The Gospel of John recounts a clandestine meeting, under the cover of darkness, between Jesus and a ruler of the Jews, a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Most people I know are quite familiar with the passage in Chapter 3. The late Evangelist, Billy Graham, brought listeners to it often.
Nicodemus opens the meeting by telling Jesus how esteemed He is in the thoughts of many, that He is a “teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Jesus does not reflect on Himself but reverts the conversation to Nicodemus by telling him that, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).
Thus begin the Pharisee’s questions: “A person cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again can he?” Jesus’ explanation may seem clear to the reader, but Nicodemus has trouble with it. “How can this happen?” How can one be born from above? Jesus chides this leader of the Jews, “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this?” Then Jesus helps Nicodemus turn from earthly things to Heavenly (John 3:10-21).
A Personal Experience
Many years ago, I was confronted by a Protestant pastor while I was speaking to him about the Worldwide Marriage Encounter. I earnestly believed that the Christ-centered apostolate was for all married couples and that he and his wife would receive many benefits from the Encounter Weekend.
However, he turned the conversation around and made it about me and my faith. He asked me whether I would go to Heaven if I were to die that very night. Or would I go to Hell? He left out Purgatory, not believing in it since any reference to it appeared in at least one of the seven books that were removed from the canon of the Bible by Martin Luther.
I did a quick soul search and proudly announced that I thought Heaven was a possibility. He could not hold back the familiar Evangelical sneer that said I had no clue about Salvation or about the loving power of God. The words of St. Paul to the Romans were clear: “… if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Romans 10:9-10).
The pastor assured me that I was doomed unless I did what the Scripture said. I left him with the proverbial tail between my legs and also with a strong desire to find out what he was talking about. Was “confessing with my mouth that Jesus is Lord” all I need do to get into Paradise? I never had a problem believing God raised Him from the dead. That is what Easter is all about (or “Resurrection Sunday” to those who believe the word Easter comes from the Mesopotamian deity Ishtar and should not be used in the same breath with the Resurrected King of kings, and Lord of lords.).
The Church’s Response
In defense, I turned to my copy of The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) for a different approach to the same topic. Beginning at paragraph 1427 we read: “Jesus calls to conversion. This call is an essential part of the proclamation of the kingdom.” Quoting from the Gospel of Mark we read the words of Jesus, who says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
The word “repent” literally means to turn, to change direction. If one is heading east and repents, the person will then be heading west. One turns away from the world and turns to God in Christ Jesus. You get the picture.
The Church teaches that Baptism is “the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion. It is by faith in the Gospel and by Baptism that one renounces evil and gains salvation, that is, the forgiveness of all sins and the gift of new life” (CCC, 1427). My Protestant friend would agree, standing on this fundamental belief in the Love and Grace of God to forgive, cleanse us from sin, and open the Gates of Heaven.
What happens next? One “turns” – repents – and is Baptized, confessing with the mouth and believing in the heart (if the person is a child, without command of the language, sponsors and parents say the words). O Glory!
Does sin end with Baptism? Does the person live henceforth on a cloud of Grace that rises above the dirt and grime of society, culture, and the day-to-day scuffles of living life on this planet? Does the tempter, the devil, leave forever, or, as with Jesus: “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time” (Luke 4:13 – italics added). What happens if the Baptized person returns to a life of folly? (cf. Proverbs 26:11)
The Core of the Matter: Second Conversion
At this point my Protestant friends become hazy. The only real explanation that had consensus was that the person was not sincere at the start, the conversion never happened.
The Church teaches a Second Conversion. This one is different than the conversion culminating in Baptism. The Second Conversion culminates in tears. St. Ambrose said of the two conversions that, “in the Church, “there are water and tears: the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance” (CCC, 1429).
“Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] follows constantly the path of penance and renewal” (CCC, 1428 with LG, 8§3).
As we continue on the Journey of Lent, searching for the Place of the Skull, our Redemption, let us read again the paragraphs given to us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that any paraphrase would leave wanting:
1431 Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart).
1432 The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him: “Restore us to thyself, O LORD, that we may be restored!” God gives us the strength to begin anew. It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him. the human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced:
Let us fix our eyes on Christ’s blood and understand how precious it is to his Father, for, poured out for our salvation it has brought to the whole world the grace of repentance [St. Clement of Rome].