Are Catholics Born Again?

Note: If you have never made a personal commitment to Christ (if you have never asked him into your heart and to be Lord of your life), I encourage you to do that now.

Are Catholics Born Again?

Evangelicals and Catholics totally agree about the awesomeness of a personal encounter with Jesus. In Pope Benedict XVI's new encyclical, "Spe Salvi" we read:

"Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves, it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is life itself and love itself, then we are in life. Then we 'live... Our relationship with God is established through communion with Jesus -- we cannot achieve it alone or from our own resources alone."

Much debate has set Catholic "Baptism" against the Evangelical "Born again" concept. Greater common ground can be found if we compare the Evangelical "Born Again" experience to the Catholic "Second Conversion" experience which is when a Catholic surrenders to Jesus with an attitude of "Jesus, take my will and my life, I give everything to you."  This is a spontaneous thing that happens during the journey of faithful Catholics who "get it." Yup, the Catholic Church teaches a personal relationship with Christ:  The Catechism says:

1428 Christ's call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, "clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] follows constantly the path of penance and renewal." This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a "contrite heart," drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first.

1430 Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, "sackcloth and ashes," fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion.

The Pope and the Catechism are two of the highest authorities in the Church. They are telling us to get personal with Jesus.

In one respect, the Catholics and Evangelicals are saying the same thing. "Surrender your life to Jesus. Let Him run it. Get personal with Him." This is what we have in common and why we can pray together and love one another as He has loved us. (Jn 15:12) My (David) personal encounter with Jesus turned me upside down, or should I say right side up, and completely changed the way I looked at the world. I said "Yes" to Him and He moved. We love praying with anyone who loves Jesus. (Mt 18:20).

Although Catholics preach a personal encounter with Christ we also emphasize the importance of the entire Body of Christ, which is the Church. The Christian walk is not a self centred journey, it is a journey for the community of believers, which the Bible calls the "Elect." (Col 8:33, Col. 3:12; 1 Tim. 5:21; Tit. 1:1; 2 John 1) This attention to the Body of Christ has sometimes caused Evangelicals to say that we are not into a personal relationship with Christ. This is not so. We are into a personal relationship with him, particularly during communion, and we belong to the Body of Christ, which is made up of all the faithful of this age and those who went before us.

My experience - Jesus is the only way to Heaven

Soon after I turned my life over to Jesus, He gave me an image in meditation, based on a movie called "The Poseidon Adventure" that I had seen as a child. It was about an ocean liner that capsized and was totally upside down in the water. The people who were trapped inside tried to escape. Because the ship was upside down they had to climb up to the bottom of the hull which was the only part of the ship that was above water. Only a few survived the journey to the hull. When they arrived there, they banged on the steel bottom of the ship, hoping the rescuers would hear them.  The rescuers had blow torches and cut a hole in the bottom of the hull to free the trapped passengers. Without the rescuer, the passengers would suffocate and die while waiting to be saved.

In this meditation, I felt myself banging on the hull of the ship. I knew I would die. Suddenly, the rescuer used a blow torch opened the hull and free me. The rescuer was Jesus. He rescued me from this sinking ship called earth. Only he could free me. None of my own will power, or philosophy of life, could cut through the hull of the ship into heaven. Only Jesus could, because He was on the other side of life with a blow torch to free me. No one else had the power, no other religion, no other path of spirituality - only Jesus.

It was a powerful image that I will never forget. I am so grateful to Jesus for freeing me and promising me eternal salvation. My full testimony is here

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The Catholic/Evangelical comparison grid

Let us compare the Evangelical "getting saved" process to the Catholic "Conversion of Heart" experience. I think we will find many more similarities than we realize:

Step Evangelicals

Catholics

1

Sin

A person is apart from God and a slave to sin. Personal sin and ignorance of Jesus have condemned them. A person is apart from God and a slave to grave sins (serious) and/or venial sins (not as serious). Perhaps they were baptised at birth but have lost the grace of that sacrament through rebellion, complacency or disbelief.
2
Awakening
Something happens that lets him/her see the error of his/her ways (a movement of the Spirit) Something happens that lets him/her see the error of his/her ways (a movement of the Spirit).
3

Repent

The sinner repents before God and asks Jesus into his/her life (is born again). It is a personal encounter with Jesus. Evangelicals would say he is "saved" from final damnation.

There is an alpine curious (affliction of spirit) and compunction cords (repentance of heart) and conversion of heart. A "second conversion" that is a personal encounter with Jesus. (Catechism 1428,
Also, in Acts 2, and Col 7:9 people are having a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit)

4

Confess

Usually, the sinner will speak to his pastor and prays with him. He gets active in his Church again. The sinner confesses his sins before God and man (a Priest) and asks forgiveness which is granted by God. He/she has a reconciliation with God and Church and is freed of "eternal punishment" of hell. He/she is restored to the Grace received at baptism
5

Amend

Amends are often made where possible (this attempts to repair injuries caused to neighbours) i.e., returning stolen goods, apologizing for harms done. etc... Amends are made where possible (this attempts to repair injuries to neighbours). i.e., returning stolen goods, apologizing for harms done. This is called restitution or "making satisfaction" (Catechism 1459)
6

Penance

He/she tries to live a useful life of service out of love for Jesus Penance. This helps to restore the injuries that the sin caused the sinner him/herself. He/she tries to live a useful life of service, out of love for Jesus and a desire to please him. (Charity)

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Good News for Ecumenism

Although Catholics and Evangelicals do not agree about the critical moment of salvation. There is something that is extremely important on which we do agree. Both Catholics and Evangelicals agree on the need for a radical reorientation of their lives with Jesus at the centre. The radical reorientation comes from a personal relationship or encounter with Christ where the sinner realizes that Jesus is a real person who is alive today and interested in the individual. Evangelicals say this happens when the person is "born again." Catholics believe that their faith really comes alive in the "conversion of heart." But regardless of whether it is an Evangelical "Born again" experience or a Catholic "Conversion of Heart" experience, afterward the person loves the Lord with their whole heart, mind, and soul, and wants to let him to run the show. This is why I can have great times of prayer with my Evangelical brothers.

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When are we saved - "Born Again" vs. "Baptism"

Evangelicals believe the "Born Again" decision is the critical moment of salvation for the individual. Some feel that this decision guarantees salvation regardless of any future sin. Catholics view "Baptism" as the critical event in the salvation of an individual.

Catholics feel they have Biblical reasons for focusing on baptism. In the New Testament we see a connection between salvation and baptism. (Acts 2:38, 22:16, 1 Pt. 3:21, Mk 16:15-16 Acts 2:38). Catholics look at the journey of water through the Old Testament including the great flood that cleansed the world. They feel that these were foreshadowings of baptism in the New Testament.(Gen.1:1-2, 6:5, 8:23, 9:9, Ex 3:4, Is12:2-3,1 Pt 3:20,1 Cor. 10:2) Particularly, Peter makes the connection between the great flood and baptism in 1 Peter 3:20-21. 

...who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, ...

Here we see the express relationship of water baptism to salvation and also the foundation of the required appeal and "heart" behind the baptism. When we baptise in the name of the "Father Son and the Holy Ghost" we are making this appeal. Baptism requires not only water, but the words "Father Son and the Holy Ghost" and the intention of baptising. Catholics don't believe we are saved by water alone. In Catholic theology all three of these things are necessary for a valid baptism (water, words and intention). We think this passage outlines the necessity of water and of the appeal.

"In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity" (Zechariah 13:1).

"Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin"  (Psalms 51:2).

When the eunuchs were traveling along the road and Philip evangelized them, one of them said

"Wait look, there is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?' ...when they came up out of the water the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch saw him no more and went on his way rejoicing" (Acts 3:35-40)

The eunuch was hit with the Holy Spirit. For the Eunuch the born again experience included a water baptism.

15 And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.

It is a fundamental principle in mathematics and logic that the word "and" is a joining word. If I require a credit card and an email account to make an online payment, both are necessary. If either is missing I will not be able to complete the transaction. In this case, Catholics believe Peter uses the word "and" to join belief and baptism as the necessary elements of salvation. The line after that "the one who does not believe will be condemned" in no way diminishes that association. If either of them is missing there is no salvation. In this case belief is missing and the person is condemned. It's like saying "the one who has a credit card and an email address will be accepted for this online transaction but the one who does not have an email address will be denied."

Martin Luther, indicates Baptism to be more than a symbolic gesture. He said that  baptism...

"...works the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation...."

Baptism doesn't means every "card carrying" Catholic with a Baptismal Certificate is saved. Not at all. Catholics believe that the saving grace of baptism can be easily lost through rebellion, complacency, sin, and disbelief (for instance in nominal or cultural Catholics). One problem of being a 2000 year old church is that some people are born into the faith but have very little actual connection to it. The saving and redemptive powers imparted by the Holy Spirit during Baptism bring with them the expectation that the Baptised person will make an adult choice for Jesus as soon as they reach the age of reason. In theory, this should happen at confirmation (about 10 years old) but in reality it usually happens later during a personal crisis of some sort. My surrender to Jesus happened when I was 27 years old. That's when I really encountered him. Many faithful "practicing Catholics", have had a "conversion of heart" experience which akin to the Evangelical "born again" experience. The Church expects this to happen and also requires it. (Catechism 1426)

We got an email that said:

Cornelius was saved before he was baptized. Acts 10:47 states that he "received" the Holy Spirit...Also Cornelius spoke in tongues before he was baptized (Acts 10:44-48). This New Testament gift is given to those "in the church" (1 Corinthians 12:28)

I think this is a good point. It shows that Cornelius received the gifts of the Spirit, but Scripture tells us that having the gift of the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily mean someone is saved. Mathew 7:22 says:

On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers.' "

The New Testament Christians that Jesus talks about in this passage declared Jesus to be Lord. They received gifts of the Holy Spirit. They could not have cast out demons if they were not filled with the Holy Spirit. Yet they were not saved. It appears that there was another critical event that needed to occur for them to receive salvation. We Catholics suggest that event is baptism.

In his #1 selling Evangelical book, The Purpose Driven Life, Pastor Rick Warren said:

For years I wondered why Jesus' Great Commission gives the same prominence to baptism as it does to the great tasks of Evangelism and edification...(The Purpose Driven Life, pg 120)

I think we Catholics have the answer to that.

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).

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, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ" (NIV).

What about the thief of the cross beside Jesus, he was saved but wasn't baptised?

The Church teaches that the their are extraneous circumstances where baptism is not possible. In those cases, if is clear that the person would be baptised if possible, then they receive the "baptism of desire". He would have done it in a moment if he was allowed. Therefore we would say that the thief on the cross had the "Baptism of Desire."

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Did Catholics rewrite John 3:3 "Born again" to "Born from above"?

This is what some Evangelicals have been told by their pastors. The Greek word used in the passage is "anothen" {an'-o-then}. Anothen means literally "from above, from a higher place." All through his Gospel, John uses this word to refer to spiritual movement that comes down from "above."  In the King James Version, the only two times "anothen" is translated to "again" in the KJV are in John 3:3 and 3:7; every other time it is given a different rendering.

The NRSV Bible which is used in many scholarly circles is not the Catholic version. Yet it translates the passage as "born from above" in John 3:3. It is translated by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

However, the words "born again" also work and Catholics have no trouble with translations of John 3:3 by theologians that use "born again."

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Backsliding vs. Venial Sin

Perhaps what Evangelicals call "backsliding", Catholics would call "venial sin" (non-mortal sin). Evangelicals tell the born again person who is backsliding to "return to the Lord and get right with Him." Catholics say the same thing to the person who is practicing venial sin. Both Catholics and Evangelicals are big on repentance. Confession is part of that repenting process for the Catholic.

Evangelicals would say that the born again Christian who backslides so far as to lose their faith, never made a sincere decision in the first place and therefore was not "born again." Evangelicals feel this person is in grave danger of facing hell.

Catholics look at it a bit differently. They say that "mortal sin" - which is the conscious decision to gravely and disobediently sin, cuts us off from the saving Grace received at Baptism. This severs our relationship with God that was won at Baptism. If not reconciled, it will cause eternal damnation (hell). Catholics feel that, although we are saved, we must "endure until the end" (Mk 13:13, James 1:2, Mt 10:22, Mt 24:13) and not reject the Grace of Baptism. Paul recognized the importance of enduring to the end when he said "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12) and " ...or I myself ...may be rejected as worthless" (1 Cor 9:27) Catholics believe God never forgets the indelible seal that is imparted at Baptism and is always calling and waiting for those who have drifted from the faith to return to Him. Catholics believe that by being baptised, surrendering to Christ on an ongoing basis, by enduring to the end with faith, and reconciling when we fall, we receive salvation.

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Isn't Jesus all about the heart - isn't the intellect useless?

Another criticism of the Catholic faith is that it's too "intellectual" or "scholarly", and that there isn't more room for "the heart". However, when we think of the most influential "born- again" Christian in history, we have to question that position. The Apostle Paul was one of the greatest intellects in the history of mankind.

Paul did not throw out his intellect after his encounter with Jesus. He used it. He went to Athens to dispute with the Greeks in Greek. He went to Rome and argued with the Romans in Latin as a Roman citizen. He always spoke with groups in the context of their socio/political framework. He used his intellect to win souls. He used his supreme knowledge of the law. I don't believe it was "all about the heart" for him. He used his powers of reasoning to convert pagans and to lay down the foundation of our Faith. 

The Catholic Church places value on the human reasoning that was given to us by God. God invented the intellect. Let's not throw theological scholarship away. By the way, it's interesting for us to observe that it's the evangelical, Jesus-loving, intellectual-types that are converting to the Catholic church in droves.

The Pope made a famous speech about the relationship of faith and reason. It is here.

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Notes on infant baptism 

Below is a summary, further discussion is here

Many Evangelicals (but not all) that I speak with explain to me that they believe "Separation from God" is a result of personal sin not original sin. They say that before the age of reason everyone is bound for heaven.

Catholics believe that humanity's "Separation from God" is the result of "original sin" from Adam and Eve, our first parents. Catholics believe we are born into "original sin." We inherit it. If original sin is the source of our damnation then I believe that we are born with it. We don't think children should be without the grace of Jesus. That is why Catholics baptize babies.

Infant Baptisms predate the 2nd century and it is quite possible that from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole "households" received baptism, infants may also have been baptized. (Acts 16:15). It is quite logical that most of the Baptisms in the Bible were adults since Jesus had just died. If I was there just after he rose from the dead and saw the apostles speaking in tongues I'd run into the water for a Baptism too. 

We didn't choose to be born into humanity but we nevertheless received the grace of human life. Catholics think we don't have to choose baptism in order to receive its grace.  We didn't choose to be born into the sin of Adam, (caused by his disobedience), yet nevertheless we were born into it (original Sin). In the same way, Catholics believe that as infants, we can receive the saving grace of Baptism that was won by Jesus obedience, without consciously choosing it.

In an infant baptism, salvation is granted upon the child with the expectation that the child will in fact give their heart to the Lord as soon as they understand what that truly means. In a child baptism, the parents and the Church intercede for the child (Evangelicals might call it "standing in the Gap"). The parents who are interceding for the Child promise to bring the child up in the faith so as to prepare the child for this future mature decision to accept Christ as a personal Lord and Saviour. Catholics feel that Jesus' generosity and the parent's and Church's intercession make the Baptism valid and wins salvation for the child.

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Can the Grace of Baptism be Lost?

As the child grows and matures they will be faced with the choice of maintaining that salvation through conscious contact with God (conversion of heart) or reject it through sin, complacency, or rebellion. If they reject it, they lose the grace that they were granted at Baptism and will lose salvation. (That's what's happened to a bunch of 'Cultural Catholics' who don't know the Lord and never pray or go to Church.) Unless they reconcile they will be lost. The "conversion of heart" experience that sustains a personal relationship with Jesus is very similar to what an Evangelical would call "born again."

Let's pray together:

Oh Father, please let us love one another, let us work together to build Your Kingdom, let us build a new hope that will forge relationships that cut across denominations and heal the pain of our division. Let us be one in You as You are One in us. Jesus, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, we praise Your Mighty Name and embrace one another in Your Love. Amen!

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen