Born again, or to experience the new birth, is a phrase, particularly in evangelicalism, that refers to “spiritual rebirth“, or a regeneration of the human spirit from the Holy Spirit, contrasted with physical birth.
In contemporary Christian usage, the term is distinct from sometimes similar terms used in mainstream Christianity to refer to being or becoming Christian, which is linked to baptism. Individuals who profess to be “born again” often state that they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The phrase “born again” is also used as an adjective to describe individual members of the movement who espouse this belief, as well as the movement itself (“born-again Christian” and the “born-again movement”).
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”— Gospel of John, chapter 3, verses 3–5, NIV
John’s Gospel was written in Koine Greek, and the original text is ambiguous which results in a double entendre that Nicodemus misunderstands. The word translated as again is ἄνωθεν (ánōtʰen), which could mean either “again”, or “from above”. Nicodemus takes only the literal meaning from Jesus’s statement, while Jesus clarifies that he means more of a spiritual rebirth from above. English translations have to pick one sense of the phrase or another; the NIV, King James Version, and Revised Version use “born again”, while the New Revised Standard Version and the New English Translation prefer the “born from above” translation. Most versions will note the alternative sense of the phrase anōthen in a footnote.
Edwyn Hoskyns argues that “born from above” is to be preferred as the fundamental meaning and he drew attention to phrases such as “birth of the Spirit (v.5)”, “birth from God (cf. Jn 1:12-13; 1Jn 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:18)” but maintains that this necessarily carries with it an emphasis upon the newness of the life as given by God himself.
The final use of the phrase occurs in the First Epistle of Peter, rendered in the King James Version as:
Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, [see that ye] love one another with a pure heart fervently: / Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.[1 Peter 1:22-23]
Here, the Greek word translated as “born again” is ἀναγεγεννημένοι (anagegennēménoi).
The traditional Jewish understanding of the promise of salvation is interpreted as being rooted in “the seed of Abraham”; that is, physical lineage from Abraham. Jesus explained to Nicodemus that this doctrine was in error—that every person must have two births—natural birth of the physical body and another of the water and the spirit. This discourse with Nicodemus established the Christian belief that all human beings—whether Jew or Gentile—must be “born again” of the spiritual seed of Christ. The Apostle Peter further reinforced this understanding in 1 Peter 1:23. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that “[a] controversy existed in the primitive church over the interpretation of the expression the seed of Abraham. It is [the Apostle Paul’s] teaching in one instance that all who are Christ’s by faith are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to promise. He is concerned, however, with the fact that the promise is not being fulfilled to the seed of Abraham (referring to the Jews).”
Charles Hodge writes that “The subjective change wrought in the soul by the grace of God, is variously designated in Scripture” with terms such as new birth, resurrection, new life, new creation, renewing of the mind, dying to sin and living to righteousness, and translation from darkness to light.
Jesus used the “birth” analogy in tracing spiritual newness of life to a divine beginning. Contemporary Christian theologians have provided explanations for “born from above” being a more accurate translation of the original Greek word transliterated anōthen. Theologian Frank Stagg cites two reasons why the newer translation is significant:
- The emphasis “from above” (implying “from Heaven“) calls attention to the source of the “newness of life”. Stagg writes that the word “again” does not include the source of the new kind of beginning;
- More than personal improvement is needed. “a new destiny requires a new origin, and the new origin must be from God.”
An early example of the term in its more modern use appears in the sermons of John Wesley. In the sermon entitled A New Birth he writes, “none can be holy unless he be born again”, and “except he be born again, none can be happy even in this world. For … a man should not be happy who is not holy.” Also, “I say, [a man] may be born again and so become an heir of salvation.” Wesley also states infants who are baptized are born again, but for adults it is different:
our church supposes, that all who are baptized in their infancy, are at the same time born again. … But … it is sure all of riper years, who are baptized, are not at the same time born again.
A Unitarian work called The Gospel Anchor noted in the 1830s that the phrase was not mentioned by the other Evangelists, nor by the Apostles except Peter. “It was not regarded by any of the Evangelists but John of sufficient importance to record.” It adds that without John, “we should hardly have known that it was necessary for one to be born again.” This suggests that “the text and context was meant to apply to Nicodemus particularly, and not to the world.”
