Sometimes, it is just simply difficult to try to teach people the truth.  There are roadblocks in people’s minds, as well as emotional reasons why they will not consider alternate explanations to passages that are different from those they have been taught.  For example, I know of some people who pick out one verse from the Bible and make it a kind of “life’s verse” or a personal favorite for themselves.  They use this verse to inspire them in their daily lives.  It is a source of motivation for them, and can produce an emotional reaction in them when they think of it.  Yet I have at times heard people quote a “life’s verse” that they have chosen and thought personally that they were interpreting it incorrectly.  The verse was simply not saying what they were making it to say in making it this great motivating factor in their lives.  But what would their reaction be if I tried to tell them this?  “You are totally wrong.  Your ‘life’s verse’ isn’t saying the inspiring things you think it’s saying at all.  You are not interpreting it correctly.”  How likely do you think that such people would be to listen to me?  What is the likelihood that they would listen to what I had to say and consider changing their minds?  Or what is the likelihood that they would simply be highly offended that I would question their “life’s verse”?  The fact is that emotional attachments to verses make it extremely difficult to teach anything different or to lead someone to logically consider other ways of interpreting a verse.

This is especially true, I think, when it comes to salvation.  Salvation is without a doubt a highly emotional subject with many people.  Indeed, I myself have gotten choked up a time or two in telling someone what my Lord and Savior did in dying for me.  So the problem of emotional attachment is doubly true when it comes to any passage that is associated with salvation.  I suppose that this could be particularly true if a passage was used by the one leading a person to salvation.  That passage becomes forever linked in that person’s mind with the decision he made to come to Christ, and if anyone questions the passage, that question likewise becomes linked with questioning salvation period.  Thus, if one dares to offer an alternative explanation to the verse in question, people will tend to instantly become irate.  They are likely to question whether or not you actually believe in salvation by grace through faith at all.  Regardless of the fact that you have not questioned salvation by grace, just one particular passage that is used by some to set it forth, people will tend to automatically think badly of you, and start wondering if you really believe in salvation or really are saved at all.  This is not at all fair, for salvation is not based on just one passage, but on a truth that is taught by many different passages in Scripture.  Yet invariably people will start to question your dedication to the salvation message the moment you question the interpretation of even one passage that is traditionally used to set it forth. 

Now we need to understand that there are some people out there who view the message of salvation as practically the only thing of any importance in the Bible.  In their minds, the main subject of the Bible is our salvation, and anything that does not have something to do with salvation must be of little importance.  For example, I once read in a book where a man asked a pastor what the book “Song of Solomon” had to do with saving a man’s soul?  The pastor in the book tried to answer this question, but to me, it was both a foolish question, and it showed little sense to try to answer it.  The fact is that the book of “Song of Solomon” has nothing to do with saving a man’s soul.  The subject of the book is romantic love.  The lessons it teaches have to do with monogamy’s superiority to polygamy, the importance and responsibility of both parties in maintaining sexual purity before marriage, the importance of faithfulness to the vows a couple makes to each other, and, by application, the importance of our faithfulness in our relationship to God.  These are all very important lessons, and yet they have nothing whatsoever to do with saving a man’s soul.  This is a very valuable book in the Bible.  The Bible would be diminished and we would be poorer in our knowledge of God without it.  And yet it has nothing to do with our salvation.  This is just the fact of the matter.

Now those who think that everything in the Bible has to do with salvation in order for it to be important are largely responsible for the divorcing of passages that have nothing to do with salvation from their contexts and the twisting of these passages into lessons regarding salvation.  I could name several passages that I have many times heard related to salvation that, upon my own personal study, I have concluded have nothing at all to do with salvation.  That said, I do not for a moment doubt the truth of salvation by grace through faith.  That is my firm belief, and nothing in this world can change it.  So if I question whether or not a passage relates at all to salvation, let no one think for a moment that I believe in salvation by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ any less than they do.  I believe in this truth with all my heart.  I just do not believe that every passage that is set forth as teaching it and every doctrine taught by men relating to it is correct.

Now with these things in mind, let us examine Christ’s statement in John 3:3. 

Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

This verse is used by some as one of the premiere passages on salvation in the Bible.  They believe it sets forth the concept of salvation as being “born again,” a term in common use by evangelicals today.  Although it was certainly not first used by him, this phrase to describe salvation was popularized in our country by President Jimmy Carter, who claimed to be a born-again Christian.  Thus this term “born again” is indelibly connected with salvation in many people’s minds.  Yet I think if we want to be faithful to the TRUTH, we need to question whether or not this is truly what this passage is talking about.  First of all, it raises a red flag in my mind when I know that our salvation is based on Christ’s finished work on the cross, and yet Christ taught Nicodemus about this concept of being “born again” before He ever went to the cross!  How could Christ have been setting forth a crucial truth about salvation as we enjoy it today when salvation as we enjoy it today was not yet even possible?  If there was a time for Christ to set forth vital truths about our present-day faith and salvation, John 3 would not have been the time.  If John the writer had chosen to break into the story here and explain truths about our salvation, we could understand it.  That is exactly what I believe John does, in fact, later on in the chapter with the famous verse John 3:16.  Yet this verse is not John speaking but Christ, and He is speaking years before He ever died on the cross.  Therefore, that He could have been setting forth one of the premiere truths about the salvation that would be offered after His death to a Pharisee years before He ever died seems highly unlikely.

Now people are so used to the common interpretation of this verse that they cannot see another explanation than that it is setting forth the modern day method of salvation.  Yet I would suggest that this was not what Christ was trying to set forth, this was not what our English translators were trying to set forth when they gave us the King James Version, and that this is not what is set forth at all if we examine the Greek and properly interpret the verse.

Let us start by considering the word “born.”  In Greek it is the word gennao, and means “to be generated.”  When you are born, you are generated, and so this Greek word is often used for birth.  Yet Christ was not talking about a physical birth, but one brought about by God.  With this we can agree with the common interpretation of the verse.

Yet when we get to the word “again,” we start to see serious problems with how this verse is translated.  People argue about the meaning of the word here translated “again,” that is, the Greek word anothen.  People argue about whether or not this word means “again.”  The simple fact is that this is not what it means.  Anothen means “from above.”  It is translated this way in verse 31 of this same chapter, which reads, “He Who is from above (anothen) is above all.”  This does not mean that He Who is again is above all.  Anothen in this verse clearly means “from above.”  In fact, anothen is translated with the idea of from above, from the top, or from the beginning in every passage in our King James Bibles except when the word follows “born.”  Only then is it translated “again.”  Thus we see that “again” is an inconsistent and incorrect translation of the word anothen.  The word should be translated as “from above.”

There is a Greek word that means “again.”  It is the word palin.  If the Lord had really wanted to say “born again,” He would have used “palin.”  Some in arguing that “anothen” means “again” have appealed to Galatians 4:9, which reads, “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?”  They claim that this second “again” is a translation of the word anothen, and that it could not possibly mean “from above” here, as “to which you desire from above to be in bondage” is simply foolishness.  Yet the fact is that this “again” is not a translation of anothen, but is the Greek word palin.  Although anothen appears in the verse, it is untranslated.  We might suggest, “To which you desire over again to be in bondage.”  Anothen seems to be used as a figure of speech.  We might say, “on top of all this, this also is true.”  The Greeks would say, “above all this” in the same way.  That is how anothen is used here.  Yet it clearly does not mean “again.”  That is palin, and that is what is translated “again” BOTH TIMES in this passage, for the first “again” is clearly palin with no anothen present.

Now some have argued this with me by pointing out that in Modern Greek, anothen does not mean “from above,” but it actually does mean “again.”  I have not checked this out for myself, but it could well be that this is true.  Yet if true this does not really change my argument at all.  Modern Greek, although similar to ancient, Koine Greek, is NOT Koine, and cannot be represented as such.  A Modern Greek speaker would have great difficulty even understanding an ancient Greek speaker.  Koine Greek is a dead language, and no one speaks it anymore.  Just because there is a modern version of Greek being spoken does not mean that modern Greek speakers know Koine Greek better than ancient Greek scholars.  The same is true of English.  English is certainly a form of ancient Anglo-Saxon, but the fact is that we would not even be able to understand someone speaking Anglo-Saxon, nor would we be much help in defining Anglo-Saxon words.  The language is just too ancient, and has changed too much since its inception.  Even from the time when the old King James was translated certain words have changed in meaning drastically.  For example, try to figure out what the word “prevent” means in the King James Version and you will find that its meaning is nothing like that which the word has in modern English.  We cannot define this word according to its use today.  The same is true of the word anothen.  Regardless of its use in Modern Greek, what is important is its use in ancient, Koine Greek, and that is clearly “from above.”

