Born Again? (last update to this study was made on 09/05/2004)
Must I be born again? What does it mean to be born again and what does it not mean? The term born again is often used but rarely understood or defined. Most evangelicals and fundamentalists consider themselves to be "born again" Christians. Yet, there seems to be a wide view as to what this means. Every Christian church has some concept of born again or spiritual rebirth. The concept originated in the teachings of Jesus. What did Jesus say? This study will review the scriptural account in the book of John; it will consider the necessity of this new birth, it will look at how it actually comes about as well as how it relates to various thoughts and teachings of our day.
The concept or idea of a rebirth originated with the teachings
of Jesus. We are all familiar with the story in John, chapter three. Lets review
Nicodemus was a man of the Pharisees and not only that, he was a ruler of the Jews. He also came to Jesus by night to talk to him. The Pharisees considered themselves saints, whereas publicans were looked down upon with contempt; and those who had fallen from public grace were branded as sinners. This is not to say that the Jewish people were united for the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees and Herodians were at odds with one another (except when it came to opposing Jesus -- for they all were really of the same spirit). The Pharisee was a group among the Jews that emphasized the observation of the law and its rites and ceremonies. They considered themselves superior and separated from the common people. Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee, but also a "ruler" of the Jews. Though the Jews were ruled by the Roman government, there was a ruling group among the Jews of seventy men known as the Sanhedrin, a supreme council and tribunal, of whom some were Pharisees. This was a high and lofty position. It would be like a senator of our government or a cardinal in the Roman Catholic church. This man was highly educated and trained in matters of religion and theology. He comes to Jesus by night, in secret, partly perhaps that he did not want to come during the day and be seen in public with Jesus or not have to answer to the many of his counterparts, nor perhaps even the high priest of the Sanhedrin. He was discreet in his first meeting with Jesus.
Nicodemus addressed Jesus as Rabbi. He recognizes him as a respectful teacher. Other Pharisees did not pay this courtesy to Jesus. He states to Jesus that we know thou art a teacher come from God. I suspect that the "we" referred to some of the members of the Sanhedrin. Unlike other Pharisees who had accused Jesus that his working power was of the devil, Nicodemus recognizes that God must be with Jesus to perform such miracles. Nicodemus seemed to be a man that could think for himself. So he makes his inquiry to Jesus looking to learn more of the doctrine that was being introduced among the people.
What was the response of Jesus? It was not one of gratitude. He didn't respond with "thanks Nick, you know it is nice to finally hear one of you guys say that I am a teacher from God," nor did he say "I am honored with such praise, especially coming from a man that is a ruler among the Jews". No, Jesus responded directly without all of the chit-chat, he wasn't concern about being accepted or winning a friend. He went directly to the essential requirement, which is a staggering idea within itself -- a change in the basic nature of man! What a gospel revolution, just think of the impact of such a thing.
Jesus said, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (KJV). He gave a very personal one-on-one word as he said "I say unto THEE". Nicodemus responded in ignorance as he tried to understand it in the natural, as did the Jews regarding the words of Jesus on the destruction of the temple and so many other things. Before we go any further, let us take a closer look at some of these words and what is meant. Other translations read:
"Verily, verily, I say to thee, If any one may not be
born from above, he is not able to see the reign of God." (Robert Young's
"Truly, truly I tell you, no one can see God's Realm unless he is born from above." (James Moffatt Translation),
"I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (Jerusalem Bible),
"I most solemnly say to you, no one can ever see the kingdom of God, unless he is born from above." (Charles B. Williams translation),
"Verily, verily, I am saying to you, If anyone should not be begotten anew, he can not perceive the kingdom of God." (Concordant Literal),
"Indeed I assure thee, if any one be not born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (Diaglott)
In Strong's concordance, it states that the word EXCEPT (#3362) in the Greek means unless, before, but, except and if no, if whosoever not. It is the same word used by Jesus when he said "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die" and "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein." It is the same word used by Paul when he said "And how shall they preach, except they be sent?" and "but by the faith of Jesus Christ" (Gal 2:16). The word "except" or unless in Jesus' teaching declares a necessary condition.
In Strong's concordance, it states that the word BORN (#1080) in the Greek means respectively to procreate, regenerate, bear, beget, be born, bring forth, conceive, be delivered of , gender, make spring (and from #1085 - kind, offspring); and AGAIN (#509) means from above, from the first, anew, above, again, from the beginning, the top (and from #507 - upward or on the top). The word BORN is the same word used "when Jesus was born in Bethlehem", and "that which is conceived in her." The same word used in "Abraham begat Isaac." The word AGAIN is the same word as used in "in twain from the top to the bottom" and "the wisdom that is from above" and finally when Paul stated to Agrippa that all the Jews "knew me from the beginning."
