“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3)
My godly Evangelical mother used to “witness” when we were out shopping. She’d ask the storekeeper, “Have you been born again?” If the conversation got going she’d relate the story of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus in the third chapter of John’s gospel. I don’t know if she ever succeeded in making a convert, but she succeeded in embarrassing me somewhat. I’m now embarrassed that I was embarrassed and, in hindsight, admire her courage, faith and zeal.
The question remains, however, “Just what is a ‘born-again Christian'”? Most Evangelicals would say that being ‘born again’ or ‘getting saved’ consists of a personal conversion experience. In some way the individual has a prodigal son moment and ‘comes to himself.’ He repents of his sin and turns to Jesus Christ for salvation. He does this by saying ‘the sinner’s prayer’ which is very simply, “Lord Jesus, I’m sorry for my sins and I want to accept your gift of forgiveness and salvation. Come into my life and make me your disciple forever.”
That’s all well and good I suppose, and if this is all that is required to be “born again” then every Catholic is a “born-again Christian” because at every Mass we confess our sins and accept Jesus. At every baptism we confess our sins and accept Jesus. At every celebration of the sacrament of confession we confess our sins and accept the forgiveness of Jesus.
The problem between Evangelicals and Catholics does not come with this core definition and basic experience. The difficulty comes in what comes next. Essentially the Evangelical (and I know I’m making generalizations and that there is a spectrum of theological opinions within Evangelicalism) doesn’t think there is anything next — at least not anything that is necessary. Once the person says the sinner’s prayer he’s got his ticket to heaven, and nothing else is required. This is a consequence of the Evangelical Protestant’s loathing of anything that smacks of “salvation by works.” He wants salvation to have no strings attached. Nothing else is necessary — not even the sacrament of baptism.
The Catholic, on the other hand, quotes the New Testament and says, “Repent and be baptized.” The simple action of faith has to be combined with the sacrament of baptism. Evangelicals should understand that we do not regard baptism (or any of the sacraments) as something we do as some kind of good work. Instead, baptism is God’s action toward us. It is a completely unmerited outflowing of God’s grace toward us. This is why we emphasize baptism as the “born again” experience rather than the “sinner’s prayer,” which definitely is something a person does.
This is the irony from our point of view: Evangelicals say we believe in a salvation by works because we insist on sacraments. Yet our true belief is that the sacraments are the actions of Christ through his Church pouring out his grace on us unmerited sinners. He sends out the invitations. He sets the table for the feast. He cooks the meal and serves at table. All we do is turn up. The irony is deepened because Evangelicals claim not to have a religion based on works, but they ask their converts to say the sinner’s prayer, which is a kind of work of salvation.
Furthermore, for the Catholic, the action of faith is a continuing action. All our ‘good works’ are ‘works of faith.’ They are filled with faith and are faith in action. Instead of a once-and-done decision of ‘getting saved,’ Catholics know that faith is a commitment and continuance in a newly graced way of life. Being born again is all well and good, but if that’s all there is, we’re concerned at the alarming rate of infant mortality.
Lest any Evangelicals think I’m throwing stones, I’m alarmed at the high rate of spiritual infant mortality amongst the Catholics as well as among the Evangelicals. A Baptist pastor friend of mine once asked me how many of the children I baptized grew up to be active and committed church members. I guessed maybe one in ten. He smiled and said he had about the same drop-off rate among adult converts whom he baptized.
I mentioned that Evangelicals don’t want there to be any sniff of salvation by works. However, it would be wrong to suppose that they don’t care about spiritual maturity, keeping the converts committed and living the life of faith. They do, and they work hard to make sure the faith sticks. What Evangelicals need to realize is that Catholics are also “born-again Christians.” We’ve repented and accepted Jesus. It’s just that we’ve done so in a different context and with some different basic assumptions — ones that, if you stopped to understand them, actually complement and complete what you already believe.