reason for living

What does it mean to be “born again”?

Getting a new life as a gift from God

This document was originally written in 1996 for Josephine.  At the time she was working at the Royal Free Hospital, West Hampstead, London. 

Biological birth

In the sphere of biological life a person comes into this world by being born.  There is no other way; people do not just materialise into the adult state out of nowhere.  Each and every one of us was born from a woman's womb, the product of (ideally) a happy and pleasurable act of intimacy and affection some nine months earlier.  There are a few things worth noting about this business of getting born:

  • First, when we are born, we automatically become a member of a family.  We do not have to wait for papers to be signed or to pass any exams before we are eligible for entrance — the very act of being born is what makes us a member of the family.
  • Second, we are not a member of the family until we are conceived and born.
  • Third, when we are born, we are born as babies.  In other words, generally helpless, totally dependent, largely ignorant and incapable of doing very much other than breathing, sleeping and performing tricks with food whereby it disappears into one orifice only to reappear in some fashion at the same orifice or a different one not very much later.

So, it is in this manner that we start our terrestrial journey towards death.  This brings us to one of life's greatest mysteries - and it is a mystery that most of us prefer not to think about:  Why do we die?  And what happens to us after we die?  These questions have probably been debated by every generation that ever existed — and the human race has come-up with plenty of different answers.

The whole matter of death seems so unreasonable:  You struggle and fight and suffer and slog your way through your allotted number of years trying to make a half decent life for yourself and then, and almost before you know what is happening (and sometimes without any warning at all), you find yourself on death's doorstep reading a sign on the door that says “All must enter in.  No baggage allowed.”  Somehow it doesn't really seem fair.

A man called Job who lived something like 4000 years ago summarised it like this:

“Naked I came from my mothers womb, and naked I shall depart.  The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away.  May the name of the Lord be praised.

However, although we might give this fellow Job top marks for his concise and straight-to-the-point philosophy, his quip doesn't do much to alleviate our fears or answer our questions.

A couple of thousand years or so after Job, and in the days before Jesus was crucified, there was a man called Nicodemus who was also concerned with the grave matters of life, death and God.  He had heard a lot about Jesus and - since Jesus was hot news at the time - Nicodemus thought that Jesus might be a good person to consult.  Now, as it happened, Nicodemus was also a man with a reputation.  He was one of the important people in the city of Jerusalem and because he didn't want to look silly in front of his colleagues, friends and associates, he went to see Jesus secretly at night.  Nicodemus opened the conversation by acknowledging his private, secret, belief that Jesus was acting in association with God.  This is the rest of the conversation:

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, no-one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“How can a man be born when he is old?” 
Nicodemus asked.  “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mothers womb to be born!” 
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You should not be surprised at my saying 'You must be born again”
(The Good news as told by John, chapter 3)

However, Nicodemus was surprised and needed more explanation.  So, what was Jesus telling him?  To answer this we need to understand a little more about the kingdom of God:

The kingdom of God

Like any other kingdom, the kingdom of God is that territory where a king rules only in this case the kingdom is spiritual rather than terrestrial and the king is no mere man but is God himself.  The advantage of having God as king is that, unlike our terrestrial kingdoms, the kingdom will be perfectly run and everything will be (metaphorically speaking) sunshine and roses and quite perfect - the very place that almost all of us would like our world to be.  However for us mortals the very perfection of the kingdom of God presents us with a major problem:  The only way paradise can be kept perfect is if nothing even slightly imperfect is allowed to enter.  Now even the most arrogant of we humans would hardly dare to claim that we were absolutely perfect, without blemish and with no black marks against our reputations.  Who then can enter the kingdom of God?  We all want to live in a perfect world but the moment any one of us stepped inside the gates of paradise, it would cease to be a perfect world.  What then if we do not enter?  Well, if we are outside the kingdom of God then we are outside the place where God rules and we are cut off from all that is good.  Jesus described the place outside the Kingdom of God as “a place of darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth” and if his description is accurate then it is a bad place to spend eternity.  However, since our faults make us unable to enter paradise we don't really get any choice.  That place outside God's kingdom is the place we usually refer to as Hell and if we are going to Hell then we certainly have a big problem.

Our problem, God's solution

The answer that Jesus gave to this problem was that we needed to be born again; but what does this mean?  As with most of God's methods, it is really very simple. 

