What does it mean to be “born again”?

When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born again” in order to see the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3), does he have in mind the Protestant doctrine of personal regeneration? Or is he saying that Israel, represented by the devout Pharisee Nicodemus, is in need of national regeneration? Or neither? Or both?

The traditional view can be illustrated by a statement from John Piper, quoted by Mark Driscoll:

What Nicodemus needs, and what you and I need, is not religion but life. The point of referring to new birth is that birth brings a new life into the world. In one sense, of course, Nicodemus is alive. He is breathing, thinking, feeling, acting. He is a human created in God’s image. But evidently, Jesus thinks he’s dead. There is no spiritual life in Nicodemus. Spiritually, he is unborn. He needs life, not more religious activities or more religious zeal. He has plenty of that.

In this understanding Nicodemus epitomizes the negative side of the classic Reformed antithesis between dead religious works and living personal faith. To be born again is to be saved. We all need it—you, me, Nicodemus. Driscoll goes on to explain:

Being born again is theologically summarized as the doctrine of regeneration, which is the biblical teaching that salvation includes both God’s work for us at the cross of Jesus and in us by the Holy Spirit. To say it another way, regeneration is not a separate work of the Holy Spirit added to the saving work of Jesus; rather, it is the subjective actualization of Jesus’ work.

A less traditional, newer perspective is put forward cogently in an essay by Derrick Olliff entitled ‘The Eschatology of Being “Born Again” ’, highlighted by davo recently:

The standard Evangelical view sees this need for regeneration being directed to individuals in general. Instead, I believe that the object of rebirth being spoken of here was the nation of Israel…. I do not think the subject in this passage is the kind of inner transformation that Protestants usually talk about. Jesus was not here giving a timeless description of how an individual is inwardly transformed from one who hates God to one who loves Him. Rather, He was describing the historical fulfillment of specific things promised under the old covenant. He was talking about a transformation from the old covenant order to the new covenant order.

Now, normally, I would be all in favour of a reading that rescues Jesus’ teaching from the clutches of the Reformers and their descendants and puts it back in a narrative of national restoration. Olliff’s reconstruction gives a much better general account of the theme of regeneration in the New Testament than modern “born-again” theologies. It is the right way to approach Matthew 19:28, for example, where Jesus speaks of the authority that the “Son of Man” will have to judge Israel when the nation is “re-born” following judgment:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world (palingenesia), when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

But I don’t think it quite does justice to the conversation that actually takes place between Jesus and Nicodemus.

The basic problem with both lines of interpretation is that neither addresses the distinction in Jesus’ argument between being born “from above” (anōthen) and seeing or entering the kingdom of God. Jesus tells this ruler of the Jews that a person must be born from above in order to “see the kingdom of God”, that he and other rulers of Israel—note the plural pronoun in verse 5—must be “born of water and of the Spirit” if they are to enter the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3, 5).

In effect, Reformed theology subsumes entering the kingdom of God under being born again; Olliff subsumes being born again under entering the kingdom of God. But I think Jesus differentiates here between what happens to an individual and what God is doing with regard to Israel.

“Kingdom of God” is certainly a political theme: it has to do with the transformation that will come about with régime change—when God acts to overthrow the “ruler of this world” (cf. Jn. 12:31) and instate his Son as King. John tells the story in a different idiom from the rest of the New Testament, but it is the same story. The question raised in John 3:1-15, however, is this: What will it take for the rulers of Israel—and no doubt the “Jews” more broadly—to see and enter into this transformation? The answer is that they need to become different people; they need to be born a second time from above, of water and the Spirit. The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is about the personal implications of the political.

A close parallel in the Synoptic Gospels is the story of the young ruler (Matt. 19:16-29; Mk. 0:17-30; Lk. 18:18-30). Like Nicodemus he was a righteous man but he needed to leave his old way of life behind, burn all his bridges, in order to follow Jesus and inherit the life of the age that would come after the catastrophe of the Jewish War. In this slightly different sense, he needed to be born again.

