Answer: Most people who consider themselves Christians believe the definition of the expression "born again" refers to what happens when a person accepts Jesus or is baptized. The Bible, however, teaches something completely different! This article will show that Jesus never taught that the meaning of being reborn was something experienced by those who are alive (with one unique exception).
The primary Scriptures on which the born again teaching is based are found in John 3. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, approaches Jesus one night and informs him that the Pharisees know he is sent by God because no one could do such astonishing miracles if they were not (John 3:2). Jesus responds by offering what seems to be an unrelated answer about the necessity of being born again.
Truly, truly I say to you, unless anyone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3, HBFV throughout).
Nicodemus takes Jesus' answer literally. To him, Christ is stating that a person must be physically reborn from their mother in order to enter God's kingdom (John 3:4). The Lord responds by further clarifying his teaching, "unless anyone has been born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (verse 5).
Jesus' teaching is that humans must first be "born of water" and then experience a rebirth before they are fully saved. What, however, do these two phrases represent? Are either of them referencing the act of "accepting Jesus in your heart" or being baptized?
The Lord, no doubt aware that Nicodemus was puzzled by his answer (see verse 9), offers still more of an explanation of what he is discussing. He compares and contrasts the difference between the two events he listed in verse 5 in the hope that his friendly Pharisee visitor would finally comprehend what he is teaching!
Jesus explains that being "born of water" (John 3:5) is the same as being born of flesh (verse 6), which is what we all experience to begin life on planet earth. Flesh (humans) can only produce, through procreation, that which is also flesh-based.
The Lord then states that being born "of Spirit" (verse 5) is also needed for a human to enter the Kingdom. This change must be initiated by God, who is already a spirit. He alone has the power to transform humanity from a flesh-based existence to one composed of the same spirit essence he possesses (verse 6).
Jesus then reveals to Nicodemus one of the main characteristics of being "born of the Spirit."
"The wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound, but you do not know the place from which it comes and the place to which it goes; so also is everyone who has been born of the Spirit (John 3:8).
Jesus, as he has done throughout this conversation (and other times), uses something that is known (wind) to explain that which is not. Like wind, those who are changed into spirit will be able to travel undetected by humans. They will exist in a realm invisible to the naked eye. This means that being born again cannot be referring to an event that takes place when a person is alive! It occurs when a person is dead and enables them to enter God's Kingdom (John 3:3, 5, 7).
Christians are born again or "born of the Spirit" at the resurrection of the dead. This means, at the first resurrection the righteous, those who have died and lie in their graves, will be brought back to life. They will be given spiritual bodies and will receive the gift of immortality (Luke 20:34 - 36, 1Thessalonians 4:16 - 17, 1Corinthians 15:51 - 55). It is only then that they will have meet all the requirements to enter their reward in the Kingdom.
Please see our series on the definition of Christian terms for information on other Biblical phrases and words.