“Have you been born again, my friend?” Thousands of Catholics have been asked this question by well-meaning Fundamentalists or Evangelicals. Of course, by “born again” the Protestant usually means: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior through the recitation of ‘the sinner’s prayer?”” How is a Catholic to respond?
The simple Catholic response is: “Yes, I have been born again—when I was baptized.” In fact, Jesus’ famous “born again” discourse of John 3:3-5, which is where we find the words “born again” in Scripture, teaches us about the essential nature of baptism:
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.”
At this point, a Fundamentalist or Evangelical will respond almost predictably: “Baptism does not save you, brother; John 3:5 says we must be born of water and the Spirit.” The Catholic will then be told the “water” of John 3:5 has nothing to do with baptism. Depending on the preference of the one to whom the Catholic is speaking, the “water” will either be interpreted as man’s natural birth (the “water” being amniotic fluid), and “the Spirit” would then represent the new birth, or the water would represent the word of God through which one is born again when he accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior.
Amniotic Fluid vs. Baptismal Water
To claim the “water” of John 3:5 is amniotic fluid is to stretch the context just a smidgen! When we consider the actual words and surrounding context of John 3, the waters of baptism seem to be the more reasonable—and biblical—interpretation. Consider these surrounding texts:
John 1:31-34: Jesus was baptized. If you compare the parallel passage in St. Matthew’s gospel (3:16), you find that when Jesus was baptized, “the heavens were opened” and the Spirit descended upon him. Obviously, this was not because Jesus needed to be baptized. In fact, St. John the Baptist noted that he needed to be baptized by Jesus (see Matthew 3:14)! Jesus was baptized in order “fulfill all righteousness” and “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,” according to Scripture (cf. Matt. 3:15; Luke 1:77). In other words, Jesus demonstrably showed us the way the heavens would be opened to us so that the Holy Spirit would descend upon us… through baptism.
John 2:1-11: Jesus performed his first miracle. He transformed water into wine. Notice, Jesus used water from “six stone jars … for the Jewish rites of purification.” According to the Septuagint as well as the New Testament these purification waters were called baptismoi (see LXX, Numbers 19:9-19; cf. Mark 7:4). We know that Old Testament rites, sacrifices, etc. were only “a shadow of the good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1). They could never take away sins. This may well be why “six” stone jars are specified by St. John—to denote imperfection, or “a human number” (cf. Rev. 13:18). It is interesting to note that Jesus transformed these Old Testament baptismal waters into wine—a symbol of New Covenant perfection (see Joel 3:18; Matthew 9:17).
John 3:22: Immediately after Jesus’ “born again” discourse to Nicodemus, what does He do? "... Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized." It appears he baptized folks. This is the only time in Scripture we find Jesus apparently actually baptizing.
John 4:1-2: Jesus’ disciples then begin to baptize at Jesus’ command. It appears from the text, Jesus most likely only baptized his disciples and then they baptized everyone else.
In summary, Jesus was baptized, transformed the “baptismal” waters, and then gave his famous “born again” discourse. He then baptized before commissioning the apostles to go out and baptize. To deny Jesus was teaching us about baptism in John 3:3-5 is to ignore the clear biblical context.
Moreover, John 3:5 is not describing two events; it describes one event. The text does not say “unless one is born of water and then born again of the Spirit...” It says “unless one is born of water and Spirit...” If we hearken back to the Lord’s own baptism in John 1 and Matt. 3, we notice when our Lord was baptized the Holy Spirit descended simultaneously upon him. This was one event, involving both water and the Spirit. And so it is with our baptism. If we obey God in being baptized—that’s our part of the deal—we can count on God to concurrently “open the heavens” for us and give us the Holy Spirit.
And finally, it would be anachronistic to read into Jesus’ use of “water” to mean physical birth in John’s gospel. In fact, St. John had just used a word to refer to physical birth in John 1:12-13, but it wasn’t “water:”
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
St. John here tells us we are not made children of God by birth (“of blood”), or by our own attempts whether they be through our lower nature (“of the flesh”) or even through the higher powers of our soul (“the will of man”); rather, we must be born of God, or by God’s power. Notice, St. John refers to natural birth colloquially as “of blood,” not “of water.”
Washing of Water by the Word
It is perhaps an even greater stretch to attempt to claim the “water” of John 3:3-5 represents the word of God. At least with the amniotic fluid argument, you have mention of “birth” in the immediate context. However, the Protestant will sometimes refer to Ephesians 5:25-26 and a few other texts to make this point:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word…
“See?” a Protestant may say, “The ‘washing of water’ is here equated to ‘the word’ that cleanses us.” If you couple this text with Jesus’ words in John 15:3, “You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you,” the claim is made, that “the water” of John 3:5 would actually refer to the word of God rather than baptism.
The Catholic Response
Beyond the obvious fact that there is nothing in the context of John's gospel to even remotely point to "water" as referring to "the word," we can point out immediately a point of agreement. Both Catholics and Protestants agree that Jesus’ words—unless one is born anew (or, again)—speak of man’s initial entrance into the body of Christ through God’s grace. Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to ask what the New Testament writers saw as the instrument whereby one first enters into Christ. This would be precisely what we are talking about when we speak of being “born again.”
I Peter 3:20-21: “... 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.”
Romans 6:3-4: "Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life."
Galatians 3:27: "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ."
I Cor. 12:13: "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit (See also Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16 and Col. 2:11-13).
If baptism is the way the unsaved are brought into Christ, no wonder Christ spoke of being “born of water and spirit.” Baptism is the instrument of new birth according to the New Testament.