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Are Catholics Born Again?: Reclaiming the New Birth

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Are Catholics born again? Are Orthodox born again? Most definitely, at least as the term "born again" has been understood unanimously by Christians all over the world for over 2,000 years. This article, using Scripture and history, explains what it means to be born again, and why in the last 200 years being "born again" has taken on a meaning in many Christian denominations that is so far away from the original meaning that it almost means the exact opposite of what it once did!

"I'm a Christian"

"Oh, well then are you a born again Christian?"

This conversation, or one in a slightly different form, is one that nearly every Christian will experience in his or her life. In the minds of many today there are two types of Christians, the "born again" Christian, and the average Christian whose salvation is typically questioned. Becoming born again has become a point of division, a line between true blue believers and the rest: "lukewarm" Christians, Orthodox, and Catholics. It has become so technical and loaded with baggage that many Christians don't want to be considered born again.

What in the world does "born again" even mean? Although the theme of new life is found throughout the Scriptures, most people base their theology on Jesus' words in John 3:3: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (RSV-CE). Being "born again" typically is taken to mean accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior, having a personal salvation experience, and believing fundamentalist or evangelical theology. Thus, many Christians who do not view their faith in this way or accept a different theology would not be considered "born again." I think this is unfair and this article will look at another way of defining "born again," the way it has been viewed since the beginnings of Christianity until the present. Ironically, the original definition is nearly the complete opposite of the way the term is used today. In short, this article will be about reclaiming the phrase "born again" from the meaning it has taken on recently.

I want to start with an examination of the original verse in John and look at its context. Here is the story from John 3:

This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him." Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "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 anew.' The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can this be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (RSV-CE).

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Water Flowing, photographed by David Bennett

This passage, like much of John's work is intentionally ambiguous in the Greek. For example, look at the use of the words "spirit" and "wind" in the text. Both are the same Greek word: pneuma. The same is true of the word for "again," which is anothen. It can mean, "from above," "from the beginning," "for a long time," or "again" (1). In fact, most modern translations render the words of Jesus as: "you must be born from above." Perhaps John's ambiguity serves to invite the reader to associate the idea of rebirth with its source (i.e. Christ, who has come from above). Maybe John wants us to avoid thinking of the issue in a manner that is too well defined. I think it's important to discuss this to show that Christians can develop technical language like "born again" when in reality the original meaning of the word is less technical, broader and even mystical. Nicodemus even attempted to steer Jesus' enigmatic words towards an overly literal understanding when Nicodemus likened it to literally going back in his mother's womb.

Jesus also says that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. It is interesting because the language here is almost exactly the same as the language used when Jesus refers to being "born again. He says that no one can see the kingdom of God without being "born again" and no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. It seems that Jesus is connecting being born again (or from above) to being born of water and the Spirit. This is exactly what the early Church thought and represents the doctrine known as "baptismal regeneration," the view that one is born anew at baptism. Traditionally the Church has believed that at baptism one is born again, becomes a joint heir with Christ, and a member of Christ's Church. John's Gospel is not the only Scripture that supports this view, Titus 3:4-7 states:

...but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life. (RSV-CE)

Let's look at this verse for a second. God saves us, not by works, but by mercy, through the Spirit and water of rebirth. And this is all through God's grace! Thus, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration doesn't constitute a "work" or human agency, but God's method of dispensing grace. God does the saving, he has just chosen baptism as the means to do it.

Baptism was not performed lightly in the early Church because of it's unique character. In preparation for baptism one was baptized in the name of the Trinity and would confess Jesus as Lord and Savior and affirm the faith outlined in the Apostle's Creed (or a primitive form of it).

The evidence for the use of born again to refer to baptism is especially strong in the Church fathers. Baptism was universally believed to be the agent of new birth. Here are some quotes from some prominent Christians throughout the centuries:

Shepherd of Hermas
"Before a man bears the name of the Son of God, he is dead. But when he receives the seal he lays aside his deadness and obtains life. The seal then is the water. They descend into the water dead and they arise alive." (AD 150)

St. Justin Martyr
"At our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, but by our parents coming together...In order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the Universe...And in the name of Jesus Christ...and in the name of the Holy Spirit." (emphasis mine) Justin Martyr (AD 160)

St. Irenaeus of Lyons
"For as we are lepers in sin we are made clean from our old transgressions by means of sacred water and the invocation of the Lord. We are spiritually regenerated as new born babes just as the Lord has declared: 'Unless a man is born again through water and the Spirit, he will not enter into the Kingdom of God.'" (emphasis mine) (AD 180)

St. Cyprian
"Unless a man has been baptized and born again he cannot attain unto the kingdom of God. In the Gospel according to John: 'unless a man is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.'" Cyprian (AD 250) (2)

There is no point in quoting more Church Fathers because there is not one who associated new birth with anything other than baptism. There is not a mainstream Christian theologian who denied baptismal regeneration until the Reformation and even among the Reformers only Zwingli, Calvin, and the Anabaptists fit into this category. Ok, but what about the major Christian Churches today? What do they think about being "born again?" Let's have a look.

Catholicism (from the Catechism)
1214: This sacrament is called Baptism, after the central rite by which it is carried out: to baptize (Greek baptizein) means to "plunge" or "immerse"; the "plunge" into the water symbolizes the catechumen's burial into Christ's death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him, as "a new creature."

