Are You Born Again (Part 2)

Derek Ouellette —  July 15, 2010

Thank you for coming back after my last post. (If you have not read Part 1 then I suggest you go back and do so because it lays the ground work for what follows.) One of the four or five key features of Evangelicalism is the belief of a born again experience, and so it can be frightening or offensive if anyone hints at the possibility that perhaps we have not spoken correctly when we use this terminology. Immediately after my post (Are You Born Again Part 1) was published someone went ahead and unsubscribed to Covenant of Love. This is sad because it reflects an attitude which is more common then it ought to be for Christians.

My purpose for writing on the born again experience is more for pastoral then theological reasons. It is because “born again” is so fundamental to the Evangelical tradition that I believe we need to get it right. Not that I am suggesting that I have it all right in these posts, I am only hoping to open the door for further conversation on “born again,” so that in talking and thinking through this with fresh eyes and ears we may come closer to the ancient truths of it found in the scriptures.

In the last post I made an effort to show that the born again experience is not a one-time instantaneous event. Where it has become common to tell someone that when they say the “Sinner’s Prayer”, the Spirit will come and live inside of them and they will be born again. We should not be telling people this because it is not accurate. But this fact should not cast doubt on anyone’s salvation. God knows what he is doing even if we too often do not (as I will illustrate in the next post).

So the “born again” experience – otherwise termed in theological jargon as “regeneration” – is a progressive event which is only fully accomplished after one undergoes water and spirit baptism. But there are two excursions I’d like to take. Two passages in the scriptures which are often referenced in support of a one-time born again experience accompanied by the instantaneous infilling of the Spirit (or, as some traditions tell it, the Spirit comes before one even believes!).

Excursion 1: Romans 8:9 b

NIV “… If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.”
NRSV “… Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
GREEK “… εἰ δέ τις πνεῦμα Χριστοῦ οὐκ ἔχει, οὗτος οὐκ ἔστιν αὐτοῦ.”
Lit. Tr. “… But if anyone Spirit of Christ does not have, this one is not of him.”

I actually like the NIV. I don’t think it is the most accurate translation out there and prefer the NRSV lately, but I have found translation problems with every translation I have come across. There are no perfect translations. Here is an example where the massive influence of the NIV (the number one selling English translation for the better part of three decades according to Zondervan and other sources) has led to mass misunderstanding of a key doctrine due to a bias in translating this key passage.

Remember how I showed that the receiving of the Spirit usually comes after water baptism and always comes after belief and repentance (John 7:39; Acts 19:2)? The translators of Romans 8:9 on the NIV team operated under the theological belief that when one believes one receives the Spirit at that moment (or one receives the Spirit in order for them to believe as some traditions have it!) – thus the born again experience is instantaneous. Therefore in translating the phrase, “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ is not of him”; they have exchanged the phrase “of him” to “of Christ”. This reflects their bias: if one does not have the Spirit one must not be a Christian at all. Besides the obvious, that the Greek words it “of him” not “of Christ”, there are three problems with this:

1. Grammically, the “him” must refer back to the person who is the subject of the sentence, in this case the “Spirit of Christ”. The “him” is referring to the third person in the Trinity – the Holy Spirit; not to the second person, Christ himself.

2. Contextually, the whole passage is not asking the question, “Are you a Christian?” Romans 8:1 has already answered that question unequivocally. The question being asked here is, “Are you walking in the power of the Spirit?”

3. Theologically, while having the Spirit is an intricate part of the born again process, one becomes a child of God (i.e. a Christian) at the moment of spiritual conception even though the Spirit is given later. (Don’t we argue this very point when we stand against abortion in our society? At conception the child is living, though not fully born yet.) At what point did the disciples become “Christian”? On Pentecost when they first received the Spirit or when they began to follow Christ? I would argue that they became “Christians” when they left their nets and followed Christ, and this reflects the early believers preferred terminology: “the Way” (Acts 9:2).

