Probably the most disappointing document to come out of UCG is its paper on Born Again, dtd December 2002.
Nicodemus’ error was sincere, and Herbert Armstrong’s error was sincere. Herbert Armstrong made the same basic mistake in his analogy that Nicodemus did. He was attempting to force a truthful and logical spiritual reality into an illogical physical reality. That is why Nicodemus answered using a physical mother and a second birth from her womb.
Why did Nicodemus answer this way? It was because he did not yet have a spiritual mind. In fact, Herbert Armstrong did, and so even though he used the physical analogy, the lesson gotten out of it was dominantly spiritual. So the lesson was good. The end that he approached was okay.
At very least, Ritenbaugh has the courage to be honest enough to say HWA was in “error”. Contrast that with UCG’s wishy-washy have it both ways approach! In a United News article, “Why We Don’t Describe Ourselves as ‘Born Again’” gets to the heart of the matter:
Why We Don’t Describe Ourselves as "Born Again"
The Council of Elders approved a study paper on "Born Again" at their meeting in December, and the paper was sent to all UCG elders in January. It is now also posted on the Web site at www.ucg.org/papers, or you can ask a UCG elder in your area for a copy. Here are excerpts from the "Preface":
"The paper reinforces Herbert W. Armstrong’s use of the analogy of begettal at baptism and birth when one actually enters the Kingdom of God [boldface mine throughout remainder]. The explanation of John 3 will show that indeed when one is truly born of the Spirit, he will be a spirit being. We were born of the flesh and are therefore, flesh. John 3 has a duality that should not be denied. This chapter also discusses conversion as a type of birth, but this does not deny the concept of the analogy that Mr. Armstrong taught us for so many years—indeed the paper emphasizes the truth of that analogy.
"The difference in this paper is the additional understanding of the Greek word gennao. We believe that one should not take the position that this word can only refer to conception. Gennao is a much broader term and refers to the whole process of conception and birth. We should be teaching this broader concept of the Greek word. "Salvation is a two-step process—beginning with conversion (which is both a one-time event and an ongoing process) and ending with entrance into the Kingdom. The analogy of conception for conversion and birth for entrance into the Kingdom is certainly valid for explaining the process of salvation. We are not ‘saved now’ nor are we ‘born again’ as the concepts are explained in the evangelical world.
"We do not believe the term ‘born again’ is a proper translation from the Greek and, therefore, should not be used to refer to a Christian. But it is true that as Christians we must be transformed once we repent of our sins, accept Jesus Christ as our Savior and become baptized (Romans 12:2). This is truly a new life as well. The biblical analogy of children and babes is just as valid as the conception and birth analogy. This is the essence of the study paper—these items are analogies to help us understand the process of salvation.
"It was concluded by the Doctrine Committee and the Council of Elders that this paper does not constitute a change in the doctrine of salvation but a deeper understanding of the analogies and the Greek words used in the New Testament to describe the process of salvation."
This is double-speak. This is much, much too reminiscient of Tkach’s tactics!
And yet, there also have been and continue to be messages from UCG which show a difference of opinion. For example, a Feast of Trumpets message by Ken Martin on 27 Sept 2003 has this statement:
Now that is going to be an awesome event. Simply because of this one factor – there are many people today, well-meaning people who are walking around with a preconceived idea that they’re already born again. Now if you want to take the scripture and say, you know, you become renewed in your thought process to conversion, O.K. But to be born again, they say, "I’ve been born again." Please, read again, what did we just say? If you are born again, there has to be a change. From the dead, the dead are done what? They are raised or changed incorruptible and we, who are still physical, what will happen to us? We will also become as saints then, incorruptible.
Please note that the United News article came before this sermon!
No matter how you state it, it is a departure from doctrine to say we are “born of above” or even that we have “a deeper understanding” because of the Greek, when even HWA clearly understood what it meant! He clearly understood the Greek word gennao referred to a process! One of his cornerstone booklets was Just what do you mean… BORN AGAIN?, and in it HWA stated:
In human physical reproduction, there is a TIME ELEMENT. From impregnation – begettal on the part of the father – having conceived on the part of the mother – to BIRTH, or parturation, or being delivered from the mother’s womb is a TIME ELEMENT of nine months.
That nine-month period is called gestation. Upon conception, the now fertilized ovum is called an embryo. A few months later, it is called a fetus. But during this nine-month period of gestation, we do not speak of the embryo-fetus as having been born. It is in the PROCESS toward birth. It is the child of its parents. But is then the unborn child of its parents. The father has already begotten it – sired it. But the mother has not yet given birth to it. Yet it is, during the gestation period, the unborn child of the parents.
Now in being "born again", the PROCESS of this birth begins when GOD’S divine SPIRIT- LIFE is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit, from His very PERSON, entering to dwell within us. Repeat, from Romans 8:
"But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken [change to immortal spirit] your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you" (verse 11). This is describing the same thing explained in I Corinthians 15:50-53, the resurrection.
Simply put, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the Greek “gennao” and the English “birth”. Instead, as UCG has stated, it is a process.
BUT – in which language are we speaking? In which language are we writing? Yes, you got it: English!
To take a foreign word and impose it’s meaning upon another language’s translation is simply bad practice. Frankly, we are neither “born again” or “born from above” yet simply because we are not yet born! “Born” in English is an event. We are still spiritual embryos, as HWA so painstakingly pointed out.
And yes, how we view this does have consequences. The concept of being “born again” now in this time naturally leads to “once saved, always saved”! If we are already born, we are done! If not, we can be aborted!
Yes, it is a process, and it is one that has not yet been completed! The UCG paper actually muddles this distinction rather than clarifies it by trying to superimpose Greek thought onto English.
What isn’t clear is why “conversion” and “converted” cannot describe more adequately the new creation God is working in us rather than trying to force the meaning of “born from above”.
The UCG study paper states:
Analogies are beneficial, but care should be taken to apply them to the specific point or purpose that is intended.
Perhaps that is why Jesus added this clarification:
8The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8, King James Version)
Jesus is pointing to the end result of that birth process. We know that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (1Co 15:50), so it is appropriate that Jesus would say “unless” (NIV) one is born again he cannot “see the kingdom of God”! One must start the process, but it is even more important to finish the process!
The process is a spiritual one, but that doesn’t make it any less real than a physical one. However, one would expect it to be different. That’s why other analogies alluding to children or being childlike aren’t contradictory. This is so, even as yeast as a symbol can change in meaning according to context. Jesus’ context in Jn 3 is quite clear, though. He is talking about a dramatic change that will end in the most dramatic of changes: Physical into spiritual.