What Did Christ Mean?
By Being “Born Again”
Jesus the Christ (Gk. Christos: the Anointed One, the Messiah), the Son of God (i.e., God manifested in the flesh), made a number of exceedingly significant statements during His ministry prior to being crucified on Calvary.
The interchange between Jesus Christ and the Pharisee Nicodemus in the third chapter of the book of John regarding being “born again” has probably received more attention and discussion than any other discourse by Christ within the Bible. The passage embodies the most recognizable verse (John 3:16), the one used more than any other, in the Bible. The entire exchange (vss. 1-21) between Jesus and Nicodemus, along with commentary, follows:
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
(2) This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “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.”
(3) Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
(4) 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?”
(5) Jesus answered, “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.”
(9) Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
(10) Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?
(11) Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.
(12) If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
(13) No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.
(14) And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
(15) that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
(16) For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
(17) For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
(18) He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
(19) And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
(20) For everyone practicing [Gk. prasso – perform repeatedly or habitually] evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.
(21) But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
There are at least three interpretive approaches to this passage by Christians:
1) Among a vast many Christians, particularly those considered to be “evangelical,” this passage details how one who is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1b) may be made eternally “alive,” i.e., obtain eternal life with God, delivered from an eternity apart from Him.
2) Yet there are several Christian denominations that support the concept that this passage only contains one aspect of the “eternal life formula,” i.e., faith in Christ, which is only the beginning of the process leading to eternal life, which must include baptism and righteous living.
3) Then there are those who teach that this passage refers not to a Christian’s “present salvation” (spirit-salvation), which is – an absolute – obtained solely by “faith in Christ, His finished work on Calvary;” but to his/her “future salvation” (soul-salvation), which may be – not an absolute – obtained by a life of faithfulness resulting in a position within the “bride of Christ” and that will only pertain to the coming Messianic Era, the millennial (thousand year) reign of Christ on earth.
(For a complete understanding of the two aspects of God’s redemptive plan for mankind [the third aspect being body-salvation] mentioned above, please access the following links: spirit-salvation at http://bibleone.net/SGF.htm and soul-salvation at http://bibleone.net/SOS.htm)
As to the above expressed second position regarding this passage, which is that the passage only contains one aspect (faith in Christ) of the formula that “eventually” will permit one who is “dead in trespasses and sins” to obtain eternal life, it is the resilient belief of this writer that such rationale has absolutely no basis in God’s Word.
A concise explanation of how one who is “dead in trespasses and sins” may be delivered from that condition to secure eternal life (i.e., salvation of the spirit) is lucidly expressed in the Foreword of the book, Salvation by Grace through Faith, by Arlen L. Chitwood as follows:
The message pertaining to the gospel of the grace of God is given in very simple terms in Scripture. In fact, it is so simple that man often misses it. And any person, missing the one true message given by the infinite God and drawing from his own finite wisdom and knowledge, invariably — he can’t help but so do — ends up with a corrupted salvation message.
The salvation message, that which makes salvation possible for fallen man, is clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 15:3:
. . . Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
The one key thought in the salvation message is death and shed blood (e.g., Genesis 3:21; 22:8, 13), which is what God requires (Exodus 12:13; Hebrews 9:22). And the one key word in the salvation message is believe (e.g., John 1:12; 3:15, 16), which is also what God requires (John 3:18).
The Lamb has died, His blood has been shed, and all that is left — all that can possibly be left — for man to do is simply receive that which has already been done on his behalf.
Eternal salvation is by grace (that which God is able to do completely apart from human merit) by and through faith (i.e., believing on God’s Son [Ephesians 2:8, 9]), and it is based entirely upon the finished work of Another (John 19:30). Nothing that man has done, is presently doing, or will ever do can have anything to do with his eternal destiny. Man can do no more than receive by faith that which has already been done on his behalf.
