Water Baptism

by John Pacheco

The fragmentation in Protestantism is the fruit of the disastrous idea that the Bible alone can be the sole source of authority - that is, anybody can say what he thinks the Bible means and be right!  The mainline and liberal Protestant denominations are literally on the edge of extinction, and even the more fundamental Evangelical churches have sharp disagreements amongst themselves.  Still, there exist a number of doctrines that Evangelicals do agree on, and there will always be widespread agreement on what all Protestants reject, namely, exclusively Catholic doctrines.  Their reason for the universal rejection of Catholic doctrines is that they believe these doctrines to be unbiblical.  Notwithstanding the rather problematic idea that Scripture alone is the sole source of authority, it is perhaps time to examine some Catholic doctrines in light of the Bible and find out for ourselves which side is biblical and which side is not.  It would seem most fitting to start our examination ‘in the beginning,’ that is, with original sin and baptism.  At the conclusion of this paper, I will describe a visual demonstration that will help explain the Catholic beliefs on these subjects.

Before the Fall

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…’” (Genesis 1:26).  As a perfect being, God created Adam as a perfect man.  He could not create an imperfect human being since, in doing so,  He would contradict His own perfect nature.  In creating Adam, God Himself dwelt in Adam’s soul and shared His own divine life with him.  When his natural life ended, Adam would neither experience death nor would his soul be separated from his body.  Rather, Adam would be assumed into heaven to share in the ecstasy of God’s presence forever.  His relationship with God would be changed from an invisible one to a visible one.  In the meantime, while he was on earth, Adam enjoyed a perpetual, interior, and efficacious communication of God’s divine spirit.   Our first parents, therefore, were endowed with spiritual life, or sanctifying grace as it is called in Catholic theology.  This imparted sanctifying grace purifies those who possess the gift by giving them a participation in this supernatural, divine life.

As created beings, however, humans have no right to the supernatural life which God, out of his infinite Goodness and Love and without necessity, has imparted to us.  In fact, despite God’s benevolence, this infused sanctifying grace was not unconditionally guaranteed since Adam was also endowed with the free will to accept or reject God and His command.  For Adam to make sanctifying grace secure for himself and his posterity, only one thing was necessary: he must not eat the fruit of ‘the tree of knowledge’.  This command was given to Adam so that he might prove that he really preferred God to himself.  In this way, though he could never initially claim the right to sanctifying grace, Adam’s obedience was apparently required by God in order to demonstrate his being worthy of such a gift.

The doctrine on sanctifying grace and original sin is based primarily on the writings of St. Paul.  The Apostle  taught that Christ through his obedience restored what the first Adam had lost through disobedience, i.e. the original state of holiness and justice.  Naturally, in order for Adam to lose this justice, he must have previously possessed it.  St. Paul touches on this subject throughout his letters (Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3, 1 Timothy 2:14; see also John 8:44), however it is in Romans that the Apostle most forcefully develops this teaching, especially in Romans 5:18-19 where St. Paul teaches:  “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.  For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”   Before Adam and Eve’s original sin, in addition to sanctifying grace, our first parents were endowed with, preternatural gifts, which are outside or beyond the usual course of human nature.  The spiritual dimension of these gifts included wisdom - a flawless natural knowledge of God; complete strength of will; and perfect control of passions and senses (Cf. Genesis 1:28, 2:15, 2:20, 2:23).  The physical dimension included freedom from suffering and freedom from death (Cf. Genesis 2:15-17, 3:16-19; Romans 5:12-21).  After the fall, however, these preternatural gifts were lost forever, never again to be recovered.

Original Sin

When Adam disobeyed God (Cf. Genesis 3:6), he did so with full knowledge of the severity of the sin and with complete freedom to disobey Him.  The sin was an enormous transgression since Adam did not have any pre-existing disposition toward sin.  As a consequence of this ‘unspeakable sin’, our first parents and their posterity lost both the preternatural and supernatural gifts, and were only left with what was inherent to human nature; that is, what an unregenerate person has today.  As a result of this original sin , God imposed death as a punishment - bodily death and separation  from His divine life (Cf. Genesis 2:17, 3:19; Romans 5:12).  “In that sin, man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him…The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed:  the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination [Cf. Genesis 3:7-16].  Harmony with creation is broken:  visible creation has become alien and hostile to man [Cf. Genesis 3: 17,19].  Because of man, creation is now subject ‘to its bondage to decay’ [Cf. Romans 8:21].  Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true:  man will ‘return to the ground’ [Cf. Romans 5:12] for out of it he was taken.  Death makes it entrance into human history. [Cf. Genesis 4:3-15, 6:5, 6:12; Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 1-6; Revelation 2-3]” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pt. 398-400).

The fifth chapter of the Book of Romans is critical in understanding the Catholic view on original sin.  “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned - for until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law.  Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam who is a type of Him who was to come”  (Romans 5:12-14).  St. Paul begins with the general principal that death is caused by personal sin: “therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned - for until the Law sin was in the world.  St. Paul uses the personal sin of Adam to explain the origins of death, and so death spread to everyone because everyone has sinned since the fall of Adam.  If St. Paul had ended his discourse at this point, the reader would probably conclude that death is a result of individual, personal sin since ‘death spread because all sinned’.  Hence, if it were possible, a person who never sinned would never die.  However, St. Paul does not end his discourse and instead focuses his teaching on Adam’s sin.  After stating the general rule that personal sin causes death, he qualifies this teaching by restricting the punishment due to personal sin only to those who are given the law: “but sin is not imputed when there is no law.”  He therefore links the punishment of personal sin to the law - if there is no law, then there is no culpability for not obeying it.

The next logical objection by the Jews is then posed:  if a person cannot be blamed when he does not know the rules, why did death still reign between Adam and Moses when the Law had not yet been given?  The Jews perceive a contradiction in the Apostle’s teaching when he says that sin is not imputed but still admits that death, which is a punishment, is charged against the human race.  St. Paul’s answers their objection by giving the true cause of humanity’s death, which is not personal sin per se, but rather Adam’s sin, the original sin: “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam.” Although personal sin is not imputed, death still reigns from Adam to Moses because of original sin.  St. Paul uses the word ‘nevertheless’ very effectively.  He tries to draw out a contrast between the non-imputed consequences of personal sin before the law and the ‘death-punishment’ which NEVERTHELESS still exists due to Adam’s sin.  In St. Paul’s teaching, there exists an implicit recognition of the degrees of sin since he says, “even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam.”  In other words, death still reigned even over those who had committed more minor sins (who would otherwise not be condemned).  His discourse is therefore a fluid and tight argument, completely consistent with his opening remark regarding Adam’s sin and death spreading to all men because of this first sin.

