What Did Jesus Mean by “Born Again”?

INTRODUCTION

According to Jesus in John 3:3 being born again is necessary to “see the Kingdom of God.”

For most Protestants being born again, and thus saved, is the exclusive domain of the Christian because it’s a spiritual experience of regeneration you have the moment you believe you are a hopeless sinner and accept the sacrifice of Jesus as God’s provision for your inability to measure up to God’s standard of perfection. So the act of being born again makes one a Christian, by definition.

In Catholicism being born again is the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church and her supposed exclusive authority to baptize. They say it happens when you are baptized in water by a church-sanctioned priest. They say this because Jesus said this two verses later, assuming “born of water” is water baptism:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”

I have been told by more than one priest that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.

And then there’s an old high school classmate of mine who grew up in the Episcopalian Church. When I asked him if he was born again he asked, “Uh, you mean reincarnated?”

Man we need to get this sorted out or we might be excluded from someone’s exclusive domain called eternal life, right?

 

CONTENTS:

Introduction

Other Than Peter and John, No One Mentions “Born Again”

Born Again in 1978

Section 1 – The Cultural Context of Nicodemus Being Born Again

We Know One Person Who Needs to be Born Again

Who Cares What Some 1st Century Jew Thought About “Born Again”?

Nicodemus was a Pharisee – Pharisees were Bad People

What “Born Again” Meant in Ancient Jewish Culture

Nicodemus – Educated in a Jewish View of Being Born Again

Did Nicodemus Really Think Jesus Expected Him to Crawl Back Into his Mother’s Womb?

Section 2 – Jesus Said to be Born From Above, Not Born Again

Jesus – Knowledgeable in the Jewish View of Being Born From Above

Bad People are Born From Below

“Born From Above” Indicates the Source of Your Morality

The Broad Path from Above to Below

Those who Received Jesus were Already Born of God

Our Default Setting at Birth: Good, Righteous, and Born From Above

Human Conscience is Given by God

Molding a Child’s God-Given Conscience for Righteousness and Salvation

Section 3 – The Rest of the Testimony About Being Born Again

John’s Epistle About Being Born of God

Peter’s Testimony Regarding Being Born Again

Paul’s Spiritual Circumcision Equates With Being Born Again

Section 4 – How to be Born From Above

How to Get a New Heart and Spirit

In Summary

There Are Many Ways to say “Born From Above”

How to Get Your Name Written in the Lamb’s Book of Life

Section 5 – How Jesus Gets Us to be Born Again

Why Jesus Was Sent

In Summary

 

Other Than Peter and John, No One Mentions “Born Again”

If being born again is that important for salvation, if it’s that essential to the Gospel message, the Good News of Jesus Christ, such that no man can be saved without it, one would expect the other three Gospels to make mention of it, preferably with explanations as to what it means. The problem is, we don’t see any mention of “born again” in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.

Neither do we see it in Acts where we see a record of how the Gospel was spread and people were converted to the Christian faith after Jesus ascended into heaven. We don’t have any examples of anyone getting born again so we could see what that looks like.

We don’t see “born again” in any of Paul’s writings where he explains salvation. 

And we don’t see it in James.

Only two authors in the whole Bible make any mention of being “born again”. They are Peter and John. It’s likely Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul, and James had heard this story that was in the Gospel of John yet didn’t think it important enough to devote even one thought towards what it means to be born again, let alone reiterate that it was necessary for everyone in order to be saved.

Do you find that a bit curious? Is this what we would expect to see in our Bibles if it’s such a universal maxim that applies to all humans for the rest of our human existence, and the consequences for not believing are so dire?

If it’s not important enough for the normally loquacious Paul to say anything about it then what is Jesus actually saying? Is he even  saying every person on the planet needs this for entrance to heaven?

I submit and will endeavor to demonstrate that not everyone needs to be born again, because everyone starts out life born from above. Those who need to be born again are the few. They are the evil people like Nicodemus, the one to whom Jesus was talking when he said he must be born again.

Born Again in 1978

I can remember the day I became a Born Again Christian over 40 years ago like it was yesterday. I was one of the Freshmen boys living in Pacific Lutheran University’s Stuen Hall trying our hardest to change the reputation of Studious Stuen to a party house, at the risk of us being expelled from the University for possession of alcohol. Fortunately we had a Resident Aid on our wing who was “on our side” so overlooked our drunken parties in our dorm rooms as long as we kept things under control and confined to the dorm room, not to mention keeping the pot plant under wraps my roommate was growing under a grow light in his closet.

One of the upperclassmen who lived one floor up got a heart for me and my roommate and felt led to share the Lord with us. She confided with one of her Christian friends that she really didn’t think it was going to do any good to talk to Scott and Kirby but she was encouraged to push past her reservations. One of her friends said to her, “If Jesus is leading you to do it, you better do it Lisa.”

Lisa passed the dorm desk in the lobby where I was working one day and asked me if I had ever heard of The Four Spiritual Laws. That sounded interesting to me.  She agreed to come to our room later that evening and tell us about it. What she shared with us was a small tract with two pictures on it like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

She asked us which picture represented our lives to which we said the first picture. She then asked which one we would like to represent our lives and we both said the second one with Jesus ordering our lives, giving us purpose and meaning, as she had explained to us. I was amazed that a historical figure from 2000 years ago could do all that today but based on the growth of Christianity and judging by her life it seemed to be working so I wanted to experience that for myself.

She told us we just needed to do what she had done earlier in her life which was ask Jesus to come into our lives and be our Lord. All we needed to do was pray The Sinner’s Prayer, so we did just that and she welcomed us into the family of God. After Lisa left our room Scott pulled a couple beers out of our fridge and said, “Let’s celebrate! We get to go to heaven when we die.”

We were born again, and off to a good start!

I have come to disagree with much of what was printed in that Four Spiritual Laws tract which included the following along with the pictures above:

The theology presented in the tract, such as the idea sinful man is so separated from God that he can’t know or experience God’s love and that Jesus is God’s only solution to this non-existent problem, I’ve addressed in other blog posts – with more to follow.

Since this is what so many Christians think and I had for decades thought it meant to be born again, and saved – individually receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord – I’d like to explain what the term “born again” meant for Nicodemus and what it means for us today.

SECTION 1 – THE CULTURAL CONTEXT OF NICODEMUS NEEDING TO BE BORN AGAIN

We Know One Person Who Needs to be Born Again

From the story itself the only person on the planet we know who needs to get born again is Nicodemus. We might conclude, or at least suspect, that Jesus isn’t teaching a universal maxim that applies to everyone. After all, we say the same thing about all of us having to give all of our wealth away after Jesus told the rich young ruler he had to do that and follow him to be complete. We believe that applied to the rich young ruler, but not to ourselves and everyone else.

Am I right?

So why can’t needing to be born again to be saved apply only to Nicodemus? Or people like Nicodemus? We would be hypocritical for demanding that it has to apply to everyone when we say another saying of Jesus spoken to a another particular person, the rich young ruler, does not apply to all humans.

Yes, I know, consistency in our interpretations is a lot to ask for but let’s give it a try, shall we?

Jesus is just telling one person, Nicodemus, that he must be born again yet what he says to Nicodemus might actually apply to others, in some way, and I’ll explain how it does. If we are going to apply those verses to others we need to be careful how we do that, not going by rash assumptions that won’t stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.

Is being born again the spiritual experience that happens the moment someone believes in Jesus as their Savior or invites him to be the Lord of his life, or the spiritual experience which causes a person to believe Jesus is their Savior? As we shall see it could include that moment, as it did for me in the Spring of my Freshman year at Pacific Lutheran University when I went from being a non-Christian to being a Christian, but it’s not a spiritual experience that is necessary for all humans to gain entrance to the Kingdom.

Who Cares What Some 1st Century Jew Thought About “Born Again”?

There is a segment of modern Christian scholarship who have put aside the anti-Semitic sentiment that Jews can’t get anything right and started listening to Jewish scholarship. They recognize that our Bibles are a thoroughly Jewish source first written for a predominantly Christian audience who were still as Jewish as menorah candles and skull caps. Or as Jewish as bagels with cream cheese. Or kvetching about the weather during a heatwave.

That cultural understanding of the Jewish contemporaries, like Nicodemus, of the Jewish Messiah and his Jewish Apostles and what they wrote in our Bibles, puts these scholars at an advantage for understanding so much in the Bible.

And we can learn from them.

I submit we can gain understanding about “born again” by understanding it the way a Jew would understand it.

So let’s do just that.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee – Pharisees were Bad People

Since Jesus was a Jew talking to another Jew about being born again we need to get into Nicodemus’ head and see this as any Jew would have seen it at the time. At times it may seem like Jesus couldn’t care less if his fellow Jews understood what he was saying but this isn’t one of them. In this case Jesus wanted to be crystal clear so spoke of things that Jews already understood. The whole concept of being born again was well known in ancient Jewish culture while in modern Protestant culture we think Jesus was introducing something entirely new, hence Nicodemus’ confusion on the matter.

Let’s do a little digging in this ancient culture to understand it the way they understood it.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and Pharisees were known for wickedness, and got chewed out for such from prophets like John the Baptist and Jesus who often took to task these religious leaders for their wicked ways and hypocritical judgementalism, especially when it was directed at Jesus:

“If you were children of Abraham,” said Jesus [to some Pharisees], “you would do the works of Abraham. But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. You are doing the works of your father [the Devil].” (John 8:39)

How do we know that Jesus was indicting Nicodemus as a Pharisee who was a wicked evildoer? Because of what Jesus said to Nicodemus in verse 11 of John 3:

“We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.”

The religious leaders largely did not accept his words and God’s words.  We see this explained in many places in John.  They were wicked evildoers and did not want to come into the light and have their sins exposed. For example, just a few verses later, in John’s commentary on what he heard Jesus say about being born again:

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (Jn. 3:19-21)

The Pharisees did not want to live by the truth of righteousness which would mean leaving Jesus alone instead seeking to kill him.

Nicodemus was given a choice: come into the light, have his sins exposed and repent of them against that natural tendency of a wicked person not to do so, or he could remain in his wickedness. If he does repent he will enter a new phase in life as if he were to start life as a newborn babe.