So I would suggest that Mark Driscoll and Derrick Olliff are both partly right. Nicodemus needed to be personally “regenerated”, he needed to become a different person, he needed to leave behind his old world and worldview, he needed to be baptized, he needed to be filled with the Spirit, in order to be included in, rather than excluded from, the restoration of Israel. He needed to be “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13).

Jesus had a particular dispute with the rulers of Israel, under particular eschatological circumstances, and we should not lose sight of the narrative. In this respect, Olliff is much more partly right than Driscoll. But I see no objection here to using the language of being “born from above” today. The people of God in principle—it’s not always so obvious in practice—represents, actually and symbolically, God’s new creation. To become part of that new creation is to leave behind an old world and enter a new world, over which Jesus is King, where the living God is vicariously present through his Spirit. It is to put off the old anthropos and put on a new anthropos (cf. Eph. 4:22-24). It is to be born again.

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Doug in CO | Mon, 09/24/2012 - 16:13 | Permalink

I think you are right that it’s a combination of both.  You can get a coherent reason for this by realizing that the NT narrative is about covenant transformation from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant (which is why dispensationalists are fundamentally confused and are completely incapaple of realizing that they are so).  Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that he has to walk away from the status created by his old birth (which Paul describes in detail as counting all things as loss for the sake of Christ) to a new birth.  Nicodemus’ status in life (position as a Pharisee, claim to access to the promises of God through the OC, etc.) was created by his membership in the Old Covenant.  Jesus is telling him to personally walk away from that to join a new corporate entity under the New Covenant (via Romans 7:1-6).  This might be one reason that when you get to the Gentile evangelization you don’t hear a lot of talk of being “born again”.  They don’t need to be “born again”, they need to be “born”.  There are two crises in the NT.  First, Jews need to be be born again into the New Covenant, a spiritual birth into a spiritual people,  promised to them by God in several places including Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  Second, the Gentiles need to be born spiritually into this new spiritual people as well.  A great deal of confusion is caused by applying passages aimed at one part of the crisis to the wrong audience.


Some interesting thoughts, Doug, but isn’t this more than Jesus says? He doesn’t talk about covenant. He talks about kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is the eschatological outcome of the end of the Old Covenant and the transition to the New Covenant.  If you look closely at Deuteronomy 32 it is clear that both Christ and Paul quote it (Deut. 32:5 (and probably Deut. 32:20) in Matt. 17:17, and Deut. 32:21 in Romans 10:19) so that the crisis proposed in Deuteronomy 32 that would result in vengeance against God’s enemies and salvation to God’s faithful was being played out in real time in the 1st Century.  Christ and the Apostles taught this as their core message.  The Kingdom of God in view in the OT was only available after God had vengeance against his enemies.  The salvation of his faithful people and the Gentiles they were able to draw was only offered in the New Covenant.  So, I think they are deeply connected and were in Christ’s mind throughout his ministry (and those of the Apostles).

What had always been confusing to me (growing up as a dispensationalist) until I realized function of Deut. 32 is why Christ was giving Nicodemus a hard time?  Surely the salvation of believers in Christ explained in Protestant theology was basically unheard of in the Old Testament (dispensationalists explicitly call it a mystery) so that I felt sorry for Nicodemus.  But, the passage seems clear to me that Nicodemus should have known was was coming, so that whatever interpretation you come up with has be cleanly explain this failure on his part.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Pharisees and dispensationalists see a physical theocratic and military kingdom as the fulfillment of Israel’s eschatology so that they are completely incapable of seeing the narrative for what it is.



Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding… You got it exactly right!

