toledo church of god

The New Birth

Born again may be familiar words to modern culture, but the term is not new. Jesus Christ used it nearly two thousand years ago in a conversation with Nicodemus, a member of the Jews’ ruling council in Jerusalem.
Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). In these few words Jesus declared the absolute necessity of spiritual transformation if one is to enter God’s kingdom.

In this writing, we hope to show from the Bible what born again means, along with when, why, and how it happens. Since Jesus first spoke these words, multitudes have experienced the change that the new birth brings, one person at a time. You too can experience it for yourself.

Spiritual Renewal

Though brief, Jesus’ discussion of the new birth with Nicodemus is insightful. He used the Greek words gennethe anothen to express the concept of being “born again” to enter the kingdom. Nicodemus understood these words in a literal sense, and thought Jesus was suggesting a physical rebirth rather than renewal of the spirit

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4)

Jesus used this rather humorous misunderstanding of the religious leader to describe spiritual regeneration:

“I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (vv. 5, 6).

When one is born of water and the Spirit, Christ says, it is not the human flesh that is reborn, but the human spirit. This newness may not be seen on the outside of the one reborn, but it makes all the difference on the inside. It is like the wind — invisible, though often heard and felt. The wind puzzles those who demand to see before they believe. Jesus said:

You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (vv. 7, 8).

A person cannot see the means by which he is born again, but he can observe and feel the effects of it in his new life.

Nicodemus was puzzled till Jesus explained that the new birth does not refer to becoming a new person bodily. To suppose that being born again requires a physical change is to misunderstand as Nicodemus did. When we are born again, we look the same and our physical bodies remain mostly unchanged.

The words of Christ in John 3 provide foundation for all the Bible says on this topic. We were born once physically, but we must be born a second time, spiritually. It is a new beginning, brought about by God’s Holy Spirit from heaven. That’s why some Bible versions translate Jesus’ born again words as “born from above.”

More Light on New Birth

Before Christ came, God’s people Israel had been introduced to the idea of an internal change that would make a difference in all of life. The prophet Ezekiel was inspired to say:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them (36:26, 27, NKJV).

Here is the new birth as prophesied in the Old Testament: a new spirit, a new heart on which the ways and laws of God are written so that obedience naturally follows. This, all people need!

Another Bible word for the new birth experience is conversion, as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3 (NKJV): “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” A spiritual change of heart and mind, conversion is realized by God’s Spirit within. It means turning to a fresh start with a clean record and complete trust, much like a little child.

After Jesus introduces new birth to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel, much appears about the concept in the New Testament Epistles. The apostle Paul, for example, described the inward change as getting a new boss:

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness (Romans 8:9, 10).

These verses present a clear contrast between those who still live after the sinful nature — the flesh — and those who have trusted Christ and received His Spirit to make them spiritually alive. Having been born again, they become aware that they are now the children of God. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (v. 16).

Paul’s further allusions to the new birth use other words to express it: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And “You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:9, 10). In Titus 3:5 the words regeneration and renewing summarize the same event:

Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit (NKJV).

Notice how born again (from the Greek term anagennao) is used by Peter to describe the experience of every true believer in Christ:

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1:22, 23).

Here, the new birth is directly related to the inner changes that happen as God’s inspired Word is heard, believed, and obeyed. With this, James agrees: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth” (James 1:18).

Evidences of Re-birth in 1 John

No single biblical writing has more to say about the results of being born again than 1 John. This Epistle outlines the major lines of evidence that give proof of regeneration. Committed believers often doubt whether they have truly been born again as Jesus said they must be. First John helps immensely with our uncertainty. We may know that we have been born of God if

1. We believe on the name of Jesus the Christ (5:1; see also 4:2, 15)

2. We love the brethren (4:7; see also 3:10, 14)

3. We do what is right, obey His commands, and practice righteousness (5:18; see also 2:29; 3:9, 10)

Some earnest followers of Christ have wrestled with the verses supporting the third point above, because these verses seem to say that a true born-again Christian never sins. This cannot be the correct meaning, however, because of plain verses earlier in the Epistle that indicate the exact opposite (see 1 John 1:8—2:2).

A better understanding of “does not sin” and “cannot sin” (3:9; 5:18, NKJV) is “does not willfully continue in sin.” A genuine child of God cannot continue to intentionally sin, says John, because the Father’s nature (seed) has been imparted to the newborn child, sensitizing him to do God’s will. First John indicates clearly that willful sin is incompatible with the new life of a Christian, but the Epistle allows that unintended sins may occur.

Only those spiritually born can know God and defeat the enemy: “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). It is not the willpower of man or woman that conquers the world, but the power of God enabling those who have experienced spiritual rebirth. Born-again sons and daughters are given the power to deal with the temptations of this evil age.

When is the New Birth?

