Requirements for salvation: Born again

Jesus answered, 'Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, "You must be born again." ' (Joh 3:5–7)

We are looking at the biblical requirements for salvation with particular reference to Old Testament believers. In this second study we are going to look at the necessity of being born again.

Born of water and the Spirit

Jesus said that no one can enter the kingdom of God (the spiritual kingdom in which those who have eternal life dwell) unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Has that been true only since the time of Christ? No, it's been true since the fall.

God created mankind in his own image and likeness (Gen 1:26). The Hebrew word translated 'image' in that verse means image or idol (a physical image), and the Hebrew word translated 'likeness' means likeness, resemblance, form or shape (a physical likeness).

But God is spirit and doesn't have a body (Joh 4:24). He lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see (1Ti 6:15–6). So how could the invisible God make mankind in his physical image? Col 1:15–6 gives us the answer:

The Son is the image [Greek image, likeness, appearance] of the invisible God… For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

Jesus (the Son) is, and always has been, the visible manifestation of the invisible God. And God created all things through him, including mankind (Joh 1:1–3; Heb 1:1–2).

Jesus, in his pre-incarnate body (the body in which he appeared to Abraham in Gen 18), took the dust of the earth and formed it into a man in his own physical image and likeness (the image and likeness of God). He then breathed his Spirit into him so he could have his nature (Gen 2:7). (The Hebrew word translated 'Spirit' means breath or wind.)

He took the man and placed him in a garden he had planted (Gen 2:8). The garden was God's first kingdom on earth and was a copy of the paradise of God in heaven (Rev 2:7), to which he returned after his death (Luk 23:42–3).

When Adam and Eve sinned he took his Spirit from them and they died spiritually, and began to die physically (Gen 5:5). Sin brought death to the human race (Rom 5:12). If they hadn't sinned they would have lived forever.

He then drove them out of the garden (out of his kingdom) and we cannot re-enter it without being born again (born of his Spirit again, as Adam was born at the beginning).

Jesus defined being born again as being born of water and the Spirit (see opening text). We are born of the Spirit when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us at conversion, but what is being born of water? Jesus placed being born of water before being born of the Spirit, because it precedes being born of the Spirit.

Water for repentance

The New Testament uses water to symbolize three things. The first is the Spirit. Jesus said:

'Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.' By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. (Joh 7:38–9a)

The second is the Word of God. Paul wrote:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word… (Eph 5:25–6)

The Word of God was symbolized in the Old Testament by the water of cleansing (Num 8:5–7); it purified the Levites so they could serve the Lord. As we read the Word it cleanses us by exposing our sins and showing us where we need to change.

The Word of God also leads us to salvation. The apostle Peter wrote:

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1Pe 1:23)

Most Christians are born again when they hear the gospel: they believe the word they hear and the Holy Spirit enters their hearts (2Co 1:21–2). But not everyone comes to Christ that way. I've heard of Christians being born again after seeing visions of Jesus. No word was preached to them; the Lord appeared to them in a vision and they were born again.

But there is one thing they would have done (which we all do) before the Spirit entered them: they would have repented of their sins. And that brings us to the third thing water symbolizes in the New Testament, which is repentance.

John the Baptist said, 'I baptize you with water for repentance (Mat 3:11a).' John the Baptist preached repentance to Israel and told the people to be baptized—to symbolically wash away the sins they'd repented of (Act 22:16). He then told them to believe in the one who would come after him, who was Jesus (Act 19:4).

Repentance is a prerequisite to being born again. We hear the message that we're sinners and repent of our sins (feel a deep regret for the sins we've committed). We then receive Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord, and are born of his Spirit.

No one can enter the kingdom of God without repentance. Sin caused mankind to be driven from it in the first place (Gen 3:23–4); we cannot re-enter it unless we repent of our sins.

Jesus preached repentance. He said, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Mat 4:17).' In other words, repent of your sins and you'll be able to re-enter God's kingdom.

Isaiah's conversion

Jesus said that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born again. That means that every Old Testament believer must have been born again. Is there evidence to support that? Yes, there is.

In Isaiah we read of the prophet's conversion and commission. He had a vision of Jesus sitting on a throne. What was his reaction? He said, 'Woe to me! I am ruined (Hebrew to be ruined, to perish, be destroyed)! For I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty (Isa 6:1–5).'

Isaiah became conscious of his sin. Convicting people of sin is a ministry of the Holy Spirit (Joh 16:8). He felt deep regret for it, realizing it was leading him to destruction (Mat 7:13).

But a seraphim took a live coal from the altar, placed it on his lips and told him that his sin had been atoned for and his guilt taken away (Isa 6:6–7). That is what happens when we are born again—our sins are atoned for (1Jo 4:10) and our guilt is taken away (Heb 10:21–2).

The company of the prophets

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. (1Pe 1:10–1)

Every Old Testament prophet (male and female) was born again; they had, as the above text tells us, the Spirit of Christ 'in' them. God had believers in the Old Testament, chosen by grace, as he has today; and they met together for fellowship, as we do today. They were known as 'the company of the prophets' (2Ki 2:3,5).

One such group built a meeting place on the banks of the Jordan because the place where they were meeting was too small (2Ki 6:1–2). That means that God had added to their number, and that church building programmes are not new.

We can learn a lot from the Old Testament. God's church was living and active long before Jesus died on the cross. In fact God has been saving people since the time of Abel (Adam's son).

Having driven Adam and Eve out of the garden, God longed to have fellowship with mankind again. And Abel was saved by faith (Heb 11:4), just as we are. We'll look at that subject in the next study.

Michael Graham
September 2009
Revised August 2022

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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