The thing most people don’t realize concering Israel needing to be “born again” verses just being “born” (the gentile) is it’s all connected back to Adam.  Because Adam was only Israel’s beginning (not the Gentiles) who God created covenant with and thus were under “the death” due to Adam’s “the sin”, only Israel needed re-birth out from under the Old Covenant/law, which Paul called a covenant of death, and into their New Covenant (a covenant of life) via her Messiah, her second Adam.  The Gentile would then get to “share in their spiritual blessings” (Romans 15:27) and be grafted into the vine (the new spiritual Israel).

CorcoranRich | Mon, 09/24/2012 - 19:11 | Permalink

In reply to by Rich

I’m sorry, but wasn’t Adam the beginning of Jews and Gentiles, or am I missing some other group of people?

Anyway, Andrew, I have a hard time believing this is an authentic saying of Jesus. The key part of the conversation involves a pun of two Greek words. Since Jesus didn’t speak Greek, it would have been a nonsensical conversation in Aramaic.

I’m not saying that the concept isn’t interesting or not worth discussing, but I think we should at least recognize that it reflects (like a lot of John) theological development of a later time. John’s Jesus doesn’t talk about the Kingdom, unlike the Synoptics, in which it was his singular focus.

There is an argument that the logion about being born again and entering the kingdom of God circulated independently of John. Justin appears not to have known John’s Gospel but has this statement:

For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all.” (Apol. 61)

How much that proves, I don’t know. I take your general point.


but wasn’t Adam the beginning of Jews and Gentiles

No.  It’s that presupposition (among a few others) that is killing Christendom in its endeavor to understand the Scriptures and make sense of many passages.  If its foundation is wrong, all one can expect to happen is for there to be a thousand different interpretations of the text, which we have.

Adam was Israel’s beginning.  He was not the first human being to exist.  The creation account is about the creation of Adam’s covenant world, which was the world that ended in AD 70.  Once one understands this and is open to it many of Paul’s words will start making sense.  For example, Paul talks about Christ make one new man out of the two (Eph. 2:15).  What two men is he referring to?  The body of Adam (Israel), and the Gentile man.  In Eph. 2:12 Paul states this concerning the Gentile, “….you were at time separated from Christ, alienated from the common wealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world”.


1) If God made a covenant with Adam (the beginning of the old Covenant) how can Paul say this concerning the Gentile?

2) If God also introduced a promise in Genesis 3:15 (among many promises made throughout the OT to Israel) which gave them, how could Paul say the Gentiles had no hope?

This whole entry concerning being “born again” is resurrection (of Israel) talk, is it not?  And aren’t many (even Andrew) finally coming to understand the corporate nature of Paul’s thought process? (see Bob McDonald’s comment and Andrew’s response).  Paul’s entire doctrine of resurrection is corporate.  What “body” do you think Paul is referring to in 1 Cor. 15?  It’s the corporate body of Israel via the corporate body of Christ!  It’s not a reference to man’s physical body; another presupposition that is killing Christendom.

When some asked  in 1 Cor. 15, “how are the dead raised?  With what body do they come in?”  Who is the “dead”?  What body are they referring to?

Without getting long and in depth the “dead” here is in reference to OC Israel.  The body they were to be raised in was the body of Christ.  In fact, Israel was already being raised in the body of Christ (Paul’s first-fruits in Romans).  If you look at the Greek here Paul uses the present passive throughout.  The question is really “how are the dead being raised?  With what body are the coming in?”