This is why Scripture states in Acts 16:
. . . Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved . . . . (vs. 31)
This statement is in response to a question in the preceding verse,
. . . Sirs, what must I do to be saved? (vs. 30)
And within another frame of reference, the response to this question could only be, “Nothing!” This would have to be the response simply because there is not one single thing left for unsaved man to do (nor could he do anything if something were left, for, he is spiritually dead and incapable of acting in the spiritual realm [Ephesians 2:1, 5]).
It is of interest to note that the question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” and the answer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved,” only appear together in one place in the entire Bible. Scripture is filled with information concerning redemption, but Acts 16:30, 31 is the only place, from Genesis to Revelation, where the question concerning eternal salvation is asked and answered in so many words.
Thus, within a completely biblical framework, if the question in Acts 16:30 is asked, there can be only one answer: “Believe . . . .” Man’s ideas, thoughts, comments are of no consequence. God has spoken, and that’s the end of the matter.
John 3:16 is often called “the gospel in a nutshell” by individuals seeking to draw attention to the overall salvation message stated in its simplest form in Scripture. God, because of His love for fallen man — who had been created in His image, after His likeness, for a purpose (Genesis 1:26-28) — “gave His only begotten Son (Corinthians 15:3), that whoever believes in Him (Acts 16:31) should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Everything, in its entirety, to procure man’s salvation was done by Another. It had to be accomplished by Another, for, as previously stated, the one being redeemed was “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), totally incapable of acting on his own behalf.
Christ is the One who died, Christ is the One who performed the work to procure man’s salvation, and God is satisfied with His Son’s finished work.
When Christ cried out from the Cross in “a loud voice” near the ninth hour, “It is finished” (Luke 23:46; John 19:30), He used one word in the Greek text — Tetelestai — that could be better translated, “It has been finished.” Tetelestai is a perfect tense usage of teleo, which means “to bring to an end,” “to complete.” And the perfect tense refers to action completed in past time, with the results of that action extending into and existing during present time in a finished state.
All of the work surrounding man’s redemption that Christ had come to perform had, at that point in time, been completed. This was the announcement that Christ made, in “a loud voice”; and, because of that which was involved in the announcement, there was then no longer any need for Him to continue His sufferings on the Cross. Thus, immediately after He cried out, “It has been finished,” He “breathed His last [ lit., ‘He breathed out’ (He expired, willingly relinquishing His life)]” (Luke 23:46).
The work of Christ at Calvary, from the point He cried out, “It has been finished,” has existed in exactly the same finished state in which He proclaimed it to exist at that time. It has existed as a work completed in past time that extends into present time (in a finished state) and that will extend into all the ages comprising eternity ahead (in the same finished state).
Nothing can ever be added, and nothing can ever be taken away. That is to say, nothing can ever change relative to Christ’s finished work at Calvary.
That’s the way God’s procurement of man’s salvation had to occur. Once Christ’s work had been finished, that’s the way His work had to always continue to exist — in a finished state — throughout both time and eternity.
Because of Christ’s finished work, salvation is extended to man “without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1); and apart from Christ’s finished work, there is no salvation. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already (lit., ‘has already been condemned’ [a perfect tense — condemned in past time because of unbelief and presently living in that condemned state]), because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18)
It is utterly impossible — and foolish to even consider — that finite man, “dead in trespasses and sins,” could add one thing to or take one thing from the finished work of the infinite God through His Son.
All man can possibly do is simply receive, by believing on the Son, that which has already been done on his behalf.
(Salvation by Grace through Faith may be accessed from www.bibleone.net)
This being the case, the question remains: How does one resolve the other two positions (1st and 3rd) as stated above regarding this passage of Scripture pertaining to being “born again”? Is Christ speaking of how one may initially obtain eternal life, a salvation that Christians presently possess (spirit-salvation); or is He speaking of how a Christian is to obtain a different aspect of salvation, one which may only be achieved by a life of faithfulness (works) while on earth and which will only affect his position during Christ’s coming millennial reign of one thousand years upon the earth (soul-salvation)?
