Posted by: rcottrill | March 18, 2013

Ye Must Be Born Again

Words: William True Sleeper (b. Feb. 9, 1819; d. Sept. 24, 1904)
Music: George Coles Stebbins (b. Feb. 26, 1846; d. Oct. 6, 1945)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Pastor Sleeper was a Congregational clergyman. George Stebbins composed the music for many gospel songs (the Cyber Hymnal lists sixty-four of his tunes). The Wordwise Hymns link will tell you how this particular song came to be written, and the Cyber Hymnal has an interesting note about how Pastor Sleeper worked out the rhyme and rhythm of the song.

The text for this gospel song comes from the conversation the Lord Jesus had with a Jewish leader named Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. The man was greatly puzzled when the Lord introduced the subject of the new birth: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3).

Thinking of a physical birth, Nicodemus rightly said it was impossible (vs. 4). But of course Christ was referring to spiritual birth, being born into the family of God by a work of the Holy Spirit, a birth that comes when the individual puts his or her faith in Christ (cf. Jn. 1:12-13).

The actual quotation used by Pastor Sleeper (from the KJV), is found in vs. 7. “Ye [or you] must be born again. Thinking of this statement, I became curious as to how many times in our English Bibles the word “must” is used. The answer (in the NKJV) is 179 times. The word identifies something that is a requirement, an obligation, a necessity.

The first “must” in the Old Testament concerns the necessity of male circumcision for the Hebrews, the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 17:13). The first in the New Testament has to do with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

“From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (Matt. 16:21).

That was the Saviour’s imperative. Necessary both because He said that’s why He came to this earth (Mk. 10:45), and because we couldn’t be saved without it.

The word “must” is found many times in the epistles, too. Here is a sampling:

¤ Of Christian conduct we read that each of us “must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (II Tim. 2:3), and we should be “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Col. 3:13).

¤ Speaking of the coming resurrection, God’s Word says, “This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (I Cor. 15:53). Only in this way can we be prepared to be citizens of the heavenly kingdom (cf. Phil. 3:20-21).

¤ And “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad [i.e. worthy or reward, or worthless, cf. I Cor. 3:11-15]” (II Cor. 5:10).

¤ To this we add the necessity of the new birth through faith in Christ. “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).

“The natural man (one born physically, as each of us was) does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14). In order to have spiritual life, and enter God’s eternal kingdom, it’s necessary to be born again (Tit. 3:5).

As for the man the Lord spoke with that night, it is likely that Nicodemus did come to faith, and become a follower of Christ. We know he protested the plot against Jesus (Jn. 7:50-51), and after the crucifixion he helped Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus (Jn. 19:38-42). Historical information outside the Bible suggests that the once wealthy Nicodemus was ostracized and became destitute, likely because of his stand for Christ.

CH-1) A ruler once came to Jesus by night
To ask Him the way of salvation and light;
The Master made answer in words true and plain,
“Ye must be born again.”

“Ye must be born again,
Ye must be born again,
I verily, verily, say unto thee,
Ye must be born again.”

CH-3) O ye who would enter that glorious rest,
And sing with the ransomed the song of the blest,
The life everlasting if ye would obtain,
“Ye must be born again.”

1) Does your church clearly (and regularly) teach and preach the necessity of the new birth if hearers are to be saved?

2) Are you a born again Christian? If not, or if you’re not sure, please consider God’s Plan of Salvation.

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. I am happy to say that I found and joined a local church that definitely does preach the unvarnished truth of the gospel without pulling any punches. I visited many churches before that and they either preached a seeker friendly Christianity lite message or no gospel at all.

    I am a born-again believer of 53 years of my 76 year life I must be truthful and say that I have not always been a “good” Christian but I know whom I have believed and I believe that every experience I have had was not accidental and valuable lessons were learned for eternity through it all.

    • Thanks for your testimony. I’ve been a Christian for 65 years and continue to witness to the faithfulness of God. God bless.

  2. Isn’t it odd that if the Baptists and evangelicals are correct that their “born again experience” is the true and ONLY means of salvation, the term “born again” is only mentioned three times in the King James Bible? If “making a decision for Christ” is the only means of salvation, why doesn’t God mention it more often in his Word? Why only THREE times? Isn’t that REALLY, REALLY odd?

    Why is it that the Apostle Paul, the author of much of the New Testament, NEVER uses this term? Why is this term never used in the Book of Acts to describe the many mentioned Christian conversions? Why is this term only used by Jesus in a late night conversation with Nicodemus, and by Peter once in just one letter to Christians in Asia Minor?

    If you attend a Baptist/evangelical worship service what will you hear? You will hear this: “You must be born again: you must make a decision for Christ. You must ask Jesus into your heart. You must pray to God and ask him to forgive you of your sins, come into your heart, and be your Lord and Savior (the Sinner’s Prayer). You must be an older child or adult who has the mental capacity to make a decision to believe, to make a decision to repent, and to make a decision to ask Jesus into your heart.”