Now the modern versions of the Bible are reluctant to adopt the translation “born from above” for this passage.  The reason is not that there is not evidence that this is what the phrase gennao anothen actually means, but rather that people are used to the passage saying “born again.”  It is rather like what happens when mapmakers try to make some other projection of the globe than the Mercator Projection.  As we know, a round globe cannot be accurately transferred unto a flat sheet of paper, just like an orange peel cannot be laid down flat without ripping.  Whenever we make a map of the world, some projection of the globe unto a flat piece of paper must be made.  Now it is well known that the common map called the Mercator Projection is biased by the fact that the creators of that projection were English, and so they chose a projection that made Great Britain as large as possible.  This has some other negative effects, like making Africa appear far too small.  Yet in going into a map shop the majority of maps one would find of the world are still the Mercator Projection.  Why is this so?  Because that is simply the projection people are used to seeing.  If faced with two maps, one the Mercator Projection and another some other, more accurate projection, people will choose the Mercator map in most cases.  Why?  Not because it is most accurate, but because it is what they are used to.  Now Bible translations are the same way.  Those of us who care about accuracy over anything look for the most accurate translation, but the fact is that the bottom line in why most translations are made is to make money.  Thus, translators don’t want to take a beloved, familiar passage and change it, even if that change would cause it to be more accurate.  Just like in the case of the Mercator Projection, the translators tend to leave John 3:3 as “born again” rather than “born from above” just because they know that that is what people are used to.

That said, there are some translations that are so bold as to suggest the proper rendering of this verse.  I consulted eleven versions, the KJV, NKJV, NASV, TLB, Phillips, RSV, TEV, NIV, TJB, TNEV, and Wuest’s Expanded Translation.  Of these versions, the NIV and RSV both have “from above” as an alternate rendering of anothen, although they maintain the idea of “again” (NIV) or “anew” (RSV) in the text.  The Jerusalem Bible is the only one of the eleven that translates the phrase in the text correctly as “from above.”  Yet all the Bibles I consulted without exception translated anothen as “from above” or “from heaven” in verse 31 of the same chapter!  This shows the traditional bias used in translating all these versions except the Jerusalem Bible.  Note that I am not necessarily recommending the Jerusalem Bible as a superior translation, but simply pointing out that, in this passage at least, it renders this word correctly, whereas the other versions do not.

Now if anothen means “from above” and is translated as such in all cases except when it is used with “born,” then why did our King James translators decide to translate the word differently in these cases?  What was their motivation for translating the word as “again” when used with “born” and “from above” or something similar in all other occurrences?  In order to answer this question, we have to remember what the doctrinal beliefs of the King James translators were.  They lived under the Church of England, and that church traditionally performed infant water baptism.  It is possible that, by translating the words gennao anothen by “from above,” they were hoping to use these passages to support the doctrine of infant baptism.  After all, being “born again” is something that a priest or minister of the Anglican Church could do to a baby, but being “born from above” is clearly something that could only be done by God Himself.  Thus, by translating anothen in this way, they could make it something that could be done by men, that is, infant baptism.

Whether or not this explanation for the translation of anothen in the King James is correct, the fact remains that this word does not mean “again” but “from above.”  Any doctrines we come up with today based on this bad translation are just as incorrect as any doctrines the King James translators may have wanted to base on this bad translation in the past.  Anothen means “from above,” and this “birth” that the passage is talking about is one that comes straight from the hand of God.

Now we consider the last important word in the passage, which is “see.”  Let us go back and look at the first two verses of this passage.

1.  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 are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”

When Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God,” he used the word for “see,” eido.  Then, when Christ responded to what he said in verse 3, He used the same Greek word eido, to say, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Thus, He responded to Nicodemus’ statement by taking a word out of his mouth and using it to teach him something.

Now I know that a look at a Greek interlinear will show that these two words for “see” are in different forms and so don’t appear to be the same word at first glance to the English eye.  Yet if one will check out these two words “see” and “know” in a concordance such as Strong’s, one will find that these words are in fact from the same root word in the Greek.  We might compare these two forms of eido to our English words “go” and “went,” which appear vastly different and yet, as any English speaker knows, are intimately related.  These two words are the same, just in different forms. 

Thus we understand that Nicodemus said that the Sanhedrin knew/saw, that they understood or perceived, that the Lord was a Teacher sent from God, and Christ replied that unless one is born from above, he cannot see/know, that he cannot understand or perceive, the kingdom of God.  What was Christ saying?  He was telling Nicodemus that this knowledge that he and his fellow members of the Sanhedrin had or claimed to have, the knowledge that the Lord was a Teacher sent from God, was something that they hadn’t figured out on their own, but that it had been generated in them from above!  This was the point of Christ’s statement.  He wasn’t telling Nicodemus something that he had to do to be saved.  He was telling Nicodemus that something had already happened to him.  He and the rest of the Sanhedrin had had knowledge Divinely given to them.  They knew something that they could not have known apart from a revelation from God Himself.  Now, they were responsible for what they would do with that knowledge.  Would they accept it and act accordingly?  Or would they reject it and bring condemnation on themselves?  The choice was theirs!

