Are Catholics Born Again?
“Have you been born again?” the Fundamentalist at the door asks the unsuspecting Catholic. The question is usually a segue into a vast doctrinal campaign that leads many ill-instructed Catholics out of the Catholic Church. How? By making them think there is a conflict between the Bible and the Catholic Church over being “born again.” To be honest, most Catholics probably do not understand the expression “born again.”
Yes, they believe in Jesus. And yes, they try to live Christian lives. They probably have some vague awareness that Fundamentalists think being “born again” involves a religious experience or “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” Many cradle Catholics, too, have had their moments of closeness to God, even of joy over God’s love and mercy. They may even have had “conversion experiences” of sorts, committing themselves to take their faith seriously and to live more faithfully as disciples of Jesus. But the cradle Catholic probably cannot pinpoint any particular moment in his life when he dropped to his knees and “accepted Jesus” for the first time. As far back as he can recall, he has believed, trusted and loved Jesus as Savior and Lord. Does that prove he has never been “born again”?
Not “the Bible way,” says the Fundamentalist. But the Fundamentalist is wrong there. He misunderstands what the Bible says about being “born again.” Unfortunately, few Catholics understand the biblical use of the term, either. As a result, pastors, deacons, catechists, parents and others responsible for religious education have their work cut out for them. It would be helpful, then, to review the biblical–and Catholic–meaning of the term “born again.”
“Born again” The Bible way
The only biblical use of the term “born again” occurs in John 3:3-5–although, as we shall see, similar and related expressions such as “new birth” and “regeneration” occur elsewhere in Scripture (Titus 3:5; 1 Pet 1:3, 23). In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The Greek expression translated “born again” (gennathei anothen) also means “born from above.” Jesus, it seems, makes a play on words with Nicodemus, contrasting earthly life, or what theologians would later dub natural life (“what is born of flesh”), with the new life of heaven, or what they would later call supernatural life (“what is born of Spirit”).
Nicodemus’ reply: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). Does he simply mistake Jesus to be speaking literally or is Nicodemus himself answering figuratively, meaning, “How can an old man learn new ways as if he were a child again?” We cannot say for sure, but in any case Jesus answers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born again.”‘ (John 3:5-7).
Here Jesus equates “born again” or “born from above” with “born of water and the Spirit.” If, as the Catholic Church has always held, being “born of water and the Spirit” refers to baptism, then it follows that being “born again” or “born from above” means being baptized.
Clearly, the context implies that born of “water and the Spirit” refers to baptism. The Evangelist tells us that immediately after talking with Nicodemus, Jesus took his disciples into the wilderness where they baptized people (John 3:22). Furthermore, water is closely linked to the Spirit throughout John’s Gospel (for instance, in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:9-13) and in the Johannine tradition (cf. 1 John 5:7). It seems reasonable, then, to conclude that John the Evangelist understands Jesus’ words about being “born again” and “born of water and the Spirit” to have a sacramental, baptismal meaning.
Other views of “born of water and the spirit”
Fundamentalists who reject baptismal regeneration usually deny that “born of water and the Spirit” in John 3:5 refers to baptism. Some argue that “water” refers to the “water of childbirth.” On this view, Jesus means that unless one is born of water (at his physical birth) and again of the Spirit (in a spiritual birth), he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
A major problem with this argument, however, is that while Jesus does contrast physical and spiritual life, he clearly uses the term “flesh” for the former, in contrast to “Spirit” for the latter. Jesus might say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of flesh and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”–though it would be obvious and absurdly redundant to say that one must be born (i.e., born of flesh) in order to be born again (i.e., born of the Spirit). But using “born of water and the Spirit” to mean “born of the flesh and then of the Spirit” would only confuse things by introducing the term “water” from out of nowhere, without any obvious link to the term “flesh.” Moreover, while the flesh is clearly opposed to the Spirit and the Spirit clearly opposed to the flesh in this passage, the expression “born of water and the Spirit” implies no such opposition. It is not “water” vs. “the Spirit,” but “water and the Spirit.”
Furthermore, the Greek of the text suggests that “born of water and the Spirit” (literally “born of water and spirit”) refers to a single, supernatural birth over against natural birth (“born of the flesh”). The phrase “of water and the Spirit” (Greek, ek hudatos kai pneumatos) is a single linguistical unit. It refers to being “born of water and the Spirit,” not “born of water” on the one hand and “born of the Spirit” on the other.
