Are You Born Again? Decoding the Question

John 3: 1-17

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.


Are you “Born-Again?” I have never known how to answer this question. I have had friends and pastors who have asked this question and when I blurt out unsatisfactory answers, I can see them turn out like quiz masters looking at hapless contestants “O I am afraid that’s the wrong answer.”  So what do people generally mean when they ask this question? Let us explore that. Generally, it has referred to an instantaneous moment of conversion, usually accompanied by an intense emotional experience, which is the sign of having truly accepted Christ as Saviour. For some church traditions, being ‘born again’ is the mark of being a true Christian – there are Christians and there are ‘born-again Christians’ It is treated by some as if it were a command from Christ: “What must I do to be saved?” “You must be born again!”

If I had a penny for every time I had been asked if I was ‘born-again’, as if it were a mark of my orthodoxy as a Christian Minister, I would be rich indeed!

Other church traditions suggest a slightly different idea: that to be ‘born again’ is a second conversion, if you like; the first being the moment when you decide for Christ and the second when you are filled with the Holy Spirit and receive the gifts of the Spirit, most importantly, speaking in tongues. Again, this creates a ‘two-tier’ system: Christians who are saved and Christians who are filled with the Spirit through having been born again. And, for that reason, most of these churches will teach a second baptism; being baptised as an adult to do the work that wasn’t really achieved through infant baptism.

There’s only one problem with this: Jesus doesn’t say, “You must be born again!” What he says is, “If someone is not born from above, they are not able to see the Kingdom of God.” And that is very different indeed…

So I want to discourage you from seeing this passage as an imperative from Jesus to ‘be born again’ in the sense that you are to make a one-off, personal decision for Christ that will be the root of your salvation and instead to see this passage for what it really says to us. It would make it our initiative, which is not the case

Now let us keep all the debates aside and try to approach the text in a different way. Have you ever felt that you are doing things for the heck of it, just a matter of habit and motion, rather than inner motivation and inspiration? You talk to people as formality and not sincerity. You do your work because you get the salary and not because you love your job. You are in a romantic relation and it is no more how it used to be. Phone calls used to be fun and long and now it is tedious and a routine. Prayers once upon a time used to be deep and sincere, now it is just words and a ritual. Worship and singing was exhilarating but now it’s a drab and you do it out of pressure from parents or fear of something untoward happening. Now why am I on this trail? I feel Nicodemus in this passage was like many of us who was burdened and bored by his religious life. He was no simple man. He was a scholar who had a Ph.D from Harvard in religion. He was a smart man. But he was doing things as routine and not out of inspiration. And here is where Jesus and Nicodemus meet. I am sure when Nicodemus came at night, he wanted no one to know that he met the foolish Rabbi that the Pharisees detested. So it is here in his routine, boring religious life that Jesus tells him in John 3:3 Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]” So the point is, if one has to see the Kingdom of God, you cannot live by your current understandings. That does not work there in the Kingdom. So you need to be “Born from above”, which is the accurate Greek to English translation. So what is Jesus asking Nicodemus and most of us? I am including myself in this. As Christians, we are just so as we are born in Christian families, forced and threatened to go to Sunday school, given a choice, Church is not the place we would go on Sundays, either we would love to sleep or do something more interesting. But we go to Church, attend worship and pray.  We have all done the above to be in the motion and not do through motivation. We have done all this as it has given us some comfort, but no matter what, it has only distanced us from God. So was the case with Nicodemus. He knew many laws and rules to live by. So if Nicodemus has to be born again, it is logical, he has to die to something. He has to die to his kingdom, where he is the king. I never realized that the part of Lord’s prayer is rather dangerous. “…Your Kingdom come”. It is an understanding where we say, we are ready to let go of our kingdom where we are kings and queens. Easier said than done. Nicodemus and us, have to die to our current understandings of being in control and doing things. We have to start anew. It is a radical call. A very important one, like “Deny yourself, carry your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). But if we have to be born again, we know that no one can decide to be born. I did not one day wake and say “Hey, I want to be born”. It is the mother who goes through the very painful process of giving birth. So if anyone asks the question “Are you born again?” There is a problem there. It makes it the person’s decision to do so which is flawed. So how are we born again? It is Jesus who is the mother who gives us birth through his painful death at the cross, and it is participating in His resurrection, we have a new life or are born again or are a new creation. Let me use Paul here to get it more clear.” We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4)

John 3: 5 says Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.

