What Does It Really Mean to be Born Again?

By David Servant

One of the most tragic statements I’ve ever heard was spoken from the mouth of a woman who had encountered some people whom she considered odd, folks who had identified themselves as “born-again Christians.” She rolled her eyeballs as she mocked them, saying to some family members, “Watch out for those ‘born-again’ Christians! They’re out to convert you!”

What does it really mean to be born again?

What made her warning so tragic is that she had attended a Methodist church every Sunday. Not only was the founder of her denomination—John Wesley—fully persuaded almost 300 years ago of the necessity of being born again[1], but even more persuaded was the founder of all of Christianity—Jesus Christ—about 2,000 years ago! Jesus once said to a very religious man, a highly-respected teacher and Pharisee named Nicodemus:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Take note that that solemn declaration, spoken by the King of God’s kingdom, begins with the words, “truly, truly.” Jesus didn’t want Nicodemus—or anyone else—to take His words lightly. It was a declaration of unassailable truth uttered by the very Son of God: Unless one is born again, he absolutely cannot see the kingdom of God. There are no exceptions. For that reason, everyone, and especially those who profess to be Christians, should ask themselves this very important question: Have I been born again? (And if you answered “yes,” a second important question is: “Have I REALLY been born again?”)

One who has not been born again is comparable to a baby who has not yet been born. She is blind to the world outside her mother’s womb. She may hear muffled sounds and perhaps even perceive a dim light that penetrates the darkness of the womb, but she is completely shut off to that world and cannot see it. Similarly, those who are not born again may sense some hints of the kingdom of God “out there.” They may, like Nicodemus or the mocking woman I first mentioned, be steeped in religion and therefore think they already have some connection to God. But still, until they are born again, they cannot see His kingdom. They live in isolation, blind to a wonderful realm that potentially awaits them.

Conversely, one who has been born again is comparable to a baby who has escaped the womb and now entered into a brand-new world he previously could not see. The born-again believer has his eyes opened to see God’s kingdom. He realizes there is (of course) a great king—Jesus Himself—who rules over that kingdom. He understands that Jesus’ kingdom includes not only himself, but everyone who has submitted to His loving rule. For his “fellow kingdom citizens,” he feels a special affinity, a supernatural love. He soon realizes that Jesus’ kingdom extends all over the world, and that it will one day be the only kingdom on earth—when Jesus finally banishes all those who did not heed His solemn words: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The Conversation Begins

Not understanding Jesus’ declaration regarding the necessity of a second birth, Nicodemus replied, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4).

Nicodemus apparently thought Jesus was referring to a physical rebirth. So Jesus repeated what He had already said, but altered it slightly to help Nicodemus realize He was referring to a spiritual rebirth: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

First, notice Jesus again began His second declaration with the words, “Truly, truly.” Of course, Jesus never lied. So we should believe everything He said. How much more when He prefaces His words with “Truly, truly”!

Second, it is from this elaboration we realize that, not only can one not see God’s kingdom unless he is born again, neither can one enter God’s kingdom. Jesus’ solemn declaration has become even more solemn. No one can enter God’s kingdom unless they are born again. There are no exceptions. This teaches us that all true Christians are born again. If you are not born again, you are not a true Christian.

If you think you are a Christian, but you have not been born again, you put your own opinion above the solemn words of Jesus. You exalt yourself above God! (Which probably isn’t a good strategy for getting into heaven…)

Third, it is from this declaration by Jesus we realize that, to be born again, one does not need to re-enter his mother’s womb. Rather, he needs to be born “of water and the Spirit.” What does that mean?

Some think the phrase being “born of water” refers to a physical birth, which is often preceded by a rush of water-like fluid from the breaking of a mother’s amniotic sac. If this is the correct interpretation, Jesus was simply telling Nicodemus that one must experience both a physical and a spiritual birth in order to see and enter God’s kingdom. Jesus seems to also draw this contrast in His very next sentence: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).

Other interpreters, however, wonder why Jesus would affirm to Nicodemus something that is so obvious, namely, that one must be physically born to ultimately enter God’s kingdom. For that reason, some think Jesus was referring to water baptism, or to something else that the word water might symbolically represent, such as the word of God, spiritual purification, or the Holy Spirit (see Ezek. 36:25; John 7:38-39; Titus 3:5; Eph. 5:26; 1 Cor. 6:11). I don’t see a great need to be dogmatic about any single interpretation, as all of them contain some biblical truth. Every new believer should be baptized in water. And one must respond in faith to God’s word as revealed in the gospel, be spiritually cleansed, and be indwelt and transformed by the Holy Spirit to enter God’s kingdom. According to the New Testament, all those things occur when one is born again. So let us focus on what it means to be “born of the Spirit.”

Being Born of the Spirit

Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). So it is the spirit of a person that needs to be reborn if that person is to enter God’s kingdom.

Scripture teaches that all of us are tripartite in nature—spirit, soul and body:

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thes. 5:23).

My body, of course, is my physical, material self—my flesh, bones, blood and so on.

My soul is my mind, emotions and intellect.

My spirit is revealed in the Bible as being the “true person,” who lives on even after my body dies:

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:26, emphasis added).

The human spirit is referred to in the Bible as the “hidden person of the heart” (see I Pet. 3:4). The human spirit is a person. People who have temporarily died during hospital surgery sometimes say, “I came out of my body and ascended to the ceiling, and I was looking down at the doctors who were trying to revive me.” They refer to their spirit as “I” and “me.” Your spirit is the “real you.” And your spirit must be born again by the direct action of God’s Holy Spirit if you are to see or enter God’s kingdom.

Why is being born again essential? Because the Bible teaches that prior to being born again, our spirits possess a sinful nature, and we are “spiritually dead.” Consider Paul’s words in his Ephesian letter:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) (Eph. 2:1-6).

Paul told the Ephesian Christians they were formerly dead in their “trespasses and sins.” Obviously, they were not formerly physically dead, so he must have been saying they were spiritually dead. Their sins made them dead to God. They lived like everyone else, indulging in sin every day, not even realizing that the spirit of the devil, whom Paul called “the prince of the power of the air,” was “working in” them. They were “by nature children of wrath.” That is, they sinned because they were sinners by nature.

This state of spiritual death is the same state in which Adam and Eve found themselves when they sinned. God had told them they would die on the day they ate the forbidden fruit, but Scripture tells us that Adam lived hundreds of years after he sinned. So he must have died spiritually that day. He found himself cast out of Eden, alienated from God. That is the state of every spiritually dead person. It is not only their sin that separates them from God, but their sinful nature.

And all of this explains why no one can enter God’s kingdom unless they are born again. People who are spiritually dead, whose very nature is sinful, who have Satan’s spirit working in them, cannot enter God’s kingdom unless they are somehow radically transformed. They must be born again!

Thankfully, the Christians in Ephesus had all experienced that wonderful spiritual regeneration. As we just read in Paul’s letter to them, God, in His great mercy and love, changed them from being dead to being alive, spiritually. That is just another way to describe being born again. Both Jesus and the apostle John referred to the spiritual rebirth as “passing from death to life”:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life (John 5:24; see also 1 John 3:14).

Obviously, in light of Scripture’s very descriptive words related to this subject, one who has been truly born again has experienced a profound spiritual change. To be born again is not a human effort of reformation; it is a divine work of resurrection! It is not “turning over a new leaf,” but “receiving a new life”!

This is not to say that true Christians have no struggle with sin. Although they possess spirits that have been transformed, they possess souls/minds that are being transformed, and bodies that are awaiting future transformation. Their transformed spirits find themselves at war with their non-transformed “flesh” (see Gal. 5:19-23), but they are no longer slaves to sin as they were prior to their rebirth.

Religious Blindness

Tragically, those who are often the most blind to their dead spiritual state are those who are the most religious. As they keep their traditions, manmade rules, and even some of God’s commandments, they wrongly assume that they have no need to be spiritually reborn.

Such folks are somewhat comparable to pigs that have been bathed and sprinkled with perfume. They may look clean and smell nice, but they are still pigs. And if you put them close to mud, they will gravitate towards it. That is their nature.