It is the sincere belief by this author that this passage expresses a principle of spiritual birth and growth that applies to both, the salvation of the spirit (i.e., the passing from being “dead in trespasses and sins” to eternal life) and the salvation of the soul (i.e., the achievement of a position within the “bride of Christ” to rule and reign with Him during the coming Messianic Era). And this principle is described by Christ as being “born again.” But more specifically when taking the entire conversation into consideration as each part relates to each other formulating its context, it appears that Christ placed the “birth from above” primarily on spirit-salvation.
To understand the concept (the phrase) of “born again,” it will help to examine the original language from which the expression is taken. The phrase is taken from the Greek words “gennao anothen” which literally mean a “bringing forth from above,” or to further clarify the expression, “a bringing forth out of God.” Literally, it refers to an event and/or a process that can only proceed from God Himself. It cannot originate or progress from anywhere else. Only God is capable of bringing it about. God alone is the Source! To put it another way, nothing of any divine (sacred) value can be initiated or continued other than by God through His Spirit, a fundamental law and process instituted in the restoration of the earth as seen in the initial chapters of the book of Genesis.
(The reader may properly understand this law/process, by accessing the following link: http://bibleone.net/SS.htm)
Man may only become a child of God (Christian) by this means – a bringing forth out of God. A person who is “dead in trespasses and sins” can only become spiritually alive by the work of the Holy Spirit.
At the moment a person believes on the Lord Jesus Christ (places his trust, reliance in Christ, i.e., receives, by faith, that which Christ has done on his behalf), the Spirit not only breathes life into that person but the Spirit also takes up His abode in the individual (cf. Genesis 1:2b; 2:7; Ezekiel 37:1; 1 Corinthians 6:19). By and through this means, the man passing “from death to life” becomes a new creation “in Christ,” a part of the one new man (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:1, 15).
Redeemed man thus possesses a salvation wherein everything pertaining to works/actions is past. The work necessary to effect one’s salvation (Christ’s work) is past and complete, and the work effecting one’s salvation itself (the Spirit’s work) is past and complete. The latter (the Spirit’s work) is based on the former (Christ’s work). Thus, divine intervention on man’s behalf is the only work seen throughout.
Relative to one’s presently possessed eternal salvation, redeemed man did nothing in the past, nor can he do anything present or future. Salvation was and remains “of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).
Redeemed man possesses a present, completed salvation based on the past, completed work of Another. Both man’s present salvation and Christ’s past work exist in a finished state, and neither can ever be altered, changed, added to, taken from, etc. One’s salvation is just as complete and secure as the work upon which it rests.
(Taken from Salvation by Grace through Faith, Chapter 2, by Arlen L. Chitwood.)
Furthermore, only by the same means – a bringing forth out of God – can a Christian progress to spiritual maturity, a process generated by an absorption of the Word of God (James 1:21), which is able to save one’s soul by producing works of faithfulness that will result in securing a position within the “bride of Christ” to rule and reign with Him during the coming Messianic Era (Revelation 19:7, 8; 20:4b).
Arlen L. Chitwood in chapter 7 of his book, Signs in John’s Gospel, presents a substantial case that the passage detailing the conversation between Christ and Nicodemus in the third chapter of the book of John specifically applies to soul-salvation rather than spirit-salvation. He shows that within the context of the book, reinforced by other passages in the books of 1 Peter and 1 John, the “birth” spoken of in the third chapter of John – the “bringing forth out of God, from above” – could at that time only apply to Israel. As he put it:
When Christ came to Israel the first time, He came to a people capable of spiritual perception and discernment, else He could not have appeared on the scene calling for the nation’s repentance and proclaiming the kingdom as being “at hand.” Christ came to a disobedient nation, though to a saved generation of Jews, to a nation that had been sacrificing and availing itself of the blood of the paschal lambs year by year. Christ was born King in the nation’s midst, presenting Himself as the God-sent Deliverer in this respect — deliverance from the consequences of centuries of disobedience (Leviticus 26:14-39; Deuteronomy 28:15-67).
