One of the most important subjects in the entire Bible is ‘regeneration,’ otherwise known as ‘salvation’ or being ‘born again.’ In John chapter 3, Jesus used the strongest possible terms to inform us of the necessity of this happening in a person’s life. Twice, He said a person can’t go to heaven if they are not born again, and He finished by saying that a person must be born again. That’s some emphasis! Clearly, this is a matter that demands consideration by every human being. Not surprisingly, John 3 is not the only chapter in the Bible that addresses the new birth. In fact, when one looks broadly at scripture, a wealth of information appears, dealing not only with the new birth but also with the New Covenant, into which the new birth is the entry point. The benefits offered to a person through the new birth are numerous, and they are staggering in their magnitude and in their display of God’s love and generosity toward people who don’t deserve the least part of it.
Key Passages of Scripture
I. To begin our study of the new birth, let’s look at three foundational passages that clearly mention it. Let’s look first at the passage in which Jesus Himself coined the phrase ‘born again’:
3Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4Nicodemus said to Him, “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?” 5Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
What do we learn from this passage? First, Jesus makes it very clear that a person must be born again to go to heaven. Jesus placed incredibly strong emphasis on this fact by stating it three times (verses 3, 5, & 7). Second, we learn that the new birth is not physical but spiritual. Third, we learn that God’s Word (referred to as ‘water’ in verse 5), particularly the gospel, is the agent of the new birth. This fact is supported by these scriptures:
17So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
18Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
1 Peter 1:23
23for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.
This should make sense to any believer, since we understand that without the pure truth of God’s Word, how would anyone ever be born again? Since salvation comes by faith, we have to hear something in which to put our faith in order to be saved! Fourth, we learn that born again people are, in a sense, like the wind. You can’t see the wind, but you can see the effects of the wind. In the same way, a born again person still lives in the same body of flesh that they did before, but they are a completely different person. People can observe the ‘effects of the Spirit’ by looking at the fruit of God’s work in their life. Incidentally, the same Greek word is used for both ‘wind’ and ‘Spirit’ in these verses (pneuma), and it is the Holy Spirit who now lives within a born again person.
II. Let’s take a look at a second passage that explicitly speaks of being ‘born again’:
1 Peter 1:23
23for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.
What do we learn from this passage? First, being born again places an ‘imperishable’ seed in a person. This means the seed is eternal, and that seed is the Word of God (again with emphasis on the gospel), which is also described as ‘enduring forever’ two verses later:
1 Peter 1:25
25BUT THE WORD OF THE LORD ENDURES FOREVER. Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.
Second, we learn that eternal life begins the moment a person is born again. When the imperishable seed of the Word sprouts its life forth in a person, it should be obvious that if the seed is eternal, then the life that comes from the seed is also eternal. God’s Word reveals truth to us. Drawing from the parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-8), the seed of God’s Word (truth) lands in a person’s life (even over the course of many years), is eventually received and held in the heart; and when God decides, it springs forth into eternal life, in time bringing forth abundant, mature (Luke 8:14) fruit.
III. Let’s look at one more passage that speaks very clearly about the new birth, particularly letting us know how it doesn’t happen.
12But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
What do we learn from this passage? First, no one decides to get born again. It does not occur as a result of ‘the will of man.’ So praying the ‘prayer of salvation’ does not automatically mean someone is born again. God may indeed regenerate someone while they pray The Prayer, but it is no guarantee of salvation. Furthermore, just because someone realizes some of the truth of the gospel and decides to ‘follow Jesus,’ this does not mean they have been born again or are saved. John 1:13 is extremely clear that children of God are not born because of ‘the will of man.’ Second, along the same lines, we learn that being born again is a supernatural work of God, not a personal decision. Third, we learn that becoming God’s child (by being born again) is not a matter of lineage or physical inheritance. The expression “God doesn’t have any grandchildren” is clear, succinct, and factual. God adopts human beings into His family by regenerating them (Romans 9:8).
Facts from the Metaphor
Jesus never used words idly. After all, every word He spoke was given to Him by the Father (John 12:49). So when Jesus chose to use expressions and metaphors, we would be wise to evaluate the meaning contained in the metaphor, without going beyond what is supported by the complete testimony of scripture. Using supporting scripture to evaluate the metaphor of experiencing a ‘second birth,’ we learn that before being born again, a person is spiritually dead:
Ephesians 2:1, 5
1And you were dead in your trespasses and sins … 5even when we were dead in our transgressions, [God] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)
13When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions
We also learn the critically important fact that being born again is not a process; it is a moment in time, like physical birth. In one moment, there is a woman present with no child; but in the next moment, a new life is present. In the same way, in one moment, a person is spiritually dead; but in the next moment, they are spiritually alive. Life and death are, for the most part, easily discernible. A person is either dead or alive; they do not remain in some grey area of confusion. If they’re not dead, they are alive. If they’re not alive, they are dead. Jesus used the metaphor of birth to illustrate that while there is indeed a process of the Father drawing a person to Himself (John 6:44), akin to a pregnancy; when the moment of delivery arrives, new life is suddenly present for all to see.
Jesus also spoke of an event during which the Holy Spirit would take up residence inside a person. He was describing the new birth:
16I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; 17that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.
23Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.
Clearly, being born again brings a spiritually dead person to life. Since humans spend their entire lives spiritually dead until the moment God makes them alive, it makes sense that the event known as the new birth is sudden, powerful, and discernible. The handful of accounts in scripture of physical resurrection show that those events were sudden, powerful, and easily discernible. Does it make any sense for a change from spiritual death to eternal life to be any less sudden, powerful, and discernible? The new birth, due to the internal nature of the spirit (remember ‘the wind’ earlier), may not be easily discernible to observers, but it certainly is to the person who has come to life! And while such a person may not immediately understand all that has happened to them, over time they will, as they study the scriptures and learn from other brethren.
The Position of Being ‘in Christ’
The New Testament frequently uses the phrase ‘in Christ’ (or ‘in Him’) to describe a person’s position or state. This is speaking of the position of a person who has experienced the new birth. Though the number of scriptures on the subject might seem overwhelming, it is very important for us to apprehend everything God has accomplished and given to us by regenerating us. Notice the components of the new birth – what it includes – according to these scriptures:
- Born again people have been united with Jesus in death and resurrection. Their old self has been done away with, and they are thus freed from both the penalty and power of sin.
4Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6knowing 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; 7for he who has died is freed from sin.
- Born again people are new creatures.
2 Corinthians 5:17
17Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
- Born again people receive the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:21
21He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
- Born again people have every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3, below).
- Born again people were chosen by God before the foundation of the world (v.4).
- Born again people have had their sins forgiven (v.7).
- Born again people have a promised inheritance (v.11).
- Born again people have the Holy Spirit as a pledge for the eventual, complete redemption: body, soul, & spirit (v.13-14).
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love 5He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, 6to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight 9He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him 10with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him 11also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, 12to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. 13In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.
- Born again people have been brought near to God.
13But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
All of the scriptures above use the words ‘in Christ’ or ‘in Him’ to describe the position which results from being born again. Since a born again person is united with Jesus (Romans 6:5, 1 Corinthians 6:17), it makes sense to use the expression ‘in Christ’ to describe this new relationship.
We’re Just Getting Started
Many other passages of scripture make sense only in the context of the new birth. One could argue that nearly the entire New Testament is about the new birth, because the New Testament fundamentally declares the gospel and its consequences; and the gospel declares the good news to mankind that God has made a way for people to be reconciled to God by having their sins forgiven through the perfect work of Jesus. As has already been stated, this occurs exclusively through the new birth. Let’s look at numerous other passages that offer up even more wonderful information about the new birth.
- A born again person’s heart of stone has been removed, and a heart of flesh has been installed in its place.
26Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
- A born again person has received eternal righteousness through imputation.
Hebrews 10:10, 14
10By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. … 14For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
- A born again person will not experience God’s condemnation.
1Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
- A born again person is ruled by the Holy Spirit, which imparts life, rather than by sin and the flesh, which lead to death.
2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
- A born again person has been adopted as God’s child.
5He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will
- A born again person is God’s child and a joint-heir with Christ.
16The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.
- A born again person has been transferred from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus, or from darkness into light.
13He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son
8for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light
- A born again person receives true spiritual discernment and understanding.
1 Corinthians 2:13-14
13These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
- A born again person knows God.
11And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
- A born again person is united with God in spirit.
1 Corinthians 6:17
17But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him.
- A born again person is justified, which means they are free from guilt.
- A born again person is no longer an enemy of God (Romans 5:10) but has peace with God.
1Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ
- A person is born again by faith alone and by that faith enters into God’s grace.
2through [our Lord Jesus Christ] also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.
- A born again person’s conscience has been cleansed.
22let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
It’s awesome, isn’t it? And there are actually people out there who expect us to believe that they are born again, without manifesting the kind of pervasive change the Bible describes! Through the new birth, God gives us new hearts with new desires, causing people to suddenly love the things He loves and to hate the things He hates. Is there anything that could more cause someone to stick out in this world that is filled with endeavors and entertainment, all imagined by the flesh and for the flesh? This explains why a person who has truly been born again is often deemed a “radical,” a “nut,” a “Jesus freak.” Names like these should be considered badges of honor for the person who has found the ‘pearl of great price’ (Matthew 13:45-46), whose residence has been permanently altered. Their home is now heaven, and they are merely passing through this perishing world.
Placed under a New Covenant
A final point that should not be overlooked concerning the new birth is the fact that through the work of Jesus Christ, God has inaugurated a New Covenant with mankind. The way a person enters into that New Covenant is by being born again. The Bible informs us that the Old Covenant was a system of laws and regulations, apparently intended to make people right with God. However, from the full counsel of scripture, we learn (from Galatians 3:24 and the books of Romans and Hebrews in particular) that the Law couldn’t make anyone righteous and that its intention was actually to show us our need for a Savior and lead us to Jesus Christ.
People who have been born again are under the New Covenant. This means that God’s commandments have been written on their hearts; those regulations are no longer external:
10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
This is extremely significant for the following reasons:
- Born again people have been freed from the Old Covenant (aka ‘the Law’).
6But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.
- The New Covenant contains better promises than the Old.
6But now [Jesus] has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.
- Under the Old Covenant, sins were covered (referenced by the word ‘atonement’), but under the New Covenant, they are taken away or removed (referenced by the word ‘propitiation’).
6He shall also bring his guilt offering to the LORD for his sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement (kâphar) on his behalf for his sin.
kâphar (Brown-Driver-Briggs definition):
To cover, purge, make an atonement, make reconciliation
11Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins
- Only covering sins does not remove them. God can only be appeased if sins are taken away.
1 John 2:2
2and He Himself is the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
hilasmos (Thayer Definition):
An appeasing, propitiating
29The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
1 John 3:5
5You know that He appeared in order to take away sins
The difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is the difference between life and death (2 Corinthians 3:6), between condemnation and righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:9); and the entrance into the New Covenant is the new birth. There is no other way to be saved. In John 10:9, when Jesus spoke of ‘entering through Him,’ He was speaking of the new birth:
9“I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”
As stated earlier, a person is not saved by keeping commands or performing works. Jesus said a person is saved by ‘entering through Me.’ This is the same thing that Romans 6:5 and John 14:23 talk about – a mystical spiritual union with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As scripture has made abundantly clear, this experience is known as being born again. In an age of great apostasy and confusion, may we treasure the words of Jesus Himself and proclaim the reality, the glory, and the necessity of the new birth as the only entrance to salvation and eternal life.