Jesus also used the word BE and we easily overlook the significance of small words, though they can have large implications. In Strong's concordance, it states that the word BE is a verb and can mean TO BE. In the Hebrew, the word BE has the meaning of BECOMING.
Jesus places a universal condition by stating UNLESS. Jesus taught us a NECESSARY CONDITION. For something to be a necessary condition, it is absolute and MUST TAKE PLACE in order for something else to follow it. Unless A take place, B cannot occur. Unless 1 take place, 2 cannot follow. Likewise, ice requires a certain temperature and fire requires oxygen. That is not to say that if you have a freezing temperature, you will automatically have ice. Nor does it suggest if you have oxygen, you will automatically have fire. These would be called sufficient conditions. The conditions are sufficient and has all that is required to support the desired result. We can understand by the words of Jesus that the rebirth is an absolute necessity for seeing the kingdom. Most, if not all of Christianity would agree that a spiritual rebirth is an essential part of our faith and without it, there would be no perception of the kingdom of God. It is necessary to be "born again" to comprehend, perceive or see the kingdom of God. You cannot see the kingdom of God without having been born from above, from another source that is higher.
And from where or whom does this rebirth come? The text states born AGAIN, from something higher, from above, from he who is the beginning himself. I think that the word AGAIN is a poor choice of words to use in this text and lacks the true meaning of what Jesus said. Jesus used the word ABOVE to signify an entirely different realm, sphere or dimension of life. Jesus was speaking of an entirely different type of life, there can be no mistake about it.
Some in the world have used the expression "born again" when they turn over a new leaf, when they turn their life around from something negative and go in a different direction, whether it be in their career, personal life or whatever the case. How do they do this? They basically change their behavior which is accomplished by thinking differently. They view themselves and others around them differently. Though this may work for a time, it really isn't a new birth in the technical sense. It isn't gendered from the top, anew, from above or on high but is gendered or birthed from beneath, below, from the mind of man and has no true eternal significance.
In fact, to state that you are a "born again" Christian is really the same as saying, I am a "Christian Christian" and is being redundant and short of having a stuttering impairment. Likewise, you can not be a "non-born again" Christian and you certainly cannot be "born again" and not be a Christian. Make sense?
As Christians, when we say "born again", we mean a birth from ABOVE, a bringing forth from the realm of the Spirit of God. This birth from above is performed by the Spirit of God alone, it is an act of God himself. He does not counsel with man or request permission. Man is not required to first cooperate with God in order for this rebirth to take place, though on the surface some conversion experiences may appear that way. Many have an incorrect understanding that man must first do something before he is born again, whether it be a baptism, a cooperation to a supposed "wooing" of God's Spirit, an acceptance along with a sinners prayer, believe, faith, or a self-realization or renewal of a higher inner identity.
However the scripture does teach "And you hath he quickened (made alive), who were dead in trespasses and sins." You were dead and the contrast is life, to make alive. The person that is not born again is spiritually dead. There is no middle ground between being alive and dead. Dead is dead and life is life. A dead person cannot respond, it is utterly impossible. A person that is not born again cannot repent and can not not seek God. God alone, by a creative act of his own, brings life out of death. We see this in the story of when Jesus spoke a creative word to Lazarus and resurrected him. Did Jesus require him to believe first? What about when God invaded Saul of Tarsus, did God first validate his merits of keeping the law? John states "which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God". James validates this with the words "of his own will begat he us with the word of truth". It is crystal clear that rebirth is a divine initiative.
Jesus continued to tell Nicodemus "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whiter it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." (KJV).
Jesus was not stating a second requirement but rather providing further clarification to the question of Nicodemus. He was not teaching that there is a spiritual rebirth PLUS something else to enter the kingdom of God. Even today, some hold to the idea that you can not be born again without having been baptized in water while others hold that you are not really born again if you do not embrace speaking in tongues and the list can go on and on and on as the merry go round goes round and around.
As earlier, Jesus again states unless A MAN. This is a universal declaration. No man can comprehend, perceive or see the things of the kingdom without the new birth. No man can enter into the kingdom of God without being birthed of the water and Spirit. But what is meant by "water and of the Spirit"? To find the answer, we must keep in mind that Jesus was answering the question presented by Nicodemus. Jesus was not changing his illustration, but rather clarifying a point. Earlier, Jesus had introduced the requirement of the Spirit of God procreating, regenerating, bearing, bringing forth, gendering, or making an offspring. However, Nicodemus did not understand him and asked how this could occur in the natural.
