What do people mean when they say that they have been “born again”?
A former Lutheran I met in a nursing home became confused as a young woman when Pentecostal friends insisted she needed to be “born again.” When they asked her if she had been, she didn’t know how to answer. She had not heard (or could not remember) her pastor using that phrase in her church.
Her friends showed her Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 King James Version). She became concerned. The more she talked with these friends, the more she questioned her salvation. They taught her that she needed to experience salvation personally and dramatically. She needed to make her own decision to trust and follow Jesus. She needed to invite him into her heart. Only then could she be sure that she had been born again. Eventually she yielded to their urging, “made her decision,” and joined their church.
Her friends were right about one thing. She did need to be born again to be saved. We all do. But does being born again really mean making your own decision for Jesus and inviting him into your heart?
That is how many evangelical Christians understand the phrase today. They believe that Jesus died for you on the cross. He offers to forgive all your sins. He invites you to accept his gift for yourself. He even sends the Holy Spirit to disturb you, draw you, love you. But, in the words of Billy Graham, “even after all this, it is your decision whether to accept God’s free pardon or to continue in your lost condition” (How to Be Born Again, p. 162).
New birth, figuratively speaking
Is that what Jesus meant when he insisted we must be “born again”? Perhaps we should dig deeper into the figure of speech.
We understand how little we have to do with our natural, physical birth. Our conception is the work of our parents. We played no role in the process. We are the product of their union, not the cause.
Our mothers’ bodies sufficiently nurture and develop our own bodies to make it possible for us to survive outside the womb. Everything we need for growth and maturing during gestation we receive from our mothers. When the day comes for us to be born, we are passive. We play no role in deciding our birthday. We could not prevent it. We even speak of it in passive terms. An infant is born. A mother gives birth. Birth happens to us without our decision or cooperation.
Jesus was not careless when he chose this picture for our conversion from unbelief to faith. The apostle John uses this same passive picture when he introduces us to Jesus in the opening verses of his gospel: “Yet to all who did receive [Jesus], 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” (John 1:12,13). Jesus explained further to Nicodemus, “The Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). God is the sole actor here. Our new birth of faith is something we receive, not something we do.
This also means that humans do not give birth to prepackaged children of God who naturally know and trust him. Physical life cannot produce spiritual life. The human birth process does not create a heart beating with faith. It does not produce a soul that knows its true Maker, Savior, and King. We need a new birth—a second, spiritual birth.
God gives new birth
God has to do this himself, because “you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). This doesn’t mean “mostly dead,” like the hero Wesley in the movie The Princess Bride. We have no spiritual life in us at all before God gives birth to that life of faith. No one buried in the cemetery can bring himself back to physical life. No one who is spiritually dead can bring himself to spiritual life either. “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4,5).
The Lord has two tools at his disposal to give us this second, spiritual birth: Baptism and God’s Word. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus strongly allude to our baptisms: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5, emphasis added). The Holy Spirit joins the water at our baptisms to bring us to faith. This is why the apostle Peter can say that the water of the great flood “symbolizes baptism that now saves you also” (1 Peter 3:21). As the waters of the flood brought death and destruction to the enemies of God’s people and lifted Noah and his family in the ark to safety, the waters of Baptism bring death and destruction to our sinful natures and lift our souls to safety by faith.
God’s grace looks even better when we understand our new birth as his gift.
The same apostle Peter assures us that God’s Word has the same effect on those who hear it. “You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). When God uses us or others to preach the gospel to people who have never heard it before, that Word has the power to create faith. Those who believe have been born again through the Word of God they hear.
“Born again” properly understood
If a Lutheran friend or your Lutheran pastor talks about being born again, he is referring to the miraculous gift of new spiritual life God gives us when he calls us to faith. Even if people don’t completely understand the picture of new birth or have not thought through the process the Bible describes, every genuine believer in Jesus has been born again. In every case, that new birth is a gift of God brought to believers through Baptism or God’s Word alone. You could say that the term “born-again Christian” is a redundancy, because every Christian has been born again.
Many, if not most, of your friends in Evangelical or Baptist churches will associate being born again with a commitment they made to Jesus, either when they first came to faith or when they later had some deeply moving spiritual experience. They made a personal decision to trust and follow him. We cannot deny that they made such a decision. However, that decision is not the cause of faith. It is not even faith itself. At most, it is a product of faith, in the same way that love and good works come from faith. The danger lies in relying on something they do for salvation. Salvation comes from God alone, through the faith he gives us as a gift.
If your friends think that being born again was their decision rather than God’s gift, perhaps you can help them understand the picture of birth better. God’s grace looks even better when we understand our new birth as his gift.
Author: John Vieths
Volume 110, Number 03
Issue: March 2023
- Please explain: What does it mean that “many are invited, but few are chosen”?
- Please explain: How is church discipline a loving practice of the church?
- Please explain: Can a Bible verse be overused or used at an inappropriate time or setting?
- Please explain: What can I do when my relationship with Jesus causes family problems?
- Please explain: What good can possibly come from the persecution of Christians?
- Please explain: What is the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of a Christian?
- Please explain: What does it mean that Jesus’ enemies would become a footstool for his feet?
- Please explain: What do people mean when they say that they have been “born again”?
- Please explain: What does it mean that Christians are priests before God?
- Please explain: If I have been baptized, does that mean I have been anointed?
- Please explain: Can Christians be so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good?
- Please explain: The world is a mess. Why doesn’t Jesus do something about it?
- Please explain: Why is Holy Communion so important to confessional Lutherans?
- Please explain: What does it mean to give up everything to follow Jesus?
- Please explain: If I worry, am I doubting God?
- Please explain: What is the point of praying?
- Please explain: Where do we get the idea of the Trinity when that word isn’t mentioned in the Bible?
- Please explain: If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, how can he also be the Lamb of God?
- Please explain: What’s the big deal about Easter?
- Please explain: Why should we love our enemies?
- Please explain: Why did Jesus do miracles?
- Please explain: As a Christian, what does it mean to be humble?
- Please explain: What does it mean to have your name written in God’s book?
- Please explain: Is God’s design for marriage relevant in today’s world?
- Please explain: Does God favor certain people?
- Please explain: Why do I so often fail to do what God wants?
- Please explain: Why is the church always talking about money?
- Please explain: How does God’s kingdom grow?
- Please explain: Why are only Christians’ works good, but the same works by others are not?
- Please explain: How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead?
- Please explain: If the Sabbath law no longer applies, why do I have to go to church?
- Please explain: Why did God cruelly command Abraham to sacrifice his son?
- Please explain: Does Christian freedom give me the right to do anything?
- Please explain: Is heaven going to be boring?
- Please explain: Why is Jesus taking so long to return?
- Please explain: Why did Jesus use parables to teach?
- Please explain: Does Jesus build his church on Peter and his successors?
- Please explain: How can I be a Christian when there are so many hypocrites in the church?
- Please explain: Why should I be a Christian when I have to suffer?
- Please explain: How do I know whom to believe now that Jesus is gone?
- Please explain: How can Jesus be our friend if he isn’t physically here on earth?
- Please explain: Why can’t my sister have communion with us?
- Please explain: Whom do we blame for bad things?
- Please explain: Are sins of thought as bad as committing the actual sin?
- Please explain: What makes God unique?