The words born-again Christian are quite familiar in our culture. Even most secular people are aware of them, though some probably smile up their sleeves when they hear them. But to Christians, the words are very meaningful—or should be. Unfortunately, many Christians probably don’t really understand what they mean.
In fact, I suspect that a lot of people who claim to be born again, in reality, are not. This is quite evident in some words Jesus Himself spoke, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ ” (Matthew 7:21–23).
These people thought they were Christians. They probably claimed to be “born again,” yet Jesus said that He never knew them. Clearly, they were not born again, even though they thought they were.
Thus, it’s critically important that we understand what it truly means to be born again.
What “born again” does not mean
I will begin by telling you two things that the expression “born again” does not mean. Then I will mention two things that it does mean.
No more temptation. Some people, after they’re baptized, have the false idea that they will never be tempted to sin again. However, a quick glance at what the Bible says about temptation makes it clear that this is not true.
For example, writing to the Christians in Corinth, Paul said, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13, NKJV).* And James said, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (James 1:13). Both Paul and James were obviously writing to Christians who we can assume had been born again, and both made it clear to these people that they would be tempted.
James assured Christians that their temptations would not come from God, and I suspect that most Christians understand that. It’s more common to hear people say, “The devil tempted me,” or, “The devil made me do it.” Satan certainly does tempt people. He started with Eve in the Garden of Eden, and he’s been tempting people ever since.
However, not all temptation is initiated by Satan. James went on to explain another common source of temptation: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (verse 14). Thus, many of our temptations arise from within ourselves. And that’s what can be confusing to new Christians. They think, We accepted Jesus as our Savior. We were baptized. Why are we feeling angry? Why are we jealous? Why are we lusting?
It’s critically important for new Christians to understand that the fact that they feel tempted to think or do wrong things does not mean that their conversion (another name for “new birth”) was insincere and therefore not genuine. Satan loves for Christians to believe these false ideas, because this actually increases the effectiveness of his temptations. It increases the likelihood that Christians will yield!
No more sin. Another common mistake some new Christians make is to believe that once they accept Jesus and are baptized, they will stop sinning. They’re rejoicing in their new relationship with Jesus, and a few days later, they get mad and blow up at someone. Or someone asks them an embarrassing question, and they tell a white lie to cover up their mistake. Or they catch themselves watching Internet pornography when they had determined to give up that bad habit.
But again, a bit of reflection on what the Bible says about the Christian life makes it evident that born again Christians do sometimes sin. In his first letter, the apostle John said, “If we confess our sins, he [Jesus] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9). John was writing to Christians who had truly been born again, and he told them that they would sin. But he added that when that happened, they should confess the sin and seek God’s forgiveness.
A paragraph or two later in the same letter, John said, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1; emphasis added). God always encourages us not to sin, and He never excuses our sins. But He also understands that genuine Christians will sin, and He has a provision for that. All we have to do is ask, and Jesus, our Intercessor in heaven, and God, our Father in heaven, will forgive us.
What “born again” does mean
So what does it mean to be “born again”? What do Christians have a right to expect when they have accepted Jesus, made a commitment to follow Him, and been baptized?
A new way of thinking. In the first paragraph of this article, I said that even most secular people are aware of the expression “born again,” though some probably smile up their sleeves when they hear it. And that illustrates a crucial difference between people who have not been born again and those who have. People who have truly been born again think differently from those who have not been born again.
One of the characteristics of our increasingly secular culture is that secular people tend to think that Christian moral standards are silly and repressive. They scoff at people who sing, “Hallelujah!” and “Praise the Lord!” Most would probably refrain from doing so in the presence of a Christian, but it’s what they think. It’s how they sometimes talk when they’re alone with each other.
That’s why, in his letter to the church members in Corinth, the apostle Paul said that the Christian message is “foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The reason why the Christian way of life seems so foolish to them is that they have not been born again.
That’s why I said that the new birth has a profound effect on how we think. Where before the idea of “having a relationship with Jesus” had seemed rather odd, now we want that relationship. God’s standards for Christian living, which had seemed so foolish, now make perfect sense. That’s why David said, “I love your law” (Psalm 119:163).
Jesus explained that a person is born again “of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Through a mysterious process that we cannot explain in logical words, God’s Holy Spirit enters into our minds and emotions and changes the way we think about God and His way of life. That’s why, in describing people who have not been born again, Paul said that “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
When the born-again person sins, he recognizes it and is sorry for it. The born-again person may not keep God’s law perfectly, but he wants to! One of the best ways to tell whether you have been born again is to ask yourself whether you are committed to living God’s way of life as outline in the Bible and are doing your best to live that way. When you sin, do you recognize the wrong you did, and are you sorry for it? If your answer is Yes to these questions, then you have been born again. When you slip and fall, all you have to do is ask God to forgive you and help you to overcome next time.
Satan loves for Christians to doubt their new birth and their commitment to Jesus just because they sinned again. It gives him more influence over them.
Power to obey. The second thing that the new birth does is to give us the power to obey. The Bible has many promises about that. Jude said that God “is able to keep you from falling” (Jude 24), and Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus that God is able to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20; emphasis added).
Again, this does not mean instant victory every time you are tempted. But it does mean that God will help you to learn from your mistakes, and as you learn, you will experience increasing victory over your temptations.
Earlier in this article I quoted part of Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that “no temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man” (NKJV). Here’s the rest of that verse: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (NIV).
The promise here is not that you will never yield to temptation but rather that there is a way out. There is a way to overcome. So the next time you yield, maintain your commitment to obey God and ask Him to help you understand His way out the next time you’re tempted. As time goes on, you will discover that with His help you are able to overcome.
The new birth won’t make you a perfect Christian, but it will make you a committed Christian.