Being Born Again

Sometimes Catholics are challenged by other Christians concerning the authenticity of their faith. "You say you are a Christian, but have you been born again?" Perhaps the question gets asked in a different manner, but to the same effect: "You say you believe in Christ, but do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?" For many, unless one can identify the time and place where one was born again, the faith of such a Christian is said to be insufficient for salvation. The promise of eternal life in heaven is said to belong only to those who have been born again.

While most Catholics may not use “born-again” vocabulary or speak as freely about such an experience, it doesn’t mean Catholics have missed out on a personal relationship with Christ. Catholics are made children of God through faith and the grace poured out on us at baptism. The same is true for all Christians, for anyone who has been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. But some Catholics may be personally unaware of God’s love for them. The Bible assures us that God’s intense love is meant to be part of Christian experience—of Catholic experience.

Usually, when Christians talk about the importance of being born again, they are drawing from the passage in John's gospel (3:1-21) where Jesus meets the Pharisee named Nicodemus at night. A few other places in the Bible with phrases closely associated with being born again are found in James 1:18 and 1 Peter 1:3, 23.

While the importance of a spiritual rebirth is found in Scripture, when we examine the Bible to learn more about the significance of being "born again," we discover that the meaning often given to it by born-again Christians does not fully reflect the biblical teachings they cite. Exploring the use of the phrase "born again" in the Gospel of John will also validate the Christian experience of Catholics.

The Biblical Tradition
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus at night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him." 3Jesus answered and said to him, "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 4Nicodemus said to him, "How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother's womb and be born again, can he?" 5Jesus answered, "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. 7Do not be amazed that I told you, 'You must be born from above.' 8The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." 9Nicodemus answered and said to him, "How can this happen?" 10Jesus answered and said to him, "You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this? 11Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. 12If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? (NAB John 3:1-12)

In many translations of John's gospel Jesus tells Nicodemus, "You must be born again" (3:7). In the original language the Greek phrase can also be expressed as "born from above." In the New American Bible (as found above), a Catholic translation, Jesus says, "You must be born from above." Even here, Nicodemus responds to Jesus by asking, "How can a person once grown old be born again?" (3:4). The difference between Jesus' use of "born from above" and Nicodemus' "born again" is a result of Nicodemus' misunderstanding what Jesus is saying. Nicodemus is baffled to hear that Jesus says he must be born "again" if he wants to see the kingdom of God. Jesus, however, is telling him that he must be born from above.

The direction from which this birth occurs is of great importance. "From above" tells us that this birth comes about as a result of God's initiative. It is the Spirit's activity that makes this new life possible, and the new life is given through the gift of the Spirit poured out on us in baptism. "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit" (3:5).

It is necessary to be born again in baptism, that is, to be given a spiritual rebirth from God. That is not necessarily the born-again experience many speak of as being the one essential mark of a true Christian. There are really two different matters here: how we come to belong to Christ, and our personal awareness of a relationship to God. The Bible has a lot to say about both, but the connection between the two is not absolute. The Bible does indeed suggest that Christians have every reason to be confident of their relationship to God in Christ, but beyond baptism, that confidence is not based on any particular religious experience.

Experiencing God's Love
As Christians, we can be confident of God's love for us as children because it is Christ, the one who died for us and who is risen from the dead, who is the guarantor of our saving relationship with God. We know God loves us because of Jesus, not because we have had an "experience." But because we know in faith that we do belong to God, it should come as no surprise that the discovery of one's relationship to God is an incredibly powerful experience in the lives of many believers. The experience is not what makes one a Christian, but the power of an experience that flows from one's awareness of being loved by God can also be quite transformative.

Twice, St. Paul makes it perfectly clear that we are brought into a special relationship with God through baptism. In his letter to the Galatians he reminds them that their relationship to God is not based on observance of Jewish law but is one they know in their hearts because of the movement of the Holy Spirit there:

4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption. 6As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" (Galatians 4:4-6)

Paul offers the testimony found in their own hearts as proof of their new status as children of God. If they had not been aware of the Spirit crying out to God, "Abba, Father!" within their own hearts, Paul's bold claim would have carried little weight.

Again, in Romans 8:15, Paul asserts, "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, "Abba, Father!" Certainly this cry was a work of the Spirit in their hearts. It was also a prayer that was offered over and over in Christian gatherings.

One might expect that "Abba, Father!" was simply an ecstatic cry of joy made spontaneously out of urging from the Holy Spirit. The experience of having said it was proof positive for Paul, the Galatians, and the Romans of their new relationship to God. There is no doubt that the cry was heartfelt. This utterance, which goes back to Jesus himself (see Mark 14:36), was also a ritual, however, passed on as the Christian spiritual heritage in church after church within their liturgical rites.

"Abba," an Aramaic word for "Father," is found on the lips of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and again as a prayer of Greek-speaking Gentiles in Galatia and Rome. According to the eminent Catholic biblical theologian Joseph Fitzmeyer, S.J., these multiple occurrences are ample evidence that early Christians had been taught to pray that way in their liturgies. If they did so in Rome and Galatia, then undoubtedly Christians prayed in this manner in many regions of the Roman Empire. It would have been no less heartfelt, and certainly no less Spirit inspired, because they prayed it often within a liturgical context. They had no trouble believing that what they had been taught to pray by church leaders was simultaneously an urging of the Spirit. They believed their worship was inspired, and it stirred their hearts. As Catholics, we believe our worship is also inspired, and our hearts are also stirred. We are, after all, engaged in the same worship as our early brothers and sisters.

It is very natural to associate the "Abba, Father!" response of early Christians to our Lord's own words to Nicodemus concerning the necessity of spiritual new birth through baptism. In receiving this new birth we become the children of God in the most special sense of all: at baptism we are made part of the Body of Christ, and being found in Christ, we too are part of that special relationship that exists between Jesus and his Father. At Jesus' baptism, a voice cried out from heaven saying, "You are my beloved son" (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). God speaks the same message to us at our baptism, a fact made clear in the liturgical response from the heart of early Christians: "Abba, Father!"

What they prayed together in worship they also felt deep within their hearts. That is a message we may need to remind our own hearts of. Every time we pray the Our Father, we are repeating this heartfelt prayer of early Christians, calling on God as our loving parent because we know in our hearts that we have become God's very own children. Not just cousins, in-laws, or friends of the family, we are the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

Growing in Our Personal Relationship with God
Cultivating a personal relationship with God in Christ is a lot like cultivating a relationship with anyone who is important to you, such as a spouse or an important friend. Relationships that are important need time dedicated to them so that they can grow and flourish. Open, honest communication is a must. Also, the time spent together should be enjoyable and refreshing, as much as possible. When things go wrong in a relationship, of course, we have to spend time sorting things out, apologizing, and recommitting. However, much of the time spent in a healthy relationship means just enjoying each other's company. All this applies as much to our relationship with Christ as it does with a close, personal friend. And that is because Christ truly wants to be our close, personal friend.

For Catholics, there are certain essentials to a relationship with Christ that time and tradition have taught us provide the firmest foundation for a spiritual life. Sunday Mass participation, confession as needed, and daily prayers, especially on rising, retiring, and before meals, are to be a consistent pattern in our lives.

Catholics have many prayers available to them for memorization or for reading from missals and prayer books. The rosary is a traditional prayer format especially dear to Catholics. One very powerful way of praying the rosary is to use a "scriptural rosary," in which a brief, pertinent passage of Scripture is prayed in association with each Hail Mary of every mystery of the rosary.

One of the more effective ways of keeping our prayer life invigorated is to practice a form of prayer called conversational prayer. This is a type of prayer that can be shared with others or done privately. It has a consistent, easy-to-memorize pattern, but the content will be new and fresh every day. As described here, it was formulated by the late Rosalyn Rinker. It includes four easy steps, and a few minutes are all that is needed:

1. Jesus is here. This prayer might even be without words, expressed simply by openness to and awareness of Christ's presence. Any prayer that reminds us that Christ is always present to us in every aspect of our lives is appropriate.

2. Thank you, Lord. Express gratitude for God's many daily blessings, no matter how large or small.

3. Help me, Lord. Ask for any help needed for yourself, whether spiritual or material.

4. Help my brother and sister. Pray for the needs of others. As we become more mindful of the needs of others, we may also become more available to God in meeting their needs.

In addition to memorized prayers and conversational prayer is centering prayer. In centering prayer one meditates in silence, using a single prayer word or name—such as "mercy" or "Jesus"—to clear the heart and mind of distractions. The goal of centering prayer is simply to connect with the reality of the divine presence within one's deepest self.

Any of these prayer forms are appropriate for praying before the Blessed Sacrament, where no time spent in quiet prayer and adoration could ever be wasted time. It is important, however, in building a personal relationship with Christ, to realize that he is always available to us, always present to us, no matter where we are.

Reading for spiritual growth is an ancient, holy practice within Catholicism. One of the most time-honored forms of spiritual reading is called lectio divina (lex'-ee-oh dih-vee'-nuh) and is usually done with the Bible. In lectio divina one reads Sacred Scripture slowly, always listening carefully to God's word with one's heart in a quiet, stress-free setting. It is highly recommended that one just starting this practice begin with one of the four gospels. Lectio divina has three important steps that follow after the actual, careful reading of Scripture:

1. Meditation. Read from Scripture, listening with the heart and mind, until something strikes you in a special way. Meditate on that word as one God has spoken to your heart.

2. Prayer. Make prayer a loving conversation with God. After deeply pondering the word spoken to you in Scripture, turn to God, offering your heart, mind, and will in joyful gratitude.

3. Contemplation. Finally, rest in the presence of God, emptying the heart of emotions, the mind of thoughts, and the heart of desires. This is a time to simply be with God.

The Bible is an essential and invaluable aid to spiritual growth. At Vatican II the Church declared, "In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them" [Dei Verbum 21]. Reading the Bible has something for everyone, but as you begin to read the Bible you will undoubtedly have questions. The Bible is not simply a book about God. It is, in fact, many books, seventy-three in all. These books were written in various times and three different languages (Hebrew, Greek, and some Aramaic).

Within these many books emerges the story of God, the creator of all, and God's endeavors to redeem humanity from futility and error, endeavors that culminate in the offer of eternal life in Jesus Christ. This story, however, does not unfold directly or even sequentially within its pages. There are many challenges and numerous responses to God's endeavors that are recorded within its pages. Both tragedy and deliverance are abundant as well as the wisdom of the ancients and the praises and prayers that filled Jerusalem's temple. The mission and message of Jesus fills the New Testament, along with letters from his early followers to the first Christian communities. The message of Scripture is not always easy to respond to or even to simply understand. Bible study, in the company of fellow Catholics who are also seeking to grow in relationship with God through prayerful study and dialogue, can be a wonderful opportunity to grow in understanding of Scripture and in love with God.

Works of Mercy and Service
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns that on the day of judgment it will not be our claims of relationship to him that will win his welcome into eternal joy.

Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matt 7:21)

Later in Matthew, Jesus tells us it will be the love we have shown him by our deeds and actions that will secure this greatest of blessings.

Then the king will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me." (Matt 25:34-36)

Likewise, those who will be rejected will have forfeited their opportunity because their actions failed to show any love for Jesus. Both those who are accepted and those who are rejected are said to be puzzled by the judgment rendered them. When did they ever see Jesus hungry, thirsty, naked, or in prison? They are told that they are being judged by what they did for the least of those Jesus calls his own (see Matt 25:31-46 for full context).

It takes more than just a spiritual experience to unite us with Christ. Our spiritual rebirth is a call to practical concern for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the neglected, and the scorned in our neighborhoods and around the world. Our response to them is what will ultimately demonstrate our faith in and love for the one who gives eternal life.

Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Development of Study Materials
Little Rock Scripture Study

Scripture study, with the right aids and done in the context of faith, can be a wonderful source of joy and renewal in the faith. The study of God's Word is more important than ever for Catholics, as popular misunderstandings of Scripture, or interpretations of Scripture meant to serve only the specific beliefs of a particular denomination, reach us through the mass media or even word-of-mouth. Why not consider joining or starting a small-group Bible study under the auspices of your local Catholic parish?

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Nihil obstat: Jerome Kodell, OSB, Censor librorum.
Imprimatur: Anthony B. Taylor, Bishop of Little Rock, April 20, 2009.



Study Questions
  • Have you or someone you are close to had what you consider a "born-again" experience? What does that mean to you?
  • What does Jesus tell Nicodemus that associates being "born from above" with baptism? (See John 3:3-5.)
  • Why is the direction "from above" an important aspect of the spiritual rebirth Jesus tells Nicodemus about?
  • St. Paul says we enjoy a special relationship with God through baptism. (See Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:4-6.) How could living with the awareness of this relationship affect your daily life?
  • Why might the Our Father remind us not only of our baptism but of Jesus' baptism as well? (See Mark 1:11; Luke 2:32; and Galatians 4:4-6.)
  • What are some ways you can think of to cultivate a personal relationship with God?
  • How might spontaneous styles of prayer and the use of written or memorized prayers both contribute to a healthy Christian spirituality?
  • What are some practical steps Catholics might take to further understand and appreciate the Bible and its message?
  • How do our attitudes and responses to the poor, ill, imprisoned, and otherwise suffering in our society affect our relationship with God?