Jesus was not telling Nicodemus in verse three that you need a rebirth by the Spirit from above and then in verse five that you are required to have yet another rebirth, a second birthing all over again, or should I now say third if we count the natural birth? Oh, it is so easy to lose count. Two spiritual rebirths, whoever heard of such a thing! Certainly not a second conception by the Spirit just in case he didn't do it right the first time! No, Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus about the one single birth. He states the requirement of having been born "of water AND of THE SPIRIT". We had already read in verse three that a person must be born from on high, from above, THE SPIRIT. Nicodemus obviously did not get this point the first time so Jesus expands upon his words by introducing the idea of WATER. This has nothing to do with natural water and the argument of water baptism should not be applied to this verse. Jesus was teaching of spiritual matters. He clearly stated that that rebirth was spiritual so why do we want to divide a part of his sentence and place it back into the natural, namely water?
Do you remember that he was discussing a birth? Well, now he introduces the detail of water. First let me ask a question? When does life begin, in the womb or when a new born babe enters the world? Most would argue that it begins in the womb. However, the fetus in the womb is not fully complete. Think about it. The child does not become a full and complete person until it is BORN. At birth, the baby is a breathing and living human being, now a complete person made up of spirit, soul and body. So what happens at the time of conception? Peter tells of "being born again, not of a corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, the word of God". Our born again process began at the time of conception, when the Spirit of God implanted the incorruptible seed of Christ into our heart. Physical conception began in the womb but life (in the full sense) is when we are birthed into the world. Remember that which was conceived (or born -- same word) in her (Mary)?
Jesus was using the birthing process as an illustration to explain spiritual matters. As it is true in the natural, so it is true in the spiritual. The life process began in the womb. The new life is birthed in water. Before entering this physical world, a baby lives in water and once the water is broken, the delivery process begins. It may be less than an hour or more than twenty hours before the infant ENTERS the new world, but nevertheless, it is OF WATER.
So Jesus uses this illustration to introduce our birth. In our spiritual growth and development, we know that the Spirit of God continues to wash and cleanse our soul with his anointed and revealed word. When the incorruptible seed of Christ was placed in us, we were saved and delivered from one kingdom and translated into another kingdom. We were able to see some of the realities of the kingdom of God. Yet, our soul (intellect, emotions, impulses, will, etc.) was not immediately and completely controlled by the Spirit of God. There has been a formation and development, a time of growth and process as we learn to put on the mind of Christ and emerge from the minding of the flesh and be born completely by the washing of his anointed word and Spirit.
Jesus tells Nicodemus "that which is born of the flesh is flesh". He plays off of the misunderstanding of the natural and takes him back to the spiritual with the statement "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." To be born of the flesh is not a difficult thing to understand, especially in the context of the conversation between the ruler of the Jews and the ruler of the kingdom of God. When we were born, we were given this body of flesh. The Greek word for FLESH in this text is "sarx" (#4561) and means the external body for "a spirit hath not FLESH (sarx) and bones" and "Jesus Christ is come in the FLESH (sarx)" and again "And the Word was made flesh (sarx)" and one last time "For Christ.......being put to death in the FLESH (sarx), but quickened by the Spirit." Furthermore, Jesus then reiterates to Nicodemus what he had already stated just moments earlier regarding being born from above, from another realm, from SPIRIT. He states that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. The flesh and the Spirit, two realms in complete contradiction to one another. Two world views greatly opposed to one another. One reaps corruption and the other the life of the ages.
Jesus said "that which is born of the flesh is flesh". No flesh can ever be justified in the sight of God for he looks on the heart. Furthermore, those having their main focus and mind on the flesh (sarx) will not enter the kingdom of God. Those who are after the flesh will always be found minding the things of the flesh. However to be carnally (sarx) minded (literal meaning - the minding of the flesh) is death and not life. The minding of the flesh is enmity against God and those that are found constantly living for and minding after the flesh cannot please God. However, to be born after the Spirit is spirit. Read it again. What is gendered by Spirit? What is the offspring of Spirit? It is spirit. The Spirit will produce spirit. They that are after the Spirit do mind the things of the spirit. If so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you, if so be that the Spirit consumes your mind and thinking, then you are not in the flesh (always catering after and minding the things of the flesh). No longer living in the flesh but rather in the Spirit, in the Spirit of Christ, in the inner man, in the second birth, in the new man, in the new creation, in newness of life. Some refer to it as a regeneration, to happen or generate again. Not of flesh this time. You can not get spirit out of flesh. Flesh yields flesh and everyone that is born on the face of this earth is flesh. Spirit yields spirit and when we are born again of the Spirit, in all three dimensions of our person (spirit, soul and body), we will be fully manifested as the sons of God. Jesus stated "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." We have not yet become SPIRIT in all three areas of our being and therefore are not yet fully born again. Peter stated we are BEING born again......by the word of God. This clearly implies a process is underway.
