Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).
This started out as my response to someone asking me to defend my view that children who die before reaching the age of accountability go to heaven. As you’ll see, it became much more.
We came into this world when our mother physically gave birth to us. This physical birth is what Jesus called being born of water in John 3:5 and flesh giving birth to flesh in John 3:6. It was our first birth.
Although we were born to earthly parents, we belonged to God in the sense that if our physical life ended for some reason, our soul and spirit, the eternal parts of us, would go to be with Him. We had what the Bible calls eternal life. We continued to enjoy this position with God until we reached a state of intellectual maturity sufficient to understand the sinful nature of our behavior.
Throughout our young lives we had committed various sins, but since we were unable to comprehend the nature of sin, God did not hold us accountable for them.
In referring to sins, I’m not talking about being disobedient to our parents, although some acts of disobedience are also sins. I’m talking about violations of God’s laws. Until we became intellectually mature enough to understand that violations of God’s laws are sins, that carry eternal consequences, God did not hold us accountable for these violations, because to do so would be unjust.
(We have similar provisions in human law where young children are not held to the same standards of accountability as adults are in matters of the law.)
Once we were capable of understanding the sin issue, God began holding us accountable for our sins. At that point we no longer belonged to Him and no longer had eternal life. Our sins had separated us from Him.
We see this transition, and its consequences, in Romans 7:9 where Paul wrote, “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.”
Obviously, Paul was still physically alive at the time. By saying, “Once I was alive apart from the law” he was referring to the eternal life he had before he became accountable for his sins. During that time, he was apart from, or outside, the Law and exempt from its provisions.
The phrase “When the commandment came, sin sprang to life, and I died”means that as soon as Paul became old enough to be accountable for his sins he was immediately scheduled for death, death being the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). Paul knew that although he was born with eternal life, he was not born immortal, so he would eventually experience physical death just like everyone else. Therefore, he was talking about losing his claim to eternal life.
The Greek word for “sprang to life” indicates Paul’s sin nature had always been there, but for accountability purposes it’s as if it was dormant while he was a child. As soon as he came of age, it was revived, and when that happened everything changed for him.
The Bible does not give any exact age at which a child becomes accountable. Among the Jewish people this age has been established by tradition as being 12 for girls and 13 for boys. But the point of this study is not to determine at what age we become accountable for our sins. Rather, it’s to show that we began life as a child of God with the assurance of eternal life, and to demonstrate how we can qualify for that assurance again as adults.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
There are two important points here. The first is the confirmation that if they die, little children will enter the kingdom of heaven because they don’t have to change to do so. And the second is that we must change and become like them in order to enter ourselves. Remember, all children are born with eternal life and their sins are not counted against them. Therefore, as adults we have to somehow regain that same status we had as little children.
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:12-13).
God gives each one who believes in what Jesus did for us and receives Him into his or her life, the right (power, authority, permission) to become a child of God just like we were when we were born. Here’s how it happens.
But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir (Galatians 4:4-7).
Both this passage and Romans 8:15-17 convey the idea that adoption into the family of God is truly the most important event of our lives. God sent His son to die for our sins so we could receive the right of adoption into His family. According to John 1:12-13 belief in Jesus gives us the authority to claim this right and when we do God adopts us as His children and we become heirs to his estate. At that time, the penalty for all our sins is transferred to Jesus (Isaiah 53:5) and we’re no longer responsible for them.
That’s what it means to be born-again as a child of God and have eternal life. According to 2 Cor. 5:17 we actually become a new creation from God’s perspective. The old has gone and the new has come. This is our second birth, what Jesus called being born again in John 3:3 and the Spirit giving birth to spirit in John 3:6.
Like the little children we once were, we still sin. And like them, God does not hold us accountable for our sins. But this time, it’s not because we don’t understand the sin issue, it’s because the penalties for all the sins of our life have been transferred to Jesus. They were nailed to the cross with Him and when He died we were forgiven for every one of them (Colossians 2:13-14).
Now, just like the children we once were, God doesn’t hold us accountable for our sins but attributes them to the sin nature that lives within us. Here’s how Paul described it:
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:15-20).
Like He does with little children, God has separated the sins from the born-again believer and no longer counts them against us.
Are You Born Again?
The phrase “born-again” has picked up a lot of baggage over the years to the point where some more “sophisticated” Christians don’t even like to use it. And the liberal denominations that follow reformed theology don’t even recognize the need to be born-again. They teach that since you didn’t choose God but He chose you, there’s no need to be born-again. All you have to do is become an official member of one of their denominations to receive your salvation.
This is by far the cruelest falsehood of reformed theology because it has resulted in millions of sincere people attending church every Sunday, believing that God chose them and actually obtained salvation for them, not knowing that they aren’t saved and never will be unless they undertake a personal effort to find the Lord and be saved apart from their denomination’s teaching.
But the Bible is very clear on two points. The first is this: We must be born-again to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3). And the second is, we become born-again by believing that we are sinners in need of a Savior; that Jesus came to die for our sins, and that He rose again on the third day as proof that His death was sufficient to save us from our sins. Otherwise we have believed in vain (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
By becoming born-again we have become like little children in God’s sight and are therefore qualified, just like they are, to enter His Kingdom and enjoy eternal life with Him.
Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed are they whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit (Psalm 32:1-2).