Scholars of historical Jesus, that is, attempting to ascertain how closely the stories of Jesus match the historical events they are based on, generally treat Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 with skepticism. It details what is presumably a private conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, with none of the disciples seemingly attending, making it unclear how a record of this conversation was acquired. In addition, the conversation is recorded in no other ancient Christian source other than John and works based on John. According to Bart Ehrman, the larger issue is that the same problem English translations of the Bible have with the Greek ἄνωθεν (anōthen) is a problem in the Aramaic language as well: there is no single word in Aramaic that means both “again” and “from above”, yet the conversation rests on Nicodemus making this misunderstanding. As the conversation was between two Jews in Jerusalem, where Aramaic was the native language, there is no reason to think that they’d have spoken in Greek. This implies that even if based on a real conversation, the author of John heavily modified it to include Greek wordplay and idiom.
The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics notes: “The GSS … has asked a born-again question on three occasions … ‘Would you say you have been ‘born again’ or have had a ‘born-again’ experience?” The Handbook says that “Evangelical, black, and Latino Protestants tend to respond similarly, with about two-thirds of each group answering in the affirmative. In contrast, only about one third of mainline Protestants and one sixth of Catholics (Anglo and Latino) claim a born-again experience.” However, the handbook suggests that “born-again questions are poor measures even for capturing evangelical respondents. … it is likely that people who report a born-again experience also claim it as an identity.”
Historically, the classic text from John 3 was consistently interpreted by the early church fathers as a reference to baptism. Modern Catholic interpreters have noted that the phrase ‘born from above’ or ‘born again’ (John 3:3) is clarified as ‘being born of water and Spirit’ (John 3:5).
Catholic commentator John F. McHugh notes, “Rebirth, and the commencement of this new life, are said to come about ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, of water and spirit. This phrase (without the article) refers to a rebirth which the early Church regarded as taking place through baptism (1 Pet 1.3, 23; Tit 3.5).”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the essential elements of Christian initiation are: “proclamation of the Word, acceptance of the Gospel entailing conversion, profession of faith, Baptism itself, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and admission to Eucharistic communion” (CCC 1229). Baptism gives the person the grace of forgiveness for all prior sins; it makes the newly baptized person a new creature and an adopted son of God (2 Corinthians 5:17; 2 Peter 1:4); it incorporates them into the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:25) and creates a sacramental bond of unity leaving an indelible mark on our souls (CCC 1262-1274). “Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated” (CCC 1272). The Holy Spirit is involved with each aspect of the movement of grace. “The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion. … Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high” (CCC 1989).
The Catholic Church also teaches that under special circumstances the need for water baptism can be superseded by the Holy Spirit in a ‘baptism of desire’, such as when catechumens die or are martyred prior to receiving baptism (CCC 1260).
Pope John Paul II wrote about “the problem of children baptized in infancy [who] come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ” (Catechesi Tradendae 19). He noted that “being a Christian means saying ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ, but let us remember that this ‘yes’ has two levels: It consists of surrendering to the word of God and relying on it, but it also means, at a later stage, endeavoring to know better—and better the profound meaning of this word” (CT 20).
The modern expression being “born again” is really about the concept of “conversion”.
The National Directory of Catechesis (published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB) defines conversion as, “the acceptance of a personal relationship with Christ, a sincere adherence to him, and a willingness to conform one’s life to his.” To put it more simply “Conversion to Christ involves making a genuine commitment to him and a personal decision to follow him as his disciple.”
Echoing the writings of Pope John Paul II, the National Directory of Catechesis describes a new intervention required by our modern world called the “New Evangelization”. The New Evangelization is directed to the Church herself, to the baptized who were never effectively evangelized before, to those who have never made a personal commitment to Christ and the Gospel, to those formed by the values of the secular culture, to those who have lost a sense of faith, and to those who are alienated.
Declan O’Sullivan, co-founder of the Catholic Men’s Fellowship and knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, wrote that the “New Evangelization emphasizes the personal encounter with Jesus Christ as a pre-condition for spreading the gospel. The born-again experience is not just an emotional, mystical high; the really important matter is what happened in the convert’s life after the moment or period of radical change.”
The Lutheran Church holds that “we are cleansed of our sins and born again and renewed in Holy Baptism by the Holy Ghost. But she also teaches that whoever is baptized must, through daily contrition and repentance, drown The Old Adam so that daily a new man come forth and arise who walks before God in righteousness and purity forever. She teaches that whoever lives in sins after his baptism has again lost the grace of baptism.”
The phrase born again is mentioned in the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church in article XV, entitled “Of Christ alone without Sin”. In part, it reads: “sin, as S. John saith, was not in Him. But all we the rest, although baptized and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things: and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Although the phrase “baptized and born again in Christ” occurs in Article XV, the reference is clearly to the scripture passage in John 3:3.
