“Ye Must be Born Again”

Christ’s counsel to Nicodemus that “ye must be born again” (John 3:7) with its assertion that one must be born again to enter the Kingdom of God is arguably the favourite verse of Protestant Evangelicals. It certainly formed the bedrock of Evangelical preaching and the goal of such preachers as Billy Graham. The phrase left the subculture of Evangelicalism and entered the conceptual landscape and the vocabulary of mainstream American culture with the (then) Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, who surprised the mainstream media with his candid admission that he had been born again and that this formed the foundation of his life. The phrase “being born again” is now almost synonymous with Protestant Evangelicalism, and often functions as a kind of verbal denominational tag. Since the phrase also appears in the baptismal liturgy of the Orthodox Church (when the priest refers to the baptismal candidates as those “wishing to be born again through my unworthy ministry”) it is worth asking two questions: 1) “What precisely does it mean to enter the Kingdom of God?” and 2) “What does it mean to be born again?” The answers are not quite what Dr. Billy Graham might have thought during his preaching crusades.

What is the Kingdom of God?

For some people, “entering the Kingdom” (or “seeing the Kingdom”; Christ uses both terms in His conversation with Nicodemus) is synonymous and indistinguishable from being saved from the fires of hell and having eternal life. Given the identity of such concepts, this means that everyone who has not been born again is eternally lost and will be damned at the Last Judgment. Such a conclusion was, in Dr. Graham’s time anyway, held by almost all of those urging their hearers to become born again, and it added an unmistakable note of urgency to Evangelical preaching. In this model, everyone on earth was lost and lived in the certainty of future damnation unless they could be plucked like a brand from the burning through becoming born again. I would suggest however that this is not quite what the Scriptures teach. The concept of the Kingdom of God is not to be equated with a kind of eternal fire insurance, but is richer, deeper, and more complex. When one looks away for a moment from Evangelical presuppositions (and those of western Christianity generally) to those of first-century Judaism (and the writings of St. Paul), one sees a subtle difference.

Take for example the encounter of Christ with a Jewish ruler, narrated in Matthew 19:16f and its synoptic parallels. In this story a man asks Jesus, “What good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” (in Mark’s version: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”), and Jesus answers him, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”   In response to the man’s further question, “Which ones?”, Jesus refers him to the ones enshrining our responsibility to our neighbour rather than (for example) the ones referring to ritual purity, saying that he should not commit murder or adultery or theft, that he should not bear false witness, that he should honour his parents and love his neighbour. The list is obviously typical and not comprehensive, but His main point is clear: to enter into life in the age to come and be spared eternal punishment, one should live as a good Jew, striving to love God and one’s neighbour. Christ elsewhere referred to such submission as the essence of all that God wanted from us, the entirety of the message of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:36f).

The man responded that he was in fact keeping all these commandments, but still felt a lack, a void, a hunger for something more. Christ did not rebuke the man as if his professed obedience to the Law was delusional or wrong. In Mark’s version of the story it says that Christ felt a love for the man (Mark 10:21) indicating that He believed and accepted his testimony. He also saw that the man was ready for something more than mere life in the age to come—namely the adventure of entering the Kingdom of God here and now. Entering the Kingdom was not synonymous with getting through heaven’s gates upon death; it referred to a present reality. In Luke’s Gospel, Christ said that ever since John the Baptist’s ministry, the gospel of the Kingdom of God was being preached “and everyone is forcing his way into it” (Luke 16:16). Entering the Kingdom of God therefore meant a present experience God’s power, and was not to be equated simply with being spared at the Last Judgment at the end. Christ therefore held out the possibility of becoming “perfect” (Greek teleios)—a word meaning not “sinless”, but “mature, reaching the goal/ telos”. If the man wanted such an experience of God in this age, he must cast aside his old life with all its ambitions and agendas and become a disciple of Jesus—that what was it meant to enter the Kingdom of God. Sadly, the man was not up to the proffered adventure.

The point is that entering the Kingdom is not the same as merely being spared from hell at the Last Judgment, though of course it includes it. Entering the Kingdom refers to a present experience of becoming God’s son and heir, of cleansing, of transformation and renewal, of living fearlessly and in joy. The man talking to Christ already was on the way to eternal life; Christ was offering him something else now, something more.

This means that the Evangelical picture of all non-regenerate persons being damned at the Last Judgment requires some tweaking. The issue for everyone at the Last Judgment is whether or not that person has kept the commandments, and tried their best to love God and their neighbour, fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. St. Paul holds this possibility out even for the pagans who had never heard of the Jewish Law and the Prophets, saying that even if they did not have the Law, but nonetheless did “instinctively [Greek phusei, “by nature”], the things of the Law” this showed that they had “the work of the Law written in their hearts” and that they would therefore be “justified” (Romans 2:13-15). St. Paul is quite clear: at the Last Judgment a man will be judged for “his works [done] in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). That was the understanding of first-century Judaism, and St. Paul confirms that it was right. To be spared the fires of hell, one did not necessarily need to be born again, but “to persevere in doing good” (Romans 2:7), for God “will render to every man according to his works” (v. 6).

For most people, of course, who do not “do good”, but are plunged in sin and rebellion against God’s Law and dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), the bad news of God’s judgment against sin comes at the same time they hear of the good news of the Kingdom of God. They are not in the same position as the ruler who once spoke with Christ, and for them the possibility of entering into life coalesces with the possibility of entering the Kingdom. The situation of Jews in first-century Palestine, however much it may clarify the difference between entering into life and entering into the Kingdom, is nonetheless not their situation. Our mandate is to preach the Kingdom, and with it, the certainty of eternal life for those who respond.

What does it mean to be born again?

The phrase “born again” also needs some tweaking, if not rescuing from its narrowly individualistic Evangelical environment. First of all, the word “again” [Greek anothen] in the phrase “born again” is better rendered “from above”, so that Christ is not counselling a repetition of the first birth, but a completely new kind of birth “from above”—i.e. from God, the phrase “above” being a Jewish circumlocution for the divine Name. Christ connects this rebirth with “water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), the water clearly being a reference to the water in which His disciples were immersed at baptism. This was the unanimous conclusion of the early church, and undergirds such references to baptism as found in St. Paul when he speaks of “the washing of rebirth” (Titus 3:5) and of Christians being “cleansed by the washing of water with the Word” (Ephesians 5:26).

But this rebirth should not be construed in purely individualistic terms, as a simple synonym for personal moral renewal. Its context is cosmic. Thus when Christ refers to the Twelve receiving their reward in the age to come, He speaks of them sitting on their thrones “in the regeneration” [Greek paliggenesia]. The reference is to the time when the whole world will be reborn, transformed, when it becomes a place where the lion lies down with the lamb and righteousness is finally at home. Christ’s death and resurrection saves and transforms the whole cosmos, not just the human beings within it, for it brings peace to things on earth and things in heaven (Colossians 1:20). Our baptismal new birth gives us a share in this coming cosmic renewal: even now we have the hope of deathless joy, of unshakable peace, and of eternal immortality. Eventually the Spirit will flood the whole cosmos, but even now in this age we can receive that Spirit as an arrabon, a pledge, a down-payment, of the renewal and cosmic rebirth to come (Ephesians 1:14). Being born again means that even now we belong to this age to come. The new birth from above thus primarily effects our status, and only through this our personal moral transformation. The latter is a fruit of the former. Our extended Orthodox baptismal liturgy describes this state as being “no more a child of the body, but a child of the Kingdom”. We now belong to another world. Being born again therefore is of cosmic significance, for it means that we now belong not to this age with its flags, national loyalties, and partisan agendas. Though we are in this age, we are no longer of it. Once we were Jews or Gentiles; now we have become part of a third race, the Church of the living God, and we live with an entirely new set of loyalties. To be born again effects and alters our fundamental allegiances, and transplants us into the coming reborn world, so that even now we live as citizens of that world.



  1. Thank you Father for this and many other great posts. Is it correct then to say that if someone has not heard of Jesus Christ and the good news, but tried to love God (his / her concept of God) and neighbours and live righteously, that person would be spared at the last Judgment; but a person who has heard of the good news and rejects it (i.e. does not enter into the Kingdom) would have a harder time at the Judgment, even though they tried to live a good live? (I guess I cannot add that they loved God, since they would have accepted the good news {of Jesus becoming man to save us} if they really loved him)?

    1. Yes, partly. What saves or damns a soul is what they do with the light that they have received. If they are trying to live according to the light of righteousness and repentance and then receive more light in the form of the Gospel, then I believe they will accept the Gospel. We find such a coalescence of how one lives one’s life and one’s acceptance of the truth in John’s Gospel: “Everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light lest his works should be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his works my be manifested as having been wrought in God (3:20-21). The life orientation to the light and openness to the light which results in living righteously also results in accepting the truth when one finally finds it in Jesus Christ.

  2. Father, thank you for sharing your insights. Alas, I am not as gifted and am having trouble reconciling what I am understanding of your post with, for example, Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast”. I have previously understood that our heavenly rewards (crowns) would be “works based” but that our salvation was independent of works. Would you address my confusion-or perhaps that is a subject for a future post?

    1. The word rendered “faith” is the Greek pistis, in Galatians 5:22 rendered “faithfulness”. We are thus saved by our faithfulness to God, our love for Him, clinging to Him, keeping His commandments (thus Mt. 19:17), living in a way which strives to please Him (thus James 2:24 which says we are saved by our works). Luther was completely wrong when he conceived of faith being simply trusting God apart from how we lived. We will be judged according to whether or not we strived to love Him (thus 2 Cor. 5:10 which says we will be judged according to our works). It is wrong to separate “rewards” (as works based) from “salvation” (as faith based); both are based on how we lived and whether or not we loved and obeyed God. When Eph. 2 says that this is “not from yourselves; it is the gift of God” it refers to the salvation, not the faith. The “works” to which St. Paul refers as not being able to save are works of the Law–i.e. Jewish rigorism. This is clear from his reference in the next breath to “the circumcision” (Eph. 2:11f) and clearer still from his more detailed references in Gal. 2:16f. I deal with the issue of soteriology more fully in my hour-long lecture (given in South Carolina under the provocative title “Who Goes to Hell?”–my sponsors’ title, not mine) found on Ancient Faith Radio.

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. My niggle is that the “good” thief, who obtained salvation, had no good works (or did he?). I will listen to your lecture-perhaps you address this there. Thanks again.

        1. Salvation is the result of repenting and committing oneself to a life of pistis, faithfulness to God. The Wise Thief (as he is called in Orthodox hymnography) was “justified in a single moment” (as the hymn says) because he made this decision to repent and amend his life. If he had lived another decade and not carried out his decision to amend and live faithfully, he would not have been saved. But since he did not live that long, the point is moot. Salvation is a process extending throughout one’s life, and one’s pistis/ faithfulness to God needs to be lifelong, not simply episodic and confined to a moment of one’s past. In the case of the wise thief, the rest of his life consisted of a couple of hours. But he is still a model (hence the hymn): one needs to turn to Christ and live whatever time is left for Him.

    2. Evangelicals would argue that rigorism/legalism is the natural outcome of this paradigm of “works” based righteousness. If indeed salvation is something we attain by our own faithfulness, there is no rest in striving for new levels of perfection, or the levels of penance required to achieve it. This is also what bothered Luther…he realized that his righteousness at its best is still “filthy rags” and that salvation must be based on something far more powerful than his own faithfulness. If indeed the law was sufficient, then Christ died in vain. It’s also why Evangelicals emphasize being “born again”, for this ontological change is the result of embracing his finished work and entering his rest. If you haven’t been regenerated in Him, then you are still trying to earn your own salvation your own way, and isn’t this the key attribute of all world religions? Christianity is not in this category. Christianity turns religion on it’s head, for is the story of God’s quest of man, not man’s quest of God.

      1. Luther perversely infers that the only alternative to his own idiosyncratic view is that of “earning” salvation. But when Christ told the man that in order to “enter into life” he must “keep the commandments” He was not bidding him to “earn his salvation” but live in such a way that strove to please God. It was this relationship of loving God that was saving, which Paul calls (significantly) “the obedience of faith”. Evangelicals misread the NT when they say this obedience of faith means that there is “no rest in striving to achieve salvation” and when they imagine that the one living in the obedience has no assurance of being accepted by God. The Orthodox say that salvation is not “achieved” but bestowed in the sacraments, which in turn presupposes a life of continual love for God in His Church.

        1. Thanks for that fair answer. Two follow up questions: (1) When scripture speaks of regeneration, do Orthodox believe that something ontologic occurs in the human inner man? Is there a literal spiritual transformation, perhaps in a seedlike form, in the human nous at baptism? And two, since as Christians we all believe that Jesus is the way, truth, and life, at what point do these pagans who implicitly follow the “law written on their hearts” actually objectively embrace the Lord? At death? At the final judgment?

          1. What good questions! To answer: 1) Yes, Orthodox believe that regeneration effects the inner man at baptism; 2) I can only guess, of course, since Scripture does not give us the complete roadmap we might wish, but I think that when everyone crosses over at death they then see the truth that they have either embraced implicitly and imperfectly or rejected. The pagans who have striven to serve the truth and follow the light then see the truth of the Christian Faith. I believe that they then wait for the final judgment in Sheol/ Hades/ the land of the dead, (unlike confessing regenerated Christians, who upon death are with the Lord), but will be spared at the final judgment. But, as said above, certainty about such details must remain elusive.

  3. Thanks for those answers. Just one more thing for now. You stated that Evangelicals err in thinking that an orthodox “living in obedience has no assurance of being accepted by God.” I’ve been under the assumption that neither Orthodox or Catholics have any doctrine of assurance. Am I wrong here? I can relate to the idea of not having a “final” assurance (and the need to endure to the end), but in our day to day walk I think it reasonable to have a confidence/boldness in his grace that we are accepted and “in the family.” Without this I feel I’d always be living in some kind of morbid feeling of condemnation which of course seems patently dismissed in the first few verses of Romans 8. How do Orthodox approach this?

    1. Orthodox theology teaches that our assurance is in the mercy of God in Christ, which we access through our response to that mercy. Thus from the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom: “It was You who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away You raised us up again and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven and had endowed us with Your Kingdom which is to come”. The difference in approach is not in the degree of assurance, but in the understanding of salvation as a process as well as a possession. We continually find salvation as we continue to repent. Thus also the prayer said as one approaches the Eucharistic Chalice: “It is good for me to cleave to God and to place in the Lord the hope of my salvation”. Because our relationship with God is dynamic, our salvation is dynamic also–including our assurance of that salvation. It is as old as St. Paul: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who is at work among you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure”.

  4. Thank you Fr. Farley,

    I have been thinking of baptism largely in terms of of the exorcism prayers. I have seen baptism as salvific in the sense that before baptism the person was under the “powers” and alienated from life of God in the covenant community. The covenant community is the place where the Kingdom of God is present. So, to remove the alienation God forgives the past trangressions, releases the person from Satanic bondage, and gives them acceptance among His people – “saving” them – provided they continue in repentance, good works expressed as love for God, etc. So, if I’m right here, baptism places the person in the covenant community where they can now “work out their salvation” aided by the Grace of God – but this by no means guarantees that they will. God has invited them into his “household” but they must stay in the household for any benefit to come from having been there. So, it is very conditional. All is Grace from God, no works to keep up your salvation or merit it, but an ongoing believing loyalty. Baptism would only save from hell then because the covenant community is the place where those who are believing and loyal are finally saved in the most ordinary sense – “there is no salvation outside the church.” So baptism saves us from Satan, alienation, our sins, etc.. buy graciously “transferring” us from kingdom to another.

    Would you be comfortable with my wording?

    Matthew Lyon

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