Have you ever thought about the first Adam and our natural birth? We were all born of the flesh (and may I add a carnal nature to go along with it). We also were born at different times. We all were not born at the same time. We each have had our natural birth at our own time and place in history. Did you or I have a say in the matter? No. Yet we did experience it. Well, it is exactly the same with the spiritual rebirth. First, we shall all be born of the Spirit (and may I add a divine nature to go along with it). Second, we all have our spiritual birth at our own time and place in the kingdom. We were not all born together, whether it be on the day of Pentecost, at the cross or whatever be the case. To every thing there is a season and a time, including a time to be born. Each man has his own time and order as the Spirit of God reaches down from upon High and calls into existence the incorruptible seed which begins to transform that which was otherwise hopeless, helpless and dead. The Spirit recreates the heart and makes it soft rather than leaving it hard, a heart that is no longer lifeless but rather is alive and responsive. No longer dead but now able to repent, respond, embrace and run after the things of God.
It is worth mentoring at this point that the beginning of the born again experience does not immediately erase everything, it is just just that - the beginning. The capacity for doing wrong is just as much in the regenerate person as the unregenerate (e.g., Peter cursed like a sailor and openly denied Christ after having walked with him for so many years). In fact, the struggle really begins as two natures are at odds with one another to rule our entire person. We once walked according to the desires of our flesh and now have been quickened or made alive to mind the things of the Spirit and are being renewed daily.
Many Reformed theologians refer to a two-stage regeneration. The first is the exclusive work of the Spirit of God with no cooperation of the sinner, resulting in the new birth. The second stage is where regeneration issues forth into conversion (as the result of God's means of preaching) and the desire to obey as the new life begins to manifest itself. However, we must reject this two-staged idea based on the premise that the birthing from above immediately gives us a new nature which in turn has within it the impulses and desire to obey and do the will of our Father. This can only result from a conversion experience. Granted we will fail at times as we work out our salvation, but nonetheless we were converted, we were translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
There are at least two other views that are taught among kingdom circles and I shall briefly share my thoughts after much contemplation on their views.
One view, as I understand it, would teach that those who are "born of the flesh" are "worldly, earthly, or carnal" and that being born of the flesh as taught in John chapter three is not referring to your birthday or natural birth. However, I find this is an error for a few reasons. First, we must use the word "sarx" correctly else it leads to all sorts of gross deception. Second, it is suggested that the requirement to be born again was met by Jesus himself on behalf of the entire human race and was finished on the cross. It teaches that you must be born again, you are born again, and so is your neighbor, so go tell them! Now let me say that there is a wonderful truth in the atonement that was met by Jesus on behalf of the entire human race. In fact, some (if not all) of the brethren teaching this version of the born again doctrine would also agree with an inclusive and unlimited atonement for all and we are grateful that they are teaching such things. Yet we must not mix truth with error. We find that those who teach this inclusive born again doctrine as already finished are circumventing the process and negates the actually work of the Holy Spirit, both now and in the future. This teaching also appears to overlook the fact that not everyone is born at the same time.