What does it mean to be born of the water? Just as a child cannot live without water within the uterus, you and I cannot live without the water of God inside of us and around us giving us life. Water, both in us and around us, gives us life, just as water is in the unborn child and around the unborn child when that child is in the uterus. In order to be spiritually alive, you must be cleansed by the waters of God. We need to have our sins washed away daily.

By nature, we are sinners. By nature, we get stressed out. By nature, we do all kinds of dumb things. And we constantly need our sinful lives washed clean with the cleansing waters of God’s forgiveness. God is constantly washing us of our sins. That is true of everybody here. There are no exceptions.

You never grow to become so religious that you outgrow the need to be daily washed of your sins.We are all equal here and there is no superior or inferior.

Now about the Spirit?

The Spirit, of course, is the Holy Spirit. But what is interesting in this passage is Jesus’ response to Nicodemus when he seems not to understand…

In verse 9, Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” And Jesus is really short with him, verse 10: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

Jesus is short with Nicodemus because, as a Pharisee learned in the Scriptures, his mind should have gone immediately to Ezekiel 37:5: “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord to you: ‘I will cause the spirit to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put the spirit in you, and you shall live.”

So this reference to being ‘born from above’ is a reference to the resurrection, which is promised to us as a result of us being united with Christ in his resurrection. And Jesus strengthens this teaching in verse 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It is the lifting up of Jesus on the cross that is the source of our salvation.

It is the resurrection of Jesus that is the source of our new life and, as Paul says, if we are united with Christ in his death, we will certainly be united with him in his resurrection.

Now was Nicodemus born again?   We can be fairly certain that Nicodemus did eventually get it, for the next time he is mentioned, playing a major role along with Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of the crucified body of Jesus (John 19:38-40), it looks very much as if he had decided to participate in the way of Jesus. Despite, or more likely because of, the metaphor, Nicodemus was born from above. He was ready to risk everything for Jesus.

My friends let me end. I have painstakingly written this so that we can reclaim this word “Born again” which is not a privilege of a select few or a sect of Christians. It is not the basis for creating Tier One and Tier Two Christians. It is not saying that infant baptism needs re-doing as an adult. It is not saying that we need to be baptised in the Spirit as a separate, conclusive event after being converted to Christ. It is not saying that this new state of being must be evidenced by speaking in tongues. It is much more simple than that…

“Unless you are born from above, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

It is a process we need to go through and a radical call. Christ has birthed us through the painful death on the Cross and in his resurrection we have new life. But we need to grow in our faith. The other problem with the emphasis alone on Born Again is, we make it as a one time event. This is not natural. Whoever is born, does not stop at that. What does s/he do? S/He grows. I am sure Nicodemus was just not born but he also grows into discipleship and faith as his  presence at the burial is evidence that ever since that conversation with Jesus he had been growing, growing in understanding and participation, on his way to maturity in the world of God alive.

So, birth. Then growth. The most significant growing up that any person does is to grow as a Christian. All other growing up is a preparation for or ancillary to this growing up. Biological and social, mental and emotional growing is all ultimately absorbed into growing up in Christ. Or not. The human task is to become mature, not only in our bodies and emotions and minds within ourselves, but also in our relationship with God and other persons.

As Paul says  “ Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” (Ephesians 4: 14-15). So my dear friends you are not just Born again, but also are called to be growing Christians in the resurrection of Christ.

Rev Merin Mathew

Bethel Mar Thoma Church

Kolar Road, Bhopal