Being Born Again—The Road to Salvation?
HOW would you answer the question, “Are you born again?” Millions of believers around the globe would answer with an emphatic, “Yes!” They believe that being born again is a mark of all true Christians and the only way to salvation. They echo the view of such religious leaders as theologian Robert C. Sproul, who wrote: “If a person is not born again, . . . then he is not a Christian.”
Are you among those who believe that being born again puts you on the road to salvation? If so, you no doubt want to help your relatives and friends to find that road and to start walking on it. For them to do so, however, they need to understand the difference between an individual who is born again and someone who is not. How would you explain to them what it means to be born again?
Many believe that the expression “born again” refers to someone who makes a solemn promise to serve God and Christ and, as a result, is changed from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. In fact, a current dictionary defines a born-again individual as “a usually Christian person who has made a renewed or confirmed commitment of faith especially after an intense religious experience.”—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary—Eleventh Edition.
Would you be surprised to learn that the Bible does not agree with that definition? Would you like to know what God’s Word really teaches about being born again? You will surely benefit from taking a closer look at this subject. Why? Because an accurate understanding of what it means to be born again will affect your life and your expectations for the future.
What Does the Bible Teach?
The only place in the entire Bible where the expression “born again” is found is at John 3:1-12, which describes an intriguing conversation that took place between Jesus and a religious leader in Jerusalem. You will find that Bible account quoted in full in the accompanying box. We invite you to read it carefully.
In the account, Jesus highlights several aspects of the “new birth.”* In fact, Jesus’ discussion helps us to answer these five vital questions:
▪ How important is the new birth?
▪ Is it up to us to decide to experience the new birth?
▪ What is its purpose?
▪ By what means does it take place?
▪ What change of relationship does it bring about?
Let us consider these questions one at a time.
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“You People Must Be Born Again”
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, Nicodemus was his name, a ruler of the Jews. This one came to him in the night and said to him: ‘Rabbi, we know that you as a teacher have come from God; for no one can perform these signs that you perform unless God is with him.’ In answer Jesus said to him: ‘Most truly I say to you, Unless anyone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him: ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter into the womb of his mother a second time and be born, can he?’ Jesus answered: ‘Most truly I say to you, Unless anyone is born from water and spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. What has been born from the flesh is flesh, and what has been born from the spirit is spirit. Do not marvel because I told you, You people must be born again. The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone that has been born from the spirit.’ In answer Nicodemus said to him: ‘How can these things come about?’ In answer Jesus said to him: ‘Are you a teacher of Israel and yet do not know these things? Most truly I say to you, What we know we speak and what we have seen we bear witness of, but you people do not receive the witness we give. If I have told you earthly things and yet you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’”—John 3:1-12.
The New Birth—How Important?
THROUGHOUT his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus emphasized that undergoing a new birth, or being born again, is of great importance. How did he make that clear?
Note how Jesus in his discussion with Nicodemus underscored the importance of the new birth. He stated: “Unless anyone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) The words “unless” and “cannot” highlight the necessity of the new birth. To illustrate: If someone says, “Unless the sun shines, there cannot be daylight,” he means that sunshine is absolutely necessary for daylight. In a similar manner, Jesus stated that being born again is absolutely necessary for seeing God’s Kingdom.
Finally, as if to remove any lingering doubt about the subject, Jesus stated: “You people must be born again.” (John 3:7) Clearly, according to Jesus, being born again is a requirement—a must—for one to “enter into the kingdom of God.”—John 3:5.
Since Jesus viewed the new birth as a matter of such great importance, Christians should make sure that they understand this subject accurately. For example, do you think that a Christian can choose to be born again?
[Blurb on page 5]
“Unless the sun shines, there cannot be daylight”
The New Birth—A Personal Decision?
WHO causes the new birth? When exhorting their listeners to become born-again Christians, some preachers quote Jesus’ words: “You people must be born again.” (John 3:7) Such ministers use these words as a command, in effect saying, “Be born again!” They thus preach that it is up to each believer to obey Jesus and take the necessary steps to undergo the new birth. According to such reasoning, the new birth is a matter of personal choice. But is that view in harmony with what Jesus told Nicodemus?
