The New Birth
The term "born again" is widely used among Christians, and the verse that says "You must be born again" (John 3:7) is often quoted. But many Christians don't understand what it means to be born again, often because they begin by looking at what the epistles say, and fail to base their understanding on the words of Jesus. I was taught that when one is born again, it is "incorruptible" which was taken to mean that once you received it you couldn't lose it. This is based on a misunderstanding of I Peter 1:23, "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever." But this verse tells us that it is the seed that is incorruptible, not the person who receives it. (See the Closer Look article, Once Saved Always Saved?)
Others teach that the new birth is referring to the resurrection, because Acts 13:33 says, "God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee." The wording in the KJV seems to suggest that the day Jesus was begotten is the day he was raised from the dead. This, combined with Colossians 1:18 which calls him the "firstborn from the dead," is taken to mean that Jesus was "born again" at his resurrection and we will similarly be "born again" when we are resurrected at Christ's return. New Testament references to the new birth are then interpreted as being prophetic of the future, and not a present reality.
However, the word "again" is not in the Greek of Acts 13:33, and the term "raised up" does not automatically mean resurrection if the words "from the dead" are not included. It is the Greek word anistemi, and can also mean to be raised up to prominence (as in Acts 5:36,37; 7:18; 13:22). It is used this way specifically referring to God "raising up" Jesus as a prophet and high priest (Acts 3:22; Acts 7:37; Hebrews 7:11; Hebrews 7:15). The context in Acts 13 is talking about the entire body of prophecy concerning the promise to send the Messiah. Verse 33 refers to God raising Jesus to prominence, and is linked with "This day have I begotten thee" (Psalm 2:7). Only in the next verse (v. 34) is the resurrection from the dead specifically mentioned, and it is linked with two other prophecies: "I will give you the sure mercies of David" (Isaiah 55:3-4) and "Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption" (Psalm 16:9-10). There is no basis in Scripture for identifying the new birth with the resurrection.
What, then, is the new birth? In order to get the entire picture, one must consider all the Scriptures about a given subject. I Peter 1:3-4 says, "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, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you." Paul says that those in Christ are "a new creation" (II Corinthians 5:17) and were saved by the "washing of regeneration" (literally "washing of rebirth") in Titus 3:5. These all refer to something that happens in this life, not just at the return of Christ.
This rebirth is based on "seed." John refers to being "begotten of God” in his epistles (I John 5:1,18) and states that whoever is “born of God” has God's seed in him (I John 3:9). The above mentioned I Peter 1:23 refers to being born again of incorruptible seed. I used to believe that the seed mentioned here was a "new birth seed" which included God's nature, which was implanted in me and was now a part of me. But as pointed out above, the seed is incorruptible, “Being born again … by the Word of God." Also, James 1:18 says, "Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth..." What is this "Word" by which one is born again?
I used to think that "the Word" was simply a synonym for the Bible. But in fact the Scriptures do not refer to themselves as "the Word," they refer to themselves as "the Scriptures." In the Bible, the term "the Word" refers to the overall message, that is, the wisdom and plan of God. Sometimes it refers to a specific message that a prophet was given to speak forth. When used in a general sense, though, it is the overall message about His coming Kingdom.
Too often the words of Jesus are interpreted in light of the later New Testament writers instead of the other way around. It is important that we understand the words of Peter, James, John, and Paul in light of the Master. It is his words which are the standard for interpretation of the rest of the New Testament. Jesus Christ’s words, "You must be born again" are well known, but his other references to the new birth are often missed or forgotten. He said the new birth was so vitally important that one could not see the Kingdom of God without it (John 3:3). But of the four Gospels, John’s is the only one that uses the phrase "born again." How could something so important not be mentioned in the other Gospels? The fact is, Jesus did speak of it, but he used other terms.
Jesus identified the new birth as being essential for entering the Kingdom of God in John 3. In the key parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus likewise states that receiving the word is essential for salvation.
Mark and Luke point out that if one does not receive the seed, which is the Word, they don’t get "converted" or "saved." Matthew even more specifically defines what the seed is.
The seed that the sower sows is the Word of God, which is the Word of the Kingdom. The devil steals that word away from those who do not receive it, like the seed by the wayside. Others receive the word and retain it for a short time, but fall away when tribulation or persecution arises, like the seed on stony ground with no roots. Some others receive the word but are distracted by cares and riches of this world, like the seed on the thorny ground. The last category is those who receive the seed on good ground and bear fruit. This parable is considered by Jesus to be the foundation of all the other parables ("Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?" - Mark 4:13). It presents the foundational truth of how to be saved, or have eternal life, which begins with the intelligent reception of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. The references to being born of seed in the epistles are to be understood in this light. The seed is the Gospel of the Kingdom, and believing that Gospel is the key to eternal life and the new birth.
Part of the hope of the Gospel is that one day the world will be restored to its original state, when Christ rules in God’s Kingdom. Jesus refers to this in Matthew and uses another word from the same root as gennao, the word for born or begotten.
