The Necessity of Baptism Part 1

Catholics believe that it is by Baptism we become members of the body of Christ and receive the initial grace of justification – we are “born again.”  Some other Christian groups would believe this as well – the Orthodox Churches, Anglicans (Episcopalians), Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and the Church of Christ are some examples.  Other Christian groups, particularly those from an Evangelical or fundamentalist tradition, believe that Baptism is only an outward action that occurs after an individual has been saved. Salvation occurs by making a profession of faith in Christ (praying something like the sinner’s prayer for example).  In this post I will review what Sacred Scripture teaches about Baptism and its role in our salvation.

An Evangelical understanding of Baptism is largely driven by their view that salvation is by “faith alone,” and not “works.”  That was thoroughly discussed in these posts.  It is interesting to note that this is a deviation from the teachings of Martin Luther, who was the original advocate of salvation by faith alone and not works.  He didn’t view Baptism as a work we did at all, but rather a work that God does within us.  But when the Anabaptists gain more influence shortly after him, they begin to teach a “believer’s Baptism” that is an outward symbol of an event that has already occurred.  I’ve mentioned this before, but this view of a symbol is not consistent with the etymology of the word, which literally means “that which is thrown or cast together.”  This is why in sacramental theology the outward sign is joined to the inward reality; the physical sign is joined to the spiritual action. 

Even though Sacred Scripture clearly speaks to Baptism as the way we come to be “in Christ,” from the Evangelical view those passages are interpreted quite differently.  A quote from this Evangelical site provides an insight into that:

As with any single verse or passage, we discern what it teaches by first filtering it through what we know the Bible teaches on the subject at hand.  In the case of baptism and salvation, the Bible is clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of any kind, including baptism (Ephesians 2:8-9).  So, any interpretation which comes to the conclusion that baptism, or any other act, is necessary for salvation, is a faulty interpretation.

The teaching of salvation by faith alone is foundational for this group of believers, as is the view that Baptism is a “work.”  The use of the term “filtering” is interesting here.  As verses appear that may contradict this foundational view, they must be “filtered” in a way that will agree with the original premise.  This is not necessarily a faulty way to interpret Sacred Scripture, but that does of course assume the original premise has been correctly discerned.  And if there are many such verses that must be filtered, that should perhaps give one pause. 

Of course, this view about Baptism would disagree with many other Christian groups who also profess salvation by faith alone.  Many of them also profess and believe in sola-Scriptura, or an understanding that the Bible is the sole authority for the rule of faith.  The question of the role of Baptism is not a minor one in the Christian faith, and the fact that there is disagreement among sola-Scriptura Christians about its meaning and purpose highlights for Catholics that there is need for an authority other than Sacred Scripture alone.

As we work through these passages, I will use the John MacArthur Study Bible to provide the Evangelical viewpoint (noted as the JMSB going forward).  A very consistent methodology he uses is to profess there are two different kinds of Baptism – “water Baptism” and a “spiritual Baptism,” that occur as two different events in the life of a believer. “Spiritual Baptism” he believes happens at the moment of salvation, and “water Baptism” happens after the fact as an outward profession to the world that someone has become a believer.  So, any passages that indicate Baptism is necessary for salvation, he places in the category of “spiritual Baptism.” 

One very real problem with this view from a Catholic perspective is Sacred Scripture never speaks to a “water Baptism” or a “spiritual Baptism.”  It simply speaks to Baptism, and Baptism by any definition implies a religious ritual using water.  “Water Baptism” is a redundancy.  And Christian Baptism, per St. John, will be accomplished by the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).  John MacArthur has a need to adhere to a teaching that designates Baptism as a “work,” and that salvation is by “faith alone.”  The division of Baptism into “water Baptism” and “spiritual Baptism” seems to be invented in order to “filter” these verses so they will meet that criteria.  But is that accurate? If so, why does Scripture only speak of Baptism and never any distinction of two types that occur two different times?

I am going to start with one verse that I believe is most relevant to the discussion, and that is St. Paul writing in Ephesians 4:4-6 that “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”  Do we take St. Paul at his word that there is only one Baptism?  If so, it would seem this should eliminate the idea you can split Baptism into two different types of Baptism that occur at two different times.  But the JMSB commentary says this about this passage — “One baptism – this probably refers to the water Baptism following salvation, a believer’s public confession of faith in Jesus Christ.  Spiritual Baptism, by which all believers are placed into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13) is implied in verse 4.”  So while Catholics do indeed take St. Paul at his word that there is one Baptism others simply do not.

The verse cited by the JMSB of 1 Corinthians 12:13 is this – “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”  Since this passage teaches that it is by Baptism we come into the body of Christ, the conclusion of the JMSB is that it’s referring to “spiritual Baptism,” not Baptism.  From the Catholic perspective it is exactly the type of Baptism Jesus is doing in John 3:22, baptizing with water by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus gives the apostles the great commission to go into all nations and make disciples and to baptize them.  In the book of Acts, we see the beginning of that effort.  On Pentecost, St. Peter preaches the Gospel for the first time, and they respond.  And we see this – “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And 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 shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’….  So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”  (Acts 2:37-38,41). 

From the Catholic perspective that passage is very clear.  Repentance and Baptism brings about forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is difficult to deny that this passage is speaking to actual Baptism, not some sort of “spiritual only” Baptism.  In the JMSB he agrees that these people were baptized with water.  But he faults the translation that indicates that their sins are forgiven and they receive the Holy Spirit as a result.  He professes instead that the passage “for the forgiveness of your sins,” should say because of the forgiveness of your sins.”  Different translations can indeed sometimes provide a different insight.  However, has 50 different Bible translations, and none of them translate it the way MacArthur says it would be better translated.  Again, Catholics take Sacred Scripture at its word here and that we should repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins.  Also, if we retranslate it so that Baptism is not necessary for the forgiveness of sins, then repentance is no longer necessary either. And when asked of Peter what they must do, the answer essentially becomes “nothing.”

Another very clear passage to Catholics is the conversion of St. Paul.  Having been blinded on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), St. Paul is brough to the house of Ananias, who by the power of God restores his sight.  St. Paul gives his account of his Baptism in Acts 22:14-16 – “And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard.  And now why do you wait?  Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’” In this passage the JMSB again does not try to dispute this is referring to Baptism.  He again faults the translation saying that “grammatically the phrase ‘calling on his name’ precedes ‘get up and be baptized,’” implying that St. Paul’s sins would be forgiven when he called on the name of the Lord, and then he should be baptized.  For what it’s worth, if you look at the passage in the original Greek there is no change in the order of the phrase.  Again, no actual Bible translations agree with his view of how this verse should be translated.  It also doesn’t explain why Ananias would use the phrase wash referring to the way his sins would be removed if he was not referring to his Baptism.  St. Paul in his writings will then quite often refer to Baptism as to how we become “in Christ.”  (1 Corinthians 12:13, Romans 6:3-4, Galatians 3:27, Colossians 2:11-12).  In all of these cases, the JMSB views these as being “spiritual Baptism,” not Baptism.

St. Paul writes in Romans 6:4 that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” and in Colossians 2:12 “and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”  From the Catholic perspective these passages show that our new life in Christ begins with Baptism.  Since these passages relate to salvation, the JMSB categorizes them as “spiritual Baptism,” not Baptism.

St. Peter writes of Christ in 1 Peter 3:19-21 “in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.  Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Some want to dismiss this as a reference that Baptism saves and they will say that the persons in the ark did not get wet.  But if we reduce Old Testament imagery in this way, we will often miss the point.  The sinfulness of the world was destroyed by water in the flood.  St. Peter likens this to the Baptism that now saves us.  From the Catholic perspective St. Peter is saying that even though this very real water will physically remove dirt from our body, this is not the saving action.  It’s what happens to our soul, where sinfulness is destroyed.  Others, including the JMSB see the reference of “not as a removal of dirt from the body” as proof that St. Peter is not speaking about Baptism at all.  Since this passage correlates Baptism with salvation, he places it in the category of “spiritual Baptism.”

We can return to the Baptism of Christ, and St. John the Baptist’s assertion that while he was baptizing with water, Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:31-33).  We can interpret that one of two ways.  The Catholic view would be that St. John is baptizing with water only, and that Christ will baptize with water and the Holy Spirit, differentiating Christ’s Baptism from the Baptism of John.  The alternate view would be that Christ won’t baptize with water at all, but that ritual would be replaced with a spiritual only Baptism.  What we do not see in that passage is an option for Christ having two different types of Baptism, one by water, and one by the Holy Spirit.  As St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:5, there is one Baptism.  The division of Christian Baptism into two separate events and types – spiritual vs water is necessary for those who wish to deny that Baptism now “saves you” (1 Peter 3:21), but is a denial of the truth that there is one Baptism.

So if the conclusion of Catholics is that Baptism is the way we come into the body of Christ and is necessary, does that require us to believe that anyone who is not baptized is automatically damned?  The answer to that would be no.  I will discuss the reasons why in my next post. 

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