Born Again: What Does It Mean?

Posted on September 15, 2011 by

A term often used by Protestant Christians when discussing our conversion experience is that we are “born again.” As this terminology is rarely (never?) used by Catholic believers, I was asked to expound on it. The logical place to begin it seems, would be with the recorded words of our Savior, who introduced the phrase to a closeted follower who approached him one night to inquire about the path to eternal life:

 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 and said to him, “Most assuredly, 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?”
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, 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.’ St. John 3:1-7

So clearly this terminology isn’t something that emotional, theologically bankrupt believers simply made up to mystify the conversion experience. Our Savior Himself used these words to describe what is required to be a part of God’s kingdom. But what does this mean, exactly? Many believers are as confused by that today as Nicodemus was when Jesus introduced the concept to him all those years ago. A careful examination of the Scriptures, however quickly demystifies it.

Scripture clearly states that as a result of the fall all men are born in sin with a tainted nature that separates us from God:

Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.  Romans 5:12

Every man and woman descended from Adam have been tainted with the stain of sin and the death that comes with it. And that death manifests itself in our behavior before Christ Himself awakens us to our lifeless state and gives us a new life:

 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins,  in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience,  among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),  and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,  that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:1-7

In other words, when God through Christ gives us new life, and we repent from our sins, we are in a very real  sense, reborn. We turn from a life of sin and death and walk in the newness of life. We are born again. But this new birth cannot take place without an awareness of our sinfulness and bankrupt spiritual state before a Holy and Righteous God. We are however not equipped, being dead in sin, to come to this awareness on our own. It is God’s drawing us to Himself that sparks the rebirth. This is why a simple mental assent to God’s existence and a belief that Jesus existed coupled with church attendance isn’t enough for one to consider himself a Christian.

I ought to know. That was the way I lived my life for years. But I can remember clearly the day I was graced by God with the realization that I was not a good person just because all looked well from the outside. The realization that I was an awful sinner was wholly different from my intellectual acknowledgment that, “well, nobody’s perfect.”

Which brings us back to the original text where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. While we are obviously not reborn in the physical sense, we have been graced with a new way of looking at life. While we still battle many of our sinful desires, we increasingly find the strength not to indulge them because our mind and spirit view these things in a new way. Once we believe and our way of seeing all things has been made new, we are not to forsake the sacrament of baptism:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”  Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.”  Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. Acts 2: 36-41

The gospel is preached, God draws us and enlightens our understanding of our spiritual state, we receive the truth of salvation in Christ, repent, and are baptized with water into the family of God. As this implies, Protestants don’t believe that baptism without of awareness of sin, repentance and turning assures eternal life, or that a mere outward profession of some form of Christian belief is evidence of true conversion. There must be an accompanying understanding of the fact that we have passed from spiritual death to spiritual life and our baptism is the outward expression of this inward rebirth.

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, Romans 6:4-5a.

However, when we have been born again (had a true inward conversion), we turn from our sins and walk in the newness of life. We are in a very real sense, born again as we move from our initial state of spiritual death inherited at birth to the new life we received from our Lord:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 2 Corinthians 5:17

This is a brief synopsis of the deep but simple theological principle of being born again. I hope I did it justice because it really is a beautiful thing. Given that our Savior Himself used these words to describe the experience of entering a relationship with him, I’m sorry that the phrase seems to have gone out of style among believers.

Posted in: Religion