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“Born Again! What Do You Mean?”


The question “Are you born again?” has been a familiar one in evangelical churches of the last century, and it has been common for people to describe themselves as “born-again” Christians. Yet many, even in Christian circles, may hear a question like that and say, along with Nicodemus, “Born again! … What do you mean?” (John 3:4, TLB). In the popular understanding of these words, there is a great deal that is misunderstood, and the resulting confusion can be a barrier to faith.

When we talk about Christians being born again, we are not ultimately talking about a transient, modern movement or a form of cultural identity. We are talking about a timeless biblical truth. This phraseology wasn’t coined by advertising agents to address the Gospel to a new generation’s sensibilities. The words “born again” are the words of Jesus Christ, and they are relevant to every generation. When we grasp what they mean, there can be no more important question for each of us than “Are you born again?”

Jesus used the phrase “born again” to address the Pharisee Nicodemus when he came to Him in secret one night, as is recorded in John 3. We can understand these words as Jesus intended them by carefully considering their conversation.

The Question Nicodemus Asks

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” (John 3:1–4)

Nicodemus was a religious man. He was a prestigious member of the Pharisees, the people at the forefront of the religion of his day. And the Pharisees had made the dreadful mistake of externalizing religion—emphasizing the outward keeping of rules first of all. They had gone to the extent of adding commandments of their own to God’s law, making it very, very difficult for people to understand and obey their teaching. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs”—beautiful on the outside but filthy and unclean within their hearts (Matt. 23:27).

Nicodemus simply acknowledged that Jesus was “a teacher come from God.” But because Jesus “knew what was in man” (John 2:25)—that is, He knew Nicodemus’s heart—He set aside this introductory comment, and He answered the question that surely pulsated from the very center of this Pharisee’s being: “Why is it that although I am so religious, although I am looked to by so many, although I am a part of the group who supposedly know God, I am so bereft in my experience?” And His answer was this: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The phrase ‘born again’ wasn’t coined by advertising agents to address the Gospel to a new generation’s sensibilities. These are the words of Jesus Christ, and they are relevant to every generation.

Nicodemus misunderstood, and crassly so. He ought to have known better. There is a misunderstanding that is born of an inability to understand, and there is misunderstanding that is born of an unwillingness to understand, so that when we are confronted with facts, we push them away from us. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have known what we call the Old Testament inside out. He knew that God has said through Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek. 36:26–27). He had all that what was necessary to understand that Jesus was not talking about natural birth—that God could transform his very heart. But he chose to misunderstand.

Many professing Christians are more like Nicodemus than they may wish to admit: religious, prestigious, but bereft of any ongoing experience of God in their lives. They think they are Christians because of the church they attend, the family they are born into, the worship songs that they sing, the good works they do, the baptism they underwent. But when they hear the words of Christ challenging the state of their hearts, they close their ears to it. They say with Nicodemus, “Born again! What do you mean?”

The Answer Jesus Gives

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5–8)

The nature of the new birth about which Jesus spoke is simply this: a spiritual transformation that has a heavenly origin and a divine initiative.

Jesus took the picture of baptism, and He spoke about being “born of water and the Spirit.” Baptism in water was and is a sign of cleansing—but the sign without the substance is irrelevant. Many people have been “born of water”; that is, they’ve undergone some kind of a ceremony of baptism. But as Jesus said, there is no new birth without the presence of God’s Holy Spirit.

Nicodemus may have entertained the notion that his religious credentials or his nationalistic distinctions qualified him for entry into God’s kingdom—but they did not. There is no evolution from the physical to the spiritual, no point at which we may climb high enough to leap across the chasm to God. We may have been raised in a religious home, brought up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4, KJV), and educated in the Sunday school. We may attend good churches, do honorable business, and do good to our neighbors. We ought to be thankful for such blessings. But they are not sufficient to usher us into the presence of Christ. What we need is a personal, radical, internal transformation—a new birth.

Many professing Christians are more like Nicodemus than they may wish to admit: religious, prestigious, but bereft of any ongoing experience of God in their lives.

The story of the Gospel is that in the Lord Jesus Christ, God has crossed the boundary, and He gathers people into His family by this new birth—a supernatural birth. In theological terms, the word is regeneration. He makes us spiritually new from the inside out. We who are dead in our trespasses and in our sins, he makes us alive (Eph. 2:5). The work of the Spirit of God enables us, in a sinful condition, to turn away from sin and to turn in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, to believe in Jesus as our Redeemer, and to be granted spiritual life where there has only been spiritual death.

If this seems unquantifiable, that’s because it is. Jesus compared the Spirit’s work to the wind. If a gust blows your umbrella out of your hand, you may ask where it came from, you could chase it back as far as your feet will take you, but you would never find its source. But you will see the evidence of it all around. We can’t bottle regeneration and sell it on the street corner any more than we could bottle the wind. Yet we can look at a life, look into our own hearts, and see the clear effect of God’s transforming work.

It is a perennial heresy of humankind to think that we can fit ourselves by our own merits for the kingdom of God. And it is in this sense that religion may keep us from Christ. So much false religion tells us that by our own striving, we may bridge the gap to God. But Christ says unless God reaches into our lives and transforms our hearts, all labor is in vain. We must be born again.

The Response It Calls Us To

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:14–18)

New birth is necessary because humankind has a fundamental problem. In verses 19–20, the problem is addressed: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”

The humanist, the idealist, the philanthropist, and the Christian may all stand together in the conviction that whatever else is in doubt, human beings are not what they are supposed to be—that there is something wrong. We could all sit down together around a conference table and agree that the misery, suffering, and ugliness evident in our world is a disgrace to the human race and a blight upon civilization. But the point at which the agreement ceases is the vital point: What is the “something” that’s wrong?

What we need is a personal, radical, internal transformation—a new birth.

Jesus tells us that the problem is not a moral problem, not an intellectual problem, not a problem of religious practice, but a spiritual problem—a problem at the center of our beings. The problem is that humankind was created to live in the light of the Creator, but we love the darkness. That is the essence of sin. That is ultimately the reason that our deeds are evil and we stand condemned before the judgment seat of God. No moral endeavor, educational advancement, or external religious observance can fix that. Only God’s Spirit can, by regenerating our inner being and making us new creations.

God has not left us to ourselves. He has revealed Himself to us in Jesus, His “one and only Son,” with a love that cost Him dearly. Before He ever went to the cross, Jesus made clear to Nicodemus that He would be “lifted up” to bear our sins in our place so that all of the corruption of our hearts might be dealt with there. Our evil deeds and our evil dispositions may be forgiven because the Lord Jesus has suffered their punishment in our place. And so we may be transformed by the Spirit in our inner being as He comes to bring to us new birth.

Yet Jesus does not say that because God gave His Son, “All will not perish.” No, He says, “Whoever believes in him will not perish.” There is a response that is demanded—a response that is a matter of honesty and urgency: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). To believe in Jesus is not merely to believe that He exists, nor is it merely to understand who He is and what He did, but it is to entrust ourselves to Him “body and soul, in life and in death,”1 in the expectation that He will redeem us from sin and transform us into His likeness.

We may come to Jesus today and say, “I know you are a teacher come from God,” and we would receive the same reply that Nicodemus did: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This is Christ’s Word to us. Have you entrusted yourself to the Son of Man and been born again to eternal life?

This article was adapted from the sermon “Born Again, What Do You Mean?” by Alistair Begg. Subscribe to get weekly blog updates.

  1. The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1.↩︎




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