Thoughts on Some New Testament Salvation Language

Posted By on January 5, 2014

I recently received a question from a reader asking me to comment about the NT phrase “born again” with respect to its relationship to “saved” language in the NT. What follows are a few thoughts.

Here was the question:

“My question, that I hoped you would get to in above threads, is the difference between two terms, one of which you’ve spoken frequently and the other none at all. You’ve spoken extensively about ‘being saved,’ but have made no mention in your very valid arguments as to ‘being born again.’ The reason I bring this up is a teaching I heard a few months ago that states the number of times been or being saved are small compared to the term born again. I contend that we aren’t saved until after we die because the context of the savedness is the fact we don’t endure the second death and so we don’t experience ‘being saved’ from it until the first death occurs. On the other hand, the bible speaks much about being born again which happens in the here and now while alive. I won’t go into all the rabbit trails associated with this term as to it’s evidenced by our obedience to Christ after being born again and the fact that there’s a huge difference between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus in an intimate and personal born again relationship.”

To start, I’d say that it doesn’t matter how many times this or that phrase occurs in the NT. Meaning isn’t determined by counting; neither is the importance of a term or phrase.

It isn’t hard to find out how many times phrases or words occur. Let’s start with the “born again” language — which in Greek doesn’t say “born again” but rather “born from above.” The combination of this particular verb lemma with this particular adverb occurs two times: John 3:3 and John 3:7. The general meaning of the phrase isn’t difficult to discern. It follows from what is the referent of “above”. The Gospel of John, from whence the two occurrences come (and from the same chapter) answers that question in John 3:31-32 – “He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.” The parallelism in v. 31 shows us that “above” = “heaven”. Heaven of course is the dwelling place of God. The person in v. 32 who came from heaven is of course Jesus throughout the Gospel of John.

All this means that the phrase “born from above” (poorly translated “born again”) means to be spiritually born into God’s family (which birth must be spiritual because God is a spirit – John 4:24). I would hope readers know that entrance into God’s family centers on being in Christ, God’s son, which comes from faith in the work of Christ on the cross (or, as I’d put it prior to the cross in NT days, “loyalty to Yahweh, the God of gods, incarnate in Jesus Christ, rejecting all other gods and self merit” – a clear faith statement).

In any event, the phrase “born from above” refers to being a member of God’s family, born of heaven as it were. Without rabbit trailing, I think the sonship language is important in specific ways to communicate specific connections back into the Old Testament. Those of you who have read The Myth That is True draft will know what I mean. To be found in God’s family, of course, means escape from the second death, to pick up on the questioner’s note. His wording (to my ear) speaks to the “staying in the faith” issue (aka, “losing salvation or not” issue) which I have addressed elsewhere. In a nutshell: No one is in heaven who did not believe/was not believing (at the time of death, again for the questioner here), and no one is in hell who did/was.” This state of belief was demonstrated not by moral (behavioral) perfection, but by the heart’s loyalty to the true God / the true God incarnate. It works the same way across testaments. It had nothing to do with merit. If you aligned yourself with some other God, you were disloyal to the true God and your lack of belief/faith was evident.

(In this respect, I don’t see how one phrase or the other in the question is more “this life” than the other).

The “born from above” phrase is is but one perspective of salvation. Another (and there are more than two) is the “saved” language. I don’t see it in any way oppositional to the “born from above” language. The phrases describe the same status from different perspectives and to communicate specific ideas or threads drawn from earlier OT theology. To get a glimpse of that, we’d need to be asked “saved from what?”

In simplest terms, it referred to being saved from life apart from the true God (which was, ultimately, death), the judgment of the true God, separation from the true God, etc. The OT of course speaks in apocalyptic terms in that regard, of the Day of the Lord. I mention this because most of the “being saved” language in the NT comes from the OT. (The phrase occurs 13 times in the NT, not always in a context of spiritual salvation). This phrase has no superiority over the “born from above” language in that OT people were still in God’s family (“my people” – Israel is called “God’s son” for example in Exod 4:23). Membership in God’s family is a theological idea in the OT despite being worded differently. Those outside God’s family, doomed to destruction if they refuse loyalty to the true God, are commonly referred to as/by “the nations” (i.e., the nations other than Israel). Again, I won’t rabbit-trail to the clear divine council worldview theology that has the disinheritance of the nations at Babel (cf. Deut 32:8-9, reading with the Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX). To be “saved” from Yahweh’s judgment, one had to be part of Yahweh’s family.  For the NT, the question “why are some saved?” would be, in the context of this post, “because they are members of God’s family, being in Christ, also described as being born from above by embracing Jesus as Yahweh incarnate.”



