Baptism and Being “Born Again”

The first sacrament I will review is Baptism.  There are basically two ways to view Baptism within the Christian world.  Wikipedia sums it up well:

Historically, Christianity has used various metaphors to describe its rite of initiation, that is, spiritual regeneration via the sacrament of baptism by the power of the water and the spirit.  This remains the common understanding in most of Christendom, held, for example, in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and in much of Protestantism.  However, sometime after the Reformation, Evangelicalism attributed greater significance to the expression born again as an experience of religious conversion (Heb 10:16), symbolized by deep-water baptism, and rooted in a commitment to one’s own personal faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.

Almost as common as the question that will come from many Evangelicals – “Are you saved?”  is this one – “Have you been born again?”  For most, these questions are one and the same.  As the wiki article states, most of Christianity understands that to be “born again” as mentioned in Sacred Scripture is to be baptized.  This is not a divide between Catholics and Protestants.  Groups like the Anglicans (Episcopalians), Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Church of Christ would agree with the Catholics on this, and of course the Orthodox Churches as well.  However when the “Anabaptists” appear on the scene, they disagree with the original Protestants about the purpose of Baptism.  From their perspective, Baptism is only valid when a person professes faith in Christ and requests to be baptized.  This came to be known as “believer’s Baptism.”  They also have the view that Baptism is only a symbol of the salvation that occurred when a believer comes to faith and is “born again,” and while important to do has no bearing on an individual’s salvation.  Evangelicals, Baptists, Fundamentalists, Mennonites etc.  have their foundation in this branch of the Christian tree. 

The Scriptural reference to being “born again” is from John 3:1-8 and Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus — “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode′mus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.‘  Nicode′mus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’  Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, 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.  Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.’”

John MacArthur in his study bible provides a view of this from an Evangelical perspective — “New birth is an act of God whereby eternal life is imparted to the believer….Jesus referred not to literal water here but to the need for “cleansing.”  When water is used figuratively in the OT, it is habitually refers to renewal or spiritual cleansing, especially when used in conjunction with “spirit.”  Thus, Jesus made reference to the spiritual washing or purification of the soul, accomplished by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God at the moment of salvation.”

We would agree with MacArthur’s view that Jesus is speaking of the necessity for spiritual cleansing.  But we would disagree with the idea he’s not referring to literal water.  The idea that water is used “figuratively” in the Old Testament is most puzzling, for in all of these Old Testament instances the water is not “figurative” at all, but real water.  In fact, just prior to this encounter with Nicodemus we have just seen water (real water) and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove together at the Baptism of Christ (John 1:32, Matthew 3:16).  While we do not believe Christ needed to be baptized to be “born again,” he is by his actions showing us the way.  Original creation had fallen by the sin of Adam, and Christ is the new Adam (Romans 5:14, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 15:45).  Creation is being “born again” in him, which is why St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  The catechism says speaking of Christ’s Baptism — “The Spirit whom Jesus possessed in fullness from his conception comes to “rest on him”.  Jesus will be the source of the Spirit for all mankind.  At his baptism “the heavens were opened” – the heavens that Adam’s sin had closed – and the waters were sanctified by the descent of Jesus and the Spirit, a prelude to the new creation.”  (CCC536) Christ’s presence in the water sanctifies it and begins the process of creation being “born again.”

John the Baptist tells us there will be a difference between his Baptism and the one of Christ.  He says “I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”  (John 1:31), and “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”  (John 1:33).  From the Catholic perspective, John is contrasting his Baptism with that of Christ’s and that while he is baptizing with water only, Christ will baptize with water and the Holy Spirit.  If we do not interpret it in this way, and view that Christ’s Baptism by the Holy Spirit is “spiritual” in nature only and without water, then Baptism by water should have ended with John and been replaced by a spiritual only BaptismBut that is not what happens.  I would also remind us that just because Sacred Scripture refers to something as being “spiritual” that does not necessarily mean there is no physical aspect.  It simply means it is under the dominion of the Spirit.  This is why even though St. Paul refers to Christ as having a “spiritual” body after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:44), we do not interpret that to mean his physical, natural body was not resurrected.  He did, after all, still bear the wounds of the crucifixion (John 20:27) and eat (Luke 24:41-42) and his physical body was no longer in the tomb (Luke 24:3).  Rather, his physical body was resurrected, glorified, and now under the dominion of the Holy Spirit – hence a “spiritual” body.  Likewise, Christian Baptism is now under the dominion of the Holy Spirit and not by water only as was St. John’s.

Nicodemus is confused when Christ tells him when that he must be “born again.”  His focus is on his birth into the world from his mother’s womb.  Christ however is referring to how creation must be “born again” and become new.  And when we look at the original birth of creation, we find that water (literal water, not figurative) and the Holy Spirit are old, old friends.  The second verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:2 tells us that at the moment of the first creation, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”  This original creation was corrupted by the sin of our first parents, and indeed must be reborn.  We indeed must be born again by “water and the Spirit,” as creation was born the first time by “water and the Spirit.”  And as St. Paul says, when we are “in Christ” we become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).  And how do we get “in Christ” according to St. Paul?  We are baptized into him (Romans 6:3-4, Galatians 3:27).

Genesis and the Baptism of Christ are not the only times we see the Holy Spirit and water together.  It is a theme that runs throughout Sacred Scripture.  We see the world “created anew” after the great flood beginning in Genesis 7.  This is most definitely real water.  And when Noah wants to know how far the waters have receded, he sends a dove forth over the water of this new creation (Genesis 8:8-12), just as we see the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove at the Baptism of Christ, and the Spirit moving over the waters in Genesis 1:2.  St. Peter writes about this in 1 Peter 3:20-21 — “when 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 waterBaptism, 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.”  Some want to dismiss this as a reference to Baptism saving, because they will say that the people in the ark did not get wet.  But if we reduce Old Testament imagery in this way, we will often miss the point.  The sinfulness of the world was destroyed by water in the flood.  St. Peter likens this to the Baptism that now saves us, not because the very real water physically removes dirt from our body but because the sinfulness in our soul is destroyed. 

We see another manifestation of water and the Holy Spirit in the book of Exodus when the Israelites are led by the pillar of cloud and fire across the Red Sea into freedom from their captors (Exodus 14).  Fire represents the Holy Spirit in Christian typology (Acts 2:3).  While another example where the Israelites do not get wet, St. Paul refers to this salvation event for them as being “baptized” into Moses (1 Corinthians 10:2).  The Egyptians who held the Israelites in bondage are washed away by the water, and the nation of Israel, a “new creation” comes forth out of the water.  In Baptism, the sin that holds us in bondage is destroyed by the water, and we come forth as a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We see a reference to water and the Spirit again when God promises to restore the nation of Israel.  “For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.  (Ezekiel 36:24-27).  This promise from this sprinkling of water is that the Holy Spirit will dwell within them.

Nicodemus misses all of this because he fails to reach back into his Jewish history to understand what Christ means by being “born anew by water and the Spirit.”  Christ asks him “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?”  (John 3:10).  So does Christ leave him in the dark?  It’s doubtful.  Key to the story is what happens next, because immediately after this encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus begins to baptize people.  And clearly, he is baptizing with water, as that passages correlates to John also baptizing with water in another region.  The passage says “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized.  John also was baptizing at Ae′non near Salim, because there was much water there; and people came and were baptized.”  (John 3:22-23).  While we’re not told this in Sacred Scripture, I’d like to think Nicodemus was first in line, and it became clear to him what it meant to be “born again.”  Do we accept that St. John was correct when he said when Jesus baptized it would be with the Holy Spirit?  (John 1:33) If so, immediately after Jesus told Nicodemus he must be “born anew by water and the Spirit,” Christ begins to baptize people with water and with the Holy Spirit…

At Pentecost, we see another reference to baptism and the Holy Spirit when St. Peter first preaches the Gospel.  “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, 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 2:37-38)

As I said, the Holy Spirit and water are old, old friends.  And by water and the Spirit, we are indeed born again and made new.  When the water in the Baptismal font is blessed, the Spirit of God moves over the face of the waters just as happened in the first creation (Genesis 1:2).

I will continue to look at Baptism in Sacred Scripture in my next post. 

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