A careful reading of Jesus’ words shows that Jesus did not teach that it is up to man to choose whether to experience the new birth or not. Why do we say this? The Greek expression translated “is born again” can also be rendered “should be born from above.”* Thus, according to that alternate rendering, the new birth originates “from above”—that is, “from heaven,” or “from the Father.” (John 19:11; footnote; James 1:17) Yes, it is caused by God.—1 John 3:9.
If we keep the expression “from above” in mind, it is not hard to understand why an individual cannot cause his own new birth. Just think of your physical birth. Was it up to you to make the choice that led to your birth? Of course not! You were born because you were begotten by your father. Similarly, we can experience the new birth only if God, our heavenly Father, causes our new birth. (John 1:13) Thus, the apostle Peter rightly states: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for according to his great mercy he gave us a new birth.”—1 Peter 1:3.
Is It a Command?
Some may wonder, though, ‘If it is true that no one can decide on his own to be born again, why did Jesus give the command: “You people must be born again”?’ That is a valid question. After all, if Jesus’ words do indeed constitute a command, he would be ordering us to do something beyond our control. That does not sound reasonable. Then, how should the words you must be “born again” be understood?
A closer look at that phrase in its original language shows that it is not rendered in the imperative mood, or in the form of a command. Rather, the phrase is rendered in the form of a statement. In other words, when Jesus said you must be “born again,” he was stating a fact, not giving a command. He said: “It is necessary for you to be born from above.”—John 3:7, Modern Young’s Literal Translation.
To illustrate this matter of command versus statement of fact, think of a comparison. Picture a city that has several schools. One of them is set aside as a school for students belonging to a native, or indigenous, population living in an area far from that city. One day, a young man who does not belong to that native group tells the principal of that school, “I want to enroll in your school.” The principal tells him, “To enroll, you must be a native.” Of course, the principal’s words are not a command. He is not ordering the student, “Be a native!” The principal simply states the fact—the requirement for attending that school. Similarly, when Jesus said: “You people must be born again,” he was simply stating a fact—the requirement for one to “enter into the kingdom of God.”
That last thought—the Kingdom of God—has a bearing on yet another aspect of the new birth. It concerns the question, What is its purpose? Knowing the answer to that question is a key to understanding accurately what it means to be born again.
Several Bible translations render John 3:3 in this way. For example, A Literal Translation of the Bible states: “If one does not receive birth from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”
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What similarity is there between the new birth and a physical birth?
The New Birth—What Is Its Purpose?
MANY believe that one needs to be born again to receive eternal salvation. Note, though, what Jesus himself said about the purpose of the new birth. He stated: “Unless anyone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Thus, one needs to be born again in order to enter into God’s Kingdom, not in order to receive salvation. ‘But,’ some may say, ‘are not these two expressions—entering the Kingdom and receiving salvation—referring to the same reward?’ No, they are not. To understand the difference, let us consider first the meaning of the expression “kingdom of God.”
A kingdom is a form of government. So, then, the expression “kingdom of God” means “government of God.” The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ, the “son of man,” is the King of God’s Kingdom and that Christ has fellow rulers. (Daniel 7:1, 13, 14; Matthew 26:63, 64) Furthermore, a vision given to the apostle John disclosed that Christ’s fellow rulers are individuals chosen “out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” and will “rule as kings over the earth.” (Revelation 5:9, 10; 20:6) God’s Word further reveals that those who will rule as kings form a “little flock” of 144,000 individuals “who have been bought from the earth.”—Luke 12:32; Revelation 14:1, 3.
Where is the seat of God’s Kingdom? “The kingdom of God” is also called “the kingdom of the heavens,” which shows that Jesus and his fellow kings rule from heaven. (Luke 8:10; Matthew 13:11) Thus, God’s Kingdom is a heavenly government made up of Jesus Christ and a group of fellow rulers chosen from among mankind.
What, then, did Jesus mean when he stated that one must be born again to “enter into the kingdom of God”? He meant that one needs to be born again in order to become a ruler with Christ in heaven. Simply put, the purpose of the new birth is to prepare a limited group of humans for heavenly rulership.
Thus far, we have seen that the new birth is of great importance, is initiated by God, and is preparing a group of humans for rulership in heaven. But how does the new birth actually take place?
[Blurb on page 7]
The purpose of the new birth is to prepare a limited group of humans for heavenly rulership
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Jesus Christ and a group of fellow rulers chosen from mankind make up God’s Kingdom
The New Birth—How Does It Take Place?
JESUS spoke with Nicodemus not only about the importance, cause, and purpose of the new birth but also about the means by which the new birth occurs. Jesus said: “Unless anyone is born from water and spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) Thus, a person is born again by means of water and spirit. But to what does the expression “water and spirit” refer?
“Water and Spirit”—What Are They?
Being a Jewish religious scholar, Nicodemus was no doubt familiar with the way that the Hebrew Scriptures use the term “spirit of God”—God’s active force, which can influence people to perform special feats. (Genesis 41:38; Exodus 31:3; 1 Samuel 10:6) So when Jesus used the word “spirit,” Nicodemus would have understood it to be the holy spirit, the active force of God.
What about Jesus’ reference to water? Consider the events that are recorded immediately before and after the conversation with Nicodemus. These show that both John the Baptizer and Jesus’ disciples were performing baptisms in water. (John 1:19, 31; 3:22; 4:1-3) This practice became well-known in Jerusalem. Therefore, when Jesus spoke about water, Nicodemus would have discerned that Jesus was referring, not to water in general, but to the water of baptism.*
Baptized “With Holy Spirit”
If being “born from water” relates to being baptized in water, what does it mean to be “born from . . . spirit”? Before Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus, John the Baptizer had announced that not only water but also spirit would play a role in baptism. He said: “I baptized you with water, but he [Jesus] will baptize you with holy spirit.” (Mark 1:7, 8) Gospel writer Mark describes the first time that such a baptism took place. He writes: “In the course of those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And immediately on coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being parted, and, like a dove, the spirit coming down upon him.” (Mark 1:9, 10) When Jesus was immersed in the Jordan, he was baptized with water. At the moment that he received the spirit from heaven, he was baptized with holy spirit.
About three years after his baptism, Jesus assured his disciples: “You will be baptized in holy spirit not many days after this.” (Acts 1:5) When did that occur?
On the day of Pentecost in the year 33 C.E., about 120 disciples of Jesus were gathered in a home in Jerusalem. “Suddenly there occurred from heaven a noise just like that of a rushing stiff breeze, and it filled the whole house in which they were sitting. And tongues as if of fire became visible to them . . . , and they all became filled with holy spirit.” (Acts 2:1-4) That same day, others in Jerusalem were urged to get baptized in water. The apostle Peter told a crowd: “Repent, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the free gift of the holy spirit.” What was the reaction? “Those who embraced his word heartily were baptized, and on that day about three thousand souls were added.”—Acts 2:38, 41.
A Twofold Process
What do these baptisms reveal about the new birth? They show that the new birth takes place by means of a twofold process. Note that Jesus first got baptized with water. Then he received the holy spirit. Similarly, the early disciples had first been baptized in water (some by John the Baptizer), and then they received the holy spirit. (John 1:26-36) Likewise, the 3,000 converts were first baptized with water, and then they received the holy spirit.
Keeping in mind the baptisms that occurred on Pentecost 33 C.E., how should we expect the new birth to take place today? In the same way that it occurred in the case of Jesus’ apostles and early disciples. First, a person repents of his sins, turns away from a wrong course, dedicates his life to Jehovah to worship and serve him, and makes his dedication public by water baptism. Then, if God chooses him to serve as a ruler in His Kingdom, he is anointed with holy spirit. The first part of this twofold process (baptism with water) is initiated by the individual; the second part (baptism with spirit) is initiated by God. When a person undergoes both baptisms, he has experienced the new birth.
