Are all born again?

[Updated 4/27/17]

A blog reader asked if the understanding that all humanity is included in God's love and life, means that all people are already spiritually alive (i.e. "born again"). My answer is this: to be included in God's life and to be born again are related, but not the same. Let me explain.

Time and again, Scripture proclaims that what God has done (through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost) transforms all humanity. Here are some of the verses of Scripture speaking to this stunning reality (the Good News!): Romans 5:15, 18; 6:10-11; 2Corinthians 5:14-19; Ephesians 1:3-10, 2:4-9; Colossians 1:19-20, 3:1-4, 11; 1Timothy 2:5-6.

I hasten to add that we do not rely on select "proof texts" for this understanding. Rather, we must take into account the full story of God and humanity told in Scripture, by which we come to know Jesus for who he is, and for what he has done; and the effect this has on all humanity (and, indeed, the whole cosmos). The above cited verses give a brief summation of this truth, which is the "scarlet thread" that runs through and gives coherence to all of Holy Scripture. The ancients referred to this thread as "the rule of faith."

Paul's argument concerning this rule of faith, which is the core message of the gospel, is compelling: Because Adam, representing all humanity, sinned, he took all into sin, and humanity, in Adam, fell (became alienated from God). But Jesus (the Son of God incarnate), who upholds all humanity as its Creator and Sustainer; and represents all humanity as human himself (in his vicarious humanity), took Adam's place as head of humanity and in doing so reversed the fall, restoring humanity to its privileged position with God. According to Scripture, God reconciled all humanity to himself in Christ.

What Jesus accomplished for us, as one of us, is not what might be true for us "if...."; but what is true for us (and all people), because of who Jesus is (the God-man) and what Jesus has done on our behalf. His work is an accomplished reality (and that is very good news!).

But does this reality that God has reconciled all people to himself mean that all people are spiritually alive (what the apostle John refers to in John chapter 3 as being "born again")? In answering, we must be careful to make the distinctions Scripture makes, in the ways it makes them. Above, I cited Col. 1:19-20, which states that through Jesus (and what he has done as fully God and fully human), God has reconciled all humanity to himself. Accordingly, we speak of all people everywhere as "included in God's love and life." They are not cut off from God; they are not condemned before God (Romans 8:1); indeed he has forgiven them all and keeps no record of their sins (1Cor 13:5). This reconciliation is a universal truth, meaning that it is true for all people irrespective of their present, personal view of and relationship with God. This truth is grounded not in personal (subjective) experience-action, but in the objective reality of who Jesus is (God in union with all humanity via what theologians refer to as the hypostatic union) and what the God-man Jesus has done in and through his vicarious (representative-substitutionary) humanity.

However, note Col 1:21, which speaks to a personal (individual/subjective) experience. Here people who are objectively included, are said to have been (prior to their personal conversion) "alienated from God" - "enemies in their minds" toward God. What gives? How can those who are included, forgiven and accepted by God be said to be God's "enemies"? The answer is that God views all people - believers and unbelievers alike as reconciled to himself. He sees them this way because he has taken action himself, through his Son, to bring about this new status for all.

However, not all know of this reconciliation. Individual non-believers remain in the "dark" about this reality - they continue, despite their inclusion, to be alienated from God in their darkened (closed) minds. And so, many people, though beloved of God, do not know of their true identity. And this lack of knowledge is evidenced by their "evil behavior" (Col 1:21). Their true Father is God, but they are behaving as if he is not. Their true identity, from their perspective, remains "hidden in Christ" (Col 3:3).

It is the present ministry of the Holy Spirit (who was "poured out" on "all flesh" at Pentecost nearly 2,000 years ago, Acts 2:14-17) to reveal the truth about humanity to those who do not yet know it, enabling them to believe and thus to be released from the "alienation" that is in their minds toward their true Father. To come to know this truth - which means to come to deeply experience and to put one's trust in the Source of this truth - involves being "born again" (more accurately translated "born from above"), a miracle to which John, starting with a quote from Jesus, makes reference in John 3:3-8 (NASB):
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born 1again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." 
This re-birth, via the agency of the Holy Spirit, is a stunning transformation (see Rom 12:2 and 2Cor 3:16), which opens a person's mind and heart to receive the truth of who Jesus is, and what he has done for them (and for all humanity), and thus who they truly are. To believe this (through faith) does not create this truth - rather it opens their hearts and minds to come into alignment with it (or, as John likes to say to "know the truth," which "sets them free"). The Bible refers to this realignment of thinking as repentance (the biblical meaning being to "change one's thinking"). And that changes everything.

