Note: This article is intended to discuss whether the use of the expression "born again" is simply one of semantics or if it has major doctrinal implications. It is not intended to discuss where the Greek term gennao is or should be translated as begotten as opposed to born: that may be the subject of a second article (but I will add that the Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon, does use "beget" as the primary definition on page 344 of the 1996 version which I own; as does Danker's Greek-English Lexicon, 3rd edition, 2000, page 193).
For years the old Worldwide Church of God (WCG) taught that we were begotten children of God who would be born again at the resurrection. About 20 years ago this changed. Essentially the teaching of those who then led it became that of the Protestants: once you accept Jesus as your savior you are born again, and that if you are only begotten now you are not a child of God. Over time, WCG, like many Protestant sects, also began to teach that the laws of God were done away (and now WCG/GCI clearly teaches that they were).
While I continued to accept the concept that we would be "changed" at the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:42), I started to feel that when a Protestant asked if you were "born again" all they wanted to know was if you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior. I considered the "born again" question to be primarily one of semantics and not a major distortion to "the faith which was once delivered" (Jude 3, NKJV throughout), but I was wrong. Very wrong.
My wife Joyce, on the other hand, never went along with any of the changes regarding being "born again." Lest their be any misunderstanding, I did believe that upon conversion, we were begotten of God, and as such his children. I did not accept the new teaching that those who are only begotten are not children. I did believe we would be born again after the resurrection.
I believed 1 John 3:9 which says:
9 Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for his seed remains in him; and he cannot sin because he is born of God.
I also believed Jesus when he said, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6). I just felt that the Protestant issue was really only one of semantics, or definitions. Not only was I unaware of where this doctrinal change would lead, I had neglected the history of how it developed.
I was later shocked to re-read about this subject in Hislop's The Two Babylons. I had read this book once fifteen-plus years before, but for some reason the section titled "Baptismal Regeneration" (Chap. IV, Sec I) had completely left my mind. According to Hislop, being born again on earth is a long-standing pagan belief. Hislop quotes Asiatic Researchers (Vol. vii, p. 271, London, 1806) that the Hindoo Brahmins boast that they are "twice born" men.
The book quotes the Catholics' belief (from Hay, Bishop. Hay's Sincere Christian, Vol 1., p.356, Dublin, 1783) that infant baptism is to "regenerate us by a new spiritual birth" or in other words, infant baptism is how one becomes "born again." Hislop quotes Prescott's Conquest of Mexico (Vol iii, pp. 339-340, London, 1843) that Catholic missionaries were shocked by the similarities of the pagan baptismal ceremonies to their own. In this pagan ceremony it was stated that the infant "is born anew".
Hislop seemed to feel that the concept of being born again with baptism originally was a pagan corruption of the fact that God saved Noah in an ark from the flood (many ancient civilizations recorded the flood). As Noah lived before and after the flood, he was believed to be in some sense "born again". The water of the flood is supposed to be a type of baptism. After some baptismal type ceremony (which did not require immersion in some cultures), the re-born individual was assured entrance to some version of paradise.
Interestingly the Roman Catholic Church has admitted that their practices of infant baptism are of an old, non-scriptural origin. Hislop quotes Jodocus Tiletanus as saying,
(More on baptism can be found in the article, Baptism and the Early Church.)
We are not satisfied with that which the apostles or the Gospel do declare, but we say that, as well as before as after, there are divers matters of importance and weight accepted and received out of a doctrine which is NOWHERE SET FORTH IN WRITING. For we do blesse the water wherewith we baptize, and the oyle wherewith we annoynt; yea and besides that, him that is christened. And (I pray you) OUT OF WHAT SCRIPTURE have we learned the same? HAVE WE NOT IT OF A SECRET AND UNWRITTEN ORDINANCE? And further what scripture hath taught us to grease with oyle? Yea, I pray you, whence cometh it, that we do dype the child three times in that water? Doth it not come out of this hidden and undisclosed doctrine, which our forefathers have received closely without any curiosity, and do observe it still? (Harvet, Gentianus. Review of Epistles, PP. 19B, 20A, London 1598, as quoted by Hislop, A. in The Two Babylons, emphasis mine).