So Romans 8:9 does not support the idea that if one does not have the Spirit he must automatically not be a Christian. Rather it is asking, “Are you fully born again and walking in the Spirit?” Paul is suggesting that we have a bunch of Christians out there who have been conceived by the Spirit but have remained in the birth canal, and that is why they are not living victorious lives as they should.

Excursion 2: John 20:22

This passage is difficult to understand for almost any tradition, and no one seems to agree as to what is going on in this passage for reason which will become clear in a moment. For now, let me offer my thoughts on this text.

Before Pentecost and even before Jesus is ascended to the right hand of the Father, the text reads:

“When he (i.e. Jesus) had said this, he breathed on them (i.e. the disciples) and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” – NRSV

Before we delve into this passage we must keep a few things in mind. 1) Earlier in John’s gospel, the Evangelist writes:

“Now he (i.e. Jesus) said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39).

The primary point to keep in mind is that the Spirit would not be given until Jesus was fully “glorified”; in the text of John 20:22, Jesus was between the Resurrection and Ascension in which his glorification was incomplete, he was not yet ascended to the right hand of the Father. (A secondary point is that the Spirit will be given to people who already believe: “believers in him were to receive”. I add this note for the benefit of those who think that the Spirit must be given first in order for people to believe).

2) John seems to go out of his way, probably for theological reasons, to emphasis that Thomas, one of the eleven, was not present at this particular appearance where Jesus evidently “breathed” and instructed his disciples to “receive the Holy Spirit”. As this text is often used to support the belief that the disciples received the Spirit in them and later (at Pentecost) they received the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” (a second and different reception) – did Thomas only receive the latter and not the former? The same question could be posed for Matthias who later joins the twelve (Acts 1:26)? If there is a “receiving” of the Spirit for the born again experience, and then – as Pentecostals say – a second receiving of the Holy Spirit at the Spirit Baptism, then Thomas and Matthias only receive the latter and not the former – while both are required. This makes no sense.

3) Verse 22 is tied up with verse 21: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. Jesus then breathes on them and instructs them to receive the Holy Spirit. Evidently, after they receive the Holy Spirit they are supposed to “go”. And after this event when they are supposedly empowered from on high (keeping verse 21 and 22 connected – the commission and the receiving of the Spirit) where do they “go”? They go fishing (John 21:3)! After that they go to the upper room (Acts 1:13). Then they go to the Temple (Luke 24:53). Like a holy-huddle they stick together and make no move to fulfill the commission of verse 21. Why are they not “go(ing) therefore and mak(ing) disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) after Jesus breathes on them as they were instructed, given that they were commissioned to go and in the same breathe they received the Holy Spirit?

Put all of these puzzling pieces together and one conclusion shines forth like crystal: In John 20:22 the disciples did not actually receive the Holy Spirit any more then they went out to fulfill the great commission as summarized in verse 21! Both the “going” of John 20:21 and the “receiving” of John 20:22 are actually FULFILLED in Acts 2:1-4 ff. The event in John 20:21-22 is best paralleled – in my opinion – with Acts 1:8:

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you: and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Or as John put it in John 20:21-22: receive the Spirit and then fulfill the great commission, and this is what you can expect – then he blows on them indicating it will be like the breath from God when it happens (paraphrased).


John 20:21-22 is a parabolic act by which Jesus essentially enacts Acts 2. But while Jesus enacts Acts 2, this passage in John 20:21-22 best parallels the truth of Acts 1:8. In chart format it looks like this:

Acts 1:8 a. John 20:22
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” “When he said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’
Acts 1:8 b. John 20:21
“… and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Neither of these passages became actualized until after Acts 2. As Jesus so often does in the Gospels; here again in John 20:21-22 he is teaching them ahead of time about what they can expect next.

Romans 8:9 is a passage which asks, “Are you fully born again and living by the power of the Spirit or walking in the Spirit?” It is not asking, “Are you a Christian?” Romans 8:1 already answers that question unequivocally: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. You are saved (Ephesians 2:8-9), but (to use the title of this series) are you born again? Or are you trapped in the spiritual birth canal? Are you walking in the Spirit?