The simple fact is that heaven is a place of perfection but our present lives are far too grubby with greed, pride, cowardice, dishonesty, avarice, deceit, immoral sex, maliciousness and many other sins for us ever to be allowed into the kingdom of God. 

Furthermore we cannot scrub our lives clean (dirt cannot clean dirt), we cannot undo what has been done, and it does us no good to conceal our sins with yet more sins.  It is especially important to realise that we cannot make amends for our past failings by being perfect for the rest of our lives.  Think of it like this: If you run up a massively large bill that you do not and cannot pay, but then pay in cash for everything you buy thereafter, the old bill is still unpaid and you can be called to account for it.  Or look at it like this, If you smash a window, the window does not get mended just because you don't break another one.  Besides all this, it is not possible for any of us to stop doing what is wrong anyway.  Anybody who has really tried to be good in thought and word and deed will know and understand that they were not able to succeed for more than a very short time.

The upshot of all this is that in our present lives, we are stuck with our imperfection and, in consequence, we are barred from entering the kingdom of God (paradise, heaven) and thus we are forced into hell, the place outside God's kingdom.  Jesus therefore advised us that we needed a new life; In fact he said we needed to be born again.  However, being born again would not be much use if we were born again with another imperfect life; two wrong lives do not make a right one.  It is necessary, therefore, for us to be reborn with the life of a perfect person.  There has only ever been one such person - Jesus himself, who was perfect by virtue of being God as well as man.  If we will hand over our old life to him and make him Lord and Master of it, he offers to come and dwell within us so that we live by his perfect life rather than our own imperfect one.  When he comes, by his spirit, to live in us then we have been born again of spirit.  If it helps, you can think of him as reproducing himself spiritually inside us, hence his expression “Spirit gives birth to spirit”.  Once we are born again in this way entrance to the kingdom of God, to paradise, can no longer be denied because the life that lives in us is the perfect life of Jesus and there is no possibility of that perfect life ever spoiling paradise.

So far it all seems very easy, but how exactly does a person get "born again"?  Are there any conditions, and if so, what are they?  Can anybody get born again or is it only the favoured few?

Some wrong ideas dispelled

Before answering let us clear a couple of wrong ideas out of the way:  First, the whole nature of a new birth and a new life is intimate and personal.  In this context, we do not use the word “personal” to mean “private” but rather to describe an intimate relationship between two close friends or relatives.  We did not get born biologically by joining an organisation or by paying a fee and, in this respect, our spiritual birth is no different.  This should put us on guard against any ideas that we might earn our way to heaven with good deeds or a regular financial contribution to charity (nobody ever bought their own way out of their mothers womb!)   It should also make it clear that we do not and cannot enter the kingdom of God by joining some organisation such as the the local church, the Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons or by becoming a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist.

Second, there is no one single and correct way to get born.  Just as all biological conceptions and births are different, so are spiritual rebirths.  Of course they do share certain common features.  For a biological birth a man's sperm must combine with a woman's egg, then there is a period of careful gestation and only after about 280 days does the child emerge.  Births are also often traumatic and messy with lots of blood, fear and pain.  A spiritual rebirth proceeds metaphorically in a similar way:  A seed is sown, carefully tended and, if nothing goes wrong along the way, a new spiritual life is eventually born; there is often some confusion, trauma and mess.  However, the time and place of conception, the nature and amount of prenatal care, and the size of the new child varies in every case.  This should put us on guard against ritual such as is found in many “church” organisations.  You do not get born (either first time or second time) by rehearsing some old formula until you get it right.  An unborn child does not train like a parachutist to jump from the womb!  The same is true in the spiritual world - entering the kingdom of God is not a matter of ritual, rite and ceremony.  Hymns, prayers, communion services and baptisms may be used to celebrate a new birth but they do not cause it to happen in the first place.  And, just as with a first, physical, birth it is the birth that is most important — not the celebrations!

Third, all people are not already children of God.  You become a child of God only by being born into the spiritual family.  The popular idea that we are all God's children is a lie from the devil that lulls people into a false sense of security and stops them from thinking about the very real danger that they are in.

