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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

New Birth

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Cleansing from sin that God gives to all who believe on his Son through the Holy Spirit.

It is absolutely necessary for a person to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God. In the central passage in the New Testament about the new birth (John 3 ), Jesus tells Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, that he will not enter the kingdom of God unless he is born anew. The alternation between singular and plural Greek pronouns in the passage shows that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus both personally and representatively. The need for the new birth is not only true of Nicodemus, but of the entire Sanhedrin, all Jews, and, by extension, all people.

Some have considered the new birth to be a process a person experiences, even over a period of years. Such an interpretation is not congruent with the tense of the Greek verb in this passage. The aorist tense suggests that the new birth is an event rather than a process. Prior to a certain point in time, a person is not-born-again or regenerated; after that point, the person is.

Probably the most difficult interpretative issue in John 3 is found in verse 5. The best view appears to be that "being born of water and the Spirit" presents a unified thought for the supernatural cleansing from sin that God through the Spirit effects on all who believe on his Son. This water-Spirit combination is a reflection of Ezekiel 11,36 , and Jeremiah 31 . In these Old Testament passages God's Spirit is viewed as doing a revolutionary work in the lives of God's people in the new covenant age. There are a number of reasons that this interpretation is preferable.

The use of one Greek preposition (ek ) before the two nouns indicates a close relationship between them. Water and Spirit are complementary rather than antithetical to each other. It does not see water as a reference to Christian baptism at a time in Jesus' ministry when such baptism was not yet a historical reality. It fits well contextually in terms of Nicodemus' familiarity with the Old Testament and the need for some intelligibility on his part. It interprets "born of water and the Spirit" as equivalent to "born of God, " a common Johannine term (John 1:13; 1 John 2:29; 3:7-10; 4:7; 5:4 ). It comports well with the emphasis on Spirit and truth in the Johannine literature. Finally, it coheres with the use of water in the Old Testament to symbolize renewal and cleansing.

Whether Old Testament believers possessed the new birth is a difficult question. No Old Testament text explicitly states that Old Testament believers were born again or regenerated. There is a relative absence of a developed theology of the Spirit in the Old Testament. But, given the universality of the need for the new birth, it can be argued that Jesus' teaching on the absolute necessity of the new birth for entrance into the kingdom of God analogically demands that Old Testament believers also had to have the divine life imparted to them through God's Spirit.

Many commentators argue that Titus 3:5 argues for water baptism as the referent of the word "washing." Based on the Greek grammar, however, the translation should be rendered "the washing [produced by] regeneration and the renewal [produced by] the Holy Spirit." This interpretation also coheres with the translation of John 3 .

First Peter 1:23 adds a more explicit dimension to the means whereby the new birth is produced: the preached message of the truth of Jesus Christ. The key words in 1 Peter 1:22-25 expand upon and reinforce words referring to the new birth.

The new birth is, then, a sovereign act of God by his Spirit in which the believer is cleansed from sin and given spiritual birth into God's household. It renews the believer's intellect, sensibility, and will to enable that person to enter the kingdom of God and to do good works. The Old Testament saints were born again when they responded in faith to God's revealed message; New Testament saints, when they respond in faith to Jesus Christ.

Carl B. Hoch, Jr.

Bibliography . L. L. Belleville, Trinity 1 (1980): 125-41; F. Bchsel, TDNT, 1:665-75,686-89; S. Charnock, The Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 3; J. Dey, Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, pp. 725-30; N. R. Gulley, ABD, 5:659-60; Z. C. Hodges, BSac 135 (1978): 206-20; A. Kretzer, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 1:243-44; W. L. Kynes, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, pp. 574-76; J. I. Packer, EDT, pp. 924-26; A. Ringwald, NIDNTT, 1:176-80; P. Toon, Born Again: A Biblical and Theological Study of Regeneration .


Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'New Birth'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bed/view.cgi?n=504. 1996.

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