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Have You Really Been "Born Again"?

Are you really born again?Religious people often speak about the New Birth and "born again Christians." What does the Bible say is involved in this spiritual rebirth? Does it require hearing, learning, and believing the gospel (faith)? What role do obedience and baptism play? 

What are the "water" and the "Spirit" in John 3:5? Are you really "born again?"

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One of the most common expressions used by some sincere religious people is "born again": "born-again Christians," "born-again believers," etc. The way the expression is used sometimes makes one wonder whether folks really understand the Bible meaning of the term.

In this study, let us consider exactly how a person is "born again"

How does a person know whether he has been born again? Is it possible to think we have been born again when we really have not been? Some will reply that, to be born again you must accept Jesus as your personal Savior. But how does this happen? What does the Bible say?

I. How Important Are Hearing and Believing?

Must One Hear the Gospel?

1 Peter 1:22-25 - We are "born again" by the incorruptible seed, which is God's word (v23), the gospel preached to you (v25).

When a person is born physically, he becomes a child in a family. When one is born again, he becomes a spiritual child of God, a member of God's family. This process is similar to the birth of animals or the reproduction of plants. Birth is the product of seed that is planted, germinates, and produces a new organism.

Spiritually, the seed by which we become children of God is God's word (cf. Luke 8:11). This is planted in men's hearts when they hear the gospel. If they then believe and obey the gospel, they become "born again" as Christians. (Cf. James 1:18; 1 Cor. 4:15.)

Galatians 6:7 - But seed reproduces after its kind. "Whatever a man sows..."

So, one must be sure that the seed (message) he hears and believes is really the true gospel. If one plants the wrong seed in his garden, he will not grow the kind of plant he wants. And if one accepts some a spiritual message that is different from the gospel, he would not really be born again, even though he might think he had been.

Must One Believe the Gospel?

John 1:12 - To have the power or right to become a child of God ("born again"), one must believe in Jesus.

A popular tract entitled "Have You Been Born Again?" says, "The moment a lost sinner repents of his sins and trusts Jesus as the only One who can save Him [sic], he is born again." But note that the Scripture does not say that believing immediately makes one a child of God. It says that believing gives one the right or power to become a child of God.

I once bought a ticket to a college football game, but the weather turned out so bad I did not go. The ticket gave me the power to enter the stadium, but did not automatically make me a spectator. Other things had to happen afterward.

We often receive letters saying we have been approved for charge cards (or a loan). The approval gives us the power to get the card, but that does not mean we automatically have the card. Other things have to happen.

So faith gives you the power to become a child of God, but by itself it does not automatically and immediately make you a child of God. Other things still have to happen afterward.

John 1:13 - We can by born again only by following God's will, not man's will.

Remember, God's word is the seed that makes children of God. Other seeds, especially man-made doctrines, do not have the power to save.

It follows that the only way you or I can know we are born again is by knowing what the word of God says about it. If a person was taught and followed doctrine that differs from God's word, he would not be truly born again, no matter what he may think about it.

Note Galatians 1:8,9; Matthew 15:9,13; 7:21-23; 2 John 9-11; Jeremiah 10:23; Proverbs 14:12; 3:5,6.

Other Passages Show the Need to Hear and Believe the Gospel.

These passages may not directly mention being born again, but they show that hearing and believing are necessary to salvation.

John 6:44,45 - You cannot come to Jesus without hearing, learning, and being taught God's word.

John 8:31,32,24 - To be made free from sin, you must know the truth and believe in Jesus.

Romans 1:16 - The gospel is the power of God to save those who believe.

Romans 10:17 - Faith comes by hearing God's word.

What about you? Do you believe you have been born again? If so, you must be able to find in the Scriptures where God says to do what you did. Can you find passages that say you can be born again by doing what you did? Have you considered all that God's word says on the subject?

[John 6:63; Hebrews 11:6; John 3:3-7; Gal. 3:26,27]

II. How Important Is Obedience, Including Baptism?

As quoted earlier, a common doctrine teaches that, after a person believes, there is nothing left to do in order to be "born again." In particular, many folks believe that baptism is important but is not essential in order to become a saved child of God.

Yet we have learned that believing, though essential, only gives the right to become a child of God. What else is needed?

How Important Is Obedience?

1 Peter 1:22-25 said that we are born again by God's word. But v22 adds that we must obey the truth in order to purify our souls. We are born again by the word only when we do what it instructs us to do!

Many other scriptures confirm that obedience is necessary in order to receive forgiveness by Jesus' blood. Note a few of them:

Romans 6:17,18 - We are made free from sin as a result of obeying the doctrine delivered from God.

Hebrews 5:9 - Jesus is the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.

2 Thessalonians 1:8,9 - Those who do not obey the gospel will be punished with everlasting destruction.

Matthew 7:21-23 - Some who believed in Jesus will yet be condemned because they did not do the will of the Father.

So obedience is necessary, in addition to faith, in order to be born again.

How Important Is Baptism?

Notice now in particular whether or not baptism is required to become a child of God.

2 Corinthians 5:17 - If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.

"New creation" is another way of saying "born again" (this should be obvious, and we will confirm it as we proceed). To be a new creation, one must be "in Christ" - in a relationship of fellowship and harmony with Christ. Surely no one can be born again if he is still outside Christ. (Note also 2 Tim. 2:10; Eph. 1:7; 1 John 5:11,12; Rom. 8:1.)

So to know how to be born again, we need to know how to come "into Christ." What does the Bible say?

Romans 6:3,4 - We are "baptized into Christ."

If so, how could anyone be in Christ without baptism or before baptism? And since we must be in Christ to be born again, how could one be born again without or before baptism? That would be like saying someone was outside a house but then suddenly was inside the house without ever coming into it.

Further, the passage says we are baptized "into Jesus' death." But His death is what saves and forgives us so we can be children of God. Verses 6 & 7 then add that, when we have been baptized (vv 3,4), the body of sin is done away and we are free from sin (vv 17,18).

Verse 4 clinches the conclusion by saying that, as a result of being buried (immersed) in baptism and rising from it, we have "newness of life" (born again!). This does not in any way belittle the need for faith, repentance, and confession. But essential as those are, they are not enough without baptism.

Baptism is essential in order to come into Christ, into His death, and to have newness of life. Clearly a person must be baptized in order to be born again.

Galatians 3:26,27 - As many as are baptized into Christ, put Christ on.

How many are "in Christ"? As many as have been baptized into Him - no more and no less. But remember we are born again (new creations) only when we are in Christ. So how many are born again? As many as have been Scripturally baptized - no more and no less.

This connection is confirmed by v26. Note the verb tenses:

"For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

You were baptized into Christ

must come

You are sons of God.

This must happen "by faith" because, as we learned earlier, faith gives one the right or power to become a child of God. One who lacks faith has no right to be baptized (Mark. 16:15,16; Acts 8:35-39). But after faith has led to baptism - only then is one a child of God (born again).

Other passages also confirm that baptism is necessary in order to be forgiven by Jesus' blood:

Mark 16:15,16 - To be saved, one must believe and be baptized.

Acts 2:38 - Everyone must repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.

Acts 22:16 - Saul (Paul) had already believed in Jesus, but was still in sin. He was told to be baptized and wash away his sins.

1 Peter 3:21 - Baptism also now saves us. This occurs, not by the power of the water, but by the power of Jesus as manifested in the resurrection. Nevertheless, baptism is necessary to receive that power.

If people in sin want to be born again, they must believe in Jesus enough to repent of sin, confess Christ, and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.

III. A Summary Passage - John 3:3-7

Let us summarize what we have learned so far:


1. Hearing and believing gives one the right to become a child of God (John 1:12).
2. But to be born again one must still obey the gospel (1 Peter 1:22-25).
3. One is born again only when he is in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
4. But to come into Christ, he must be baptized (Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27).


With this background, let us examine the best-known text about the new birth - John 3:3-7. It says that, to enter the kingdom one must be born again. This new birth involves two elements: the "water" and the "Spirit." Let us examine each.

What Does the "Water" Refer to?

Some say that "water" here refers to physical birth.

But what evidence is there for this view? None whatever. It is simply speculation. But there are several points against the position:

(1) The gospel never uses the word "water" to refer to physical birth.

(2) John 3 mentions physical birth; but it was brought up, not by Jesus, but by Nicodemus, because he was confused and misunderstood Jesus' teaching. Jesus rebuked Nicodemus for this and then contrasted physical birth and the new birth, showing they are different (v6). That means that people today, who think the "water" refers to physical birth, are confused and misunderstand just as surely as Nicodemus did!

(3) Comparing verse 3 to verse 5 shows that being "born of water and of the Spirit" (v5) is just another way of saying "be born again" (v3). Verse 5 just clarifies and explains verse 3.

"born again" (v3) = "born of water and the Spirit" (v5)

So, the "water" of verse 5 is part of the new birth; it does not refer to some other birth.

"Water" in John 3:5 must refer to water baptism.

Baptism fits perfectly because:

(1) Baptism is the only command in the New Testament that requires the use of "water" (Acts 8:35-39; 10:47; John 3:23; Hebrews 10:22; etc.). (So, in the gospel "water" never refers to physical birth, but it often refers to baptism.)

(2) As shown previously, many other passages teach that water baptism is essential to salvation.

(3) In particular, we have shown several passages that expressly include baptism as an essential element of the new birth.

