Are Sinners “Begotten” to New Life Before Being “Born Again” in Baptism?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 1:14pm
QUESTION: What do you think about the analogy that the work of the Holy Spirit before baptism is similar to that of the gestation period in the birth of a baby? This is the idea that the seed of the Word of God begins to produce spiritual life as soon as the sinner believes and repents. As that seed develops and grows, and as changes begin to occur in the attitudes and actions of the individual, he or she is regarded as being already spiritually alive or regenerated. Then at baptism the person is “born,” or formally becomes a member of God’s family.
ANSWER: I have answered this question in my book on the Holy Spirit, “Power from on High” (College Press, 2007), pp. 257-261. The bottom line is that this analogy is without foundation in Scripture and contradicts other descriptions of the salvation event (especially regeneration). It ultimately undermines the NT teaching on baptism. The following explanation is from the book just named.
A view of salvation occasionally espoused in the Restoration Movement may be called the “life-before-birth” view. This approach focuses on the concept of regeneration as a new birth, and proceeds to expand the analogy into a two-step process. The contention is that if regeneration is parallel to physical birth (John 3:3-5), then it must be preceded by an act of begetting in which a seed is planted and immediately initiates new life, which continues to grow until the time of birth. In reference to regeneration this act of begetting is identified with the planting of the seed of the Word (James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23). When the Word is believed, the new life begins. Thus the convert is already spiritually alive when he is “born of water” in Christian baptism.
Alexander Campbell himself lays the groundwork for this idea in his explanation of regeneration: “The Spirit of God is the begetter, the gospel is the seed; and, being thus begotten and quickened [made alive], we are born of the water. A child is alive before it is born, and the act of being born only changes its state, not its life. Just so in the metaphorical birth. Persons are begotten by the Spirit of God, impregnated by the Word, and born of the water” (“Christian System,” 173). “Begetting and quickening necessarily precede being born” (179). “Birth itself is not for procuring, but for enjoying, the life possessed before birth” (233).
Many have followed Campbell’s reasoning on this point, often applying it in ways Campbell never intended. In an article called “How To Be Born Again,” Orrin Root distinguishes these elements in the process of physical birth: 1) sperm; 2) conception; 3) prenatal development; and 4) birth itself. In spiritual rebirth these correspond to 1) the gospel; 2) belief; 3) repentance and commitment; and 4) baptism. At point two—conception—“a new life begins.” Another writer makes a similar distinction between begetting and birth: “The new nature of the redeemed man is begotten by the Spirit of God. Then when the Father has regenerated the life, birth follows at the baptismal waters. Life is begotten by the Father; the birth at baptism brings that new life into a new relationship in the kingdom of Christ.” Another says, “Physically a person must be alive before birth in order to be alive after birth; otherwise he will be stillborn. So spiritual life in us is originated by faith through hearing the preaching of the good news of Jesus. . . . So a person who is ‘born again’ has spiritual life conceived in him when he believes in Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and Lord. He is born of water when he is baptized into Christ; that is, the birth process is completed.”
A common application of this idea is the identification of unimmersed believers as “brothers yet unborn.” One writer says, “In preparation for the physical birth there must be the implanting of seed that fertilizes the prepared egg cell. From that point on the new life is in process of becoming.” Now, “the spiritual process is very much the same. The word of God must be planted in the heart.” This leads to faith and repentance, and ultimately to birth itself in Christian baptism. But since Ananias referred to Saul as “Brother Saul” even before he was baptized (Acts 22:13), we should think of unimmersed believers as “brothers yet unborn.” [This writer overlooks the fact that Jews often referred to their fellow Jews as “brethren,” whether Christians or not. This occurs often in Acts.]
What do I think about this idea? I reject it completely. For one thing, it is an unwarranted extension of the metaphor of birth. In dealing with figures of speech, we must resist the ever-present temptation to go beyond the point being made in the text. The figure of the new birth, as applied especially to baptism (John 3:5), in itself represents the significant turning point in a person’s life. This is the single point of the analogy: that which happens as a result of the water-and-Spirit moment is like a new birth. To speculate on some pre-baptismal begetting or conception or embryonic life is to go beyond the metaphor and even to obscure its main point.
A second problem with this approach is that it singles out just one metaphor and, by expanding its application, places it in conflict with other metaphors of regeneration. The idea of new birth is only one of several figures that represent the Spirit-wrought change in our inner being; others are new creation, circumcision, and resurrection from the dead. None of these lends itself to being expanded into a multiple-step process. This is especially true of the resurrection metaphor. Up until the moment of resurrection there is nothing but death—a spiritually-dead self (Eph 2:1, 5), followed by the redemptive death of that dead self (Rom 6:1-6). There is no “pre-life life.” Speculation about a faith-induced “life before birth” is simply not in harmony with the parallel metaphors for regeneration. (First Peter 1:23 does not speak of an act of begetting that is distinct from the new birth in John 3:3-5. The same root word is used in both passages: “gennao” [John] and “anagennao” [Peter]. The reference to the seed of the Word in 1 Pet 1:23 does not make this speak of a separate act equivalent to begetting. The word used in James 1:18, “apokueo,” means specifically “to be born.” James thus says we are BORN through the Word.)
The most serious problem with this view is that it separates the making-alive work of the Spirit from the point where the Bible says it happens, namely, Christian baptism. See John 3:5; Romans 6:1-6; Colossians 2:12-13; Titus 3:5.