What is the evangelical, traditional, usage and understanding of ‘being born again’? Is there such a thing as ‘born again’? What do we understand by it? Do we understand it at all? Do we have the right understanding of Jesus’ words? Have the words or the meaning of the words changed over the centuries? Did men decide what Jesus meant when he said ‘You must be born again’, if he did.
The most famous reference concerning being ‘born again’ is found in John 3 where Jesus conversed with Nicodemus. The majority of bible translations use the term ‘born again’, but the Young’s bible translation and the Mirror from Francois Du Toit use the term ‘born from above’, which in our understanding is more accurate.
The early church connected ‘born again/born from above’ to water baptism and the related doctrine of baptismal regeneration (Wikipedia) which Paul mentioned in Romans 6:3-7 “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus have been baptised into His death? And just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too were co-raised with Christ in newness of life? For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for the one who has died is freed from sin” (NASB). Our water baptism is therefore an outward sign to the outside world of the inward change which Christ had already accomplished. We were already re-generated, re-energised.
But from this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus the church over time developed the doctrine of being ‘born again’. The focus changed from All are in Christ to the individual’s responsibility to be included. As a tool for evangelism for an individual’s salvation, the Moravians (appr. 1450) used the ‘born again’ experience as a sign of conversion. This move was followed by the European Reformation (1517-1650), and thereafter John Wesley (1703-1791) – till modern times. The new norm had been established; ‘born again’ became associated with conversion. A personal decision had to be made, an acceptance and commitment to Christ, an escape from hell with heaven awaiting. All this came forth from a need to escape from the wrath of a vengeful God who would punish humanity if they did not make the right decision, compared to a God of Love who gave His all for all humanity and held, and still holds, nothing against them.
Back to the story in John 3
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, a learned man of the O.T., under the law, waiting for the Messiah, supposedly knowing the things to be known. Nicodemus was born as part of the transitional generation, a generation who lived before and after the cross. A teacher and instructor of the people. Nicodemus had been observing and listening to Jesus and realised Jesus was a teacher who had come from God (from above) and performed signs he could only ascribe as coming from God. This brought up some challenging questions for him. In the night time, under the cover of darkness, he went to see Jesus for some clarification. Jesus answered Nicodemus concerning the things which were going to happen. One of the concepts was “BEING BORN AGAIN, HE CANNOT SEE THE KINGDOM OF GOD” (JOHN 3:3,HCBS). Here the being ‘born again’ concept is related to the seeing of the Kingdom of God, while the Young’s translation says it differently, “IF ANY ONE MAY NOT BE BORN FROM ABOVE, HE IS NOT ABLE TO SEE THE REIGN OF GOD”. This talks about humanity, angels and demons, as only those groups can be ‘born from above’. However, Nicodemus failed to understand this concept and explained to himself; going into the womb for a second time and to be born? How is this possible? Nicodemus had been born naturally into the world by a woman. No decision was made by him to be conceived; he was not consulted in this process. He was the recipient, he had no say in the matter. Nicodemus really had no idea what Jesus was talking about. Jesus did not talk about a natural birth but of a birth from above. Jesus is talking concerning himself, coming from above and being, as a human, in union with God. This also reveals our union with God from the beginning (Mirror Bible John 3:3). Other renderings of the wording ‘born again’ are: ‘born from the beginning’ as in Luke 1:3, and Acts 26:5 where Jesus is the beginning and the end, and in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word (Jesus) and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (HCSB). Before the foundation of the world “HE IS”.
John 3:5, “Unless someone is born of the water and the spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (HCBS). While in Young’s it says, “If any one may not be born of water (natural birth), and the spirit (from above), he is not able to enter into the reign of God”. This does not talk about the angels and demons, who have not been born of water (of flesh). Nor of animals which have not been born ‘from above’. But only humanity, who are born both physically and from above.
Let’s have a closer look at these 2 translations use of ‘kingdom’ and ‘reign’ as described in John 3:3,5. An Interlinear Bible notes the Greek words: ‘tnv basileia’. In Strong’s Concordance the word ‘basileia’ translates as ‘kingdom’ but also notes that ‘tnv’ is one of the words known as ‘echo’ which are rarely translated at all, but usually as ‘the, him, it’ or something. So the simple translation of ‘tnv basileia’ is to basically ignore the ‘tnv’ and call it kingdom. However, in Young’s Concordance, he notes that the ‘echo’s can give additional meaning to the context (as in an echo repeats or strengthens the word used). One of the examples he gives is that when the ‘echo’ (in this case ‘tnv’) is used in conjunction with ‘basileia’ then it can be translated as ‘reign’. Perhaps the ‘echo’ implies ‘being kingly in the kingdom’. Thus, verse 3 can be said to be, ‘you cannot see the kingly (ruling) aspects of the kingdom’, where verse 5 becomes, ‘you cannot enter into ruling the kingdom’.