physical birth was sufficient for all Jews. Therefore, he wouldn’t have expected Jesus to talk about a spiritual birth.

Someone may point out that Jesus was in the business of instituting a spiritual kingdom. While that is true, “spiritual” isn’t synonymous with “other-worldly.” For example,  when Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is within you,” He was affirming the kingdom’s presence and relevance in and among believers living in this world, not a kingdom in a remote heaven or on a “new earth” that presumably, God plans to create after having destroyed this one.

When Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom was “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36), He wasn’t saying that His kingdom would never exist on this planet. Instead, as the context reveals, He was saying that His kingdom didn’t derive its power and authority from worldly sources such as soldiers and weapons. Jesus said that if this had been the case, His servants would have fought to prevent His arrest.

Nicodemus’ response showed that he was indeed focused on this world. He asked Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

 

Born of Water and the Spirit

Jesus answered the question as follows:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:5-6)

The first birth is birth by water. Most theologians interpret this to mean childbirth for at least two reasons. First, water, known as “amniotic fluid,” comes out whenever a child is born.  Second, you can see in the above quote that Jesus equated birth by water with being born of the “flesh,” which is the body.

Some Protestants see water baptism in the reference to birth by water, but Catholics find it in the birth by the Spirit. Personally, I don’t see either one, but you can decide for yourself.

Water baptism is a kind of birth by water, but it’s not a birth by the flesh. In fact, being born of the flesh is contrary to the meaning and purpose of water baptism. Baptism doesn’t represent a physical rebirth, but a spiritual rebirth from our earthly existence to a new life with God.

You may ask, “Since you just admitted that water baptism is symbolic of spiritual rebirth, couldn’t the Catholics be correct in their interpretation?” I will respond from personal experience, which I’m sure many of you can relate to.

I was born of water three times. After the first time, I was awarded a birth certificate. The second time was infant baptism by the Catholic church. The third time was adult baptism by a Protestant church. I received water baptism certificates after each of those experiences. The question is, was I spiritually reborn through either of the water baptisms?

I doubt that the infant baptism made a huge difference in my life. I didn’t come to know Jesus through that. It didn’t even keep me in Roman Catholicism, which I assume was one of the purposes.

Even in the case of adult baptisms, God is under no obligation to grant spiritual rebirth to every person who is baptized. The Holy Spirit visibly descended on Jesus in the form of a dove after He was baptized. However, most people who get baptized don’t experience anything other than a feeling of wetness, and maybe coldness.

Protestants who don’t associate the “born again” experience with water baptism will most likely associate it with the “sinners prayer.” However, God also is under no obligation to regenerate every person who responds to an altar call and prays the “sinner’s prayer.” A lot of people who have been “saved” (or water baptized for that matter) have never shown the slightest evidence of having been “born again.” For instance, about 90 percent of the people who respond to altar calls don’t join a church.

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On many occasions, I’ve strongly sensed the Presence of the Holy Spirit. I never received a certificate of spiritual rebirth like the one in the picture above. Still, I’m happy with that because no other human being could have witnessed my spiritual rebirth. This ties in with how Jesus described the Holy Spirit as being like the wind. Nobody from a meteorologist to an airplane pilot to a sailor is able to observe the invisible tracks of the wind, or to predict its movements with a high degree of certainty.

Even I don’t know for certain when I became spiritually reborn. Perhaps it happened when I first confessed Christ as my Lord and Savior and invited Him into my heart. In any case, I see no reason to enshrine as a doctrine either my or anyone else’s guess about when a seeker becomes spiritually reborn.

The Bible does give us confidence to know, and to anyone seeking the Lord that God will give the Holy Spirit to anyone who asks in faith (Lk. 11:9-13). I think, however, that a person can have enough faith to respond to an altar call and pray, but still be full of doubts. We see an example of a man in this situation in Mark 9:17-27. He had faith to go to Jesus and to confess Him as Lord, but didn’t faith to receive the miracle he needed. He cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” The Lord performed the miracle, but normally we need faith before God will do what we ask of Him.

Another problem, also confirmed in my own experience, is that Christians don’t always either act or feel like Christians. I’ve even tried to walk away from God. Ironically, that can actually show who’s a Christian because it never works out well for God’s children. This comes under the category, “Don’t try this at home.”

I don’t think Jesus intended for us to judge one another, as if we can determine who’s truly born again and who’s not. That said, we should be genuinely concerned about fellow believers and their spiritual well-being. There’s a big difference between having a critical spirit and being willing to confront a brother or sister who is caught up in sin (see Jn. 8:3-11 for an example of this).