Through this Spirit-given gift of repentance/transformation, one's reconciliation with God is not created (Jesus accomplished that for us all with God long ago). However it gives one entrance into a personal experience of who they truly are, and that experience makes them "spiritually alive." Note Jesus' words, again quoted by John: "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life" (John 5:24).

Does the phrase, "has eternal life," mean that the person is given this new life at the point of personal belief? Or does it mean that through belief, they "get hold of" the eternal life that is already theirs in Jesus, made possible by what Jesus did long ago? I believe the latter is true. In the objective (universal) sense, we can declare that we were born again the day Jesus rose from the dead 2,000 years ago. However, in the personal (subjective) sense, we can say that we were born again the day the eyes of our heart were opened to see and in seeing believe who Jesus truly is and thus who we truly are in him.

Both the objective and subjective senses are very real, but note that the personal has no meaning or reality except for what Jesus did for us, with us, and to us, long ago; and what he now continues to do with us through the Holy Spirit who at our conversion unites us to Christ in a new, deeper (born again) way. Awakened (illuminated/born again) by the Holy Spirit to our life in Christ, we are made "spiritually alive" - a miraculous transformation---something like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis...

Born again, and now in the light, we are able to see what had been true for us all along, but could not be seen in the darkness of our alienation from God. Now able to see, we rejoice with a "joy unspeakable and full of glory" (1Pet 1:8, KJV). In the light of this glory, everything is brand new. And everything begins to change. As the song Amazing Grace declares, "I was lost, but now I'm found; blind, but now I see."


Harvey Hoeck said…
Thank you Ted.
Lance McKinnon said…
Thanks Ted, I’m enjoying the post here and find the dialogue encouraging as we grow in knowing the Father.

I also find that in answering the question “Are all born again?” it is helpful for me to remember the biblical perspective of what eternal life is. If we see eternal life as some gift of longevity we miss the deeper meaning of what it means to be born again. God doesn’t just give us gifts but rather He has given us Himself, the great giver. So eternal life is to be understood in terms of relationship as it is presented in John 17:3 – “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” For me, this simplifies the objective and subjective understanding of being “born again”. Just as a child is “objectively” born into a family, his knowing and relating in that family is an on going subjective experience. If the child chooses to stay in his room and pout, his birth is not undone but his knowing of his father is certainly hampered.

Just another way of saying the same thing. Thanks again for the post.
Ted Johnston said…
Well (and helpfully) stated Lance. Thanks for sharing your insights.
Cody Lee said…

I agree with you, but I wish you would have put more emphasis on the fact that Christ is the One in whom we have been regenerated objectively or born again. Torrance says that the word for regeneration 'palingenesia' refers to Christ in the scripture, and we participate in that regeneration. So even when we are enlightened by the Spirit to our objective union with Christ it is a participation in the One regeneration that has been accomplished already for us in Christ.

This is why Torrance said that when someone asked if he had been born again, he said yes, and when they asked him when, he said,“when Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary and rose again from the virgin tomb, the first-born from the dead.”

This is the truth of being born agian. In Christ we already have been, objectively, and now by the Spirit we are awakened to experience that regeneration, subjectively
Gary said…
Isn’t it odd that if Baptists and evangelicals are correct that their “born again experience” is the true and ONLY means of salvation, the term “born again” is only mentioned three times in the King James Bible? If “making a decision for Christ” is the only means of salvation, why doesn’t God mention it more often in his Word? Why only THREE times? Isn’t that REALLY, REALLY odd?

Why is it that the Apostle Paul, the author of much of the New Testament, NEVER uses this term? Why is this term never used in the Book of Acts to describe the many mentioned Christian conversions? Why is this term only used by Jesus in a late night conversation with Nicodemus, and by Peter once in just one letter to Christians in Asia Minor?