1215: This sacrament is also called "the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit," for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one "can enter the kingdom of God" (3).

Eastern Orthodoxy (From www.goarch.org)
The Sacrament of Baptism incorporates us into the Church, the Body of Christ, and is our introduction to the life of the Holy Trinity. Water is a natural symbol of cleansing and newness of life. Through the three-fold immersion in the waters of Baptism in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one dies to the old ways of sin and is born to a new life in Christ (4).

Anglican/Episcopal/Church of England
Article 27: Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. (emphasis mine) (39 Articles of the Church of England)

(Prayer after one is baptized) Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ's Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits; and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this Child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning. (The 1662 Book of Common Prayer)

Lutheran (From Luther's Small Catechism)
What benefits does Baptism give?
It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

How can water do such great things?
Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God's word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying" (Titus 3:5:8) (5).

United Methodist
Article 17: Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The Baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church. (Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church).

Baptismal Font, photographed by Jonathan Bennett

Thus, you can see that not only do the Church fathers and Catholics associate baptism with new birth and being born again, but so do five of the biggest representatives of the Christian Church. Although many will object to the idea of baptismal regeneration because it detracts from grace or constitutes a "work," this objection is answered in Titus 3:8. Even Martin Luther, that paragon of "faith alone" justification believed strongly in baptismal regeneration. So, the two are not mutually exclusive. The Church has always believed that God gives his grace through sacraments, including baptism, where we are born again. It is not a human work because it is done solely as the work of God, although God's grace does come through the physical (i.e. the priest/minister and water) (See the article on Sacraments). It is not an intellectual act or a mere profession of faith, but a profound mystery of our new birth as children of God. It is something we experience and divinely receive, more than something we know or conceive of intellectually.

I want to make a couple of brief comments so I don't give anyone reading this the wrong impression. First of all, I'm not against people having what is often called a "conversion experience." We all come to a point where we need to renew our faith or recommit ourselves to God. Also, God sometimes works in incredible ways. Many Saints have had profound conversion experiences (e.g. St. Paul, St. Augustine). However, when it comes to new birth the Scriptures and the historical Church have taught this comes through baptism, even if these profound spiritual moments lead one to seek baptism or occur after it. Although those experiences can be meaningful, they are essentially a subjective act (even other faiths have such experiences). Baptism is not a subjective experience (although we can have profound emotional experiences at baptism), but a guaranteed means of grace where we are born again among other spiritual blessings.

Secondly, people often think Catholics believe any unbaptized person is automatically hellbound. This is a profound misunderstanding of Catholic thought. Baptism is the normative way God works regeneration in the Church. There are exceptions, however, for unique situations. If a person dies for his or her faith before being baptized, that person is saved (called baptism of blood). Also, those catechumens who have faith in Jesus, live in charity, and repent of their sins but are truly unable to receive the Sacrament will receive the grace of salvation (sometimes called "baptism by desire"). However, God has chosen baptism as a normal way to effect new birth.

Baptism, however, is not magic. It is first and foremost a Sacrament of faith, whether of the parents, godparents, and community on behalf of a child or the individual being baptized. Similarly, it is not a "get into heaven free card" for those who are baptized as infants, but never seek to live out their calling to serve God. Baptism is the beginning of faith, not the end of it. The term "rebirth" itself implies the start of something new. Also, even though baptism forgives sin and makes one reborn, it is not a blank check for sin. When we sin, we must confess our sins, especially confessing a mortal sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

So, let's look again at what it means to be born again and compare the modern and the traditional definition. Here is a comparison:

Modern: an action where one confesses and accepts Jesus as his personal savior and has a subjective salvation experience. One who is born again will then usually adhere to a fundamentalistic theology. Being born again distinguishes a person from other Christians who are not born again; it is a dividing line between so called genuine and fake Christians.

Ancient/historical: a corporate action where one is baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ and into the Church. Through the water God's grace is given to the person and he/she is a new creature. The one being baptized confesses the Catholic faith in the Apostle's Creed. Since the Church is a community of baptized believers it is a point of unity among Catholics and between Catholics and other Christians.

Here it is in table form:

Ancient Modern
Sacramental/Mystery Intellectual
Communal Personal
Work of God/Means of Grace Action of the Individual
A Sure Means of Grace Subjective; Open to Interpretation
Historical/Catholic Theology A Church's Particular Theology
Point of Unity Point of Division

I hope this article was helpful. As with all articles on this page, we're not attempting to do apologetics, but to present a point of view to help people better understand the historical position (East and West). I have written this article primarily because I find the word "born again" is taking on a new, technical and even negative meaning and is frequently being rejected by Catholics. I also tire of the division that is created by lumping Christians into the "born again" and "other" categories. I want Catholics to proudly use the term born again, in the historical sense, as a recognition of the profound mystery where we are born anew by water and the Spirit and adopted as children of God.

Footnotes
1. BDAG, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament (Third Edition), University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2000.
2. All of the above quoted from: David Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998.
3. http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/index.htm
4. http://www.goarch.org/en/ourfaith/articles/article7105.asp
5. http://www.lcms.org/president/aboutlcms/bookofconcord/smallcatechism.asp#baptism

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