For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the
dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing
upon thine offspring.
Isaiah 44, 3
[H]e 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, which he poured out upon us richly
through Jesus Christ our Savior.
Titus 3, 5-6
Since ancient times, Catholics have rightly understood the expression “born again” refers to water baptism. What Catholics mean by being born again is the interior transformation that is achieved upon being baptized in water and the Holy Spirit. It means much more than affirming Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior who died for our sins and consciously deciding to accept Christ in our hearts and be his disciple. Being born again means much more than believing in who Jesus is and what he has accomplished for those who do believe in him. The expression, on the contrary, is the mental equivalent of "regeneration."
Regeneration (being “born again”) is the transformation from death to life that occurs in our souls when we first come to God and are justified through the sacrament. He washes us clean of our sins and gives us a new nature, breaking the power of sin over us so that we will no longer be its slaves but its enemies, who must combat it as part of the Christian life and our baptismal commitment (cf. Rom. 6:1–22; Eph. 6:11–17).
Conversion to Christ, the new birth of Baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Body and Blood of Christ received as food have made us "holy and without blemish," just as the Church herself, the Bride of Christ, is "holy and without blemish." Nevertheless, the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of the Christian life. This is the struggle of conversion directed toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1426
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee,
Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…
Truly, truly, I say to you, Except a man be born of water and
of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
John 3, 3- 5
In the conversation Jesus is having with Nicodemus, our Lord says to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). The Greek phrase often translated “born again” (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν or gennatha anothen) in the English transliteration) also occurs in V.7 in which Jesus says, “Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The Greek word anothen sometimes can be translated “again,” but in the New Testament, it most often means “from above” or “from heaven.” In the King James Version, which I am using, the only two times it is translated “again” are in John 3:3 and 3:7. Every other time it is given a different rendering. However, we have our mental equivalent in Vv.5-6, in which Jesus says, ““Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Now, in V.3, our Lord declares that one must be “born again” to enter the kingdom of God, while in V.5 he reiterates more clearly that one must be “born of water and spirit” to enter the kingdom of God. Thus, the expression “born again” refers to the sacrament of baptism in water and Spirit which is salvific. One who is born or reborn “of Spirit” is born “from above” or “from heaven.” Jesus does say on another occasion, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:16). One cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless they are saved, and this requires not only belief in Jesus but also the sacrament of initiation that washes away the stain of original sin and marks the life in the Spirit.
St. Paul describes the sacrament of baptism as a “washing of regeneration” that is “poured out on us” with reference to water baptism. The original Greek verb for “washing” is loutron (λουτρόν) which generally refers to a ritual washing of purification (Titus 3:5-6). Paul also wrote, “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). Baptism unites us with Christ’s death and resurrection so that we might die to sin and receive new life.
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.” These NT passages evoke the words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Being born again is a movement from being a child of Adam to a child of God.
In Acts 2:38, Peter tells us, “Repent, and 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). We must not only repent but also be baptized for the forgiveness of sin so that we receive the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit for a new life with God. Simply believing in Jesus and accepting him as our personal Lord and Savior won’t regenerate us. We are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8). Jesus suffered and died to expiate sin, but he also merited for us the dispensation of divine grace. We aren’t saved by faith alone.
When Paul was converted, he was told, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). His faith in Jesus wasn’t enough to save him. He also had to be baptized to have his sins forgiven or “blotted out” and to receive the Holy Spirit who justifies us in our collaboration with Him. Baptism is necessary for our salvation and isn't merely a symbolic ritual that serves as a testimony of faith.
There are many passages in the Old Testament that foreshadow the regenerative power of baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. For instance, Naaman took seven dips in the Jordan and, as a result, his flesh was restored like that of a child (2 Kings 5:14). Being born again is a restorative experience of the heart and mind of the human soul through the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Isaiah prophesies the time is coming when the Lord pours out His water and His Spirit which refers to the institution of the sacrament of Baptism by Christ our Lord. Water and Spirit are always joined in the Scriptures. We are cleansed and regenerated by the Holy Spirit who moves through the water. Ezekiel (36:25-27) concurs that the Lord will sprinkle us with water to cleanse us from our sin and give us a new heart of flesh and spirit. We must be born again or from above if we hope to be saved.
In any event, Jesus himself was baptized in water and the Spirit which descended on him in the form of a dove (Jn 1:32). Water and the Holy Spirit are a requirement for baptism, although our Lord’s baptism was unlike ours. His baptism was rather a royal anointing of the son of David as a sign to Israel appropriately conferred by a Levite, John the Baptist. This event was foreshadowed on the occasion of Solomon’s royal anointing by the Levitical priest Zadok (1 Kings 1:39).
Early sacred tradition
“For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of
heaven.’ Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their
mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape
their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: ‘Wash you,
make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well…And
though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as
crimson, I will make them white as snow…And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles
this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our
parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order
that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the
children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins
formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has
repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to
the layer the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone…And this washing is
called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their
understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus,
he who is illuminated is washed.”
Justin Martyr, First Apology, 61
(ante A.D. 165)
“ ‘And dipped himself,’ says [the Scripture], ‘seven times in Jordan.’ It was not for nothing that
Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but it
served as an indication to us. 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 new-born 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.'”
St. Irenaeus, Fragment, 34
“But give me now your best attention, I pray you, for I wish to go back to the fountain of life,
and to view the fountain that gushes with healing. The Father of immortality sent the
immortal Son and Word into the world, who came to man in order to wash him with water
and the Spirit; and He, begetting us again to incorruption of soul and body, breathed into us
the breath (spirit) of life, and endued us with an incorruptible panoply. If, therefore, man
has become immortal, he will also be God. And if he is made God by water and the Holy Spirit
after the regeneration of the layer he is found to be also joint-heir with Christ after the
resurrection from the dead. Wherefore I preach to this effect: Come, all ye kindreds of the
nations, to the immortality of the baptism.”
St. Hippolytus, Discourse on the Holy Theophany, 8
“When they come to us and to the Church which is one, ought to be baptized, for the reason
that it is a small matter to ‘lay hands on them that they may receive the Holy Ghost,’ unless
they receive also the baptism of the Church. For then finally can they be fully sanctified, and
be the sons of God, if they be born of each sacrament; since it is written, ‘Except a man be
born again of water, and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’…[O]nly
baptism of the holy Church, by divine regeneration, for the kingdom of God, may be born of
both sacraments, because it is written, ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he
cannot enter into the kingdom of God.'”
St. Cyprian of Carthage, To Stephen, 71:72
“We are circumcised not with a fleshly circumcision but with the circumcision of Christ, that
is, we are born again into a new man; for, being buried with Him in His baptism, we must die
to the old man, because the regeneration of baptism has the force of resurrection.”
St. Hilary of Poitiers, Trinity, 9:9
“And with reason; for as we are all from earth and die in Adam,
so being regenerated from above of water and Spirit,
in the Christ we are all quickened.”
St. Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians, III:33
“This then is what it is to be born again of water and of the Spirit, the being made dead being
effected in the water, while our life is wrought in us through the Spirit. In three immersions,
then, and with three invocations, the great mystery of baptism is performed, to the end that
the type of death may be fully figured, and that by the tradition of the divine knowledge the
baptized may have their souls enlightened. It follows that if there is any grace in the water, it
is not of the nature of the water, but of the presence of the Spirit.”
St. Basil, On the Spirit, 15:35
“The birth by water and the Spirit, Himself led the way in this birth, drawing down upon the
water, by His own baptism, the Holy Spirit; so that in all things He became the first-born of
those who are spiritually born again, and gave the name of brethren to those who partook in
a birth like to His own by water and the Spirit.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, 2:8
“The Word recognizes three Births for us; namely, the natural birth,
that of Baptism, and that of the Resurrection…”
St. Gregory of Nazianzen, Oration on Holy Baptism, I
“Therefore, read that the three witnesses in baptism, the water, the blood, and the Spirit, are
one, for if you take away one of these, the Sacrament of Baptism does not exist. For what is
water without the cross of Christ? A common element, without any sacramental effect. Nor,
again, is there the Sacrament of Regeneration without water: ‘For except a man be born
again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.'”
St. Ambrose, On the Mysteries, 4:20
“It is this one Spirit who makes it possible for an infant to be regenerated through the agency
of another’s will when that infant is brought to Baptism; and it is through this one Spirit that
the infant so presented is reborn…’Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit.’
The water, therefore, manifesting exteriorly the sacrament of grace, and the Spirit effecting
interiorly the benefit of grace, both regenerate in one Christ that man who was in one
St. Augustine, To Boniface, Epistle 98:2
"Verily, verily, I say unto thee,
Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…
Truly, truly, I say to you, Except a man be born of water and
of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
John 3, 3, 5