Many believe that being “born again” means having a “religious experience” or “accepting Christ.” Also, this is believed to constitute the process of conversion. Anyone having “experienced” this is said to be “saved.” Yet, is this what the Bible says?
Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, came to Jesus, acknowledging that he and other rulers knew that Jesus had to be of God because of the miracles He had performed. Jesus replied with an unexpected statement that Nicodemus did not grasp: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The Greek word used, translated as “born,” is gennao. Unlike modern theologians, Nicodemus knew precisely what Christ meant by gennao—that He was referring to a birth, just as a physical birth. This is why he responded, “How can a man be born when he is old…” (John 3:4).
Christ replied, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (vs. 5). The mention of water in this statement applies to baptism—being immersed in water—symbolizing the watery grave after having deeply repented. The reference to “born of the Spirit” is directly related to the spiritual growth necessary to be born at the resurrection. It is analogous to a fetus growing in its mother’s womb before birth.
The physical-spiritual analogy here is evident. This is confirmed by Jesus’ statement, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it lists, and you hear the sound thereof, but can not tell from where it comes, and where it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:6-8). This refers to those who are “reborn” as spirit beings at the resurrection—who will be invisible, just as the wind is invisible to physical beings. There is a clear distinction between “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.”
In marvel of Christ statements, Nicodemus responded, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered, “Are you a master of Israel, and know not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto you, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and you receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how shall you believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3:10-12).
When He said, “…you receive not our witness,” Christ was referring to the Pharisees in general. Nicodemus and the Pharisees were “masters in Israel,” yet they did not understand this basic truth about the lifelong process of spiritual rebirth.
Christ was proclaiming that the kingdom of God was coming to earth and that people could be born into it. Nicodemus marveled at this for a number of reasons—one being that Christ demonstrated that even the established rulers in Israel (Judea) did not understand the Plan of Salvation, regardless of their exposure to the scriptures. Although they knew Jesus was sent from God, these rulers never submitted to His authority.
Another reason Nicodemus marveled at Christ’s words was that Jesus spoke in terms the Pharisees could not perceive. Christ explained this to His disciples: “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [all others, including the religious rulers of His time] it is not given” (Matt. 13:11). Yet, John recorded the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus to expound Christ’s point to those called in following ages. In verses 11 to 17, He explains why the world is in such confusion over this basic understanding.
In John 3, the term “born” appeared in verses 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. In each instance, the original Greek word was gennao. All major lexicons define this term as begettal by the father (begotten) or birth by the mother (born). Thus, gennao can be translated either “born” or “begotten,” depending on the context. We will refer to these definitions later.
(1) In what order are God’s servants changed by spiritual rebirth? I Corinthians 15:23.
Comment: The phrase “Christ the firstfruits” is better explained by reviewing verse 20: “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.” In verse 23, “afterward, they that are Christ’s at His coming” pertains to those in the first resurrection.
Comment: Christ was the firstborn “from the dead.” When Christ was born again, He did not just go through a “religious experience.” Nor did He “accept Himself as Savior.” What He experienced was a literal rebirth from death. He was the first to experience spiritual rebirth (to be “born again”)—the hope of all Christians.
(3) Are many others to follow what Christ was first to accomplish? Romans 8:29.
Comment: Christ was to be “firstborn among many brethren,” meaning that other brethren were to follow after Him. Christ was simply the first of many to be born again.
(4) Is Christ’s statement, “that which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of spirit is spirit,” further elaborated upon in context with the resurrection? I Corinthians 15:50-52.
Comment: This well summarizes the hope of the resurrection—the change of human beings to spirit beings.
Let’s now compare the physical analogy of an unborn child developing in the mother’s womb to the spiritual development of a Christian. Conversion is a lifelong process of growing to spiritual maturity in order to be “born again” at the resurrection.
(2) Must Christians become skillful in the Scriptures and in spiritual discernment through experience and growth? Hebrews 5:13-14.
(3) Can any person decide for himself to seek God’s Way and become converted simply by the momentum of his own willpower? Romans 8:7-8.
Comment: Some ask, “How can I tell whether God is calling me?” The answer is that unless God calls someone, that person’s mind will not become opened to His truth. To begin to seek God’s ways—to begin to understand them and desire to grow in this understanding—is evidence of one’s calling.
Comment: Repentance is a deep, profound sorrow for having lived contrary to God’s Way, after having come to realize the supremacy and authority of God and His Word. True repentance is not a generated human emotion—it is a gift from God!
(6) What other vital condition is required in order to receive the Holy Spirit? Acts 5:32.
Comment: To say that obedience is a requirement means that the person sincerely strives to obey God’s laws with all his heart. This does not mean that through obedience, one could earn the Holy Spirit. It is a gift that God gives to those He calls, after they have responded to that calling with obedience.
(8) Is God’s Spirit actually imparted into the mind? I Corinthians 2:10-13.
Comment: Just as the physical sperm cell from the father impregnates the human egg cell and initiates the growing process of a human fetus, the Holy Spirit enters the mind and starts the process of spiritual development.
Comment: An earnest portion is a small deposit, given in advance, to show what is to follow. This amount might be only a tiny portion of the Holy Spirit, which increases as the individual matures spiritually.
We have already seen that gennao can be translated either “born” or “begotten,” depending upon the context. Begettal can refer to human conception by the father, as recorded in Matthew 1:20: “But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, you son of David, fear not to take unto you Mary your wife; for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”
In this case, Jesus was conceived or begotten by God’s Spirit. The term translated “conceived” in this verse is gennao, and could have been better translated as “begotten.” In a few places, the translators used the word “born” when “begotten” would have been more accurate, and vice-versa. One of the best known examples of this mistranslation is in I John 5:1.
