Understanding The Term “Born Again”
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
Among the various metaphors used to describe followers of Jesus Christ, “born again” is one of the most common and arguably most misunderstood. Some believe it to mean mental assent, that is to say accepting the idea that Jesus is God; others believe it to mean they've come to possess eternal life and are thus free to live as they wish without concern of God's judgement.
The truth of the matter is something else altogether...
Origin of the Term
We first encounter the metaphor in John chapter 3, in a discussion between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, calling Him Rabbi (a title of respect applied to a teacher or master) and confessed they knew He came from God – as evidenced by His miracles.
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3
The term translated as “born” is γεννηθῇ which means to bring forth, produce offspring, and to cause; while ἄνωθεν is most often seen as “again” it is more properly understood as from above, from old, anew.
Upon hearing this Nicodemus, assuming this referred to a common physical birth, was confused and 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?”
“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:5-8
God knits each of us together in our mother’s womb, creating us innocent and upright. Yet, as a result of Adam’s transgression, sin is in the world. Those of us fortunate enough not to be slaughtered by our mother’s in the womb are born into a sinful world as helpless, weak and impressionable. Our parents, no matter how loving, have spent their lives developing sin natures and thus they model it out before us. The devil and this world system deceive and manipulate us. In no time at all we find the seeds of rebellion beginning to sprout and we depart from our original state of innocence, developing our own unique sin nature.
“Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” James 1:15
Sin drives us from God, who is Life, and into the grave. God has always freely pardoned the repentant when they return to Him. He is good and merciful and loving, but forgiveness alone does not undo the consequences for our sins. We still reap pain and death. So, God desired to fully redeem and restore man, rescuing us from the works of the devil and the hold of the grave (Hebrews 2:14-18, 1 John 3:8).
What is Being Born Again?
Being born again relates to two separate events, though they are often lumped together as modern Christianity views them as inseparable – a topic for another article to be sure.
A Return to Innocence and Relationship with God
The first element of being born again relates to God calling sinners to repent and return to Him. When we do, He pardons us and considers us innocent again (Isaiah 55:7), born again; we get a fresh start. Here, no matter how wicked, selfish and detestable we have been God forgives us and restores us to relationship with Himself.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:32
A great example of the effects of sin, repentance and the Father’s love is found in Luke 15 and the parable of the Prodigal Son. Here we see a son demand his inheritance from his father and leave home, severing relationship with him. He eventually burns through his inheritance and finds himself penniless in a land of famine, so hungry he envies the slop of the pigs he is hired to feed. This prompts him to return to his father, seeking to be brought on as a servant. However, the Father sees his son approaching and rushes to meet him. Instead of holding his sins over him, the father places a ring on his finger and a robe on him and throws a party – declaring his son who was once dead is alive again.
A Literal and Physical Second Birth
To be sure, as grateful as we are about God’s forgiveness we are equally if not more so expectant of an actual resurrection from the grave and into a new and incorruptible body. Eternal life is the hope, yet to be reaped in the age to come for those who faithfully endure with Christ until the end.
All who return to the Father and remain with Him in Christ are promised a bodily resurrection and eternal life.
Jesus is referred to as the firstborn of the dead (Colossians 1:18, Revelation 1:5) and the firstborn of many brothers (Romans 8:29). To be sure, a fundamental teaching of Christianity is the resurrection of the dead… literally being born again.
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:20-23
Here we see Scripture refer not to someone who was dead, but came back to life in a corrupted body only to die again later – such as with Lazarus, but rather the bodily resurrection of Christ in His glorified eternal body.
“Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” 1 John 3:2-3
Water and Spirit
It is a common mistake to assume that Jesus' comment regarding being "born of water and the Spirit" is a reference to the sacrament of baptism. However, the water mentioned here is likely addressing two possibilities simultaneously - a double meaning; the water that accompanies a physical birth and the water which would flow from Christ Himself (John 19:34, John 7:37-39) on the cross which cleanses and brings life to mankind.
During pregnancy, a baby is surrounded and cushioned by a water-filled amniotic sac. Typically, at the beginning of or during labor this will rupture — also known as a woman's "water breaking".
Jesus is addressing adults who have gone astray and sinned. He is telling them that it is not enough to have been born, but that they must be reborn... returning to the state of innocence they enjoyed at their birth and this is something only God can facilitate for them.
Thus in one understanding we see water representing the first birth and the Spirit representing the second. In another we see both cleansing and life coming from God above, that is to say forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption.
By Grace Through Faith
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:1-1
Here again we see that we went astray into sins and trespasses, abandoning our original innocence and developing natures deserving wrath – but God being merciful determined to save us. It was by His grace that He came, took on flesh, becoming like us in every respect and conquered the hold of the grave and the works of the devil. It was by His own resurrection that He demonstrated His ability to promise eternal life to all who come to Him.
…and so He calls to us, cease your running, stop your rebellion, put an end to your foolishness, come to me that you might have life and more abundantly (John 10:10).