Born of God or Begotten of God?

By Bill Reeves

As far back as 1962, brother Carl Ketcherside was teaching that a believer in the divinity of Christ (faith only) was thereby “begotten of God” and, therefore, should be recognized as a “child of God in prospect.” Following English expressions and concepts of the process of physical birth (conception, begettal; delivery, birth; the begettal on the part of the father, the birth on the part of the mother), he began to apply such to the problem of unity and fellowship. Coming to New Testament texts, written not in English, but in Greek, he made application of his English expressions and concepts. 1 John 5:1 was one of these texts: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God.” Using his English definitions and concepts, he concluded that a believer in Christ (believer in the facts of the divinity and death of Jesus Christ on the cross) is a child of God in prospect, because he was spiritually conceived, or begotten, by God! If in some sense he is a child of God, should we refuse him fellowship, at least in some degree? If we have the same father, are. we not brothers?

Brother Ketcherside was not only making arguments based on English terminology, and therefore of no import in matters of a text originally written in Greek, but was at the same time using New Testament texts out of context; all this in an effort to extend the basis of fellowship.

Recently I was reminded that Brother T. W. Brents, in his widely read book, The Gospel Plan of Salvation (1874), in the chapter entitled “The New Birth,” made the same distinction between “begettal” and “birth,” referring to believers (believe only) as being begotten, but not yet born, and to baptized believers as “born again” ones. So, it appeared to this person that Brents was teaching in the last century what some are teaching today, in making the begettal-birth distinction.

Did Brother Brents argue the same position as Brother Ketcherside and some present-day brethren? Yes and no! He did make the same distinction between beget and give birth to, using the same fallacious arguments that some today make, but he certainly was not making the same use of these arguments. Brents was trying to answer the “faith only” advocates, who claimed to be born again children of God (without having been baptized), by “proving” that they were only begotten by their faith (only), but that they were not yet “born again” of water and of the Spirit! He certainly was not advocating any kind of recognition of the “faith only” denominationalists as children of God in prospect and, therefore, as being in the family of God in some sense!

Let us examine Brents reasoning and arguments, inasmuch as they are virtually the same presented by Ketcherside and others today (although, as we have seen, for a different purpose or view in mind). After quoting 1 Jn. 5:1, 18, he says, “In keeping with the Bible Union and Anderson’s translations, we have exchanged the word born and begotten, in each of the verses quoted, and we venture to state further that there is not a place in the New Testament where the words `born of God’ occurs, that a faithful translation would not render `begotten of God.’ In no place will the Spirit’s teaching, faithfully translated, represent us as born of God-born of our Father. Such a thought is absurd in the very nature of things; and no one who understands the new birth, or the natural birth, from which the figure was drawn, will entertain such a thought or use such language.”

Many faithful translations use “born” in these two verses, instead of “begotten,” among them being the NASV and the NIV, because both of these words “faithfully” translate the Greek word in the text. In John 1:13, “born of God” is the translation of many versions (NIV, ASV, NASV, KJV, etc.). Brother Brents is simply wrong in his assertion concerning what “faithful translations” will or will not do. The Greek word under consideration for translation is gennao, which on p. 113 of Thayer is translated both “to be begotten” and “to be born.” The Greek does not make the distinction which the English does. This very word, found in 1 Jn. 5:1, 18, also appears in Lk. 1:13, 57 and 23:29. In these passages the word is used in reference to women giving birth. The Greek does not have one word for “beget” and another one for “give birth to.” Such a distinction is a characteristic_ of the English, not of the Greek. When one makes an argument based on this distinction, he is arguing from the English, and not from the Greek New Testament text!

Brents then quotes 1 Pet. 1:23; 1 Cor. 4:15 and Jas. 1:18, rightly showing that one is begotten of God by the Word preached. But before continuing, we might note that in the Greek texts referred to, gennao appears in the first two, and another word, apokueo, appears in the last one. According to p. 64 of Thayer, the word means “to be pregnant, to bring forth from the womb, to give birth to, to produce.” Brents quotes Jas. 1:18 to insist that “beget” is what the Word does.

He then proceeds to argue that believing the facts of the gospel “begets” one, but that he is still not “born again.” Noting Jas. 2:19 and Mark 3:11, he argues that demons believe and acknowledge Jesus’ deity. “Were they born again?” he asks, to which we answer, No, and neither were they begotten of God! Brother Ketcherside, are these demons children of God in prospect?

One of the chief fallacies of Brother Brents argumentation is that he uses “believe” in the sense of faith only (such as denominationalists have, in that they have mentally accepted as true certain facts) in those passages where it is used comprehensively of man’s part in obeying the gospel. He quotes Jn. 12:42, 43, and says, “There are now many such as these, chief rulers were then; are they born again?” No, neither are they begotten of God! “If a man be born again when he first believes the gospel, when is he begotten, and where are the elements of birth-water and spirit-of which Jesus said he should be born?” Here Brents uses “first believes” in the sense of “first only believes” (faith only), and a man is neither born nor begotten of God when he “first only believes” some proclaimed facts. (Remember, however, that Brents was battling with denominationalists who claimed to be born again by faith only. He was not arguing that when one is “begotten” by believing facts of a proclaimed, inspired, message, although he is not yet “born again,” still he is already a part of God’s family as a prospective child of God, waiting to be “born”!).

Brents next quotes Jn. l:ll, 12, and misuses it like so many of my brethren through the years have done (I am included). “Jesus came to his own prepared people, and many of them did not receive Him, or believe on Him; but to as many of them as did receive Him by believing on his name, He gave the power or privilege of becoming sons of God. Believing on His name, then, did not make them sons, but prepared them to become sons. When a man believes the gospel, and with meekness receives it into a good and honest heart, he is then begotten of God, and is prepared to be born. The vital principle is then implanted in the heart; but he is no more born again at that time than he was physically born the moment he was conceived.”

Brethren have used this passage in debate with Baptists, and with others, to “prove” that faith alone does not make one a child of God, but only gives him the right to become one! This is not what John is saying! Although this affirmation is true, in the main, this passage does not prove it. John is saying that although God was not obligated to give the power or right or even privilege to anyone to be His child, He did give it, and still gives it, to those who receive Christ; that is, to believers (in the comprehensive sense of the word “believe”). One cannot claim sonship with God on the basis of being a Jew (Jesus’ own), but only on the basis of receiving Christ. John is not using “believe” in the sense of “faith only,” and so is not making the point that Brents, and many brethren today, makes in answer to sectarian doctrine.

The word “become,” in English, has a future ring to it. “What do you plan to become when you grow up?” we say to the small child. So, here in John 1:12, the English rendering, “to become children of God” lends itself to the idea that reference is to something yet future. But, actually the Greek texts employs an aorist infinitive, the aorist tense indicating simple past tense. John is saying that Jesus came to the Jews, but the Jews, His own people, as a people did not receive Him as the Messiah and, therefore, did not become children of God. On the other hand, those that did receive Him, that is, did believe on Him (not faith only, but comprehensive faith) became children of God! They became children of God when they received Christ, because God gives such a right to believers. This is all that John is saying.

This is made evident also from the use of the word “receive.” This is not mere mental reception (faith only)! The same Greek word is used in John 13:20 and Matt. 13:20. Will preachers use these passages in the sense of “faith only”? In Acts 2:41, although the Greek word translated “receive” is a different one from that used in the texts mentioned above, one can plainly see that “receive” is used in the sense of obedience! People who do not do what Christ commands, do not receive Him (in the Bible sense of the word).

Brents quotes Acts 9:1-5, and rightly affirms that Saul’s faith was changed from believing that Jesus was an impostor, to the belief of the truth that He was the Son of God. “He was then begotten of God; but was he born again?” No, Brother Brents, he was not then begotten of God, nor born of God, which is the same thing. Neither! One who is begotten or born of God is one who is continually doing righteousness (1 Jn. 2:29) and not sin (3:9). He is a child of God (3:10). John does not say, “in prospect,” Brother Ketcherside, and Brother Brents, you will agree that every “child of God” has been “born again.” So, both brethren, and others today, are misapplying 1 Jn. 5:1. They might as well quote 1 Jn. 4:7 and conclude that every lover is a child of God in prospect! Let us read 5:18 again, “We know that whosoever is begotten of God sinneth not; but he that was begotten of God keepeth himself, and the evil one toucheth him not.” Now, if “begotten of God” does not mean the same as “born of God,” tell me what the “begotten of God” lacks by not being “Born again?” According to this passage he does not go on sinning and the evil one does not touch him! Sounds like he is in good shape! Or, consider the happy condition of the “begotten” one, as described in 1 Pet. 1:3, 4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, unto an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you.” Not a bad situation for a person who has been “begotten,” but not “born again” (because he has not yet been baptized)!

The apostle John is telling the Gnostic that he is not a child of God because he is not a believer in Jesus Christ. John is not using “believe” in 5:1 in the sense of “faith only.” Both Brents and Ketcherside ignore this simple fact and, taking the passage completely out of context, make “begotten” ones different from “born again” ones, Brents for one purpose and Ketcherside for another. Brents had the truth on his contention that “faith only” did not make one a child of God, but he used fallacious arguments to prove it. Ketcherside has the wrong contention, trying to get “begotten” ones somehow and in some sense into God’s family, before they are baptized (“born again”). Both his contention and his arguments are fallacious!

To judge it idiomatic English to use “beget” in reference to the implantation of seed, as is the role of the father, and “give birth to” (be born) in reference to bringing forth, as is the role of the mother, I have no objection. On the other hand, to affirm that gennao cannot rightly be translated “be born” (or some similar expression), in reference to seed and fathers and that it must be translated “beget,” is to affirm something that simply is not true. The New Testament scriptures use that word in reference to the role of both men and women. There is no distinction. Fabricated distinctions are the product of human sophistry, designed to support unscriptural concepts. If brethren want to extend some fellowship, or in some sense recognize as children of God, those who have not been baptized into Christ, they will have to find authority for it somewhere else than in their contrived distinction between the terms “beget” and “be born,” as used in the New Testament as translations of gennao. Brethren, beware of the subtleties of human wisdom!

Truth Magazine XXII: 46, pp. 746-748
November 23, 1978