In the Fall of Adam and Eve, the punishment due to the original sin is manifested in two ways.  One consequence of the punishment is separation of body and soul, as manifested by physical death, while the other is the separation from the presence of God’s life.  In Genesis, both of these punishments are shown (Genesis 3:19 and 3:22-24).  The restoration of this fallen state finds its answer in the ‘second Adam’, Jesus Christ, who comes to restore what the first Adam had lost.  These are two of the central tenets of the Christian Creed:  resurrection of the body and eternal life in its transformed state.  Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25).

The Catholic doctrine on original sin understands that original sin is the formal cause of human death and the initial cause of separation from God’s presence.  Evangelical Protestantism, on the other hand, recognizes that original sin causes death, but necessarily rejects that original sin separates humanity from God.  According to Evangelical Protestantism, it is personal sin and not original sin which cuts off humanity from God’s presence.  In the Catholic view, original sin must then be conceived as a ‘state’ since a person cannot change the condition in which he was born.  The Catholic and biblical remedy is to transform this state through baptism.  If the Evangelical were to accept the Catholic conception of original sin and its punishment - which is the separation from God - then the whole notion of ‘accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Saviour’ as a means of justification would be completely eroded.  Since Adam’s sin would mean that all people, not just those who have the use of their reason, would be deprived of heaven, then there would be no way of ‘saving’ babies or those who do not have adequate use of their mental capabilities.  The only way of doing so is the way that Jesus taught, through ‘water and the spirit’ - baptism.

In light of the above analysis, the different avenues of justification between Catholic and Evangelical Protestantism therefore rests on whether separation from God is the result of original sin or personal sin, and consequently, the answer to this question will provide the conclusive proof for the correct view of justification.  The remaining verses of the chapter not only serve as the backdrop to St. Paul’s remedy to original sin in the next chapter, namely baptism, but also point strongly to the Catholic views of original sin and justification as demonstrated below:

Problem: Because of original sin, many have died.
Solution: The gift of grace of Jesus Christ to many (v.15).

Problem: Judgement arose from the one transgression
Solution: The gift arose from the many transgressions; resulting in condemnation resulting in justification (v.16).

Problem: Death reigned through Adam.
Solution: The gift of Christ’s righteousness reigns in life (v.17).

Problem: Original sin resulted in condemnation.
Solution: Christ’s righteousness results in justification (v.18).

Problem: Adam’s disobedience made people sinners.
Solution: Christ’s obedience made people righteous (v.19).

As the above comparison shows, the solution to the problem of original sin is always Jesus Christ - His grace, His righteousness, and His obedience.  There is no contention between Catholics and Protestants on this point.  The key point in understanding St. Paul’s discourse, however, is not so much what is present, but what is missing, namely, personal sin.  Each ‘problem’ involves original sin as its principal subject.  Now, if the problem is restricted to original sin, and St. Paul’s solution to original sin is described as ‘justification through Christ’ and ‘life in Christ’, then the inevitable inference is that justification is necessary to overcome the punishment of original sin.  Since the justification and the life that Christ offers is eternal life with the Father, the original sin that is supposed to be nullified and overcome by Christ’s redemption must have as its punishment that which was missing, and which Christ came to restore, namely, union with the Father for eternity.  Hence, the Catholic view of original sin, whose punishment separates humanity from God, is the only possible conclusion to St. Paul’s discourse in this chapter.

Original sin should not be conceived as a ‘stain on the soul,’ but rather as the lack of sanctifying grace:  original sin is the lack, not the presence, of something. The death of the soul is the absence of sanctifying grace; it is a condition of being deprived of grace.  This view is confirmed in the Pauline contrast between sin proceeding from Adam and justice proceeding from Christ (Cf. Romans 5:19).  As the justice bestowed by Christ consists in sanctifying grace, so the sin inherited from Adam consists in the lack of sanctifying grace.  The person stained by original sin is, therefore, under the power of the devil (Cf. Romans 6:4-6, 1Corinthians 5:7-8, Ephesians 4:22, Colosians 3:9, Hebrews 2:14).  Modernists sometimes make the charge that Adam’s sin should not impact the rest of the human race.  In other words, Adam’s choice should not paint humanity with the same soiled brush.  The problem with this reasoning is that humanity has not lost anything to which it was entitled.  God is hardly to be blamed for the fact that His creation abused its freedom.  Imagine a Billionaire knocking on a Poor man’s door and offering him one million dollars a year for the rest of his life.  The only condition that the Rich man puts on the free gift is that the Poor man cannot buy a particular red car at a particular car dealership.  Now, when the Poor man goes out and buys that particular red car and the Rich man takes back his gift, whose fault is it?  When the Poor man tells his children of his foolish decision, will the children blame the Rich man?  No, they will lay the blame where it belongs - on their father.

The heritage that Adam would transmit to his posterity would be determined by his response to God’s command because, at the time of the sin, Adam was the human race.  “The whole human race is in Adam ‘as one body of one man.’  By this ‘unity of the human race’ all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice.  Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand.  But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature.  By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.  It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.  And that is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense:  it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ - a state and not an act” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pt. 404).  Adam’s sin is transmitted to his posterity by descent, not by imitation.  Therefore, original sin is transmitted by human reproduction or ‘natural generation’.  At conception, human nature is communicated in a condition of deprived grace, which links people today with the head of the human race.  This understanding of the effects of original sin is best supported in a number of scriptural references, with the classic proof text being Romans 5:12-21 as discussed earlier.  Other biblical proofs include Psalm 51:5, Sirach 25:33, and Wisdom 2:24.