But what does this have to do with "born again" from a Protestant perspective? The Catholics used to believe that babies and others who die before committing any sins will be eternally placed in a bizarre realm called "limbo" if they have not been baptized (Pope Benedict XVI has said that his church no longer necessarily teaches this, see What is Limbo? Is There Such a Place as Limbo? What Happens to Babies When They Die?). The Catholics believe you can be a terrible person, but if you have been baptized as an infant and will confess to a priest just before you die, you will go to heaven.
Certain Catholic teachings strongly emphasize the importance of ceremony (called sacraments) over living according to every word of God. From a Catholic perspective, once baptized your "immortal soul" can access the kingdom of God. After infant baptism, all one really needs to do is confess to a priest before death and entrance into heaven is assured, no matter how one lead their life. And if you sinned after confessing to a priest and then died, after a period of purging (the length dependent upon the amount and types of sin) you then entered the kingdom of heaven.
The Protestant view is remarkably similar, except that baptism is not required of infants in most Protestant denominations (it is unclear what the actual Protestant teaching is regarding sinless infants/children who die without baptism--though many seem to feel that babies are automatically saved; a related article of interest may be Hope of Salvation: How the Continuing Church of God Differs From Protestants). The general Protestant view appears to be that once you sin (which they usually do not clearly define; for a Biblical definition see 1 John 3:4, KJV), you must accept Jesus as your savior and then you are "born again"; baptism is expected but does not appear to be an absolute requirement. Once you are "born again" your "immortal soul" is guaranteed to enter heaven upon death unless you repudiate your belief in Jesus. Sinning in any and every other way will not prevent you from entering heaven. Further repentance, though often encouraged, is not strictly necessary. In other words, when Protestants are referring to being "born again" they are referring to a state in which one no longer needs to do follow the laws of God in order to enter the Kingdom of God.
While it is true that eternal life is a gift of God (Romans 6:23, thus no one has an "immortal soul") and that salvation is by the grace of God and not by our works (Ephesians 2:8), it is also true that there are "...ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness" (Jude 4).
"Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God" (I Corinthians 6:9-10). "For this know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you through empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them" (Ephesians 5:5-7).
These are strong and clear scriptures. Surely God means it when he says, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (II Timothy 3:16-17).
Of course, Christians should base doctrine on what the Bible teaches.
So, let's look more at what Jesus taught:
5 ... "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' 8 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 3:5-7)
Now, notice something that the Apostle Paul taught:
49 And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. 50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed-- 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:49-53)
It is clear that Christians are NOT born again until they are changed at the resurrection.
One is born of water with the physical birth (which is normally accompanied by water breaking forth from the mother). One is begotten by the Spirit now, but will be born of the Spirit at the first resurrection.
Some have wondered about the following passage and suggest this is proof that Christians are already born again:
23 having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, (1 Peter 1:23, NKJV)
But the above does not properly convey the intent of the writing. The translation of that is misleading.
It should state that we have been BEGOTTEN again, as we have not yet been born into the kingdom.
Notice three translations that get this right:
23 having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth. (1 Peter 1:23 American Standard Version)
23 For you have been begotten again, not from corruptible seed, but from incorruptible seed, by the living Word of God, which remains forever. (1 Peter 1:23, A Faithful Version)
23 being begotten again, not out of seed corruptible, but incorruptible, through a word of God -- living and remaining -- to the age; (1 Peter 1:23 Young's Literal Translation ).
In this age Christians are begotten by the Holy Spirit to be born again in the resurrection..
Perhaps I should add that even in the second century (the century just after the Book of Revelation was written), there was at least one Christian taught that we are not to be "born again" until the resurrection. Notice what Theophilus of Antioch wrote:
Of the Fourth Day. On the fourth day the luminaries were made; ...
But the moon wanes monthly, and in a manner dies, being a type of man; then it is born again, and is crescent, for a pattern of the future resurrection" (Theophilus of Antioch. To Autolycus, Book 2, Chapter XV. Translated by Marcus Dods, A.M. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).
An interesting thing to observe here is that the Feast of Trumpets has traditionally been the fourth biblical Holy Day and a trumpet blast is associated with Christians being born again:
50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed -- 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." (1 Corinthians 15:50-54)
Here is a link to a related sermon video: Trumpets and Being Born Again.