If you attend a Baptist/evangelical worship service what will you hear? You will hear this: “You must be born again: you must make a decision for Christ. You must ask Jesus into your heart. You must pray to God and ask him to forgive you of your sins, come into your heart, and be your Lord and Savior (the Sinner’s Prayer). You must be an older child or adult who has the mental capacity to make a decision to believe, to make a decision to repent, and to make a decision to ask Jesus into your heart.”

It is very strange, however, that other than “you must be born again” none of this terminology is anywhere to be found in the Bible! Why do Baptists and evangelicals use this non-biblical terminology when discussing salvation?

Maybe "accepting Christ into your heart" is NOT what being born again really means. Maybe…making a “decision” for Christ is NOT how God saves sinners!

Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
Gary said…
Five questions that Baptists and Evangelicals should ask themselves

1. Does the Bible state that a sinner is capable of choosing righteousness/choosing God?

The Bible states that the sinner must believe and repent, but are these actions initiated and performed by man of his own intellectual abilities, or are faith, belief, and repentance a part of the entire "package" of salvation? Are faith, belief, and repentance part of the "free gift"? Does God give you faith, belief and repentance at the moment he "quickens" you, or does he require you to make a decision that you want them first, and only then does he give them to you?

2. Is there any passage of Scripture that describes salvation in the Baptist/evangelical terms of: "Accept Christ into your heart", "Make a decision for Christ", "Pray to God and ask him to forgive you of your sins, come into your heart, and be your Lord and Savior (the Sinner's Prayer)". Is it possible that being "born again" is something that God does at a time of his choosing, and not something that man decides to do at a time of his choosing? Is man an active participant in his salvation in that he cooperates with God in a decision to believe, or is man a passive participant in his salvation; God does ALL the work?

3. Is the Bible a static collection of words or do the Words of God have real power, real supernatural power? How does the Bible describe the Word? Is it the meaning of the Word that has power or do the words themselves have supernatural power to "quicken" the souls of sinners, creating faith, belief and repentance?

4. Does preaching the Word save everyone who hears it or only the "predestined", the "elect", the "called", the "appointed" will believe when they hear the Word?

5. WHEN does the Bible, if read in its simple, plain, literal rendering, say that sins are forgiven and washed away?

Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
Ted Johnston said…
Good questions Gary--ones I find meaningfully addressed through an Incarnational Trinitarian perspective on Holy Scripture. Two insights, which I think are relevant to our questions are 1) the vicarious humanity of Jesus--the representative and substitute for all humans; and 2) the present ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Gary said…
Do you think that it is important to have a specific event that you can point to and say: "THEN, is when God saved me!"?

We Lutherans do NOT believe that baptism is mandatory for salvation. All the saints in the OT, the thief on the cross, and many martyrs have died without baptism. We believe they are saved and in heaven. It is not the lack of baptism that damns someone to is the lack of faith/belief that damns one to hell, as Christ states in Mark 16:16.

Many evangelicals think that Lutherans believe that salvation must come through Baptism. This is flat-out wrong! Baptism is one of several possible "when"s of salvation. It is always the Word of God that saves. (Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God). A sinner can be saved sitting in church listening to a sermon; listening to a Gospel program on the radio; or reading a Gospel tract. Baptism is NOT mandatory for salvation.

However, Baptism is God's mark upon us that he truly has saved us. We belong to him. Unless someone intentionally fakes believing, fakes repenting, and fakes a genuine desire to receive Christ's "mark" in baptism, the person being Baptized DOES receive Christ's mark stating: YOU, child, now belong to me.

In the evangelical conversion, you have two viewpoints, Arminian and Calvinist. The Arminian believes that he is saved when HE makes a decision to have faith and believe/repent. The problem is that when HIS faith is ebbing low, he begins to question the sincerity of his "decision": "Did I really do 'it' right?" Why this worry? He worries because his salvation was partly dependent upon HIM; upon HIS "decision".

The Calvinist, on the other hand, believes that he is either born the Elect or he isn't. There doesn't need to be any specific time of conversion, as long as at some point in his life, the Calvinist declares to the world his faith and belief---he IS one of the Elect. However, ask many Calvinists when they were saved and they will give you a blank stare and then answer, " salvation was a 'process'!"

Are there any examples in the Bible of ANYONE being saved by a process??

Receive the mark of Christ, brothers and sisters. In Holy Baptism, God's marks you as his: “Property of the King of Kings, Almighty Lord of Heaven and Earth".

Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals