Long before Evangelicals were calling themselves “Born Again Christians” in the twentieth century, Catholics were referring to themselves that way. For example, the Latin name “Renatus” (the root of names like Renée) means “Born Again” – that is, the notion of being born again was significant enough that parents wanted to name their kids after it.
Interestingly, the Council of Trent also refers to being born again, saying that just as “men, if they were not born propagated of the seed of Adam, would not be born unjust,” so too, “if they were not born again in Christ, they never would be justified.” Between the Fifth and Sixth Session of the Council of Trent alone, the Council uses the phrase “born again” some eight times, in fact, cautioning, in the words of Our Savior (John 3:5) that “unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.“
But what Trent meant by “born again” is not what most modern users of the term mean by it; or at least, not necessarily. What most self-proclaimed “born again Christians” mean is that they’ve turned towards Christ, and have begun to believe in Him. That’s not what the Church, or Christ, meant by it, although it’s not terribly off the mark, either. We can know it’s not what Christ meant because, if it was, Nicodemus already would have been born again.
Look at Nicodemus’ life in the Gospels. He’s not a particularly bold Christian, but he’s a devoted follower of Christ nonetheless. Like many of us, he struggles with fear of what others will think, so he meets with Jesus at night (John 3:2). This fear is likely more acute, because Nicodemus “was a member of the Jewish ruling council” (John 3:1). His major leap of faith was in standing up for Jesus against the rest of the chief priests and Pharisees in John 7:45-52, and after Christ’s Passion and Death on the Cross, it’s Nicodemus who joins with Joseph of Arimathea (another secret disciple of Christ – see John 19:38), and the two of them are the ones who bury Christ (John 19:38-42).
He hasn’t come to meet Jesus on John 3 because he wants to trick Him. He’s come to meet Jesus to learn at the feet of someone he realizes is greater than he, and like many of Jesus’ other disciples (see Mark 11:21, John 1:38, John 1:49, etc.), he calls Him “Rabbi,” a term all the more striking, given that it comes from a man used to being called Rabbi himself (Jesus calls Him a “master of Israel” in John 3:10). And more strikingly, Nicodemus calls him “a Teacher who has come from God,” one of the earliest recognitions that Christ is no mere Rabbi, Rabbi though He is (John 3:2). He almost seems to be grasping what Jesus means when He calls Himself “the Bread come down from Heaven” (John 6:41). And when Christ reveals in John 3 that He’s the Son, Nicodemus doesn’t seem to miss a beat. He stays faithful in his own meek way.
In other words, Nicodemus is like many Christians: he’s got a general (but perhaps blurry) idea of Jesus’ importance, a desire to follow Him, a bit of confusion about what His teachings mean, and a little embarrassment and fear about what others might think — or in his case, do, since following Christ shortened many lives. But when Jesus tells Nicodemus to be “born again,” He’s calling him to do something new. So we can know it isn’t what we’ve addressed so far.
So how are we born again? Trent tells us: it’s Baptism. And the context of John 3 tells us that, as well. Here, most Bibles do us a disservice, by dividing John 3:1-21 from the rest of the chapter through the use of subheadings. The transition in John 3:22 is totally vital. Here it is, back in its original context:
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.
And lest there be any confusion, Peter is absolutely explicit that Baptism saves, through faith (see 1 Peter 3:18-22, particularly 1 Peter 3:21), and John the Baptist is clear that Christ’s Baptism, unlike John’s own, isn’t a mere Baptism in water, but imparts the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11). That is, it’s a washing of “water and the Spirit,” unlike John’s washing of just water. Paul is clear that it is in Baptism that we put on Christ (Galatians 3:27), and are buried with Him (Romans 6:3-4, Colossians 2:12). And Ananias explains to Paul that Baptism is necessary to wash away sins (Acts 22:16), even though Paul had already believed by this point (cf. Acts 22:13). This is the clear testament of Scripture. This is how you’re born again, this is how you’re saved.