What “Born Again” Meant in Ancient Jewish Culture

In their culture, entering a new phase in life is what is meant by “born again”, and any human can do that for any reason. Jesus was sent so more people would enter a new phase in their lives marked by righteousness rather than unrighteousness. His death on the cross, his sacrifice of himself, and God’s sacrifice of his Son, were all a graphic demonstration of God’s love – to influence people toward repentance. As Jesus said, “If I be lifted up I will draw all men unto me.” (Jn. 12:32)

Peter said likewise: “For the Messiah also suffered for sins once for all, an innocent person for the guilty, so that he could bring you to God.” (1 Pet. 3:18)

The very Gospel of Jesus is the message that God will bless those who turn from their wicked ways:

And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify [make righteous] the Gentiles by faithfulness, preached the Gospel beforehand unto Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then they that are of faithfulness are blessed with faithful Abraham. (Galatians 3:8–9)

[Peter said] “Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have proclaimed these days.  And you are sons of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers when He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all the families of the earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up His Servant, He sent Him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” (Acts 3:24-26)

In addition, God raising Jesus from the dead was a graphic demonstration of God’s approval of his Son so people would listen to what he had been telling them to do and do it, which was “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If they did, and if they weren’t already doing that, they would enter into a new phase of their lives. They would become born again.

But please note: if they had always done what Jesus said to do they wouldn’t be born again because they weren’t entering a new phase in life. They had always been born “from above” their whole lives.

This is the case for the vast majority of the human race. This will become clearer as we progress.

Nicodemus – Educated in a Jewish View of Being Born Again

Since Jesus said this to Nicodemus who was a highly educated Jew, a Pharisee and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin no less, he was likely well-versed in what Jews prior to Jesus understood about “born again”. This will help us understand what is going on in Nic’s head as he’s having this dialogue with Jesus.

Judaism often used rebirth as a metaphor to describe the change of a person’s status from one thing to another at which point he is described as a newborn infant. This ancient metaphor is used:

  • When someone converts to Judaism, his status has changed to being a “convert”, so he is considered a newborn baby. (b. Yeb 22a, 62a, 48b; y. Bik 3:3 vii)
  • When a man gets married, his status changes from “single” to “married,” so he has entered a new birth. (y. Bik 3:3 vii)
  • When Israel offered sacrifices to God on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year’s Day, the nation is “born again”, because it is starting a new year afresh. (Lev. 23:24, Lev. Rab. 29:12)
  • When God called Moses to be a prophet and speak as God’s representative, he entered a new phase in his life  so he was considered to be born again. (Ex. Rab. 3:15)
  • When someone became the king of Israel he also at that time became God’s representative, and also “God’s Son”. He was considered born again, because his status changed from “civilian” to “king.” (Ps. 2:7)

In addition, as explained by Chosen People Ministries:

“Judaism frequently uses new birth to describe the world to come. Job looked forward to his renewal during the coming resurrection (Job 14:14) and the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of works of renewal during the world to come. (1 QS 4.25) In this world, God will remove sin from His people and permanently plant Israel in her land. (Ezek. 36:25-36; Pss Sol 17:32-33; Gen. Rab. 89:1; Deut. Rab. 3:11) God’s people look forward to the coming world, because He will make a new creation. (Jub. 1:29; 4:26; 1 En 72:1-2)”

Living in that new creation would be an epic change of their circumstances, much greater than entrance into a new year, and so would be to them a new birth. The nation would thus be born again.

Given all the options Nicodemus was likely aware of for what exactly Jesus meant it’s not hard to see why he wasn’t sure what Jesus was getting at, so he would need some clarification. The first thing that would have come to mind is that Jesus was saying he needed to be a convert to Judaism but since Nicodemus was already a Jew then to what did he need to convert, if anything?

Did Nicodemus Really Think Jesus Expected Him to Crawl Back Into his Mother’s Womb?

Ellicott’s Commentary sheds some light on Nicodemus’ apparent confusion. He explains Nic’s question this way:

“after the method of Rabbinic dialogue, [Nicodemus] presses the impossible meaning of the words in order to exclude it, and to draw forth the true meaning. ‘You cannot mean that a man is to enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born. What is it, then, that you do mean?’”

This understanding of the conversation Jesus was having with Nicodemus makes him out to be quite a bit less clueless, in fact, actually portrays him to be an informed and wise seeker genuinely looking for the truth from the great Rabbi who was with him. He may have sounded like a dope to us who don’t know this background about how the Jews described major changes metaphorically and who aren’t familiar with Rabbinic methods of rhetorical questions, but now that we know – Nicodemus is looking rather sharp, wouldn’t you say?

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that something in his life needs to change, that he needs to take on a new status in life. Converting to Judaism wasn’t it. Neither was he telling him to get married, usher in the new year, or be anointed as a king.

Though Jesus doesn’t come right out and say it, or if he did it wasn’t recorded by John, there are clues right there in the dialogue as to what change of status Jesus is talking about, clues which Nicodemus was more likely to have understood than us 2000 years later. I think it’s safe to say that by the end of the dialogue Nicodemus understood the implications for his own life. The story doesn’t tell us how Nicodemus responded to Jesus but we can hope he did the right thing and repented of his wicked Pharisaical ways, became a righteous Jew, and even better, follow Jesus so he could learn what Jesus was all about.

