Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | July 7, 2008

Why must we be born again? (Lesson 7: Question 2 Answer)

2. Why must we be born again?

The hearts of men were known by our Lord as indicated by the apostle John in the previous chapter.  In this chapter the apostle records the words of our Lord that prescribe the remedy to this dilemma.  This prescription is described by our Lord as being “born again” as we find in the following verses:    

3Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

4Nicodemus 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?”

The words of Jesus to Nicodemus recorded in the verses above must have come as a complete surprise.  It is evident from the response that Nicodemus was either befuddled or perturbed by the response that Jesus gives to his initial statement.  We can certainly read the response either way, which can be associated with astonishment or sarcasm towards our Lord.  However, since the doctrine our Lord is proclaiming here to Nicodemus was uncommon to the Old Testament Scriptures it seems more fitting to classify the response as one of bewilderment. 

The closest possible parallel in the Old Testament to this concept is probably Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37.    A valley of dry bones is encountered representative of the fallen house of Israel and Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy (preach) to them.  Upon preaching the word of God the bones are transformed into living bodies again.  This is analogous to the previous chapter when God promises to return Israel from exile and renew their hearts (Ezekiel 36:25-27).  It is apparent though, that Nicodemus did not make the connection between these prophetic writings and our Lord’s words on that evening.

Our Lord here clearly is expressing a condition or prerequisite that is necessary for entrance into His kingdom.  This condition as He states is one of being born again or “regenerated”, which necessarily implies that men are naturally unworthy to enter the kingdom by birth or generation6.  This is further Scriptural support for the doctrine of original sin that accounts for man’s fallen nature transmitted through their federal head Adam.  Thus the conclusions articulated at the Synod of Dort are a helpful summary of this Scriptural teaching in the following:

Article 2: The Spread of Corruption – Man brought forth children of the same nature as himself after the fall. That is to say, being corrupt he brought forth corrupt children. The corruption spread, by God’s just judgment, from Adam to all his descendants — except for Christ alone — not by way of imitation (as in former times the Pelagians would have it) but by way of the propagation of his perverted nature.

Article 3: Total Inability – Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.

In the second article the synod refers to Pelagianism, which is an ancient heresy named after the British monk Pelagius who denied the doctrine of original sin.  Although this heresy has been condemned by numerous Church councils, including the council of Trent, it is alive and well in many forms of Christianity today.  Essentially, it teaches that man did not inherit a fallen nature from Adam and has the moral ability, apart from God’s grace, to earn salvation on his own.  Thus, denying the biblical concept of sola gratia, which affirms that salvation is by God’s grace alone.  Although, a clear departure from biblical redemption, Pelagianism is consistent with the religion of natural man who thinks that he can improve his life or attain salvation simply by sheer will power. Unlike the Scriptural teaching that describes man’s condition as a result of the fall as corrupt (Romans 5:12), the religion of man perceives humanity to be truly good deep within.

The Pelagian tendency within the religion of man denies the need for the Gospel, honoring Jesus only as a great moral example who should be followed.  Man is seen as basically good and only needs to tap into that goodness through the right techniques of self-improvement.  The fundamental goal of man- made religion is self-improvement through the right methods or rules for living. Thus, there is a great amount of harmony amongst the different world religions, which essentially agree on the appropriate moral behavior.  Why is this?  As the Scriptures proclaim the law is universal to all, being proclaimed to Adam in the beginning.   This general revelation is now written on the hearts of all his progeny revealed in the conscience (Romans 2:14-16).  An excellent example of this is manifested in the similarities between the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses.

Despite the general unity among all religions when it comes to the law and morality, Christianity is unique in the possession of the Gospel.  The law is in us by nature.  The Gospel, however, is foreign to us and foolishness to us in our natural state.  This natural instinct causes man to seek his solution through the law and is manifested in the Pelagian perversion of Christianity.  The problem with Pelagianism that makes it incompatible with Christianity is its inadequate understanding of the cross.  In rejecting the notion that a substitution was occurring on the cross, they seek to minimize it to being the ultimate moral example that man must imitate.  Their view purports that Christ did not actually save anyone, however, man must follow Christ’s example of obedience.  The predicament that is confronted with this view is its inability to be reconciled with the Scriptures.  The Scriptures teach that if it were possible for salvation to be achieved through the law then Christ died needlessly (Galatians 2:19-21).  Moreover, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).  If God punished Jesus for no particular reason, least of all our sins, wouldn’t this be demonstrable of a horrific cruelty? Essentially, there is no good explanation of the cross in this form of religion, which fundamentally denies its necessity and power.


The vital flaw with Pelagianism that was the source of this false view of the cross was a denial of the biblical doctrine of original sin.  As discussed in the previous chapter, this is a biblical doctrine affirmed by Jesus Himself.  Here in these verses further support is found by our Lord’s articulation of the condition of being born again.  This renewal is indispensable for our entrance into the kingdom of God due to the fallen nature we are born with, as Calvin indicates in the following comments on this verse: 


So the meaning is, that no man can be truly united to the Church, so as to be reckoned among the children of God, until he has been previously renewed.  This expression briefly what is the beginning of Christianity, and at the same time teaches us, that we are born exiles and utterly alienated from the kingdom of God, and that there is a perpetual state of variance between God and us, until he makes us altogether different by our being born again; for the statement is general, and comprehends the whole human race…By the phrase born again is expressed not the correction of one part, but the renovation of the whole nature.  Hence it follows, that there is nothing in us that is not sinful; for if reformation is necessary in the whole and in each part, corruption must have been spread throughout7.

The concept of being reborn implies the radical operation that the Spirit’s regeneration applies to us.  This work of regeneration is described as making a spiritually dead sinner alive (Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13-14).  In our fallen state we are unable to respond to the call of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 2:14; Romans 8:7), because we are at enmity with God (Colossians 1:21; Romans 1:18-25).  However, when the Spirit performs His work of revivification (Titus 3:4-7) it transforms a spiritually dead sinner enabling him to respond to the call of the Gospel positively in faith.

It is the Gospel that is the only power of salvation for those who believe (Romans 1:16) and those who believe are synonymous with those who are born again.  This is truly good news.  Although, men are guilty by nature, hate God and would remain rebellious to His rule unto eternal damnation, He chose not to leave us in this state of misery.  He would have been perfectly justified to leave us in Adam, dead in sin and unable to save ourselves.  However He sent His Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, to bring redemption and reconciliation to us.  This work is then applied to us by the Holy Spirit who intrudes into our darken hearts granting us the ability to receive this good news through faith.

The Gospel grants us life where there was only death and damnation apart from Christ.  Thus, being “born again” is the description given to the process where we are transferred from death to life.  This shift from life to death is so radical that it requires the analogy of being re-born to accurately describe its significance.  As Jesus indicates it distinguishes those who are worthy to enter the kingdom of God from those who are not.  The intensity of this label may not affect us today as it should, since it became a buzzword in the modern evangelical movement.  (More than likely understood improperly by many of those who used the phrase).  However, the drastic nature of this label is indicative of Nicodemus’ response whose reply is illustrative of its extreme description.

The error of Pelagianism denies these fundamental biblical truths, beginning with its denial of original sin.  This natural tendency with fallen man to deny the biblical diagnosis of being dead in sin through Adam is the starting point.  The emphasis then leads to denying the Gospel and emphasizing moral improvement through man’s own volition.  When the Gospel is denied it no longer needs to be preached and is replaced with sermons focused solely on the law.  (Or the law-light indicative of the popular terminology of tips, keys or purposes)  There is nothing distinctively Christian about this point of view, yet finds its way into Church through men such as Charles Finney.


Fortunately, men like Finney and Pelagius were wrong and there is good news for us to be found in the wonderful redemption that Christ has earned.  We do not need to rely on our efforts to fulfill the law, since Christ has obeyed the law completely in our stead.  Faith comes by hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which we believe through the aid of the Holy Spirit who causes us to be born again.  This intrusion or in breaking of the Spirit grants us access into the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God, which is breaking in on this age every time the Word is properly preached, the Sacraments are rightly administered, and a spiritually dead person is born again into this covenant community. It is this topic that we will explore in our next question.







6 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elentic Theology (Phillpsburg, NJ, P&R 1992) p 534


7 John Calvin (1550) Commentary on the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ According to John (Calvin’s Commentaries, 17; Baker, 2005) p 108














  1. those who believe are synonymous with those who are born again.

    Are you telling me that there are not two levels of Christians, e.g. born-again Christians and non-born-again Christians? Or that the phrase “born-again Christian” is redundant?

    FWIW, I was hoping for a little delving into the meaning of the Greek work from which we get “born-again” and how it interacts with “born from above”.

  2. work=word

  3. You got it there are no Christians who are not born again.

    The term born from above is disputed….

    In his commentary Calvin points out that the adverb ανωθεν is properly translated again in this passage. Although the adverb can be translated from above as Erasmus and Cyril would suggest, the context and the fact that the term is reflecting a conversation that took place originally in Hebrew (Aramaic) suggest otherwise.

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