Water in the Old Testament

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).  Even in the first two verses of the Bible itself, an allusion to God’s relationship to the natural world is revealed.  The Spirit of God is described as “moving over the surface of the water” which hints at God’s inclination to be close and not distant to the natural world He created, even going so far as to use the natural world to explicitly communicate with humans (Cf. Exodus 3:4).  With the Flood, of water is employed as a cleansing instrument - to cleanse away the wickedness of men (Cf. Genesis 6:5), to usher in an end of sin  (Cf. Genesis 8:23), and to usher in a new beginning.  (Cf. Genesis 9:9).  “The Church has seen in Noah’s ark a prefiguring of salvation by baptism, for by it ‘a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water [1 Peter 3:20].’  ‘The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness’”  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pt. 1219).

The idea of cleansing is again reinforced with the chosen people crossing the Red Sea - an event which affected their liberation from the slavery of Egypt and gave them a taste of the salvation which was to come (Cf. Exodus 14:13).  “If water springing up from the earth symbolizes life, the water of the sea is a symbol of death and so can represent the mystery of the cross.  By this symbolism, baptism signifies communion with Christ’s death” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pt. 1220).  Hence, water is the means by which the liberation and ‘salvation’ are granted to Israel, as St. Paul reminds the Corinthians,  “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:2).  The noteworthy point of St. Paul’s teaching is the phrase “in the cloud and in the sea.”  The Catholic view of baptism sees God using water to infuse His supernatural life into the soul.  There are therefore two objects necessary in this conception:  water and God’s spirit (Cf. John 3:5).  Now St. Paul has clearly alluded to the water by his reference to the Red Sea, but what about the spirit?  Note the phrase St. Paul uses:  “in the cloud.”  This phrase is a very singular one since it refers to God!  “And the Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way…” (Exodus 13:21; Cf. Exodus 16:10, Deuteronomy 31:15).   The prefiguration of baptism is also seen in the crossing of the Jordan river by which the People of God received the promise God had made to Abraham’s descendants (Cf. Joshua 3:14-17). Whereas the water was used for deliverance from the Egyptians in the Exodus, it is used here to witness to the inheritance of the promised land.  Similarly, baptism frees us from the power of the devil and brings us into the ‘promised land’ - the mystical body of Christ.

In addition to these more well-known passages, the Bible has formal prophesies concerning baptism.  Consider this passage from Ezekiel, which captures the Catholic teaching on baptism perfectly:  “For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands, and bring you into your own land.  Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.  Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you…And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:24-27).  The allusion to sin being ‘washed away’ is also made by the prophet Isaiah (Cf. Isaiah 1:16, 4:4).  Furthermore, in Zechariah, the Lord says, “In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity” (Zechariah 13:1).  The prophet is clearly pointing to the baptismal promise, as does King David in the Psalms:  “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin”  (Psalms 51:2).  And finally, Isaiah links water and salvation, “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; For the Lord God is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation.  Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:2-3).

Infusion vs. Imputation

Although Catholics affirm many of the central Christian doctrines that Evangelicals affirm (i.e. the divinity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the existence of hell, etc.), Catholics also affirm certain early Christian doctrines that Evangelicals adamantly reject (i.e. the perpetual virginity of Mary, the doctrine on the communion of saints, existence of purgatory, etc.).  The doctrine on justification is one such example.  For the Reformers in the sixteenth century and Evangelical Protestantism in the twentieth century, man’s righteousness is not inherent or intrinsic to his being since it was forever lost in the fall of Adam and Eve.  The justification offered by Christ, says the Reformed tradition, is a legal declaration.  It is an attribution or ‘imputation’ only.  This righteousness does not indwell in us; instead, it is a righteousness or justification that exists outside or apart from us [institia extra nos].  The remarkable aspect of this ‘justification by imputation’ doctrine is that it is not predicated on a comprehensive biblical defence.  In fact, this doctrine is based on a relatively few number of biblical passages which have been grossly misinterpreted.  They are understood out of context (Cf. Romans 3:10) and, as a consequence, contradict other scripture (Cf. Matthew 25:46).  The Reformed notion of justification is, therefore, a legal declaration only since we cannot actually be holy ourselves.

Both Catholic and Reformed believe that a legal declaration by God is made.  However, the Catholic does not hold to the belief as a legal declaration only.  For the Catholic, the righteousness of Christ is not only imputed to the believer but is infused as well.  When the faithful person co-operates with this infused righteousness, he then possesses an inherent righteousness, which subsequently becomes the grounds of justification. For Catholics, man’s righteousness becomes inherent rather than simply imputed or ‘credited’ to his account.  The righteousness which man receives from God is located within man, existing as part of his being and intrinsic to his person.

While a comprehensive discussion on this question is beyond the scope of this paper, it would be useful to examine two difficulties with the Reformed view of justification.  The Reformed way of making sense of Jesus’ commandment to be ‘perfect’ (Cf. Matthew 5:48),  St. Peter’s exhortation to be ‘holy’ (Cf. 1 Peter 1:15), or the plethora of other Scriptural references commanding us to be holy, clean, and pure (Cf. Leviticus 11:44, 2 Chronicles 23:6, Isaiah 6:3, Matthew 5:48, Hebrews 12:14, 1 Peter 2:5, Revelation 21:27, Revelation 22:11), is to conceive of these passages in the declaration sense.  Evangelical Protestants claim that people cannot be holy but can claim Jesus’ holiness and, in that sense, ‘be’ holy.  Yet, the Scriptures cited above, as well many others, do not say that at all.  Jesus was not saying ‘I will credit righteousness to your account’.  He said, “you are to be perfect…” (Matthew 5:48).  Likewise, St. Peter does not say, ‘You can be holy by imputation of Jesus’ holiness’.  He says, “Be holy yourselves…” (1 Peter 1:15).  The only biblical way of initially making the person holy is the way that Jesus established it - in being ‘born of the water and the Spirit’ (Cf. John 3:5), and the way that the prophets had foretold long before - through baptism:  “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.  Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you…And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:24-27).  It is inconceivable to understand these passages in the Reformed tradition without entering into absurd speculation about what ‘to be’ really means. [Incidentally, this is the same problem that Protestants run into when Jesus says ‘This is my body’ at the last supper.]

Another point of contention arises when the whole concept of declaration is considered.  Is it possible, for instance, for God to ‘declare’ something and it not actually ‘be’?  This is a theological impossibility. When a human being declares something, it is not necessarily true or complete, but if God declares something, it comes into being and it IS. To suggest that God can declare something and it not ‘be’ would contradict God’s perfect nature.  In Genesis, God said “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and there was light.  The Pharisees were called hypocrites by Our Lord because they were hypocrites.  Satan was called the ‘Father of Lies’ because he is the ‘Father of  Lies’ - not simply ‘considered to be’ the ‘Father of Lies’.   Hence, when God cleans us and makes us righteous, He really does make us righteous and holy.  It is not a mere legal declaration or ‘accounting entry’.  In essence, therefore, Evangelicals believe in a kind of ‘legal fiction’ which is captured by Luther’s rather absurd belief that we are ‘at the same time just and sinner’, meaning, we are just by imputation even while sin remains in us.  The obvious difficulty with this teaching is that, at any particular time, a person is either righteous or he is not, just as he is either saved or damned.  He cannot be both at the same time.

Baptism in the New Testament

The Catholic Church teaches that, at baptism, the soul is infused with the Holy Spirit and God becomes present in the soul.  The person becomes a child of God and an heir of heaven.  The baptized person is infused with sanctifying grace and receives the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  “Certain consequences of sin, however, remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, ‘the tinder for sin’; since concupiscence “is left for us to wrestle with”, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules [Cf. 2 Timothy 2:5]” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pt. 1264).

The atonement which Jesus Christ made on the cross for original and subsequent sin is, therefore, applied to each person through baptism.  Baptism has the power to ‘wash away sin’ and ‘regenerate the soul.’  Holy Scripture attests to this doctrine in both the Old Testament, as cited above, and in the New Testament.  St. Paul teaches:  “And now why do you delay?  Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” (Acts 22:16).  The Apostle again restates the teaching: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers…And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11-15).   In his letter to Titus, St. Paul writes: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, that being justified by His grace we might be heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).  It is difficult for any Christian to escape the plain meaning behind these undeniable words.  So let us rather “draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:22).  Not only is the clear allusion to baptism, but note that assurance of faith comes from baptism, not an intellectual acceptance of Christ as the Evangelical position holds.

The difficulty for the Protestant is how to reconcile salvation’s link to baptism.  Not only does the above passage from Paul’s letter to Titus provide this link, but other passages point conclusively to the necessity for baptism.  “And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).  According to St. Peter, baptism is not significant because of the water (i.e. removal of actual dirt), but because God infuses His life into the person through baptism ‘for a good conscience.’  Likewise, the Gospel of Mark recounts:  “And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.  He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned”  (Mark 16:15-16).  Evangelicals try to escape the clear meaning of this passage by claiming that the emphasis should be on the belief not on the baptism.  After all, it is the believer that shall be saved, while Jesus says nothing about the one who believes but is unbaptized.  This interpretation of the passage, however, defies logic.  In other words, Evangelicals suggest that since only those who disbelieve are condemned, those who believe can be saved independent of baptism.  The passage in question, however, clearly teaches the necessity of baptism for salvation.  The true significance of the last part of the passage, ‘but he who disbelieved shall be condemned,’ is adequately explained when one considers that those who ‘disbelieve’ are logically not going to be baptized in the first place, and consequently are not going to be saved!!!

Throughout the New Testament, baptism is associated with faith (Cf. Acts. 8:13, 9:18); many times its necessity is stated explicitly and at other times implicitly.  Notice, for instance, Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch:  “And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him.  And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?’” (Acts 8:35-36)  The noteworthy point in this passage is the enthusiasm of the Eunuch’s plea for baptism.  If baptism had been a mere symbol, without any supernatural effects, or had not been required for salvation, then why does the Eunuch express such urgency for a simple ceremony?  After Philip had related the Gospel, the Eunuch’s first comments were ‘Get me baptized!!!’.  It appears, therefore, that Philip’s Gospel message probably highly stressed the necessity for baptism.  Why else would the Eunuch ask for this sacrament immediately after St. Philip’s preaching?

The command to baptize is unmistakable as evidenced by a number of passages in the New Testament.  At Pentecost, Peter commands his listeners to “repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”  (Acts 2:38).  There are two significant points in this passage.  Before St. Peter gives this command, his listeners ask him what they should do.  The question is obviously understood as applying to salvation, and therefore the Apostle’s command that they go and be baptized is directed to salvation as well.  The second point is even more forceful.  Notice what the Apostle says is required for the forgiveness of sins:  repentance and baptism.  He does not say ‘accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour for the forgiveness of your sins.’  Moreover, the Evangelical notion that baptism is a mere symbol of salvation is totally repudiated by the above passage because the instrument of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit is not an intellectual acceptance of Christ.  The biblical way of receiving the Holy Spirit, as the above passage clearly teaches, is through baptism.

The universal mandate to baptize is an unquestionable fact in the Gospels, and Jesus puts heavy emphasis on it ( Cf. John 4:1-2).  One of the last things Jesus taught in the Gospels was to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Cf. Matthew 28:19).  In this passage, Jesus is reminding the Apostles how to ‘make disciples’.  Disciples are ‘made’ by baptizing and teaching them.  If baptism was not important or just a mere symbol, then why would it be the last major doctrine repeated by Christ before His ascension, both here in Matthew’s gospel and in Mark 16:16?

“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.  And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles.  For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?’” (Acts 10:47).   The Holy Spirit fell on the uncircumcised believers and they were given the gift of tongues.  This gift of the Holy Spirit was given to show the circumcised believers that God shows no impartiality between the Jew and Gentile (Cf. Romans 2:11, Acts 11).  The fact that St. Peter asks the circumcised believers not to refuse baptism to the Gentiles is, in itself, a considerable proof for its importance, and certainly not something to be taken casually.

St. Paul develops the doctrine of baptism and its relationship to original sin.  “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?  Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?  Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father so we too might walk in the newness of life” (Romans 6:2-4).  The remission of all punishment of sin is indicated here: through baptism the old man dies and is buried and a new man arises.  Moreover, the only ‘sin’ that ‘Christians die to’ is original sin, and this sin is ‘wiped away’ (Cf. Acts 22:16) through baptism.  The Apostle reinforces this point, teaching that Christians  “having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colosians 2:12).