That’s how I believe things looked from Nic’s house.

Now let’s turn our attention to what Jesus actually said, which wasn’t, “You must be born again.” He said, “You must be born from above.” What was on Jesus’ mind when he said that?

SECTION 2 – JESUS SAID TO BE BORN FROM ABOVE, NOT BORN AGAIN

The Greek words for “born again” are literally, “born from above”, from gennao, “to be born,” and anothen, “from above.”

Because Jesus mentioned in verse six, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” we define being born from above as a separate spiritual experience after natural birth – but that’s an assumption that doesn’t fit with what Nicodemus already understood about this term.

Before going further, did you notice how the term literally means “born from above” while Nicodemus’ question was about being “born again”? Jesus said he must be born from above but Nicodemus seems stuck on the rebirth aspect with no concern for the direction from which the birth must come. “From above” and “again” don’t mean exactly the same thing. This should be kept in mind as we work through this. It’s an important distinction.

Jesus – Knowledgeable in the Jewish View of Being Born From Above

Jesus said the following a few verses later as an explanation of “you must be born from above”. We looked at this verse previously:

“Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (Jn. 3:20-21)

Jesus is telling Nicodemus he must change from evildoer to living by the truth, from walking in darkness to walking in the light. If he does that, he will start a new life, just like a newborn babe. He will be born from above, by the Spirit of God, rather than born from below, being a child of the Devil.

Bad People are Born From Below

The direction from which a person is born, either from above or from below, is what matters, and here’s the symbolism: you are either a person who does good, and therefore born from above, the source of all goodness, or you are one who does evil, and therefore born from below. In this ancient black and white view of reality you either belong to God or you belong to the devil. There is no in-between.

We can see this distinction in many dialogues Jesus had, most clearly in this one five chapters later in John 8 from which I’ll pull a few excerpts:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.”

“As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.” “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me.” (John 8:12, 23, 26, 40-49)

Since Jesus isn’t saying the Scribes and Pharisees literally ascended from Hell to stand there in front of him to ask their questions he must be talking about the source of their immorality which leads them to be murderers and liars. Them being “from below” was another way of saying they were bad people rather than the good people they thought they were. Jesus being “from above” meant Jesus was a good person and a man of God, not the demon-possessed preacher they accused him of being.

They really needed to get this thing sorted out correctly because not doing so really revealed the kind of people they had become. Remaining as they were was not going to bring a happy ending to their existence. Some of them obviously needed a new life but rather than get one they accused Jesus of being like they were.

“Born From Above” Indicates the Source of Your Morality

As we saw earlier Jesus lumped the Pharisee Nicodemus in with the rest of the Pharisees who had largely rejected the light because their deeds were evil when he said to Nicodemus,

“I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.”

Rather than view “born from above” as one’s first spiritual experience when he becomes a Christian, or even the subsequent spiritual experiences and regeneration that follow, it makes more sense to see it as a state of being, or the status you have as one who is a good person, which status you may have all of your life from birth to death.  Or even better it indicates the source of your morality if you are a good person. After all, all humans are given a conscience by God above which will keep them from being wicked if they follow it, so in that regard all humans start life “born from God.” Likewise, being “born from below” is the status you attain when you are an evil person. It indicates the source of your immorality.

The Broad Path from Above to Below

Since people are born with a healthy conscience from God which keeps them from doing evil then born from above is the natural state of man. It’s his default setting, if you will.

“What causes people to change from their natural state of being born from above to being born from below? Isn’t that inevitable given man’s fallen human nature?” you might be asking. As I have explained in other posts, the scriptures frequently contrast being righteous with being wicked and depict many normal people who are righteous, with or without faith in God or Christ.

It’s not a given that all humans will become wicked evildoers, but there is one thing that certainly moves a lot of people in that direction. It is something that children pay no attention to until their teenage years or sometimes later. As Paul said, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faithfulness, love, endurance and gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:10-11)

The “all kinds of evil” Paul is referring to regarding lovers of money are the many ways people do harm to others in order to get more of it, stealing it as well as withholding it from those to whom it is due, in which case they experience the grief of their criminal justice system going after them. Paul advised Timothy to pursue righteousness, among other things, because if you do the right thing as a matter of habit you won’t be taking anything from anyone else and so won’t be “pierced with the griefs” that come with society’s sanctions against criminal activity as well as the turmoil stirred up in relationships.

These days that “piercing” might literally be from a kitchen knife or a lead projectile propelled by gunpowder.

Those who Received Jesus were Already Born of God

John doesn’t introduce the idea of born again in his Gospel in chapter 3 in the story about Nicodemus. He introduced the idea right at the beginning of his Gospel, in what is called the Prologue. Here he used the term “born of God” like he does in his epistles which we will look at below:

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who were faithful to 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. (Jn. 1:11-13)

Those who have been in right status with God since birth don’t need a change of status. The good people of Jesus’ time gladly came to the light and accepted him because their deeds were not wicked, according to Jesus in John 3. The source of their morality was already from above, as it is for most people. They didn’t need to come from there because they already came from there, so to speak. They didn’t need to be born from above because they already were.