(4) We will see that many passages tie baptism to the hearing of the gospel, exactly like John 3:5 does.

John 3:5 simply confirms our previous conclusion that water baptism is necessary to the new birth.

What Does the "Spirit" Refer to?

The "Spirit" can also be understood from what we have already studied.

We have already learned that, before baptism, one must hear and believe the word, which is the seed by which we are born again (1 Peter 1:23). But the Holy Spirit revealed the word and caused it to be taught so people might learn it and be saved (2 Peter 1:21; Eph. 3:3-5; John 14:26; 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:10-13).

Ephesians 6:17 - The word is the "sword of the Spirit." It is the tool or means the Spirit uses to accomplish His work in conversion.

So one is "born of water and the Spirit" when one learns and believes the gospel message, as revealed by the Spirit, and then obeys that message by being baptized.

Other passages likewise tie the word of the Spirit to baptism in conversion.

Note some parallels:

John 3:5 - Be born of water and the Spirit.

Mark 16:15,16 - Preach the gospel. He who believes and is baptized will be saved.

Acts 2:41 - Those who gladly received the word were baptized.

Acts 8:12 - People who believed the gospel were baptized.

Acts 8:35-39; 16:32,33; 18:8 - Other examples in which the word was preached and people were baptized.

Ephesians 5:26 - Jesus cleansed the church by the washing of water with the word. (1 Cor. 12:13)

So "born of water and the Spirit" means one is born again when he is baptized in water in obedience to the gospel message revealed by the Holy Spirit! That is simple, clear, and agrees with passage after passage found elsewhere.

IV. Conclusions and Further Observations

Baptism Must Be Done for the Proper Purpose.

Baptism is not just an outer act. It has a vital spiritual meaning, as described above. God wants obedience from proper motives (Rom. 6:17,18; 1 Cor. 4:15; John 4:24).

Compare this to the Lord's Supper. In the communion we outwardly eat the bread and drink the cup, but we must inwardly recognize it to be a memorial to Jesus' body and blood. If we fail to recognize this inner spiritual meaning or do not do it for this reason, we are condemned even though we physically eat and drink (1 Cor. 11:26-29). Likewise, to receive the intended benefit of baptism, we must do it for the proper purpose.

Suppose a person is baptized believing the common doctrine that he is born again before or without baptism. Would he be baptized "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38), so the blood of Jesus could cleanse his sins (Acts 22:16), and to become a child of God (Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27; etc.)? No. His baptism would be unscriptural because it is done for the wrong reasons, even if his outward action was right.

But now understanding that baptism is necessary to be born again, what is the condition of one whose baptism was not valid? Is he born again? Is he a child of God? How could he be, when he has not obeyed the only true seed that can make him a child of God (1 Peter 1:22,23; Luke 8:11)? He needs to do what was done by the twelve men in Acts 19:1-5. They had been "baptized" (immersed) but without proper understanding of its purpose. So they needed to be baptized Scripturally.

Churches Must Teach Truth about the New Birth.

Many churches teach that we are born again before baptism or without baptism. What about people who obey the doctrine taught by such groups? They have not done what Jesus said to do to be born again! Then what is their condition?

Remember that one is born again only if he obeys the proper seed, the true gospel. Should a person continue to be part of a group that misleads people about such a basic question as how to become a child of God? Consider again 2 John 9-11; Gal. 1:8,9; Matt. 15:9,14; etc.

A Child of God Must Faithfully Serve His Father.

Romans 6:4 - One must "walk in newness of life." Being "born again" is not the final goal; it must be just the beginning of a lifetime of obedient service. It is not enough just to be forgiven. One must live a life of faithful obedience.

A child of God must submit to His Father (1 Peter 2:1,2; Matt. 12:50; 2 Cor. 6:17,18; 1 John 3:1-10). He must be active in the work of His Father's family, the church (1 Tim. 3:15). As a child of God, he must grow up in Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

Have you been truly born again? If so, are you serving the Father faithfully. If you need to make corrections, we urge you to contact the people who gave you this tract.

Note: If you would like to learn more about the topics studied in this article, please consider the links below. We have articles about the purpose of baptism, the importance of obedience, baptism of babies, sprinkling and pouring vs. immersion, "faith only," etc.

(C) Copyright 1984, 1998, 2010,David E. Pratte;
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Topics for further Bible study

Why We Need Forgiveness
Jesus as Savior from Sin
The Purpose of Baptism
Should Babies Be Baptized?
Individual Responsibility in Salvation
Importance of Repentance
Is Baptism Sprinkling, Pouring, or Immersion?
The Importance of Obedience
Salvation by "Faith Only" vs. Obedient Faith
Should Alien Sinners Pray for Forgiveness
Eternal Security ("Once Saved, Always Saved")
Election and Predestination
What about the Thief on the Cross?

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