Sunday, July 10, 2011

What 'Born-Again' Has Always Meant (Until Recently)

Have you been born-again?

It's a common question among evangelicals. The term 'born-again' comes from John chapter 3:

1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Jesus says that to be saved one must be "born-again". So making sure that one is "born-again" is pretty important! But what does it mean to be "born-again"?

For most evangelicals, to be "born-again" means only to have had a conversion experience in which one gave one's life to Christ. Is that a possible interpretation based on the verses quoted above? Sure, but it certainly goes far beyond what the verses specifically say. Does Jesus give us any hint as to what he means by "born-again"? Here are the next two verses:

4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.

In verse 5, Jesus clarifies what he meant by "born-again", saying the same sentence again but substituting the phrase "born of water and the Spirit". While the term "born-again" is vague enough to possibly mean simply a conversion experience, being "born of water and the Spirit" is obviously not, at least not exclusively. (I've never seen anyone get wet from saying the sinner's prayer!)

What Christian action involves water and the Holy Spirit? You know the answer: baptism. To be born-again means to baptized. This is not only the current Catholic interpretation of this text (also held today by many Anglicans, Lutherans, and Orthodox), this was the interpretation given by the early Church Fathers - indeed all orthodox Christians prior to the 16th century Protestant Reformation.

This has at least two implications:

First, this means that if you have been baptized, you can confidently say that you have been born-again! (And you should ask your born-again evangelical friend if he has been baptized.)

Second, if Jesus is talking about baptism and not simply a conversion experience - although any adult who is baptized must have put their faith in Christ - then Jesus is teaching something that evangelicals frequently deny: that baptism is necessary for salvation. (see 
CCC 1257)

Below is a short sample of quotes from the early Church Fathers showing that they interpreted John 3.5 as referring to baptism:

TertullianOn Baptism, 13
"For the law of baptizing has been imposed, and the formula prescribed: Go, He says, teach the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The comparison with this law of that definition, Unless a man have been reborn of water and Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of the heavens, has tied faith to the necessity of baptism."

St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Baptism of Christ
"Let us however, if it seems well, persevere in enquiring more fully and more minutely concerning Baptism, starting, as from the fountain-head, from the Scriptural declaration, Unless a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.  "

St Ambrose of Milan
On the Mysteries, 4.20
"Therefore read that the three witnesses in baptism, the water, the blood, and the Spirit, [1 Jn 5.7] are one, for if you take away one of these, the Sacrament of Baptism does not exist. For what is water without the cross of Christ? A common element, without any sacramental effect. Nor, again, is there the Sacrament of Regeneration without water: For except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. [Jn 3.5] Now, even the catechumen believes in the cross of the Lord Jesus, wherewith he too is signed; but unless he be baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, he cannot receive remission of sins nor gain the gift ofspiritual grace."

On the Mysteries, 9.59

"So, then, having obtained everything, let us know that we are born again, but let us not say, How are we born again? [...] If, then, the Holy Spirit coming down upon the Virgin wrought the conception, and effected the work of generation, surely we must not doubt but that, coming down upon the Font, or upon those who receive Baptism, He effects the reality of the new birth."

St Augustine, On Baptism, 21.29
"But as baptism is wanting to a good catechumen to his receiving the kingdom of heaven, so true conversion is wanting to a bad man though baptized. For He who said, "Unless a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," said also Himself, "unless your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.""


  1. Excellent patristic citations to show how long the Church has understood that passage to be about baptism! I am adding this to my files on the subject. Thanks for doing the leg work!

    On the other hand, Evangelicals would not necessarily accept the Fathers' teaching, and I can see an interpretation along these lines. Water refers to natural birth, physical birth, and indeed water is involved with that event. The Spirit, of course, refers to the Holy Spirit. What Jesus is saying is that a person must be born of water, i.e. the natural, physical birth, and be born of the Spirit, which would be the conversion experience, "sinner's prayer," or even in charismatic circles, "baptism of the Holy Spirit."

    The issue hinges on whether or not a person believes Christians were getting wrong for more than a thousand years before Martin Luther and his inevitable Evangelical offspring set things straight. Even as I type that sentence, I have to laugh.

  2. Interesting, Brantly! I was just thinking about this the other day when I attended a Bible study that happened to be about John 3. In the South we hear that question a lot (have you been born again) and it is incredibly ironic when you consider what people mean by that question, and what Jesus meant when he used the phrase.

  3. "Christians were getting wrong for more than a thousand years before Martin Luther and his inevitable Evangelical offspring set things straight."

    I think (am not sure) that the water-of-physical-birth vs. baptism idea doesn't predate 20th century America...did any earlier Protestants write about it?

  4. How about a post explaining how Protestants are wrong about John 6? Oh, never mind, they just skip over that chapter. Too explicit, almost obscene for the Protestant mind: "For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink."