Jesus answered him, “Indeed, I tell you truly, if one is not born anew, they cannot understand the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How is one able to be born after having grown old? Can one re-enter their mother’s womb to be born anew?” Jesus answered, “Indeed, I tell you truly, if one is not born of water and the Spirit, they cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”—John 3:3-5 [my translation]
This past Sunday, I used a phrase many Presbyterians are not accustomed to hearing (there are exceptions!): “you must be born again.” For some, this phrase about the rebirth that Jesus speaks of in John 3 makes us nervous because it is pregnant with certain ideas and expectations. Growing up a “Bapticostal,” I used to believe being “born again” meant: (1) Responding to the altar call, (2) saying a particular “saving” prayer, (3) intense emotional response that included crying my eyes out, (4) getting baptized (maybe for the third or fourth time), (5) “living right” after that intense emotional experience, (6) eventually speaking in “tongues,” (7) and becoming a moral example of holiness. As you might tell, that’s a pretty intense checklist of things to do in order to be “born again.” Moreover, this list is focused on a set of personal experiences and choices, and tends to put the question of initiative in our court. I think this approach misses the mark.
First, what does Scripture say about this new birth, or being born anew? Jesus makes it pretty clear in verse 5. We must be born of water and the Spirit. Reference to water here means that the sacrament of baptism is part of this new birth, as is the work of the Spirit. This exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus goes on with Jesus making it clear in verse 8 that the wind of the Spirit (and thus this rebirth) blows where it will (yes, even to gentiles), and Jesus makes it clear that this rebirth is being “born of the Spirit.” In verses 11–15, that move of the Spirit comes through the testimony of the Lordship of Jesus as he is “lifted high,” or enthroned on the cross. By belief in that testimony through the work of the Spirit, we receive his life.
However, we must be clear here. If John goes so far as to make a “distinction-in-unity” between water and Spirit, we should be careful as well. What I mean here is that water and Spirit certainly go together, and they exist in unity of purpose in God’s design for the regeneration of the Christian. However, we shouldn’t flatten the distinction out by equating the act of baptism with the Spirit either. This has been a tendency in the Reformed tradition of late to say that baptism by water = baptism by/reception of the Spirit. Again, they are organically linked, but they are not the same thing. Here we come upon a small disagreement between our confessional standards in the Presbyterian church. The 2nd Helvetic Confession says that “all these things [‘inwardly we are regenerated, purified and renewed by God through the Holy Spirit’] are assured by baptism” (Chapter XX). However, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that while it is a “great sin” to neglect the central importance of baptism, “grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated” (Chapter XXVIII, s. 5).
In other words, water and Spirit are tied together in the sacrament ordained by Jesus himself, but there is a distinction-in-unity between the act of baptism and the sealing, “effective” work of the Holy Spirit (s. 6). That said, we are so confident of God’s promises that we are convinced that baptism’s efficacy is guaranteed by the Spirit when it is entered into rightly (s. 6). Again, however, we have the qualifier “right use” to suggest that the act of being born of water cannot guarantee that one has been born of the Spirit. The act of baptism, in its essence, must be occasioned by faith in the Lordship of Jesus. By the promises of God attached to that sacrament, God the Holy Spirit seals us in faith for God’s self. Faith itself is a gift of God’s supernatural grace given by God’s own Spirit, and cannot be an act of our unregenerate wills. Jonathan Edwards gives a wonderful exposition of this in his sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” based on his reading of Matthew 16:17.
It is for this reason we have made the distinction, stretching back to Augustine, that there is a difference between the church visible and the church invisible (City of God, Book I, ch. 35). The same Augustine who says in Book XX, chapter 6 that the first resurrection/regeneration which takes place by faith in the present life by means of baptism is the same who argues that the church has mingled within it both the redeemed (church invisible) and the unredeemed (church visible). In other words, the act of baptism isn’t a sole guarantee that we are regenerate, only faith does that, and that faith (both signaled in baptism, and sealed within us by the Spirit) is the marker of the Spirit’s indwelling presence which gives us everything we need to be marked as God’s own.
If I might go in another direction, I believe a more fruitful way of speaking about the new birth, as we are shown in Scripture, is (1) belief in the testimony we have received, and by believing we (2) receive the life-changing truth of that testimony through the indwelling of the Spirit. This is being born of water and the Spirit. In our baptism, we confess that Jesus is Lord and are received into his family, and because we are his, the Spirit (in God’s time) seals us inwardly and dwells within us. This is exactly the pattern we see John showing us in chapter 20. The disciples (who had been previously baptized; see John 4:1-2, or alternatively, you can read John 13 as Jesus’ baptismal act) come to believe the tomb is empty, but that isn’t enough. Their thinking is still backwards, and their expectations are twisted. It isn’t until they encounter the presence of the risen Lord that they are able to truly confess him as Lord, and in that confession, Jesus gives them his peace and “breathes into” them the Holy Spirit. They are born anew, and equipped with what they need to evangelize the world.
Therefore, the simplest definition I can give of being “born again” is that in the rebirth, we have a life-altering encounter with the risen Lord who changes us and gives us his presence in the power of the Spirit. Changed, or reborn, everything is different now. There is no love that we have that is left alone; our loves, our hearts are converted so that they are pointed to and oriented around our love of God in Christ. Thus, we love our families, our friends, our enemies, and, yes, even chocolate rightly when they are loved in light of the love God has for us in Christ Jesus. That also means that if we have been born anew, we cannot love anything more highly than we love God, because we know that the source of all our love is found in the very heart of God alone.
If we understand being born anew in this way, a few things become clear. One, being “born again” isn’t something we do but is something that God does within us. Two, what is being done in us by the Spirit is that we are being made (please notice this is ongoing; we are being constantly renovated ) into a dwelling place for God’s very Spirit to live within us. Three, everything about us is to be remade to reflect God’s glory in Christ Jesus. For this reason, St. Augustine talks about this spiritual rebirth in his City of God, Book XX, chapter 6, as the “first resurrection.” For Augustine, through repentance of sin and faith in Christ Jesus, the believer is “quickened from death” into life by the indwelt presence of the Spirit of Christ, the “only person who [truly] lived.” This first resurrection may, indeed, be very emotional and intense, as we witness in Augustine’s own conversion in his Confessions, but the change comes through Christ at work in and through us to regenerate our souls and fashion us in His image. The will is involved, and we must respond (“take up and read”), but even our response is the result of Christ’s supernatural grace at work in us.
Seen this way, “being born again” is a contemporary way of talking about something that Christians have been talking about from the very moment He breathed His life into the disciples and commanded them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Jonathan Edwards spoke about this exact same thing in terms of the “divine and supernatural light” by which the heart is converted to receive the reality of our confession that Jesus is Lord (saving faith), and that light becomes the light by which we judge all reality. In short, being “born again” is nothing less than a radical reorientation of our hearts by the Holy Spirit wherein we receive life in Jesus’ name.
For this reason, the church of Jesus Christ must, I believe, proclaim at all times and in all places, “You must be born again!”