“He must be born again.” Christ’s counsel to Nicodemus that he must be born again with its assertion that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God is arguably the favorite verse of Protestant Evangelicals. It’s certainly from the bedrock of Evangelical preaching and the goal of such preachers as Billy Graham. The phrase left this 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 it has formed the foundation of his life. The phrase “being born again” is 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. What precisely does it mean to enter the kingdom of God? And, two, what does it mean to be born again? The answers are not quite what Dr. Billy Graham might have thought during his preaching crusades. So 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 now 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 be 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 to be born again. I would suggest, however, that this was not quite what the Scriptures teach. The concept of the kingdom of God is not to be equated with 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 and its synoptic parallels. In this story, a man asks Jesus, “What good thing must I do so 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 neighbor 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 honor his parents and love his neighbor. Those are 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 neighbor. Christ elsewhere referred to such submission as the essence of all that God wanted from us, the entirety of the message in the Law and the Prophets.
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 right or wrong. In Mark’s version of the story it says that Christ felt a love for him, indicated that he believed and accepted his testimony. He also saw that the man was ready for something more 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 of God’s power, and it 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, which is the word teleios, meaning not sinless but mature, reaching the goal, or the 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 was what was meant: to enter the kingdom of God. Sadly, the man was not up to the proffered adventure.
The point is that entering the kingdom of God 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 was already on the way to eternal life. Christ was offering him something else now, something more. This means that the Evangelical picture of all non-regenerated 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 neighbor, fulfilling the Law and the Prophets.
St. Paul holds this possibility out for even the pagans who had never heard of the Jewish law and the prophets, saying that if they did not have the Law, nonetheless but did instinctively, or as the Greeks say, 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. This is Romans 2:13ff. St. Paul is quite clear. At the Last Judgment, a man will be judged by his works done in the body according to what he has done, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10). That this was the understanding of first-century Judaism and St. Paul confirms that it was right. To be spared from 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 engaged in sin and rebellion against God’s law, dead in trespasses and sins, the bad news of God’s judgment against sin comes at the same time that they hear 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, therefore, is to preach the kingdom, and with it the certainty of eternal life for those who respond.
So 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,” the Greek enothen, of the phrase “born again,” is better rendered “from above,” so that Christ is not counseling a repetition of the first birth, but a completely new kind of birth from above, that is, from God, the phrase “from above” being a Jewish circumlocution for the divine name.
Christ connects this rebirth with water and the spirit, the water clearly being a reference to the water used by the disciples who 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. That’s when Christ refers to the Twelve, receiving first their reward in the age to come, speaks of them sitting on their thrones in their regeneration. Greek used the word palingenesia. 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 human beings within it. For it brings peace to things on earth and to things in heaven.
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 birth to come (cf. Ephesians 1:14).
Being born again means that, even now, we belong to this age to come. The rebirth from above thus primarily affects 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 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. We live with an entirely new set of loyalties. To be born again affects and alters our fundamental allegiances and plants us in the coming, reborn world, so that even now we live as citizens of that world.