What does “born again” really mean?


Scripture: John 3: 1-17. Nigel Bunce


To be ‘born again’ is not necessarily a once-only event.   God’s grace can restore us many times back to the goodness that we had on the day that we entered this world.  

Nicodemus meets Jesus

Jesus and Nicodemus discuss what it means to be born again; Painting by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645

John’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus’s interactions with specific people. This week, it’s Nicodemus. Next week, the Samaritan woman at the well. Nicodemus came to see Jesus under cover of darkness. He didn’t want people to know that he was a disciple. He didn’t have the courage to attest openly to his faith.

We often feel like Nicodemus. It is hard to proclaim our Christian faith in our secular society.  But perhaps that does not matter.  Perhaps we should focus more on living Christ-like lives than talking about it.  As James wrote, “Faith without works is dead” [James 2: 17].

Nicodemus was a sophisticated man.  He wasn’t some country yokel who was too dim to understand what Jesus meant about needing to be born again.  He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership. Jesus told him that no-one can be saved without being born from above. I doubt that he wondered how to make himself an infant again. More likely, he replied sarcastically. “Yeah, right! So you figure I can go back into my mother’s womb and then be born again!”

A book by Kevin Quast explains that the Greek word anothen, which modifies ‘born’, is a play on words. It means both ‘again’ and ‘from above’. Of course, Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, not Greek. 

Born again by Water and the Holy Spirit; Baptism

Jesus also talked to Nicodemus about water and the Holy Spirit. These two elements connect to his baptism in the River Jordan. Like the wind, the Holy Spirit is wild and uncontrollable (think Pentecost!). John used the same word pneuma for both ordinary wind and Spirit. Even today, we can hear and feel the physical wind, but we don’t know where it came from or where it’s going.

Baptism represents a new beginning, a kind of rebirth. So the motif of water links us both to our baptism, when we began our life with Jesus. It is also a link our physical birth, when our mothers’ waters broke and launched us into the world. In an era when baptism was for adults only, the water symbolized cleaning, washing away of sins. It makes perfect sense symbolically. 

What does the phrase ‘born again’ mean?

The key issue for me is the meaning of the term ‘born again’. Evangelical Christians have hijacked this phrase. Their use makes us think of a sudden conversion to faith. That’s a one-time change to something completely different from what someone was before.

I want to tie this idea to last week when I talked about Original Sin. If you accept that idea, “born again” means an absolute change, from sin to justification through faith in Jesus Christ. But there is another, completely different meaning. Suppose, instead, that we were born good. Then re-birth restores us to the state of goodness that we exhibited originally, at our physical birth.

In that way, baptism, and likewise absolution after confession, both expunge, by God’s grace, the accretion of sins onto us. I like to think of sins as like corrosion or tarnishing of a metal, or dirt on the floor, or dust bunnies under the bed. When we polish the silverware or sweep the floor, they become clean like they were originally, not something different. In that view, being born again isn’t just a one-time event.  Re-birth is possible over and over again.

John 3: 16 is more than a slogan

Evangelicals also like to toss around John 3: 16 as a slogan. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Many writers and preachers instinctively link that passage with Jesus dying for our sins. But it is not necessarily about atonement theology – the idea that Jesus had to die because of human sin, including my personal sins.

There is another explanation of John 3: 16. We need to read it together with the next verse, where today’s reading ends. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through himself.”  Belief in Jesus can “save” the world – presumably the people of the world.

The name Jesus is a form of the name Joshua or Yeshua, which means ‘salvation’. Jesus’ name tells us the agenda of his ministry. Salvation means divine protection from harm. It is not necessarily protection from sin (though it might be). For me, and again I speak personally, God did not send his Son into the world to be an atoning sacrifice for humanity’s sins. 

Today’s Scripture implies something different.  To repeat. I understand the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus as follows. The expression ‘born again’ means restoration to the goodness that God gave us originally. That fits in with the last verse of our reading. It was “not to condemn the world but to save the world.”

Condemnation: we’re quick to do it

Speaking of condemnation, that’s something that we humans are pretty good at. Perhaps we are too keen to think that God is as quick to judge as we are. For example, in the last week or so, we have been shocked to learn that Jean Vanier was less than a saint. Please don’t think that I want to excuse the type of sexual coercion of which he stands accused.

Carolyn Mackie writes that our task is to name his sin, consider its consequences, and pay attention to the systemic changes that need to take place so that this might not happen again.  But at the same time, Vanier’s transgressions – sins – do not obliterate his good work with handicapped and disadvantaged people. 

Here in Milton there is currently pressure to erase the name Vanier from a local school. We rush to judgement. Because times have changed. Matters that once were private are now proclaimed in the public square. We now know that certain secular saints of former times also had feet of clay. Both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. used their power and prestige to avail themselves of extramarital sex. But I don’t hear of calls to expunge their names from streets, schools, and public buildings.

Just because we didn’t commit some sin doesn’t mean that we couldn’t have

On Ash Wednesday, I said this about the Litany of Penitence. The idea is not that each person will have committed all these sins, or even that anyone in the community has. Instead, the litany represents the possible failings that we have as human beings. It names sins that we might have committed because of our sometimes flawed humanity. So when in our Litany of Penitence you come across a petition for which you think indignantly, “I didn’t do that!” the response has to be, “Well, you could have.”

It would be well to remember something else, before we “cast the first stone” at Jean Vanier. God’s grace has protected (that word salvation again) us from terrible sins like those Jean Vanier committed. But we also did not have the abilities, the opportunities, or perhaps enough “get-up-and-go”, to do the good work that he did.

Like us, Jean Vanier was born good, not sinful. Like us, Jean Vanier did good things in his life.  But he also made evil choices. He was neither a saint nor a devil – or perhaps a bit of both. We should pray that God will be more merciful to him than we are. From Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred in their bones …”

To sum up

I hope that we can all say that we have been ‘born again’ – not just once but many times – that God’s grace has restored  us to the goodness that we had on the day that we came into this world. Let us pray that for some of us here, today will be one of those moments when we sense that God is actively restoring us to the person that God always intended us to be.