Christians are made temples of the Holy Spirit (Cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19), and form the mystical body of Christ through baptism “for by one Spirit we were all  baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13).  This theme of ‘being baptized into the body’ is one which is evident throughout St. Paul’s letters, and teaches that baptism is not merely a symbol but rather is a real incorporation into the body of Christ (Cf. Galatians 3:27, 1 Corinthians 12:27).  “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith , one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and thorough all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

At baptism, the soul receives a special mark or ‘seal’ which is a permanent and distinctive quality that can never be removed.  Mortal sin results in the loss of the sanctifying grace received at baptism, but the distinctive mark received at baptism is never lost.  The soul has been forever transformed, although not necessarily saved.  Two metaphors characterize the mission and function of the Holy Spirit:  He is the seal stamped on our souls at baptism as the mark of ownership; He is the pledge (the word denotes an actual portion of a whole) of the blessed life paid in full in Heaven. “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation - having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14).  Note the three distinct acts which Paul mentions:  first listening to the Gospel; then believing it; and then being ‘sealed’.  To ‘seal’ means to have been baptized.  The Holy Spirit has marked us with the seal of the Lord “for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30).

Evangelicals sometimes interpret the phrase ‘to seal’ to mean that our salvation is irrevocable; that it cannot be broken under any circumstances.   ‘To seal’, however, really means ‘to attach or mark with a seal’.  Baptism is therefore God’s outward sign for us that He has honoured His promise to grant us eternal salvation by ‘sealing us’ and giving us His Spirit (Cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22).  God will not break this seal; He will not dishonour His promise to offer us eternal life through baptism, which wipes clean the punishment of original sin.  Therefore, the child of God receives his inheritance at the very moment of his adoption, that is, at the very moment of baptism.  Nobody can take it away from him; not even God, who has bound Himself by an irrevocable promise never to take back what He has given.  The heir himself can renounce his rights, but no one but himself can deprive him of this heritage.  Hence, the pledge is a conditional one, dependent on following Jesus and His commandments and remaining faithful to Him.

The Evangelical Problem with Baptism Explained and Answered

For the Evangelical, the instrumental cause of justification, that is, the means by which they are saved, is  their faith alone.  Before one can really understand why Evangelicals reject water baptism as the instrumental cause of  justification, one must understand their abhorrence of ceremonies and traditions.  In support of this view, they cite passages in which Jesus or the Apostles condemn tradition, such as Matthew 15:3-9, Mark 7:6-13, Colossians 2:22, and Titus 1:14.  However, there are other passages which support tradition (Cf. Matthew 23:2, 1 Corinthians 11:2, 23, 1 Corinthians 15:3,  2 Thessalonians 3:6, 2 Thessalonians 2:15).  This apparent contradiction can be easily resolved when one recognizes that none of the passages that the Evangelicals cite condemn human tradition at all.  Jesus does not blindly and universally condemn all tradition or even human tradition at that.  In actuality, He condemns humans tradition when and only when it invalidates the Word of God (Cf. Mark 7:13).  In fact, the passages that Evangelicals cite to rebuke tradition are easily dismissed once the context of the teaching is properly understood.  Catholic Tradition, which is the Tradition of the Apostles, does not invalidate the Word of God - it illuminates it and has protected it against error from the very beginning of the Church.

Still, the fact that Evangelicals have this view necessarily influences their prejudice against baptism since it is, for them, merely a religious ceremony.  The water baptism which Fundamentalists undergo, therefore, is simply a symbol - there are no supernatural effects.  The difficulty that Fundamentalists have with baptism is a matter of a ‘material allergy’; that is, they do not accept that God can or would use material objects to communicate graces and miracles to people.  Yet, Scripture is quite explicit in opposing this belief.  In addition to the miracles brought upon God’s people through water (as discussed above), there are other passages which show God’s grace and miracles being more clearly manifested in a very Catholic way.  There are two instances in the New Testament of people touching Jesus’ garments and being healed (Cf. Matthew 14:36, Mark 5:30).  The Protestant might then ignore the issue and claim that such miracles only occurred because it was Jesus’ garments, and not a mere human’s garments.  Even if this argument addressed the issue, which it does not, it falls quickly on closer examination of the lives of Moses, the Prophet Elisha, and the Apostle Paul.  In the Old Testament, Moses’ bronze serpent was used to communicate God’s power to Pharaoh (Cf. Exodus 7:9, Numbers 21:8-9).  A dead man was buried in the sepulchre of the Prophet Elisha, and his life was restored at the moment his body “touched the bones of Elisha” (2 Kings 13:21).  And then there is St. Paul’s very curious handkerchief:  “And God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.” (Acts 19:11-12).  Now if ‘evil spirits’ can leave the sick through a handkerchief, why is it so difficult to believe that Satan’s claim on a person cannot be cancelled through water?  And let us not forget the man born blind.  “And as He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth…[Jesus] spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and applied the clay to his eyes, and said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’  And so he went away and washed, and came back seeing” (John 9:1-7).  Now, the question is: why did not Jesus simply cure the man instead of going through all of this rigamarol?  Who knows?  Maybe He was trying to send a message to those who do not believe that God does indeed use and communicate through the material world.

Are these examples surprising? They should not be.  Even in Genesis, we see the unmistakable connection between humanity and the material world.  God creates Adam from the dust (Cf. Genesis 2:7), and then when Adam sins, God returns him to the dust (Cf. Genesis 3:19).  Now it follows that if we came from the dust, and we have returned to it through that first sin, what is necessary to revive the dead if not WATER!!! Water gives life.  It is therefore from this perspective of God’s sovereignty in determining how to save us, material or otherwise, that the decisive discourse in John 3 about being ‘born of the water and the spirit’ must be read.

“And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water. And John bore witness saying, ‘I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him, and I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit’” (John 1:31-33).  The first thing to note is that the Messiah, Himself, is baptized even before He begins His ministry (Cf. John 1:31-34, Matthew 3:16).  St. John the Baptist admits that Jesus has no need of baptism, but Jesus insists on it.  The inevitable question is why?  Why would the Son of Man, who had no need of repentance, allow Himself to be baptized?  The only possible explanation was that He wanted to show us the way to salvation (Cf. Luke 1:77), and to show us what happens at baptism:  “the heavens open…and the Spirit of God descends” (Matthew 3:16) on us.   Jesus’ baptism (Cf. Luke 3:21-22) points clearly to the necessity of the ‘holy sign’ which He would institute later in His ministry (Cf. John 3:5).

