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Born Again Christians?

Dennis Bratcher

The story of Nicodemus in John 3:1-21 provides many evangelicals with the rationale for talking about Christians as being "born again."  In the King James Version, the phrase "born again" occurs in John 3:3:

John 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.[ KJV/AV]

However, most modern versions translate the verse using "born from above."

3:3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."

Is this really a difference in how we can talk about Christians? Or is it really just saying the same thing in a different way?  Given the tendency in some circles to separate authentic Christians from insincere or nominal Christians by using the term "born again," this may be more than a question of semantics.

The idea of "born again" Christians is a popular one in many evangelical circles in the United States, although it is not used much by most other Christian traditions or outside the United States.  It generally refers to a personal relationship with God through Jesus established by a momentary or instantaneous experience of conversion, often accompanied by intense emotion.  This is usually equated with "getting saved," meaning that all sins are now forgiven and a person is ready for heaven.  It is the point where a person accepts the forgiveness of God and becomes a Christian.

In popular thinking it is often the experience itself that marks being born again, while others emphasize faith, repentance, and the grace of God as the most important aspects. In some churches, being "born again" is the mark of a true Christian, so that those who do not claim such an experience are not truly Christians.  In this usage, a "born again Christian" is substantially different from just a "Christian," which is taken to be more of a cultural designation.  This often leads to rejecting other Christian traditions, for example Roman Catholics or even some mainline Protestant churches, as not authentically Christian because they do emphasize as much this singular moment of decision.

History of the term

Apart from the specific language of "born gain," the metaphor of a "new birth" or "regeneration" has a long history.  It is used throughout the New Testament to describe the renewal and transformation that marks the life of a follower of Christ.  Paul talks about the "new creation" of relationship with God through Jesus the Christ:

2 Cor 5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Gal 6:15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!

The Epistle of First Peter and Titus likewise use the imagery of a new birth or a regeneration (the Greek term can mean either):

1 Peter 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. . ..

1 Peter 1:23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

Titus 3:5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

There are various other metaphors throughout the New Testament that speak of newness of life, often in contrast to the metaphor of death.

Rom 6:4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Rom 7:6 But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

Also, the metaphor "children of God" speaks of the same newness that results in a transformed life, implying the same new birth imagery:

John 1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 1:13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. [cf. Rom 8:12-17]

1 John 3:8 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 3:9 Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.

Various early Church fathers wrote of being born again, but always associated it with baptism, not with a personal religious experience.

"And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan" [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: "Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" [Iranaeus, Fragment 34].

[N]o one can attain salvation without baptism, especially in view of the declaration of the Lord, who says, "Unless a man shall be born of water, he shall not have life" [Turtullian, Baptism 12:1].

As this illustrates, traditionally the Church has understood this “new birth” to be linked with baptism, assuming that “born of water” (John 3:5) refers to Christian baptism.  Since the Church prior to the Reformation routinely baptized infants, and in Christian countries virtually every infant was baptized, the “new birth” simply referred to those who had been baptized and were considered part of the Church (see John Calvin on Infant Baptism).

However, part of the result of the Reformation was an emphasis on salvation by Faith rather than simply by means of the rituals of the Church.  The reformers made a distinction between begin baptized and being genuinely Christian by faith.  As a result, following the Reformation the metaphor of "new birth" was used, not to focus on baptism, but to emphasize the newness that comes from relationship with God.

If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two, -- the doctrine of justification, and that of the new birth: The former relating to that great work which God does for us, in forgiving our sins; the latter, to the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature. [John Wesley, The New Birth, Sermon 45:1]

Modern Usage

The idea of being "born again" in its popular usage is a fairly recent way to describe Christians, arising in the middle 20th century.  It gained popularity within evangelical traditions as a way to distinguish some renewal groups and those whose Christian Faith was seen as vital and assertive from those who were perceived only to carry the name Christian without corresponding commitment.  In this sense, it became more a social designation than a theological one.

As noted, the key passage for the idea of being “born again” comes from the story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus recounted in John’s Gospel (3:1-10):

3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 3:2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." 3:3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 3:5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 3:8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  3:9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 3:10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? [NRSV]

This interchange leads to further comments by Jesus about belief in the Son of God (3:11-21), which revolve around the well known verse, John 3:16:

3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 3:17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The difficulty encountered in this passage is that the Greek word traditionally translated "born again" can have several meanings, including "from the top of" (Mk. 15:38), "from above" (Jn 19:11), "from the beginning," "for a second time" (Mark 8:25), and "again" (Gal 4:9). It is this ambiguity that accounts for the various translations and makes it more difficult to follow the meaning of the passage in English.

