What does the term “born again” mean in the theology of Calvinism? According to Calvinism being “born again” means that a person is first “made alive or are regenerated” by the Spirit of God “in order” for them to be able to believe and follow Jesus Christ. Does the Bible teach a person “must” first be born again “in order” to believe in Jesus Christ?
The sources that will be used to demonstrate what Calvinism teaches on being born again will be from the Canons of Dordt. The Canons of Dordt are official statements of doctrine concerning what Calvinists believe. The term “born again” is also called “regeneration” in the theology of Calvinism. Below will be quotes on what Calvinism teaches on being born again followed by what the Bible teaches in context.
What Calvinism teaches on born again: “Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.” (Canons of Dordt, III & IV, Article 3) The Canons of Dordt indicate that a person is neither willing nor able to return to God “without” the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. That means a person can not believe without first being “born again”, then they are able to choose Christ.
Biblical response to a person “not being able to respond without regeneration.”
The Bible speaks on being born again in detail in the Gospel of John: “1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you, `You must be born again.'” (John 3:1-7)
These Scriptures are the focus point on what the Bible teaches concerning what being “born again” means. Nicodemus comes to Jesus stating that he realizes Jesus is a teacher that has come from God and that God is with Him. How could Nicodemus realize that Jesus has come from God and is a teacher of God “without” being born again yet? How could Nicodemus have a form of trust (belief) in Jesus as being from God without being spiritually alive? Calvinism teaches that a person who is not spiritually alive (born again) cannot understand spiritual things. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16) Nicodemus was not born again yet as Jesus clearly says to him, “you must be born again.” Calvinism teaches a person has to be first born again to be able to recognize spiritual things is wrong. The truth is that Nicodemus had the ability to come to Jesus with a belief in his heart that Jesus came from God and yet he was not born again yet.
The Bible teaches a person must be born again to “see” the kingdom of God (John 3:3), what does that mean? The word “see” can also be translated as “to understand or perceive.” The natural man who is not born again with the Holy Spirit dwelling within them can not understand the spiritual things of God, this is true. To “see” implies to have an understanding of God in spiritual matters, but that does not mean that people will not be able to recognize spiritual things concerning God. Jesus came to reveal the heart of the Father and it was through Jesus that grace and truth were realized. (John 1:14-18) There were people who saw Jesus and heard Him, and it states there were those who were believing in Him, but they were not born again. The disciples of Jesus were not made alive or did not receive the Holy Spirit before Jesus was crucified and resurrected. (John 20:22) The disciples were believing in Jesus as the Messiah before they were born again, but they did not understand these things correctly until they received the Holy Spirit. Jesus said in John 14-16 that the Holy Spirit was going to come and give them understanding and guide them in all truth. Another point is that before Jesus came to this earth to give His life there were many in the Old Testament that believed in God, loved God, and desired to follow God. Clear Biblical theology on being born again is a person who becomes a new creation, a new birth, and a partaker of the divine nature. The question is, “how could all of those in the Old Testament who were not partakers of the divine nature and those who were not a new creation desire to know God and believe in God without being born again?” The truth is they did choose to follow God without being born again or regenerated as Calvinism teaches.
The Bible teaches a person must born again to “enter” the kingdom of God (John 3:5), what does that mean? The word “enter” means to go into. What separates man from being able to enter into the presence of God in the heavenly realm? Sin is what separates anyone from being able to enter into the presence of God in the heavenly realm. Jesus came to give His life for the world as John 3:16 clearly teaches. Jesus was teaching Nicodemus that a person must be born again, a new birth or a new creation. Nicodemus was missing what Jesus was saying (John 3:8-13) concerning the spiritual birth and Jesus clarifies this in John 3:14-18: “14 “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” The clear indication of what Jesus is teaching is that a person must make a decision on following Christ. Jesus spoke of Moses lifting up the serpent as an example of teaching this spiritual truth. The Israelites were being judged for their disobedience and God sent serpents to bite them and many were dying. God then gave them a chance to be delivered from the snakes by telling Moses to made a fiery serpent and Moses did so, and all those who “choose to look to this serpent” would not die. (Numbers 21:6-9) Jesus used this example of truth in reference to Himself as being lifted up and all who look to Him will be saved. Jesus did not say, “a person must first be made spiritually alive to believe in Him”, but Jesus stated that all those who believe in Him will receive eternal life. The clear context of John 3 has nothing to do with a person having to be regenerated first and then they can choose to believe in Jesus, but rather this is the choice for anyone (whosoever) to make.
Another quote from Canons of Dordt on a person first being regenerated in order to believe in Jesus: “And this is the regeneration so highly celebrated in Scripture, and denominated a new creation: a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation, that after God has performed his part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted, or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation, or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner, are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. – Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence, becomes itself active. Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.” (Canons of Dordt, Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Article 12) Three things stick out here from this quote. One, regeneration is another term for “a new creation”, and this regeneration is which makes a person alive spiritually and is done by God without anyone’s aid. Second, within this quote it states a person after God doing His part has the ability to be regenerated or not. How can a person have the ability to be regenerated or not in Calvinism? That statement makes no sense at all within Calvinism. Also that same sentence states a person has the ability to be converted or unconverted, how can this be in Calvinism? Calvinism teaches a person who is regenerated will choose Christ and that only those who are of the “elect” can be regenerated. Calvinism teaches a doctrine called “Irresistible Grace” which means a person who is chosen by God to be saved does not have the ability to say no or reject God. Third, it is by the Holy Spirit activating a person’s will that they will believe and repent. The clear context of John 3 shows a person does not have to be “first” regenerated to be able to believe in Jesus, it is first believing in Jesus and then that person becomes born again.
Old Testament Scriptures on people choosing and seeking God “without being born again.” This is just a few examples.
“But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29)
“15 “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” 16 The people answered and said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17 for the LORD our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of , and who did these great signs in our sight and preserved us through all the way in which we went and among all the peoples through whose midst we passed. 18 “The LORD drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. We also will serve the LORD, for He is our God.” 19 Then Joshua said to the people, “You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins. 20 “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” 21 The people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD.” 22 Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the LORD, to serve Him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” (Joshua 24:15-22 NASB)
“5 “Behold, you will call a nation you do not know, And a nation which knows you not will run to you, Because of the LORD your God, even the Holy One of Israel; For He has glorified you.” 6 Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. 7 Let the wicked forsake his way And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:5-7)
These Scriptures show that people were able to seek and choose God without being born again, therefore the teachings of Calvinism on a person not being able to seek God or choose God without being regenerated is false. God gives us an “if” possibility to seek Him which shows there is a condition upon man to search after the Lord.
This information is to give the clear Biblical understanding of what it means to be born again. Calvinism teachings on what it means to be born again is a misrepresentation of what the Bible clearly teaches on the new birth. May God give us true spiritual understanding of what it means to be born again.