Once we are begotten by God’s Spirit entering our minds, God considers us His Sons: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). Likewise, “Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knows us not, because it knew Him not” (I John 3:1).
(1) As sons of God in this life, we are heirs to the promises of God. Since we are still flesh and blood, why do we remain only as heirs of the promise and not inheritors? Titus 3:7; Hebrews 1:14; Romans 8:17.
Comment: We would have to be changed from flesh and blood in order to receive “salvation”—“eternal life”—and to be “glorified together with Christ.”
(2) What is the change that must be made to become inheritors of the promises? I Corinthians 15:42-44.
(4) Were the terms “Firstborn from the dead” and “Firstborn of many brethren” merely titles given to Christ—or did they define a sequence that Christ fulfilled? I Corinthians 15:20, 23; Hebrews 5:9; 6:20; 12:2; Revelation 1:4-5; 3:21.
Comment: The fact that Christ has led the way for those whom God calls is clearly established throughout Scripture. This was referred to earlier in the lesson where Romans 8:29 and Colossians 1:15, 18 were cited. Many scriptures show that Christians will be changed at the resurrection. Yet, the verses explaining how Christ led the way, by referring to Him as the “Firstborn from the dead” or “Firstborn of many brethren,” proved to be a difficult stumbling block to those who believe we are born again in this life. That is why they attempted to diminish Christ’s role of leading the way, reducing it to a mere title. Christ pioneered the way for many brethren to follow. (Revelation 1:5 in the King James Version of the Bible reads, “first begotten,” but should have been translated as “firstborn.”)
Comment: The terms “adoption of sons” in Galatians 4:5, and “adoption of children” in Ephesians 1:5, are incorrect translations. The Greek term huiothesia means “sonship,” not adoption. Likewise, Romans 8:15 should read “Spirit of sonship,” instead of “Spirit of adoption.” Galatians 3:26 clearly states, “For you are all the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ.”
(6) Are the children of God also called (in advance) the children of the resurrection? Luke 20:36.
Comment: Verse 35 clearly shows that the children of God are those who are accounted worthy to obtain the kingdom of God and will become the children of the resurrection—born at the resurrection of the just. This verse clearly confirms that the resurrection is when spiritual birth takes place!
(1) I John 3:9 reads, “Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin; for his seed remains in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” Does this refer to this life or to the future?
Comment: There are two criteria that can be used here. First, in this present life, Christians are indeed capable of sinning. Romans 3:23 states that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Speaking of himself and other Christians, John states, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8; continue reading verses 9-10). Thus, I John 3:9 cannot be referring to Christians in this life. Secondly, when one is born of God at the resurrection, he will be like God (I John 3:2). The following verses are tied to this context of “when He shall appear” (the Return of Christ).
Verses 4 through 8 show that “sin is the transgression of the law”; “in [Christ] was no sin”; and “whosoever abides in Him sins not.”
Verse 9 ties back to verse 2 in discussing being born of God. To express “cannot sin” (conveying the impossibility of sinning) is very different than “sins not” (as a way of life), as found in verse 6. One who is born of God will be like Him—incapable of sin! This applies to the future—not to this present life!
Finally, I John 5:18 provides more valuable insight. In this verse are two contrasting phrases, each using gennao and each requiring a different translation of that term, because of the comparative structure of the verse. The translators recognized this and proceeded to translate as the context correctly dictated. This verse reads, “We know that whosoever is born of God sins not. But he that is begotten of God keeps himself, that the wicked one touches him not.” This unmistakably confirms that I John 3:9 refers to the resurrection in the future.
(2) Why do many professing Christians believe that one is born of God by merely believing “that Jesus is the Christ”? I John 5:1.
Comment: A casual reading of this verse has led many to falsely believe that the only requirement for salvation is to simply “believe that Jesus is the Christ.” There, the Greek term gennao appears 3 times. The translators of the KJV chose to translate gennao as the respective terms “born,” “begat,” and “begotten.” This verse should actually read, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God: and every one that loves Him that begat [Moffatt correctly uses the phrase ‘that loves the Father’] loves him also that is begotten of Him”—referring to other brethren.
Those who accept the traditional “born again” fallacy essentially deny the change to occur at the resurrection, and counterfeit it with a watered-down version of real conversion—a lifelong process rather than an instantaneous change. The real instantaneous change is at the resurrection, which they reject.
Once again, I Corinthians 15:50-52 describes the resurrection in which true Christians are changed—born into the kingdom of God. Since flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom, this could only happen by being changed into a form that is incorruptible—into spirit!
Recall that Christ told Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Yet, many have been deceived by subtle explanations that equate conversion with being born “from above.”
It is true that the Greek term used in John 3:3, anothen, can mean “from above,” as well as “again” or “anew.” But notice that Nicodemus responded by asking how he could “enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born.” He never mentioned any hazy religious platitudes about being “born from above.” Becoming born again—the second time—was clearly the context!
The only other place in the Bible where “born again” appears (besides John 3:3, 7) is I Peter 1:23, in which the term is translated from anagennao. This can only mean “born again” or “begotten again.” Here, the Greek term gennao has an attached prefix (ana) that means “again”—not “from above.” This verse shows that anagennao is correctly translated “begotten again.”
Another variation of the false “born again” teaching is what appears to many millions to be a scriptural teaching, but is actually a deception to lure “believers” to accept the traditional “born again” fallacy under a new label—“born from above.” Any variation that tries to deny the clear meaning of I Corinthians 15:50-52, with a counterfeit definition of conversion, is wrong!
In order to cover this broad subject in greater detail, read our free booklet What Does “Born Again” Mean? This 36-page publication is extremely thorough, addressing in detail (among others) the scriptures covered in this lesson.
The truth of the “born again” doctrine encompasses true conversion in this life and the change that will take place at the resurrection.