LCG Article

We Must Be Born Again

To be “born again” describes the end result of a process that begins when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, repent of our sins, receive water baptism, and receive the Holy Spirit.

Gerald E. Weston

Jesus said that “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). But what does that mean?

Some believe that being “born again” is a highly emotional experience that suddenly comes upon a person, probably accompanied by tears of joy and a tremendous feeling of peace and well-being. It might occur in the privacy of one’s home after sobering up from a drinking spell. It might take place at an evangelistic meeting, “giving your heart to the Lord” after walking down the aisle and repeating “the sinner’s prayer.” Others sincerely believe that none of that matters unless you also “speak in tongues”—by which they mean the utterance of mysterious syllables that are not part of any recognizable human language.

So, what is the truth? What does the Bible say about this subject?

The heart and core of this question is found in John 3, but the gospel author set the stage for his subject two chapters earlier. Speaking of Jesus, John wrote, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11–13).

John here expresses a theme common to many parts of the Bible—especially the New Testament—that we can become “children of God.” But what does it mean to become a child of God? And what does John mean when he describes those who are born “of God” and not “of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man”?

This much we do know: You and I were born because of our flesh-and-blood parents’ choice to come together in the act of procreation. Although we are born as beings separate from our parents, we share their genetic material and thus were made in their image and likeness. Begettal and birth is truly a marvelous and wonderful process.

Gennao Is Inclusive of an Entire Process

One night, a man named Nicodemus—a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews—came to visit Jesus. This is how Scripture introduces us to Nicodemus, but this is not the last that we hear of him. We later discover that Nicodemus stood up before the chief priests and Pharisees in Jesus’ defense (John 7:50–52). After Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus helped Joseph bury Him (John 19:38–42).

These were both risky acts that set Nicodemus apart from his peers, who knew that Jesus came from God but were more interested in pleasing men than God. To Jesus, Nicodemus said, “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” (John 3:2). Notice that he called Jesus “Rabbi,” meaning “teacher.” Nicodemus came to learn something from Jesus, but was startled by what he heard.

Anticipating the purpose of Nicodemus’ visit, Jesus replied to him with these famous words: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Many professing Christians mistakenly believe that Nicodemus’ response meant that he did not understand Jesus’ words. In fact, however, Nicodemus did understand what Jesus was saying; what he did not understand was how it could take place. That is why he replied, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4).

Why does this matter generate such confusion? In this passage of Scripture, the word translated as “born” is the Greek word gennao. Translators, knowing Greek but not understanding the doctrinal implications, variously render this unusual word into English as “born” or “beget” or “begot” or “conceive.” This seemingly small detail can lead to confusion and result in significant misunderstandings, especially about the concept of being “born again.”

Notice how highly respected scholars explain the meaning of this word. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament states that gennao means “properly: of men begetting children… more rarely of women giving birth to children” (Strong’s no. 1,080). The Interpreter’s Bible says, “Birth can be considered either from the father’s side, in which the verb is to ‘beget,’ or from the mother’s side, in which the verb is to ‘bear’” (vol. 8, p. 505).

Years ago, the late evangelist John Ogwyn wrote the following explanation: “The English word ‘beget’ refers to the father’s causal action that generates offspring. Synonymous verbs would be ‘engender,’ ‘sire’ or ‘father.’ To ‘bear’ refers to the mother’s role in producing offspring—i.e., carrying to term and bringing forth into the world. In English, ‘begettal’ by the father is limited to conception. In Greek, however, gennao has a broader meaning and can be used to cover the entire range of the process of ‘bringing forth’ a child into the world” (“What Do You Mean—‘Born Again’?,” Tomorrow’s World, January-February 2003).

Consider two biblical examples that show how the one word gennao covers the full range of the process from conception to birth. “But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived [gennao] in her is of the Holy Spirit’” (Matthew 1:20). In this case, “conceived” is clearly the proper English translation of gennao. But notice just a few verses later: “Now after Jesus was born [gennao] in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:1). Here, that same gennao is properly translated as “born.”

The context indicates how the word is to be understood in each instance. Hearing the word gennao, a Greek-speaker understands the word as inclusive of a whole process, unlike an English speaker whose vocabulary divides the process into stages: conception, gestation, and, finally, birth.

Nicodemus understood Jesus’ words in their Greek context. That is why he responded the way he did, but Jesus’ clarification did not solve the mystery for him: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

Many people who report a “born again” experience totally ignore—or simply do not understand—what Jesus said. If we are to be born of water and the Spirit, why do some totally reject the need for baptism and misunderstand what it means to be born of the Spirit?

Baptism Is Required for Being Born of Water and the Spirit

Baptism is found throughout the Bible. The flood of Noah’s day is likened to baptism (1 Peter 3:20–21). The crossing of the Red Sea by the children of Israel was a type of baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1–2). Jesus was baptized as an example for us (Matthew 3:13–16), and He commanded His disciples to go into all the world, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and baptizing those who believed (Matthew 28:19–20; Mark 16:15–16). Peter commanded those who heard him on the Day of Pentecost to repent and be baptized. The Apostle Paul explained that baptism symbolically pictures the death and burial of the old sinful self in order to come up as a new person—resurrected, as it were, from a watery grave (Romans 6:1–7). Christian Baptism: Its Real Meaning covers this in detail.

So, how is it that some who claim to be born again think baptism is unnecessary? And what does it mean to be born of the Spirit? As we saw above, Jesus told Nicodemus that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Scripture uses water as a symbol of God’s word (Ephesians 5:26). Water also pictures the Holy Spirit (John 7:38–39)—and we know that the Holy Spirit is given to those who obey God (Acts 5:32). The Holy Spirit and God’s word function together—each is necessary to understand the other. The word of God explains to us what the Holy Spirit is, and it is only through the Holy Spirit that we can understand the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:11).

The Apostle John reveals Jesus Christ as “the Word” (the Greek word Logos, meaning “Spokesman”) in the God Family, and it is the Word of God who must live in us by the power of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20). Paul clarifies the subject in his letter to Titus: “But… according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4–7).

To put it simply, we must put to death the old sinful self and learn to practice a new way of life—and we can only live that new way of life as Jesus Christ lives in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And make no mistake about it—He will not live a sinful life in us, but will teach us through His word to live within the law of God as He did. As Paul succinctly stated, “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, JUB).

But is this all that “born again” means? Jesus went on to explain to Nicodemus, “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.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:6–8). Look carefully at these words.

We were all born of the flesh and are made of flesh, but Jesus tells us, “That… which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We may have God’s Spirit in us, but are we Spirit? The simple act of pricking a finger with a pin should clarify conclusively whether we are flesh or Spirit.

Nicodemus understood what Jesus was saying, but he could not understand how this can be accomplished; thus his startled reply, “How can these things be?” (v. 9). While it is evident that Nicodemus was a sincere man who recognized Jesus as coming from God, he lacked understanding and had not yet come to fully embrace His teachings: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness’” (John 3:10–11).

God Is a Family

Scripture makes it clear that to be “born again” is something far greater than what most people imagine as a one-time emotional experience that confers a guarantee of “once saved, always saved.” But what, then, is the point and purpose of being born again? The word of God tells us that until we are born again, we will not be able to inherit the Kingdom of God (John 3:3; 1 Corinthians 15:50).

In John 3:14–16, Christ talks of “eternal life” and “everlasting life.” That life to which He refers is our future life in the Kingdom of God. As we have already seen, being “born again” is a process that involves putting to death the old sinful self and having Christ live in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. But does the process end there? No.

Jesus told Nicodemus that he could not “see the kingdom of God” until he had been born again. Further, Christ explained, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Paul confirms this as being true in this well-known passage: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption… for this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:50, 53).

Scripture reveals that God is a family, into which the faithful Christians of this present age will be born at the resurrection (Ephesians 3:14–15). The world’s counterfeit “Christianity” generally finds this truth to be shocking and unbelievable. But we must either believe the Bible or reject it. Consider how often Scripture describes us as sons of God.

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption [sonship] by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.… For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God… because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:14–17, 19, 21).

Yes, we are children of God—but we are children still in the “embryo” stage, not yet born. This same truth is confirmed in Hebrews 2:6–18.

If you have not read What Is the Meaning of Life?, I encourage you to order your own free copy or read it online at There, this subject is covered in far more detail than can be managed in a short article.

Christ Is the Firstborn of Many

Scripture tells us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Truly, God begot Jesus in a special way at that time. No other human being has come into the world in that same way. But does this mean that He is the only one ever to be begotten of God? Hebrews 11:17 gives us a clue. The same Greek word found in John 3:16 is used here to describe Isaac as Abraham’s “only begotten son.” Yet we know that, after Sarah’s death, Abraham later had six other sons by his second wife, Keturah (Genesis 25:1–2). So, is it possible for God to have other begotten sons besides Christ? Scripture says it is.

We read, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born [gennao] of God” (1 John 5:1). The NKJV translators have rendered gennao as “born” in this verse. However, as we have seen, the word “begotten” is also a correct translation of the Greek. Consider, then, that in the context of this passage the believer is not yet born, but begotten or conceived.

Note also this passage: “Whoever has been born [gennao] of God does not sin, for His [God’s] seed [the Greek word sperma] remains in him; and he [does not practice] sin, because he has been born [gennao] of God” (1 John 3:9). Here, again, the use of begotten or conceived would better fit the context. Note also that God’s seed—sperma—remains in the believer. Conception of a new creation takes place when God plants His Spirit in us, following baptism, by the laying on of hands by Christ’s ministry (Acts 8:14–18).

This is why Peter could say “that through these [great and precious promises] you may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Yes, we are begotten, conceived of God’s very nature, “for His [God’s] seed [sperma] remains in him.”

Jesus Christ is “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:15, 18; Revelation 1:5). He is also “the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). We can be among those many brethren who will be “born again.” To be “born again” is far more than the one-time emotional experience that so many today misunderstand it to be. It describes the end result of a process that begins when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, repent of our sins, receive water baptism—symbolically putting to death the old, sinful self—and receive the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9–11).

With Christ’s Spirit living within us, our physical lives become a time of “gestation” as we grow in grace and knowledge, overcoming our carnal human nature and replacing it with the holy and righteous character of God, preparing for that time when the trumpet will sound and the faithful firstfruits will be born into the Family of God at the resurrection. At that time, we who today are faithful Christians will find ourselves fully made in the image and likeness of God, just as He declared at the beginning: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).