Based in part on a misreading of 1 John 3:4-10 and 1 Corinthians 15:50, some students have taught that being born again refers to the time of the future resurrection, when Christ’s followers will receive new spiritual bodies to inherit the eternal kingdom of God and never sin again. They suggest that believers now have merely been conceived or begotten by the Spirit and will remain in the gestation phase until Christ returns to raise the dead and give immortality to the righteous. Then and only then will they be truly “born of God.”

This is a misunderstanding of the Bible’s teaching. Consider:

1. The Bible does not distinguish between being “born” and being “begotten.” Those terms arise from the same Bible word and refer to the same spiritual experience. In 1 John the translators render the same or equivalent Greek phrases variously as “begotten of God” or as “born of God” (5:1, 18, NKJV).

2. The “pinch test” (if you can feel it when you pinch yourself, you are still “in the flesh” and have not yet been born again “in the spirit”) is flawed by an over-literal reading of Scripture. Speaking to believers, Romans 8:7 says that we are already “in the spirit” and not “in the flesh” if we have received Christ and God’s Spirit lives in us. All true Christ followers, then, have been born again and are now “in the spirit.”

3. Many verses in this writing speak of the new birth as a present experience for God’s people, not a future hope. We are the children of God by faith now; we are not waiting for that honor: How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1).

When are we born again? The same moment that we truly believe. The moment the Holy Spirit brings conviction, repentance, and confession of sins and faith in Christ, we are truly converted and transformed to new creatures in Him.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12, 13, NKJV).

Notice that those who believed in His name were born of God — an accomplished fact, not an expected-to-happen-later birth. (The Greek verb form used here indicates completed action.)

Paul understood and taught the new birth to be a now experience. If we are God’s children now, we will share in the resurrection glory then! But if we were not born again before the resurrection, we will not be resurrected with the righteous at Christ’s return.

Believing His Word, repenting of sin, confessing that Jesus is the resurrected Messiah, and inviting and receiving God’s Holy Spirit into our hearts mark the actual birth of our new spiritual being. Those who have received Christ as Savior and Lord have been born again. In reality, they have become new creatures through God.

To enter the spiritual kingdom of God today and to prepare for entry into His eternal kingdom someday, people must be born again now — in this life! It remains for us to believe and to let God do His work of transformation in us as we repent, are converted, and walk in a new life. The time to be born again is now!

How Are We Born Again?

We must affirm the essentially spiritual dynamic of the new birth. As such, we should avoid summarizing it in terms that approximate a mathematical formula: You do this, and God does that.

On the other hand, the Bible informs us consistently about elements that are common in most or all people who have experienced spiritual regeneration:

Faith — simply believing the word of the gospel when we hear it. If we hear the good news about Jesus but fail to believe, we will not be transformed. We won’t be born again without believing in the Son of God. Faith in Jesus is the foundational doctrine of Christianity (Hebrews 11:1, 6).

Repentance — simply turning away from our sins and toward the Savior who forgives and delivers us from them. A deeply personal experience, repentance arises out of the conviction of our guilt in disobeying God and the awareness of how our sins constantly distance us from Him (Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5).

Baptism — the symbolic ordinance that demonstrates our faith and repentance (Acts 2:38). Baptism in water represents burial of the dying, sinful nature and resurrection to new life, born again with a new nature. It is a statement to others that we now belong to God, have committed ourselves to a new way of life, and are new creatures — i.e., that we have been born again (Romans 6:3-7).

Receiving the Holy Spirit — Upon faith and repentance, Christians are promised they will be filled by God’s Holy Spirit, enabling them to obey the Word, follow Christ as Lord, and overcome the world (John 14, 15, 16). God’s Spirit inspires the newborn to godly attitudes, motivations, directions, purposes, and goals. With full commitment to Christ as Lord, Christians can confidently fulfill their spiritual responsibilities. In receiving and obeying God’s Spirit, we offer full confirmation to the reality of our new birth.

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Here is a summary outline of our subject:

WHAT is the new birth? It is the great life-change in one who was once an unbelieving, unconverted sinner, but is now a true child of God.

WHEN is the new birth? It happens when a person turns away from sin to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and receives the Spirit of God.

WHERE is the new birth? It takes place on the inside — a new spirit and heart on which God writes His ways and laws. Inward change, of course, will inevitably be seen in outward behavior changes and obedience toward God.

HOW does the new birth take place? It happens only by the gracious, regenerative power of God’s Spirit. Still, it is closely related to the human responses of hearing and believing the Word, turning from sin, and baptism.

WHY does God give the new birth? Because the old life is sinful; the old heart is wicked, stony, and cold; and the old nature is destined for death. He renews us so we may experience a new life, new heart, and new identity — in Christ.

WHO experiences the new birth? Whomever God chooses to rescue by His mercy and transform by His grace. Whosoever will may come and be reborn!

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