The term "born again" is a common phrase used by nearly all Christians, although not all Christians assign the same meaning to it. Among many Christian denominations this phrase indicates that a person has made a verbal profession of faith in accepting Christ as their personal Savior. It is when this has happened that many Christians feel that they have been "born again."
The reason for this is based on the scriptures that say, "If you shall confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus Christ, and shall believe in thine heart that God has raised [Jesus] from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness: and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation… For whosever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Romans 10:9,10,13).
Since salvation is equated with gaining eternal life in the kingdom of God, and since no one can be saved without being born again, it is reasoned that since confessing our belief in Christ as our Savior is what saves us that it is the same as being born again. To them, when Jesus said that a person must "be born of water" they understand this to mean our natural birth in mortality from the water in our mother's womb, and being "born… of the Spirit" is understood to mean that at the time we accept Christ as our personal Savior, God automatically gives us His Spirit, like what happened on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:2-4).
On the other hand, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that being born again of the "water and of the Spirit" means being baptized in water and receiving the Holy Spirit by someone legally authorized by God to perform these ordinances. Thus, for many Latter-day Saints, being born again means being baptized and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost through the laying on of hands.
However, the Book of Mormon gives more details about what it means to be born again. When Alma, the younger, awoke after three days as though dead after being struck down by an angel for his rebellion against God, he declared, "[all] people must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God." (Mosiah 27:25-26).
According to him, being born again means much more than simply being baptized and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. To him it means being "changed from [our] carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness." It means becoming a new creature. The apostle Paul made a similar comment when he said, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
According to this definition, being born again means becoming a new creature in Christ. It means that a person who once desired to follow the ways of the world has now had a mighty change of heart and wants only to follow the ways of Christ. As King Benjamin put it, a person who has been born again is one who has "no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2).
It is only by having this kind of change of heart and becoming "a new creature in Christ" that we can truly become sons and daughters of God and thereby inherit the kingdom of God. In other words, accepting Christ as our personal Savior, being baptized, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost are all part of what is necessary to becoming born again, but unless there has also been a change in our character, our behavior, our thinking, our attitude, feelings, and desires, we have not truly been born again, and until that conversion takes place, we "can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God."
This concept is different than what most Christians and even many LDS think of when using the term "born again." To them, accepting Christ as our Savior and Redeemer, being baptized, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost (in whatever manner a person believes in) is all that is necessary to live forever in heaven with God. Yet, all Christians firmly believe that God is perfect and that we are imperfect, and that presents a problem. How can imperfect people live comfortably with a perfect God?
The standard explanation given is that God somehow changes us from our imperfect state to one where we have become perfect. However, there is a wide range of beliefs of how that change takes place.
It was Jesus Himself who told us that we are to "be perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Even so, there are many Christians who say that we can never become perfect in the same way that God is and that this verse of scripture should not be taken literally. There are others who admit that we are still sinners but that God has simply forgiven us of our sins, which is all that is necessary for us to live in heaven with Him.
There are others who say that when we accept Christ we immediately become a new creature in Him and because He justifies us, we are considered sinless before God. This belief states that at the time we truly accept Christ that He takes away our old heart and replaces it with a new heart that desires to only do good. It is this belief that teaches that any good works a Christian does is simply the manifestation of the new heart they now possess.
In other words, a "born again" Christian doesn't have to try to do good; it just happens naturally as a result of their changed condition. And it is in this way that we are made perfect. Therefore, since a Christian already has a new heart that automatically loves God and desires to do good that this is all that is necessary for us to live comfortably in heaven forever.
Then there are others who say that we must strive to perfect ourselves by keeping the commandments. This group of people believes that they must put forth their own effort to become perfect, thereby showing God that they are worthy to live with Him in heaven. And there is a variation on this that says that as long as we endure to the end of our mortal life in striving to keep the commandments that God will accept us as we are and make up the difference in our shortcomings.
There is some truth and some falsehoods in each of these ideas but to understand what they are we first have to have a correct understanding of what heaven is like.
In our day the Lord has given us a sweeping and detailed explanation of heaven. First, there are three realms of heaven - the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial - and the place where God lives in the celestial kingdom. This is the realm we normally think of when we talk about "heaven," or "the kingdom of God," or inheriting "eternal life."
Secondly, in D&C 88 Jesus has explained that "Unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions" (verses 38). Jesus further explained that "he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory. And he who cannot abide the law of a terrestrial kingdom cannot abide a terrestrial glory. And he who cannot abide the law of a telestial kingdom cannot abide a telestial glory; therefore he is not meet for a kingdom of glory. Therefore he must abide a kingdom which is not a kingdom of glory" (verses 22-24).
What we learn from this is that the place where God lives and where we hope to live with Him is governed by laws and that if we are not able to abide by or submit ourselves to living those laws then we cannot live in that kingdom. Therefore, if we want to live in the celestial kingdom then, of necessity, we must be willing and able to live by the laws of that kingdom. If we cannot do that then we cannot live there and therefore, of necessity, we must live in some other kingdom whose laws are not as hard for us to keep.
Since God is perfect then obviously the laws of the celestial kingdom must be of a very high standard. In fact, the scriptures tell us that God "cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance" (D&C 1:31; Alma 45:16). That would require those living there to abide by a very strict level of righteousness. Then how do we attain that degree of virtue and morality?
Jesus explained that, "it must needs be [that we are] sanctified from all unrighteousness, that [we] may be prepared for the celestial glory" (D&C 88:18). In other words, in order for us to be able to live with God in the celestial kingdom, there are two things that must happen. The first is that we must be "sanctified," and the second is that we must "be prepared."
One of the roles of the Holy Ghost is to sanctify us. This is something we cannot do for ourselves therefore it is the job of the Holy Ghost to cleanse us from sin. However, this cleansing is only possible through the mercy of Christ's atonement and since we tend to sin every day it is by our willingness to keep the commandments and to repent when we fail to do that that the cleansing power of the atonement can be applied to wash away the stains of our continual sinning.
However, washing away our sins doesn't prevent us from sinning, therefore we have to be prepared or taught or trained how not to sin, and when we have gotten to the point where we no longer have any more desire to do evil but to do good continually is when we are able to fully live the laws which govern the celestial kingdom. Perhaps we can understand this principle by way of an illustration.
The story of Tarzan is one that has been told many, many times with many different variations to it, but the basic plot is this. A nobleman from England and his pregnant wife take a journey by boat and unexpectedly find themselves marooned on the coast of Africa. The woman gives birth to a son whom they name John Clayton Viscount Greystroke. However, shortly thereafter, she dies and not long afterwards her husband is killed.
The infant boy is adopted by a tribe of apes and is raised by them to adulthood. Knowing nothing of his heritage, he lives like the animals around him and takes for himself the name of Tarzan. Twenty years later he encounters a distinguished English woman named Jane and falls in love with her. She also falls in love with him and persuades him to come back to England with her, which he does.
However, once there he finds himself out of his natural element. Instead of wearing nothing but a loincloth, he is now made to wear what he considers to be tight, restrictive clothing and shoes. When he is made to bathe, he finds this act strange and confusing. Soon, he is taught to speak proper English and then how to eat properly with a fork, spoon and knife instead of stuffing food in his mouth with his hands. Then he is taught how to behave like a gentleman and to follow the protocol of the aristocracy in which he now finds himself living.
At first Tarzan rebels at all of these changes to his former living style, but because of his love for Jane, he eventually submits himself to all of these new and unfamiliar living conditions, including sleeping on a bed with sheets instead of in a tree. Over time, Tarzan is finally able to make the adjustment in his living style and can fit comfortably into the society in which Jane is accustomed to.
In the end, however, Tarzan becomes disillusioned with living a life of high society and because he never lost his love for the jungle, he eventually goes back there to live the rest of his life.
All of us are children of our Father in heaven and, as such, we come from royalty, but when we came to earth we lost the knowledge of our prior heritage. As such we are living in a world that has been described as a jungle, where it's everyman for himself. In this jungle men are taught that to survive a person must figuratively kill or be killed. We were raised to think of ourselves first and to do whatever we want and whatever feels good to us. As such, we are not much higher in our ways than the animals around us. This is what the scriptures mean when it talks about "the natural man." Our physical bodies are made to respond to the natural desires of pleasure and to avoid doing those things that bring us pain or discomfort.
But then one day we meet and come to know a being who is noble and godly and we fell in love with Him and said that we wanted to be with Him forever. More importantly, He loves us and wants us to come live with Him forever. However, in our current state, we are completely unprepared to live with Him in his palace therefore He sets about teaching us His ways and His laws in order to help us fit comfortably in His society.
He teaches us to love others instead of thinking of ourselves. He shows us how to wash ourselves clean of sin and how to keep ourselves from constantly getting sinfully dirty. He teaches us how to wear the clothing of honesty, integrity, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. At first these things may seem strange and restrictive but because of our love for Him who loved us first, we submit ourselves to this new way of living.
Then Jesus teaches us to speak the proper language of love and shows us how to act with dignity and poise instead of acting brutish and boorish. Instead of stuffing ourselves by giving into our primal appetites, Jesus teaches us to satisfy our needs and desires in a more controlled manner.
As we apply these lessons in our life, and the more effort we put forth in learning them, the more we become ready to live in a society where perfect protocol governs all that they do. And the more we desire to live this new kind of life the more comfortable we feel in being around celestial people.
But while our preparation here on earth is being made to help us be ready to live in the celestial kingdom, we are still living in the jungle and many times our natural desires draw us back to our old ways. We may long to be free to do whatever we want. We may yearn to satisfy our carnal appetites. We may convince ourselves that living a life of charity takes too much effort, and so we struggle and we rebel and we procrastinate learning how to keep the laws that govern the celestial kingdom. And, like Tarzan, some people give up altogether and return to their jungle way of life.
To be born again means more than just accepting Christ. It means more than just being baptized and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. It means more than making a covenant to take upon ourselves the name of Christ and promise to keep His commandments, and to remember Him always. Those are like putting our signature to a contract we've just made with Christ.
But signing a contract is not the end of the deal; it is just the beginning. Once the contract has been signed then we have to carry out the promises we've made, and that promise is to allow Christ to prepare us to inherit the kingdom of God.
When a baby is born to mortal parents it knows nothing and must be taught by its parents how to do everything, from walking and talking, to learning the proper etiquette of society and developing proper work habits that will make them successful in life. And the same is true when we are reborn into the family of God. We know nothing about what it takes to live in the celestial kingdom therefore we have to be taught everything from how to walk and talk like Christ to learning the proper etiquette and work ethic of a celestial society so that we can successfully live there.
It is when the transformation of our carnal nature to a celestial nature has been completed that we have truly "become new creatures" and "old things are passed away [and] all things are become new." It is when that happens that we will truly have become sons and daughters of God, prepared to inherit eternal life. This is what it means to be born again.