Why, though, did Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus use the expression “born from water and spirit”? To underline that those baptized with water and spirit would undergo a remarkable change. The next article considers that aspect of the new birth.
In a similar way, the apostle Peter once said at an occasion of baptism: “Can anyone forbid water?”—Acts 10:47.
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John baptized repentant Israelites with water
The New Birth—What Does It Accomplish?
WHY did Jesus use the expression “born . . . from spirit” when speaking about the baptism with holy spirit? (John 3:5) When used as a figure of speech, the word “birth” means “beginning,” such as in the expression “the birth of a nation.” Hence, the term “new birth” indicates a “new beginning.” Therefore, the figures of speech “born” and “new birth” highlight that there will be a new beginning in the relationship between God and those who are baptized with holy spirit. How does that complete change in relationship occur?
In explaining how God prepares humans for rulership in heaven, the apostle Paul used an illustration taken from family life. He wrote to Christians in his day that they would experience an “adoption as sons” and that God, therefore, could deal with them “as with sons.” (Galatians 4:5; Hebrews 12:7) To see how the example of adoption helps one to understand what sort of change takes place when an individual is baptized with holy spirit, consider once more the illustration of the young man who wants to enroll in a school for students who belong to a native population.
A Change Caused by Adoption
In the illustration, the young man is unable to enroll in the school because he is not a member of the indigenous population. Now, imagine that one day, a big change occurs. He is legally adopted by a father of an indigenous family. How does that affect the young man? Well, because of being adopted as a son, he may now have the same rights as other indigenous youths—including the right to enroll in the school. The adoption has completely changed his prospects.
This illustrates what happens in a much more significant manner to those who experience the new birth. Consider some similarities. The young man in the illustration will be given a place in school but only if he meets the requirement for admission—that of belonging to the native population. Yet, on his own he cannot meet that requirement. Similarly, some humans will be given a place in God’s Kingdom, or heavenly government, but only if they meet the requirement for admission—that of being “born again.” Yet, on their own they cannot meet that requirement because the new birth depends on God.
What changed the condition of the young man? The legal process of adoption. Of course, that process did not change the young man’s nature. After his adoption, he was still the same person. Even so, after the legal requirements for adoption had been met, the young man received a new status. Indeed, he experienced a new beginning—a new birth, so to speak. He became a son, which gave him the right to attend the school and to be part of his adoptive father’s family.
Similarly, Jehovah changed the condition of a group of imperfect humans by initiating a legal procedure to adopt them as his children. The apostle Paul, who belonged to that group, wrote to fellow believers: “You received a spirit of adoption as sons, by which spirit we cry out: ‘Abba, Father!’ The spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:15, 16) Yes, through the process of adoption, those Christians had become part of God’s family, or “children of God.”—1 John 3:1; 2 Corinthians 6:18.
Of course, that adoption by God did not change the nature of the adoptees, for they remained imperfect. (1 John 1:8) Nevertheless, as Paul further explained, after the legal requirements for adoption had been met, they received a new status. At the same time, God’s spirit implanted in those adopted sons the conviction that they would live with Christ in heaven. (1 John 3:2) That unmistakable conviction caused by holy spirit gave them a whole new outlook on life. (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22) Yes, they experienced a new beginning—a new birth, as it were.
Speaking about God’s adopted sons, the Bible states: “They will be priests of God and of the Christ, and will rule as kings with him for the thousand years.” (Revelation 20:6) With Christ, God’s adopted sons will receive a place as kings in God’s Kingdom, or heavenly government. The apostle Peter told fellow believers that they would receive “an incorruptible and undefiled and unfading inheritance” that is “reserved in the heavens” for them. (1 Peter 1:3, 4) A precious inheritance indeed!
However, this matter of rulership also raises a question. If those who are born again will rule as kings in heaven, over whom will they be ruling? That question will be considered in the following article.
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What did Paul say about adoption?