QUESTION: What does it mean when someone says they are a “born again” Christian?
ANSWER: Jesus said: “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” (John 3:3–5, emphasis added).
And St. Peter wrote: Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever (1 Peter 1:22–23, emphasis added).
All believers have been born again or from above. God gave us new life in Jesus. Through His life, death, and resurrection, He rescued us from our old nature and the punishment sin deserves. This gift is ours by faith. Our Catechism explains: “Regeneration [rebirth] is the activity of the Holy Spirit by which He through the Gospel makes me a new and holy creature of God with the new spiritual life of faith and the desire and strength for that which is good” (An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, page 146, question 217).
Those who call themselves “born again” Christians have a different understanding. This writer lives in an area in which such Christians dominate. We often hear the phrase: “I have accepted Christ as my personal Savior” and are asked, “Are you born again?”
Such “born again” Christians mean they have, at some point in their lives, enjoyed a conversion experience. They are able to point to the exact time when it happened. They see conversion as a special emotional experience in which they accepted Jesus as their personal Savior and received Him into their hearts. Their lives changed radically for the better. God did His part to send Jesus, and they did their part to accept Him. Conversion is followed by baptism.
St. Paul explains that we cannot do our part: 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 (Ephesians 2:4–6). Before God created faith in our hearts, we were spiritually dead because of our sinful nature. We needed a new life, but we could do nothing about it. Rather than cooperate with God, we resisted Him and rejected His Word. Because we were spiritually dead, we could do nothing to change this.
God, in His grace and power, gave us the birth from above through Baptism—the water and the Spirit. God, in grace and power, gave us the birth from above by His living and powerful Word. God brought us to faith by His own power. St. Paul explains: But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, 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, 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, emphasis added).
Our Catechism teaches that Baptism is called a washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit because it is a special washing by which the Holy Spirit cleanses us from sin and gives us a new birth in Christ (An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, page 185, question 286).
Rev. Charles Keeler
Resurrection Lutheran Church
Winter Haven, FL