BORN AGAIN CHRISTIANS
T. PIERCE BROWN
The phrase, “born again” has become so popular lately that we would not be too surprised to hear that Castro or Hussein had appropriated (or misappropriated) it. Members of the Lord’s church seem to be about the only ones who realize that the expression, “born again Christians” is an anomaly, for there are no other kinds. However, even among Christians, it is my judgment that the term has never been studied as it deserves. Many of those who use it in a more scriptural and proper manner do so, not because they have personally probed into its meaning and implications in the scriptures, but because they, like their denominational counterparts, simply mouth the phrases which they hear others use. Many of us have thought we could probably tell from which school a person had come by the peculiar expressions he uses in praying. However, “Bless those who are sick of this congregation” might come from most any place, for most every place we go we find persons who are sick of the congregation or the preacher or the elders.
To the average person, the expression “born again” apparently means to have a commitment to Jesus in such a fashion that one’s thinking and acting have been changed. Certainly a person who is “born again” will do that, but not every person who does that is “born again.”
However, before we can study adequately the meaning of any expression, we need to know the meaning of the Greek words that make up that expression. The words that are translated in the KJV, “born again,” come from the Greek, “gennethe anothen.” The root word is “gennao” and means to generate or produce. It is translated many times, “to beget,” for when a person produces or generates a child, it is proper to say, “he begat.” One reason we say that the basic meaning is “generate” or “produce” is that in EVERY passage of which we are aware, both in sacred of secular literature when the Greek or equivalent Hebrew (yalad) is used, it may be translated by one of those terms, but would have to be used in a very figurative or metaphorical sense to be translated “born.” Job 28:29, Galatians 4:24 and 2 Timothy 2:23 where the word is translated “gender” are cases in point.
The word “anothen” does not mean “again,” but “above.” The idea of “again” only comes as one reasons thus: “If a man is begotten (or produced) once by his earthly father, and is produced or generated from above by the Holy Spirit, it must be the case that the second generating process would properly be called “generation again.” This is correct reasoning, but that does not make the word MEAN “again.”
But what difference does it make? We think it makes at least this difference: If the expression “gennethe anothen” refers to an instantaneous, one-time experience which happened in a way that is better felt than told at the moment when one accepted Jesus as “his personal Savior,” then one would logically think in a certain direction. He would see his first birth as an instantaneous, one-time affair that makes him a child of his father, remaining such no matter what he does. It would then be easy for him to reason, “once a son, always a son” (not being aware that “son” and “child” in the Greek are different words, with different connotations). So, he might think, “Since the new birth is the same sort of thing, when a person is born again he cannot be anything but a child of his Father, and therefore cannot be lost.” Of course we could disprove that in several different ways, for even a child can be disinherited, but our purposes in this article do not include that proof, but to help us understand some Bible teachings a little more deeply.
If we become fully conscious that the basic meaning of “gennao” is to generate or produce, then we can see more easily the meaning of such passages as 1 John 3:9, “Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” This has been explained by some of our more astute brethren long before I was born as meaning something like this: When a person is converted he cannot sin in the sense that he CANNOT AFFORD TO SIN. As when a parent says to a child, “You cannot go across the street” he does not mean that it is impossible, but “You SHOULD NOT.” When Moses said in Exodus 23, “The people CANNOT come up toMount Sinai– ,” he certainly did not mean it was impossible, for those who did would die. It is true that a child of God cannot AFFORD to sin and the people ofIsraelcould not AFFORD to go up toMt.Sinai. But those truths do not do justice to the meaning of such passages as 1 John 3:9 and others.
I believe the expression in 1 John 3:9 means “Everyone who has been generated of God (and STILL STANDS IN THAT RELATIONSHIP — for this is the force of the perfect passive participle) CANNOT CONTINUE THE PRACTICE OF SIN, for his seed remains in him, and he CANNOT thus sin, for he stands generated of God.” The generating work which God does in the life of an individual NEVER does, and CANNOT lead to the practice of sin!
John does not say that a child of God never sins. He not only admits that we do, but shows how to get forgiveness of it. And although it is true that a child of God cannot AFFORD to sin, I am reasonably sure that is NOT what it means here. Although a Christian may COMMIT a sin (aorist tense), it will not be a result produced by God’s seed, for a person WHO STANDS IN A POSITION GENERATED OR PRODUCED BY GOD not only will not and cannot afford to practice sin, HE CANNOT PRACTICE SIN! It is not merely a fact that God’s product (that which is generated by him) SHOULD NOT lead to sin, it is a fact that the generating work of God CANNOT produce sin! It is true that we cannot AFFORD to sin. But the text does not “IF his seed remains.” The text says that whosoever stands in the relationship which is produced of God, his seed DOES remain in him, and he CANNOT sin, or continue the practice thereof!
A realization of the meaning of the word “gennao” and a little better awareness of the use of the Greek tenses would help a great deal in understanding such passages as 1 John 5:1, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” Not only is the expression, “born of God” rather awkward and not an accurate English expression, but “begotten of God” does not express the real meaning of the term quite as well as “generated” or “produced.” Many who read the above verse think it means that when one “accepts Christ as his personal Savior” he is “instantaneously born of God.” That is not the truth expressed here. The expression “pas ho pisteuon” has the present participle, and suggests: “Every one who keeps on believing — whose regular manner of life shows a constant and abiding trust in Jesus, has been produced or generated by God (perfected passive indicative), and the results are still apparent in his life.”
Other passages such as 1 John 2:29 may gain added luster. “Ye know that every one that doth righteousness is born (gennao) of him.” and 1 John 4:7, “For love is of God, and every one that loveth is born (gennao) of God.” These passages are not telling how to be “born again.” Since “doth” is in 1 John 2:29 a present participle, the meaning is, “When a person is found whose life regularly and consistently demonstrates that he is keeping the commandments of God, you may know that such a life was produced of God — he has a God-generated life.”
When I thought that love was a feeling of affection for another, and that “born of God” referred to becoming a Christian, I had considerable trouble with 1 John 4:7, “Let us love one another: for love is of God, and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.” But when I learned that this love is not an emotion at all, but a willingness to sacrifice of what I am and have for the welfare and pleasure of another, and that “ek tou theou gegennetai” means “has been produced of God and still stands in that relationship,” I realized that John is not telling me how to become a Christian, nor is he telling me that when one person has some feeling of affection or sexual attraction for another, that proves he is a “born again Christian!” He IS telling us in all such passages that belief in Jesus is produced of God. Genuine sacrificial love is produced by God. The righteousness that is accepted of God is not produced by man and his wisdom, but by God. The generating power of God is in his Word, and without His Word this kind of faith is not produced. Only by His Word is this kind of love and righteousness produced. He generates it. When you find a man who has those attributes, you may know that they were generated of God, and not simply by some human effort or philosophy.