The issue involved here was the Gentiles, who had come to find life in Christ via the gospel and faith, couldn’t understand how long physically dead Israelites were to be raised.  For them since 1) the present (1st century) fleshly Israel was in a state of rejection of their Messiah, 2) many OC Israelites had physically died prior to Christ coming, they couldn’t understand what “body” those long dead Israelites were going to be raised in since they died prior to the Messiah coming.  This is why there is a distinction between the two people groups “the dead” and those “fallen asleep in Christ”.  But, Paul goes on to explain the corporate natural of Israel (which includes the individual) being raised in the body of Christ, which is all corporate.   His argument throughout 1 Cor. 15 is if you Gentiles reject Israel (the dead) from being raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either since Christ- Israel’s second Adam- was of Israel.  He then makes them realize that if they reject Israel from being raised, which would mean that Christ hasn’t been raised, then they too are still dead in their sins along with their fellow Gentiles who had physically died after placing their faith in Christ – those “fallen asleep in Christ”.  For Paul Israel had to be raised in order for the Gentile to saved.  The Gentile was to share in their spiritual blessings (Romans 15:27).  The Gentile –the wild olive shoot- had to be grafted into the root (Israel ) – Romans 11.  If the root doesn’t exist, then the Gentile had nothing to be grafted into.

I could go on and on, but to keep it short I’ll stop here.

May I suggest you download an audio presentation from the 2010 Covenant Creation Conference by Jerel Kratt on Adam as the first Covenant man.  I think you’ll enjoy it a lot.


Interesting point of view. I can agree that Adam was not the first human being, or that he was in some sense metaphorical, but I have a hard time reading that into the Genesis account.

As much as I like the attempt to put the entire bible into some sort of logical narrative, I think the plain reading of Genesis is that God created humans and Adam was the first.


reading Genesis on is own, without additional supportive texts (NT), will not yield Adam as merely the first Covenant man — for us reading it today from our western Greek mindset/worldview, anyway.  Although, just like the Bible does not set out to prove God exist, it just assumes that he does and that one knows this, the same is true in Genesis with Adam.  Today we must read Paul’s theology in the NT to see this, and once one does it jumps out in many places as an underlying foundation for Paul.

It’s no different than Christendom’s assumption that there was no sin (or death) prior to Adam sinning - how could there be since Adam was the first human to exist, right?  Problem is Romans 5:13 states otherwise.  Paul is clear that prior to “law” (not “the” law — no definite article in the Greek),  sin was in the world.

This is not new.  Many in the past understood this, such as Isaac de la Peyrere who in 1656 argued this quite well in his book Men Before Adam.

But, since this doesn’t jive with modern theology, and to avoid this truth, our translations insert the definite article “the” before law to try to pen this on Moses.  Here’s the problem though.  Paul stated in verse 13, “but sin is not counted where there is no law.”  Well, one only needs to real the OT prior to Moses and see God judge men for their sins.  What happen in Sodom and Gomorrah?  Or, why the Flood?  So much for it not being counted prior to the law!

There is much more to Romans 5 that this too.  In the Greek there is a definite article before the words “death” and “sin”, which are removed in our translations.  This is because Paul has in mind a very specific sin.  He has in mind Adam’s sin, in distinction to general sin that men commit.  The difference is Adam’s sin was in violation to a command of God (not to eat), the beginning of the Law (Mosiac law was added [Gal. 3:19]- added unto what?).  Adam sin introduced “the death”, which has nothing to do with physical death (in the day you eat you shall surely die — Ge. 2:17).  This was a death related only to Adam and his progeny (Israel) which is why they needed resurrected (many are finally seeing this corporate nature of Israel’s resurrection).  This was a covenant death, or fellowship death, that Israel was under.  This is why they needed their Messiah (their second Adam).

This is all related to 1 Cor. 15 too.  Even wonder why Paul could tie the Resurrection to the removal of the Law?  Paul in verse 56, “The sting of death in sin, and the power of sin is the law”.  So if the law (which was Israel’s law, not mankinds) was removed in the first century (AD 70), why didn’t the resurrection take place (assuming futurism’s theology and physical bodily resurrection)?  Removal of the Law should have yield resurrection according to Paul.

This is all related to Rev. 20 too.  Even wonder why there were dead ones given up out of 1) the sea, 2) Death, & 3) Hades, yet only Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:13-14)?  What of the sea?

It’s because Death and Hades are only in relation to Israel.  Israel was under ”the death” due to Adam’s sin.  Hades consisted of Israelite’s that had died physically (the sea is a reference to the Gentile man) and “the death” was consisted of every Israelite, whether alive or dead. This was all destroyed in AD 70 when “the death” was destroyed along with the law, and Israel was “resurrected”.

You should listen to the audio presentation I provide a link to.  I think you will be challenged.

I just don’t see how you can explain Genesis through NT writings. Genesis was written 1,000 years before by someone not familiar with Corinthians or Revelation.

The author of Genesis had a point that was commonly accepted by readers for hundreds of years (at least). Whatever somebody wrote later doesn’t change that meaning.

Clearly, Genesis was written with the idea that adam was the first human, and he was created by God.

As a point of clarification, Rich is describing Covenant Creation/Covenant Eschatology which is a flavor of Full Preterism.  While I am impressed by some of their arguments and count a number of them to be friends, I am not persuaded that they are right.  So, what I’m proposing might coincide with some of their paradigm, but I’m not endorsing all of it.

One of the key points that needs to be addressed directly regarding John 3 is why Paul never uses the phrase “born again”.  It only appears in one place outside of John 3, which is 1st Peter 1, a passage explicitly written to members of the Dispersion (AKA, Jews or Israelites who’d been scattered by the various invasions).  Peter describes these former OC Israelites as having been “born again”, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptable.  Though the passage goes on to describe things associated with the temporary nature of physical flesh I think it’s worth keeping in mind that an inseparable element of the flesh of an Israelite is the narrative of the nation, the geneology, and the presumed privilege associated with these things.  When we are seeing references to “corruptible seed” I think it’s worth keeping in mind the passing nature of the Old Covenant per Hebrews as well as the nature of things that decompose such as grass.  It would have all been part of one identity to them.


Doesn’t this help us make better sense of what Jesus said in Mt 23:35?  In warning his detractors he said that the guilt of all the blood shed from Abel to Zechariah would come upon that generation.

Until now, I had always wondered why Israel should be guilty for the murder of Abel.


good point!  And there are a million more  passages that just dont make any sense under today’s faulty system.  


Might I suggests a book to you for an introduction to Covenant Creation?  Beyond Creation Science: New Covenant Creation from Genesis to Revelation, by Tim Martin and Jeff Vaughn  ( see amazon.com).  You might also download the MP3 I provided a link to above.

Your post raises a question for me that is in agreement with the singular-plural tension of both Psalms and Lamentations. In each of these books, an individual voice often stands as representative of the corporate reality. (Lam 3 is singular in contrast to Lam 1 and 2. Psalm 42-43 is singular in contrast to Psalm 44. All these chapters are about the same problem - exile. 

If it is hard for an individual ‘rich’ to submit to the rule of God, how much harder is it for a nation? What attitude is expressed by me-first as one of many that is not expressed by us-first as a nation among nations? If the right join house to house so that the poor have none, then in a time of financial collapse, is not God speaking to the corporate reality as well as to individual greed.

The plague came upon Israel. Individuals were affected and could escape one by one (or in a corporate ritual) by looking at the emblem of sin. What policy ‘today’ would allow the corporate also to be delivered — even to find the ‘securities’ that it so desperately seeks? 

(I was going to type rich, not right, but the keyboard said ‘right’. quod scripsi scripsi). Bill Morrow’s comment that the whole TNK is an extended meditation on goverance seems to me to be more and more accurate. Individual salvation is a contradiction in terms.

Steven Hunter | Fri, 09/28/2012 - 14:28 | Permalink

This passage was the most quoted baptismal text in the second century by the early fathers. 

And Jesus tells Nicodemus that “the Spirit is like the wind, it blows where it will”.

Being born again has nothing to do with our wills…but God’s…alone. 

Jesus told the Jews that “no man CAN come to me, except he be drawn (‘compelled’ is the better translation) by the Father.”

Great topic. Great comments.