What is the new birth? What does it mean to be ‘born again’? Most people know it is a religious term, but few really understand it. To some, it is a brand of Christianity, like a denomination. To others it is a subjective religious experience. A few years ago a survey showed that nearly half the US population claimed to be born again.Some will be surprised to know that there are few references to the new birth in the Bible. John’s Gospel refers to it twice in chapter 3 and Peter’s first epistle also mentions it twice – though there are related terms that we will note later.
It is never mentioned in the apostolic preaching in Acts, though that doesn’t mean they never preached on it. In John 3 Jesus certainly challenged Nicodemus concerning the new birth – although he did not specify three easy steps to be born again! He simply spoke of the need.
The need of the new birth
Just think for a moment about Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling body), and one of very few leading Jews who were in any way sympathetic to Jesus. He was religious, courteous and an exemplary character – yet he needed to be born again.
Why? For two reasons. First, it was necessary for Nicodemus to understand spiritual truth. He was recognised as a leading teacher (John 3:10). He thought he had understood something about Jesus’ ministry (v.2), believing that Jesus was sent from God, that he performed miracles and that God was with him. Yet he did not understand what Jesus was saying (v.10).
Until someone is born again they cannot understand the gospel (1 Corinthians 2:14). They may accept certain historical facts but that is not saving faith. Many in our churches have a ‘faith’ of some kind without knowing the power of the gospel.
Second, the new birth is necessary if we are to enter the kingdom of God (v.5). It was necessary for Nicodemus and it is necessary for us. There will not be one person in heaven who is not born again.
I once spoke with an elder in a liberal church who knew he was not born again but still hoped to go to heaven. But born-again people are not an elite group of believers – they are simply Christians.
God’s people are described in various ways – disciples, saints, brothers, believers, Christians, children of God. To be children we need to be born, and to be God’s children we need to be born again. Whether we are criminal or respectable; religious or irreligious; church members or not; we ‘must be born again’ (v.7). Are you?
The source of the new birth
How does it come about? We have already noted that Jesus did not tell Nicodemus what steps he should take to receive new birth – he simply announced the need. Every reference in the New Testament speaks of the new birth either as a need or an accomplished fact.
John declares that believers are ‘born of God’ (1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1; 5:18). James says God ‘chose to give us birth’ (James 1:18). Peter asserts that God ‘has given us new birth’ (1 Peter 1:3).
In John 3 the apostle explains that the new birth is a work of God. We are born of the Spirit (v.5). The expression ‘born again’ could also be translated ‘born from above’. The new birth is God’s work not man’s.
We have to rule out all earthly causes. Natural birth, even into a Christian family, does not bring about the new birth (see the contrast in v.6). Nor does baptism bring about the new birth, however we interpret verse 5.
The nature of the new birth
What actually happens when we are born again? God imparts new life. By nature we are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:5) but God quickens us to life. He gives a new heart. He says, ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you … I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:25-26).
Sprinkling clean water is an allusion to Jewish ritual and is probably why Jesus said ‘born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5).
In 1967, Christian Barnard performed the first human heart transplant. What an amazing medical advance that was! What a radical change for someone doomed to die from heart disease!
But that is nothing compared to the radical change that occurs when God gives someone a new heart – it becomes a new controlling principle within the one who receives it.
How exactly does it take place? That is not easy to answer. We know it is the work of the Holy Spirit and that it also involves the Word of God (1 Peter 1:23). But there is mystery involved.
Jesus likened it to the wind (v.8). Can we see the wind? No, only its effects. We may see trees bending under its force but we cannot see the wind itself or where it comes from. If you were to observe a person at the moment they were born again, you would probably see nothing happen. But within a short time you would begin to see the effects of this experience.
God, by his Spirit, works powerfully in bringing about the new birth, but it is only known by its effects.
The effects of the new birth
What does happen after a person is born again? There are several unmistakable effects. Some will be surprised when we say the first effect is faith. Many think that faith produces the new birth, but that is to put the cart before the horse.
A careful look at three verses in John’s first epistle will make this clear. All three verses have identical construction in the Greek (I will italicise the key words). Look first at 2:29: ‘everyone who does what is right has been born of him’. If we do what is right will we be born of God as a result? Of course not. That would be salvation by works. Our verse tells us that doing right is the result or evidence of the new birth.
Likewise in 4:7: ‘Everyone who loves has been born of God’. Can we reason that loving will result in the new birth? Never. Again true love is the result or evidence of the new birth. Now in chapter 5:1 the NIV reads: ‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God’. This is the same construction as the other verses and should read, ‘has been born of God’ (the ESV has it right). Just as doing right and loving are the results of the new birth, so faith is the result and evidence of the new birth.
If we are dead in sin we cannot understand the gospel, let alone believe it. God gives us a new heart and then we believe. I am not suggesting that there is a time interval between the new birth and faith, but the theological order is important. When God gives a new heart we turn from our sins (repentance) and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ (faith).
Holiness, hunger and love
The second evidence of the new birth, as we see in 1 John 2:29, is ‘doing right’ or being holy. We see that also in 3:9 – ‘no one who is born of God will continue to sin’. That doesn’t imply sinless perfection but means they will not wilfully continue in a path of sin.
Sadly, there are many who profess to be born again whose lives are not changed. However, the New Testament writers are agreed that when one believes in Christ the profession is only genuine if backed up by a holy life. As James puts it: ‘faith without deeds is dead’ (James 2:26).
The third mark of the new birth is love, both towards God and towards people (especially other believers; 1 John 4:7). Love is a key characteristic of God’s children.
The fourth evidence of the new birth is a spiritual appetite. Peter says we should ‘crave pure spiritual milk’ (1 Peter 2:2). With a baby, appetite is an unmistakable sign of life and health. Any mother whose baby will not feed will be deeply troubled.
So it should be with God’s children. Anyone who claims to be a Christian but doesn’t love to pray, read the Bible or hear the preaching of the Word, is really denying the reality of their profession.
Are you born again? Are these things evident in your life? The fact that we cannot be born again by our own efforts does not give us an excuse to neglect the matter. We are commanded to repent and believe. When we do that, we demonstrate that God has given us a new heart. May that be true of each one of us!