In Reformed theology, Holy Baptism is the sign and the seal of one’s regeneration, which is of comfort to the believer. The time of one’s regeneration, however, is a mystery to oneself according to the Canons of Dort.
According to the Reformed churches being born again refers to “the inward working of the Spirit which induces the sinner to respond to the effectual call”. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q 88, “the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” Effectual calling is “the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.”
In Reformed theology, “regeneration precedes faith.” Samuel Storms writes that, “Calvinists insist that the sole cause of regeneration or being born again is the will of God. God first sovereignly and efficaciously regenerates, and only in consequence of that do we act. Therefore, the individual is passive in regeneration, neither preparing himself nor making himself receptive to what God will do. Regeneration is a change wrought in us by God, not an autonomous act performed by us for ourselves.”
In Methodism, the “new birth is necessary for salvation because it marks the move toward holiness. That comes with faith.” John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, held that the New Birth “is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life, when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness” (Works, vol. 2, pp. 193–194). In the life of a Christian, the new birth is considered the first work of grace. In keeping with Wesleyan-Arminian covenant theology, the Articles of Religion, in Article XVII—Of Baptism, state that baptism is a “sign of regeneration or the new birth.” The Methodist Visitor in describing this doctrine, admonishes individuals: “‘Ye must be born again.’ Yield to God that He may perform this work in and for you. Admit Him to your heart. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.'”
Belief in the New Birth is an essential and distinctive element of Evangelical Christianity. For Evangelical Christians, the new birth always occurs before baptism. In Baptist churches, it is synonymous with the Baptism with the Holy Spirit; however, it is considered a distinct experience in Pentecostalism, the Charismatic Movement, and the Neo-charismatic movement.
“Although many evangelicals allow that conversion can be a process, generally they see it as a specific, identifiable moment of time when a person simply and sincerely trusts in Jesus Christ as savior.” They understand Romans 10:9 to indicate a requirement of salvation: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” So, “to be born again” means “to be saved” because to be saved, one must confess Jesus is Lord with one’s mouth and believe it in one’s heart. Also, to be born again means to follow Romans 10:10 that “with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved”. For some evangelical denominations, it is the beginning of the sanctification of the believer. For others, it is an opportunity to receive entire sanctification.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that individuals do not have the power to choose to be born again, but that God calls and selects his followers “from above”. Only those belonging to the “144,000” are considered to be born again.
Disagreements between denominations
The term “born again” is used by several Christian denominations, but there are disagreements on what the term means, and whether members of other denominations are justified in claiming to be born-again Christians.
Catholic Answers says:
Catholics should ask Protestants, “Are you born again—the way the Bible understands that concept?” If the Evangelical has not been properly water baptized, he has not been born again “the Bible way,” regardless of what he may think.
On the other hand, an Evangelical site argues:
Another of many examples is the Catholic who claims he also is “born again.” … However, what the committed Catholic means is that he received his spiritual birth when he was baptized—either as an infant or when as an adult he converted to Catholicism. That’s not what Jesus meant when He told Nicodemus he “must be born again” (Jn 3:3-8). The deliberate adoption of biblical terms which have different meanings for Catholics has become an effective tool in Rome’s ecumenical agenda.
The Reformed view of regeneration may be set apart from other outlooks in at least two ways.
First, classical Roman Catholicism teaches that regeneration occurs at baptism, a view known as baptismal regeneration. Reformed theology has insisted that regeneration may take place at any time in a person’s life, even in the womb. It is not somehow the automatic result of baptism. Second, it is common for many other evangelical branches of the church to speak of repentance and faith leading to regeneration (i.e., people are born again only after they exercise saving faith). By contrast, Reformed theology teaches that original sin and total depravity deprive all people of the moral ability and will to exercise saving faith. … Regeneration is entirely the work of God the Holy Spirit – we can do nothing on our own to obtain it. God alone raises the elect from spiritual death to new life in Christ (Eph. 2:1-10).
History and usage
Historically, Christianity has used various metaphors to describe its rite of initiation, that is, spiritual regeneration via the sacrament of baptism by the power of the water and the spirit. This remains the common understanding in most of Christendom, held, for example, in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and in much of Protestantism. However, sometime after the Reformation, Evangelicalism attributed greater significance to the expression born again as an experience of religious conversion (Heb 10:16), symbolized by deep-water baptism, and rooted in a commitment to one’s own personal faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. This same belief is, historically, also an integral part of Methodist doctrine, and is connected with the doctrine of Justification.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica:
‘Rebirth’ has often been identified with a definite, temporally datable form of ‘conversion’. … With the voluntaristic type, rebirth is expressed in a new alignment of the will, in the liberation of new capabilities and powers that were hitherto undeveloped in the person concerned. With the intellectual type, it leads to an activation of the capabilities for understanding, to the breakthrough of a “vision”. With others it leads to the discovery of an unexpected beauty in the order of nature or to the discovery of the mysterious meaning of history. With still others it leads to a new vision of the moral life and its orders, to a selfless realization of love of neighbour. … each person affected perceives his life in Christ at any given time as “newness of life.”
