In the 1976 presidential race, Jimmy Carter described himself as a born-again Christian. At the time, this was not yet a widely known term, but it resonated with believers everywhere. President Carter was saying that he wasn’t just a “cultural Christian.” He didn’t merely belong to a denomination. Rather, he was claiming to be truly committed to Christ, the sort of Christian who had really experienced a spiritual rebirth.
The phrase born again is common today. Many believers call themselves born-again Christians. But sometimes phrases like these become so familiar we don’t stop to think about them. We fail to ask what they really mean. Let’s explore what Peter intended for us to learn.
After his initial greeting (1:1–2), the apostle Peter begins his first letter with this amazing yet incredibly complex confession of praise:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, . . . (1:3).
Here Peter praises God for “his great mercy” giving believers a “new birth into a living hope.” These words—“new birth” and “living hope”—sound beautiful, but it’s not immediately clear to many of us what either phrase means, let alone their relationship to each other. What does it mean to have new birth into a living hope?
First, let’s consider carefully what the phrase “new birth” likely conveys. At the most obvious level, new birth clearly suggests that one is born again. After all, every living person has already been born once. So, a new birth must refer to being born a second time.
The first New Testament usage of the concept of being born again is found in the description of Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus tells Nicodemus that not only must he be born again but no one can enter the kingdom of God without such a rebirth (John 3:5). Nicodemus understandably struggles to understand what Jesus means, but Jesus emphasizes that this new birth is essential for life in God’s kingdom (v. 3).
Grasping this idea is vital. Birth is about life; each birth is a struggle for life. So being born again must also be about life.
But in this case Jesus seems to be referring to a spiritual life—that is, a quality of life more than mere physical existence. Nicodemus’s confusion was due to his assumption that Jesus was discussing physical rebirth. “‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’” (John 3:4). Jesus clarified that he was talking about being born of the Spirit (v. 8). He was referring to life in the Spirit—that is, eternal life (vv. 15–16).
We might respond, why not just call it “receiving eternal life” or something like that? Why does Jesus choose this confusing language of being “born again”?
Perhaps because this metaphor is a particularly powerful one. One that is especially well suited to describe what it means to experience salvation in him.
Consider how powerful this image is. A child’s birth is a particularly appropriate metaphor to illustrate God’s sovereign power in our salvation. Do you know of any infant who had a choice about whether or not they would be born? Do we give a child credit for its own birth? Of course not. An infant enters the world because of the decisions of its parents.
The imagery of birth makes the question of whether our new life is something we can somehow take credit for ludicrous. Like an infant’s birth, our new birth is entirely due to another’s decision: our heavenly Father’s choice to graciously give us a new spiritual life. And that’s exactly how Peter describes it: “in his great mercy he has given us new birth” (1:3, emphasis added).
Next, childbirth is a dramatic, intense experience. If you’ve ever given birth or even witnessed one you know what I mean. It’s obviously a uniquely traumatic experience for the mother. But it’s also hard for the father. No, really. It’s not an easy thing for fathers or others to watch their loved ones suffer, to anxiously wait to see if their child will safely enter the world. I remember vividly the birth of my first child, Jasmine. The struggle involved in the delivery was intense. My wife was in tremendous pain, and I was doing my best to comfort and assist her. The stress—a combination of anxiety and anticipation—was more than I expected. My wife had some “happy gas” to help her cope with the pain—but I wanted some too! We both just so desperately wanted that baby to be born. And then . . . finally . . . she was!
But birth is most dramatic for the child being born. Imagine: you’re safe and snug in your warm sac of amniotic fluid, with food on tap and not a care in the world. It’s cozy and comfortable—if perhaps a little boring. But just when you start pondering whether there might be life beyond the womb, you find yourself being abruptly pushed out of your cozy home. Then—just like that—you’ve transitioned from one reality—one that was your entire world—to an completely new reality, one much bigger and more frightening than anything you’ve known.
And this is a vivid illustration of what it means to be born again spiritually. It’s incredibly intense, every bit as life changing as your first birth. One moment you’re living in one reality, the only world you’ve ever known, the next you find yourself in an entirely new world: life in the kingdom of God. You’ve moved from spiritual death to spiritual life.
I can testify to the intensity of this experience. Becoming a Christian turned my life upside down. I’d been living completely for myself, hoping for fame and glory. I loved—worshiped really—jazz music, and I aspired to be the best jazz saxophonist on the planet. Nothing and no one mattered more to me at that time. Jazz was who I was.
But when I came to believe in Christ—when I was born again—everything changed. Suddenly, being a musician wasn’t what defined me. No longer did it determine my value or my purpose in life. I now had a higher goal—to live as a child of God, in intimate relationship with my heavenly Father.
Just as unborn children have no idea what awaits them after birth, prior to my conversion I couldn’t imagine the richness and wonder I would enjoy through life in Christ. I couldn’t conceive what a joy it would be to know the God of the universe as my heavenly Father. I couldn’t comprehend the profound liberation that comes from being forgiven. I couldn’t anticipate the security I’d find through a new identity in Christ.
Children not yet born cannot anticipate the wonders of life outside the womb; neither can we possibly imagine the joyous splendor of being born again until it happens to us. I certainly didn’t. I could never have imagined how life-changing it would be to know I was profoundly loved with an unconditional, everlasting love.
1. Con talks about his experience of being born again as a dramatic experience that “turned my life upside down.” Take a few moments to reflect on how your life is different because you have been born again. Or if you were born again at a young age, take some moments to consider what life might have been like without Jesus.