An In-Depth Examination Of This Much-Discussed And Controversial Subject In The Light Of The Scripture
MANY PEOPLE in Western countries have been asked at some time or other, "Have you been born again?" Many will reply affirmatively, saying, for example, "I'm a born-again Christian" or "Christ entered my life and I was born again." These and similar expressions are used today like a password into some circles of Christian fellowship, especially those of Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals.
Recently much publicity has been focused on this subject, especially by U.S. Presidents claiming to be "born-again" Christians. Newsweek magazine has carried a feature article on "Born Again." Charles Colson (who before becoming a Christian was deeply involved in the Watergate scandal) has published a book entitled Born Again, which has been circulated widely and has had a film made, based on it. Billy Graham also published a book entitled How to Be Born Again. According to a Gallup poll, over 30 percent of the people in the U.S. believe that they are "born again."
But what is meant by this expression? Does it, in the words of Nicodemus (John 3:4), mean that one will "enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?" Obviously not!
VARIOUS PERTINENT TESTIMONIES
Some of the explanations given by various individuals on being "born again" are as follows:
Charles Colson describes his experience of being "born again" in these words: "Something began to flow into me—a kind of energy … then came the strange sensation that water was not only running down my cheeks, but surging through my whole body as well, cleansing and cooling as it went. … I repeated [to Christ] over and over the words 'take me.'"
U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield states: "I can't say that I was ever saved through a mystical experience. It was an ongoing transformation. … When I was teaching political science at college, I found out that the campus leaders of Sigma Chi fraternity were praying for me. … That so impressed me that I went home to my bachelor apartment and told myself that I would have to make a choice. I began to pray and read an hour every night—the Bible and books like those by C.S. Lewis. It was a gradual displacement of ego, a moving away from the desire to serve just myself. I am still moving. I don't want to use Christ as an excuse in seeking political support."
In contrast with this, many Fundamentalists assert that the "born-again" experience is very marked, pinning it down to a specific day and event. They say that we know our physical birthday accurately and that anyone who has been "born again" will know his spiritual birthday at least as definitely.
Ruth Carter Stapleton, President Carter's sister, and an active religious worker and "faith healer," says that people misunderstand what is meant by the expression "born again." In her words, "It just means that you have become aware of the third dimension, the spiritual. We know of the mind and the body—the spiritual is the third dimension. Born again means to be aware of that part of us that is eternal."
President Carter says that he was baptized and joined the Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia at the age of 11, but that in 1966, at the age of 40, he was "born again," accepting Jesus Christ in a way he never had before.
Thus it is evident that there is no unanimity among "born-again" believers in defining what is meant by being "born again." However, most people regard it as a great change or a very different inclination and feeling toward God and Christ than what they previously had.
The most common Fundamentalist definition of being born again is turning from one's sins to Christ and receiving Him as one's own personal Savior.
One Fundamentalist defines it this way: "A man hears the Word of God, believes it in his heart, and receives Christ as His Savior. Thus he is born again." Another explains, "Thus it [being born again] is that when the Word (Rom. 10:17) reaches the heart, the Holy Spirit … breaks open that seed and gives the life and the faith. It immediately comes out and testifies, 'I believe,' 'I am saved.' … It is that simple. The easiest thing that a man ever did was to accept Christ. No works, no price, simply God's free gift."
GENNAO CORRECTLY DEFINED
A general misunderstanding on this subject has resulted from the translators' inconsistent rendering of the Greek word gennao. In the KJV Bible it is sometimes translated to beget and sometimes to bear. Gennao and its derivatives have three correct meanings: (1) to beget (used of the male only), (2) to bring to birth (used of both male and female) and (3) to bear (used of the female only). It should be translated by one or another of these English words, according to the sense of the passage in which it occurs.
To clearly understand the birth of the Spirit and the true Spirit-born condition, we must understand what is meant by the begettal of the Spirit; for as in human generation, so in grace, a birth must be preceded by a begettal and a period of gestation. And this is the way the Bible presents the matter of the generating of the Gospel-Age Church, the spiritual elect.
SEVEN STAGES IN THE CHURCH'S GENERATION
The Scriptures show that there would be seven stages in generating each one of the spiritual elect, corresponding to the begetting, quickening, growth, strengthening, balancing, perfecting and birth of a human being:
(1) The begettal would occur through God's depositing His Word as the germinating spiritual seed into the mind and heart of each of them (John 1:13; 1 Cor. 4:15; Philemon 10; Jas. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23; 1 John 5:1, 2), thereby making them embryo "new creatures" (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:10; 4:24; Col. 3:10).
(2) Later, each one would receive the quickening as an embryo "new creature" (John 6:63; Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13).
(3) Each one would grow in grace, knowledge and service in the embryo condition (Eph. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18).
(4) Each one would receive a strengthening in every good word and work (Eph. 3:16; 6:10-17; Col. 1:11; 2 Tim. 2:1; 1 Pet. 5:10).
(5) Each one would develop more and more as an embryo by balancing the various parts of a Christlike character with one another (1 Thes. 3:12, 13; 2 Thes. 2:17; 3:3; Jas. 5:8; 1 Pet. 5:10; 2 Pet. 1:12).
(6) Each one would complete the full development by gradually being perfected in character, thus being completely conformed to Christ's likeness (Luke 6:40; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:12; Heb. 13:20, 21; 1 Pet. 5:10).