    It is very strange, however, that other than “you must be born again” none of this terminology is anywhere to be found in the Bible! Why do Baptists and evangelicals use this non-biblical terminology when discussing salvation?

    Maybe “accepting Christ into your heart” is NOT what being born again really means. Maybe…making a “decision” for Christ is NOT how God saves sinners!

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

    • H-m-m… Well, first of all, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments related to the gospel song “Ye Must Be Born Again.” I certainly agree with some of what you have to say…sort of :-).

      I agree that it’s possible to use vague or unbiblical terminology when making an evangelistic appeal. Sometimes it just confuses the issue. One you don’t mention is “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk. 18:13)–which is actually what you call “the sinner’s prayer.” It’s a good prayer, as far as it goes, but it is pre-Calvary. It describes a repentant Jew appealing to the blood stained mercy seat in the tabernacle (and later the temple). It could literally be rendered, “God be mercy-seated to me a sinner.”

      I would hope, whatever we tell the sinner (even if we speak of his need to be born again), we direct him to the cross of Christ, and explain that things such as mercy and the new birth are ultimately available because our debt of sin has been paid by Christ (Eph. 1:7). Central to the gospel of grace is that “Christ died for our sins” (I Cor. 15:3), and we are to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” for salvation (Acts 16:31; cf. Jn. 3:16; Gal. 3:26).

      Having said this, though, let me add a couple of thoughts in defence of using expressions in our presentation of the gospel that are not specifically found in the Word of God. First, the fact that a term is not actually found within the pages of Scripture does not automatically disqualify it. Otherwise, a word like Trinity would be off limits. What is important is whether the expression accurately reflects a truth or doctrine that is found in God’s Word, whether or not the word itself is there.

      Second, the spiritual and eternal work of the Spirit of God is difficult (or impossible) for Him to describe to us, given that we are so much oriented to a mortal existence in a physical universe. The Lord therefore uses spatial and concrete imagery at times, in order to describe spiritual realities. These are metaphors for spiritual truth. They say to us, “This is something like that.” But we must be careful not to come to the conclusion (as Nicodemus mistakenly did, Jn. 3:4) that, “This is exactly the same as that.”

      The “filling” of the Spirit is another such term–found in both the Old and New Testaments (Exod. 31:2-5; Eph. 5:18-21). But we are not to think in terms of God’s Spirit being poured into us as if we were so many quart sealers. Both the Hebrew and Greek words so translated mean filling and fulfilling. They represent God’s enablement and empowerment of the believer to accomplish (or fulfil) His purpose.

      You state that the term “born again” is only mentioned three times. If we are thinking specifically of those two words, that is true (Jn. 3:3, 7; I Pet. 1:23, NKJV). However, there are a number of expressions that are closely related, and others that have a significant association to the new birth.

      For example, in John 3:5 the Lord speaks of the need to be “born of water and of the Spirit.” (And I believe the “and”–kai in Greek–is likely intended to have the force of “that is,” or “in other words,” using water as analogous to the new birth. (Cf. Jn. 4:10, 14; 7:37-39, where water is also symbolic of the work of the Spirit.) Then, there’s John 3:8, which speaks of being “born of the Spirit.”

      Another text you should consider is John 1:12-13 which speaks of being “born…of God.” Incidentally, those verses also refer to “receiving” Christ, explaining that it means to “believe in [or on] His name.” Christ’s “name” represents Him (just as ours represent us). To believe on His name is to appeal to His authority and power to save, based on all that He is, and what He has done for us.

      Titus 3:5 is another text to consider. There Paul speaks of the “regenerating” work of the Holy Spirit–regeneration being another term meaning born again. (So, you see, Paul did speak of the new birth.) Add to this texts that refer to the saved person as a “new creation” (II Cor. 5:17), and as being “created in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2;10), and you will begin to see that this is a concept well supported by Scripture in various ways.

      You question whether it’s correct to say that the born again experience is the true and only means of salvation. Some final thoughts on that. First, we can say, on the authority of the Son of God Himself, that the new birth is absolutely necessary. In order to enter the kingdom of God, an individual “must be born again” (Jn. 3:7). By a physical birth we enter this earthly kingdom, by a spiritual birth we become part of the kingdom of God.

      However, “born again” is not the only term that can legitimately be used to describe salvation. Saved, redeemed, and so on, are others. Even the expression “born again” itself can be translated various ways. Williams has “born from above;” the Amplified Bible has “born anew (from above).” And strictly speaking, this is not what you term an “experience,” in the sense of being discernible by our physical senses. It’s a spiritual work of God. We experience the results of it in our lives, but cannot physically detect God doing it. The Lord indicates that in John 3:8, with His comparison to the wind.

      I hope these few thoughts are helpful. God bless. Thanks for your comments.


  3. Robert – fabulous response. If this were Facebook, I’d like it. 🙂


%d bloggers like this: