Our Lord Jesus famously spoke about the new birth when he addressed Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, who had come to Jesus in the night. In John 3:3-7 he says…
“Most assuredly, 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? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter 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 marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.”
We must be born again to see the kingdom of God, and we must be born of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. We have to be born of the Spirit. This is to do no more than repeat what the Lord Jesus says. The problem comes when we give our opinion of what the Lord Jesus means. Whenever a person tells us that they believe the Bible, what they actually mean, because this is inescapable, is that they believe their own interpretation, or the interpretation of someone else.
No one can doubt that we must be born again. But what this means is explained in different ways. The question then becomes how we decide whose explanation is correct. It is not possible to insist that anyone accepts a particular view. Nevertheless it does seem reasonable to consider where these different views have come from, and how authoritative they are likely to be.
When someone asks us if we have been born again they almost always mean it in the sense adopted by Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants. The American preacher, D. L. Moody (born 1837, died 1899), visited the UK and was as famous as Billy Graham. He expressed this Evangelical Protestant view of being born again. In one of his sermons he says…
Except you are born of the Spirit you cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. What has a sacrament to do with that? What has baptism to do with being born again?
It is interesting to see such a clear statement of Moody’s view, because it is one which is held by many Evangelical Protestants. He tells us that baptism and the sacraments have nothing to do with being born again, but what does he understand by phrase? He says…
All that men have to do now is just to accept the work of Christ… If you turn now and call upon him, he will forgive you your sins. He will forgive every one all his sins, no matter how many they are. He will save you, if you truly repent, and write your name in the Book of Life. But you must call upon him with the heart… Is there one here to-night who will not cry out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner”? “ Lord, have mercy upon me”? Why not call upon him? Why not seek the Lord now? Why not make up your mind that you will not leave the room until the great question of eternity is settled?
D. L. Moody had a low view of the Church and the sacraments. He did not believe they had anything to do with being born again. He was entitled to his opinion, and there is no need to be judgemental in respect of his own faith in Christ. But we can reflect on his teaching and ask if it is true, and if it has authority. He believed and preached the message of many Evangelical Protestants, which is that to be born again means simply asking the Lord Jesus to save us and to have mercy upon us and to forgive us our sins.
Who can doubt that this is a necessary aspect of finding faith in Christ. There is no need to dismiss this attitude of repentance and hope. But this is only one view, that we are born again simply and completely by turning to God in this way. We can ask where this idea might have come from, and if we studied the history of doctrines we would discover that it originated with one of the early Protestant leaders of the 16th century, Huldrych Zwingli. He was one the most important of Protestant reformers together with Luther and Calvin. It was Zwingli who introduced for the first time in Christian history the idea that all that was needed for salvation was faith. He said…
In this matter of baptism – if I may be pardoned for saying it – I can only conclude that all the Doctors (teachers) have been in error from the time of the Apostles… All the Doctors (teachers) have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and which the Apostles did not teach.
This is quite remarkable. Zwingli is perfectly happy to admit that every teacher in the Church from the earliest centuries has been in clear agreement that the waters of baptism are effective, that is they do something, and yet he considers that he can ignore that universal testimony about baptism and treat his own opinions as having ultimate authority. It was his view that baptism was not necessary for salvation, or to be born again, but that it was a useful visual aid for simple and uneducated people.
In this he is the ultimate origin of the views which Moody preached in the 19th century. Before Zwingli none had considered that baptism was not a sacrament and did not effect those gifts which were promised by the action of the Holy Spirit in faith. Zwingli admits this. In the 16th century he was introducing an entirely new and previously unheard of doctrine that disagreed with every previous Christian teacher, and also disagreed with the views of Luther.
Elsewhere he says…
They are wrong, therefore, by the whole width of heaven, who think that sacraments have any cleansing power.
Water baptism cannot contribute in any way to the washing away of sin.
Now since Zwingli did not believe that baptism made any real difference to a person’s life it is not surprising that he should consider it an optional extra, especially suited to those simple folk who needed something practical to illustrate what had happened only by faith. He says…
If someone is so strong that his assurance and certainty are independent of time, place, person and such like then he has no need for sprinkling with water.