In the third century, Hippolytus (the greatest of the early theologians according to Roman Catholic scholars) understood that we are begotten by the Holy Spirit at baptism. Notice what he wrote:
This is the Spirit that was given to the apostles in the form of fiery tongues. This is the Spirit that David sought when he said, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." Of this Spirit Gabriel also spoke to the Virgin, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee." By this Spirit Peter spake that blessed word, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." By this Spirit the rock of the Church was stablished. This is the Spirit, the Comforter, that is sent because of thee, that He may show thee to be the Son of God.
Come then, be begotten again, O man, into the adoption of God ... For he who comes down in faith to the layer of regeneration, and renounces the devil, and joins himself to Christ; who denies the enemy, and makes the confession that Christ is God; who puts off the bondage, and puts on the adoption,--he comes up from the baptism brilliant as the sun, flashing forth the beams of righteousness, and, which is indeed the chief thing, he returns a son of God and joint-heir with Christ (Hippolytus. The Discourse on the Holy Theophany, Chapters 9,10. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1886. Online Edition Copyright © 2005 by K. Knight).
Also, even in the fourth century, it was understood that Christians are first begotten, that Jesus was the first born of the dead, and that we become born again later. For even though he had other heretical ideas, Athanasius apparently understood this as he wrote:
For God not only created them to be men, but called them to be sons, as having begotten them. For the term 'begat' is here as elsewhere expressive of a Son, as He says by the Prophet, 'I begat sons and exalted them;' and generally, when Scripture wishes to signify a son, it does so, not by the term 'created,' but undoubtedly by that of 'begat.' And this John seems to say, 'He gave to them power to become children of God, even to them that believe on His Name; which were begotten not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.' And here too the cautious distinction is well kept up, for first he says 'become,' because they are not called sons by nature but by adoption; then he says 'were begotten,' because they too had received at any rate the name of son...He became man, that, as the Apostle has said, He who is the 'Beginning' and 'First-born from the dead, in all things might have the preeminence ... He said to be 'First-born from the dead,' not that He died before us, for we had died first; but because having undergone death for us and abolished it, He was the first to rise, as man, for our sakes raising His own Body. Henceforth He having risen, we too from Him and because of Him rise in due course from the dead ... He is called 'First-born among many brethren' because of the relationship of the flesh, and 'First-born from the dead,' because the resurrection of the dead is from Him and after Him ... And as He is First-born among brethren and rose from the dead 'the first fruits of them that slept;' so, since it became Him 'in all things to have the preeminence (Athanasius. Discourse II Against the Arians, Chapters 59,60,61,63,64. Excerpted from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. American Edition, 1892. Online Edition Copyright © 2005 by K. Knight).
Thus the idea of being begotten when converted and being born again at the resurrection is not a relatively new one among professing Christians. But unlike the idea of being born again now, it is not a concept with pre-Christian (pagan) origins.
In addition, even today, the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches:
Frank Schaeffer...calls the standard evangelical doctrine a "false bill of goods." "The simplistic 'born-again' formula for instant painless 'salvation' is not only a misunderstanding, I believe it is a heresy. It contradicts the teaching of Christ in regard to the narrow, hard, ascetic, difficult way of salvation." (Clendenin D.B. ed. Eastern Orthodox Theology, 2nd ed. Baker Academic, 2003, p. 268).
The concept of being "born again in the flesh" is more than just an issue of semantics. It was not taught in the early true church, as they taught Christians were begotten now and would be born again at the resurrection. The concept of being born again now seems to mislead some people into believing that obeying the law of God is not necessary, or otherwise misunderstood the entire plan of God. It does not lead people to Jesus Christ.
We in the Continuing Church of God teach:
Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, Christians are begotten by God (cf. 1 Peter 1:3; 1 John 5:1), then after a period of spiritual growth/gestation (cf. 2 Peter 3:18), Christians will literally be born again at the resurrection (John 3:5-7) as Christ was (Romans 1:4-5). (Statement of Beliefs of the Continuing Church of God).
Its logical conclusion is to prevent some people from having "any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God" (Ephesians 5:5). And, as we in the Churches of God have seen, its acceptance among some has ultimately lead to the acceptance of other pagan practices for those who once professed to have the faith once delivered (Jude 3).
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