Thus we come to understand the real point of Christ’s statement.  No knowledge of the Kingdom of God, whether it be knowledge of what the Kingdom is, what it will be like, when it will come, or Who its King is, can be known by men unless God generates that knowledge in them.  Nicodemus and the other members of the Sanhedrin had not come to this knowledge on their own.  God had given it to them.  And thus, we can relate this passage back to our own salvation as well.  This passage is not talking about a “new birth” that takes place at salvation and which one must experience in order to be saved.  Rather, it is relating something that must happen in our hearts and minds before we can ever come to God in salvation.  Before we believe, knowledge of Who and What Jesus Christ is must be generated in us.  If it were not, we could never understand enough of Him to come to the place where we could put our faith in Him.  Our minds are dead to the things of God, and without the generating power of God working in us, we could never attain to the knowledge that would allow us to make a choice before God.  We would never even have the opportunity to express any faith were knowledge not first generated in us from above!

Thus this passage certainly can be related to salvation.  Yet I do not think that salvation is the only application that can be made of it.  After we are saved, we can continue to learn many new facts about the Kingdom of God as we read and study the Word of God.  Every time that we learn these things, however, we also have to make a choice.  Will we accept and believe the knowledge thus generated in us?  This is a choice that we all must make every time we come upon a new Biblical truth.  Although salvation is a “once for all” choice, yet there are still many opportunities in our lives after salvation to come upon new truth and either to accept it and grow in faith or else to reject it and turn from faith.  These decisions may not have anything to do with keeping or losing our salvation, but they do determine what kind of believers we are going to be.  Are we going to be the kind for whom faith and the truth are the first priority?  Or are we going to be the kind who put their own selfish desires ahead of the truth and the Word of God?  Many believers are of this second type.  Let us ever strive to be the first!

Should any seek to cling to the idea that “being born again” is another term for “being saved,” let me point out that, if you insist upon this, you will back yourself into almost insurmountable difficulties when you come to I John 3:9, which reads, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for his seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.”  This truth is reiterated in I John 5:18, which reads, “We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him.”  Those who have made being “born again” to be another name for being saved have had great difficulty in dealing with this passage.  For if what John means here is that whoever is saved does not sin, then we are in the greatest possible quandary.  Now we know that some who are rash in their judgments and have a less developed knowledge of God’s righteousness and sin might claim that they have passed into a state of perfect sinlessness.  Yet all those who have truly submitted themselves to the study of God’s Word and had it exercise their hearts and minds in regards to God’s perfect standards cannot help but admit that they are not sinless, though they may live far better lives than others who actually claim perfection.  Thus if being “born again” is being saved, then this passage causes us the most extreme consternation.  Indeed, John himself says in I John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  This passage cannot be talking about salvation!

Yet if we understand being born of God as being, not the act of being saved, but the act of God generating something in us, then we can fully understand how a God-generated person could not sin.  For example, suppose God generated a prophecy in you.  While you are speaking that prophecy, then, you cannot sin and say something wrong and self-serving, for you are generated of God to speak that prophecy.  If God generates the gift of healing in you, then you cannot use it selfishly and only heal those who will bribe you for healing, for that gift is God-generated and you cannot sin while using it.  And we could list multiple other examples, but this is the basic truth.  When God generates the power in us to do something as representatives of Himself, we cannot sin while carrying out that representative role.  When that work is done, however, and we have accomplished that for which we were generated, we can go back to controlling ourselves, and thus find ourselves still susceptible to sin.  This is the truth taught in I John 3:9 and I John 5:18.  It is entirely consistent with being “born from above,” but totally impossible to understand if it involves being “born again.”  Understanding the proper translation of anothen helps us immeasurably in understanding this passage!

Thus we learn important truths about salvation from this passage in John 3:3.  This passage is not worthless if it does not mean what so many make it to mean.  It has great worth, and teaches us an important truth.  Yet it does not teach us what so many evangelicals and fundamentalists think it does.  Although the Bible clearly sets forth salvation by grace through faith in Christ, this is not the subject of this passage, nor is being “born again” the teaching that it is setting forth.  Rather, what Christ is speaking of here is the knowledge that was generated in Nicodemus and the Sanhedrin about Who He was, and the responsibility that placed them under.  We would do best if we would acknowledge this as the truth of this passage, and learn from the lesson that Christ intended it to teach.