Book: Why Were You Born?

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According to mainstream Christianity, one is “born again” when he or she has “received Christ” and been “saved”—typically at baptism. Thus, being “born again” is seen as a religious experience. Yet most Christians have great difficulty explaining from Scripture what it means to be “born again” or “born of God.”1 Indeed, there is great confusion on this subject. The Bible, however, is quite straightforward on the topic.

In John 3:1-12, Jesus taught that to be “born again” literally means to be “born of the Spirit”—to become a spirit being. As we will see, other passages show that this “new birth” to spirit life will take place at the first resurrection when Christ returns. Thus, Jesus is the only one who has been “born again”—as He is the firstborn from the dead. No one else has yet been resurrected from the dead to eternal life—no one else has been “born again.”

 

The Pagan Origin of the Popular “Born Again” Doctrine

It may come as a surprise to many that the idea of a “second birth” as a religious experience is not unique to Christianity. In fact, the concept is quite ancient. In his epochal book The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop demonstrates that pagan religions, which had their roots in ancient Babylon, had a belief and practice of being “born again” or “twice born.” For example, Hislop wrote: “The Brahmins make it their distinguishing boast that they are ‘twice-born’ men, and that, as such, they are sure of eternal happiness. Now, the same was the case in [ancient] Babylon, and there the new birth was conferred by baptism” (p. 132, emphasis added). Note that the pagan teaching of being “born again” or “twice born” had nothing to do with being raised from the dead, and that it was linked to the rite of baptism.

But how did this false teaching find its way into nominal Christianity?

Jesus repeatedly warned His followers about false messiahs, false apostles, and false teachers who would, if possible, deceive the very elect (Matt. 24:5, 11, 15, 24; see parallel accounts in Mark and Luke). The apostles likewise warned believers to be on guard against false apostles and teachers (II Cor. 4:11; I and II Timothy; Titus 1; II Pet. 2; I, II and III John; Jude; Rev. 2, 3, 13 and 17). The New Testament is replete with warnings about false apostles and teachers who would come in “sheep’s clothing” but would inwardly be “ravening wolves,” seeking to pervert and destroy the truth.

The apostle Paul warned the Thessalonians in 51 AD that an apostate religious system, which he called the “mystery of lawlessness,” was beginning to penetrate the Church (II Thess. 2:1-12). He warned, “Do not let anyone deceive you by any means because that day [of Christ’s return] will not come unless the apostasy shall come first, and the man of sin [the final anti-Christ] shall be revealed…. For the mystery of lawlessness is already working” (verses 2, 7).

Over time, this “mystery religion,” modeled after the ancient Babylonian “mysteries,” has developed into a great apostate “Christianity”—which Christ has identified in Scripture as “Babylon the Great, the mother of the harlots and of the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17:5). The early leaders of this religious system established numerous false teachings, among them the doctrine that one is “born again” at conversion—or, in Protestantspeak, when one has “accepted Jesus.” Just as in ancient Babylon, this “new birth” is associated with baptism, but has nothing to do with being raised from the dead to spirit life.

Early Latin “church fathers” adopted the Babylonian idea that one is “born again” through baptism. Justin Martyr, for example, taught that converts to Christianity are to be “led … to a place where there is water; and there they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn” (The First Apology, 61). Irenaeus taught that Christians “are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from [their] old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes…” (Fragment, 34). Likewise, Clement wrote that, in this present life, Christians “are regenerated and born again of water” (Recognitions, 6:9). These statements reveal that the early “church fathers” believed that being “born again” was a religious experience tied to the rite of baptism.

A contributing factor that has obscured the true meaning of the phrase “born again” is the mistranslation of John 3:5 in the Latin Vulgate. Originally translated by Jerome in 383 AD, the Vulgate inserts the word “again” into verse five, making it read “born again of water.” Yet no Greek manuscript includes the word “again” in the passage. By contrast, Erasmus’ Latin translation from the Greek correctly renders the verse as simply “born of water.”

Is probable that the Latin church leaders—such as those quoted above— were influenced by an early, pre-Vulgate translation of the Scriptures with a corrupt rendering of John 3:5. At the very least, Jerome’s translation perpetuated the false “born again” teaching with its corruption of John 3:5. The faulty rendering has remained a part of the Latin Vulgate and is the basis of the Catholic “sacrament of baptism”—typically given to infants or children.

Biblical scholar William Tyndale, the first to translate the New Testament from the Greek into English, translated John 3:3, 5 correctly. However, in other writings he taught that when one is converted and receives the Holy Spirit, one has been “born again.” It is likely that Tyndale’s theology contributed to the Protestant “born again” teaching.

 

The True Meaning of “Born Again”

In order to fully comprehend the scriptural meaning of when one is “born again,” Jesus’ teachings in John 3:1-12 must be examined. The context of these verses proves that being “born again” does not mean a conversion or baptismal experience. Rather, it means a literal transformation from flesh to spirit: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, Nicodemus by name, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher Who has come from God; because no one is able to do the miracles that You are doing, unless God is with him.’

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, 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 who is old be born? Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless anyone has been born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which has been born of the flesh is flesh; and that which has been born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “It is necessary for you to be born again.” The wind blows where it will, and you hear its sound, but you do not know the place from which it comes and the place to which it goes; so also is everyone who has been born of the Spirit.’

“Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘You are a teacher of Israel, and you do not know these things? Truly, truly I say to you, We speak that which We know, and We testify of that which We have seen; but you do not receive Our testimony. If I have told you earthly things, and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’ ” (John 3:1-12).

It is clear that Jesus was not talking about a conversion or baptismal experience in this dialogue. Rather, he was comparing one’s physical birth—a fleshly existence—to that of being “born anew” or “born again”— to an actual spiritual existence. Jesus describes two births: one of water and one of the spirit—“unless anyone has been born of water and of Spirit” (John 3:5). Jesus then contrasts a birth of the flesh with a birth of the Spirit: “That which has been born of the flesh is flesh; and that which has been born of the Spirit is spirit” (verse 6).

When a human being is born, he or she is born of flesh—a physical being. Further, every human being has been “born of water” from the womb— referring to the amniotic fluid of human birth. One who has been born of water (via the womb) has been born of the flesh—and is flesh (John 3:56).

But Nicodemus missed the point when Jesus referred to a new or second birth of the Spirit—“unless anyone has been born … of Spirit.” What kind of existence does one have who has been “born of the Spirit”? Jesus answered that question when He said “that which has been born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus clearly meant that anyone who has been born of the Spirit is, in fact, a spirit being. The new, spiritual birth means that one who has been “born again” is a spirit being, no longer composed of human flesh. Since one who has been “born of the flesh is flesh,” it follows, as Jesus said, that one who has been “born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).

Every human is limited by fleshly existence and physical environment. However, as a spirit being, one is not bound by the flesh or limited by the physical realm. Jesus stated that one who has been “born of the Spirit” cannot necessarily be seen, just as the wind cannot be seen: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound, but you do not know the place from which it comes and the place to which it goes; so also is everyone who has been born of the Spirit” (verse 8). Therefore, one who has been “born again”—“born of the Spirit”—must be invisible to the human eye, having the ability to come and go as the wind. That is hardly the case of one who has been baptized and converted—for he or she is still in the flesh and is limited by the flesh, absolutely visible and subject to death.

Jesus also said that a fleshly human being “cannot see” or “enter into” the Kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5). Paul reiterated this when he emphatically stated: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 15:50).

 

When Is One Actually Born Again?

When, then, is one literally “born again” or “born anew”? It is through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ that the New Testament reveals when a person is “born again.” Matthew wrote that Jesus was the “firstborn” of the virgin Mary (Matt. 1:25). Jesus’ human birth was by water. He was flesh (I John 4:1-2), as any other human being, but He was “God manifested in the flesh” (I Tim. 3:16).

When Jesus was resurrected from the dead as a spirit being, He became, in Paul’s words, the “firstborn from among the dead” (Col. 1:18). John verified this when he wrote that Jesus was the “firstborn from the dead” (Rev. 1:5). Therefore, Jesus was “born again”—“born of the Spirit”—at the time He was resurrected. It was exactly as He had told Nicodemus, “That which has been born of the Spirit is spirit.”

As a spirit being, Jesus was not limited by the physical realm. In fact, He walked through doors and walls, suddenly appearing to the apostles and disciples (Luke 24:33-43). Though spirit, Jesus was able to manifest Himself as a man, with the appearance of flesh and bone.

 

Christ Is the Firstborn Among Many

Not only is Jesus the firstborn from the dead, He is also the “firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). If Jesus is the firstborn, this means there are others who are yet to be “born again.” The true body of believers is called the “church of the firstborn,” as Paul wrote: “But you have come to Mount Sion, and to the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem; and to an innumerable company of angels; to the joyous festival gathering; and to the church of the firstborn, registered in the book of life in heaven; and to God, the Judge of all” (Heb. 12:22-23). It is called the “church of the firstborn” because believers will be “born again”—“born of the Spirit”—in the first resurrection when Jesus returns (Rev. 20:4-6).  

The Bible reveals that at the resurrection believers will be “born again” of the Spirit and receive a glorious spirit body, shining as the sun. Paul explains: “It [the body] is sown [in death] a natural body [that which has been born of the flesh is flesh]; it is raised [in the first resurrection] a spiritual body [that which has been born of the spirit is spirit]. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body; accordingly, it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living soul; the last Adam became an ever-living Spirit.’ However, the spiritual was not first, but the natural—then the spiritual.

“The first man is of the earth—made of dust. The second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the one made of dust, so also are all those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly one, so also are all those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the one made of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one [at the resurrection].  

“Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all fall asleep, but we shall all be changed [born again of the Spirit], in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruptibility, and this mortal must put on immortality. Now when this corruptible shall have put on incorruptibility, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ ” (I Cor. 15:44-55; also see I Thess. 4:14-18).

In summary, the scriptural evidence clearly reveals that one is not “born again” or “born of the Spirit” until the resurrection at the return of Christ. Being “born again” has nothing directly to do with baptism or conversion. When one has been “born again,” he or she will be a spirit being— composed of spirit. This is the true meaning of “born again.”

For a full discussion of being “born again,” please request our free booklet What Do You Mean—Born Again and Born of God?

 

Appendix 6 Notes:

1. Contributing to the confusion on this subject is the “born of God” passage in I John 3:9—a verse that has been grossly mistranslated. Unfortunately, this mistranslation has led many to mistakenly assume that Christians who are “born of God” (or “born again”) cannot sin. But as we have seen, no Christian has yet been “born again” or “born of God.” Moreover, the idea that Christians are immune from sinning is obviously false.

The KJV reads: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” As translated, this verse contradicts other verses in I John, as well as the rest of the New Testament.

Contrary to this incorrect translation, John wrote that even Christians who have the Holy Spirit do indeed sin at times—and that they need to confess their sins for forgiveness (I John 1:7-10; 2:1-2). Frankly, it would be completely incongruous for John to write the passages above about how converted believers do sometimes sin and, at the same time, write in I John 3:9 that one who has been “born of God” (or “born again”) “does not commit sin”—and that such a person “cannot sin.” Since the Scriptures do not contradict one another, what is the solution?

It is apparent that I John 3 cannot be referring to those “born again” to spirit existence by a resurrection; as shown above, only Jesus has been “born again” as spirit by being resurrected from the dead. No one else has been or will be “born again” by a resurrection until Christ’s return. Thus, I John 3:9 can only apply to Christians still alive.

The problem with this passage comes from two mistranslated words or phrases. First, the word “born” is translated from the Greek verb gennao. In the KJV, gennao has been translated as “beget, begat” or “begotten” 55 times; as “born” 37 times; and as “conceive, bear, brought forth, deliver, or gender” 4 times. The context determines whether gennao should be translated “begotten” or “born” (Wigram, Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament).

With this understanding, the first part of I John 3:9 can be corrected by simply translating gennao as “begotten” instead of “born.” As a result, the correct rendering should read: “Everyone who has been begotten by God….”

The second phrase in I John 3:9 that has not been accurately translated in the KJV is “doth not commit sin.” There is no question that a converted person does, at times, commit sin; but upon true repentance, through the grace of God and by the blood of Christ, those sins can be forgiven. The key to understanding this phrase is an accurate translation of the Greek verb poiei, translated “commit.” As used in verse 9, poiei is a third person, singular, present tense form of the verb poieo, which means: “to do, generally, i.e., habitually, to perform, to execute, to exercise, to practice, i.e., to pursue a course of action, to be active, to work…” (Berry, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 81).

The context of John’s epistle is not about a Christian’s inability to commit sin. Therefore, poiei in this context means habitually practicing sin. When poiei in verse 9 is rendered “does not practice sin,” the contradiction created by the KJV is removed. The correct translation of this portion of verse 9 reads: “Everyone who has been begotten by God does not practice sin.”

This is a true statement and conveys the original meaning of the Greek. Furthermore, this meaning of poiei is retained in the second part of verse 9 with reference to “cannot sin,” which should read, “cannot practice sin.” Consequently, the entire verse correctly translated should read: “Everyone who has been begotten by God does not practice sin because His seed of begettal is dwelling within him, and he is not able to practice sin because he has been begotten by God.” This rendering harmonizes with the rest of John’s epistle (and the entire New Testament) and removes all contradictions.

One of the reasons for confusion on this subject is that many fail to understand that conversion is an ongoing process. In one sense, a person is “converted” when they have repented, been baptized for the remission of their sins, and received the Holy Spirit (by which they are actually begotten). In another sense, however, their conversion has only just begun. As a process of change and growth, conversion takes place over one’s lifetime. Thus, sin still sometime occurs—but not as a way of life or practice. Only at the end of that period of growth, change, and overcoming is the Christian finally “born again” at the resurrection into the spirit Family of God.

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