Becoming “born again”

So, having dispelled these wrong ideas, let us get back to the question: "How does a person get born again?"  The idea of new birth and new life gives us the necessary clue.  We have to let go of our old life and receive the new one.  This might sound like a tricky business but it is actually very straight forward.  We can let go of the old one by simply acknowledging to God that we have messed-up our life, that we are up to our neck in sin and evil, and that if he does not intervene we will drown in our own filth.  This act is known formally as “confession” and “repentance”.  Next we need to believe that Jesus is able to save us and so put our trust in him alone.  We need to make Jesus LORD (i.e. master) of our lives by asking him to come and live, by his spirit, in us and to take charge of us.  We also need to make a public declaration that Jesus is our Lord.  Giving Jesus the Lordship of our lives is important:  When you hand over your own old life and ask to receive Jesus' perfect life you are also laying down your rights to control your life because it is no longer your life but his.  As the apostle Paul said (with great enthusiasm!), “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”  Many people might balk at this idea of handing over control but really there is nothing to fear:  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  God, being perfect, will not abuse your trust.  However, whereas the person who has only a biological birth is walking towards destruction on a road of their own choosing, the child of God is being prepared for glory.  This will involve some new lessons and God will very likely take you down paths you had not formerly considered:  In particular, the path to spiritual growth and maturity is one of obedience.

The bible talks about these steps in different ways but the important thing is to believe in the Lord Jesus in the sense of trusting him entirely, depending entirely upon him to rescue you from your sinful and doomed condition.  There is nothing that you can add to your salvation any more than the biological baby causes itself to be born:  One parent sows the seed, the other nurtures the foetus, perhaps a midwife delivers, but what does the new baby's contribute?  It just burps and screams!  Likewise the work of saving your soul is God's alone, but you must trust him to perform it and this trust must manifest itself in a public declaration that you have made Jesus your Lord and master - that you have crucified your old life and received the new one that he gives you. 

The apostle Paul explained it by saying, “that if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord', and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.  As the scripture says, 'Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.'  For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile - the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all those who call upon him, for 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'.” (Paul's letter to some Christians in Rome, chapter 9, verses 9 to 13)

This is simply a more detailed description of the act of being born again.  In a similar manner a mother and a gynaecologist would describe the birth of a child in very different language and they would concentrate on different aspects but they would still be talking about the same event.  Here we do not have two different ways of being saved but just two descriptions of the same event from different viewpoints.  It is a description of the trust that is no longer afraid to be associated with Jesus - the trust that is delighted to say "I am his and he is mine."  The person who is too embarrassed to speak of their trust in Jesus has never really trusted and Jesus gives a stern warning not to fall into this trap:

If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory and with the holy angels.”  (The good news as described by Mark, chapter 8, verse 38)

Some misunderstandings and misconceptions

Now a few other common misunderstandings; first about “Christians”. 

Scripture tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch”.  It is possible that the name was originally intended as a term of abuse but the important thing is that it was "the disciples" who were called Christians.  A disciple is a person who follows a master and learns from that master with the aim of emulating the master.  Anybody who fits this description and applies it to Jesus is therefore a disciple of Jesus and can rightfully be called a Christian. 

You will remember that making Jesus lord and master of your life is part of the process of being born again.  The person who has made Jesus lord and master is also the person who can rightfully be called a Christian. 

One common misconception is that “born-again” Christians are just one flavour of Christians.  This is not true.  If you are not born again then you are not a Christian and, contrariwise, if you are a Christian then you must have been born again.

A similar and related misconception is that people become Christians by being baptised, or by attending church, or some other such ritual.  This also is not true.  A person becomes a member of God's family by being “reborn” into the family — there is no other way.  This mistake has led millions of people to think that they are Christians when they are not.  Indeed, some people think that they are Christians just because they were born in a country where what they call “Christianity” is supposedly the predominant or official religion.

This takes us nicely to another misconception, namely that Christians are practising a religion.  The Christian life is not a religious life; in fact it is the very antithesis of religion.  A “religion” defines what you do; you can be “religious” about anything — going to church or going on holiday, brushing your teeth or muttering prayers.  Christian faith defines what you are in the sight of God; A Christian is not somebody who does but rather somebody who is.  A Christian is a child of God, is justified by faith alone, is saved by the blood of Jesus, is forgiven by God, is being prepared for glory, is a member of the royal priesthood, is one of the holy nation, is set apart for God, is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, is in moment by moment fellowship and union (good or bad) with Jesus.  Indeed the difference between the Christian life and any other religion can be expressed by the difference between two short words:  “do” and “done”.  In all the other various religious ideas of the world your salvation depends on what you must continue to DO for yourself.  The Christian is a person whose salvation is guaranteed by what Jesus has DONE (and successfully completed) on their behalf.