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19 Responses to “Thoughts on Some New Testament Salvation Language”

  1. Keith R. Starkey says:

    It is most unfortunate that the traditional understanding of the term “born again” is that some sort of inside-of-us action takes place that makes us clean and brings to life our dead spirit (as if it was lying there with no breath, like being dead).

    When really it is a transition of placement: from defining life here, the below, to defining life there, the above. It is “dying” to the definition of what life is here by separating from it—separation: the biblical concept of death—and defining what life is by joining to life as it is defined from above (where God is, who is life itself, and, thus, is its definition).

    So much is lost in the “you must be born again” good-intentioned evangelistic use of the term, but the salvific drive behind being born again is not an inward work (and I’m not denying that there is an inward work that takes place when one comes into a born again relationship with the Lord), but a community expression of ones allegiance (enforced by the follow-up community expression through baptism) to life as God has created and defined it and not to life as earth dwellers define it.

    As noted in the blog above, “born again” isn’t a good translation to convey the cultural effective meaning of the term. I understand that the term was used by the then Jews to convey a prosyletized Gentile into the Jewish fold; and that the Roman emperor was said to be born again upon becoming emperor, but I’m not completely sure about these two thoughts.

    Either way, Jesus’ point in using the term was a complement to and in agreement with his statement “I am from above, you are from below) to those who insisted that they had the take on how life is to be defined.

    • MSH says:

      Yep; it’s a “realm” (and family) distinction.

    • Micah says:

      “but the salvific drive behind being born again is not an inward work”

      I think I’m going to disagree here and I’ll just use the words of God himself to show why it is without a doubt an internal “heart” issue.

      “And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stubby, stony heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” Ezekiel 36:26

      How can you deny that this is the best description in the entire Bible of what it means to be born again?

  2. Keith R. Starkey says:

    (Oh, why, why do I click buttons so fast, particularly before I edit my posts?)

  3. Micah says:

    Thank you for your response, Mike. If I understand correctly, you believe the phrase “born again” is only used twice in the New Testament? A variation of this same spiritual regeneration is used twice in 1 Peter 1:3,23 as beget (born again, from above – Strong’s 313). I would consider myself a 1st or 2nd grader in knowledge of Greek and Hebrew so you feel free to set me straight if these references aren’t what I see them to be.

    I am studying these types of phrases that were spoken by Christ to obtain a better grasp of His teaching to be used in sharing His Good News with others. I feel that a large percentage of the population believe that a knowledge of Jesus is enough to “be saved” from the second death. I believe the key is to share the idea of being “born again” and what that means verses the concept of “cheap grace” spoken of by Dietrich Bonhoeffer for example. Mike, even the demon Jesus encountered called Legion had a distinct knowledge of who Jesus was and it’s evidence is his reference to Jesus as the Son of God or Son of the Most High God. Will you share my opinion that Legion’s knowledge or the man’s human body he occupied was in no way eligible for salvation based on their knowledge of who Jesus is?

    Also, the reference in 1 Cor 5:7 and Hebrews 12:24 for example (neos > new, young, fresh – Strong’s 3501) are equivalent in respect to the context of “born again,” is it not?
    I took your phrase of being born into God’s family and found “peritemno” (4059) with a reference to “being cut off from the old life and born again into God’s family.”

    Again, thank you for responding to my inquiry because it has allowed me to come to a deeper understanding of Christ’s words by seeing it in the original language.

    • MSH says:

      The search (2x) was for the particular verb lemma + the particular adverb. I wasn’t searching in English, and wasn’t caring about similar phrases or lemmas.

  4. J. Whidden says:

    BDAG says that γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν is “puposely ambigous and means both born again and born from above.” I think both aspects are important in that it is a “second birth from above” that allows us to escape the second death. Nicodemus only understood it as being born again (a second time δεύτερον):

    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?” (John 3:4)

    Jesus corrected him by pointing out that it also means born from above (heavenly ἐπουράνια):

    “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? (John 3:12)

    Concerning being born again/from above meaning “embracing Jesus as Yahweh incarnate”, that is an excellent definition as it links the OT concept of salvation with the NT.

    • MSH says:

      Yes, Jesus *corrected* him – Nicodemus misunderstood the phrase, as it is misunderstood today. Yes, there is a chronology to it (never said there wasn’t) – one enters God’s family at a given point – but the idea isn’t an internal feeling, impression, or even experience. It’s a “realm transfer” or “realm inclusion” for the human being who believes.

