Updated: Mar 19, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
"Have you been born-again?" How many of us have been asked that question? It certainly is very popular amongst evangelicals, who believe that to be "born-again" means to have a conversion of heart. Now, we need to understand that to be "born-again" does in fact refer to a conversion of heart, but not exactly in the context that an evangelical would think. Catholics understand that, when Jesus said, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again" (John 3:3), He was referring to a conversion of heart within the context of baptism.
Jesus spoke about being "born-again" when he was talking with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Jesus said that man needed to be born-again in order to enter Heaven, to which caused the Pharisee to think of a physical rebirth from his mother (Jn. 3:4). This was a misunderstanding, so Jesus clarified, "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit" (Jn. 3:5). According to Jesus, to be "born-again" would refer to being reborn through "water and the Spirit." What does that mean, though?
Many evangelicals will attempt to say "water and the Spirit" refers to something other than baptism. They might say it refers to being physically born from a woman (the "water") and being converted to Christ (the "Spirit"). I once had a Baptist pastor come to my neighborhood to evangelize door-to-door, and when he came to my house, he said those exact words. Evangelicals might also say that "water and the Spirit" is referring to the Word of God (the "water") and the acceptance of that Word of God and subsequent renewal by the Holy Spirit. Both of these interpretations are not based on the context of John 3.
Notice from the context of John's Gospel that he had already spoken about the themes of water and the Spirit. Jesus Himself had experienced it, for in John 1, Jesus got baptized in water and the Spirit! John the Baptist said that when he baptized Jesus, he "saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him" (Jn. 1:32). So before Jesus started speaking about being born of water and the Spirit, He first received it Himself!
Our evangelical brethren need to notice also that, when Jesus finished his conversation with the Pharisee in John 3:1-21, Jesus immediately started to baptize! The text reads, "After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized" (Jn. 3:22). After Jesus said everybody needed baptism (Jn. 3:5), He started baptizing (Jn. 3:22).
This unavoidable contextual explanation for the phrase "born-again" was noted by Protestant commentator R. V. G. Tasker, who wrote, "In light of the reference to the practice by Jesus of water baptism in verse 22, it is difficult to avoid construing the words 'of water and of the Spirit' conjunctively, and regarding them as a description of Christian baptism, in which cleansing and endowment are both essential elements."
Baptist commentator George Beasley-Murray agrees, saying that those interpretations of Jn. 3:5 other than baptism "do not do justice to the text and have not commended themselves to scholarly opinion. It would seem that the text relates birth from above to baptism and the Holy Spirit…The need for cleansing and expectation of the renewal of the Spirit, accordingly, was in the air in the period of Jesus and the early Church…In the time of the Church the gifts [baptism and Spirit] are conjoined, since the Lord by his death and resurrection has achieved a once-for-all cleansing and sent the Spirit of the kingdom: he who is baptized in faith in the Son of Man, exalted by his cross to heaven, becomes a new creation by the Spirit, ‘sees’ the kingdom, and in Christ has life eternal (vv. 14-15)."
The immediate successors to the apostles interpreted the phrase "born-again" as a reference to baptism as well. St. Justin Martyr (100 - 165 AD) said, "Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated...they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, 'Except ye be born again ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven'...And for this we have learned from the apostles this reason."
Jesus's teaching in John 3 is all about baptism. This is clear from the context preceding John 3, and concluding John 3. To argue anything else simply does not work with the text. So, let's remind our passionate evangelical friends of this great truth of Christ's. He works through the waters of baptism in the same way he went through water baptism - by sending the Holy Spirit upon us. We might not see this great spiritual reality, but we walk by faith, and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).