A friend used to ask me, “How come we preach being ‘born again’ so often, while it is mentioned only once in the Bible in John 3:1–21?”
While I don’t totally agree with friend’s interpretation of John 3:1–21, I share his concern that “being born again” is often understood as merely the decision to become a Christian. I tend to think that John 3:1–21 doesn’t only talk about the entry point of a Christian’s conversion experience, but also a life of transformation in the Spirit. It seems clear that 3:3, 5–8 speak of the fact that a Christian is born from God and of the Spirit. The Christian life, then, is a life of transformation by the Spirit’s empowerment.
I asked a class of theological students the same question last week. In response, a student told us that “born again” is mentioned in 1 Peter 1:23 and probably 1 John 3:9. The student is right, in that the language of “born again” and “born of God” can be found in the NIV in those verses. But it helps if we look at the original language. In John 3:3 (the famous verse concerning “born again”), the Greek expression γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν is used, which (literally) means “born from above,” “born anew” or “born again.” In 1 Peter 3, 23, the Greek verb ἀναγεννάω is used, which means “to be born anew,” signifying a “new birth.” In 1 John 3:9, the Greek verb is γεννάω, which means “to bring forth birth” or “to be father of.”
So, how should we understand these verses? Space and time limitations only allow me to look at John 3:3 and 1 Peter 3, 23, and here I will only cite the works of Craig Keener, The Gospel of John (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003) and Joel Green, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
On John 3:3 (and 3:5 in context), Keener says the following (and much more).
Greek thinkers could speak of God or gods as ‘above,” in terms of a vertical dualism; but Jewish texts were no less attracted to the portrait of God as “above” and to a vertical dualism contrasting God’s heavenly realm with the earthly. “Above” or “the one above” in fact became standard Jewish circumlocutions for God, as elsewhere in this Gospel (19:11), so birth from above means birth from God. Birth “from above” conveys the same essential sense as “birth from Spirit” as opposed to fleshly birth: what is merely human is inadequate, and the chasm between divine and human power is infinite. (p. 1.538–1.539)
Granted, born ἄνωθεν can mean “born again” rather than or in addition to “born from above”; but John’s informed audience, familiar with his own usage, will find Nicodemus’s more limited interpretation wanting… In this passage Nicodemus becomes a foil whose misunderstanding allows Jesus to clarify his point for John’s audience (cf. 14:5, 8) … Jesus’ words about a rebirth, a transformation of character (3:6) that is an essential prerequisite to understanding the things of the Spirit (3:8; 1 Cor 2:10–16), are clear enough on their own terms… (p. 1.539)
In my view, John 3:3 speaks of a new birth from God that engenders a life of transformation by the Spirit (3:5–8; cf Ezekiel 36–37). For sure, being born from above is the beginning of a new life. But it is a life to be transformed by the Spirit continually.
Concerning “new birth” in 1 Peter, Joel Green says the following (and much more).
“New birth,” then, is a dramatic metaphor for the decisive transformation of life that has come in accordance with God’s mercy and by means of the resurrection of Jesus. What Peter announces, then, is a conversion of the imagination: personal reconstruction within a new web of relationships, resocialization within the new community, and the embodiment of a new life-world evidenced in altered dispositions and attitudes. (p. 26)
Present trials, we should understand, are not in spite of but are the consequence of the new birth. The imagery of “new birth” implies a new life-world, but, to continue the metaphor, it also introduces the need for growth and maturation, for growing into salvation (cf. 1:14-16, 22-23; 2:2-3). (p. 30)
“New birth” is thoroughly christocentric in character. First, “new birth” is the consequence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, the new life into which one is born has as its paramount exemplar the life of Christ. If the suffering of Jesus did not disqualify his status as God’s Son and as Lord, then neither does the misery of life as strangers in the world render Peter’s audience as ineligible for their status as God’s children. Rather, affliction, paradoxically, brands them as faithful followers of the Christ who suffered, and, if this is true, then, they can be assured that, just as they share in his suffering, so they will share in his glory. (p. 30)
I think it is clear that “new birth” is not merely about how the entry point of conversion. Rather, it is about the new life that a Christian has embarked on. And the Christian will continue to experience its transforming power as she/he shares in Christ’s suffering and glory.