      • J. Whidden says:

        I would specify that it is the beginning of the realm transfer process that begins at the moment of believing the gospel (Eph 1:13) and is completed at glorification when we put on our imperishable bodies (1 Cor 15:50-57). I.e., judicially, it is completed the moment it begins but, experientially, it is not completed until we have our imperishable bodies.

        • MSH says:

          Whether there is indeed a “judicial” event is actually still debated in evangelical circles, even more so since the “New Perspective on Paul” discussion gained traction (last ten years or so).

  5. Patrick says:

    One thing I would add is that the term “saved”( I assume it is generally the same Greek word) in the text isn’t always discussing the eternal aspect of salvation, sometimes it is discussing other issues, i.e. “saved from discipline, saved from this or that temporal issue”, etc.

    Whereas the 2 instances of born from above appear only related to the 1 decision to believe in Christ.

  6. aeneas says:

    “In a nutshell: No one is in heaven who did not believe/was not believing (at the time of death, again for the questioner here), and no one is in hell who did/was.” This state of belief was demonstrated not by moral (behavioral) perfection, but by the heart’s loyalty to the true God / the true God incarnate.”

    Is there any biblical-based theology to suggest that someone after death can come face-to-face with Christ, or his angels, and make the decision to accept Him then? I don’t believe in Purgatory, but I’m thinking of something like the scenario that C.S. Lewis presents, in allegorical form, in his book The Great Divorce. In that book, some souls, who had not accepted Him before death, have the choice to make what is for them an extremely painful journey into Heaven. Painful because they are choosing to put Christ first before themselves, something that had not managed to do before death. Of course the majority of them cannot accept the pain and choose Hell instead, a choice made even when they have direct evidence in front of them of the existence of God.

    Do you think the possibility is open for making the choice once the soul is departed from this world but still on the borders of Heaven?

  7. Patrick says:

    Personally, I think there could be textual evidence this post death decision making may be valid. Wouldn’t argue about it, but, here’s some logic for it at least for discussion:

    A) We know Paul, James and Thomas believed after seeing Christ resurrected and Jesus said “blessed are those who do not see and believe”. Yet, these 3 are great men of God, correct?

    B) God is fair

    C) James called the church “a sort of first fruits” – In their culture, that means there is a follow on harvest – who is that if not dead unbelievers?

    D) “In Adam, all die, in Christ, all shall live” – Literarily, it’s difficult to qualify one “ta panta” if we don’t qualify both, right?

    E) If we believers are priests and if that gift lasts forever, who will will minister to in eternity?

    F) Paul tells us all humanity will kneel and confess that Jesus is The Lord – I assume the belief is voluntarily as Caesar intimidated folks to worship him and Christ is juxtaposed against Caesar in the text, so Christ accepts voluntary worship only.

    If someone confesses this upon seeing the glorified Christ, why would God favor Paul, James or Thomas over that human?

    G) Jesus tells us “if I am raised up, all men will be drawn to Me”.

    On the other hand, I know of all the “outer darkness”, “wailing and gnashing of teeth”, “punishment of gehenna” and such passages.

    My point is, we qualify passages now assuming eternal punishment is valid and there is a chance we ought to qualify those passages to conform with these ideas above.

    Plus, Deutero Isaiah has lots of universalism ideas in it.

  8. Richard Brown says:

    Michael, “I love ya man” but this statement is overtly internally-contradictory: “This state of belief was demonstrated not by moral (behavioral) perfection, but by the heart’s loyalty to the true God / the true God incarnate. It works the same way across testaments. It had nothing to do with merit. If you aligned yourself with some other God, you were disloyal to the true God and your lack of belief/faith was evident.”

    the writer of Hebrews has got big issues with this, as does the writer of 1 John, and more. the Gospel is simple, and the simple and despised enter the Kingdom while the wise and complex don’t. What’s in the heart, according to Jesus, shows in the external. I think I know you, but I really don’t, because I can’t see the daily externalization of what your innards manifest. l bet your wife et al that live with you daily would have a better idea. It ain’t about merit; its about deception vs truth. one big thing OT folk and NT folk share is the amazing ability for humans to self-deceive. [with a little help from our ‘friends’]

    • MSH says:

      The uncertainty of the writer of Hebrews was about a potential slide back into UNBELIEF, not if someone told a lie, cheated, etc. (i.e., moral perfection wasn’t at issue – if it was, no one is saved, ever).

      The point is not believers can live any way they want (let me say, with Paul, God forbid!). Rather, salvation is not by works. We do not maintain our salvation by obedience. We either believe or we don’t. We can fail morally, but we must believe. The true believer will struggle against sin, not live amorally. Like David, we may fail spectacularly, but he never wavered in terms of who was the true God. Ever.

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