by Mark Bonocore
PROPOSITION: Is Christian Baptism sacramental and regenerational or is it merely a symbol?
FACT: The vast majority of Christians (i.e. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, etc.) believe that Baptism is regenerational -- that is to say, that the Sacrament itself transforms the person by "water and the Word," (cf. Eph 5:26) thus adopting that person into the Body of Christ and making that person a participant in the very same Sonship which Christ Himself enjoys with the Father (cf. Romans 8:15-17, Galatians 4:6-7).
FACT: From earliest times, literally every Church Father and Christian bishop, as well as every orthodox Christian scholar until the Protestant reformation, understood Baptism as regenerational. This included Martin Luther and most of the Protestant reformers who followed him.
FACT: Yet, despite this, there are several Christian groups which deny that Baptism is regenerational, holding instead that it is merely an outward sign or symbol of one's inner faith in Christ. In this, they maintain that it is one's personal acceptance of Christ that matters; and that Baptism is no more than a ceremony in which one publicly proclaims and displays one's faith. Indeed, these same Christian groups believe that the doctrine of Baptismal regeneration is a corruption of what the Apostles preached, reducing the significance of this supposedly "symbolic ceremony" to the level of "magic" or "superstition." In this, they hold that only personal faith in Christ is of any importance and that "sprinkling water on someone's head" does absolutely nothing in and of itself.
Yet, can this position be correct? Well, to see, let's turn to the Scriptures themselves.
First of all, it must be said that there are many verses of Scripture which give the proponents of "symbolic Baptism" a great deal of trouble. These include:
1 Peter 3:21-22 --- "This prefigured Baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God for a clear conscious, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ ..."
Acts 2:38 -- "Peter said to them, 'Repent and be Baptized, every one of you, in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.' "
Mark 16:16 -- "Whoever believes and is Baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned."
So, aside from one's personal faith, the act of Baptism itself appears to be very important indeed. Those who hold that Baptism is merely symbolic cannot ignore this if they wish to take Scripture seriously.
Yet, let's look at this issue from another angle. For example, as we've already seen in Acts 2:38, Baptism is clearly associated with the forgiveness of sins:
"Repent and be Baptized, every one of you, in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Now, this being the case, one cannot avoid seeing a connection between Baptism and Jesus' healing miracles -- miracles which He almost always associated with the forgiveness of sins. For example, in Mark 2:3-12 we read:
"They came bringing him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic 'Child, your sins are forgiven.' Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, 'Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?' Jesus immediately knew in His mind what they were thinking to themselves, so He said, 'Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven" or to say "Rise, pick up your mat and walk?" But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth' -- He said to the paralytic, 'I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.' He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone."
So, from this, we can clearly see that the Scriptures draw a connection between Jesus' miracles and the forgiveness of sins. So, why do I bring this up? :-) Because it forces us to ask a very significant question:
QUESTION: What was the source of Jesus' miracles? Did the Lord's miracles emanate from Jesus Himself, being direct acts of His Divine, creative authority, or were they produced merely by the individual's personal faith in Jesus? Was it the individual's faith, and only the individual's faith, which brought about the miracle (i.e. a mystical, "psychosomatic" response)? Or was it something more?
And, indeed, the answer to this question is all-important to one's view of Baptism. If Jesus' miracles came about through His own power bestowed upon an individual, then Baptismal regeneration is certainly possible. Yet, if it was merely the person's faith in Jesus which cured them, then Baptism as a symbol makes perfect sense.
And, indeed, at first glance this seems to be the case. After all, how many times did Jesus say to those He cured "Thy faith has healed thee" or "Thy faith has made thee whole" ?
Therefore, can we not say that these miracles, like Baptism itself, are merely the product of the person's faith?
No. :-) No, we cannot. Because, if we turn to Mark 5:25-34, we see that it was not merely the person's faith, but also power emanating from Jesus which brought about these miracles.
"There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years. She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind Him in the crowd and touched His cloak. She said, 'If I but touch His clothes, I shall be cured.' Immediately, her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. Jesus, aware at once that POWER HAD GONE OUT FROM HIM, turned and asked, ' Who has touched my clothes?' ....The woman, realizing what had happened to her, approached in fear and trembling. She fell down before Jesus and told Him the whole truth. He said to her, 'Daughter, your faith has saved you.' "
Ah! So, it was not merely this woman's faith. Rather, it was the woman's faith in combination with a very real power bestowed by Jesus. Thus, how can we say that Baptism is any different???
For example, would the proponents of "symbolic Baptism" suggest that the Lord's power to heal was somehow "magical" or "superstitious"? I doubt they would. :-) Yet, that is exactly what they say in regard to Baptismal regeneration.
Yet, didn't Jesus commission His disciples to Baptize in His name (Matt 28:19)? Just as he commissioned them to heal and cast out demons in His name, right? :-)
So, then, if Jesus' miracles (and those of His disciples) were acts of regeneration, so is His Sacrament of Baptism. Indeed, it cannot be otherwise, UNLESS
(a) One wishes to say that Jesus possessed no personal power to heal or perform miracles, but that these miracles were merely "psychosomatic" responses from those who believed in Him, OR...
(b) Despite Mark 2:1-12, etc., Jesus' healing miracles had no connection to the forgiveness of sins (and, thus, Jesus made people physically whole while leaving them spiritually alienated from the Father -- a ridiculous proposition).
Yet, if one takes either of these positions, one must also be willing to ignore the Scriptures (viz. Mark 2:1-12 & Mark 5:30).
As for the orthodox Christian understanding of Baptism (that of Baptismal regeneration), we recognize that Christ still touches people through the ministry of His Church. In this, we recognize that two things are necessary for salvation:
(1) Christ's free offer of salvation, and ...
(2) Our willing acceptance of this free offer of salvation.
If this were not the case (i.e. if #2 above was not necessary), then everyone who ever existed would have been automatically saved when Jesus died on the Cross (1 Tim 2:4). And it is in the realm of #2 which our faith comes in.
Yet, #1 is also an intimate reality for those of us who understand the Traditional doctrine of Baptismal regeneration. In this, Christ does not merely offer us salvation through a promise made 2000 years ago. Rather, He offers it to us in personal intimacy through the Sacrament of His Church. And, through this Sacrament, He touches us directly, just as He directly touched the paralytic and the woman with the hemorrhage. And, thus, in Baptism, we have
(1) Christ's healing power, through the ministry of His Body (the Church), touching us and making us whole, and ...
(2) Our faith in Christ moving us to accept this healing power.
And this is how Christ takes us unto Himself.
So, according to the Scriptures, Baptism is regenerational, sacramental, and intrinsic to one's acceptance of Christ. For, as the Lord says, it cannot be otherwise:
"Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit." -- John 3:5
The Catholic Legate
March 17, 2004