Jesus didn’t elaborate on the spiritual birth itself. He didn’t give Nicodemus a four-step plan to spiritual regeneration. God is free to grant spiritual rebirth whenever He chooses, to whomever He chooses. As Jesus went on to explain to Nicodemus, the Holy Spirit is as free as the wind. This means believers are free because…

 

The Wind Blows Where It Wishes

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The Wanderer Above the Mists by Caspar Friedrich

Jesus continued by describing Spirit-born people:

Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:7-8)

Here, Jesus compared the Holy Spirit to the wind. As Jesus and Nicodemus both knew, the Hebrew word for Spirit also meant “wind” or “breath.” The Spirit of God was often associated with wind, breath, and storms in the Hebrew Scriptures (Gen. 2:7, 1 Kgs. 19:11-12, Job 38:1, Ps. 18:11, Isa. 32:15, Eze. 1:4, Nah. 1:3).

I love the fact that Jesus said the wind blows where it wishes. This speaks of the freedom that God’s children enjoy. It reminds me of the random moments when God’s Spirit moves in the hearts of His children and speaks to us.

Jesus pointed out that the wind is mysterious and invisible, yet also real and operative. That, He said, is what people born of the Spirit are like. God works through them in mysterious, yet substantive and observable ways.

When Jesus talked about not knowing where the wind comes from and where it goes, Nicodemus might have reflected back on his journey to meet with Jesus. He probably didn’t want anyone to know who he was as a Sanhedrin member (a high-ranking religious leader), nor to know where he was going. Most of the people also didn’t know Who Jesus was or where He was going, especially after He suffered and died on a cross between common criminals. This, however, was followed by strange events such as the eclipse, the curtain ripped in the temple, the resurrection, post-resurrection appearances, and so on.

Through His life and ministry, Jesus gave us the perfect example of how the Holy Spirit works in the life of a believer. We read, for example, about how Jesus loved people (the Spirit as a refreshing, life-giving breeze); preached the Word (breath, sound, and speech metaphors); and performed miracles (like a powerful, forceful, transforming wind). Like the wind, Jesus was unpredictable. He spoke God’s wisdom to people’s spirits while often leaving their (and our) rational minds befuddled.

As Jesus inferred, the Spirit of God is well able to impact this world in ways more powerful than the natural force of wind. Most importantly, the Holy Spirit can work through our voices as we bear witness to what God has done in us and revealed to us. As God said to Moses, “And who do you think made the human mouth?” (Ex. 4:11, The Message). The Bible first reveals the power of the tongue in Genesis 1, in which God spoke the Universe into existence. Our words hold the power of life and death (Prov. 18:21).

Whether we think about God’s Spirit as manifesting in the likeness of wind, breath, or simply as spirit, the phenomenon must appear alien and inexplicable to those who are spiritually dead, whether they be unbelievers or religious people. The work of the Holy Spirit is always transformative, even affecting unbelievers and convicting them of sin (Jn. 16:8). This can become either a perceived or real threat to the powers that be. As we all know, the Bible—and Christians—tend to get personal when it comes to topics like repentance.

If Jesus’ message had been entirely other-worldly, nobody would have considered it necessary to crucify Him. Surely, we can all understand why the Pharisees felt threatened. Jesus had thoroughly rebuked them in public, and He was gathering many followers. In addition, Jesus had prophesied that the temple would be destroyed. The risen Christ arranged for the sacking of Jerusalem and the dismantling of the temple in 70 A.D. This proved that our Lord is interested in worldly power, not only in having a heavenly people.

Suppose that Jesus had never been interested in earthly power, and so turned this world’s leadership entirely over to Satan. How do you think His spiritual people could have survived over the centuries? How could it be possible for the meek to inherit the earth (Mt. 5:5)?

After Jesus rose from the dead, He told His disciples that He had received all authority in heaven and on earth. He then commanded them to go and make disciples (Mt. 28:18-19). God sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and Jesus continued His ministry through believers. Christians displayed the fruits of the Spirit as they preached and witnessed; performed miracles; and made disciples throughout the known world. In the process, they changed the course of history.

Despite the continuing spread of Christianity, many Christians claim that they can’t find any trace of God’s kingdom on the earth. I have many questions for the Christians who teach that Jesus delayed the founding of His kingdom until after this earth has passed away. One would be, after having preached and taught so much about a kingdom of God in this world, when did Jesus scrap that idea? Does this mean that much of what He said was in vain? If you have similar questions, please consider the possibility that many Christian teachers have unknowingly lied to us. Let’s elevate God’s Word above the teachings of men (Mt. 15:9).

 

The Roman Catholic and Evangelical Positions

Unlike Roman Catholics, I don’t see the spiritual rebirth as being accomplished through water baptism. Jesus wasn’t telling Nicodemus to go get baptized in the Jordan River. In fact, as Jesus continued talking to Nicodemus, He prophesied about the salvation that would be revealed after He (the Son of Man) had been crucified (lifted up).

