Most people would be rather thoroughly baffled if they were asked, “Have you been born?” How else would one have become a sentient being? The evidence is obvious.
It should be deemed equally silly to raise the same question about having been “born again”, as if that designation were an earned – or honorary – degree, or some celestial merit-badge, which produced no observable evidence in one’s life.
Those who demand such a “degree” would probably be amazed – perhaps even incredulous – to learn that their favorite “qualification” appears only four times in the entire New Testament, and that their most loudly trumpeted “proof-text”, Jn.3:3,7, is NOT among them! As is our custom, let’s look at the evidence.
By far the majority of references to birth, in any form, refer simply to the physical event of the arrival of a baby. The same word is traditionally translated “beget” if it refers to a father, “conceive, bear, deliver, or bring forth” if it refers to a mother, and “born” if to a child.
The word appears in many variant forms – primarily the verb, gennao, but also nouns genesis (origin, source, descent), genEma (produce, or fruit), genos (stock, or kin), genna (offspring, race, family), gennEma (that which is born), and genetE (an adverb, “by, from, or since birth). The lexicons make very little distinction, and the usage makes even less.
New Testament appearances relating to other than the physical process of birth include references to one’s origin (Jn.1:13, 8:41, 9:2, Ac.2:8, 22:3, 28). Note especially Jn.9:34, where it was the Pharisees who spoke of being “born in sin”: JESUS NEVER SAID THAT ABOUT ANYBODY!!! Also included are kinship or nationality (usually using genos) (Ac.4:6, 4:36, 7:13, 7:19, 13:26, 18:2, 18:24; Mk.7:26, Gal.1:14, Phil 3:5, II Cor.11:26), and “fruit or harvest”, as in Jesus’ reference to “the fruit of the vine” (Mt.26:29, Mk.14:25, Lk.22:18) , and in the parable of the rich fool (Lk.12:18). Interestingly, gennEma, the form used on these latter occasions, is the same word used by both John the Baptist and Jesus in critiquing their opponents as a “generation [offspring] of vipers”, as well as Paul’s description of a faithful life as “the fruit of justice [“righteousness”] (II Cor.9:10).
The verb gennao also reaches beyond reference to physical birth or provenance. It appears in the statement from heaven, quoted from the coronation Psalm 2:7 in Heb.1:5 and 5:5, as well as Ac.13:33, although it was not used in either of the events to which those passages refer – Jesus’ baptism by John or his transfiguration: an interesting discrepancy that could bear further study, except that any analysis would necessarily have to be entirely conjecture.
Paul also uses it of his having been the messenger who enabled both the Corinthian church (I Cor.4:15) and Philemon (Phm.10) to learn and choose faithfulness.
These latter uses of gennao serve as a transition to the understanding of birth as becoming a participant in a new and different life. Please also refer in this regard to #35, 96, 97, 134, 135, 174.
John’s choice of words in describing a person who has chosen faithfulness is “born of [from] God.” He asserts that “Everyone who does justice [righteousness – see #3] is born from him” (I Jn.2:29), although it is unclear whether the grammatical reference of autou (him) is “Father” or “Son”.
In I Jn. 3:9, both instances represent having been “born of God” as enabling one to leave his life of shortcoming [failure, “sin”] , and then John goes on to point out quite bluntly the need to discern between “God’s children” and “the devil’s children”. (You will not find in the New Testament the popular modern affirmation that “all people are the children of God”!) John goes on to explain (4:7) “everyone who keeps on loving, has been born from God”, (5:1) “Everyone who keeps trusting that Jesus is the Anointed One has been born from God”, and (5:4) “Everyone that has been born from God is (in the process of) conquering the world!” He then concludes (5:18) “We know that anyone who has been born from God does not keep on (living in) failure: but the one [One?] born from God continually keeps him [some MSS have “guards himself”], and the evil one does not touch him.” Clearly, John is referring to something far beyond physical birth.
These statements in his letter cast light on his Gospel account, and also receive light from it. Jesus’ much-quoted statement to Nicodemus in Jn.3:3,7 has been poorly translated. Please see the grammatical comments in Translation Notes (free download). Here, we are simply concerned with the vocabulary – specifically, the adverb anOthen, which appears in both places. The adverb, classically, was translated “from above, from on high, or from the gods” (L/S). It is a description of provenance, not time or counting. L/S notes that only in the New Testament was it translated “anew, afresh, over again”. This has to have been a theological, not a linguistic choice. It is clear from John’s letter that he understood Jesus to be saying “born from God.”
Peter is the only one to use the word anagennao, literally “born / begotten again.” In I Pet.1:3, the subject is “God”, the object is “us”, the means by which it is effected is Jesus’ resurrection, and the result is our being included in his inheritance. In 1:23, he reminds his readers that this new life is from an “imperishable source”, and is characterized, as John also insisted, by genuine love of the brethren.
There is one other word, paliggenesia, also occurring only twice, and traditionally translated “regeneration”, that may be relevant to this conversation. As you can see by comparing the words, it is marginally related to the others, but with a different prefix. Trench makes an effort to distinguish it from the others, adding anakainOsis to the mix, although that word is exclusively translated “renewal.”
This is not much help, since he is making a complex theological and liturgical argument out of active and passive, progressive and accomplished ideas, which is a useful tool in understanding verbs, but these words are both nouns , and as such have neither tense nor voice. Although paliggenesia and anakainOsis may be similar, they could not possibly be synonyms, or they would not be used together in Tit.3:5. Trench is fond of referencing the “Church Fathers” as a tool of interpretation, forgetting that they wrote a century or more after the Biblical accounts, and in the context of early efforts to codify “doctrines”and define and fight “heresies”.
Paliggenesia is very common in classical literature. The Stoic philosophers made frequent reference to a cyclical renewal of the cosmos, after destruction by fire or flood. Some also included the notion of reincarnation or the transmigration of “souls” in this process. The word was also used of a nation or a person returning from exile or shame, or, medically, of either recovery from a disease or the recurrence of a tumor! It appears only twice in the New Testament – used once by Jesus, in reference to the consummation of his Kingdom (Mt.19:28), and once in Paul’s letter to Titus (3:5), where (vv.4-6) he could be speaking of either baptism or the gift of the Holy Spirit – or both.
In connection with baptism, resurrection is a much more common figure than birth (see #35), with the act of baptism serving as a symbol of the disciple’s deliberate identification with Jesus’ own burial and resurrection, and that individual’s consequent transformation of life. Romans 6:4 calls it “newness of life”. In other places, “a new creation” (II Cor.5:17, Gal.6:15), “the new man” (Eph.2:15, 4:24; Col.3:10) and other figures convey similar ideas.
Please refer again to the other previous studies listed above.
Whatever you choose to call it, we would all do well to follow the example of the whole New Testament, focusing less on demanding a “birth certificate”, and more on the development of a LIFE that rightly represents and honors its Giver!