Question: Why are we told in Eastern Orthodoxy not to use the phrase “born again” for spiritual renewal, when it is used in the Bible? (Question # 61 in Stanley Harakas’ book, The Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers, Light & Life Publishing Company.)
Answer: We are concerned about the correct “use” of the term “born again,” as well as its “abuse” here. The Bible’s use of “born again” connects it with baptism. It is used just three times in the New Testament, twice in the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus. There Jesus explains the meaning of “born again.” He says, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:5). Thus, when St. Paul describes baptism he speaks of immersion into the water of baptism as “the old man dying” and our rising up out of the baptismal waters as being brought to newness of life and “from death to life.” (Romans 6:1-14). The other use is in 1 Peter, in the middle of a passage which refers to Christ’s saving work, the “good news which is preached to you.” Baptism is how we accept and begin to share in that saving work (1 Peter 1:13-25).
Therefore, you see, being “born again” in the Orthodox understanding is accomplished at our baptism. If we become lax, if our spiritual life is deadened, if we allow our sins to keep the joy and inspiration of God away, if we – as persons already part of God’s household – “quench the Spirit” in our lives, then what is needed is repentance. To avoid confusing what is accomplished once through baptism and what we need repeatedly in our lives as a constant feature of our lives, we Orthodox don’t confuse the term “born again” for “repentance.” “Born again” happens at baptism; repentance takes place as a constant “turning of our mind to God,” repeatedly giving ourselves over to God in our lives. When Protestants use the term “born again” to mean repentance, they in effect make baptism of no significance. This is an abuse of the Biblical phrase.