Unlike most Evangelicals, I don’t think people necessarily become spiritually reborn as a result of praying a prayer and confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior. God may be the only one who knows for certain whether someone responding to an altar call is sincere and truthful. James wrote that even the demons believe there is one God, yet shudder at the thought of it (Jas. 2:19).

Jesus said nothing about when or how a person can expect to become born again. He only described people born of the Spirit as being like a wind that blows where it wishes. You can hear the sound, but can’t tell where it comes from and where it goes. Based on this analogy, spiritually reborn believers may show the following qualities:

  1. Spiritually free.
  2. Spirit-led.
  3. Spiritually empowered.
  4. Having a constructive impact in the world.
Some Catholics and Evangelicals may not agree with how I’ve sought to explain the spiritual rebirth. Still, I’ve sought to limit myself to what Jesus said.
Church leaders have no doubt benefited in a temporal sense from their alleged ability to mediate the salvation of the common man. It’s not surprising that lay people welcomed this since it assuaged their concerns about where they would spend eternity. Instead of having felt a need to seek God about it, they’ve comforted themselves with the thought that an ordained minister or a lay leader told them they were “being saved,” “saved,” or “born again.” (Note: Catholicism teaches that believers are “being saved” in an ongoing process of salvation).
Another problem with both the Catholic and Evangelical interpretations of the spiritual rebirth is that they make it seem as if God’s Word is not true, or that God is unable to keep His children. Most converts in the last generation, after having been led to believe they would go to heaven, have fallen away from institutional churches, and in many cases from Christ as well. How is it that God can cause someone to be spiritually reborn, only to later lose that person? I don’t think the Bible supports this idea (cf. Ps. 37:23-28, Jn. 6:37-40, 10:26-30, 1 Jn. 5:18).
A further problem in the Evangelical tradition is what I believe to be an undue emphasis on justification by faith (cf. Jas. 2:14, 17). Anyone who is truly born again will show it by how they live. Jesus never said that a born again person will have prayed a certain prayer. Instead, He essentially told Nicodemus that their lives will show it. After all, if someone is like the wind, there must be some kind of God connection. Even though the transformation is invisible, people can see that there’s something different. The regenerated Christian is no longer living from selfish motives, but is glorifying God and bearing fruit for Him.
Perhaps we could introduce other metaphors, such as the Holy Spirit being like a fire. Maybe Jesus was making a broader point—that spiritual regeneration will result in believers visibly becoming more like God, yet of course without acting like gods. There’s nothing controversial about the idea that the Holy Spirit makes us more godly. Wanting to be like God is a healthy desire if we pursue through obedience, not through sin as Adam and Eve did (Gen. 3:5).
It’s unfortunate that most preachers and teachers tend to “breeze” past Jesus’ analogy about wind. Jesus was very intentional in providing this word picture to explain what He meant by “born again.”
I acknowledge that if an evangelist uses this analogy instead of a formulaic gospel presentation, it might not appeal to some inquirers. However, if God isn’t calling an individual, their “conversion” won’t be genuine anyway. If, on the other hand, God is calling someone, that person won’t be offended by Jesus’ word picture. He or she will learn from the analogy about the need to be guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Has this information significantly changed your understanding of what it means to be “born again”? I would love to know what you think. Please feel free to leave a comment or share this on social media!
  • Justin Foster

    A very refreshing read indeed. I think most of our “learning” as believers is sadly spent merely repeating to ourselves doctrines taught to us by others, rather than by God thru His Word. I personally often find it difficult to live fully free in God’s truths due to their unsavory taste in the mouths of other believers and unbelievers, and I’ve been doing it ignorantly. There are some things I will readily stand for even when it’s against the winds of doctrine that are popular, but I know there are also things I need to submit completely to.

    When we really consider Jesus and His ministry, we have to truly realize that He was, to a very large extent, misunderstood by the majority; even his own disciples. Fear of others misunderstanding us in the same way often leaves us wallowing at the powerless pool of Siloam because we won’t get up and go where the angels are stirring the water.

    Thanks for this post.
    God bless you
    Peace and Love in Christ

    • Martin

      Thanks for this input, Justin. I totally agree with what you’re saying. When I wrote Return to Genesis, I was only planning to write about the poetry in Genesis. However, it disturbed me that the fundamentalists were ignoring the poetry and the metaphors. So I wrote also about how biblical literalism is the wrong approach to interpreting the Bible. I don’t recommend churches run by literalists, but neither would I want to join a liberal church.

      A lot of us have had a difficult spiritual journey due to popular misinterpretations of God’s Word. This information is freeing though. God wants to speak to us directly through His Word, not only through formally appointed pastors and teachers. God can restore the years in which we lived in ignorance. God bless you!

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  • Paul Walton

    Great article, I do believe in faith alone in Christ alone though, we can’t attain our justification through works, but rather our good works prove that our Faith in genuine. Eph 2:10 “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”