The “born again” experience (often associated with the recitation of the “sinner’s prayer” and/or water baptism) is a central aspect of evangelicalism. Unfortunately, sometimes there’s not much of biblical context given for what’s taking place. With no context, there’s not much direction for the new believer beyond “Be good. Die. Go to heaven.” The New Testament’s insistence on discipleship is often overlooked. The “born again” experience, rather than faithfulness and obedience, becomes the litmus test for who’s in and who’s out…of the local congregation, of Jesus’ forgiveness, of heaven and hell, of God’s coming wrath & judgment.
Let’s consider “born again” in its biblical context.
In the larger biblical context, “born again” is a reference to the beginning of the new life of Jesus’ followers between his resurrection and the culmination of his kingdom in the New Creation. Obviously, whatever is to be known about being “born again” must make sense in this context.
As for its more immediate context, the phrase “born again” appears only four times in the New Testament –- twice in John 3 and twice in 1 Peter 1. We’ll examine all four references below and find that they have a striking contextual similarity.
The first two “born again” references are found in John 3. The main reference is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again,
he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
—Jesus (John 3:3)
Right away, this verse rings true with the broader context of God’s story. Being “born again” is not simply about forgiveness, death, or going to heaven; it’s about entering into God’s kingdom. It’s about entering into his reign over all creation.
As always, Jesus retains his “kingdom” focus. It was the point to most of his parables. It was the good news that he announced. The nearness of the kingdom through Jesus’ life & ministry meant that everything was changing. So in John 3, when Nicodemus (the Jewish Pharisee) approached Jesus, Jesus went where he always went -– to the kingdom. And to the new life appropriate for those anticipating the coming of God’s kingdom. A life so different it was like being born all over again.
Now let’s move forward to the end of the same chapter:
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36)
This verse defies a consumerist philosophy common in the surrounding culture: people can acquire forgiveness through a “born again” experience and guarantee themselves a place before God in heaven (regardless of discipleship or obedience). But in the broader context of God’s unfolding story, John 3:36 makes perfect sense: Jesus is not just a gate-keeper for heaven; he is the King of all creation. Kings cannot be passed by in a moment only to be subsequently admired but practically dismissed. Regardless of their goodness, kings are not ever to be taken lightly. Kings reign. Kings are to be obeyed.
So our takeaway from John 3:
Being “born again” is not something we can acquire on our own terms through a prescribed ritual or prayer. To be “born again” is not to ascertain personal forgiveness/salvation. To be “born again” is to enter a kingdom. To be “born again” is to begin a life of submission and obedience to the King.
1 Peter 1.
The only other two references in the New Testament to “born again” occur in 1 Peter 1. Similar themes reverberate that first emerged in John 3:
“…for OBEDIENCE to Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:2)
“he has caused us to be BORN AGAIN” (v.3)
“As OBEDIENT children…” (v.14)
“Having purified your souls by your OBEDIENCE” (v.22)
“you have been BORN AGAIN” (v.23)
Without going into all the details of 1 Peter 1, let’s state the obvious conclusion:
“Born again” cannot be separated from obedience.
So what now? Love Jesus. Obey him. And live! Live the kind of life that will be worth remembering and celebrating in eternity. Live well before your King. Live like you’re part of the greatest story ever told.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.!According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5)
(Excerpt from Reimagining Discipleship)