What Does It Mean to Be “Born Again?”
I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, and I remember hearing people talk about being “born again.” I attended a Nazarene church, and while we understood the phrase “born again” to be biblical, we probably used the phrase “saved” more often. I also remember bumper stickers which simply said, “Born Again.” Because there is always a response to anything “trendy,” other bumpers stickers which read “Born Right the First Time” appeared soon afterwards.
So what does it mean to be “born again?”
This is the first of two posts related to the term “Born Again.” The second will appear tomorrow, and will deal with the question whether the term “born again” remains helpful and relevant. For now, we will look first at the Biblical background of the term. After that, we’ll consider how the term “born again” is used in the Church today.
The phrase “Born Again” arose from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3. Jesus begins that discussion with the statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless someone is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, emphasis added). The Greek word translated “again” can also mean “from above.” While both meanings are possible, it seems clear that Nicodemus understands it primarily as “born again.” He asks, “How can a person be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” Jesus answers by speaking of being “born of water and the Spirit.”
However, this passage is not the only place where the concept of being “born again” is found. Consider these passages:
Gospel of John
- “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a man, but of God” (John 1:12-13)
- “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” (1 Peter 1:3)
- “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness also has been born of Him” (1 John 2:29)
- “No one who has been born of God practices sin, because His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin continually, because he has been born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother and sister” (1 John 3:9-10)
- “Beloved, let’s love one another; for love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7)
- “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves the child born of Him” (1 John 5:1)
- “For whoever has been born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world, our faith” (1 John 5:4)
- “We know that no one who has been born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18)
Usage and Understanding
So what does it mean to be “born again”?
Some people simply use it as a synonym for “Christian.” Others apply “born again” to a definitive, intentional salvation experience with God. Like many other terms, its effectiveness has been weakened by sloppy usage and sloppy theology. I suggest that we understand “born again” to mean that a person has made an intentional decision to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of men. Such a decision transforms us: “If anyone is in Christ, this person is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This “new creation” expresses what it means to be “born again.”
However, this also implies a change in us. As the passages from 1 John make clear, the new creation means that we do not live as we did before. The new birth is therefore not simply a subjective, internal belief on the part of the believer; the new birth is transformative, and that transformation is reflected in our actions and our attitudes. As Jesus said, “The tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33).
The Effect of Being “Born Again”
Therefore, to be “born again” means that we have knowingly and willingly expressed faith in Jesus Christ. That expression of faith results in our regeneration. And if we are “children of our Father,” then we should act like our Father!
- Let’s love one another; for love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God (1 John 4:7).
- No one who has been born of God practices sin, because His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin continually, because he has been born of God (1 John 3:9).
Now, when we say that we have “knowingly and willingly expressed faith in Jesus Christ,” that means that being “born again” is not an accident. It also does not come from our parents, our friends, or even our church. It comes because we acknowledge our sinfulness and our inability to atone for our sin, and we intentionally accept the forgiveness and life that Jesus offers to us. That is a transformation! And the term “born again” expresses the magnitude of that transformation. It is not simple a decision to “do better.” We don’t just commit to “lifestyle changes.” We become something new!
(All Scripture quoted is from the NASB unless otherwise noted)