If you asked a Roman Catholic person if he is “born again,” he might reply, “Yes of course.” But he may mean “I was born again when baptized as an infant.” Support for this as the official Roman Catholic view comes from The Catechism.
The seven sacraments of the Church Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist [The Mass], Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony are “all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord” (Paragraph 1114). “The ordained priesthood [ordained by the Roman Catholic Church] guarantees that it really is Christ who acts in the sacraments through the Holy Spirit for the Church” (Paragraph 1120). The sacraments are necessary for salvation (Paragraph 1129). They act ex opere operato—literally, “by the very fact of the actions being performed” (Paragraph 1128). This means independent of any faith on the part of the recipient. And they are efficacious because in them Christ Himself is at work: it is He who baptizes (Paragraph 1128). Furthermore,
Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church…
“Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.” This sacrament is also called “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Paragraphs 1213, 1215).
Of course as Biblicists we understand that being “born again” is synonymous with “regeneration” (Titus 3:5) which occurs in response to the convincing ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11) and our faith-response (John 3:16), even faith alone (Ephesians 2:8,9). This is a destiny-determining difference.
Saved by Grace
Surely we would agree here. Classically evangelicals have understood grace to mean “God’s unmerited favor” or “God’s riches at Christ’s expense,” or “All that God is now free to do for us on the basis of the Cross” (Romans 3:24, Ephesians 2:8-9, among many).
When a Roman Catholic person speaks of being saved by grace he most likely understands grace to mean “merited favor.” This understanding is based on The Catechism. Regarding merit,
Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification… and for the attainment of eternal life. (Paragraph 2010).
We might define faith as believing and relying on the Bible. As regarding salvation, we would define it as trust or reliance on the finished work of Christ without any meriting work as a condition for that salvation.
The typical Roman Catholic person might understand faith as something like believing in God and what the Roman Catholic Church says. In The Catechism we read, “Whoever says ‘I believe’ says ‘I pledge myself to what we believe’ ” (Paragraph 185). So a person of faith believes what the Roman Catholic Church has determined is to be believed. Also,
“Believing” is an ecclesial act. The Church’s faith precedes, engenders, supports, and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers. “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church [i.e. the Roman Catholic Church] as Mother.” (Paragraph 181)
Furthermore, “The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it…Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation” (Paragraph 1816). This certainly sounds like faith plus works as a condition for salvation. And this is typically what a Roman Catholic lay person understands. In a Bible Study I was once conducting, the educated and sincere woman spoke with knowledge beyond my expectation. To the question, “how does one get to heaven?” she quickly answered, “Jesus died to open the doors of the kingdom that I might get there by faith plus good works, perhaps by way of Purgatory.”
Some Roman Catholics (and some evangelicals) may have a sufficient appreciation for the issue of justification to enter into conversation about it. The common evangelical understanding of justification is that a person is justified or made “right with God” when he is reconciled to God through faith in the person and redemptive work of Christ. Justification means a person is declared righteous by God and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. Some readers will be familiar with Luther’s declaration, “It [this doctrine of justification] is the articulus stantis et candentis ecclesiae, the article by which the church stands or falls.”
Herein lies a very basic difference we have with the Roman Catholic system. The decisions of The Council of Trent on justification, which met from 1546-1563, “are still the official doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.” As this Council was concluding, the inherent view of justification (as opposed to the imputed view) was approved1 by a vote of 32 to 5, and the Council opted for a transformationist view of justification.2 This view teaches the gradual input of righteousness, slowly making a person more justified, more right with God. And a Roman Catholic never knows when he has received enough righteousness, therefore he can never be certain of eternal salvation. Even to this day it is considered heresy if one claims to have certainty of salvation.
What a difference!
Don’t Cloud and Confuse Evangelism
In summary, these and other terms, if differently understood by Roman Catholic individuals, will make communication difficult and often lead us to assume that the Roman Catholic person is a believer when that may not actually be true. As an example, if a Roman Catholic friend says “Yes, I was born again and received Jesus Christ as my Savior,” you might think, “Here is a brother in Christ.” But he might be saying, “I was baptized as an infant, thus born again. And I receive Jesus Christ every Sunday when I partake of the Eucharist.”
Or if a Roman Catholic friend says yes to the question, “Do you believe the Bible?” you might assume we have the same authority base. But your Catholic friend might mean “Yes, I believe the Bible plus Tradition. And I really can’t interpret the Bible. I will need to depend on the priest to tell me what it means.”
Or he might say, “Yes I know we are saved by grace.” But he may be thinking that grace includes “merited favor,” rather than an unmerited gift as we understand the Bible to teach.
So it becomes clear that we must be careful to clarify word meanings in our loving effort to explain the biblical grace gospel to a lost Roman Catholic person.
Larry Miller is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and ministered as a pastor for over 30 years in Louisiana. He is currently Executive Director of Equippers Ministry International, a ministry to assist in lovingly evangelizing Roman Catholics. He is a member of IFCA International.