To Be Born Again

You must have heard people refer to themselves as born-again Christians, but what does it really mean to be born again?

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In the gospel of John, chapter 3, it is recorded of a man named Nicodemus, who was a rabbi of rabbi who taught the law of God to all of Israel. He had always been highly regarded in Isarael all his life, yet something began to gnaw at him since the time he resolved in his heart that he would learn God’s law and keep them the best he could. His photographic memory allowed him to learn and remember things he read, and he kept growing larger in the mind of his contemporary, until one day he became the greatest of them all. But somehow he felt all his effort to reach perfection was not enough, his credentials could fool all his peers but not his own heart that all the accomplishments, though as impressive as they were, would not be enough for him to enter the kingdom of God.

1 Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, 2 came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:1-2)

Having seen Jesus perform miracles that had never been done before, and having heard him debate the teachers of the law as well as teach the common folks with such authority, he felt a strange but wonderful sense of hope rising up in his heart. He pondered if this man might be the Messiah that our people have been waiting for?

Born by flesh

3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?” (John 3:3-4)

But this man Jesus said something that puzzled him to no end.

In his Jewish tradition, Nicodemus had experienced being born again several times in his life, once when he transitioned to adulthood and celebrated it with a Bar Mitzvah, once when he got married, once when he graduated from rabbinical school, and lastly once when he became a teacher of rabbis. There can be no more being born again for Nicodemus as there is no transitioning to a higher position in life for him. Yet, Jesus told him if he was to see the kingdom of God, he must be born again. So it must have been a rhetorical question when he asked Jesus whether he should go back to his mother’s womb and start all over again.

Note that in the mindset of a Jew, a rebirth has to do with a transition from one position in life to another as in Nicodemus’ experience. This is not much different from the way many Christians think of a rebirth: you used to do something, now you do something else. You used to spend the weekends in worldly pursuits, now you spend time in the Word, in fellowship with other believers and worshipping God. And many other positive changes that must occur as a proof of one’s rebirth.

According to Jesus, this is not a prescription to either Jews or Gentiles for an admission to the kingdom of God.

Born from above

5Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. … 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’ (John 4:5,7)

The answer is NO. This rebirth is from above, by the spirit of God. Even the person who experiences this rebirth does not know how it comes about. This is how it is different from the experiences of either the Israelites or in the common perception of most Christians. This must be the reason why when asked in our Sunday School class for a definition of the meaning of the term “born again,” the answer of most never failed to point to an expectation of some positive changes in something they do or in their lifestyle.

At least in Nicodemus’ experience, his rebirths were more well defined and agreed upon by most if not all Israelites. The Christians on the contrary cannot point their finger at something that can define their rebirth, so they keep chasing it until they become resigned to the possibility that it’s just a nice theological term to be preached on ad nauseam without producing any lasting effect.

Flesh vs. spirit

6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. … 8 The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 4:6,8)

What is born of the flesh? Everything that comes from a man, no matter how noble or seemingly spiritual, is from his flesh. But spiritual pride is as alluring as the forbidden fruit, and man will find ways to put on a robe of self righteousness like Adam and Eve when they put on the ancient fig leaves. They always will try to elevate themselves with spiritual sounding words, with pious platitude that even Jesus had never attempted though he’s God and he has every right and ability to do so without fear of hypocrisy.

A mighty work may be considered noble in the eyes of peers, but born of the flesh nonetheless. And if it’s of the flesh, it’s not from above, therefore it is useless in carrying its performer into God’s presence.

Furthermore, the work of God that born a man again from above is mysterious even to the one who is subjected to it, much like leaves that are blown by the wind, they perform no work except to receive the effect of the force that is external to them. And therefore “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Living by faith

While it is true that God may have prepared from everlasting the works of his kingdom for those who have been called by him (Ephesians 2:10), he only does so for those who have been born from above, as no works will ever be the cause, or the requirements, of such spiritual rebirth.

Yet there is one work, the only one by the Son of God, that is powerful enough and acceptable to God to bridge heaven and earth, to reconcile sinful man and the holy God, to bring the prodigal son back to the father, to grant us the rebirth that is absolutely required to usher us into God’s presence. Any work proposed by anyone or any other system of faith is in direct competition to what Christ had accomplished on the cross.

In short, the only means through which one inherits a spiritual rebirth is:

The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. (John 6:29)

13And in Him, having heard and believed the word of truth—the gospel of your salvation—you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is the pledge of our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)

Just as at our birth at the beginning of creation, the Holy Spirit breathed man into life, but that life was lost to Adam, now he’s breathing it again to those who are restored to him through God’s Son. The rebirth was once and always will be the work of the Almighty, and it can only be received as a free gift.

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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