Catholics and Protestants agree that to be saved, you have to be born again. Jesus said so: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
When a Catholic says that he has been “born again,” he refers to the transformation that God’s grace accomplished in him during baptism. Evangelical Protestants typically mean something quite different when they talk about being “born again.”
For an Evangelical, becoming “born again” often happens like this: He goes to a crusade or a revival where a minister delivers a sermon telling him of his need to be “born again.”
“If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and believe he died for your sins, you’ll be born again!” says the preacher. So the gentleman makes “a decision for Christ” and at the altar call goes forward to be led in “the sinner’s prayer” by the minister. Then the minister tells all who prayed the sinner’s prayer that they have been saved—”born again.” But is the minister right? Not according to the Bible.
The Names of the New Birth
Regeneration (being “born again”) is the transformation from death to life that occurs in our souls when we first come to God and are justified. He washes us clean of our sins and gives us a new nature, breaking the power of sin over us so that we will no longer be its slaves, but its enemies, who must fight it as part of the Christian life (cf. Rom. 6:1–22; Eph. 6:11–17). To understand the biblical teaching of being born again, we must understand the terms it uses to refer to this event.
The term “born again” may not appear in the Bible. The Greek phrase often translated “born again” (gennatha anothen) occurs twice in the Bible—John 3:3 and 3:7—and there is a question of how it should be translated. The Greek word anothen sometimes can be translated “again,” but in the New Testament, it most often means “from above.” In the King James Version, the only two times it is translated “again” are in John 3:3 and 3:7; every other time it is given a different rendering.
Another term is “regeneration.” When referring to something that occurs in the life of an individual believer, it only appears in Titus 3:5. In other passages, the new birth phenomenon is also described as receiving new life (Rom. 6:4), receiving the circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:29; Col. 2:11–12), and becoming a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15).
Regeneration in John 3
These different ways of talking about being “born again” describe effects of baptism, which Christ speaks of in John 3:5 as being “born of water and the Spirit.” In Greek, this phrase is, literally, “born of water and Spirit,” indicating one birth of water-and-Spirit, rather than “born of water and of the Spirit,” as though it meant two different births—one birth of water and one birth of the Spirit.
In the water-and-Spirit rebirth that takes place at baptism, the repentant sinner is transformed from a state of sin to the state of grace. Peter mentioned this transformation from sin to grace when he exhorted people to “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” (Acts 2:38).
The context of Jesus’ statements in John 3 makes it clear that he was referring to water baptism. Shortly before Jesus teaches Nicodemus about the necessity and regenerating effect of baptism, he himself was baptized by John the Baptist, and the circumstances are striking: Jesus goes down into the water, and as he is baptized, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove, and the voice of God the Father speaks from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son” (cf. Matt. 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22; John 1:30–34). This scene gives us a graphic depiction of what happens at baptism: We are baptized with water, symbolizing our dying with Christ (Rom. 6:3) and our rising with Christ to the newness of life (Rom. 6:4–5); we receive the gift of sanctifying grace and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27); and we are adopted as God’s sons (Rom. 8:15–17).
After our Lord’s teaching that it is necessary for salvation to be born from above by water and the Spirit (John 3:1–21), “Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized” (John 3:22).
Then we have the witness of the early Church that John 3:5 refers to baptismal regeneration. This was universally recognized by the early Christians. The Church Fathers were unanimous in teaching this:
In A.D. 151, Justin Martyr wrote, “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true . . . are brought by us where there is water and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.” (First Apology 61).
Around 190, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, wrote, “And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes” (Fragment 34).
In the year 252, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, said that when those becoming Christians “receive also the baptism of the Church . . . then finally can they be fully sanctified and be the sons of God . . . since it is written, ‘Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’ [John 3:5]” (Letters 71:1).
Augustine wrote, “no one becomes a member of Christ except it be either by baptism in Christ or death for Christ” (On the Soul and Its Origin 1:10 [A.D. 419]).
Augustine also taught, “The water, therefore, manifesting exteriorly the sacrament of grace, and the Spirit effecting interiorly the benefit of grace, both regenerate in one Christ that man who was generated in Adam” (Letters 98:2 [A.D. 408]).
Regeneration in the New Testament
The truth that regeneration comes through baptism is confirmed elsewhere in the Bible. Paul reminds us in Titus 3:5 that God “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.”
Paul also said, “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” (Rom. 6:3–4).
This teaching—that baptism unites us with Christ’s death and resurrection so that we might die to sin and receive new life—is a key part of Paul’s theology. In Colossians 2:11–13, he tells us, “In [Christ] you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision [of] Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God” (NIV).
The Effects of Baptism
Often people miss the fact that baptism gives us new life/new birth because they have an impoverished view of the grace God gives us through baptism, which they think is a mere symbol. But Scripture is clear that baptism is much more than a mere symbol.
In Acts 2:38, Peter tells us, “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.” When Paul was converted, he was told, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
Peter also said, “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 Pet. 3:20–21). Peter says that, as in the time of the flood, when eight people were “saved through water,” so for Christians, “[b]aptism . . . now saves you.”
Protestants on Regeneration
Martin Luther wrote in his Short Catechism that baptism “works the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal life to all who believe.” His recognition that the Bible teaches baptismal regeneration has been preserved by Lutherans and a few other Protestant denominations.
Nevertheless, many Protestants have abandoned this biblical teaching, substituting man-made theories on regeneration. There are two main views held by those who deny the scriptural teaching that one is born again through baptism: the “Evangelical” view, common among Baptists, and the “Calvinist” view, common among Presbyterians.
Evangelicals claim that one is born again at the first moment of faith in Christ. According to this theory, faith in Christ produces regeneration. The Calvinist position is the reverse: Regeneration precedes and produces faith in Christ. Calvinists (some of whom also call themselves Evangelicals) suppose that God “secretly” regenerates people, without their being aware of it, and this causes them to place their faith in Christ.
To defend these theories, Evangelicals and Calvinists try to deal with the many verses where new life is attributed to baptism either by ignoring them or by arguing that it is not actually water baptism that is being spoken of. The problem for them is that water is explicitly mentioned or implied in each of these verses.
In Acts 2:38, people are exhorted to take an action: “Be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ,” which does not refer to an internal baptism that is administered to people by themselves, but the external baptism administered to them by others.
We are told that at Paul’s conversion, “he rose and was baptized, and took food and was strengthened. For several days he was with the disciples at Damascus” (Acts 9:18–19). This was a water baptism. In Romans 6 and Colossians 2, Paul reminds his readers of their water baptisms, and he neither says nor implies anything about some sort of “invisible spiritual baptism.”
In 1 Peter 3, water is mentioned twice, paralleling baptism with the flood, where eight were “saved through water,” and noting that “baptism now saves you” by the power of Christ rather than by the physical action of water “removing . . . dirt from the body.”
The anti-baptismal regeneration position has no biblical basis whatsoever. So the answer to the question, “Are Catholics born again?” is yes! Since all Catholics have been baptized, all Catholics have been born again. Catholics should ask Protestants, “Are you born again—the way the Bible understands that concept?” If the Evangelical has not been properly water baptized, he has not been born again “the Bible way,” regardless of what he may think.
NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004