So as far as Zwingli was concerned, though he admitted freely he was rejecting the teaching of every Christian writer, baptism was not necessary for salvation because it effected nothing and was useful only for simple people as a token of what happened in their heart by faith and not by any sacrament.
At the same time the Anabaptists were also propagating entirely new views about baptism. Hubmaier, in The Sum of a Christian Life, 1525, points out that baptism occurs after a man “has inwardly and in faith surrendered himself to the new life.” “In doing so, he indicates to the Christian Church, that is to all the sisters and brothers who live in the faith in Christ, that he has been so taught inwardly in the Word of Christ and that he is so minded, that he has already surrendered himself according to the Word, will, and rule of Christ to live henceforth for him”.
This is again clearly a rejection of the ancient and universal view of baptism as a sacrament. The Anabaptists separated the reception of new life from the practice of baptism so that baptism was only a witness to others of what had already taken place apart from baptism. It is a means of showing that you wish to belong to a certain group and is absolutely not the means by which new life is received.
This understanding of what it means to be born again, that it is only a matter of inward faith, and that baptism, and the other sacraments, and the church, have little or nothing to do with being born again, is from the 16th century, and had never been taught before. This was the recent teaching which Moody preached, and it is the teaching of most Evangelical Protestant groups. It is hundreds of years old, certainly, but is has no connection with the earliest Church.
Of course even this beginning of faith is necessary, and of course all those who have a faith in Christ in this way are seeking after him. This seeking after God and seeking with repentance for new life in Christ is a first step, and is honoured by God. But this is not the only view which we can have about being born again. To say that this view is incomplete, or even incorrect, is not to say that those who hold it or teach it are without faith in Christ, or without a real experience of God. But if Moody is allowed to say that everyone who believes that baptism and the Church have nothing to do with being born again, then it seems reasonable to allow those who do to at least suggest that Moody might be wrong.
The weakness in this view is that it is modern. It was not known in the history of the Church. Zwingli stated this plainly, and accepted he was disagreeing with all the teachers of the Church through the ages.
The Orthodox Church, and indeed the Catholic Churches, and Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England, more than 2/3 of all Christians today, believe that it is necessary for a person to be baptised in water, in the name of the Holy Trinity, and anointed with the Holy Chrism, to be able to become a member of the Church, the Body of Christ and to experience the new birth. St Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the 4th century, produced a series of lectures for those about to be baptised, and those who had just been baptised, in which he describes the Orthodox Faith. He says of baptism…
At the self-same moment you were both dying and being born; and that Water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother… O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things He has freely bestowed upon us, that we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality. O surpassing loving-kindness! Christ received nails in His undefiled hands and feet, and suffered anguish; while on me without pain or toil by the fellowship of His suffering He freely bestows salvation… Baptism purges our sins, and ministers to us the gift of the Holy Ghost, so also it is the counterpart of the sufferings of Christ.
We could turn to any of an almost countless number of Fathers of our Orthodox Church who teach the same, as do our right-believing bishops of this present age. Baptism is truly the new birth to life in Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We can consider the writings of St Justin Martyr, a leading figure of the second century Church who was born in about 100 AD and was martyred in Rome in 165 AD. In his First Apology, a document he sent to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Roman Senate to explain the character of the early Christian community in the face of imperial persecution, he says something about the earliest and Apostolic teachings on baptism. It is worth reading what he says in full. He writes…
As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves born again. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, 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 rite we have learned from the apostles this reason. … in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe… And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.
What do we find that St Justin Martyr, reporting the Apostolic teaching, tells us about baptism? He says that baptism is for the remission of sins and is the means by which we are born again. This is to be expected since in the Scriptures this is explicitly taught by St Peter when he says to the crowd who have gathered to hear him preach and who ask him, “What must we do?”…
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Acts 2:38
We must repent of course. It is the necessary precondition for becoming a Christian. We do not disagree with this at all, but it is not all of the necessary teaching which we received from the Apostles. But we receive remission of sins through baptism, and afterwards the gift of the Holy Spirit. St Justin Martyr describes what he has received from the Apostles, and those who had known the Apostles. He says the same thing….