The only way to keep pigs from returning to the mud is to build a fence that prevents them from doing what they want to do. And it is the same way for religious people who have not been born again. Their leaders, ancient or modern, build fences to keep them away from sin. In Jesus’ day, this is exactly what religious leaders like Nicodemus did. They built fences around God’s laws, hoping to keep people from even getting close to sinning. But those “pigs” always found some way to slip under or around the fence, because pigs love to wallow in the mud! And when they found their way under and around those fences and into the mud, they often discovered that their fence-building leaders were already wallowing in the mud themselves!

God, however, takes pigs and transforms them into sheep, the “sheep of His pasture”! (Ps. 79:13). That is why Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

The Difference

People who are born again are radically different than they were before they were born again. From the moment of their spiritual rebirth, they immediately see themselves and others differently. They know that every person is either born again or not born again, a new creation or not a new creation. And the first thing that enters their minds when they see or meet a new person is, “Are they born again or not?” They want everyone to experience the same rebirth they’ve experienced.

When religious people experience a spiritual rebirth, they no longer look at the world as consisting of everyone who is in their religious group and everyone who is not. Again, they realize that there are only two categories of people in God’s eyes—those who have been born again and those who have not been born again. When religious people are born again, they are immediately concerned about everyone who is not born again, especially those within their religious group. And they can’t keep quiet about it, any more than they could keep quiet if they saw their neighbor’s house on fire. Because people who are not born again are on the road to hell—unless Jesus was lying when He said, “Unless you are born again, you cannot enter God’s kingdom.”

Spiritual rebirth is just one of numerous immediate blessings God pours out upon those who believe in His Son. God forgives their sins, makes them His children, gives them the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and promises them eternal life. These blessings are like birthday gifts, but gifts that are given at birth!

How Can I Be Born Again?

Babies in the womb can’t birth themselves. They are birthed by the action of their mothers. Similarly, no person can cause himself to be born again. Spiritual rebirth is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. This is why the New Testament refers to those who have been born again as people who are “born of the Spirit” (John 3:6, 8) and “born of God” (1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:1). Being born again is a divine miracle that no one can fully understand or explain.

The Holy Spirit, however, doesn’t regenerate people’s spirits arbitrarily. He regenerates the spirits of those who believe in Jesus. John wrote, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ [Messiah] is born of God” (1 John 5:1, emphasis added).

John also wrote, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith (1 John 5:4). Faith is the key that opens the door to being “born of God” and “overcoming the world” (that is, not living like the people of the world who are not born again).

Similarly, and just a few seconds after telling Nicodemus that he must be born again, Jesus told him:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16; emphasis added).

It is simply by believing in Jesus that eternal life, and spiritual rebirth, is gained. If we had lived sinless lives of perfection, perhaps we would not need to be born again, and perhaps we might have earned eternal life. But sinners (like all of us) need forgiveness and transformation. The New Testament repeatedly reveals that these things are graciously granted to those who believe in Jesus.

How Can I Be Sure I’ve Been Born Again?

Of course, claiming to believe that Jesus is the Christ is not proof that one actually does believe. I know that, because I publicly claimed I believed in Jesus when I was confirmed as a church member at age 12. Looking back, I realize that I really didn’t believe what I claimed to believe. If I would have truly believed in Jesus, I would have been spiritually reborn and become a new creature—just as Jesus promised—and I would have started acting like it. The New Testament teaches that there are two primary marks that identify those who are genuinely born again:

(1) If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him…. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God (1 John 2:29; 3:9, emphasis added).

(2) Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God (1 John 4:7, emphasis added).

The first identifying mark of those who are born of God is that they practice righteousness and do not practice sin (1 John 2:29; 3:9). That is, they consistently do what is right. They are not perfect, and they may sometimes stumble (see James 3:2), but their lives are characterized by righteousness and holiness. Those whose lives are characterized by sin and unrighteousness are not born again. As Paul warned in his letter to the Corinthians:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

Take note that Paul credited the transformed lives of the Corinthian Christians, not to human efforts to reform, not to fence laws, nor to church membership. Rather, he credited God’s Spirit. The Corinthian believers had been “washed,” “sanctified” (set apart for holy use) and “justified” (declared righteous) by the work of God, not by the work of man. They had been born again!

The second identifying mark of those who are born of God is that they love others who are born again (1 John 4:7)—those who are fellow members of their spiritual family and who have the same Heavenly Father. If they mock, resist or don’t want to associate with those who are born again, it proves they are not born again. As John also wrote:

We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death…. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 3:14; 4:20, emphasis added).

How tragic it is when people who profess to be Christians shun or disassociate themselves from family members who are born again. By their actions, they demonstrate that they are not Christians, but just religious.

The love that born-again people have for their spiritual family also motivates them to make sacrifices for members facing hardships. Jesus’ foretelling of the future judgment of the sheep and goats makes that ever so clear (see Matt. 25:31-46). To not care for the “least of these” among Christ’s brethren is to not care for Jesus. As John echoed:

We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:16-17).

The Assurance of Salvation

Notice that so many of the passages I’ve quoted from the Bible are from the apostle John’s first letter. John wrote that letter to help his readers ascertain, by self examination, if they were truly born again and genuinely possessed eternal life. Near the end of that letter he wrote:

These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13).

It is not only possible to know that you have eternal life and are born again, it is the normal experience of every true Christian. To say that we can’t know if we have eternal life or if we are born again is to take sides against the Bible.

Moreover, to claim that people are born again simply because they are water baptized, even though they continue to live sinful lives or don’t love born-again people, is also to contradict the Bible. Baptism is a symbolic picture of being born again, not a means to be born again. New believers should be baptized, yes, and they should be told that their baptism represents their death, burial and cleansing resurrection to a new life—as spiritually reborn children of God. But those who are baptized without genuine faith in Jesus are like dry pigs who temporarily become wet pigs! They are still pigs!

A Gradual Rebirth?

Occasionally, I’ve encountered religious people who tell me their church teaches that Christians are gradually born again over their lifetimes. This, too, is an idea that you will never find in the Bible. Consider the many Scripture passages I’ve already cited that make some reference to being “born again,” “born of God,” “born of the Spirit,” “passing from death to life,” and so on. Most of them make it abundantly clear that the new birth, like the physical birth of a child, is an event that takes place in a relatively short amount of time. The apostles wrote to the early Christians as if they had already been born again at some point in the past, not as if they were gradually being born again throughout their span of their lives.

For example, Peter wrote:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again [past tense] to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet. 1:3, emphasis added).

For you have been born again [past tense] not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Pet. 1:23, emphasis added).

If you encountered an adult who said, “I can’t say that I’ve been born yet, but I believe I’m gradually being born over the course of my life,” you’d have to conclude that person doesn’t understand the plain meaning of the word “born.” Similarly, the person who claims he is gradually being born again over the course of his life does violence to the simple word “born.” Moreover, he clearly has not investigated what the Bible says on the topic of the new birth and has no idea what it actually means to be born again.

What About You?

Have you experienced a life-changing spiritual rebirth so significant that you view the span of your life so far as “pre-born-again” and “post-born-again”? Has your inward nature changed so that, more than anything else, you want to please God? Do you look at God as your Heavenly Father rather than as “the Man Upstairs” or the distant God whom you sing about on Sunday mornings? Have your eyes been opened to see God’s kingdom, and do you consider all of those who have been born again to be your spiritual brothers and sisters? Are you sure that when you die, you will enter God’s kingdom?

If you cannot answer “yes” to all of those questions, then there is one thing you must do: You must believe in Jesus:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

If you believe in Him as He has revealed Himself in the Bible—as the Son of God, the Creator of the Universe, the Future Judge before whom everyone will stand and give an account—He will become your Lord. Your life, and eternity, will dramatically change.

Don’t wait until you are in hell to finally take Jesus’ solemn words—“You must be born again”—as serious as He intended for you to take them. Don’t wait another second! Fall on your knees and pray to the God who created you, loves you, and who will re-create you! — David

[1] See John Wesley’s Sermon #45, titled The New Birth, which begins with the words, “If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two—the doctrine of justification, and that of the new birth.”