For those of us who were brought up within Evangelical and Protestant faith traditions, the expression “born again” has been deeply ingrained in our understanding and vocabulary. For us, the meaning of this phrase is straightforward: it refers to the moment when Jesus saves someone. This belief is rooted in the fact that Jesus himself used this saying, and for us, it is not something that is subject to doubt or questioning. Simply put, being “born again” means being saved by Jesus.
However, when we delve deeper into the theology behind the term, a question arises: what exactly does “born again” signify? And why did Jesus choose to use a phrase that mirrors the act of giving birth to illustrate salvation?
In John 3, we see an interesting interaction between Jesus and a Jewish Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to see Jesus during the evening most likely trying not to be seen by his fellow Jewish leaders and acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher sent by God because of the miracles he performed. But Jesus responded that to see the kingdom of God, one must be “born again.” Unable to think in spiritual terms, and only thinking literally, Nicodemus asked Jesus how this was possible since a person couldn’t enter their mother’s womb again to be born. Jesus explained that this new birth must come from the Spirit, not just physical means.
The text does not specify whether Nicodemus was actually saved during this encounter with Jesus, but it’s important to note that Jesus often used language that was challenging for non-believers to comprehend. However, Jesus did take the time to explain the concept of being “born again” to Nicodemus, though it may not have been solely for his benefit, but more importantly, for others who were witnessing the exchange. Whether or not Nicodemus was truly saved is not the focus of this article, though. We are focusing on exploring the theology behind Jesus’ illustration.
First, Jesus retorts to Nicodemus’ lack of understanding when he asked Jesus about climbing back into his mother’s womb. Clearly, Jesus was speaking in spiritual terms. Jesus said that to be born again meant to be first, born of water, which is not a reference to baptism but a reference to being born, or created, physically. We see a parallel to this in 2 Peter 3:5 where Peter speaks about the earth being formed through water.
For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God… —2 Peter 3:5
But secondly, Jesus says that one needs to be born of Spirit. So the idea that Jesus is trying to convey is that to be born again, one first enters creation, born of this world, and then one is secondly born again of the Spirit—a physical birth then a spiritual rebirth.
Why is a second, spiritual birth necessary for salvation? This dates back to the garden where our first progenitors, Adam and Eve, fell. Because of Adam’s sin, sin entered the entire human race. Romans 5:15 speaks of how Adam’s sin caused death to enter the entire human race and this is echoed in Ephesians 2:1 which says that we are born “dead in our trespasses and sins.” Before the fall, Adam and Eve were both physically and spiritually alive and were created to stay that way forever. However, because of the fall, we may be born physically alive for a temporary time, but we are born already spiritually dead, unable to even seek the spiritual needs on our own accord. As Jesus said, we need to be born again, this time, of spirit.
So what actually happens when one is born again? According to the New Testament, this rebirth is a transformation that involves a spiritual awakening, a regeneration of the heart and mind upon hearing the gospel, and a turning away from sin and towards a new life in Christ. Continuing in Ephesians 2, this is arguably one of the most explanatory passages detailing the process of being born again. While we were dead, Paul says, the only thing we could do was gratify the desires of the flesh and mind. But then Paul explains in verses 4 and 5:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…
When God saves us, he makes us alive. He gives us spiritual life, eternal life, as it was meant to be before the fall. He does so by, as Paul explains in Titus 3:5, “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
It is important that we grasp that our spiritual rebirth, just like our physical birth, is not something that we can cause to happen on our own, rather, it is a work of the Holy Spirit in us and it is He who washes us, regenerates us, saves us, and gives us new life.
Our second birth is permanent and eternal and not something that can be taken away. Refuting the notion that one can lose their salvation, we’ve already seen that the Bible equates being saved with new life and it stands to reason that if one could lose their salvation, one could spiritually die again after being born again. Clearly, that would lead to the absurd notion that there could be born-again people in Hell. But once again, Peter refutes this absurd notion in 1 Peter 1:23 demonstrating that being born again is not being given a life that can be lost, it is quite the opposite:
Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…
The imperishable seed that we are born of, Peter says, is the Word of God. We are born, united with Christ through this imperishable seed and Jesus Himself promises in John 10:28 that “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
So brothers and sisters, do not lose heart and do not fall prey to those seeking to undermine your faith in your salvation. Jesus said you will never perish, and if you are truly born again, not even you can separate yourself from the love of God.
In Romans 8:38-39, Paul speaks of his confidence in Christ and assurance of our salvation:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Live it. Love it. Believe it!