“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
My mother was Catholic and my father Baptist. My mother was firmly committed, as was my father after serious and prayerful consideration, to raise their children Catholic and baptize us at infancy. Years later I met non-Catholic Christians who would invariably ask me if I had been saved and if I was born again. Of course, the question perplexed me at first, but I had the great advantage of a Baptist father who could explain to me the nature and meaning of their question. Because of his study of the Catholic faith, he was also able to provide a positive explanation consistent with Church teaching.
At first, I did not spend too much time thinking about it. Later, in my mid-teen years, a Billy Graham sponsored crusade came to town and I was asked to participate as a volunteer. Many people do not realize that after the altar-call, those who had committed their lives to Christ would be led in a prayer, information would be gathered, and then they would be directed to representatives of their own “denominations” for “discipling.” My “job” was not official… I was just a “hanger-on”. We were to assist Catholics after the crusade was concluded. Our efforts, you must understand, were not to promote indifferentism, as if the Catholic Church was just one of many choices; they were intended to reach out to Catholics who had questions and needed direction… to lead them firmly into the Catholic Church.
During these follow-up sessions, the question of salvation and being “born again” came up frequently. This was understandable because the Protestant Evangelical crusade followed a set pattern designed to lead people to “belief in Christ” so that they could become “born again Christians”.
From where does “born again” come?
Here was the challenge. Catholics believe in the necessity of being born again (though we did not ordinarily use that term). But, “born again” meant at least two different things – one thing to Catholics and another to Protestants.
In St. John’s Gospel, we read: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
The Greek word translated above as “again” is anothen. It is variously translated for this passage as (a) from above in the (Catholic) New American Bible, (b) anew in the Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition, or (c) again in the King James Version. It is unnecessary to look into this word further for our purposes here. Catholics agree that we must be gennatha (born) anothen, no matter how anothen is translated. Let’s agree that Catholics believe we must be born again.
What is the meaning of “born again”?
According to the Billy Graham Crusade Evangelists:
The crusade was quite good in terms of it inspiring people to make a commitment to Christ – to surrender their lives to the Lord and accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. So far – so good. We know from the teaching of Jesus that not all seed will mature, so there is no need to discuss how committed the commitments were, tested by time. The problem is found in what the leaders and speakers at the crusade meant by becoming “born again”.
The crusade evangelists meant that people needed to make a decision to follow Christ, to believe in Him, to respond to the altar-call when those who committed their lives to Christ would come forward to pray the “sinner’s prayer” – “Dear God, I’m a sinner. I’m sorry for my sins. I want to turn from my sins. I believe that Jesus Christ is your Son. I believe that He died for me. That He rose from the grave. That He’s alive. I want to invite Him to come into my heart to take control. From this day forward forevermore. And I pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen”
Do the above and, according to the crusade evangelists, you would be born again. It is a simple message and John 3 was the focus. But is this understanding supported by John 3? Before we look at that, let’s see the Catholic teaching.
According to Catholic Teaching:
The Catholic teaching on what it means to be “born again” is also simple. A person is born again when he is baptized. Baptism is available to those who profess belief and ask for baptism and to those infants whose parents’ faith leads them to request baptism for their children.
So which teaching is bible-based?
In exploring this question with non-Catholics who say that only the bible can provide the answers, it does little good to quote from the Catechism or even the early Church. They sincerely believe that they have found their answer in Sacred Scripture. This was even true of most of the Catholics I encountered following that crusade years ago. It was necessary to appeal to the bible to reach them, but of course they were also given what the Church teaches and a sampling of testimony from the Early Church Fathers.
The Catholic teaching regarding becoming born again through baptism is found in the bible.
Certainly, much of the preaching and testimony at the crusade was founded on Sacred Scripture, but on the “born again” question, in the context of the opening chapters of St. John’s Gospel and the whole of the Bible, the teaching at the crusade was lacking a biblical foundation. One need only read the first three chapters of the gospel to see that the setting is one of baptism. There are no altar calls or sinner’s prayers in evidence. But there was plenty of baptizing going on as well as a significant symbolic reference to a renewal of baptism.
Already in the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel we encounter baptism.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 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.” (John 1:29-34)
We know from the testimony of the other Gospels that it was during this encounter that Jesus asked John to baptize Him (cf. Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22).
We also can see in John 1:19-2:11 a pattern of 7 days that, in one sense, points to a renewal of creation by Jesus. The allusion to the first creation in the prologue makes this obvious.
In the second chapter of St. John’s Gospel (John 2:1-11), we read of the first sign Jesus performed at the wedding at Cana. We all know the story – Jesus changed water contained in 6 large, stone jars into wine. It is explained in the text that these jars and the water they contained were used in the Jewish Rites of Purification. There are indications here to both the sacrament of the Eucharist and to the sacrament of Baptism. Let’s focus on Baptism. To see the connection, we look to the Old Testament to find the reference to these purification rites. In Numbers 19, we read about how to prepare the lustral waters that were be placed in a vessel and used to purify something or someone who is unclean. We get our word for baptism from a transliteration of the Greek word in the Septuagint translation of Numbers used in connection with the dipping of the hyssop into the lustral waters for the purpose of sprinkling the unclean. That transliteration is baptizo. This was how the unclean were renewed. So we have a powerful allusion to Jewish baptism in this first sign of Jesus.
In the third chapter of St. John’s Gospel, we read the dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus where we find the verse about being born again. Let’s read it in its entirety,
“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.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God” (John 3:3-21).
Following the opening verses of the Gospel concerning renewing the original, fallen creation… following St. John the Baptist’s baptizing of the people, including Jesus… and following the strong reference to the renewal of the Jewish Rite of Purification by baptism contained in the sign performed by Christ at Cana… we arrive at this exchange with Nicodemus, Christ speaking of the renewal of the person. Is it not obvious that the context in which Jesus gave His discourse to Nicodemus is that of baptism? If it is not obvious enough, this episode is immediately followed by this passage:
“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people came and were baptized. For John had not yet been put in prison.
“Now a discussion arose between John’s disciples and a Jew over purifying. And they came to John, and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease’” (John 3:22-30).
Wrapped completely around the verses regarding being born again, is baptism, baptism and more baptism. St. John’s Gospel is filled with sacramental theology. The signs performed by Jesus are related to us to teach that the Christ has come to fulfill and renew the old with the new. Jesus does not dismiss baptism as unnecessary; He renews it and institutes the Christian sacrament that is His work in our time.
Additional Testimony Confirming the Catholic Teaching on Baptism
Let’s close with just three additional testimonies concerning baptism and born again.
First, from Sacred Scripture: “…who formerly did not obey, when 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…” (1 Peter 3:20-21)
Second, from St. Augustine: “Truth, by the mouth of Itself incarnate, proclaims as if in a voice of thunder: ‘Unless a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ (John 3:5) And in order to except martyrs from this sentence, to whose lot it has fallen to be slain for the name of Christ before being washed in the baptism of Christ, He says in another passage, ‘He that loses his life for my sake shall find it (Matthew 10:39).’” (St. Augustine on The Soul and Its Origins)
And finally, we look to the great commission given the apostles by Jesus, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16)
Into the deep…
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Into the Deep by Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™ and usually appears on Sundays.
Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization. He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.
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