Most of us have heard the phrase ‘born again Christian.’ It is usually employed by evangelical Christians to refer to those who are viewed as authentically Christian—usually defined as involved as making some sort of personal commitment to Christ.
This definition isn’t actually too far off the mark. But ‘born again’ actually has meaning both a more specific and also deeper meaning than this when considered in its context. In case you didn’t know, the phrase comes from John 3, where it is sometimes also translated as ‘from above’ instead of ‘again.’ Here is some of the important context:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit (John 3:1-6; NABRE).
First, a few clarifications. Born again and born from above are both valid translations. Above is a bit more faithful to the actual underlying Greek. But again is also consistent with the Greek while also fitting in with the context—where Nicodemus clearly takes Jesus to be referring to a second birth. As we dig deeper into the meaning of these enigmatic words it actually helps to keep both versions in mind. More about that in a moment.
Another clarification: the phrase ‘born again’—while popularized by evangelicals—actually has its origins in the Latin Vulgate version. It was likely St. Jerome himself who coined the phrase, which was simply transliterated from the Latin by the earliest English Bible translators. As with the origins of the phrase itself, its actual meaning isn’t what many people think it is.
There are, of course, two audiences for these words of Jesus. There was first Nicodemus, who is clearly dumbfounded by the suggestion of another birth. But it also would have been startling to consider for the Greek-speaking audience that had these words read to them. In the ancient world, birth determined destiny. This conviction was rooted in ancient myth: the familiar image of three goddesses, or ‘fates,’ setting someone’s fate by the cutting of string.
Such fate was decreed at birth. Not necessarily every detail was predetermined. And sometimes an unlucky fate could be delayed. But fate was viewed as ultimately immutable. Not even the gods could rewrite someone’s fate.
This is illustrated in the ancient epic poem the Aeneid, which retells the founding of Rome. The poem, which was written by Virgil some two to three decades before the birth of Christ, would have been intimately familiar to any Latin speaker of the time. In its beginning, the story of its titular hero, Aeneas, is presented as the unfolding of a foreordained destiny:
I sing of arms and of a man: his fate
had made him fugitive; he was the first
to journey from the coasts of Troy as far
as Italy and the Lavinian shores.
The notion that someone could receive a new destiny certainly would have been a radically new idea to a Greco-Roman audience. Here both translations of the Greek in John 3:3 elaborate on what Jesus is saying. In the first place, He is talking about a new birth and hence being born again. This implies the receipt of a new destiny. Even today this has a startling ring to it: the idea that someone can receive a new destiny seems contrary to the very notion of destiny. But that is exactly what Jesus is saying.
Notably, citizenship is closely connected to this idea of destiny. If both parents were Roman, citizenship was conferred at birth. In John, Jesus is calling His broader audience to citizenship from ‘above’—that is in heaven, or the kingdom of God. If we become citizens of heaven, that’s where we ultimately belong—our destiny is there, not here.
The critical question: just how does one become born again?
Fortunately, Jesus does not leave us hanging here. The answer is sacramental. It is specifically through baptism that we are born again:
Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5)
So yes, being ‘born again’ entails a personal commitment to Christ. But this occurs in a sacramental context. Certainly for an adult being baptized it comes with a personal—and public—profession of faith. But for an infant it would be more accurate to use passive language, as baptism then is more about being personally committed to Christ by one’s parents. Either way, this reminds us that baptism is about much more than taking something away—the guilt of original sin. It is also the giving of something great, namely a new destiny.
This destiny is not just a thing of the future. There is something that happens to us in the here and now. Let us return to the context one more time to find out what it is.
The encounter begins with Nicodemus commending Jesus in a way that is common among non-Christians today. He praises Jesus as a teacher of morals and a miracle-worker. But, significantly, he fails to recognize Him as God. Instead, he says God must be ‘with Him’—not the same thing as John 1:1 so emphatically reminded us.
In this context, Jesus’ response is all the more intriguing:
Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).
Not only do we have this puzzling language about being ‘born above’—which we have gone at lengths to explain here—but we have talk about seeing the kingdom of God. It seems that Nicodemus and Jesus are talking right past each other. Or are they? As Pope Benedict explains in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, we ultimately must understand the ‘kingdom of God’ in its most profound sense to refer to Jesus Himself: “Jesus himself is the Kingdom; the Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he.”
Defined this way, the two statements start to line up. Nicodemus is talking about one way of seeing Jesus—as teacher, miracle-worker, one ‘with’ God. Jesus, in responding, corrects him, explaining that no one can see Him for who He really is—not just one who is ‘with’ God but One who is God unless he have this radical new birth, seeing Jesus with fresh eyes, with the new vision of reality and our destiny that comes with grace. As John Chrysostom puts it,
He says therefore, Except a man be born again, be cannot see the kingdom of God: as if He said, You are not yet born again, i.e. of God, by a spiritual begetting; and therefore your knowledge of Me is not spiritual, but carnal and human. But I say to you, that neither you, nor any one, except he be born again of God, shall be able to see the glory which is around me, but shall be out of the kingdom: for it is the begetting by baptism, which enlightens the mind.
To be a ‘born again’ Christian, then, really is what being Christian is all about: seeing Jesus as God and accepting our calling to a new destiny through Him.