(7) The previous six processes would make each one as an embryo ready for the birth of the Spirit, which is experienced by participating in the resurrection, in which each one receives the spirit nature. Christ's Body members receive immortality, the Divine nature (John 3:8; 1 Cor. 15:50-54; Col. 1:18; 2 Pet. 1:4; Rev. 1:5).
So we see that the Bible clearly distinguishes and separates between the begettal of the Spirit and the birth of the Spirit. The Spirit-begotten condition is in the earthly lifetime of God's spiritual elect, while their Spirit-born condition is only in the resurrection!
The expression "born again" occurs only three times in the KJV Bible: John 3:3, 7; 1 Pet. 1:23. It occurs also in other translations.
1 PET. 1:3, 23 EXAMINED
We will first treat of 1 Pet. 1:23. A comparison of it with v. 3 demonstrates clearly that in v. 23, where the word gennao is translated "born," it really should be rendered "begotten."
In 1 Pet. 1:3 we read, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." Here the phrase "begotten us again" is the translation of the Greek words hemas (us) and anagennao (ana as a prefix gives emphasis, intensity, to its conjoined word and also suggests repetition, therefore it is properly translated "begotten us again"; gennao has the meanings indicated above).
That "begotten" is the correct translation of gennao in both 1 Pet. 1:3 and 23 is evident from the following considerations:
(1) The spiritual elect (v. 2) are there referred to as still in hope ("begotten … unto a lively hope"; v. 3) that is, awaiting the fruition, the culmination of their hope. What hope? The hope of everlasting, incorruptible life in heaven as spirit beings (v. 4), the hope, the expectation, of being in the resurrection like and with the glorified Jesus—in the Divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4; 1 Cor. 15:49; 1 John 3:2). They are mentioned as having the "earnest," or guarantee, of their inheritance (Eph. 1:13, 14) but not yet their actual inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4)—else why would they still hope for it (Rom. 8:24, 25)?
(2) The resurrection hope of the spiritual elect, to which they are begotten, is mentioned as being founded on Jesus' resurrection (v. 3; 1 Cor. 15:12-20). His resurrection was His Spirit-birth, as Col. 1:18 and Rev. 1:5, properly translated, show. Both references, being to the same event, should convey the same meaning. But as in the case of gennao, so with the Greek word prototokos—the KJV translators and others have darkened the subject through inconsistent rendering. Manifestly prototokos should have been translated "firstborn" in Rev. 1:5 instead of "first begotten," just as it is rendered "firstborn" in Col. 1:18. The ASV, NASB, RSV, Rotherham, Young, Williams, the Diaglott, etc., all properly render it "firstborn" in both verses.
Because Jesus' resurrection was His Spirit-birth, His being "born from the dead," into His resurrection inheritance, the faithful spiritual elect, the Church, were assured by the Apostle Peter in vs. 3, 4 that their Spirit-begettal would culminate also in their Spirit-birth, in their being "born from the dead" (Col. 1:18; John 14:19; 2 Tim. 2:11, 12), into their resurrection inheritance; that is, just as God gave Jesus a Spirit-birth (resurrection) so He would give the Church a Spirit-birth (resurrection)—the fruition of their Spirit-begettal and Spirit-gestation (1 Pet. 1:21). Therefore they with our Lord are called "firstfruits" (1 Cor. 15:20, 23; Jas. 1:18; Rev. 14:4).
(3) The spiritual elect are mentioned as still on trial, to demonstrate by God's assisting grace their fitness or unfitness of being brought to birth on the plane of the Divine nature (1 Pet. 1:7, 13). So they had not yet been brought to birth.
(4) In 1 Pet. 1:21-23 the Apostle gives instruction and exhortation similar to that which he gave to the spiritual elect in vs. 2-4. He reminds them (v. 21) of their resurrection hope, based on the resurrection of Christ, their Head (compare v. 3). Observing that they had already been washed and made clean, holy, through faith in the precious blood of Christ (v. 22; compare vs. 16, 18, 19) and had been obedient to the Truth, including the development of genuine love for the brethren, he encouraged them to continue to love one another fervently. This love for the brethren was the indication that they had passed from "death unto life" (1 John 3:14), and was eminently proper and becoming to those who had a holy, spiritual relationship one with another.
The Apostle's reference here to the "seed" (Greek, spora, the vitalizing generative life-germ; v. 23) obviously is to begettal, and not to birth (see ASV, Young, Rotherham, Moulton, Diaglott). The word "incorruptible" in v. 23 links this verse with v. 4, where the Apostle refers to the "incorruptible" inheritance (the Greek word for "incorruptible" is the same in both instances). For the "inheritance incorruptible," the "born from the dead" condition, attained by the Spirit-birth, in the resurrection, would be the natural sequence to the quickening, development, growth, etc., of the deposited "incorruptible seed," just as the birth of a human is the natural sequence to the quickening, development, growth, etc., of the deposited human sperm, or seed. This same sequence is brought out forcefully by our Lord in John 3:1-13, as we will see later. Note 1 Cor. 15:50-54; the "change" refers to the Spirit-birth, the door into the Spirit-born condition.
The foregoing remarks on 1 Pet. 1:3, 23 demonstrate clearly that the expression "born again" in v. 23 should be translated "begotten again."
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