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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
Jesus Christ our Savior
Titus 3, 5-6

Since ancient times, Catholics have rightly understood that 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.”

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}

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).


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” (cf. Jn 3:31). 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 new 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 writes, “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, the apostle 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 through the regenerating water of baptism by which we are washed and sanctified.


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 justified and 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. 


Anyway, 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 river 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 shall pour 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 other words, we must be baptized.

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.”
St. 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
(A.D. 190)


“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
(A.D. 217)


“[W]hen 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
(A.D. 253)


“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
(A.D. 359)


“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
(A.D. 360)


“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
(A.D. 375)


“[T]he 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
(A.D. 382)


“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
(A.D. 388)


“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
(A.D. 391)


“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
(A.D. 408)


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, 5


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