However, this double meaning of the word (άνωθεν, anothen) is precisely what is in view in the passage and provides the setting for this teaching section. -1-  It is Nicodemus who misunderstands what Jesus said and assumed that Jesus was talking about a second birth or being born again: "Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" (3:4). In other words, there is a very subtle word play here on the two meanings of the Greek word. 

This narrative is typical of one of the literary techniques that John’s Gospel uses to present Jesus’ teaching.  It begins with Jesus offering a cryptic or puzzling statement to someone with inadequate understanding about spiritual matters.  That prompts further questions, which allows Jesus to explain in more detail and address any misunderstanding (for example, the narrative of the woman at the well, John 4:3-29).

Here, Jesus corrected that misunderstanding and explained that he was not talking about a second physical birth but of a spiritual birth. It is not a birth of "flesh," that is of human origin, but a birth "of the Spirit."  The question then becomes what this "born of the Spirit" means for Jesus. 

The popular language of "born again" focuses on the momentary or instantaneous experience of conversion that puts one in right relationship with God.  But that does not at all seem to be what Jesus is talking about here.  Here, the language of "born from above" and "born of the Spirit" is specifically related to the Kingdom of God: "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."

In most of the New Testament, the kingdom of God is not a reference to heaven or salvation, but is something to be experienced now (note Luke 17:21). Against the background of Judaism of the day, the kingdom of God was part of the expectation of the future action of God in which he would restore the world. Using the metaphor of the presence and life-giving power of God as breath or spirit, this future reign of God in the world would make His presence obvious to all people (Joel 2:28-29; Isa 32:15-20; Eze 36:25-29; also Jubilees 1:25).

This future coming of God into the world, marked by the presence of God (spirit) in the world was understood in Judaism as the coming of the Kingdom in which there would be peace, prosperity, and well being (shalom).  It was for those who were heirs of the promises of the Old Testament, the children of Abraham who were also the children of God.  In other words, the expectation was that those born into the physical lineage of Abraham would be the ones to experience this coming kingdom of God.  This intersection of the Kingdom of God, spirit, and being children of God provides the immediate setting for Jesus’ dialog with Nicodemus.

However, Jesus gave new content to these expectations.  Where Nicodemus, and Judaism, expected a kingdom based on physical birth, Jesus redefined the kingdom in terms of spiritual birth.  Jesus focused not on replacing one earthly king (Caesar) with another (Jewish), which is the earthly way that Judaism had come to define the kingdom of God, but on the transformation and newness that comes by a rebirth in which God was the sovereign king over a person’s life.  The Kingdom of God "was a spiritual reality in which God ruled sovereignly over a person's life. And that reality would not and could not become a reality apart from a spiritual birth" (Hahn, see Voice Bible Study, John 3:1-4:3).

It is also important to realize that in John’s Gospel, this is not a status to be achieved. The new spiritual birth is not something like a birthright that guarantees heaven.  Rather it is the entering into a relationship with God that radically transforms life, so that life is lived as children of God.  Jesus addresses his disciples as “little children” who are to live out this relationship:

13:34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
13:35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

While it is not fully developed in this passage, it is clear throughout John’s Gospel that this new birth is a way to talk about that radical transformation of life that genuinely brings newness to how a person lives.  It is truly a "new birth" in which "everything old has passed away; indeed, everything has become new!" (2 Cor 5:17).

Also, this new birth is not something that human beings must do in order to be saved.  It has been popular among evangelicals, especially from the revivalist traditions, to read John 3:7 as a command to Nicodemus:  "You must be born again!"  This becomes the support for calling people to make instantaneous decisions to become a Christian.  While there may be a place for that, it is not what this verse is about.

There is no such command given to Nicodemus in the passage.  It is simply a statement of fact. The verse begins with a Greek particle that means "It is necessary."  Also the pronoun is not a singular pronoun addressing Nicodemus, but is a plural pronoun referring to humanity:  "all of you." The verse is better translated, "It is necessary that all people be born from above."

Jesus’ response to Nicodemus emphasizes the work of God, not only in the movement of the Spirit in transformation, but in the very coming of Jesus.  It is God’s love that is the beginning of transformation, of new life, of new birth.  While other places in other writings delve into the details of grace, faith, and response, here the focus is on the need for transformation from one manner of living to another and the work of God in accomplishing that transformation.