We have learned from the Apostles…that we may obtain in the water the remission of sins.
Elsewhere St Justin Martyr writes…
And we, who have approached God through Christ, have received not carnal, but spiritual circumcision, which Enoch and those like him observed. And we have received it through baptism, since we were sinners, by God’s mercy; and all men may equally obtain it.
Here we see that baptism is a spiritual circumcision, but it is received only through baptism, therefore those who have not been baptised have not received this spiritual circumcision, and baptism is necessary to receive it. This circumcision is the cutting off of the old nature and represents the new man, the man who is born again.
We can also look at the Letter of St Ignatius of Antioch to the Trallians. St Ignatius of Antioch lived through much of the first century and had been made the second bishop of Antioch by the Apostle Peter. He was surrounded by those who had even seen Christ and had known those who followed him. He says of baptism…
Be ye subject to the bishop as to the Lord, for “he watches for your souls, as one that shall give account to God.” Wherefore also, ye appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order that, by believing in His death, ye may by baptism be made partakers of His resurrection.
What does he say? It is that we must believe in the death of Christ of course. Who could doubt that? But more than that we become partakers of his resurrection through baptism. Not by believing, which is the precondition for baptism, but by baptism itself. It is in baptism that we share in the resurrection and are born again.
In this brief text we can also look at the writings of St Irenaeus of Lyons. He was a disciple of Polycarp, the famous bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor. This Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John, and Irenaeus tells us that Polycarp was careful only to teach what he had learned from the Apostle. Being born at the beginning of the second century he knew many of those who had known the Apostles. He says…
Now faith occasions this for us; even as the Elders, the disciples of the Apostles, have handed down to us. First of all it bids us bear in mind that we have received baptism for the remission of sins, in the name of God the Father, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was incarnate and died and rose again, and in the Holy Spirit of God. And that this baptism is the seal of eternal life, and is the new birth unto God, that we should no longer be the sons of mortal men, but of the eternal and perpetual God.
Here again we see that another of those most closely connected with the Apostles is insistent that baptism, as the Scriptures teach, is the means by which we receive the remission of sins. More than that, baptism is the means by which we receive the seal of eternal life and is itself the means of the new birth unto God. We are born again in baptism.
Elsewhere he writes…
These were the apostles, who after receiving the power of the Holy Spirit were sent forth by Him into all the world, and wrought the calling of the Gentiles, showing to mankind the way of life, to turn them from idols and fornication and covetousness, cleansing their souls and bodies by the baptism of water and of the Holy Spirit; which Holy Spirit they had received of the Lord, and they distributed and imparted It to them that believed; and thus they ordered and established the Churches.
St Irenaeus describes the Apostles as those who cleansed the souls and bodies of the Gentiles by the means of baptism and the Holy Spirit. But also he speaks of them giving the Holy Spirit to those who believed as the means of ordering and establishing the Churches. There is no cleansing without baptism, and there is no Holy Spirit without its impartation by the Apostles.
Finally there is a writing called, On Baptism, by Tertullian, another early Christian theologian. He says…
All waters, therefore, … after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them from Himself; and being thus sanctified, they imbibe at the same time the power of sanctifying…. since we are defiled by sins, as it were by dirt, we should be washed from those stains in waters. But as sins do not show themselves in our flesh … Therefore, after the waters have been in a manner endued with medicinal virtue through the intervention of the angel, the spirit is corporeally washed in the waters, and the flesh is in the same spiritually cleansed.
Not that in the waters we obtain the Holy Spirit; but in the water, under the witness of the angel, we are cleansed, and prepared for the Holy Spirit… After this, when we have issued from the font, we are thoroughly anointed with a blessed unction… Thus, too, in our case, the unction runs carnally, (i.e. on the body,) but profits spiritually; in the same way as the act of baptism itself too is carnal, in that we are plunged in water, but the effect spiritual, in that we are freed from sins.
This is a lengthy quotation but is necessary to show that there is a consistency among these authors of the first few centuries, all understanding the meaning of the Scriptures in the same way. Tertullian shows us that we are freed from sins by baptism, and that the waters of baptism become a means of sanctification by the descending of the Holy Spirit. Just as in the Orthodoxy of our own times baptism is understood as a sacrament, the very means by which the spiritual benefits promised are effected by the presence of the Holy Spirit in and with the water and oil. These benefits are not received without the participation in the sacrament.
Now someone might deny that this is what baptism is all about and might hold some other view. But it cannot be denied that this is entirely and exactly what Orthodox Christians teach and believe about baptism and it was what was taught from the first century, and by those who knew the Apostles personally. It is the means, the means provided by God, in which remission of sins, new life in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit are received. It is not a reminder or witness of the reception of these gifts, it is the very means itself by which these gifts are received.
Now Moody, following after Zwingli and the Anabaptists, and followed in due course by modern Evangelical Protestants, denied that baptism is how we are born again, but this is what every early teacher insists. At least Zwingli admitted that he was making a new teaching. But to object to this anti-sacramental view, one in which baptism and the Church of the Apostles has little or no place, is not to say anything about those who accept it, or the reality of their experience of God. It is to say that Orthodox believe that there is more, much more, which God waits to give in the fulness of the new birth when it is received with faith in the waters of sacramental baptism in the Apostolic Church.
So here are two different views about how we interpret the phrase which our Lord Jesus used, “you must be born again”. It is clear that it is not possible to simply say that we are giving the teaching of the Bible, since both views believe they are Biblical. What we have to do is consider which view is authoritative and has the weight of evidence. The modern Evangelical Protestant view was unknown before the 16th century. It discounts the sacrament of baptism and the necessary value of the Church as the community where this sacramental baptism takes place. This runs counter to the clear teaching of the preceding 16 centuries, and even today the majority of Christians do not accept it and hold the second and traditional view.
The early writings which have been presented were written by those who had known the Apostles and learned from them, or had been the disciples of those who had known the Apostles. It does not make sense that all of these examples should misunderstand the Apostles teaching about the new birth in the same way and so universally. It makes no sense to say that all Christians were in error for 1500 years until the time of the early Protestants. The Lord Jesus promised the Apostles that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth, and the simplest understanding of these words of the Lord Jesus is that the Holy Spirit did just this, and that the Apostles taught this truth to their disciples. If the Apostles failed to communicate this truth, or did not understand it themselves then it seems to me that we have to reject the plain teaching of Scripture and allow that the Church immediately fell into error from the time of the Apostles and that the Holy Spirit was unable to lead into truth, and that the gates of Hades did triumph over the Church. We have to say that all Christians of the first centuries were in error, and even today most Christians continue to be in error about what it means to be born again.
In summary, when we say we believe the Bible, we cannot avoid meaning that we believe an interpretation of the Bible. So we have to ask which interpretation has weight and authority and evidence. Not all interpretations can be equally correct and true. This does not mean that we have to deny or dispute the experience of others, but it does mean that we can believe that there is a truth which offers a fuller experience as God intends.
In this instance, we have a view which has been introduced in modern times, and which it was accepted had not connection with the previous teaching of the Church. It insists that faith is all that is required for the new birth. There is another view, one which has been held from the Apostolic times and was universal among Christians until the 16th century. It does not deny the need for faith, but teaches that sacramental baptism in the Apostolic Church is the God given means for receiving the new birth, for being born again, as faith desires.
When we are asked, as Orthodox Christians, have you been born again? we can surely answer, yes indeed, and by the grace of God I am working out this new life I have received as a gift in the waters of baptism, just as Naaman received healing only when he washed and not simply when he believed, and as the blind man was only healed when he washed his eyes and not simply when he believed. The teaching that we need only believe was certainly useful to preachers who could stir the emotions, but the true experience of the new birth is not accomplished in the work of a moment, but in the faith-filled preparation for baptism and membership of the Apostolic Church, and in the participation in the waters of baptism at the hands of the ministers of the Church of Christ. It is more, so much more, which is offered in the traditional, universal and Apostolic understanding, and there is no less faith and reliance on the grace of God.