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.
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.