Christ’s counsel to Nicodemus that “ye must be born again” (John 3:7) with its assertion that one must be born again to enter the Kingdom of God is arguably the favourite verse of Protestant Evangelicals. It certainly formed the bedrock of Evangelical preaching and the goal of such preachers as Billy Graham. The phrase left the subculture of Evangelicalism and entered the conceptual landscape and the vocabulary of mainstream American culture with the (then) Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, who surprised the mainstream media with his candid admission that he had been born again and that this formed the foundation of his life. The phrase “being born again” is now almost synonymous with Protestant Evangelicalism, and often functions as a kind of verbal denominational tag. Since the phrase also appears in the baptismal liturgy of the Orthodox Church (when the priest refers to the baptismal candidates as those “wishing to be born again through my unworthy ministry”) it is worth asking two questions: 1) “What precisely does it mean to enter the Kingdom of God?” and 2) “What does it mean to be born again?” The answers are not quite what Dr. Billy Graham might have thought during his preaching crusades.
What is the Kingdom of God?
For some people, “entering the Kingdom” (or “seeing the Kingdom”; Christ uses both terms in His conversation with Nicodemus) is synonymous and indistinguishable from being saved from the fires of hell and having eternal life. Given the identity of such concepts, this means that everyone who has not been born again is eternally lost and will be damned at the Last Judgment. Such a conclusion was, in Dr. Graham’s time anyway, held by almost all of those urging their hearers to become born again, and it added an unmistakable note of urgency to Evangelical preaching. In this model, everyone on earth was lost and lived in the certainty of future damnation unless they could be plucked like a brand from the burning through becoming born again. I would suggest however that this is not quite what the Scriptures teach. The concept of the Kingdom of God is not to be equated with a kind of eternal fire insurance, but is richer, deeper, and more complex. When one looks away for a moment from Evangelical presuppositions (and those of western Christianity generally) to those of first-century Judaism (and the writings of St. Paul), one sees a subtle difference.
Take for example the encounter of Christ with a Jewish ruler, narrated in Matthew 19:16f and its synoptic parallels. In this story a man asks Jesus, “What good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” (in Mark’s version: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”), and Jesus answers him, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” In response to the man’s further question, “Which ones?”, Jesus refers him to the ones enshrining our responsibility to our neighbour rather than (for example) the ones referring to ritual purity, saying that he should not commit murder or adultery or theft, that he should not bear false witness, that he should honour his parents and love his neighbour. The list is obviously typical and not comprehensive, but His main point is clear: to enter into life in the age to come and be spared eternal punishment, one should live as a good Jew, striving to love God and one’s neighbour. Christ elsewhere referred to such submission as the essence of all that God wanted from us, the entirety of the message of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:36f).
The man responded that he was in fact keeping all these commandments, but still felt a lack, a void, a hunger for something more. Christ did not rebuke the man as if his professed obedience to the Law was delusional or wrong. In Mark’s version of the story it says that Christ felt a love for the man (Mark 10:21) indicating that He believed and accepted his testimony. He also saw that the man was ready for something more than mere life in the age to come—namely the adventure of entering the Kingdom of God here and now. Entering the Kingdom was not synonymous with getting through heaven’s gates upon death; it referred to a present reality. In Luke’s Gospel, Christ said that ever since John the Baptist’s ministry, the gospel of the Kingdom of God was being preached “and everyone is forcing his way into it” (Luke 16:16). Entering the Kingdom of God therefore meant a present experience God’s power, and was not to be equated simply with being spared at the Last Judgment at the end. Christ therefore held out the possibility of becoming “perfect” (Greek teleios)—a word meaning not “sinless”, but “mature, reaching the goal/ telos”. If the man wanted such an experience of God in this age, he must cast aside his old life with all its ambitions and agendas and become a disciple of Jesus—that what was it meant to enter the Kingdom of God. Sadly, the man was not up to the proffered adventure.
The point is that entering the Kingdom is not the same as merely being spared from hell at the Last Judgment, though of course it includes it. Entering the Kingdom refers to a present experience of becoming God’s son and heir, of cleansing, of transformation and renewal, of living fearlessly and in joy. The man talking to Christ already was on the way to eternal life; Christ was offering him something else now, something more.
This means that the Evangelical picture of all non-regenerate persons being damned at the Last Judgment requires some tweaking. The issue for everyone at the Last Judgment is whether or not that person has kept the commandments, and tried their best to love God and their neighbour, fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. St. Paul holds this possibility out even for the pagans who had never heard of the Jewish Law and the Prophets, saying that even if they did not have the Law, but nonetheless did “instinctively [Greek phusei, “by nature”], the things of the Law” this showed that they had “the work of the Law written in their hearts” and that they would therefore be “justified” (Romans 2:13-15). St. Paul is quite clear: at the Last Judgment a man will be judged for “his works [done] in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). That was the understanding of first-century Judaism, and St. Paul confirms that it was right. To be spared the fires of hell, one did not necessarily need to be born again, but “to persevere in doing good” (Romans 2:7), for God “will render to every man according to his works” (v. 6).
For most people, of course, who do not “do good”, but are plunged in sin and rebellion against God’s Law and dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), the bad news of God’s judgment against sin comes at the same time they hear of the good news of the Kingdom of God. They are not in the same position as the ruler who once spoke with Christ, and for them the possibility of entering into life coalesces with the possibility of entering the Kingdom. The situation of Jews in first-century Palestine, however much it may clarify the difference between entering into life and entering into the Kingdom, is nonetheless not their situation. Our mandate is to preach the Kingdom, and with it, the certainty of eternal life for those who respond.
What does it mean to be born again?
The phrase “born again” also needs some tweaking, if not rescuing from its narrowly individualistic Evangelical environment. First of all, the word “again” [Greek anothen] in the phrase “born again” is better rendered “from above”, so that Christ is not counselling a repetition of the first birth, but a completely new kind of birth “from above”—i.e. from God, the phrase “above” being a Jewish circumlocution for the divine Name. Christ connects this rebirth with “water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), the water clearly being a reference to the water in which His disciples were immersed at baptism. This was the unanimous conclusion of the early church, and undergirds such references to baptism as found in St. Paul when he speaks of “the washing of rebirth” (Titus 3:5) and of Christians being “cleansed by the washing of water with the Word” (Ephesians 5:26).
But this rebirth should not be construed in purely individualistic terms, as a simple synonym for personal moral renewal. Its context is cosmic. Thus when Christ refers to the Twelve receiving their reward in the age to come, He speaks of them sitting on their thrones “in the regeneration” [Greek paliggenesia]. The reference is to the time when the whole world will be reborn, transformed, when it becomes a place where the lion lies down with the lamb and righteousness is finally at home. Christ’s death and resurrection saves and transforms the whole cosmos, not just the human beings within it, for it brings peace to things on earth and things in heaven (Colossians 1:20). Our baptismal new birth gives us a share in this coming cosmic renewal: even now we have the hope of deathless joy, of unshakable peace, and of eternal immortality. Eventually the Spirit will flood the whole cosmos, but even now in this age we can receive that Spirit as an arrabon, a pledge, a down-payment, of the renewal and cosmic rebirth to come (Ephesians 1:14). Being born again means that even now we belong to this age to come. The new birth from above thus primarily effects our status, and only through this our personal moral transformation. The latter is a fruit of the former. Our extended Orthodox baptismal liturgy describes this state as being “no more a child of the body, but a child of the Kingdom”. We now belong to another world. Being born again therefore is of cosmic significance, for it means that we now belong not to this age with its flags, national loyalties, and partisan agendas. Though we are in this age, we are no longer of it. Once we were Jews or Gentiles; now we have become part of a third race, the Church of the living God, and we live with an entirely new set of loyalties. To be born again effects and alters our fundamental allegiances, and transplants us into the coming reborn world, so that even now we live as citizens of that world.