Another argument used by opponents of baptismal regeneration: “born of water and the Spirit” refers, correspondingly, to the baptism of John (being “born of water”) and the baptism of the Spirit (being “born of … the Spirit”), which John promised the coming Messiah would effect. Thus, on this view, Jesus says, “Unless a man is born of water through John’s baptism and of the Spirit through my baptism, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”
We have already seen that, according to the Greek, “born of water and the Spirit” refers to a single thing, a single spiritual birth. Thus, the first half of the phrase cannot apply to one thing (John’s baptism) and the second half to something else entirely (Jesus’ baptism). But even apart from the linguistical argument, if “born of water” refers to John’s baptism, then Jesus is saying that in order to be “born again” or “born from above” one must receive John’s baptism of water (“born of water …”) and the Messiah’s baptism of the Spirit (“. . . and Spirit”). That would mean only those who have been baptized by John could enter the kingdom of God–which would drastically reduce the population of heaven. In fact, no one holds that people must receive John’s baptism in order to enter the Kingdom–something now impossible. Therefore being “born of water . . .” cannot refer to John’s baptism.
The most reasonable explanation for “born of water and the Spirit,” then, is that it refers to baptism. This is reinforced by many New Testament texts linking baptism, the Holy Spirit and regeneration. At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descends upon him as He comes up out of the water (cf. John 1:25-34; Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22). Furthermore, what distinguishes John’s baptism of repentance in anticipation of the Messiah from Christian baptism, is that the latter is a baptism with the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:31; Acts 1:4-5).
Consequently, on Pentecost, Peter calls the Jews to “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” and promises that they will “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), thus fulfilling the promise of John. Peter clearly teaches here that the “water baptism,” to which he directs the soon-to-be converts, forgives sins and bestows the Holy Spirit. Christian baptism, then, is no mere external, repentance-ritual with water, but entails an inner transformation or regeneration by the Holy Spirit of the New Covenant; it is a “new birth,” a being “born again” or “born from above.”
In Romans 6:3, Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (RNAB). Baptism, says Paul, effects union with the death and resurrection of Christ, so that through it we die and rise to new life, a form of “regeneration.”
According to Titus 3:5, God “saved us through the washing of regeneration (paliggenesias) and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Opponents of baptismal regeneration argue that the text refers only to the “washing (loutrou) of regeneration” rather than the “baptism of regeneration.” But baptism is certainly a form of washing and elsewhere in the New Testament it is described as a “washing away of sin.” For example, in Acts 22:16, Ananias tells Paul, “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling upon his name.” The Greek word used for the “washing away of sins” in baptism here is apolousai, essentially the same term used in Titus 3:5. Furthermore, since “washing” and “regeneration” are not ordinarily related terms, a specific kind of washing–one that regenerates–must be in view. The most obvious kind of washing which the reader would understand would be baptism, a point even many Baptist scholars, such as G.R. Beasley-Murray, admit. (See his book Baptism in the New Testament.)
In 1 Peter 1:3, it is stated that God has given Christians “a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” The term “new birth” (Gk, anagennasas, “having regenerated”) appears synonymous with “born again” or “regeneration.” According to 1 Peter 1:23, Christians “have been born anew (Gk, anagegennamenoi, “having been regenerated”) not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and abiding word of God.” From the word of the Gospel, in other words.
Opponents of baptismal regeneration argue that since the “new birth” mentioned in 1 Peter 1:3 and 23 is said to come about through the Word of God, being “born again” means accepting the Gospel message, not being baptized. This argument overlooks the fact that elsewhere in the New Testament accepting the gospel message and being baptized are seen as two parts of the one act of commitment to Christ.
In Mark 16:16, for instance, Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.” “Believing”, i.e., accepting the Gospel, entails accepting baptism, which is the means by which one “puts on Christ” (Gal. 3:27) and is buried and raised with him to new life (Rom 6:3-5; Gal 2:12). Acts 2:41 says of the Jewish crowd on Pentecost, “Those who accepted his message were baptized . . .” It seems reasonable to conclude that those whom 1 Peter 1:23 describes as “having been born anew” or regenerated through the “living and abiding word of God” were also those who had been baptized. Thus, being “born of water and the Spirit” and being “born anew” through “the living and abiding word of God” describe different aspects of one thing–being regenerated in Christ. Being “born again” (or “from above”) in “water and the Spirit” refers to the external act of receiving baptism, while being “born anew” refers to the internal reception in faith of the Gospel (being “born anew” through “the living and abiding word of God”).
Moreover, baptism involves a proclamation of the Word, which is part of what constitutes it (i.e., “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”). To accept baptism is to accept the Word of God. There is no need, then, to see the operation of the Word of God in regeneration as something opposed to or separated from baptism.
Some Fundamentalists also object that being “born again” through baptismal regeneration contradicts the Pauline doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Implicit here is the idea that Christian baptism is a mere “human work” done to earn favor before God. In fact, Christian baptism is something that is done to one (one is baptized–passive), not something one does for oneself. The one who baptizes, according to the Bible, is Jesus Himself by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 1:33). It makes no more sense to oppose baptism and faith in Christ to one another as means of regeneration than it does to oppose faith in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit to one another. There is no either/or here; it is both/and.
The Catholic view of being “born again”
Following the New Testament use of the term, the Catholic Church links regeneration or being “born again” in the life of the Spirit to the sacrament of baptism (CCC, nos. 1215,1265-1266). Baptism is not a mere human “work” one does to “earn” regeneration and divine sonship; it is the work of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, which, by grace, washes away sin and makes us children of God. It is central to the Catholic understanding of justification by grace. For justification is, as the Council of Trent taught, “a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ” (Session 6, chapter 4). Baptism is an instrumental means by which God graciously justifies–that is, regenerates–sinners through faith in Jesus Christ and makes them children of God.
Catholic teaching is not opposed to a “religious experience” of conversion accompanying baptism (of adults)–far from it. But such an “experience” is not required. What is required for baptism to be fruitful (for an adult) is repentance from sin and faith in Christ, of which baptism is the sacrament (CCC, no. 1253). These are grace-enabled acts of the will that are not necessarily accompanied by feelings of being “born again.” Regeneration rests on the divinely established fact of incorporation and regeneration in Christ, not on feelings one way or the other.
This point can be driven home to Evangelicals by drawing on a point they often emphasize in a related context. Evangelicals often say that the act of having accepted Christ as “personal Savior and Lord” is the important thing, not whether feelings accompany that act. It is, they say, faith that matters, not feelings. Believe by faith that Christ is the Savior and the appropriate feelings, they say, will eventually follow. But even if they do not, what counts is the fact of having taken Christ as Savior.
Catholics can say something similar regarding baptism. The man who is baptized may not “feel” any different after baptism than before. But once he is baptized, he has received the Holy Spirit in a special way. He has been regenerated and made a child of God through the divine sonship of Jesus Christ in which he shares. He has been buried with Christ and raised to new life with Him. He has objectively and publicly identified himself with Jesus’ death and resurrection. If the newly baptized man meditates on these things, he may or may not “feel” them, in the sense of some subjective religious experience. Nevertheless, he will believe them to be true by faith. And he will have the benefits of baptism into Christ nonetheless.
A “born again” Christian?
When Fundamentalists call themselves “born again Christians,” they want to stress an experience of having entered into a genuine spiritual relationship with Christ as Savior and Lord, in contradistinction to unbelief or a mere nominal Christianity. As we have seen, though, the term “born again” and its parallel terms “new birth” and “regeneration” are used by Jesus and the New Testament writers to refer to the forgiveness of sins and inner renewal of the Holy Spirit signified and brought about by Christ through baptism.
How, then, should a Catholic answer the question, “Have you been born again?” An accurate answer would be, “Yes, I was born again in baptism.” Yet leaving it at that may generate even more confusion. Most Fundamentalists would probably understand the Catholic to mean, “I’m going to heaven simply because I’m baptized.” In other words, the Fundamentalist would think the Catholic is “trusting in his baptism” rather than Christ, whereas the informed Catholic knows it means trusting in Christ with whom he is united in baptism.
The Catholic, then, should do more than simply point to his baptism; he should discuss his living faith, trust and love of Christ; his desire to grow in sanctity and conformity to Christ; and his total dependence on Christ for salvation. These are integral to the new life of the Holy Spirit that baptism bestows. When the Fundamentalist sees the link between baptism and the Holy Spirit in the life of his Catholic neighbor, he may begin to see that St. Paul was more than figurative when he wrote, “You were buried with Christ in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12).
This article originally appeared in The Catholic Faith (November/December 1999), pages 15-18.