Central to Christianity is the doctrine of regeneration, or being ‘born again’. To be a Christian, one must be born again. Jesus, in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 emphasized that without this, no one can ‘see’ or ‘enter’ the kingdom of God.
It follows therefore that a proper understanding of the kingdom of God, only begins with regeneration, and this is obvious, since ‘a natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor 2:14).
But what exactly does it mean to be born again? Is it a mystical subjective experience or transformational objective reality? Are we born again by virtue of water baptism as the Roman Catholic Church teaches, or is it a sort of reincarnation as the ancient and modern Gnostics otherwise and unknowingly suggest? Are we deified upon regeneration? Do we become gods when we are born from above? What does it mean to be born from above anyway?
All these are important questions, and I believe they deserve a biblical response. This article comes as a promise of a break in the series that I have been doing about Phaneroo, a modern gnostic movement in the heart of Kampala, Uganda’s Capital City.
In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in the third chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus adamantly states that there is neither ‘seeing’ or ‘entering’ the kingdom of heaven without being born again, or ‘born from above’ (John 3:3-10).
Here, Jesus suggests that He is teaching nothing new, and thus wonders how Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel could be ignorant of such a basic truth. ‘How can you teach Israel’, Jesus exclaims, ‘if such a plain thing is hard for you to see?’ (John 3:10). Jesus thus means that the doctrine and reality of regeneration, or of the individual being born again, is basic and plain to any reader of the Old Testament.
We do well too, to ensure that our understanding of what it means to be born again levels up with the Old Testament teaching of the same. In other words, our concept of regeneration should be easily consistent with the Old Testament’s teaching, if we are to avoid Jesus’ rebuke to Nicodemus.
When Jesus speaks about being born again in this chapter, He makes the following clear: One, it is a change of life. Two, it is spiritual rather than physical (brought about by the Spirit of God, on the spirit of man). Three, it is brought about by an external agent, namely God. Four, this is in conformity with God’s promises in the Old Testament.
The Meaning of Regeneration.
One of the Greek words translated as regeneration in our English Bibles is paliggenesia. It is word 3824 in Strong’s concordance. Paliggenesia comes from 3825 /pálin, “again” and 1078 /génesis, “birth, beginning” – properly meaning, ‘the coming of new birth’.
In this sense, regeneration thus also means ‘renewal’, ‘resurrection’, ‘revival’, ‘born again’ and ‘is used twice in the NT referring to: a) The re-birth of physical creation at Christ’s return (Advent), which inaugurates His millennial kingdom (Mt 19:28; cf. Ro 8:18-25); and b) the re-birth all believers experience at conversion (Tit 3:5).’
The other word, which refers to the regeneration of the individual, is Strong’s 313 anagennáō (from 303 /aná, “up, again,” which intensifies 1080 /gennáō, “give birth”) – properly translated, born-again or “born from on high.” Bible Hub explains that this ‘is used twice in the NT (1 Pet 1:3,23) – both times referring to God regenerating a believer (giving a supernatural, new birth).’
Commenting on John 3:6, Dr. Thomas L. Constable says this: ‘(in verse 6), Jesus clarified that there are two types of birth, one physical and one spiritual. “Flesh” again refers to human nature (cf. 1:14): “all that belongs to the life of sensation.” The Holy Spirit gives people spiritual life. We are spiritually dead in sin until the Spirit gives us spiritual life. Jesus was speaking of a spiritual birth, not a physical one. Nicodemus should not have marveled at the idea that there is a spiritual birth in addition to a physical birth, since the Old Testament spoke of it (cf. Ps. 87:5-6; Ezek. 36:25-28). It revealed that entrance into the kingdom is a spiritual matter, not a matter of physical descent or merit. This was a revelation that most of the Jews in Jesus’ day, including Nicodemus, missed.’
The usage of ‘born again’ by the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter is metaphorical to mean ‘thoroughly to change the mind of one, so that he lives a new life and one conformed to the will of God, as in 1 Peter 1:3’
Water And Spirit
But what did Jesus mean by being born of ‘water and Spirit’? Did He mean that we become born again when we are water baptized, as Roman Catholicism teaches? Does ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ refer to two ‘elements’ (if it is right to call them thus) or do both refer to one and the same? Is this water literal or metaphorical? To respond to these questions, permit me to quote Dr. Constable at length:
‘Whatever its meaning, “born of water and the Spirit” must be synonymous to being born “again” or “from above” (v. 3), since Jesus used this phrase to clarify the process of the “new birth” for Nicodemus.
Second, the definite article translated “the” before “Spirit” is absent in the Greek text. The English translators have inserted it to clarify their interpretation of “spirit” (Gr. pneuma) as the Holy Spirit. A more literal translation would be simply “born of water and spirit.”
Third, the construction of the phrase in the Greek text indicates that the preposition “of” governs both “water” and “Spirit.” This means that Jesus was clarifying regeneration by using two terms that both describe the new birth. He was not saying that two separate things have to be present for regeneration to happen. It has but one Source.
Fourth, Jesus’ criticism of Nicodemus for not understanding these things (v. 10) indicates that what He taught about the Source of regeneration was clear in the Old Testament. The only view that seems to be consistent with all four of these criteria is as follows.
The Old Testament often used water—metaphorically—to symbolize spiritual cleansing and renewal (Num. 19:17-19; Isa. 55:1-3; cf. Ps. 51:10; Jer. 2:13; 17:13; Zech. 14:8). God’s spirit (or Spirit) in the Old Testament represents God’s life (Gen. 1:2; 2:7; 6:3; Job 34:14). God promised that He would pour out His spirit on people as water (Isa. 32:15- 16; Joel 2:28-29). The result of that outpouring would be a new heart for those on whom the Spirit came (Jer. 31:31-34).
Thus, the revelation that God would bring cleansing and renewal as water, by His Spirit, was clear in the Old Testament. Jesus evidently meant that unless a person has experienced spiritual cleansing and renewal (empowerment) from God’s spirit (or Spirit), he or she cannot enter the kingdom. This is what He meant by being “born from above” or “again” (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11).’
Contrary to the Roman Catholic position, ‘water’ does not refer to physical water baptism, but is only symbolic of this actual regeneration by the Spirit. The believer’s baptism is as well symbolic of the actual baptism of the believer, by the Spirit of God, into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13), which happens when we confess Christ as Lord and Savior (Rom 10:9).
A New Creation
Scripture says that when we are born again, we become a ‘new creation’. But what does this mean? Do we become gods? Is there a complete discontinuity between who we were before conversation and what we become after conversion? Not really. As Dr. Constable notes, ‘there is both continuity and discontinuity that takes place at conversion (justification). (In 2 Cor 5:17), Paul did not deny the continuity. We still have the same physical features, basic personality, genetic constitution, parents, susceptibility to temptation (1 Cor. 10:14), sinful environment (Gal. 1:4), etc. These things do not change.
(Paul here) was stressing the elements of discontinuity (“old things passed away”): perspectives, prejudices, misconceptions, enslavements, etc. (cf. Gal. 2:20). God adds many “new things” at conversion, including: new spiritual life, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, the righteousness of Christ, as well as new viewpoints (v. 16).
The Christian is a “new creature” (a new man, Rom. 6) in this sense: Before conversion, we did not possess the life-giving Holy Spirit, who now lives within us (Rom. 8:9). We had only our sinful human nature. Now we have both our sinful human nature and the indwelling Holy Spirit. This addition makes us an essentially “new” person, (compared to when we were unregenerate), since the Holy Spirit’s effects on the believer are so far-reaching. We also possess many other riches of divine grace that contribute to our distinctiveness as believers. Lewis Sperry Chafer listed things that the Christian receives at the moment of justification.
Being born again refers to the newness of life that those chosen in Christ receive, in the fullness of time, based on the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross. It is often referred to as being raised from death to life in Paul’s epistles, such as Ephesians 2. This is because the bible describes an unregenerate man as dead in sins and trespasses. To be born again then is to be raised from this condition of spiritual death to life.
Also, as we saw, the other way the Bible speaks about being born again, is renewal. The Old Testament spoke of a time when God would ‘sprinkle clean water’ on His people, thereby cleansing them (Ez 36:25-27). In this Ezekiel passage, we see the component of water and Spirit that Jesus alludes to in John 3. The renewal of the spirit of man refers to the removal of the filth in man. And this is accomplished symbolically through water, and by reality through the Spirit of God.
This is what it means to be born again, the removal of the filth and sin of man by the Spirit of God. Not the filth of the physical flesh of man, but the spiritual sin, the corruption of the first man, Adam.
Thus, being born again is not about the changing of our human nature into gods, but rather a cleansing of our filth so that we may truly be human as God intended, in Christ. All this is the work of the Spirit of God, who takes the work of Christ and applies it to the hearts of those the Father elected in Christ before the foundation of the world. It is a Trinitarian work indeed. Halleluiah!
For all the wonderful commentaries of Dr. Thomas L. Constable, please visit his site here.