What Does It Mean to Be Born Again?

Some people think they’re Christians just because they go to church. But going to church doesn’t mean they have a relationship with God.

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The number of Americans claiming to be born again has never been higher. Yet a poll taken among so-called born-again Christians found that 28% believed that Jesus committed sins like other people while He lived on Earth. And one-third of those claiming to be born again also believed that if someone is good enough, they can earn a place in Heaven.

Maybe we just don’t understand what it means to be born again. It’s obviously important. In fact, Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7).

Jesus spoke these words to a man named Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee. We usually think of the Pharisees in a negative light, because Jesus saved some of His most scathing words for the scribes and the Pharisees.

Among other things, He called them whitewashed tombs. He talked about how they majored on the externals, completely missing the point.

Yet the Pharisees were a pretty admirable group of individuals. Never numbering more than 6,000, each of them took a solemn vow before three witnesses to devote every moment of their lives to obeying the Ten Commandments. (Not that any of them were successful, but it’s what they attempted to do.) They took the law of God very seriously.

So the Pharisee named Nicodemus was a devout man. He was a religious man. Not only that, he was a leader. He might even have been a household name in Israel. But although he was well educated and deeply religious, there was something missing in his life.

The Bible tells us that Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night. He probably went at night because he was afraid to be seen with Jesus. Everyone knew who Nicodemus was. And maybe he was afraid of what others would think. But at least he went.

John’s Gospel indicates that Nicodemus had great respect for Jesus, because he told Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).

Jesus doesn’t want us to just admire Him, however. He makes radical claims, wonderful promises and life-changing statements that He challenges us to contemplate, think about and respond to.

So He said to Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Unfortunately, the term born again has been pirated, emptied of its meaning, dragged through the gutter and given back to us, minus its power. Today when people tell us they are “born again,” we’re not even sure what they mean.

But Jesus was saying, “Here’s what it is, Nicodemus. Your religious beliefs are not enough. In spite of the fact that you’ve been at the top of the heap in your religion, it means nothing. It hasn’t brought you any closer to Heaven.”

Nicodemus evidently grappled with this, because he said, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4).

In other words, “Jesus, I don’t get this. How can I change?”

So Jesus told him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. … The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5, 8).

Some people say, “I won’t believe it unless I can see it.” That is like someone saying they don’t believe in hurricanes because they can’t see them. Yet we can certainly see the effects of hurricanes.

In the same way, I can’t show you God. I can’t say, “Here’s God. Look at Him with your own eyes.” But I can show you the effect of God’s work. There’s evidence all around us in those who have had their lives transformed by Jesus Christ.

Nicodemus wanted Jesus to essentially break this process down for him, so he said, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9).

Then Jesus gave a statement many Christians have memorized: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). That’s the Gospel in a nutshell.

You might relate to Nicodemus in some ways. Maybe you, too, are religious, moral and educated. Maybe you’ve been successful or have even had some fame.

But you ought to be thinking about what God thinks of you, because one day you will stand before Him. You won’t be there with your friends. You won’t be there with your coworkers. You won’t even be there with your family. You’ll be there by yourself.

Maybe you respect Jesus as a historical figure. Maybe you think Jesus was the greatest moral teacher of all time. But Jesus isn’t looking for respect. He’s not even looking for admiration. He didn’t say, “Admire Me.” Rather, He said, “Follow Me.” He’s looking for followers.

A lot of people think God is like a cosmic killjoy who is just out to ruin their lives. But nothing could be further from the truth. God says, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you … thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

If I had heard that verse while I was growing up, I wouldn’t have believed that “a future and a hope” could apply to me. My mother, an alcoholic, married and divorced seven times. I saw things no child should see. I grew up in bars with drunks, sleazy skuzzballs and skuzzy sleazeballs. I began partying and using drugs while I was a student at Harbor High School in Newport Beach, California.

And then everything changed. One day at school about 30 students—our school’s “Jesus People”—were sitting in a circle under a big tree, singing songs. I didn’t want to be associated with them, but I sat close enough to eavesdrop. A young evangelist named Lonnie Frisbee read from the Bible and talked about Jesus. He explained that Jesus is real and can be known personally.

“Jesus said, ‘You’re either for Me, or you are against Me,’” Lonnie said. “There’s no middle ground with Jesus. You’re either for Him or against Him. Which side are you on?”

Then he said that anyone—including those of us on the fringes listening in—who wanted to be for Jesus should come forward, and he would pray with them.

I wasn’t sure if I could believe everything Lonnie had said, but I was willing to try. I walked over to the “Jesus freak preacher” and, with a handful of others, repeated a prayer, asking Jesus Christ to come into my heart and forgive me of my sins.

I didn’t really feel different afterward, and at first I wondered if anything had actually happened. But in the days and weeks that followed, God began to change me, and I came to understand what had happened in that moment: I had been born again. 

You were created to know God. And His plans for you are better than any plans you have ever thought of for yourself. Commit your life to Him and discover what He has for you. ©2023 Greg Laurie

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version.

This article is adapted from Greg’s Blog at Harvest.org, Jan. 18, 2020, and “Lost Boy: My Story,” by Greg Laurie with Ellen Vaughn, ©2008 Greg Laurie, published by Kerygma Publishing.