One final thought. Acts 5:32 teaches that God has given the Holy Spirit “to those who obey him.” Some traditions try to teach that the Holy Spirit is given first so that people can obey. They say the Holy Spirit comes before faith and indeed he comes so that one can have faith and obey. As nice as that sounds, the scriptures teach the exact opposite: “We are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:32)

First those who believe (Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith…”) Next those who repent and after that those who are baptized in keeping with repentance and finally those who receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38: “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’.”)

At that point, what Jesus tells Nicodemus about Regeneration (John 3:3-5) will have run its course, and you will be born again!

***To Be Continued***

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Drew Chapados

    Hey Derek,

    enjoyed both of these notes–
    very difficult for some to handle at times–but have always had much difficulty with the notion of big evangelistic meetings where all one had to do was the sinner’s prayer and pay no particular attention to repentance or baptism–
    for the apostles–there would have been no such thing in their mind as an unbaptized or unrepentant Christian–it just wouldn’t have come into their minds.

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I will be interested in Part 3.

  • Harry Heimann

    Left the above comment but forgot fill in information so I am not anonymous.

  • Derek Ouellette

    @Drew: In the early community of God the Born Again experience was very quick. People believed and repented. They got into the water almost immediately and would receive the Spirit. Today we separate everything and stretch it out to disastrous effects. So you are absolutely correct. Thanks for the thought.

  • http://someblogonhere. Brad Dickey

    So, when you express the thought….3. Theologically, while having the Spirit is an intricate part of the born again process, one becomes a child of God (i.e. a Christian) at the moment of spiritual conception even though the Spirit is given later. …..

    does that reconcile with 1 john 3:9 being born of God? While I guess born of God may not be Born Again, I’d say to have a second birth would be “born again” by definition and seems a likely conclusion on the surface. And I could, (and perhaps did previously) make some arguments that it is if needed to.

    If you are born of God you can not sin. Post conjunction doesn’t pertain to the perfect tense argument in the before the conjunction conclusion to translate pre conjunction as Continue in sin. Post conversation is just OU Hamartano. NOT SIN.

    Because, for me, can not sin is not a positional claim, but an absolute and extremely direct and to the point. It’s not WILL not sin, but CAN not sin. Incapable. Which doesn’t mean you DO sin but they are attoned for. That would require you TO sin which is not “CAN NOT SIN”. And it’s not positional, as in HE doesn’t see the sins they are attoned for, same argument as above.

    I had to admit, CRAP, I’m not what I was taught I was. I had the magic prayer, the magic bath, and eat milk and cookies once a month, but I’m not born again. I was pretty angry when I got to the realization. I was fed a bunch of rosey, warm fuzzy SKUBALON.

    I also find it interesting how our interests varied so on the rom 8:9 verse. You focused on the b, me on the A. This verse, and the conclusions I seem to gather from it, really separate the goats from the sheep in a conversation. Conversations with most of the evangelicals I’ve talked with, lead me to wonder if they really even believe in a GOD, or just some holy dance and act they are to partake in to be included in a group. I know how harsh that sounds, but it’s extremely saddening. I really think that is the case. Believing isn’t PROCLAIMING. Belief has consequences and repercussions. You can reason the parachute works, but if you believe you dont’ stop at the door to test your reasoning, you fall out laughing.

    “When he (i.e. Jesus) had said this, he breathed on them (i.e. the disciples) and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” – NRSV

    If you allow that the SPIRIT works from the outside IN to guide you to the point of HIM indwelling you, there are…

  • Derek Ouellette

    To press the analogy of Jesus, when we are born the first time there is a 9 month process from conception to birth. The child is alive at conception – of the Spirit – and the child is a child! You are intent against sin… so am I! I don’t do see the difficulty you see in reconciling my statement with 1 John 3:9-10 (“does that reconcile with 1 john 3:9 being born of God?”) What is there to reconcile?