And he goes on to say:
John introduces a bringing forth out of God (1:13), a birth (a bringing forth) from above (3:3-8), in the opening part of his gospel. And the context surrounding John’s introduction is in relation to the Jewish people, signs, and the proffered kingdom (1:11, 12; 3:2, 3).
John then calls attention to the same thing — a bringing forth out of God — ten times in his first epistle (2:29; 3:9 [twice]; 4:7; 5:1 [three times]; 5:4; 5:18 [twice]). And from the subject matter of 1 John and the context surrounding these ten usages of the expression, it appears quite evident that the message surrounding the matter is simply a continuation of that which is introduced in his gospel (to the Jew only during the original offer of the kingdom [when the recorded events occurred (Matthew 10:5, 6; 15:24)], and to the Jew first during the re-offer [when both the gospel of John and 1 John, because of their subject matter, were undoubtedly written (Romans 1:16; 2:9, 10)]). But, during the re-offer, as seen in the referenced verses from Romans, the message was “also to the Greek (also to the Gentile).”
Then, the matter in 1 Peter (1:3, 23), contextually, has to do with Christians, with those taken from both the Jews and the Gentiles. It has to do with the “one new man,” a new creation “in Christ,” where the distinction between Jew and Gentile does not, it cannot, exist (Ephesians 2:11-15; 3:1-6; cf. Galatians 3:26-29).
From a contextual standpoint, whether dealing with being brought forth from above, out of God, from the gospel of John, 1 John, or 1 Peter, it would be very forced and unnatural to view any of these texts as referring to an unsaved person believing on the Lord Jesus Christ and passing “from death to life.” Though this is what Bible students and teachers invariably do, such should never be the case. The various contexts simply will not allow this type of interpretation of any one of these passages.
And though a bringing forth from above, out of God, is what occurs when an individual is saved (it has to occur, else salvation could not be effected, for salvation is brought to pass entirely through divine intervention), the texts in these three books should not be used in this manner. Salvation by grace is simply not the subject at hand.
Though using these verses relative to salvation by grace may result in positive end results (i.e., result in individuals being saved), there is a negative consequence that cannot be ignored. Using these verses in this erroneous manner will do away with the exact teaching that the Spirit intended when He moved John and Peter to pen the various things that they recorded. This type of use of these verses will do away with the thought of saved individuals being brought forth out of God relative to a revealed goal — the kingdom (for the Jew only during the time of the offer of the kingdom, for the Jew first and also the Gentile during the time of the re-offer of the kingdom [Christians referenced by “Gentile”], and for Christians alone since that time).
Yet, even though Chitwood takes this position, he has no problem in utilizing select verses, e.g., John 3:16 (as in the first quote by Chitwood in this document), within the conversation between Christ and Nicodemus when explaining spirit-salvation. He further states in his book, Signs in John’s Gospel, the following:
This is not to say that the divine work surrounding an unsaved individual believing on the Lord Jesus Christ and being saved is not to be viewed in the same manner, i.e., as being brought forth “out of God,” “from above.” Rather, it is to say that the verses being used (John 1:13; 3:3, 7; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18) don’t refer to this initial work of God through the Spirit. Instead, they refer to subsequent works of God through the Spirit — subsequent works (pl.) because that which is connected with the bringing forth “out of God” is not the same in each instance.
The work surrounding an unsaved individual, “dead in trespasses and sins,” passing “from death unto life,” can only be a divine bringing forth “out of God,” “from above.” However, Scripture never uses the type of terminology seen in the referenced verses from the gospel of John, 1 John, and 1 Peter relative to this divine work, unless possibly a verse such as Isaiah 66:8 would be referring to this facet of Israel’s future acceptance of Christ.
There can be no divine work performed among man (either saved or unsaved man) apart from this work occurring “out of God,” “from above.” Such would be impossible. And, in this respect, the verses from the gospel of John, 1 John, and 1 Peter do describe the source of the work of salvation by grace (for it is the same, it has to be — i.e., out of God, from above), though these verses do not pertain to this work per se.
