Jesus said "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). But what does it mean to be "born again". To a Protestant, it means an adult decision for Christ, culminating in the "sinner's prayer". But is this what it means to be "born again"? Rather than meaning two separate births, being born of "water and the Spirit" refer to one birth, and that new birth takes place through baptism. Through the waters of baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit: "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); "Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name" (Acts 22:16). Through baptism, the sinner is regenerated into the newness of life (Rom. 6:3), receiving the grace and the forgiveness of his sins, and becoming a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). It is interesting to note that just before Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, He Himself was baptized (Matt. 3:13), and after speaking with him, he "remained with them and baptized" (John 3:22).
Paul tells us 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" (Titus 3:5). He 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). Paul also states in Colossians 2:11, "You were also circumcised in him, not with the circumcision administered by the hand but with Christ's circumcision which strips off the carnal body completely. In baptism you were not only buried with him but also raised to life with him because you believed in the power of God who raised him from the dead." Paul relates this burial and resurrection with Christ to the death and new life experienced before and after baptism.
The Bible directly refers to baptism conferring saving grace on the believer: "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). We are not saved by the physical action of the water ("not as a removal of dirt form the body"), but through the spiritual effects of baptism.
Evangelicals object to baptismal regeneration, claiming it is a good work, and good works cannot save anyone. But Martin Luther himself, a sola fide believer, taught that baptism was necessary for salvation. This is because when the priest baptizes, it is Christ who does the baptizing. It is not something we do.
Evangelicals have difficulty with many passages that point to baptismal regeneration. For instance, in John 3:5, evangelicals claim that the water refers to the amniotic fluid from birth, so the passage is understood as: "You must be born of amniotic fluid and the Spirit." But there is no precedence for this, and it would make the passage sound strange. Many also point to "washing of water by the word" (Eph 5:26), saying that the water refers to the word of God, or the Bible. But the verse actually backfires, because the "word" referred to is the Trinitarian formula used in baptism.
In Acts 2:38, people are exhorted to "be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins"–which does not refer to an internal baptism that is administered to people by themselves. Some argue that the Greek word for "for" (eis) could be translated "because of". This is true, it could be. But no translations render it this way. Anyway, the passage would still demonstrate that through baptism, believers "receive the gift of the Holy Spirit," implying that they would also receive the "remission of sins."
In Acts 22:16, 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). Some argue that because Paul is called "brother Saul," he was necessarily a "brother in the Lord," before his baptism. But in Acts 2:29, Peter addressed the unbelieving Jews as "Men and brethren". Stephen also refers to unbelievers as "brethren" (Acts 7:2, 13, 23, 25, 26, 37), using the word to refer to the children of Israel.
In prophesying about the New Covenant, Ezekiel reveals how God is going to cleanse one from sin. Ezekiel concludes: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness . . . A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you . . . And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes" (Ez. 36:25-27).
The passage in 1 Corinthians 15:29 reads: "Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?" If this passage refers to water baptism, then it proves baptismal regeneration.
Evangelicals say that baptism is merely a sign that one is a Christian. Matthew 3:11 is quoted: "I baptize you with water to show that you have repented." But the baptism of John was not the baptism used by the Apostles after Pentecost. This becomes apparent by reading Acts 19:1-6. Paul, after asking some disciples if they had received the Holy Spirit, responded that they had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Paul then finds out that they had only received the baptism of John. Paul responds by saying "John's baptism was a baptism of repentance," thereby differentiating it from the baptism of the Apostles. It is also important to note that Paul asked how they were baptized after he found out they had not received the Holy Spirit when they "became believers," implying his belief in the necessity of baptism. This becomes apparent when the entire passage is read in context.
Some also say that Jesus forgave sins apart from baptism. It is true that people's sins were forgiven without baptism by Jesus (see the penitent woman--Luke 7:37-50, the paralytic man--Matt. 9:2, and the tax collector--Luke 18:13-14). But this occurred before the death of Jesus, so the Old Testament was still in force, and had not yet been replaced by the regenerative baptism.
Evangelicals quote many other verses. For instance: "Through his blood, God made him the means of expiation for all who believe" (Romans 3:25). So here they say that what provides the remission of sin is Christ's blood, and since it does this, Christ's blood is salvific. But how are we cleansed by this blood. Through the sinner's prayer or baptism? The blood cannot be pitted against baptism, because baptism is simply the medium through which the blood cleanses us, just as a Protestant would argue that the sinner's prayer is the medium (who is cleansed by the blood who does not make a decision for Christ?). In relation to this, some quote Ephesians 1:13, saying that the Holy Spirit is the seal, not baptism. But the seal is the Holy Spirit given through water baptism. Remember, Jesus said: "Except you be born of water and spirit". Baptism washes away sins (Acts 22:16). Baptism is how we are sealed by the Spirit.
Some also say that Paul did not come to baptize, but to preach (1 Cor. 1:12, 17). But Paul was simply saying that his primary purpose was to preach the gospel. And yes, Paul did not always baptize, he let other people do the baptisms, just as Jesus let others baptize (John 4:2) immediately after declaring the necessity of baptism (John 3:5). In Acts 10:44-48, Cornelius and his companions received the Holy Spirit without baptism (v. 47). This, say evangelicals, prove that baptism is not necessary for salvation. But this is clearly an exception. Most of us were not blinded and spoken to when we were converted, as Paul was in Acts 9. God allowed this to occur because He wanted to show the Jews that the Gentiles also share in the promises of Christ, and should be baptized along with the Jews. It was a confirmation of the message given by God to Peter.
Evangelicals also quote many selective scriptures that show that belief only is the means of salvation. But justifying faith requires baptism. Mark 16:15 clarifies all verses cited regarding justification by faith by saying, "whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved." Belief is a necessary prerequisite to baptism (Acts 16:31, 18:8), as Acts 8:37-38 proves: "‘What is to keep me from being baptized?' . . . Philip went down into the water with the eunuch and baptized him." This passage also disproves a symbolic view of baptism. The Eunuch would have waited in order to be baptized in front of a congregation if baptism was simply the proof of one's faith. "But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:12).
The argument evangelicals favor is to quote passages that show that faith is necessary for salvation. For instance, Acts 16:30-31 reads, "‘What must I do to be saved?' Their answer was, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.'" Of course, the passage merely demonstrates that one is justified by faith. But justifying faith includes repentance as well, and the passage does not mention it. Does it have to? No, because the necessity of repentance (Acts 3:19), as well as baptism, is taught elsewhere, and is simply part of a justifying faith.
Evangelicals argue that because the Good Thief wasn't baptized but went to heaven anyway (Lk 23:39-43), baptism is unnecessary. But the Fathers of the Church also recognized the "baptism of blood" (martyrdom) and the baptism of desire (Catechumens who died before receiving baptism were saved with the baptism of desire). Thus, the Good Thief was baptized with the baptism of desire before his death. Tertullian says: "We have, indeed, a second [baptismal] font which is one with the former: namely, that of blood, of which the Lord says: `I am to be baptized with a baptism' [Luke 12:50], when he had already been baptized. He had come through water and blood, as John wrote [1 John 5:6], so that he might be baptized with water and glorified with blood. . . . This is the baptism which replaces that of the fountain, when it has not been received, and restores it when it has been lost" (Baptism, 16 [A.D. 203]). And Cyprian says: "The baptism of public witness [desire] and of blood cannot profit a heretic unto salvation, because there is no salvation outside the Church" (Letters 72:21 [A.D. 253]).
What is the answer to the question, "Are Catholics born again?" Yes. Since all Catholics have been baptized, all Catholics have been born again.
Barnabas (Letter of Barnabas, 11:1 [A.D. 80) "Regarding [baptism], we have the evidence of Scripture [Jer. 22:13; Is. 16:1] that Israel would refuse to accept the washing which confers the remission of sins and would set up a substitution of their own instead.
Hermas (The Shepherd, 4:3:1 [A.D. 80) "'I have heard, sir,' said I, 'from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.' He said to me, 'You have heard rightly, for so it is'"
Justin Martyr (First Apology, 61:14 [A.D. 150]) "Whoever are convinced and believe that what they are taught and told by us is the truth, and professes to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to beseech God in fasting for the remission of their former sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn. For, in the name of God, the Father . . . and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit [Matt. 28:19], they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, 'Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven'".
Irenaeus (Fragment 34, [A.D. 185]) "'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, even as the Lord has declared: 'Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven'".
Theophilus of Antioch (To Autolycus 12:16 [A.D. 181] "Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration all who proceed to the truth and are born again and receive a blessing from God".
Clement of Alexandria (The Instructor of Children 1:6:26:1 [A.D. 191]) "When we are baptized, we are enlightened . . . It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins, a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted, an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation".
Tertullian (Baptism 1 [A.D. 203]) "Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life. . . . A viper of the Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism--which is quite in accordance with nature, for vipers and asps . . . themselves generally do live in arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes after the example of our Fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water. So that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes--by taking them away from the water!" (ibid., 7:2) "Baptism itself is a corporal act by which we are plunged into the water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from our sins" "(ibid., 12) Without baptism, salvation is attainable by none".
Cyprian of Carthage (To Donatus, 3 [A.D. 250]) "While I was lying in darkness . . . I thought it indeed difficult and hard to believe . . . that divine mercy was promised for my salvation, so that anyone might be born again and quickened unto a new life by the laver of the saving water, he might put off what he had been before, and, although the structure of the body remained, he might change himself in soul and mind. . . . But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the water of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man".
Council of Carthage VII (VII Carthage [A.D. 256]) "And in the gospel our Lord Jesus Christ spoke with his divine voice, saying, `Except a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.' . . . Unless therefore they receive saving baptism in the Catholic Church, which is one, they cannot be saved, but will be condemned with the carnal in the judgment of the Lord Christ".
Origen (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]) "The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. For the apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of divine mysteries, knew that there is in everyone the innate stains of sin, which are washed away through water and the Spirit" (Exhortation to the Martyrs 30 [A.D. 235]) "It is not possible to receive forgiveness of sins without baptism".
Aphraahat (Treatises 6:14:4 [A.D. 340]) "From baptism we receive the Spirit of Christ. At that same moment in which the priests invoke the Spirit, heaven opens, and he descends and rests upon the waters, and those who are baptized are clothed in him. The Spirit is absent from all those who are born of the flesh, until they come to the water of rebirth, and then they receive the Holy Spirit. . . . [I]n the second birth, that through baptism, they receive the Holy Spirit".
Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lectures 3:10, 12 [A.D. 350]) "If any man does not receive baptism, he does not have salvation. The only exception is the martyrs, who, even without water, will receive baptism, for the Savior calls martyrdom a baptism [Mark 10:38]". Basil (Sermons on Moral and Practical Subjects 13:5 [A.D. 379]) "For prisoners, baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, the death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, an unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a royal protector, a gift of adoption". Council of Constantinople I (Nicene Creed [A.D. 381]) "We believe . . . in one baptism for the remission of sins".
Ambrose of Milan (The Mysteries 4:20 [A.D. 390]) "A common element with no sacramental effect. Nor on the other hand is there any mystery of regeneration without water, for `unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God'".
Augustine (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants, 2:27:43 [A.D 412]) "The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration" (Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 3:3:5 [A.D. 420]) "Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins, whether of deed, word, or thought, whether sins original or added, whether knowingly or unknowingly contracted".
Cyril of Alexandria (Homilies on Luke 22:8 [A.D. 430]) "Baptism cleanses us from all defilements, making us God's holy temple".