What Every Roman Catholic Needs to Know
Salvation, Part 3
By Anthony Pezzotta
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless be is born again.” (John 3:3)
In the Philippines in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, many Roman Catholic priests taught that Jesus did not teach the necessity of being born again, but of being born from above. They insisted on this distinction in an attempt to warn Catholics against certain Charismatic groups, popularly called “the born-agains.” They argued that the primary meaning of the Greek word that Jesus used is not “again,” but “from above.” Thus, The Jerusalem Bible translates the phrase “born again” as “born from above“:
Jesus answered, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born from above, be cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Actually, the Greek word used by Jesus in His conversation with Nicodemus can be translated either “again” or “from above,” depending on the context.  Nicodemus’ response to Jesus would indicate that he understood Jesus to mean “again” or “a second time“:
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time in his mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4).
What he did not understand was the nature of this second birth – that it would be a spiritual birth, a birth that is “of the Spirit.” It doesn’t matter which translation is used because both statements are true: A person must be born again and from above if he is to enter the kingdom of heaven. Either translation communicates the necessity of a second birth.
No one can doubt the necessity of being born again in order to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus Himself stated it three times in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. John repeats the statement in the first chapter of his Gospel and in his first epistle. Peter expresses the same truth in his first letter. The expressions “born again,” “born from above,” “born of God,” and “born of the Spirit” are perfect synonyms. Jesus made it very clear in His conversation with Nicodemus that to be born again one must trust or believe in Jesus for forgiveness of sins and for eternal life (John 3:3, 5, 7, 15-17).
Comparing the Teaching of the Catholic Church with the teaching of the Word of God
A simple comparison will show the contrast between the clear teaching of God’s Word and the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning how a person is born again.
The Word of God
Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent … but born of God. (John 1:12, 13, NIV).
The Teaching of the Catholic Church
Baptism, the gate to the sacraments, neces-sary for salvation, by which men and women are freed from their sins, are reborn [born again] as children of God and, configured to Christ by an indelible character, are incorpo-rated in the Church, is validly conferred only by washing with true water together with the required form of words. (New Code of the Roman Catholic Canon Law, 1983).
Both God’s Word and the Catholic Church speak of the necessity of receiving forgiveness of sins and being born again as children of God. However, they teach two different ways for accomplishing this. God’s Word teaches that a person is born again through faith in Christ. The Catholic Church teaches that a person is born again by baptism.
Born of Water
One reason Catholics believe that a person is born again by baptism is the Roman Catholic interpretation of the phrase “born of water,” which Jesus used in talking with Nicodemus about the new birth:
I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, be cannot enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:5).
Roman Catholics are taught that the expression “born of water” refers to baptism. They often appeal to this verse in defense of their conviction that baptism is the sacrament by which men are “reborn as children of God.” If the phrase “born of water” does refer to baptism, then their convictions are justified. What did Jesus mean by this expression? There are several different interpretations:
1. Born of water is a reference to spiritual cleansing from sin.
One possible interpretation is that to be born of water is to be cleansed from sin by the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament frequently uses water as a symbol of cleansing (Numbers 19:20, 21; Psalm 51:2; Isaiah 4:4; Zechariah 13:1). There is one messianic passage in Ezekiel 36 that may well have been in the mind of Jesus as he talked with Nicodemus late into the night. Since Nicodemus was a Pharisee and familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures, he also would have been familiar with this passage:
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
The following chart identifies some obvious parallels between the prophecy of Ezekiel concerning the new covenant and the coming of the kingdom, and the words of Jesus to Nicodemus concerning how a person can enter the kingdom of God.
Ezekiel 36:25-27: “I will sprinkle clean water on you … I will cleanse you from all your impurities.”
John 3:5, 6: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water …”
Interpretation: All who enter the kingdom of God will have been cleansed from sin.
Ezekiel 36:25-27: “I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you …”
John 3:5, 6: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again …”
Interpretation: All who enter the kingdom of God will have been made new in their spirit …
Ezekiel 36:25-27: “I will put my Spirit in you, and move you to follow my decrees …”
John 3:5, 6: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born of the water and the Spirit …”
Interpretation: Cleansing from sin and the new birth is the work of the Spirit of God.
Water is also a symbol of cleansing in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:26; Hebrews 10:22). One thing God does in saving a person is to wash his sins away (1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5).
By using the phrase “born of water and the Spirit”, Jesus taught that unless one is spiritually clean and pure, he cannot enter the kingdom of God, and this cleansing can be only the work of the Holy Spirit.
2. “Born of water” is an idiomatic expression referring to physical birth.
A second possible interpretation is that John 3:6, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit,” is an explanation of the phrase “born of water and the spirit” in John 3:5. Thus, “born of water” is a reference to physical birth, and “born of spirit” to spiritual birth, In order to enter the kingdom of heaven, a person must be born twice. He must be born physically (of the flesh) and then spiritually (of the spirit).
The unborn child in the mother’s womb literally lives in water. The rupture of the water sac is a sign of physical birth. In parts of Greece and southern Italy today, people will idiomatically refer to a woman about to give birth as one who is “losing water.”
Some minor manuscripts have the word “For” at the beginning of verse six: “For that which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of Spirit is spirit.” If verse 6 began in this way, this would be the most probable interpretation. Unfortunately, none of the most reliable manuscripts have the word “for,” so that such an interpretation remains possible, but not sure.
3. Water refers to a cleansing by the Word of God.
Some believe that water refers to the Word of God which brings conviction and leads to repentance and faith. They quote the apostle Peter who said:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1:23).
Paul says that faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Jesus Himself said:
You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you (John 15:3).
Some see this cleansing to be a true repentance in response to the Word of God that accompanies faith and brings about spiritual rebirth.
4. Water is a reference to baptism.
As we have already mentioned, Roman Catholics (along with Greek Orthodox and others) understand water to refer to the sacrament of baptism. The only baptism known at that time was the baptism of John. Jesus makes no reference to John’s baptism in this passage. Probably Nicodemus knew about such baptism, but he would have been more familiar with the Old Testament references to water as a symbol of spiritual cleansing. If by “born of water,” Jesus meant that baptism was necessary for salvation, we would expect Jesus to explain further. This fourth interpretation is not only improbable, but it contradicts the clear teaching of the Word of God that salvation is by faith in Christ alone.
The Teaching of Jesus about the New Birth
Jesus taught consistently that eternal life is granted to those who believe in Jesus, not to those who are baptized.
16 For God so loved the world that be gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son …. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him (John 3:16-18, 36).
I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life (John 5:24, TEV).
For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:40).
God gives eternal life to those who believe in Jesus (John 3:15, 16, 18, 36). Jesus taught what it means to believe with an illustration from the Old Testament:
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14, 15).
The illustration comes from the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness after they had been delivered out of Egypt through the Red Sea. The Israelites were complaining about the limited supply of food and water in the desert. They doubted God’s love and His ability to provide for their needs. They grumbled at God for bringing them into the desert “to die,” and they whimpered about the taste of the manna God sent from heaven.
Because of their rebellion, God sent snakes, fangs full of poison, to execute judgment. Many Israelites died (See Numbers 21:8-9). Out of His great mercy, God provided a remedy for anyone who would believe and receive it. He commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole, and promised that anyone who looked at it would live. Some may have tried desperately to get rid of the venom from their systems. But only those who believed God’s Word through Moses, and looked at the bronze snake lifted up by Moses, were actually healed and saved.
The parallel Jesus intended to draw is clear:
The Old Testament Illustration: Rebellious Israelites
The New Testament Equivalent: All human beings
The Old Testament Illustration: Bitten by venomous snakes causing physical death
The New Testament Equivalent: Affected by sin causing spiritual death
The Old Testament Illustration: Were saved, not by trying one’s best, but by believing God’s Word, looking with faith at the serpent
The New Testament Equivalent: Are saved, not by trying one’s best, but by believing God’s Word and looking with faith to Jesus
What is the relationship in John chapter three between being born again (verse 3) and receiving eternal life (verses 16-18, 36)?
In John chapter three, Jesus drew a parallel between the way physical life begins and the way spiritual life begins. We are born physically into this world, and in the same way, we are born spiritually into the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5). Those who are born again receive eternal life just as those who are born naturally receive physical life. A person is born again and receives eternal life when he believes in Jesus (John 3:15, 16).
There is absolutely nothing one can or must do in order to deserve physical life. It is completely a gift of God through one’s parents. Likewise salvation or eternal life is completely a gift of God through Jesus Christ. It is not merited nor earned:
He saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us by the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
Apart from Christ, though we are alive physically, we are dead spiritually – we have physical life, but we do not have spiritual nor eternal life. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, God has made eternal life available to all who are alive physically. It is offered, but it is not imposed. Therefore, it must be received:
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12, NIV).
– A spiritual birth (being born again) is necessary before anyone can see the kingdom of God. John 3:3
– A person receives eternal life by believing and trusting in Jesus Christ. John 3:14, 15, John 6:40
While studying theology in England I began to have serious doubts concerning several doctrines of my Church which I found difficult to reconcile with Scripture. These doubts continued to trouble me even after my ordination, while serving as missionary to the Philippines, but I endeavored to smother them by plunging into my duties and teaching assignments. My schedule was so heavy that I had little time for research or prayer.
After ten years of such hard work I had to return to Italy for a year of rest and recuperation. Without the pressure of heavy work my doubts about the Church doctrines revived and increased, as did my determination to find satisfactory solutions. I read incessantly and pondered the writings of our great theologians as well as the teachings of the Popes, but all my doubts persisted. I discovered the incompatibility of such traditional Church doctrines as sacramentalism, special priesthood of a selected caste, mediation of Mary and the saints, use of statues and images, papal infallibility, immaculate conception and assumption of Mary, baptismal regeneration of infants, the sacrificial nature of the Mass, compulsory celibacy of bishops and priests, saving faith merely as intellectual assent rather than trust in the person of Christ, etc. When compared with the clear teaching of Scripture, I still doubted whether the church and the Pope after all might really have authority over the Word of God.
Upon returning to the Philippines in 1972 I remembered laying aside all my books of theology, determined to focus my attention on a single Book, the Word of God, particularly the New Testament. The Bible became the source of my reading, meditation, teaching and preaching. In a relatively short time the Bible answered all my questions and solved all my doubts, including the big doubt on the teaching authority of the Church and the so-called apostolic tradition. “Even if we,” writes Paul, “or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: -If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than the one you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:8-9)
At the end of January, 1974, I was in Santa Cruz, South of Manila, where an attractive Conservative Baptist Church had just been built. I had never entered a Protestant church, so I walked quietly into the sanctuary just to look around. Almost immediately I was greeted by a friendly Christian believer. He insisted upon introducing me to the pastor, Ernesto Montealegre, a wonderful man of God.
We talked together for a couple of hours, I doing all I could to make him a Catholic, and he quietly answering all my questions and objections from the Bible, which, as a Catholic priest, I accepted to be God’s Word. I did not succeed in converting him to Catholicism, but neither did he convert me to Protestantism. Nevertheless, most of his answers from Scripture, coupled with his sincere love struck me with great force.
From that day a period of restless anxiety started: sleepless nights, agonizing indecision, and a frightening lack of courage to profess and teach the truth of Scripture. During one of those nights, while reading the letter of Paul to Titus, my attention was caught by verse 5 in the third chapter: “He saved us not because of righteous things we have done but because of His mercy.”
I realized that while I had belief in Christ, all my trust for a possible (I wasn’t sure) eternal life was in myself, in my attainments, in my works. In fact this was my attitude: After all, I thought, I am faithful to my vows, to the laws of the church and of my order; because of all this, I hope God will give me eternal life in heaven. Realizing that for all my life I had trusted in myself rather than in Christ, I began to fear that perhaps I was not a Christian. What was I to do? If I started living and preaching according to God’s Word, soon my bishop and religious superior would order me either to stop or leave. If I took the initiative to leave the priesthood and the church, what would my mother and my relatives say? Their greatest joy and pride was to have a missionary priest in their family. What would my bishop, colleagues and students say? They loved and admired me. “What would people say?” This was my concern.
On the night of February 20, 1974, while I was alone in my room reading the Gospel of John, the Lord answered: “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in Him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.” (John 12:42-43).
Those last words penetrated my heart like a sharp sword, but they also filled me with strength and courage. I realized I had been putting men’s approval ahead of God’s truth. I repented and felt free! That night I slept without the pain and agonizing indecision of those terrible weeks. The following morning as I awoke, the picture of that kindly Baptist pastor came to my mind. I dressed hastily and drove to his church where we talked for some time. He gave me some pamphlets which I gladly accepted. Then as we were parting I unexpectedly asked him: “In case I leave my church can I come to stay with you? Would you accept me?” He smiled, saying: “We have a room here, and the believers will take care of you!”
It took me five long days of prayer before making a decision. I wrongly thought that now all depended on me. But when I thought I had decided, I felt I completely lacked the courage of carrying out my decision!
On Tuesday, February 26, as I awoke and prayed, I realized that the main issue was not leaving the church, but really accepting Christ Jesus alone as my Saviour and Lord of my life. So I did, by God’s grace, surrendering to Him all that I had and was. I told Him to take over the direction of my life. And He did. He gave me the strength now that I belonged to Him. I left everything behind: car, books, career … I wrote a letter of resignation to my bishop and went to live with my new-found spiritual family in Santa Cruz.
What a change! I felt free at last: free from sin, because Jesus had paid for it: free from the slavery of the opinion of others, for at last I could live and preach according to God’s Word. How true Christ’s words became for me – If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
On March 3rd at 12:00 noon I publicly confessed my evangelical faith and was baptized in the Santa Cruz River which flows behind the church. I was filled with joy, and knew freedom from doubt beyond all description. I remember one priest who visited me a few days later asking: “Tony, how did you dare make such a decision? You have left the CATHOLIC Church: twenty centuries of culture, popes, saints, the priesthood, all that you have learned and loved so sincerely for so long!” And I remember giving him the answer which came from my heart: “I don’t think I really left anything: rather, I FOUND EVERYTHING WHEN I FOUND Christ!”
If you want to receive the gift of eternal life, you may do so by simply calling upon the Lord in prayer. You may want to say this prayer:
Oh God, I am a sinner. I am separated from you because of my sin. I know that you sent Jesus to save me. Right now I trust Him alone to save me, and receive Him by faith as my Savior and Lord. Please take away my sin, make me your child, and help me to live in a way that pleases you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
 anothen: 1. Locally from above. 2. Temporally – a. from the beginning. B. for a long time. 3. Again, anew. Walter Bauer, (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Otber Early Christian Literature), Revised and augmented by FW Gingrich and Frederick Danker, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1979).
 The phrase “born of water and Spirit” in the original Greek language can possibly be translated “born of the Spirit as of water.” It is a common case of comparison, expressed with two nouns. Another example of this kind of comparison is found in Matthew 3:11 where John says that he baptizes with water, but that Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” or “with the Holy Spirit as with fire.” The meaning of the phrase “born of water and the Spirit” is that the Spirit cleanses spiritually in the same way that water does physically.