Do you know what it is to be born again? Much confusion remains on this vital subject. It is important that we understand what it is to be born again.
Born Again & Its Equivalent Terms
Various biblical and theological words have been synonymously used with the word “born again” (John 3:3). Knowing those equivalent terms would help to gain clarity on the word “born again”. They are regeneration (cf. Titus 3:5), spiritual quickening [spiritual resurrection/being spiritually made alive (cf. Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13)], new birth, etc.
Why Should We Be Born Again?
According to the Scriptures, every soul is spiritually dead – “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). There are two major aspects to the spiritual deadness of mankind. Firstly, every child, no matter how physically healthy, is born as spiritually dead. This is because the fall (disobedience) of the first man, Adam, brought the whole human race under sin. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). Adam was the representative head of mankind; and when he sinned, “death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned”. This is why David said, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Every descendant of Adam is therefore spiritually ‘stillborn’, and eventually, his physical death will follow.
Furthermore, Scripture tells us that every man under the influence of the fallen (sinful) nature, Satan and the sinful world, live in disobedience to God. While explaining the spiritual deadness in Ephesians, the apostle Paul wrote, “Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Ephesians 2:2-3).
So, every man, in his natural state, is not just spiritually sick, but spiritually dead! Man is “alienated from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:18; cf. Colossians 1:21). Spiritually dead persons cannot enter into God’s kingdom, unless they are spiritually made alive (or regenerated or born again) by God’s Spirit. Those who are dead in sins are estranged from God and godliness. That’s why Jesus said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Without being born again, one cannot enter God’s kingdom; he remains outside God.
What is It to Be Born Again?
Regeneration is not a sinful man’s personal efforts to make spiritual improvement or progress. The Scriptures insist: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). It is not by one’s own effort to be righteous that one is born again, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. If it were a natural, human work, it would not require the intervention of God the Holy Spirit.
This is the reason for Jesus’ words to Nicodemus – “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6). Here, Jesus completely rules out any notion of human or physical (“flesh”) involvement in the regeneration of a soul.
But some would ask, “What about Jesus’ mentioning of being born of water? Doesn’t it mean that water baptism is necessary for regeneration or new birth?” Here, Jesus was certainly not talking about water baptism. If baptism were essential for regeneration, Jesus would have baptised those who had come to Him, but “Jesus himself baptised not” (John 4:2). Jesus was using a familiar Old Testament symbolic usage of water and Spirit for spiritual renewal and cleansing (cf. Numbers 19:17-19; Isa. 4:4; 32:15; 44:3; 55:1; Joel 2:28-29; Zechariah 13:1). Jesus’ words in John 3:5 was evocative of the Old Testament teaching concerning regeneration in passages such as Ezekiel 36:25-27, where water and Spirit are mentioned together to represent God’s work of regeneration.
Ezekiel 36:25-27 – “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.”
Jesus expected Nicodemus to know the Old Testament teaching on being born again, so He asked him, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (John 3:10). Nicodemus’ ignorance concerning regeneration in the Old Testament was so apparent when he asked Jesus in bewilderment, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4).
Even today, many, like Nicodemus, miss the point of Jesus’ words, “ye must be born again”. Spiritual birth is not something that one produces or attains by human effort or action, but what he is subjected to by the sovereign work of God through His Spirit and the Word (cf. Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:23). Just as our birth had nothing to do with our effort, in the spiritual realm, regeneration or being born again is not a work of ours.
But when the Holy Spirit regenerates sinners, they are liberated from their bondage to sin and made alive from their spiritual deadness. Consequently, they become alive towards the spiritual realities that God has prepared in Christ Jesus. As the Spirit of God quickens or makes alive their spiritually dead soul, they become capable of repentance of their sins and putting their faith in Jesus Christ for the salvation of their souls.
So, regeneration (or new birth) is the gracious sovereign action of the Holy Spirit through His Word that changes the inner man. Regeneration extends to the whole nature of man, transforming his sinful disposition, illuminating his mind, freeing his will enslaved by sin, and renewing his nature.
The Reformed theologian, B. B. Warfield defines regeneration as “a radical and complete transformation wrought in the soul (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23) by God the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 4:24), by virtue of which we become ‘new men’ (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10), no longer conformed to this world (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9), but in knowledge and holiness of the truth created after the image of God (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10; Romans 12:2)” (Biblical and Theological Studies, p. 351).
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).