This article was originally published in the GES newsletter in April of 1991.
Have you ever heard or had a conversation something like the following?
“Are you a Christian?”
“Well of course I’m a Christian! Do you think I’m a heathen? I’m an American!”
“Well, I mean do you believe…”
“I believe in God.”
“But I mean have you ever put your faith in Christ; are you saved?”
“I raised my hand in a revival meeting once. Is that what you mean?”
“Are you a born-again Christian?”
Before the Carter presidency in the U.S.,1 the one term that Christians could pretty well count on to communicate that a person was truly a believer, a “real” Christian rather than a nominal one or merely a church member, was the expression “born again.”
No more. Jimmy Carter popularized the expression so that many groups, including even some people who specifically reject salvation through faith in Christ, use the term for all sorts of religious or emotional experiences—even reincarnation!
But let’s not give up the expression without a fight; after all, it’s our Lord’s!
In John 3 Jesus tells a religious leader that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v 3). Then He makes it personal and uses the word “you” (plural in the Greek, so it’s not only addressed to Nicodemus): “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’!” (v 7).
The Greek verb translated “born” (related to our word genetics) is much like the English verb in meaning. The really interesting word that the Savior used is the word “again” (Gk. anothen).
This word occurs in all four Gospels, Acts 26:5, Gal 4:9, and three times in James. The basic meaning is “from the top” (used of the splitting of the veil of the temple), “from the beginning” (Luke’s research into Christian beginnings), and “from above” (the origin of wisdom. Jas 1:17; 3:15, 17).
The translation “again” fits here as well as in Gal 4:9, where Paul chided the Galatians for wanting to go into legalistic bondage again (nothing new under the sun!).
Putting all of these usages together greatly enriches our understanding of our Lord’s meaning. Since the word anothen is derived from a word meaning “up” or “above,” that nuance probably still lingers in the word in John 3 as well.
Isn’t Jesus really saying, to amplify a bit, “You must be born again from above”? I think He is saying that. Other nice translations are “You must be born anew” and “You must be born afresh”!
A noun related to this idea that uses the same verb root for “birth” combined with the common Greek word for “again” is palingenesia. In Matt 19:28 it is used for the fresh start that will take place when Christ becomes King on this old war-torn planet.
The only other usage, Titus 3:5, is exactly what we Christians still mean by being “born again.” Paul refers to salvation as a washing of regeneration (Gk. loutrou palingenesias, lit., “bath of regeneration”). This salvation-by-grace-alone text was the favorite verse of my missionary brother Dick when he was a teenager:
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit (emphasis supplied).
There are approximately 15 million Quichua-speaking South Americans from Columbia in the north to Argentina in the south. The tens of thousands who have heard my brother’s gospel radio talks over HCJB can be glad it was his favorite verse. It helped guarantee that they wouldn’t be getting a daily dose of “neo-Galatianism,” so rampant today, but the pure and simple gospel of grace.
Not only the Apostle Paul, but also the Apostle Peter writes of the new birth (1 Pet 1:23). He sees it as the origin of his readers’ purification “in obeying the truth” (believing the gospel) and brotherly love (v 22):
Having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, but the word of the Lord endures forever” (emphasis supplied, vv 23-25a).
All of our pet theories and manmade dogmas will fade and fold up like the last rose of summer. But the gospel of grace enshrined in the eternal Word of God, as Peter tells us (quoting Isa 40:6-8), “endures forever.”
We can be glad that all who read this Newsletter2 are included among those to whom the gospel has been presented:
Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you (emphasis supplied, 1 Pet 1:25b).