Examples in the New Testament of who those would be include John the Baptist’s parents of whom it says, “They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and righteous requirements of the Lord blameless.” (Luke 1:6) Also included would be the many who heard Jesus preach and accepted him as a man sent from God. They already were born from above.

Our Default Setting at Birth: Good, Righteous, and Born From Above

The “default setting” of those born naturally is that they are born from above. People have an innate sense of morality that has been given to them by God. Periods of human history where mankind is so corrupt that God would want to destroy the pinnacle of his creation and start over, such as at the Flood, are considered aberrations, not the norm.

Here are some biblical descriptions of humanity and our innate goodness:

Ecclesiastes 7:29 says, “Truly this only I have found that God made man upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.

King Solomon, assuming he wrote Ecclesiastes, is not trying to explain the Fall of Man in Genesis. As with the rest of the book, he has after a long life made many observations about people and life. He shares a common belief among the ancients that people are basically good, by design. The ones who aren’t upright are not living according to how God has made them.

David echoes this same sentiment. He believed in the goodness of people enough to ask God to bless them for being good;

“Do good, O Lord, to those who are good, to those who are upright in heart.” (Psalm 125:4)

In the New Testament we see Jesus speaking about good people as if they are the norm. He said in Matthew 12:35,

“The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him.”

He certainly does not say this to say nobody ever brings good things out.

The apostle John connects a person’s goodness with the source of that goodness, which is God, in 3 John 1:11,

“Do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God.”

And also 1 John 4:7,

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

Though John doesn’t use the term “born from above” like he would in his gospel that he would be writing later, it’s safe to say he means the same thing when he wrote “born from God” in his epistle.

If you’re up on theology you might recognize these scriptures as a full-on assault on the Protestant and Catholic views of Original Sin, views that are post-apostolic innovations that were rejected by the Eastern Church, which is now the Eastern Orthodox Churches. I explain how these views don’t line up with scripture in these articles:

There Are None Righteous – Except for Everyone Who Is

Universal Condemnation Because Human

Human Conscience is Given by God

The conscience we have is given to us by God. It’s mentioned in Romans 2. There Paul says that following this conscience will lead a person, who knows nothing about God’s laws as given to Jews and Christians, to live a life that is pleasing to God.  Some of Paul’s fellow Jews who knew the Law, on the other hand, would lead lives displeasing to God.

The conscience of a person can be molded by his environment. “Bad company can corrupt good character,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:33.

Since following our God-given consciences can lead a person to keep intact the righteousness he was born with, can good parenting that helps a child live according to a healthy conscience save that child’s soul?

I would say yes, it can, if bad parenting would have led the child to live a life of wickedness. It doesn’t always, but it certainly does happen.

James 5:20 says we can save a soul from death by getting them to stop their wicked ways:

“Let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

If we can do that with someone who is already a “sinner” then it stands to reason that we can prevent a child from needing to turn from his wicked ways by raising him to be an upstanding contributor to society.

Molding a Child’s God-Given Conscience for Righteousness and Salvation

Often with children their innate sense of selfishness overrides that innate sense to not steal and so become little thieves, or at least succumb to a deception where everything they see is “MINE!”, and so parents are given the task to guide their children out of this “morality”. We all recognize that this is not unusual and so have patience with the little ones as they grow and mature. We still consider them to be “good kids” in spite of this exhausting anomaly we call the “Terrible 2’s”.

If this state persists into adolescence we then think there is something wrong with the child and get very worried about him. If a child delights in setting fire to his neighbor’s house or torturing the neighbor’s cat we really get worried about him. In either case we would consider the kid a “bad kid” and keep our eyes on him or if it’s our own child we would work extra hard to mold them so they don’t go into adulthood this way and become a bad adult who does harm to others, sending his Mother’s Day cards from the State Penitentiary.

For the vast majority of God’s little ones we see them as innocent and sinless, calling them “good kids”. We expect that they will grow up to be good members of our society never having to be a part of our criminal justice system. They have a morality that is “normal”, what we would expect from God’s creation. In our day and age we would consider them to be “good people”. In scriptures they are considered to be “from God,” or “from above” because their morality stems from a healthy conscience which is what God gives everyone.

When King Solomon rebuked someone who had wronged his father he said, “You know in your heart all the wrong you did to my father David.” (1 Kings 2:44) Solomon understood that proper morality dwells in people’s hearts, even if they do not follow it.

The human conscience is so important to follow that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10 that we do wrong for encouraging others to go against their conscience – even when it’s wrong and what they want to do is actually OK to do! That’s how sacrosanct the human conscious is. Because it was given to us by God.

This default setting of goodness does not change until people decide to live a life of wickedness, at which time their status is changed to indicate the change of the source of their morality to “born from below,” like the religious leaders who opposed Jesus, Nicodemus included. If this is the case for anyone then they need to decide to live a life that is worthy of being a child of God.

A child who suffered bad parenting, or had bad friends, and decides later to live life for self at the expense of others is more likely to be wicked and forfeit his eternal life. A child who learns respect and compassion for others is less likely to become wicked.

Parenting makes a difference in the salvation of souls.

SECTION 3 – THE REST OF THE TESTIMONY ABOUT BEING BORN AGAIN

John’s Epistle About Being Born of God

The other place John mentions “born again” is in his first epistle where he doesn’t describe it as born from above but as born from God. Again, I think we can assume he’s talking about the same thing:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 Jn. 4:7)

Most will look at this verse and insist that it can only apply to Christians. There’s no way a Muslim or an atheist can be born of God or know God, even if he loves like Mother Teresa. We can’t possibly take this at face value, and think “everyone” means everyone.

Or can we?

Many people won’t take this “born of God” status because of love in John’s epistle as universal and applicable to any good person, with or without faith. The funny thing is, the same people who won’t say anyone who loves is born of God will take the “born again” in John’s Gospel as a statement universally condemning people who haven’t experienced a spiritual rebirth even though it was in response to a local and temporal issue. It’s so easy for us religious people to interpret our text in a way that defaults to a position of validating ourselves and condemning others, isn’t it? Why are we inclusive with scriptures about condemnation but exclusive with scriptures that validate non-Christians? What is in our hearts that we should just “naturally” do this?

Let’s get past that human tendency, shall we?

I should note here that John wrote his epistle before he wrote his Gospel so he had already laid a foundation of what it meant to be born from above, making it inseperable to good behavior such as loving others. John no doubt had his own teaching in mind when he was writing John chapter 3.

We miss it because we generally start our walk through the Bible at the beginning of the New Testament and sometimes never make it the epistles of John at the other end, or when we do we have forgotten about what was said in the Gospel of John.

May I suggest a short exercise: read the epistles of John and then soon after read John chapter 3 and see if you don’t see what I see when I read the Gospel of John. I’m quite sure the whole concept of “born from above” will have new meaning if it hasn’t already.

Peter’s Testimony Regarding Being Born Again

There is one other place in the New Testament which makes mention of being born again, other than John’s Gospel and his epistles. That is in 1 Peter 1:21-23. This is usually seen as a spiritual experience as well, which it is, but not in the way most Christians think. When reading this passage please notice who purifies the sinner:

“Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again [literally “born anew,” not “born from above”], not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:21-23)

Peter is saying here that people heard the word about Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God and had decided to make a change in their lives. Peter equates self-purification with being born anew, and as we have seen before this is what is needed for salvation for those who are born from below, those whose father is the devil.

This is a beautiful picture of the synergism between us and God as we respond to him, whether we were ever born from below or not. God first acted 2000 years ago, we hear of his love and his expectations to live righteously, we determine in our hearts to end our wicked ways if we have given ourselves over to that, and we dedicate ourselves to loving our neighbors as ourselves. God’s involvement in this process can certainly be considered a spiritual experience, but this process is more than that. It’s also us doing and participating. We must cleanse ourselves as well as God cleansing us. The way we do that is to simply stop being wicked, with God’s help. This can also be seen from the following in both testaments:

“When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:15-17)

“‘Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.‘ In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” (2 Timothy 2:19-21)

All of this could be done without the Spirit being involved in the life of the person.

It could be, but it doesn’t need to be. That’s the Good News of the Kingdom of God! God longs to involve his Kingdom powers in the process.

The way God gets involved is by providing divine assistance so that people don’t have to go at it alone. The words they believed in weren’t just uttered in the past and all we have today is that bit of information to process in our minds and act upon in our own human abilities. The words are active and living, meaning there’s a power behind them that is actively involved in this whole process, by his Spirit! Jesus died for your sins, meaning, he died to lead you to this relationship with God where the both of you work out your salvation from your bondage to your sins.

Isn’t that so much more glorious than mere forgiveness and removal of guilt and penalty?

This relationship, access to God, and divine assistance is written about in both testaments in numerous ways:

Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit.(Ezekiel 18:31)

He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household. (Ephesians 2:17-19)

To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faithfulness of him. (Ephesians 3:10)

Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:4)

Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18)

But let’s not forget the goal of all of this divine assistance which is beyond just freedom from bondage. The goal is to become more like Christ. That is what the Spirit is about and why He provides power and ability to the believer to overcome sin. Enter into that and your being born again won’t just be a change of status, it will be an opening into a vast reservoir of grace for your life, for both the wicked person who needs a new status called “righteous” and for the righteous person who can avail himself of a new status called “in Christ”.

The spiritual experience Peter writes about is divine assistance for the unrighteous to become righteous, and then for all to become Christlike. He isn’t writing about the necessity of a born again experience or having the right belief to gain entrance to eternal life, he’s writing about how God comes alongside believers to be a part of this process, and that should be encouragement to continue in that process.

Peter’s audience already had sincere love for each other as he says in this verse, and so were already familiar with the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit, but Peter wants them to go deeper, to love one another deeply from the heart, because God is there making his imperishable word alive to bring about the changes that will make them more Christlike.

A certain amount of righteousness and Christlikeness can be had by anyone who desires it and strives for it, without God being involved, but why go at it alone when God is more than willing to come alongside you and bear you up through the process? The Good News of Jesus Christ is that you don’t have to go at it alone! The Kingdom of God is at hand! The power is yours for the journey to become what God wants you to be: a better person.

Paul’s Spiritual Circumcision Equates With Being Born Again

The Apostle Paul writes of Gentiles in Romans 2 who keep the righteous requirements of the Law, even without having heard of the Jewish Law. This would certainly include loving others, because if you don’t love others there is no way you can keep the requirements of the Law:

“If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s [moral] requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.” (Romans 2:26-29)

Paul considers these Gentiles to have had a spiritual circumcision, that is, their hearts have been molded by the Spirit of God! Though Paul doesn’t mention “born again” in so many words, he is writing here about a spiritual experience that non-believing Gentiles have.  I think Paul answers our question about whether John is talking about everyone or just Christians when John says those who love have been born of God and know God. There is some sense in which they do know God, even if they are atheists, or they wouldn’t be doing what God made all men to be – lovers of others.

Again, being born of God is a status. You acquire or maintain that status by loving others instead of harming others. It isn’t the “proof” of your status, it’s how you achieve that status, as Paul makes clear when he said it’s those who obey the righteous requirements of the Law who are the ones who are circumcised and are the real Jews.

SECTION 4 – HOW TO BE BORN FROM ABOVE

How to Get a New Heart and Spirit

You may have often heard of the born again experience as God giving someone a new heart and spirit. This can certainly happen when someone prays the Sinner’s Prayer, but not necessarily. If all they have prayed is, “Yes, Jesus, I accept you as my Savior,” as a sort of fire insurance policy because they have been told all humans will burn in Hell without “accepting Jesus”, then they aren’t necessarily given a new heart and spirit. If they at that time endeavor to change their ways and be a better person, then God will give them a new heart and spirit, because that’s how you get one, with or without faith in Christ. Ezekiel, long before Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, tells us:

“Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:30-32)

How does Ezekiel expect the Israelites to get a new heart and a new spirit? By praying the sinner’s prayer, accepting Jesus into their hearts? No, by turning their lives around, ridding themselves of all the offenses they have committed!

Please note: this verse is not talking about the coming of a new covenant for the nation of Israel in the future long after Ezekiel is dead. Unlike the majority of prophecies for Israelites which are for the nation as a whole, this one is actually for individuals. Individual repentance will provide a new heart for the individual, right then and there, even for those living in the Old Covenant.

Getting a new heart and spirit isn’t a blessing for Christians only through faith in Christ. It was available long before Christ and as can be seen in the book of Jonah even those who knew nothing of Israel’s laws and lamb sacrifices which pointed to Christ repented of their wickedness. They too, along with the Israelites who did the same, would be given a new heart and spirit.

There Are Many Ways to say “Born From Above”

The scriptures are full of dichotomies other than Born From Above vs. Born From Below. They are all different ways of saying the same thing.

Here are some of them:

  • Your Father is God vs. Your Father is the Devil
  • Walking in the Light vs. Walking in Darkness
  • Able to See vs. Blind
  • Wise vs. Foolish
  • Wheat vs. Weeds
  • Good Fruit vs. Bad Fruit
  • Full of Life vs. Full of Death
  • Seahawks Fan vs. 49ers Fan

Well alright, that last one isn’t in the scriptures. But it should be!

If you examine every use of these terms you will see a common theme: they all relate to conduct. They are all just another way of expressing this dichotomy: Righteous vs. Wicked. If you plan on a good afterlife you will need to make sure your father is God, you’re walking in the light, you are able to see, you are wise, you are wheat, you are bearing good fruit, and full of life, in which case you will be considered a righteous person. If your father is the Devil, you walk in darkness, you are blind, you’re foolish, you’re a weed, you bear bad fruit, you are full of death, and you are a wicked person, then you will be judged accordingly. It’s time to make a change in order to be born from above. Jesus can help you. Just ask.

If you consider yourself to be a Christian yet you are a wicked person, please don’t tell me about your faith in Christ. It hasn’t done you any good and it won’t do you any good. You are still born from below and that’s the direction you will be heading, eternally, after you die. Even if you think Jesus is your Savior, and believe with all of your heart, Jesus hasn’t saved you.

You need Jesus to help you become a righteous person. He will if you turn from your wicked ways and ask God for help.

This is where the Evangelical formula of “individually receiving Jesus as your Savior and Lord,” like I did in 1978, can actually save you. Or as many put it, “Invite Jesus into your life as Lord and Savior.”

Notice I said, “Can actually save you.” Nothing is automatic.

How to Get Your Name Written in the Lamb’s Book of Life

About his enemies David said, “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous.” (Ps. 69:28) This indicates the righteous are in the book while the unrighteous are not.

In the rest of Psalms David tells us what he means by righteous people. They are people who speak wisely and justly, have the law of God in their hearts, pay back what they borrow, and shew mercy by giving to those in need.

Good people, in other words.

Good, righteous people have their names written in something called “the book of the living.” It’s called the book of the living and not the book of the saved because living righteously is considered life while living wickedly is considered death. It’s understood by David that those who have life will continue to have life after death:

For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face. (Ps. 11:7)

Ezekiel confirms David’s understanding:

Say unto them, “As I live, said the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11)

If a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. (Ezekiel 18:27)

Some have surmised that the reason David called it “the book of the living” is because it’s just the names of all people who are alive and they will get their name taken out when they die. But that doesn’t explain why he adds the phrase “written with the righteous.” It’s very apparent that David regards those in the book as being righteous, not just merely alive.

Prior to David, Moses also mentioned God having a book. When Moses interceded on Israel’s behalf, he pleaded to God to “forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book” (Ex 32:32-33). This book isn’t given a name but again it appears that the existence of this book is common knowledge. It could be David elaborates on the same book by giving it a name. At any rate, we see a common thread: inclusion in the book hinges on righteous behavior.

With that Old Testament background let’s turn to the book of Revelation and see what John has revealed:

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:12-15)

Again we see that whether a person’s name is written in a book or not is determined by his behavior. They are judged according to their works, not according to what they believe. From the rest of the book of Revelation there is no doubt that the standard to meet to get a desired result is righteous behavior so it stands to reason righteous people are in the book and the unrighteous are not. That is why the ones whose names are not in the book are cast into the Lake of Fire.

Notice also that nothing is ever mentioned by Moses, David, or John about how to get one’s name written into the book. They only write about how to get blotted out of it. This is a good indication that everyone is born with their name in the book but it will be removed if they deserve to have it removed.

SECTION 5 – HOW JESUS GETS US TO BE BORN AGAIN

Why Jesus Was Sent

He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name, which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (Jn. 1:11-13)

John is saying here that the ones who did receive Jesus did so because they were born of God, and we can see from John 3 and 8 the ones who rejected him were born from below. But let’s not think that God had determined whether each individual would be born from above or born from below. Such Calvinistic thinking will only lead to confusion at best and at worst a spiritual paralysis that prevents people from repenting.

The point of the Gospel, the reason Jesus was sent, was to persuade people to make a decision for themselves. In fact, the Greek root for “faith” and “faithfulness” is “to be persuaded.”

God does the persuading regarding how people should live their lives, through his people, especially through Christ, so others will decide for themselves.

Those who received Jesus were already walking in the light because they were righteous and had no reason to fear being exposed for whom they were. The wicked did not want to be exposed so did not come to the Light of Jesus and so did not receive Jesus. In the past we have always thought that verse 13 is talking about conversion upon receiving Jesus, but now I see that they were already born of God, fitting the description of a born of God person in 1 John. Not that they weren’t born naturally, but that they were born naturally and of God.

Jesus came to his own, the Jewish people. Those who were already born from above, as evidenced by their righteous lives, and those who repented at hearing his message, he gave power to be the Sons of God.

I will finish here with the most succinct wording in the Bible to answer the question, “What did Jesus die for?”:

If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: ‘The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.’” (Luke 24:45-47)

And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But in this way God has fulfilled what He foretold through all the prophets, saying that His Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped away, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord. (Acts 3:17-20)

IN SUMMARY

To summarize, everyone is either born from above or born from below. What distinguishes one from the other is determined solely by one’s conduct, not by what he believes. If what one believes leads someone to live a life of righteousness then all the better. People are born righteous and have to do something that changes that status to “wicked” or “evildoer”. The only ones who need to have a rebirth in order to gain entrance into the Kingdom of God are the ones who’s status needs to change from wicked to righteous. Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees were some of those. They had to do something to have their status turned back. They had to repent of the wicked behavior that brought them to that point.

When a person repents, he enters a new phase in his life. He has gone from born from below to born from above. Jesus never said anything about  “born again” but that is implied in the change of status he was talking about. Nicodemus needed clarification about what kind of change of status, presenting an impossible option such as going through another natural birth, in order to draw out the real meaning from Jesus. Although it wasn’t true for everyone, for Nicodemus being born from above would entail a change of status and so he would become born again.

The one thing that Jesus said that applies to everyone is that they must be born from above, that is, they must be righteous, not wicked people, or they can not see the Kingdom of God.

As Jesus said in Luke 10:25 the way to inherit eternal life is to love your neighbor as yourself. If you do that you ARE born from above and don’t need to be born again. You don’t need to have your status changed in order to inherit eternal life.

If you have always been a righteous person or are one now and have done that without faith in Christ then there is a change of status available to you called “being in Christ” where you will have access to the grace of God by way of divine assistance for becoming like Christ who was like God. That change of status happens when you believe Jesus died for you and you follow him. At that moment you will be in Christ. You will become born again. You don’t have to have faith in Jesus to become a better person, but the Good News of Jesus Christ is that there is divine assistance so you don’t have to go at it alone. Why do it on your own when God loves you and is more than willing to help you along the way?

I hope this gives you a whole different way of understanding what it means to be born again and how to do just that, and I pray this sits well in your spirit.

If you have been conditioned by Protestant theology which says that all are condemned to Hell without a Savior then you would likely say that all are wicked and EVERYONE needs to repent, and believe in Jesus, in order to find favor with God and avoid a miserable eternal afterlife, or at least to avoid being snuffed out and missing eternal blessings. I go into this whole idea of universal damnation to eternal Hell for simply being human more in these posts:

There Are None Righteous – Except For Everyone Who Is

Universal Condemnation Because Human.

You might also like:

If Being Good Can Not Save a Soul

Salvation by Being Good  – Table of Contents

Introduction to Salvation by Being Good

Salvation by Being Good

Love, Righteousness & Salvation: Foundational Christianity

 

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