According to J. Gordon Melton:
Born again is a phrase used by many Protestants to describe the phenomenon of gaining faith in Jesus Christ. It is an experience when everything they have been taught as Christians becomes real, and they develop a direct and personal relationship with God.
According to Andrew Purves and Charles Partee:
Sometimes the phrase seems to be judgmental, making a distinction between genuine and nominal Christians. Sometimes … descriptive, like the distinction between liberal and conservative Christians. Occasionally, the phrase seems historic, like the division between Catholic and Protestant Christians. … [the term] usually includes the notion of human choice in salvation and excludes a view of divine election by grace alone.
The term born again has become widely associated with the evangelical Christian renewal since the late 1960s, first in the United States and then around the world. Associated perhaps initially with Jesus People and the Christian counterculture, born again came to refer to a conversion experience, accepting Jesus Christ as lord and savior in order to be saved from hell and given eternal life with God in heaven, and was increasingly used as a term to identify devout believers. By the mid-1970s, born again Christians were increasingly referred to in the mainstream media as part of the born again movement.
In 1976, Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson’s book Born Again gained international notice. Time magazine named him “One of the 25 most influential Evangelicals in America.” The term was sufficiently prevalent so that during the year’s presidential campaign, Democratic party nominee Jimmy Carter described himself as “born again” in the first Playboy magazine interview of an American presidential candidate.
Colson describes his path to faith in conjunction with his criminal imprisonment and played a significant role in solidifying the “born again” identity as a cultural construct in the US. He writes that his spiritual experience followed considerable struggle and hesitancy to have a “personal encounter with God.” He recalls:
while I sat alone staring at the sea I love, words I had not been certain I could understand or say fell from my lips: “Lord Jesus, I believe in You. I accept You. Please come into my life. I commit it to You.” With these few words…came a sureness of mind that matched the depth of feeling in my heart. There came something more: strength and serenity, a wonderful new assurance about life, a fresh perception of myself in the world around me.
Jimmy Carter was the first President of the United States to publicly declare that he was born-again, in 1976. By the 1980 campaign, all three major candidates stated that they had been born again.
Sider and Knippers state that “Ronald Reagan’s election that fall [was] aided by the votes of 61% of ‘born-again’ white Protestants.”
The Gallup Organization reported that “In 2003, 42% of U.S. adults said they were born-again or evangelical; the 2004 percentage is 41%” and that, “Black Americans are far more likely to identify themselves as born-again or evangelical, with 63% of blacks saying they are born-again, compared with 39% of white Americans. Republicans are far more likely to say they are born-again (52%) than Democrats (36%) or independents (32%).”
Haiven refers to “born-agains” as having “a type of intolerance”. She says, “The instant and thoughtless panaceas of born-again Christianity will be seen as a vast sanctuary by millions of North Americans.” She continues, “Is this sanctuary really a recruitment camp for right-wing movements? It would be naive to think otherwise.”
The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics, referring to several studies, reports “that ‘born-again’ identification is associated with lower support for government anti-poverty programs.” It also notes that “self-reported born-again” Christianity, “strongly shapes attitudes towards economic policy.”
Names inspired by the term
The idea of “rebirth in Christ” has inspired some common European forenames: French René/Renée, Dutch Renaat/Renate, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Croatian Renato/Renata, Latin Renatus/Renata, which all mean “reborn”, “born again”.
- Altar call – invitation to become a Christian; given at a church service or event
- Baptismal regeneration – overview of doctrinal debate about the effect of the baptism rite
- Born-again virgin – a person who, though not a virgin anymore, chooses to live as one
- Dvija, or twice-born – in Hinduism, a person who has formally taken on the roles of one of the first three castes
- Evangelism – the preaching of the Christian Gospel to others with the object of conversion
- Justus Velsius – a 16th-century Dutch dissident who promoted the view that through a new birth man could become like Christ
- Monergism – the belief that being born again is entirely God’s work (and not the believer’s work)
- Sinner’s prayer – the prayer of a person seeking forgiveness and wanting to become a Christian
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia