Are Catholics Born Again? | Mark Brumley | IgnatiusInsight.com
Are Catholics Born Again? | Mark Brumley | IgnatiusInsight.com
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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Mark Brumley is President of
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