Being ‘Born Again’…the biblical way

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’  Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’  Nicomedus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old?  He cannot enter a  second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’  Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’  Nicomedus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’  Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?  Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you not receive our witness.  If I told you earthly things and you not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man’” (John 3:1-13).

When Jesus uses the words ‘water’ and the ‘spirit’, He means what the rest of Holy Writ clearly points to:  water baptism.  The Evangelical often interprets the phrase ‘born of water and the spirit’ to mean two separate events - water (physical birth) and spirit (spiritual birth).  This interpretation, however, is not the Lord’s intent since the birth that Jesus is speaking about is not two births but one.  He does not say that we must be born of ‘water and then the spirit.’   Furthermore, all people are already physically born so why didn’t Jesus just say ‘born of the Spirit’ alone.  Another point that must be stressed is the choice of Jesus’ words ‘born again’.  One may ask:  Why did Jesus use these particular words?  The answer lies in the loss of holiness after the Fall.  In our previous physical birth, we were born into a state that Adam and Eve passed down.  That is why we must be ‘born again.’   ‘Born again’ implies a complete transformation from the STATE that we currently exist in.  Therefore, to TRANSFORM the state, we must return to a condition before our first birth when we were clean.  Hence, when Jesus speaks of ‘being born again,’ or ‘being born from above’,  He is trying to take us back to the beginning of creation when we were born in a state of original justice and holiness before the original sin which prevented anyone from entering heaven.  THAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF JESUS SAYING THAT NO ONE CAN ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN WITHOUT BEING BORN AGAIN.

In the Old Testament, the prefigurement of the purifying waters of baptism is demonstrated in the book of Numbers.  “Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the Levites from among the sons of Israel and cleanse them.  And thus you shall do to them, for their cleansing:  sprinkle purifying water on them, and let them use a razor over their whole body, and wash their clothes and they shall be clean”  (Numbers 8:5-7).

In the language of the Pentateuch, only the priests were ‘consecrated’, that is, made sacred or set aside for the Lord, in an elaborate ceremony described in Exodus 29 and  Leviticus 8.  The Levites were purified and cleansed to be made ritually clean for their special work.  Here, the water is used as a purifying agent for the remission of sin.  This is later reinforced (Cf. Numbers 19:9-13).  In the New Covenant, all the baptized are incorporated into the ‘royal priesthood’ (Cf. 1 Peter 2:9).  The use of water and its effects were therefore well understood as a purifying instrument in Israel’s history.  This is perhaps the reason Jesus expresses His ‘astonishment’ at Nicodemus’ question, ‘How can these things be?’  (Cf. John 3:9).  Jesus is expressing His ‘surprise’ at Nicodemus when He asks, ‘You are a teacher of Israel and do not understand?’  Jesus was not chiding Nicodemus for not understanding something novel - far from it.  By asking the question, Our Lord was pointing out what Nicodemus should have known very well, namely, the instrumentality of water in purifying.  Our Lord also uses the simple example of wind to remind us that there are things in this world which, even though tangible to us and universally accepted, are still not understood completely.  The wind is a mystery, but it still ‘is’.  If then we accept the reality of the wind which we cannot understand completely but we nonetheless universally acknowledge, then why is it so difficult to accept that of being born again through the ‘water and spirit’?

Our separated brethren sometimes note that the baptism that Jesus is talking about in John 3:5 is the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ not the ‘baptism of water.’  This view, however, does not recognize the context of the Scriptures that precede it.  First of all, the Catholic doctrine on baptism asserts that the Holy Spirit infuses His very life into the soul, and therefore it is a ‘baptism in or with the Holy Spirit’ (Cf. Mark 1:8, Acts 1:5) but through water.  It is, therefore, not a choice between water and the Holy Spirit.  This is confirmed when it is remembered that St. John’s baptism was merely a baptism of water only, whereas Jesus came to baptize with the Holy Spirit (Cf. John 1:33) but still with and through water (Cf. John 3:5). There is no evidence that one can separate the Spirit from water in baptism.  There is only one baptism that Jesus gives us, not two (Cf. Ephesians 4:4-6).  There is no need to separate water and the Spirit when the water and the blood, which are symbols for baptism and the Eucharist, all witness with the Spirit (Cf. 1 John 5:8).  The Evangelical must force this interpretation of two baptisms on to the passage in order to deny the Catholic view of baptism, which if accepted, would completely invalidate his view of justification. This Eucharistic-Baptismal connection is again reinforced with the crucifixion of Our Lord when “one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water” (John 19:34).

The theme of water baptism is again alluded to in the second chapter of John, where Jesus used the ‘water of purification’ to create wine (Cf. John 2:6).  Again, God uses water to communicate His miracles.  Even after His discourse with Nicodemus in John 3:5, Jesus and the disciples engage in water baptism (Cf. John 3:22, 4:1-2).  How then can the Protestant conclude that the context of John 3:5 supports any type of baptism other than what the passage clearly says, and which the passages before in Chapters 1 and 2 and later in Chapters 3 and 4 clearly demonstrate, namely, water baptism?  And if water does not purify, then why did John’s disciples enter into a discussion with a Jew about ‘purification’ (Cf. John 3:25) when the context clearly points to the purifying effects of water?

According to the Catholic teaching, then, while faith is a necessary act of disposition for adults, it is not the instrumental cause of justification which baptism is.  The Catholic view of justification does not depend on man’s reliance on an experience, but rather simply on God.  Certainly, the person must live a life of faith worthy of his inheritance, but the initial movement to justify is from God and His grace alone, independent of man’s faith.  Catholics understand this initial action by God to come tangibly through baptism.  Water baptism, therefore, is necessary for salvation, but this must not be understood as an exceptionless case.  Water baptism is necessary only for those who have had the opportunity to hear the Gospel and ask for it.  [Obviously, God is not going to hold someone accountable for not being baptized if he has not had the opportunity to hear the Gospel.  After all, God is Justice itself, and to make baptism an exceptionless instrument would not harmonize with His divine justice.]  Therefore, those persons who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ but nonetheless do God’s will to the best of their ability, have an unspoken desire for baptism.  In case of emergency, baptism by water can therefore be replaced by baptism ‘by desire.’  This type of baptism can be either implicit or explicit.  An implicit desire for baptism occurs when a person does not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel, but nonetheless does God’s will by following his conscience.  An explicit desire for baptism would occur when a person has heard the Gospel and wants to fulfill Our Lord’s command to be baptized, but he is otherwise unable to receive the sacrament (i.e. he is forcefully impeded from being baptized).  The other type of baptism, ‘baptism by blood’, is effected when a person accepts martyrdom for Christ, and does not have the opportunity for water baptism. (Cf. Matthew 10:32, Luke 7:47, John 12:25, John 14:21).  In these extreme cases, it is the desire for baptism, either implicit or explicit, which is necessary for justification, even though the baptismal character is not imprinted in these baptisms. Therefore, faith and baptism (by water in normal conditions, by blood or desire in extreme conditions) are necessary for salvation for those who have reached the age of reason.

There may appear to be a difficulty with this teaching when one considers that babies cannot have a desire for baptism (or faith for that matter), and therefore, it would appear, at this point, that they would be excluded from heaven.  While it is an article of faith that anyone who dies in the state of original sin is excluded from heaven and the Beatific Vision of God, the Catholic Church has never officially taught that the souls of infants who die without baptism do not see God.  Actually, there may be another way for children to be infused with God’s life without baptism but He has not revealed it, so the Church cannot not teach definitively what their status is.  Catholic theologians, in order to propose a possible solution (not an article of faith), suggest that the souls of unbaptized infants enjoy a high degree of natural happiness in a place they call ‘limbo’, but not the supernatural  happiness of seeing God.  Of course from a scriptural perspective, there is no difficulty with a third place between heaven and hell.  (Again this is a point of contention between Catholics and Protestants.)  Holy Writ clearly reveals the existence of a third place in a number of passages including, but not limited to, Matthew 27:52, Luke 16:22, 1 Peter 3:18-20, 1 Peter 4:6.

Infant Baptism

The first thing that should be pointed out is that child baptism is a tradition of the early church with evidence going all the way back to the first century, and there is certainly no quarrel about the practice in the early church.  The first explicit doctrinal pronouncement on the question occurred at the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D., which affirmed the long-time practice of the necessity of baptism for the remission of the punishment due to original sin, which necessarily includes not only adults but children as well.

Many Evangelicals argue that child baptism is not necessary since only faith is necessary to save.  Yet, even their beliefs do not hold to this general premise.  For the Evangelical, there is no punishment due to original sin, and therefore persons who have not yet attained the age of reason are not precluded from heaven should they die.  It is personal sin only which cuts a person off from heaven and since infants cannot sin they are thus believed to enter heaven should they die.  Yet, once the Protestant admits to the exception of ‘infant salvation without faith’, then the Fundamentalist cannot turn around and say to the Catholic that ‘baptism without faith’ is not a valid avenue for salvation.  It would be a perfect example of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black! And while the Catholic has a solid biblical justification for ‘baptism justification’ along with substantial evidence of this practice in the early church, the Evangelical cannot claim the same privilege for his view on baptism or original sin, which holds that there is no punishment due to original sin.

It is this belief of original sin which is the foundation on which the Evangelical doctrines of ‘assured salvation’ and ‘justification by faith alone’ rests.  The central defining axiom of the Evangelical doctrine on justification is based on the belief that original sin does not keep us from God.  This doctrine, however, is clearly unbiblical.  It is undeniable that the Bible is explicit in revealing our fallen nature and its mortal consequences.  St. Paul teaches that “For if by the transgression of one, many died… So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men”  (Romans 5:15-18).  The Apostle is clearly teaching that original sin (‘the one transgression’) resulted in condemnation to all men, not only or simply personal, actual sin.  In addition, there are many other passages which support the mortal nature of that first sin:  “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psalms 51:5).  And “from the woman came the beginning of sin, and by her we all die” (Sirach 25:33).   The Protestant position can hardly escape these texts and, therefore, there is a serious problem in suggesting that only personal sin separates us from God and not original sin also.

The notion of infant initiation is certainly not an innovation of the Catholic Church.  For two thousand years, God had established the covenant with Abraham and his offspring which always had included infants.  God made it explicit that the covenant with Abraham would not just be with him or his fellow adults.  God’s covenant promise included infants: “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you; every male among you shall be circumcised.  And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.  And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations…  ”  (Genesis 17:10-12).

God’s covenant with Abraham was not the first or the last instance of where He allows curse or blessing to pass not only to one individual but to their ‘households’ as well.  The curse of original sin was not simply transmitted to Adam and Eve but to the whole human race, which includes infants.  Likewise, God saved not only Noah but his family as well (Cf. Genesis 8:16), not all of whom were necessarily faithful (Cf. Genesis 9:25).   The Lord spoke to Moses, commanding him to tell his people to “take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers’ households, a lamb for each household” (Exodus 12:3).  The importance of this passage cannot be overlooked.  The lamb was not taken for each individual, but rather for each household for the household’s salvation.  Not only is this concept of ‘household salvation’ reinforced in the Adamic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants, but it is further emphasized in the last of the Old Testament covenants, the Davidic covenant (Cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-16).  Therefore, the Old Testament covenant always included infants, and covenant-initiation has been a family affair from the very beginning.

The New Testament itself provides compelling, if not conclusive. evidence for infant baptism in light of the continuation of this household covenant.  In fact, the secular Greek word for ‘household’ is rendered “oikos”, which included children.  The baptisms of whole households provide this support, for it is logical that at least one of these households included infants [Stephanus’ household (Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:16), Lydia’s household (Cf. Acts 16:15), the Jailer’s household (Cf. Acts 16:33),  and Crispus’ household (Cf. Acts 18:8)].

In light of this evidence,  the opponent of infant baptism must then turn his gaze away from the irrefutable and compelling argument offered by the Old Testament, and charge that the New Testament changes all that.  Of course, the opponent will argue that we must choose to be baptized, and since children cannot choose, they should not be baptized.  This argument falls quickly on two fronts.  First, at the very minimum, the mention of baptizing whole households, as discussed above, should be enough of a reason to at least consider infant baptism a possibility.  Second, both circumcision and baptism are initiations into God’s Covenant family.  Are we to conclude then that God would offer less graces in the New Testament than in the Old Testament?  Can it be successfully argued that although God included infants in the Old Covenant, He would exclude infants in the New Covenant?  Does this make sense, especially in light of the New Testament not prohibiting such a practice?

In fact, the ‘argument from silence’ which Protestants use to refute infant baptism (i.e. the Bible does not teach that we should baptize babies) is not conclusive proof against the practice.  But EVEN THE ASSERTION THAT INFANT BAPTISM IS NOT FOUND IN THE NEW TESTAMENT IS ITSELF FALSE.  At Pentecost, when Peter first preached the Gospel, he did not say that the ‘promise was just for adults’.  On the contrary, after indicating the necessity of baptism just one verse before, he makes the very natural and consistent teaching that had always been part of the Jewish covenant:  “For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself” (Acts 2:39).  This is the same promise that was given by God to Abraham, and then restated by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians:  “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:27).  An heir, after all, does not make the initial choice to be an heir.  He is born into it - just as a prince becomes the heir to the throne at birth.  True, the prince can renounce his inheritance, but when he is ‘born’ he is born an heir nonetheless whether he likes it or not.  Likewise, baptism does to the soul what birth does to the body: as a person did not ask to be physically born, neither does the person necessarily ask to be spiritually reborn.  In His anxiety to dwell in our soul, God presumes upon our acceptance, and claims us as his divine children through adoption until we later forfeit that inheritance through unrepented sin.  We become children of God automatically until we attain the age of reason when we confirm our baptism for ourselves through faith.

Christ’s love of children certainly would not allow the Church to exclude children.  “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me…” (Mark 9:37, Cf. Matthew 18:5).  Notice that Jesus is not saying, ‘Whoever receives one like a child…’  On the contrary, He wants children to be ‘received’ by the Church, and the way the Church ‘receives’ a child is through baptism - the sign of initiation into Christ’s Church.  Many Evangelicals abhor the notion that one can receive grace WITHOUT first asking for it.  This is one of their underlying difficulties with infant baptism.  The principle of receiving graces without asking for it, however, is well established in the New Testament.  Consider Jesus laying his hands on the children (Cf. Matthew 19:15).  Is it to be understood that no graces flowed from Jesus’ hands to these children even though there is no evidence of the children explicitly asking for Jesus’ blessings?  And what about the centurion’s slave in Luke 7:2-8.  When the centurion [Cornelius] asked Jesus to cure his servant, did Jesus say:  ‘Sorry, Cornelius I can’t do that unless your servant explicitly ASKS for healing?’  Of course not.  Jesus cured the centurion’s slave because of the faith of the centurion.  Likewise, the faith which infants lack is supplanted by the faith of the Church, just as the centurion’s faith was sufficient for his servant’s healing.  Another example of this ‘faith-substitution’ is found in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman whose daughter was possessed (Cf. Matthew 15:21-28).  And, is it even necessary to have faith in order to have graces communicated to someone?  No.  Consider the widow in Luke 7:12-15.  Now, in the previous examples, it was shown that the benefactors of Our Lord’s grace did not need faith, only the person interceding for the sick person.  In this instance, the benefactor of Jesus’ power is even dead!  The notable point in this passage is that the widow herself is not described as having faith.  The only reason Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead was simply that He felt compassion for her.

Of course, the Evangelical would retort that these examples only show physical healings not spiritual ones.  First of all, the general principle has been established, namely that Jesus does not need our approval or request to help us.  But even this charge, that Jesus does not communicate his spiritual grace unrequested, is unbiblical.  Consider the healing of the paralytic:  “And being unable to get to Him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had dug an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic was lying.  And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven…I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.’ And he rose and immediately took up the pallet and went out in the sight of all” (Mark 2:4-12).  The singular thing to note here is that not only does Jesus heal the paralytic man based on the crowd’s faith yet again, He also forgives the man’s sins WITHOUT the man EXPLICITY asking for his sins to be forgiven!!!

For the Evangelical, his ‘born again’ relationship with God is based on a conversion ‘experience’, and because infants cannot ‘experience’, they cannot be born again so there is no point to baptizing them.  This doctrine, however, is not biblical.  God does not base salvation on man’s ‘experience’, however ‘real’ that may appear to the person undergoing such an experience.  While it is true that such a conversion experience is sometimes necessary for salvation for persons who attain the age of reason, there is no biblical evidence that it is sufficient.  Notwithstanding this, however, Evangelicals claim that infants cannot ‘experience’ salvation.  This is a totally speculative proposition on their part.  In fact, it could very well be that infants cannot remember the experience, but that does not mean that it did not happen.  There is even biblical evidence to suggest that infants may ‘experience’ when it is recalled that John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb “for joy” (Cf. Luke 1:44).

A Picture is worth a Thousand Words

Empty Cup:     Soul before baptism, lack of sanctifying grace

Water:   Sanctifying Grace

Act of pouring water into cup: Infusion of sanctifying grace through the act of baptizing

Commission of Venial Sin: Water in cup becomes dirty

Commission of Mortal Sin: Water is poured out of cup

Act of  True Repentance via

Sacrament of Reconciliation: Pure Water is poured back into cup

Purgatory:   Water is poured through filter and cleansed

Purpose in life:  Ensure you have water in the cup: no water in cup; no salvation.

Some closing thoughts

Within Protestantism, the label ‘Bible Christian’ is a necessary one given the liberal tendency in many of the mainline Protestant denominations to regard the Bible as possibly uninspired or errant.  This label, however, is somewhat of a misnomer when a Catholic and an Evangelical discuss the Christian faith because a Catholic must believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.  The real issue is, therefore, whose understanding of the Bible is the correct one, and who should we believe?  The doctrines on original sin and baptism are essential to any dialogue that occur on any other doctrinal question between Evangelicals and Catholics.  In fact, there is really no point in discussing other doctrines until these particular questions are settled first.  But there are even other questions that should be addressed before even these questions.  Questions like:  Who has the authority to interpret Holy Scripture?  Why do we consider the Bible to be inspired in the first place?  Is the Word of God restricted to paper only?  How can there be such a concept as religious truth without an infallible person or group to teach the truth?  Indeed, these are the questions which should be addressed first before engaging in a dialogue about the more common doctrinal questions like baptism, the role of Mary, purgatory or other points of disagreement.

John Pacheco
The Catholic Legate
September 15, 1998