Are We Born Again Now or at the Resurrection?
by Eric Snow
In retrospect, the turning point on the WCG’s road to apostasy came in the December 1990 and January 1991 when it proclaimed that Christians were born again now, not at the resurrection. This change was foundational to others that followed, especially on the nature of God (whether God was reproducing Himself) and what the kingdom of God was. Arguably, before this time most of the changes were right (healing, interracial marriage, birthdays, cosmetics, etc.), but most afterwards were wrong (God is a Trinity, the kingdom of God is here now also, the Sabbath is abolished, etc.) But for me, as well as many others, once the WCG proclaimed that the Old Testament law wasn’t binding on Christian conduct in December 1994 and January1995, we decided to reconsider whether the earlier changes were correct as well. So now, was Mr. Armstrong right to attack traditional evangelical Protestant doctrine that Christians were born again after accepting Jesus as their personal Savior and receiving the Holy Spirit? Let’s now briefly consider the case favoring HWA’s teaching that we’re only begotten until the resurrection occurs.
Because the Greek word “gennao” is ambiguous, and can be translated either “born” or “begotten,” the central passage favoring Mr. Armstrong’s teaching is Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus in John 3. Notice in particular that Christ tied together being born again with the kingdom of God (v. 4): “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Now Nicodemus’s confused answer shows the word “gennao” in this section has to be translated “born,” not “conceived” (v. 4): “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?” Jesus in reply emphasized the connection between being born again and the kingdom of God (v. 6): “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water [baptism] and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Now, when does the kingdom of God come? Scripture reveals that the kingdom of God is the literal government of God that will rule the nations of this world after Jesus returns (Dan. 2:35, 44; Rev. 2:26-27; 5:10; 20:6). In the general context of discussing the bodily composition of the Adam, Jesus, and the resurrected saints, Paul wrote (I Cor. 15:50): “Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable the imperishable.” Hence, if we cannot now “see” the kingdom of God, and flesh and blood, which is what we’re made of now, can’t enter it, then the kingdom of God can’t be the church (which is made up of flesh-and-blood people) or an ethereal something set up in our hearts. If merely accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Savior made us born again now, and if entering the kingdom immediately followed conversion, we would be able to “see” and enter into the kingdom of God now. But of course, since we’re still flesh and blood, we can’t yet be in the kingdom, as per I Cor. 15:50. Although John 3:3 when compared to Matt. 13:11, 13, 16 shows some level of duality was meant by Christ here, that someone can “see” the kingdom without having yet “entered” it, the weight of the passage in John 3 shows it’s mainly about the resurrection in the future.
The hardest text of all to evade is John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh IS FLESH, and that which is born of the Spirit IS SPIRIT.” Even when I eventually bought into the WCG’s change on this subject, I always found this verse by far the hardest to explain away. I ended up merely thinking, “It can’t be taken literally.” But as Vance Stinson of the CGI has observed in his excellent booklet on the subject: “If all who have experienced natural birth are composed of flesh, then it logically follows that those who experience spiritual birth are composed of spirit.” (“Born from Above” or “Born Again”?, p. 13). The analogy Christ makes between the wind/spirit (same word in the Greek) and those born again shows it isn’t about the Spirit entering human hearts to convert them (v. 7): “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes and where it is going; so IS everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Just as the wind moves about undetectably, so will the resurrected saints, except when they want to be heard (cf. Isa. 30:21).
Further evidence that being born again is associated with the resurrection comes from Paul’s application of Ps. 2 to Christ (Acts 13:33): “God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘Thou art My Son; today I have begotten Thee.’” In Rom. 1:3-4, Paul proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God for two reasons: (1) human birth, and (2) resurrection from the dead: “concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Likewise, the passages that say Jesus was the firstborn can’t always mean mere preeminence or privilege, since He’s the firstborn of a group or class of people: “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29; cf. Heb. 2:10-11). If others are going to be born, as He was, for it to have spiritual meaning in such a context, it has to refer to a second, non-physical birth. Just as Jesus by the resurrection “became a life-giving spirit,” Christians shall “bear the image of the heavenly” man, which in context clearly means bodily composition, not just outward appearance (I Cor. 15:45, 49). Birth is connected to Christ’s resurrection in Col. 1:18: “He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead.” Similarly, there’s Rev. 1:5: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead.” If Someone is the firstborn from the dead, or the firstborn among many brethren, that can’t be a birth unique to Him that no one else will ever experience.
In conclusion, Mr. Armstrong’s teaching that we’re born again at the resurrection, but only begotten now, has a solid base. It is true, also, that various other texts use different analogies than the “conception/future birth” analogy HWA found in John 3. For example, I Peter 2:2 calls Christians now “newborn babes.” Paul refers to a Christian as a “new man” and as a “new creation” in II Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:15; 4:24; Col. 3:10. Furthermore, others have known this truth, such as Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the corporate organization that eventually became Jehovah’s Witnesses. But we should be glad of knowing God’s truth regardless of what source it came from or who discovered it first.