This word paliggenesia is only used twice in the Bible. Once in this reference to the regeneration of the world to come, and one other place in Titus.
In these two occurrences of this word, we see the two instances of regeneration. The world will be regenerated when God's Kingdom comes to pass, and in the meantime we experience a foretaste of it in our own lives as we are regenerated by the Word and renewed by the holy spirit. This process that changes us from the way we once were begins with receiving, understanding, and believing the Word about the Kingdom of God, which is the Gospel that Jesus and his disciples preached.
Throughout Acts, when people believed that Gospel, they were called to repent. To repent does not just mean to stop sinning, although that will be a result. But no one will be completely free of sin until Christ returns. The word 'repent' means to turn. Specifically, it is to turn your heart away from your past sinful life, and to turn it towards God. It is not salvation by works, but it is a turning toward God, in response to the wonderful news of His coming Kingdom. From that point on you are living with a whole new purpose.
This is what is meant by confessing Jesus as Lord, referred to in Romans 10:9. In order to confess him as Lord you must know what he is lord of. You must know who he is and what he is all about. It also says to believe God raised him from the dead. The proof that he is the Messiah is that he was raised from the dead (Matthew 12:39; 16:4; Acts 17:30-31; Romans 1:4; I Corinthians 15:12-19). It is also the proof that God will raise us up as well when Christ returns (I Corinthians 15:20-23; II Corinthians 4:14). So to confess Jesus according to Romans 10:9 is to believe that he is the promised Messiah, the coming King, and that he rose from the dead after dying for our sins, and is coming again to judge the world and reign over all nations, as promised by the Prophets. All this must be understood in order to make Jesus Lord. It is not enough to just say "Jesus is Lord" if you don't know what that entails. And knowing what that entails includes knowing what is asked of you, namely to repent or turn your heart towards God and decide to live in light of the Gospel of the Kingdom.
In John 3:5 Jesus told Nicodemus, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God." When saying these things, he implied that it was not something that was unknown. "Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?" he said in verse 10. The Old Testament Prophets spoke of a rebirth of Israel that was to come. Isaiah 66:8 asks, "Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children." Ezekiel describes a vision in chapter 37 about the dry bones coming to life again, which is specifically identified as the "whole house of Israel." It says that God would bring them up out of their graves and would put His spirit in them, and they shall live. We saw in The New Covenant that what came on the day of Pentecost was a foretaste of the ultimate fulfillment of His promises to Israel. These promises include being "reborn" and God pouring out His spirit. The new birth which we partake of now is based on the "seed" of the Kingdom Gospel, and is a foretaste of the ultimate restoration. All of that will be accomplished when God brings His Kingdom to pass on earth.
Ezekiel 36:22-30 says that in addition to a new heart and a new spirit, God would sprinkle clean water on them. This language is echoed in Titus 3:5, when Paul refers to "the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost." When a person hears the Gospel, believes it, and repents, that Word is implanted in his heart. At that point a regeneration process begins, which continues working in him, with a view to inheriting eternal life. It will be complete when Christ returns and we put on immortality.
Because the New Birth is our entrance into the New Covenant, we are expected to do something to demonstrate our faith. By the power of the holy spirit, our sins are washed clean because of the shed blood of Jesus. To symbolize our identification with that sacrifice, and the change which takes place in our lives, we are commanded to be baptized. I was taught, and many still teach, that the only baptism that is necessary is the baptism of the holy spirit. Baptism in water is said to be obsolete and unnecessary. However a close examination of the Scriptures reveals that Jesus commanded this act as a public declaration of faith and repentance. It is not the baptism of John, which was incomplete, but the baptism in the name of Jesus, which is a baptism in water in his name. It is accompanied by the baptism of the holy spirit, which Jesus himself accomplishes. But nowhere does the Bible say that baptism in water is replaced by baptism in spirit. This subject is dealt with in greater detail in the Closer Look article on Baptism.
Since the seed which we receive is the Word which is incorruptible, the question arises, can one lose this seed? I was taught that it was like the seed of my earthly father, in that even if I was not in fellowship with him, his seed was still in me, and I was still his son. However, the Bible does not teach this. There are a number of verses which refer to the conditional nature of this new birth (I Corinthians 10:1-12; 15:1-2; II Timothy 2:12-13; II Peter 1:10; Hebrews 3:12-14; 6:11). We are saved by grace through faith and not by works. But we must continue in that faith until the end. If we do not continue in the faith, the Word which is working in us will not remain in our hearts. This becomes easier to understand when you realize that the seed is the Word and not a "new birth seed" that is in you unconditionally, regardless of what you do afterward. This idea of "Once Saved Always Saved" is dealt with in greater detail in a Closer Look article by that name.
So salvation begins with receiving the creative Word of God or Gospel of Truth, the Word about the Kingdom. That Word must remain in the heart and grow and produce fruit. This is how the new heart, which Jesus said was required for righteousness, is received. Ultimately it will result in immortality at the return of Christ. The change that can be experienced in the meantime comes about because of the close connection between God's Word and His spirit, which we will discuss in the following article.