Evangelical Christians often enjoy asking cradle Catholics if they have been, “born again”. If you ask them what they mean by “born again”, you will more than likely get an answer like this: “You are born again when you believe in Jesus Christ and put your faith in Him. To be born again you should pray the Sinner’s Prayer, and ask Christ to come into your heart.” This question, and its explanation, frequently confuses Catholics, many of whom aren’t quite sure how to respond. Often they will simply stand there with their mouth ajar and a blank stare on their face. Evangelical Christians love this response. “Aha!” they think, “I knew it! Catholic’s aren’t even Christians!”
I know of at least one Catholic however who has the perfect response. Steve Ray, a Catholic author, speaker, and certified guide to the Holy Land answers,
“When someone asks me ‘Have you been born again?’ I simply answer ‘Absolutely! But I’ve been born again the Bible Way!’“
Let me tell you from first hand experience, when an evangelical Christian is told by a Catholic that they have been born again the “bible way” it tends to confuse them. They often simply stand there with their mouth ajar and a blank stare on their face. After all, they’re used to calling themselves the “bible” Christians.
The problem with the common evangelical conception of being born again is just this: it is entirely un-biblical.
Allow me to illustrate. Please direct me to where I can find the “Sinner’s Prayer” in the bible.
No? Then please refer me to the verses which talk about, “asking Jesus into your heart”.
Coming forward after an altar call?
Hmmm…it would appear that we have a problem…
Before anyone gets their feathers ruffled, I want to take a step back for a moment and admit something. I don’t have a problem with the sinner’s prayer per se. I don’t even have a problem if we visualize welcoming Christ, “into our hearts”. But, we should be clear that these practices certainly do not come from the bible alone – something that Protestants typically insist on. Furthermore, when we look to the Scriptures, we find that these things actually have nothing to do with the practice of being born again as described by Christ Himself.
Believe and Be Baptized
I was [briefly] talking with one of my sisters the other day about baptism. She and her family are helping to lead a small group at the Baptist church that they attend. They are working with a new family who want to become members of the church, but are struggling with the fact that they will be required to be re-baptized before becoming members. The wife of this family was christened as an infant in the Lutheran church that she grew up in, and for the life of her, she can’t understand why she is now being told that her baptism wasn’t valid.
My sister told me, “I know that we won’t agree on this issue, but in our church it is necessary that one be baptized as an adult. We’ve explained to her that baptism doesn’t save you, it is only an outward sign of an inward reality.”
At this point I asked her, “Where does the bible say that?”
She replied, “Over and over again we see the words, ‘believe and be baptized, believe and be baptized.’ It is our belief which saves us, the baptism is merely an outward sign of what has already occurred inwardly. With the exception of maybe one passage in the bible, the only people we see being baptized are adults. Since infants can’t possibly believe, they shouldn’t be baptized.”
Since this particular issue wasn’t really the point of our conversation, and since we both knew that we didn’t see eye to eye on the subject, we didn’t really linger on the topic. But it did get me thinking. Because for the vast majority of my life I would have agreed with her statements, and until even very recently I would have probably asked the question, “Is it really that important whether or not we as Christians agree on this issue?”
The answer, of course, is, “It depends.”
If baptism is only symbolic – if it doesn’t really do anything, then no – it doesn’t really matter all that much. This is the position that the vast majority of Protestant Christians have taken. Baptism is only a symbol. Baptism is not necessary for salvation. Of course, for me this only leads to the following question:
Why is it that this purely symbolic non-necessary action requires adult belief to be “valid”? Valid in what sense? A valid symbol?
If on the other hand baptism in not merely symbolic but also efficacious (causing an effect) – If in other words, in addition to being symbolic it also does what it says it does – then yes, it vitally important that we understand and agree on the necessity of baptism; especially as it relates to being born again.
Both Protestants and Catholics appear to largely agree on the symbolic nature of baptism. Where they tend to disagree is on the question of whether or not baptism also actually does anything. While resonating with the idea of baptism as, “an outward sign of an inward reality”, Catholics are careful to note that the sacraments are, “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”1 So what exactly does baptism claim to do from a Scriptural standpoint? Let’s take a look.
- “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins;'”2
- “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”3
- “Baptism,… now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,”4
It seems relatively clear from a Scriptural standpoint that baptism is not merely symbolic but that it also does something – namely wash us of our sins and save us. In fact, to come full circle back to where we began, as it turns out Baptism is the biblical method for being born again!
Born Again the Bible Way!
Many will be surprised to learn that the only biblical use of the term “born again” occurs in John 3:3-5. We do however, see similar and related expressions such as “new birth” or “regeneration” found elsewhere in Scripture.5 With that in mind however, it may be useful to turn to John chapter 3 and look at the term “born again” in its rightful context.
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicode′mus 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.”6
What could Christ have meant when He spoke of being born of, “water and Spirit”? To answer the question we could turn back a few short verses and read the account of Jesus’ own baptism:
And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”7
John, who baptized with water, here testifies of Christ who has come not just to baptize with water, but also with the Holy Spirit. This makes perfect sense of Christ’s words to Nicodemus that one must be, “born of water and the Spirit.”
Or we could continue reading the verses immediately following Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus when the text goes on to say, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized.”8
Either way, we will see that the context of new birth – what Jesus refers to as being, “born again”, is entirely about baptism – both by water and the Spirit. This is reinforced throughout the New Testament in texts such as Titus 3:5 which reads, “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,”
Indeed this typology – the new birth of water and Spirit – is repeated over and over throughout all of Scripture, beginning with the very creation account in Genesis! “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.“9 Here we see the earth, and indeed all of creation, born of water and Spirit. In a similar way when the earth is reborn after the flood we also see it born anew (or born-again) by water and Spirit. “the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; …He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; and the dove [a symbol of the Holy Spirit] came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.”10
St. Peter himself draws our attention to this connection between Noah’s flood and baptism when he writes, “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,”11
The nation of Israel was born of water and the Spirit as they passed through the Red Sea, led by the Spirit of God as a pillar of fire or cloud.12 God promises a rebirth for the nation of Israel and a New Covenant saying, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, …A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you;”13 Again, the cleansing of water and the gift of the Spirit.
Christ is baptized by John in water and the Spirit descends (like a dove) upon His head,14 and He then teaches Nicodemus that unless we are born of water and Spirit we will not enter the kingdom of God.
This is, and always has been the prescription for new birth. It is why He commissions His disciples to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you;”15 Did you notice that He doesn’t instruct them to lead others in the sinner’s prayer? Or instruct them to use altar calls, inviting people forward to ask Jesus into their hearts? They are to create disciples by baptizing and then they are to teach them to obey all that Christ commands. I fear that too many Christians have strayed far afield from the instructions of this commission.
But it is because of this commission that St. Peter tells the crowd, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”16
Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Born again the bible way!
This Promise is to You and Your Children
But isn’t belief a necessary component of being baptized? Contrary to what most Protestants think, I could only find a single scriptural reference which directly links the two: Mark 16:16 “He who believes and is baptized will be saved;”
The vast majority of verses dealing with baptism speak far more of repentance than belief. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that belief shouldn’t be a part of an adult conversion, but as St. Peter points out, “the promise is to you and your children…” and we see this reflected in multiple places in the book of the Acts of the Apostles and in St. Paul’s writings.
- “And when she was baptized, with her household, she besought us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’17
- “And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family.”18
- “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.”19
- “I did baptize also the household of Stephanas”20
Additionally, there are many places where Acts records crowds of thousands being baptized without telling us who is in the crowd. In contrast to this,
Nowhere in the Scriptures do we see a prohibition against baptizing infants.
Obviously, the first converts to Christianity were adults. For them conversion consisted of belief and repentance which culminated in the new birth of baptism and the Spirit. But, as these early converts had children it was natural for them to initiate their children into the family of God; into this new life and second birth. It is Christ who teaches us that unless one is born again, “he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” and it is also Christ who asserts that the kingdom of God belongs to the children – who are we to keep them from it?
Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”21
Reflecting on this, St. Augustine said, “Who is so wicked as to want to exclude infants from the kingdom of heaven by prohibiting their being baptized and born again in Christ?”
St. Paul teaches that baptism replaces the circumcision of the Old Covenant,22 and we should note that the Jews circumcised their infants on the eighth day after birth. In fact, in the early Church the argument wasn’t over whether or not infants should be baptized, but rather over whether or not parents had to wait a full eight days before baptizing their babies! The Council of Carthage, in AD 253, condemned the opinion that baptism should be withheld from infants until the eighth day after birth arguing that requiring parents to wait that long before baptizing their infant was waiting too long!
Origen wrote that, “according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants.”23 and later, Augustine taught, “The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned . . . nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic.”24
Circumcision was the rite of initiation into the Old Covenant; Baptism the rite of initiation into the New. From the earliest days of the Church, Christians everywhere have followed suit, baptizing their infants into the New Covenant, into God’s family, and into new life as they are washed clean of the stain of original sin.
Finally, we should remember that Scripture teaches that baptism is the means of new birth, of being born again, and a new birth by definition is a beginning – not the end. Those who believe in a doctrine of, “once saved, always saved” often equate salvation with a mere intellectual assent to the truth along with a simple prayer of faith. In their view this prayer of faith is both the beginning and the end. They’ve been saved! Process complete!
But salvation (as the bible teaches it) merely begins as we are born again to new life in the waters of baptism and the indwelling of God’s Spirit. The stain of original sin is removed, grace is imparted, and another soul has been welcomed through adoption into the family of God!
But, this is only the beginning of the process – not it’s end! How foolish we’d appear if we were to look at a newborn and say, “Well, that’s it! You’ve arrived! Well done, now just sit back and relax, the hard part is over!” In some ways that may be true, but in many more ways the hardest parts are still to come. The hard work of sanctification is now before us!
It is because Catholics believe so fully in the grace of God alone that we are willing to baptize our infants who are completely unable to earn their salvation – even by putting their faith in God.
It is because Catholics believe that salvation is also a process that we acknowledge that this new life will still require the individual to, “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling;” because having been born anew, “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”25
Amen! Welcome to the beginning!
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Catechism of the Catholic Church 1131 ↩
Acts 2:38a ↩
Acts 22:16 ↩
1 Peter 3:21 ↩
Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3, 23 ↩
John 3:3-5 ↩
John 1:31-34 ↩
John 3:22 ↩
Genesis 1:2 ↩
Genesis 8:2-3, 10-11 ↩
1 Peter 3:20b-21 ↩
Exodus 13,14 & CF 1 Corinthians 10:2 ↩
Ezekiel 36:25-26a ↩
Matthew 3:16, John 1:29 ↩
Matthew 28:19-20b ↩
Acts 2:38b-39 ↩
Acts 16:15a ↩
Acts 16:33 ↩
Acts 18:8 ↩
1 Corinthians 1:16 ↩
Luke 15:16-18 ↩
Colossians 2:11-12 ↩
Origen, Holilies on Leviticus, 8:3:11 [A.D. 244] ↩
Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39 [A.D. 408] ↩
Philippians 2:12b-13 ↩