Doctrine Ch.24 - New Life

What happens when we become a Christian? The images of a new birth and adoption might imply we have no role in this, but what did they mean in Bible times?

Watching your child being born is one of the most transforming events someone can have in life. You not only instantly become a parent, but when you first see that crumpled face you can immediately fall in love. You can’t imagine that little bundle of perfection ever being a disappointment to you. Well, that’s the theory, anyway! We all grow up with regrets and mistakes, disappointing our parents and ourselves. That’s one reason why we love the idea of being “born again”—of having a second chance at life. A new life in Christ is at the heart of the gospel.

       The interesting thing is that when Jesus described this new life to the Pharisee Nicodemus, he probably wasn’t saying “You must be born again” (John 3:7) but instead “You must be born from above.” The confusion is because these two phrases are identical in Greek: the word anĊthen can mean either “again” or “above” (as in v. 31). This ambiguity is similar to the English phrase “from the top.” Usually it means “from above,” but we can also use it in the sense of “again”—for instance, a choir master saying: “Let’s sing it from the top.” English Bibles translate Jesus saying, “You must be born again” rather than “from above” because that’s the only way to make sense of how Nicodemus responds. He clearly interpreted it this way because he complains that no one can leave a womb twice (v. 4).1

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Even though Jesus had a different emphasis, it doesn’t mean we should reject the idea of being born again; it is still an appropriate—and powerful—way of expressing God’s invitation to a new life. And when Nicodemus misunderstood his words, Jesus didn’t reject this meaning. Instead, he gently moved him on toward what he did want to emphasize: that we need to be born from above, that is, “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Jesus had to drum this in by repeating it several times in different ways: born not just by the waters of physical birth but also of the Spirit (v. 5); born not just of flesh but also of Spirit (v. 6); born not just in an “earthly” way but in a “heavenly” way (v. 12). I guess Nicodemus understood it eventually, but it is harder for us because English doesn’t have the same ambiguity. In the end, being born of the Spirit as well as of the flesh is, of course, a second birth, so Nicodemus didn’t really get it wrong—he just missed the most precious bit of Jesus’ message.

       Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus’ message that you must be born of the Spirit continues with teaching such as “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (6:63); “‘rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this he meant the Spirit” (7:38-39); “the Spirit of truth ... lives with you and will be in you” (14:17); and just before Jesus ascended to heaven, “he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (20:22). In other Gospels the same message is conveyed in terms of baptism of the Spirit (Matt 3:11 = Mark 1:8 = Luke 3:16; Acts 1:5).

       Peter refers to being reborn (1 Pet 1:23), but at first it looks as though this message is entirely dropped by Paul. Of course, it isn’t absent, but he teaches it using different imagery. Instead of referring to new birth in the Spirit, Paul talks about new creation (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Eph 4:23-24; Col 3:10) and about new life after baptism (Rom 6:4).


Paul also uses another image that is close to the idea of a second birth: he speaks of adoption, saying that we were adopted into God’s family (Gal 4:4-7; Rom 8:15-17). Jews would not have had a good understanding of adoption, but Romans practiced it widely, so the image worked really well. Although a childless Roman couple could obtain an unwanted baby, it was more common to adopt a teenager. This was regarded as preferable to adopting a young child because infant mortality was so high. Also, by adopting a young adult you could be sure of his character, whereas a baby might grow up to be a stupid or careless heir. Most importantly, Romans wanted to adopt someone old enough to give personal assurances that he was willing to carry on the traditions and responsibilities of the family. A nice example of this is in the story of Ben Hur, who was adopted as the son of a rich, childless man who was impressed by his character.

       This Roman practice of adoption is a wonderful picture of what it is like to become a Christian, and Paul uses the image to point out that we become children of God and heirs of the kingdom. However, as modern readers, we tend to miss a very important aspect of Roman adoption that also applies to the process of salvation: God invites us into his family, but that adoption only occurs when we accept his invitation by agreeing to follow the lifestyle and aims of his family.

       Jews didn’t practice that kind of adoption, so Jesus used a different image to teach them—that of being born into God’s family by a second birth from above (John 3:3-7). For Jews, the all-important birth was your first one: if your mother was Jewish, then so were you—and they believed that all Jews were saved. But Jesus said your earthly birth wasn’t as important as the second birth that occurs when you invite the Holy Spirit to make you completely new again.

A new start

Neither Jesus’ illustration of birth from above nor Paul’s illustration of adoption would have made people think about infants, but our minds are drawn that way. And because babies can’t choose their parents—or anything else—we might conclude that we have no role in becoming Christians. So it feels as if salvation is something that happens to us outside our control, and we can’t choose to make God our Father. But Paul’s image of adoption suggests that we do have at least a partial role. God, who wants to adopt us, has to make the first move, but we, like Roman teenagers or adults, have to decide to accept the responsibilities and consequences of joining his family. The new birth “from above” similarly requires that we accept the indwelling of the Holy Spirit not just as a passive presence but as a transforming influence. Our lives experience a fresh start—as a new creation—but this doesn’t start till we invite the Holy Spirit to transform us. All this is symbolized by the cleansing of baptism, which is performed when someone decides to be baptized or personally confirms her infant baptism.

       We have been given a wonderful array of images of what happens when someone becomes a Christian—baptism, new birth, adoption, new creation—and some work better in one culture than another: baptism was a Jewish practice, and adoption was a familiar concept to Romans. These images also emphasize different aspects of salvation, but they all have common themes such as a new start and welcoming in the Holy Spirit. None of them convey the whole truth, of course, but together they have given us a very real insight into God’s wonderful work of regeneration.

1^ Interestingly, this implies that Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus was in Greek—the language of religious debate among Romans. Jewish scholars didn’t debate in everyday Aramaic, but they normally preferred to use Hebrew.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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