Born of the spirit or begotten of the spirit? If both, what are their proper meanings? And if you only use one of these terms, which one and on what basis? Surely, asking yourself these questions has a basis in the Bible. The source of doubt is the Greek verb gennao, which has three related meanings: to be born (the child), to bear (the woman) or to beget (the man). It seems appropriate to define birth in relation to adult developed persons. On the other hand, if we are talking about the activity of a man, the only translation that seems to make sense is begetting. This dilemma finds expression in the translations of the Bible. For example, in 1 Cor. 4:15 the New King James Version renders gennao as 'to beget' - the translator apparently concluded that the apostle Paul, a man, could only do what in nature a man could do to initiate a new life. However, the Blue Letter Bible speaks in this verse about giving birth: "for in Christ Jesus I have given birth to you through the good news."
I would like to look at this topic from the (it seems) obvious point of view, namely what is the consequence of gennao - the emergence of a new being. I am deliberately talking about more than just the creation of a new man because the Bible uses this term also for spiritual beings. This, however, is not crucial because from the Biblical point of view the soul (of both human and spiritual beings) "consists" of body and spirit (1 Cor. 2:11, 15:35-44). Being born of the spirit is therefore the process by which the soul is generated/ reborn. Here, however, one has to be precise again. In my lecture on spirit, soul, and body in the Bible, I pointed out that the concept of soul depends on the meaning of the body. The concept of the body functions in two ways in the Bible: 1) literally as a physical shell of a being (earthly or spiritual); 2) figuratively as character (repetitive patterns of behavior programmed into the material body). Thus, the soul embracing the body in the first sense means the entire being; soul in the second sense means complete personality (mind + character).
To be born of the spirit therefore means 1) the rebirth of a being through resurrection or 2) the rebirth of personality. In both senses the basis of birth - as the term suggests - is the spirit, i.e. the mind and the heart or, in other words, the mind and the will. Therefore, the spirit must be reborn in man for the soul to be reborn - first the soul as a complete personality, and then also the soul as a being raised by the resurrection to the spiritual nature. I emphasize these two stages because, while the soul (complete being or complete personality) is renewed by being born of the spirit, regeneration of spirit (mind and will) will be equal to the begettal of the spirit. Just as in the natural world, begetting produces an embryo that is not a shaped human but has the potential to develop in this way - similarly in the spiritual world, the new creation (mind reborn by God's spirit) has the potential to act towards the formation of a complete personality (2 Cor. 5:17).
The analogy between the worlds of nature and spirit is so clear that it may be worth remembering. For in nature, two elements, male and female, combine to give birth to an embryo; a new personality (soul) begins at the moment of 'fertilization' of character (body) with the seed of the Word of God (spirit), which begins to shape it (according to the principle: soul = spirit + body). Fertilization begins the development of the body, but its birth will not happen until all organs are developed. Likewise, spirit-begettal begins character development, but a certain level of basic development must be attained in order for us to speak of birth. This basic level seems to correspond to an understanding of the basic teachings - such as the apostle Paul writes about, for example, in 1 Cor. 8:5,6 and Heb. 6:1-3. The development of the body (character) in the image of Jesus Christ requires the development of the spirit (new creation) in understanding the Word of God. Therefore, the concept of begettal of the spirit properly refers to the spirit - the initiation of a new will and a new mind in believers.
The apostle Paul clearly indicates that the concept of the new creation has no bearing on the flesh (character; 2 Cor. 5:17-18). Though the new creation begins to exert its influence on character almost immediately, it is important from the Bible's point of view to attain a basic level of understanding of the truth as it is so that the proper body formation could begin. Character shaping is done through what the New Testament calls the seal of the spirit - the transfer of the mind's image of truth to character (2 Cor. 1:21,22). The mind must therefore have some necessary outline of truth in order for the seal to represent anything. Hence the concept of being begotten of the spirit properly refers to the spirit - mind and will; the concept of birth concerns the body (character). Birth means that all the necessary organs of the newborn have been developed; likewise, being born of the spirit means that the basic level of knowledge of the truth necessary for further proper development to maturity has been attained.
Later in the lecture, relevant Bible passages will be given regarding begettal of the spirit and birth of the spirit in the sense of being resurrected to the spiritual nature, as well as in the sense of rebirth of personality, along with a discussion.
Begettal of the spirit
Lk. 16:22 - "So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried" (NKJV)
Commentary: in the commentary to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, I wrote that the change of the position of Lazarus means the extension of the grace of calling into the Body of Christ to the Gentiles, who were thus transferred "to Abraham’s bosom". There are two things in this statement. The reference to Abraham refers to the Abrahamic Covenant, which included the promise of the gathering of the earthly seed (the nation of Israel), but also the heavenly seed (the called to the Body of Christ in the Gospel age; see Gen. 22:17,18). The bosom here signifies the state of begettal of the spirit. The transfer of Lazarus to the bosom of Abraham, then, means that the Gospel calling and begettal of the spirit of the Gentiles is the fulfillment of the covenant promise made to Abraham.
Jn. 1:12,13 - "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: (13) who were born [gr. gennao], not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (NKJV)
Commentary: the elect who believe in Christ receive the spirit of the love of truth through which they are begotten as new creatures - the new mind and will to follow the truth. In this way, they also receive eksusia - the right (power) to become children, i.e. to be born into a fully mature personality by forming the character (body) on the knowledge and practice of the truth. Without the experience of being begotten of the spirit, it is impossible to experience birth, and only in this way do we become children.
Jn. 1:18 - "No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him" (NKJV)
Commentary: calling our Lord "the only begotten" has the same meaning as in Jn. 1:14 (see the next section). However, according to some translations, he was called not the only-begotten Son, but the only-begotten God. At his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus received the spirit "without measure" (Jn. 3:34). When the heavens symbolically opened to him, his new creation (mind and will) was endowed with the knowledge of truth and mental faculties unavailable to man, but proper to beings in the divine nature. However, since Jesus was a man and had a human body, the apostle John adds that he is God 'in the bosom of the Father', that is, he is begotten - he has the attributes of the Divine (mental) but not of God's nature (body).
1 Cor. 4:15 - "For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel" (NKJV)
Commentary: listening to the Gospel results in a new heart and mind in believers. Paul was not able to give birth to his listeners by preaching because birth requires a change of character according to the knowledge of basic teachings. Still, he could 'impregnate' their thoughts with a word about Christ, which set off spiritual development unto full maturity.
Phlm. 1:10 - "I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains" (NKJV)
Commentary: a situation similar to 1 Cor. 4:15. Paul begot Onesimus, being the one through whom the seed of the Word of God reached Onesimus and caused the restoration of his spirit (mind and heart) - first by willing to learn about and follow Christ, and then by progressing in knowledge.
Birth of the spirit as a rebirth of complete personality (mind and character)
Jn. 1:14 - "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (NKJV)
Commentary: monogenes is derived from mono - one, and ginomai - to become, to be born. Jesus was the only-begotten son for two reasons: 1) he was mono because he was full of grace - the only one chosen by God for the work of salvation and the first to experience birth of the spirit; 2) he was genes because he was full of truth, i.e. both his mind (new creation) and character (body) were in perfect harmony with the truth.
Heb. 1:3-5 - "who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (4) having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. (5) For to which of the angels did He ever say: 'You are My Son, Today I have begotten You?' And again: 'I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son?'" (NKJV)
Commentary: the apostle Paul in Heb. 1:3 describes the nature of the Lord Jesus after his resurrection through the prism of its two 'components': personality and body. In terms of complete personality (mind + character) our Lord was 'the express image of God's person'; bodily, he was "the brightness of His glory." Thus, he reflected the Father's qualities in every way. In Heb. 1:5 the apostle points out that the making of the Lord in the image of the Father was a process: first there was the birth of the Lord's personality of the spirit ("You are My Son, Today I have begotten You"), then the complete divine being was born in the resurrection ("I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son"). Paul uses the present tense in the first part of the verse and the future tense in the second because the point of reference is when Jesus was born at his baptism in Jordan. This is because although the reference in verse 3 is the ascension of the Lord, verse 4 uses past participle ("having become") that takes the reader back into the past - to Christ's earthly ministry.
Heb. 5:5 - "So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: 'You are My Son, Today I have begotten You'" (NKJV)
Commentary: the apostle Paul uses the term 'glory' (Greek doxa) to describe birth of the spirit in the aspect of the restoration of complete personality, as in Heb. 1:3 (see the commentary on this verse above). Our Lord became God's high priest when he was born of the spirit in the Jordan and began to offer his priestly sacrifice.
Heb. 5:11-14 - "of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. (12) For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. (13) For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. (14) But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (NKJV)
Commentary: by hearing the Word of God and learning the basic teachings, believing Jews experienced birth of the spirit and thus became infants ready to grow to maturity and to take up teaching work ("by this time you ought to be teachers"). However, being at this point of spiritual development, they did not show the initiative towards further growth. On the contrary: they became "dull of hearing". This not only stopped their spiritual development, but caused the need to repeat and consolidate their knowledge of the basics.
1 Pet. 1:22,23 - "Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, (23) having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever" (NKJV)
Commentary: the apostle Peter here uses anagennao that means 'being born again'. If gennao, depending on the context, can mean begettal or birth, anagennao clearly refers to birth. This thought is further confirmed in verse 22, where Peter writes about obedience to the truth of the addressees of his letter. So the seed of God's Word not only 'impregnated' the minds of believers, but by practicing the truth began the work of reshaping their characters. Anagennao thus describes birth of the spirit of the complete personality of believers (soul) in the element of mind and character.
1 Pet. 2:2 - "as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby" (NKJV)
Commentary: the apostle's comparison of believers to infants shows that this is about birth rather than begettal of the spirit. The spirit of the thirst for truth caused them not only to learn but also to practice. Since character development takes place through practice, the addressees of Peter's letter thus began on their way to the full development of the soul (not just spirit). At the present stage, writes Peter, their most important need is to learn basic teachings, untainted by error, because only such food can be the basis for further growth.
1 Jn. 2:29 - "If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him" (NKJV)
Commentary: righteous conduct is a testimony to being born of the spirit (not merely begotten). It is estimated that 95 per cent of human behavior results from nature (ready-made mechanisms of conduct) rather than informed decisions. When John writes of 'everyone who practices righteousness,' he is referring to a certain constant feature of conduct which must also include character (body), not just spirit (mind).
1 Jn. 3:9 - "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" (NKJV)
Commentary: the condition for birth of the spirit (character development) is that the mind is begotten by the seed of truth. Much of human behavior is a manifestation of character. Thus, those "cannot sin" whose minds have been renewed with the word of truth and whose characters have been transformed accordingly. Birth of the spirit embraces the totality of personality.
1 Jn. 5:1 - "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him" (NKJV)
Commentary: faith includes belief and trust. Belief is the knowledge of the truth; trust is acting on the basis of the truth. Thus, faith includes the spirit (mind in the element of knowledge) and the body (character in the element of conduct). Therefore, belief that Jesus is Christ (that leads to the imitation of the Lord) is also our birth from the spirit.
Birth of the spirit as resurrection to spiritual nature
Jn. 3:3-8 - "Jesus answered and said to him, 'Most assuredly, 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? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?' (5) Jesus answered, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter 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 marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' (8) The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (NKJV)
Commentary: verse 6 suggests that Jesus is speaking here of birth of the spirit in the sense of being resurrected to the spiritual nature. Only then will we be able to fully 'enter the kingdom of God'. Then we will also be like the wind - a spiritual being can materialize in any place and time. Therefore, you "cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes".
Acts 13:32,33 - "And we declare to you glad tidings — that promise which was made to the fathers. (33) God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus. As it is also written in the second Psalm: 'You are My Son, Today I have begotten You'" (NKJV)
Commentary: Jesus' birth referred to here took place at his resurrection from the dead, when our Lord received a spiritual body in the Divine nature (Heb. 1:3). So gennao used in Acts 13:33 did not take place at baptism, but at resurrection.
Heb. 1:3,5 - "who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high ... (5) For to which of the angels did He ever say: 'You are My Son, Today I have begotten You?' And again: 'I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son?'" (NKJV)
Commentary: Jesus became "the brightness of His [God's] glory" by being born of the spirit at his resurrection, and then he could also be called a son in the full sense of both personality and body (second part of verse 5). The birth in the first part of the 5th verse refers to the Lord's experience of baptism in the Jordan - more on this in the discussion of Heb. 1:3-5 in the previous section.