The Christian life is not a life of religion but of relationship; of daily, hourly, moment by moment living and walking hand in hand with God; Not in some esoteric, hazy fashion as the spiritualists and “new-age” religious people describe, but in the reality of two persons, two friends, two brothers or a brother and sister, a master and a servant, sharing a common life.  God is always present and with the Christian, not as a vague idea or fancy notion, but as a living spiritual person.  God is not defined by the Christian, but the Christian is built-up, strengthened and transformed by God.

Yet another misconception is that “Christians” are “good” people.  This again is the very opposite of the truth.  If Christians were intrinsically and inherently good then they would not need to be saved from their sins!  It is not possible to earn our way into heaven.  God said that all of our good deeds added together were, in his sight, about as pleasing as a dirty rag.  Yes, God really did describe our good works in that way so anybody who thinks that they have somehow deserved a favour from God should think again quickly.  God does not owe anyone anything and it is only his long-suffering, merciful, patience that has prevented him from destroying us all completely.  A perfect God cannot tolerate anything that is not perfect; a perfect paradise cannot accommodate anything or anyone even slightly imperfect.  The smallest of all our sins is by itself sufficient to separate us permanently from God and this is precisely why we need to be rescued by Jesus and reborn with his perfect life before we can have any relationship with God.  Of course a Christian should be trying to be good and aiming to be perfect and, by the grace and power of God, will be transformed so that little by little they become more like Jesus in character.  This brings us to one of the great problems with Christians, described below:

Babies that don't grow-up

You will recall that a person who is “born-again” is beginning a new life as a spiritual baby.  Unfortunately many Christians remain babies and do not grow-up in their faith.  This means that they fail to develop the strength of character, love, honesty, determination, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control that should be the characteristic of every one of God's children.  Also they never develop a full relationship with God.  Not only is this to their own detriment but it is also a bad witness to other people who are assessing the Christian message by the lives of people who claim to be disciples of Jesus.  This spiritual immaturity is perceived as hypocrisy and has prevented many non-Christians from understanding the truth of the good news Jesus brought.  Christians are not just recommended, but ordered, to be salt and light to the earth, and to aim to be beyond reproach in everything that they do.

Finally (in this document at least!!), Christians should be careful to avoid the “prosperity-gospel” trap.  Many people have got the silly idea that if they become a Christian then everything in their life will suddenly become easier and sweet.  This lie has been spread by men and women — often from big churches and often with television evangelism programmes — who profit from gullible people with their so-called “gospel” message.  About these preachers, two things are certain:  First that the “gospel” that they preach is not the good news that Jesus left heaven to tell us, and second, that their punishment will be very great; Jesus' strongest words of condemnation were not given to thieves, liars or prostitutes but to religious leaders who misled the people by teaching errors and lies.

No Christian should ever make this stupid mistake.  Jesus warned potential followers that they had better “count the cost” (not the benefits) before making a decision to follow him.  If the enemies of Jesus crucified Jesus the master then they will surely crucify his disciples also.  Because God lives by his spirit in the Christian, the Christian life is great but it is not free of suffering or hardship.  In fact the Christian who is determined to obey God to the very end will possibly find that life is hard and short and the end is painful and horrible:  Stephen the disciple was stoned to death, James was beheaded, Peter was imprisoned and possibly crucified upside down, Paul was beaten and imprisoned many times and in his last-known letters from prison was apparently expecting to be executed.  The Christians who lived in Rome during the first-century were (amongst other horrible tortures) fed to the lions, killed in the theatres and burned-alive as candles to illuminate the Emperor's evening garden parties.  However, in all these things they endured because the indwelling spirit was still able to give them “the peace that transcends all understanding.”  And, as Paul said, to be absent from the body means to be present with the Lord.  For the Christian — and only for the Christian — death is just the gateway back into the garden of paradise, it is one more step on the journey home.

Copyright © 1996, 2001

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