Likewise, other teachings have made its way into kingdom circles and web sites. They state "This is why He said, “Ye must be born again”! Born into the realization that you are not who you think you are; that this “person” that you now believe yourself to be is not who you really are. In reality, “you” are God manifesting! God made you in His image and likeness by becoming what you are; by being what you are. Your parents, being unaware of what you were at your birth, gave you a name identifying you with them and then proceeded to mould you in their image and likeness, making “you” believe that you were the person that “they ” believed you were." ...............“You” are God embodied! “You” are a manifestation of everything God is! “You” are a manifestation of everything necessary to be the “Christ”! This is what every child ever born on earth was meant to be! “God” is the Universal; “you” are the Universal individualized. “Christ” is not a “specific individual”. “Christ” is the expression of the Divine Mind. “Christ” is the “mind” of God manifesting.............You can only attain God consciousness after being “born again”, and when you have been “born again”, you will realize that you are already in that Kingdom; you will realize that you have always been in that Kingdom. You were born into it! There is no other place! Only you have been made to believe it is somewhere outside of you. You were made to believe you were John Doe the “English” man, or “Pierre Larouge” the “French” man, or “Elijah” the “Indian”. “Believing” yourself to be a “French” man, an “English” man, an “Indian”, etc., is to be “living” in a particular state of mind. An illusion! “God” is your true identity. The real you! There is no one besides Him.He is the vine and every “human” unit is a “branch”; a manifestation of Him. Not something He manifested, but is “God” manifesting! That is why he said, “Ye must be born again.”.................. "How else could we hope to have the mind of “Christ”? “God” is Universal Life and each of us is that Universal Life individualized! We Are All One! “God is also Universal “Mind”, and the Universal Mind individualized is the Christ Mind! It is impossible for a “man” to attain the Mind of “Christ”. Only when the individual has been “born again”, (born into the realization that he is not the “person” that his parents created, but in reality He is God embodied; God manifesting;) can he attain the “Christ” mind. As “John Doe” you cannot attain it! You must be “born again” in order to attain it. Need I make it any clearer!" END QUOTE. Though this teaching has several flaws, we will only show one at this time. If you read it close, you can see the break-down in their logic. They say that you must realize it in order to attain it and then on the other hand that you have always been in the kingdom, therefore negating the condition as taught by Jesus.
Regarding such teachings, they seem to overlook the fact that the transformation must be birthed by the Spirit and is not simply a state of mind. However, we say that it is not a spiritualized conditioning of the mind of man. It has never worked and never will. These teachings will clearly lead many to frustration as both are operating under a works-oriented principle (e.g., your own change of thinking and who you are) guised under the banner of grace. You may ask, what is the difference in what you teach? We teach that the power of the Spirit of God will invade people as they hear the word of God and they shall be saved, it is a real change from one nature to another nature. An actual act of God will produce a real salvation experience, not just a mental shift in how a person is to view himself.
Now, we must readily admit that to us, the idea of having already been born again (rather than being born again) seems to find its place in various parts of scripture. There are references as babes in Christ, as newborn babes desiring the sincere milk of the word and every one that is born of God and knoweth God....... overcometh the world. There are valid points that we are children of God and not divine embryos. In fact, I have always held (and still do) that the HE in "he that is born of God does not commit sin" is my inner man, my new man from heaven, my spirit having been quickened, my regenerated spirit, my spirit having been joined with His Spirit. If I were to look at my spirit and only my spirit, then I would agree that I have been born again, that my spirit does comprehend the things of God, that my spirit has entered the kingdom of God. Yet, my soul is still being quickened and made alive, it is being renewed by the washing of the word, and my body shall yet be transfigured, it shall be glorified.
So what do we say about the two views of begin born again as a process and having already been born again? We can only say that there are different illustrations used throughout scripture to point to spiritual realities and the real issue is one of life, the life of Christ. We find that John chapter three is using a birthing process to draw our attention to spiritual life and that our whole person (spirit, soul and body) shall enter the kingdom. We also find in other places of holy script that we can use examples of having been born as babes and so forth to point to the same reality. We rejoice over the shared view of a new life. We thank the Lord that there is a time to be born! (Ecc 3:2), for every man is in his own rank or order. (I Cor 15:23).
In completing our study, Jesus stated "the wind bloweth where it listeneth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit". The Spirit blows where it wills. This shows that it is a reality and not merely a power of God, as some think, If the Spirit blows where it wills, he is a being which acts and not just an energy force. We can also see from this verse the influence of the wind, we can hear the sound, but we don't know where it comes from and where it goes. The spiritual rebirth is the same way. The Spirit directs and we are to follow. We are to follow the lamb whithersoever he goeth.
When I think of the rebirth, I cannot see the heart of a person. Man looks on the outward while God looks on the heart. I think that some who profess to be Christians are not at all. This goes along with the understanding of the invisible church and the visible, the wheat and the tares and so forth. We may ask, where is the evidence of this new birth, where is the tangible manifestation of affection and attitude towards God? It certainly comes down to the condition and motive of their heart. Simply put, an unregenerate person is not interested in the things of God. They claim to love Christ but the heart is far from him. Pharisees prayed on the street to be seen of men. Some people today get involved in church for the wrong motive -- the list of examples could be long. On the flip side, it would be dangerous for us to take our experience and make it a test for others. Some have instant and sudden conversions while others are more gradual and are drawn in a different manner.
The teaching of Jesus in the book of John is of a spiritual rebirth, a born from above, a process. Our journey has begun as we seek the kingdom of God and its fullness. This qwest started as we who have been quickened are BORN FROM ABOVE and are coming to a complete new life as we enter into the kingdom of God.