What does it mean to be born again? One of our regular readers posed the question over the weekend, and the Spirit tells me it’s very timely. Here goes!
There are only four sentences in the Bible where the two-word phrase “born again” appears.* Of these four sentences:
- Two are best translated “to beget from above” or “to be born from above”
- Two are best translated “to beget again” or “to cause to be born again”
The difference between begetting and being born is that begetting refers to the moment of conception rather than birth. “To be conceived again” would be an acceptable alternative translation.
Being born again spiritually is an actual event in which God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, enters an individual, creates new life within the person, and lovingly makes the person a member of the family of God. This is what Jesus meant when he said “what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6) The new life is from the Spirit and it is the Spirit who teaches us to call God “Abba, Father.” (Rom. 8:15)
Being born again is a frequently misunderstood concept, so to clear up some of the wrong thinking out there:
1) It is not “the divine spark in all of us”
The concept of the “divine spark” comes from the ancient Greek philosophy of Gnosticism. Its teachings have been modernized and are now being made popular on talk shows, both secular and religious. The problem is this belief denies the heart and truth of the Christian faith, which is that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world, He alone is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and no one can know God apart from Him. Those are Jesus’ words. (John 14:6) At the end of the day Gnosticism teaches that all people everywhere are “little gods” – which we’re not.
2) It is not figurative or allegorical use of language.
‘To beget from above’ sounds poetic… to be born again… a new life, a new beginning, a chance to start all over. When we mess up, isn’t that what we’re looking for? But that’s not what ‘born again’ is about, at least not directly (it is a product of it.) To be sure there are many parts of scripture that are poetic and/or figurative, but not here. Where the Holy Spirit is concerned, you can bet your bottom dollar the meaning is literal. The Spirit literally heals people, the Spirit literally gives words to the prophets to speak, the Spirit literally enters a person and begets new life; and this new Spirit life is as eternal as our ‘natural’ life is temporary.
3) It is not just between the believer and God.
A person is not ‘born again’ and then left to fend for themselves. To be ‘born from above’ is to join the family of God, that is, all the saints and martyrs, past and present, who have also been filled with the Spirit. To be born again is to become related, through the Holy Spirit, to people such as Mother Teresa, St. Patrick, Martin Luther, St. Augustine, Billy Graham, Irenaeus, C.S. Lewis, St. Chrysostom, and millions of other faithful believers most of whose names are unknown to history.
The saints still living become spiritual mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children. That’s why I spend so much space on this blog encouraging people to find good churches and Christian groups and to beware of ones that teach false doctrine. The person who is born again needs to become part of a healthy local family, not a dysfunctional one.
Having said all that, what does the process of being born again look like? It usually goes something like this:
- You’re willing to acknowledge you’re not perfect. You make mistakes, you do things you shouldn’t and don’t do things you should.
- You realize you couldn’t be perfect even if you tried.
- You’ve heard about the life and teachings of Jesus and He seems to you to be worth listening to and learning more about. (You may have doubts about some of His followers but that’s a different subject.)
- You know Jesus died on a cross, and you know the Bible says that while on the cross Jesus took all the wrongs and evils in the world on Himself so they could be put to death with Him. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. (John 1:29)
- You’ve heard Jesus’ followers claim He walked out of the grave alive three days after He was crucified and he never died a second time.
- You’re beginning to suspect maybe God really is a God of love and joy but you’re not really sure if he loves you. (He does)
- You’re beginning to understand that Jesus is who He claimed to be, namely the Son of the living God.
Technically speaking, the moment in which “you begin to understand” is the moment rebirth begins, because a person can’t know Jesus is Lord without the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 2:2-12) In the exact existential middle of this moment all your life hangs in the balance. As you begin to see Jesus for who He is, there’s a choice that has to be made: whether to kneel before the Creator and give one’s life to Him; or to close one’s eyes, refuse to see, turn away, and live life to oneself. The second choice needs no explanation; the first choice usually leads to some kind of prayer in which the person says “goodbye” to the past and “yes” to God. While the prayer is still being prayed, the Holy Spirit enters the person and the person enters into God. (I John 4:13) A new life has been born.
If you feel like your life is hanging in that balance right now and you’re not sure what to do or what to say to God, try praying this prayer: “God, You know everything. You know me better than I know myself, so I might as well be straight with You. [Tell God about anything you feel ashamed of or guilty about.] I want to know Jesus for who He is and accept the forgiveness that comes from His death on the cross. I want to be Yours. As I open my heart to You, please forgive me and fill me with Your Spirit. Thank you, Lord, for loving me and accepting me as your own. Amen.”
BTW if you prayed this prayer please email me at mbowman AT tsm DOT edu and let me know. You don’t have to give your name unless you want to, and I’m not going to try to get you to join my religious organization (I don’t have one). It’s just a good idea to let someone know about a decision like this so you’re not doing it alone.
*[from the first paragraph above] Here’s the detail on the four passages in case you’d like to see the background research:
Verses in which “born again” appears:
John 3:3 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
John 3:6-7 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
1 Peter 1:3 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
1 Peter 1:22-25 22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, 25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
John 3:3 – “to beget from above”
John 3:7 – “to beget from above”
I Peter 1:3 – “to beget again” or “to cause to be born again”
I Peter 1:23 – “to beget again” or “to cause to be born again”