Are Catholics Born Again?

Did you see this by Deacon Mike Bickerstaff?

My mother was a Catholic and my father was a Baptist. Both were committed, after serious consideration on my father’s part, 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 advantage of a Baptist father who could explain to me the nature and meaning of the questions. Because of his study of the Catholic faith, he was also able to provide a positive explanation consistent with Church teaching….

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….

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.

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….

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)….

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.

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  • Dan

    Yes. I did. I read you, ICL, Shameless Popery, John H. Armstrong, and Called to Communion (it can be long, I try) daily. As a matter of fact, your series on the Gospel of the Kingdom back a few years ago, and NTWright’s new perspective on Paul are exactly what made me feel comfortable with returning to the RCC. The theology of the RCC is strikingly compatible with yours, Wright’s, Armstrong’s, Weber’s, Olson’s, and others whom I am so THANKFUL, that being a part of the RCC just makes perfect sense to me. My heart is with Kingdom focused Reformers, but my head is with the RCC.


  • DRT

    FWIW, I can’t see the difference between the protestant churches baptising kids at 12 +/- 1 or 2 years and anything the Catholics do. Its all the same.

  • Jerry Sather

    Several years ago when I was pastoring in NJ, my associate pastor asked, “What are you doing Friday night?” I said, “Why?” “Come and see,” he said.

    We went to a RCC which had a Friday night “Bible Study” with around 150 people. The priest led a study that night from the Gospel according to Luke, with a clear Catholic perspective. We sat at tables with about 8-10 at each table and stopped periodically to discuss in small groups. At the end of the meeting, the priest prayed and gave what I can only call an “invitation” — he said something along the lines of being united with Christ. He said if there was anyone there who was uncertain of their relationship to God, they should see him and arrange to be born anew through baptism. I later learned this was part of their RCIA program.

    Here’s a thought–it takes nine months from conception to birth. Why should we assume that a time of growth and development should not precede the “new birth” through baptism?

  • Davod Harlow

    Isn’t the designation “born again” Christian redundant? Either you believe in Jesus Christ or you don’t.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Are Catholics born again? This is like asking are Baptists born again? Are Lutherans born again? etc. The point is that one’s denominational affiliation does not determine whether one has a relationship with God or not, whether one’s faith is in Jesus or not, whether one’s heart is turned from sin and towards God in worship and adoration. God knows our hearts.

  • Hi Sherman,

    I disagree. The point of the article is what people should do once they have turned from sin and towards God – that very act is a grace from God. He expects us to submit to something. That something is Baptism. I know and love many people who profess to be Christians who do not believe this. Indeed they reject it. They reject the very gift that God has offered to them to bring them into His covenant family. The Catholic Church and many non-Catholic Christian denominations teach this. Many evangelical Christians do not. Both cannot be correct. This is a point of supreme importance We either do what Jesus wants, or we do not. Yes, he alone knows our hearts…. do we?

    Deacon Mike

  • JBL

    I don’t see a difference between the act of baptism and the act of responding to an alter call / reciting a “sinner’s prayer”. Believing that either of these “works” results in any transcendental positional shift is akin to superstition in my book. I think these things are there for our benefit as milestones. They serve as a psychological sign post for our spiritual walk. These and other similar actions I suspect are roughly equivalent in value even as they vary slightly given the cultural context of those involved. God is not needful of our actions in a material world to determine our placement in a spiritual reality. Our works are as filthy rags so to speak. He still loves us. His heart is clearly to draw ALL men(mankind) unto Him. Jesus’ sacrificial love is how we are discipled into the inclusive heart of God. We need not “DO” anything. Our attitude, disposition, and character are much more important than any superstitious incantations or rituals, but still secondary God’s work. Acting like Christ is good for us here and hereafter. Christ got baptized, so we do. Christ made a commitment to God the Father in prayer, so we do. Christ died a brutal death to practice sacrificial love, so we do? How about that one? Anyone ready for that sacrament? This is what Jesus is calling for – sacrificial love!

  • Mike,

    Pardon my ignorance, but I am not very familiar with Catholic liturgy. What is the Catholic view of what happens at the time of Baptism? Does baptism cleanse any and all sins from a person? Does this Sacrament save you due to its spiritual effects?

    And also, you say that once you have turned towards God, He wants you to submit to something, that something being baptism. But if infants can be baptized how does this work? Because they have not made any decision to turn away from sin and towards God. Instead there parents made it for them. Are they “submitting” to baptism or just being forced to?

    Sorry for my lack of knowledge, I am just trying to understand.

  • JBL,

    You wrote: “I don’t see a difference between the act of baptism and the act of responding to an alter call / reciting a “sinner’s prayer”. Believing that either of these “works” results in any transcendental positional shift is akin to superstition in my book.”

    The question is this, “Is Baptism ‘superstition’ in the Lord’s book?” You calling it superstition is not what matters. Possibly you have not read the article and are just responding to the comments here. Maybe you could comment on my article?

    The Lord Jesus said, “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).”

    The constant testimony of the Church He established has been consistent… baptism is a sacrament by which Jesus confers the grace of Justification and a person is born again.

    Deacon Mike

  • Hi Noah,

    Sacraments, such as Baptism, are the actions of the Holy Spirit. Thus they are God’s works in the new covenant, not man’s.

    The sacrament of Baptism is one of the three sacraments of initiation. A person is born again in Baptism. He is cleansed of original sin and all personal sin. He is infused with the grace and virtue of God, gaining a share of God’s life in his soul. He/she becomes a new creation and enters the covenant of God’s family, the Church, as an adopted son or daughter of God. Incorporated into the Church, he shares in the mission of the Church which is the continuing mission of Christ and becomes a member of Christ’s Mystical Body.

    No child who has reached the age of reason can be forced to receive Baptism. They must ask for it and be able to understand what they ask for and why. An infant, generally a child under the age of 6 or 7, can be baptized if his parents are believers, they ask for the infant’s Baptism, and there exists a reasonable hope that they will raise the child in the faith. Consider this, by original sin, man is separated from God. A person becomes justified by Baptism. Through this free grace of God, the infant is born anew into salvation. This is an inestimable gift of God. No parent should desire to keep this pearl of great price from their infant. Certainly, children will need to come to mature in the faith and accept it when they have reached the age at which they are able to do so.

    Deacon Mike

  • Scot,

    Thank you so much for the privilege and honor of posting at your blog.

    Deacon Mike

  • Deacon Mike,

    One more question to help me understand a little. Because much of the debate (at least that I have heard about) between Calvinism and Arminianism comes in the protestant church, because this came after the reformation in the protestant church, I do not know what the Catholic beliefs are about this. Could you inform me what the Catholic theology is in regards to the 5 point of Calvinism?