(Taken from Signs in John’s Gospel, Chapter 7, by Arlen L. Chitwood.)
And although the writer of this study deeply recognizes the immense value of the extensive and comprehensive studies of God’s Word by Arlen L. Chitwood and along with him believes that the “birth from above” applies to all aspects of salvation, he believes that the conversation between Christ and Nicodemus is particularly aimed at spirit-salvation, to those Jews who needed to take the first step in God’s redemptive plan for man.
Whereas the principle of “a divine bringing forth out of God, from above” most definitely is applicable to soul-salvation (the spiritual maturation of one who has become a child of God through faith in Christ), the following considerations substantiate, at least to this writer, that Jesus Christ is explaining to Nicodemus that it applies to spirit-salvation, to those Jews who had the need to both “see” (comprehend) and “enter” (proceed into) the coming kingdom of God (the equivalent term designating the coming kingdom of Christ – His millennial reign upon the earth.
This position is derived from the following details embodied in the passage:
1) I fully agree with Chitwood that “Christ came to a disobedient nation, though to a saved generation of Jews, to a nation which had been sacrificing and availing itself of the blood of the paschal lambs year by year” . . . and therefore “was born King in the nation’s midst, presenting Himself as the God-sent Deliverer in this respect – deliverance from the consequences of centuries of disobedience (Leviticus 26:14-39; Deuteronomy 28:15-67).” This was a message to the nation as a whole, which required a composite turning to the King in order for the kingdom to occur.
But even though many, if not most of the individuals comprising the nation believed (had faith in) God’s prescribed plan of deliverance, many simply followed the various “religious” routines without believing in them, a similarity that exists within Christianity today. This being the case, Christ needed to address the foundational issue pertaining to the nation’s salvation, an issue intended for an individual’s salvation. This became increasingly clearer as Christ continued.
2) When Nicodemus assumed that the “birth” that Christ spoke of was a second physical birth (John 3:4), Christ explained that the birth He spoke of was not physical (using the analogy of “water”) but was spiritual (referring to the Spirit of God), one which is not “born of the flesh” but is “born of the Spirit” – a truth that evades the senses of man as to its origination and destination (John 3:5-8).
3) Yet, Nicodemus continued in his ignorance of the matter, resulting in Christ transitioning to a concrete description of the issue by endeavoring to make it clear to Nicodemus that the “birth from above,” the foundational step to seeing and eventually entering the kingdom, was solely in the appropriate acknowledgement and acceptance of the “Son of Man.” (John3:9-15).
4) Christ proceeded to explain to Nicodemus that the only means by which the “birth [a bringing forth] from above [out of God]” could be experienced was by faith. He initially did this by utilizing an Old Testament event involving Moses and the children of Israel during their journey in the wilderness, as seen in Numbers chapter twenty-one, for it was only then that anyone bitten by a fiery serpent could be healed, i.e., by believing Moses and looking up at the bronze serpent on the pole – a demonstration of their faith in God’s Word (John 3:14, 15).
5) Finally, the remainder of the dialog as seen in verses 16-21 elucidates the basis for the offering of the “birth from above.” It was and is due to God’s love not just for the Jewish people, but for the entire world (Gk. kosmos). And its fruition could only be by “believing (placing one’s faith) in Christ.” For not to do so could only result in “condemnation.”
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (vss. 16-18)
In conclusion and to reiterate, the “birth from above” as is depicted in the third chapter of the book of John primarily applies to one who is “dead in trespasses and sins” and who is in need of God’s grace-gift of salvation, which was purchased by Jesus Christ on the cross on Calvary, a gift that can and may only be accepted by faith. Additionally, the “birth from above” also depicts a process, one that can only proceed from God, which will enable a Christian through the proper absorption (understanding and acceptance) of the Word of God to achieve a temporal life characterized by faithfulness (good works), to ultimately result in participation in the bride of Christ and the coming millennial reign of Christ upon the earth.