In this sense, the "new birth" is not about an instantaneous conversion experience, nor does it describe one group of genuine Christians from another group who are not as righteous.  Instead, it refers to that renewal of a person when relationship with God is allowed to govern life. 

John Wesley summarizes this emphasis on transformation in one of his sermons:

While a man is in a mere natural state, before he is born of God, he has, in a spiritual sense, eyes and sees not; a thick impenetrable veil lies upon them; he has ears, but hears not; he is utterly deaf to what he is most of all concerned to hear. His other spiritual senses are all locked up: He is in the same condition as if he did not have them. Hence he has no knowledge of God; no relationship with him; he is not at all acquainted with him. He has no true knowledge of the things of God, either of spiritual or eternal things; therefore, though he is a living man, he is a dead Christian.

But as soon as he is born of God, there is a total change in all these particulars. The "eyes of his understanding are opened;" . . . and, He who of old "commanded light to shine out of darkness shining on his heart, he sees the light of the glory of God," his glorious love, "in the face of Jesus Christ." His ears being opened, he is now capable of hearing the inward voice of God, saying, "Be of good cheer; thy sins are forgiven thee;" "go and sin no more." . . .

He is now ready to hear whatsoever "He that teacheth man knowledge" is pleased, from time to time, to reveal to him. He "feels in his heart," to use the language of our Church, "the mighty working of the Spirit of God;" . . .: He feels, is inwardly sensible of, the graces which the Spirit of god works in his heart. He feels, he is conscious of, a "peace which passeth all understanding." He many times feels such a joy in God as is "unspeakable, and full of glory." He feels "the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto him;" and all his spiritual senses are then exercised to discern spiritual good and evil.

By the use of these, he is daily increasing in the knowledge of God, of Jesus Christ whom he hath sent and to all the things pertaining to his inward kingdom. And now he may be properly said to live: God having quickened him by his Spirit, he is alive to God through Jesus Christ. He lives a life which the world does not know, a "life which is hid with Christ in God." God is continually breathing, as it were, upon the soul; and his soul is breathing unto God. Grace is descending into his heart; and prayer and praise ascending to heaven: And by this relationship between God and man, this fellowship with the Father and the Son, as by a kind of spiritual respiration, the life of God in the soul is sustained; and the child of God grows up, till he comes to the "full measure of the stature of Christ."

. . .the new birth [i]s that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is "created anew in Christ Jesus;" when it is "renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness;" when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all mankind. In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the "mind which was in Christ Jesus." This is the nature of the new birth: "So is every one that is born of the Spirit." [Sermon 45, The New Birth]

Conclusion

There is no question that the idea of a new birth is a longstanding way to talk about the newness that comes from relationship with God.  Yet, throughout the New Testament as well as the writings of the Church Fathers and Reformation theologians, the emphasis is never on the particular personal experience of conversion, but on the aspect of renewal and the change of direction in a person’s life that results from relationship with God.  It is entirely proper, then, to use the language of "new birth" to talk about this "newness of life," as Paul call it (Rom 6:4).  On this point both Catholics and Protestants agree.

However, the language of "born again" as it is popularly used in modern evangelicalism goes far beyond what can be sustained by either Scripture or the Traditions of the Faith.  "Born again" in this context usually refers only to a particular Protestant evangelical revivalist expression of rebirth, associated with a specific type of acceptance of salvation by praying specific prayers.  None of that is in view in John 3. Nor do any of the other passages in Scripture that speak of newness or new birth specify the details of how that is to be accomplished.  Even the Catholic tradition, which insists that new birth means a certain type of baptism, has added far more requirements than any of these passages do.

Simply, the new birth is a way to talk about God’s marvelous transformation of a person as they move from death to life.  There are various ways of talking about the process of how God works that transformation. But to restrict the language of "born again" to only one set of actions and one set of beliefs about the process, while excluding others as inauthentic, seriously risks distorting Scripture. It further risks replacing Scripture with human understanding while assuming they are the same thing.

Notes

1. Some have noted that this double meaning works in the narrative only if both Jesus and Nicodemus were speaking in Greek.  Yet, many scholars suggest that Jesus spoke primarily in Aramaic and that Nicodemus, a Jew and a Pharisee, would almost certainly be speaking in Aramaic when addressing a Rabbi.  This raises the question of whether this narrative is authentic, or at the least whether the precise conversation took place. Some have suggested that either the entire narrative or the specific conversation itself was an invention by the Gospel writer as a vehicle for later baptismal theology.  However, this is too complicated an issue to solve here.  See The Synoptic Problem. [Return]

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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