I have on occasions heard Christians tell non-Christians that in order to be saved they must be “born again”. This has always seemed to me to be a rather unhelpful thing to say to someone who knows next to nothing about the Bible or the Christian Faith.
Yes, of course, the expression “born again” or “born anew” is biblical. Yes, of course, Jesus used it with Nicodemus in John 3. But Nicodemus, as Jesus knew, was “a teacher of Israel”. He oughtto have understood what Jesus meant because he ought to have been familiar with Old Testament passages such as Jeremiah 31:31-34 (cf 32:38-40), Ezekiel 36:26-27 (cf 37:14), Isaiah 59:21 and Joel 2:28-29.
“Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus asked Nicodemus. Plainly, he was surprised, and perhaps even annoyed, at Nicodemus’ ignorance about the new birth. But I doubt that he would express similar surprise or annoyance towards a non-Christian today for a similar ignorance. Certainly, I doubt that he would expect non-Christians to understand what it means to be “born again” without some elaboration and explanation of the term.
But I do think that he would expect Christians who use the term to know what it means and to explain its meaning when they use it. As Jesus’ gospel witnesses, as his evangelists, perhaps we Christians should adapt and apply his question to Nicodemus to ourselves: “Are you teachers of unbelievers and yet you do not understand these things?”
If we believe that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”, and if we want others to believe it, too, then we ought to know what it means to be born again and how it is possible to be born again. So then, this new birth: what does it involve and what makes it happen?
Jesus evidently had some sort of spiritual transformation in mind when he talked about being born again. He was using physical birth to illustrate spiritual birth. If we picture what is involved in “natural” birth we can glimpse what is involved in new birth. Just as birth is the doorway to this life, new birth is the doorway to the next life. No one enters this world without being born and no one can enter the Otherworld without being born again. And just as the baby who is born brings with it a sense of health and innocence and hope, so the person who is born again experiences and signals the potential for immortality and purity and great expectations.
To be more precise and more technical: To be born again means to be renewed inwardly by the Holy Spirit, thus becoming a child of God. This spiritual renewal is known theologically as “regeneration”. The new birth, or regeneration, is “an act of God through the Holy Spirit by which the divine nature of the living God is implanted in man.”1It is through regeneration that we “escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4). “God’s nature abides in” the person who is “born of God” and empowers him to resist sin (1 John 3:9).
It is through the new birth that God becomes our Father and we become his children. Our first birth occurred because we were begotten by human parents who imparted their (fallen) human nature to us; but our second birth occurs because we are begotten by a divine Parent who imparts his divine nature to us. Hence Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
We must be born again in order to be acceptable to God. But how? Nicodemus asked Jesus this very question: “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” No, of course he can’t! So then, how can we experience the new birth?
Jesus answered this question in two parts.
To begin with, he declared that there is nothing we can do to create ourselves anew. The new birth is the sovereign work of God’s Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
It is the Spirit of God who, by the will of God the Father and through the death of God the Son, changes us into God’s children as he pleases. The new birth is God’s work from beginning to end. Just as we had no power to bring about our first, physical birth, so we have no power to bring about our second, spiritual birth.
But to say that we have no power to bring it about is not to say that we have no part in it coming about (of which more later). We must not overdo the birth/new-birth comparison. Serious theological errors occur when biblical metaphors and analogies are pressed too far. There are many similarities between the first and the second birth. But there are some differences, too. One immense difference is that before our first birth we did not exist, whereas before our second birth we do exist, and we are conscious of our existence. Jesus could talk about being born again to Nicodemus precisely because Nicodemus had been born in the first place. And he could explain the matter to Nicodemus precisely because it is possible for a once-born person to get a sense of what it means to be twice-born. Indeed, as not only his explanation but also his exasperation showed, Jesus plainly expected Nicodemus to be able to understand, at least in a rudimentary way.
Well, the first thing Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand is that the new birth is God’s work in whole and in part, and it is especially the work of the third Person of the triune Godhead, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, whenever a person is born again, it is entirely by the Spirit’s power and at the Spirit’s pleasure.
But Jesus did not leave the matter there. He went on to point out that although the Spirit moves sovereignly as he pleases, there is something that pleases him to move. This brings us to the second part of Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’ question, “How can a man be born when he is old?”
Jesus revealed that the Spirit chooses to bring about the new birth when a particular condition is met. And it is the person who would be born again who must meet that condition, albeit with God’s help. (This is where the parallel between the first and the second birth breaks down and must be abandoned.) That condition is faith or trust in the Lord Jesus, who bore our sins and suffered our punishment on the cross at Calvary.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he himself was going to be lifted up on the cross, so “that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This plainly means that whoever believes will be born again, for no one can have eternal life who does not also have new life from the Spirit. So while we cannot bring about our second birth, we can meet the condition that pleases the Spirit to do it for us. By trusting in Jesus, we are inviting the Spirit to move mysteriously and sovereignly to impart new life to our souls; and such an invitation is always accepted by him.
In any discussion of the new birth, we should be careful to stress the role of faith, belief. Generally speaking, it is inadequate to tell non-Christians that they must be born again without also telling them how this is possible. Rather than halting halfway through Jesus’ comments to Nicodemus in John 3, we should follow them to the finish; and they do not finish, most translators agree, until the end of verse 21. In the second half of his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus mentions “belief” five times.* He repeatedly and emphatically states that whoever believes in him will receive eternal life (and thus be born again). So when we tell someone, “You must be born again”, we should also tell them, “And you will be born again—if only you will believe in Jesus as your Saviour and Lord.”
The new birth is both necessary and possible. Consequently, we need to tell people not only that they must, but also that they may, be born again. As CH Spurgeon once preached, “a new birth is possible to you, dear friend, though you have come here tonight in a wrong state of heart, with your sins upon you, binding you fast. There is enough of light in your soul for you to know that you are in darkness … Do you not know, dear heart, that the Spirit of God has regenerated men and women quite as far gone as you are? … I want to drop into your ear—and may the Spirit of God drop into your heart—this word, you may be born again … O dear hearts, there is no absolute necessity that you should always go downward in evil till you descend to hell … Come and lay yourself down at [Jesus’] feet, and ask him to make you new. I beseech you, do this at once!”2
To experience eternal life we must first experience new life in Christ Jesus. This new life is available to all who will receive him by faith as Lord and Saviour. For the Apostle John declares that “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:12-13).
“You must be born again,” Jesus said. And when we believe whole-heartedly in him, we are. Our sins are forgiven, our guilt is removed, and we have peace with God. We become “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
* Jesus makes salvation (which includes forgiveness, new life and eternal life) conditional upon belief five times in the span of five verses in John 3: “whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (v. 15); “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16); and “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God “(v. 18). And for good measure, the Apostle John, writing with Jesus’ authority, also emphasises belief in the last verse of chapter 3: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life …” (v.36).
1. Emery H Bancroft, Elemental Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960), p.195
2. CH Spurgeon, “Sermon for New Year’s-Day”, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Volume 31/1885 (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), pp.8-9.