Sunday, January 10, 2010

Are You Born Again?

(Baptism of the Lord (C): This homily was given on January 10, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Titus 2: 11-14; 3: 4-7; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22; John 3.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Baptism of the Lord 2010]

“Are you born again?”

Catholics are often asked that question by Protestant friends and acquaintances, and many of them are not sure how to respond.

Well, if you’re one of those unsure Catholics, today’s homily will hopefully provide you with the insights you need to answer properly in the future.

First of all, it’s important to note that Protestants who ask that question—“Are you born again?”—believe that a person is born again when they consciously embrace faith in Jesus Christ, according to what St. Paul tells us in Romans 10: 9-10. There St. Paul writes, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Faith in the heart leads to justification, confession on the lips to salvation.”

This is why preachers like Bill Graham always end their sermons with an “altar call,” in which they invite people to come forward and “accept Jesus Christ” by praying what’s known as “the sinner’s prayer.” In that prayer, people confess that they’re sinners who are in need of forgiveness; but they also confess that they believe Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead for the forgiveness of their sins. They then ask Jesus to forgive them, to come into their hearts, and to be the Lord of their lives.

They confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord; they profess their belief that God raised him from the dead—in other words they fulfill the two conditions that St. Paul mentions in Romans 10: 9—and so, at that precise moment, they believe they are “born again” or “saved.”

Our understanding as Catholics is quite different—although I will say that publicly professing your faith that Jesus is Lord and that God the Father raised him from the dead is a very good thing! We do that, after all, every Sunday and holy day when we profess the Nicene Creed. Our young people are invited to do it Protestant-style at almost every Steubenville East Youth Conference. And I think it’s great when it happens—not because I believe the teens are getting “born again” when they do it—but simply because I think it strengthens their faith when they’re able to proclaim it in that fashion.

The expression “born again” or “born from above” (“gennatha anothen” in the original Greek), comes from John, chapter 3. There Jesus is having a conversation with a devout Pharisee named Nicodemus, and during the course of their discussion Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again." [Other translations have "born from above".]

Obviously this is an extremely important teaching to understand, because nothing less than our eternal salvation is at stake! Note the words of Jesus here. He says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”


This is an absolute requirement for getting into heaven! It’s not an option.

Now you know why our Protestant brothers and sisters are so consumed with the idea! And that’s good; they should be. We all should be.

The problem is, they don’t read the rest of the passage in John 3; consequently, they ignore the very important line in which Jesus indicates exactly how a person is born again! Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can a person once grown old be born again: surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” To which our Lord responds, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

To be “born again” or “born from above”—according to Jesus Christ—means to be “born of water and Spirit.”

And that, my brothers and sisters, is baptism!

In the waters of baptism, we are born again! That is to say, we are “regenerated” spiritually—given new life in Jesus Christ. This is exactly what St. Paul is talking about in our second reading when he says to Titus that God in his mercy has saved us “through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”

Baptismal grace is sanctifying grace. This is the grace that makes us pleasing to God; the grace that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead to give us; the grace that we need in our souls in order to get into heaven.

Sanctifying grace: don’t leave earth at the end of your life without it!

This, incidentally, is what it means to have original sin taken away. Original sin is not like the personal sins we commit on a daily basis. When we say that a person is born with original sin, what we mean is that the person is born into this world without sanctifying grace.

However, at the moment of baptism, that saving grace comes into the person’s soul. Original sin is taken away, as are all of their personal sins (if they’re being baptized after they’ve attained the age of reason).

In baptism we also receive the Holy Spirit for the first time (as Paul indicates in that text from Titus 3); through baptism we become members of God’s family, the Church; through baptism we have access to the other sacraments; and, through baptism, we become God’s adopted sons and daughters and heirs to the kingdom of heaven.

Does that mean we are guaranteed eternal life?

No. We can lose sanctifying grace by committing a mortal sin. But, thankfully, God has provided the means for us to get this necessary grace back again after baptism—through sacramental confession.

Jesus, obviously, did not need Christian baptism. But he submitted to the baptism of John (which prefigured Christian baptism) as an act of humility, and, as he said, to “fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, he identified himself with sinners (even though he had no sin himself), in order to set us an example on how to get free from our sins through sacramental baptism.

So now you know what to say the next time a Protestant friend asks you the question, “Are you born again?” You should immediately respond, “Of course! Of course I’m born again! I’ve been born again of water and the Spirit through sacramental baptism, according to the words of Jesus in John, chapter 3.”

But let me warn you, your Protestant friend might then ask you a follow-up question. He might say to you, “Great! But are you living your life like a born again person?”

I can’t tell you how to answer that one. I hope that in all honesty you could say Yes! But if you couldn’t honestly do that, I hope that you would say, “No, I haven’t been living like someone who’s born again, but I will do my best to live that way from now on!”