Are you “born again”??? That is one of the most commonly asked questions whenever an Evangelical meets a Catholic. A typical response from a Catholic will be their eyes glazing over; a few stammering mumbled words, and a quick change of the subject. The question does not make much sense to a Catholic…the phrase itself is not really in the Catholic lexicon.
The problem here is that Evangelicals and Catholics are defining the phrase “born again” two entirely different ways.
To an Evangelical the phrase means “to have a conversion experience” in which someone commits their very being to Christ. And in making that interior conversion they oftentimes, in keeping with the traditions of Evangelical churches, will say the “Sinners Prayer” in which they publicly confess their repentance from sin and their acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior.
A Catholic will wholeheartedly agree that in order to be saved a person MUST have an interior conversion to Christ. A person MUST also repent of their sins and make Christ their Lord and Savior. So Catholics and Evangelicals can agree on that aspect of salvation.
But…to Catholics the phrase “born again” means something other than having a conversion experience.
In fact, if you read much history you will quickly discover that it was only in the last couple of centuries that ANYONE ever connected a conversion experience to the phrase “born again.” It is the observation of this writer that Evangelicals hijacked that term and redefined it.
Ever since the Apostolic era the phrase “born again” was always applied to the concept of baptismal regeneration. That is the unanimous witness of the Early Church (For evidence to back this up please see this link: born again). But since most Evangelicals do not believe that we are regenerated through baptism, they sought a new meaning to the biblical phrase. And hence they began, less than two centuries ago, to apply the term to a conversion experience.
So this begs the obvious question: What is a Christian? Well…a Christian is someone who is joined by grace to Christ. All Christians can agree on that. So now the next question becomes: How does one enter into the New Covenant and so be joined by grace to Christ?
And here we can look to Scripture to give us the answer. All Christians (both Catholic and non-Catholic alike) believe that the Old Covenant foreshadowed the New Covenant. We agree that the Old points to something that is Reality in the New. For example…the rite of circumcision was how one entered into the Old Covenant. Nobody disagrees with that. When a person (usually when they were eight days old unless the individual was a Gentile convert to Judaism) was circumcised they were then joined into the covenantal family of God.
So, if circumcision foreshadows something in the New Covenant…what was it?
According to St. Paul, in Col 2:11-12, circumcision was replaced with Baptism in the New Covenant:
11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
And so we can see that Christians are circumcised in a special way: in the circumcision of Christ when we are buried with Him in baptism. Therefore, circumcision foreshadowed baptism. And if that is the case then it follows that whereas one entered into the Old Covenant via circumcision one now enters into the New Covenant via baptism. And this fits perfectly with the passage cited above. For St. Paul is telling his readers that in baptism we are “buried WITH Christ” so that when God “raised” Him from the dead we too (meaning those who were first buried with Him in baptism) can rise AGAIN.
This theme is also seen quite clearly in Romans 6:4 in which St. Paul says:
“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.”
And here we can see that a person who is born physically alive but spiritually fallen and dead can be regenerated into new life. How? By being baptized INTO the death of Christ – by being mysteriously joined to Him in death – so that by the power of the Father through the working of the Holy Spirit – when Christ is raised from the dead we too will rise WITH Him into “newness of life.”
Newness of life = born again. Get the connection?
Now this presents some great difficulties for Evangelicals who claim that we are born again ONLY by a conversion experience BEFORE we are baptized (a baptism only being seen as an after-the-fact symbolic-only act of obedience).
Simply stated, it is because if we are born again by our conversion experience before baptism, then it renders Paul’s words as absurd. One cannot be “born again” BEFORE one is buried into death can one? If we are born again (in a conversion experience) and then afterwards are baptized into the death of Christ (wow that second life sure was short) and then rise again in “newness of life” does that mean that we are born again – again??? Are we born a third time?
And so the term “born again” has ALWAYS meant to all Christians everywhere (until the modern era in which Evangelicals – primarily in America – hijacked the term) to refer to baptismal regeneration. That was what Jesus was referring to when, in John 3:5, He spoke of the necessity of being born again of “water AND the spirit.” That is also why Peter said that “baptism now saves” us (1 Peter 3:21). Simply stated, we are saved ONLY by the grace we receive in the New Covenant and the New Covenant is entered into via baptism. * See Footnote below.
All that being said, we are NOT saying that if we are baptized that we are therefore automatically saved no matter what. No. For we also teach that those of us old enough to know and understand the Lord – and hence old enough to actually sin and rupture our relationship with God – we MUST also be conformed to Christ. We MUST be interiorly converted to Christ. We must repent of our sins and we must walk in His footsteps making Him our personal Lord and Savior.
And so both Catholics and Evangelicals agree that we must be converted and we must be born again…but how it is that we define the phrase itself is under dispute in this modern era.
So, are baptized Catholics “born again”? Yes. Are they saved merely by their baptism even if they have not converted their lives to Christ? No. Both are necessary to salvation.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, in Mark 16:16, said as much when He said this:
“He who believes and is baptize will be saved…”
Faith AND baptism are both necessary, no matter in what order they manifest themselves.
* Footnote: This is ordinarily through Sacramental Baptism via the direct ministry of the Church, but, in extraordinary circumstances, one can also be baptized in a non-sacramental manner that is mysterious to us via “The baptism of desire” (the Good Thief would have desired baptism if he had been allowed) or “The baptism of blood” (some of the Christian martyrs went to their deaths without having been sacramentally baptized). In such cases Jesus Himself will baptize those whom the Church cannot even though sacramental baptism through the ministry of the Church is the norm and the expressed design of Christ.
By Robert Klaus