My last post reviewed the scriptures that indicate to Catholics that Baptism is indeed necessary for salvation. One verse that was not reviewed in that post was some very clear language from St. Mark’s Gospel when Jesus gives the apostles the great commission – “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16). There are those who like to say that since the verse does not also say that “he who does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned,” this passage does not indicate that Baptism is necessary. That seems a bit nonsensical from a Catholic perspective. A convert to Christ of course must first believe, and then be baptized. The first part of the passage is clear that both are required; the second part does not presume both need to be said because due to the lack of faith, Baptism would not even be considered.
There are also those who do not accept this passage because some copies of the Gospel of Mark do not include verses 9-20 from chapter 16. In their view this casts doubt on this verse. It is important to understand that we do not have any of the original Biblical texts; everything we have is a copy. And there are multiple lines of copies. So somewhere along the way either someone added verses, or someone didn’t finish the chapter in one of the copy streams. I think scholars in general accept that it is much more likely that someone inadvertently missed copying these verses than decided to add them on their own. Also, if these verses are not present, then Mark’s Gospel leaves us with an empty tomb and the disciples in fear. Since the confirmed resurrection of Christ is central to the Gospel story, it is impossible to believe he would not have recorded that event.
Others want to dismiss the importance of Baptism because they say that St. Paul downplays it when he says that “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (1 Corinthians 1:17) But was that his intent? If we read that passage in context (1 Corinthians 1:11-17), we discover the point that St. Paul was trying to make is that it’s not important who baptized you. The people in Corinth were identifying themselves as “belonging” to certain apostles based upon who baptized them, and apparently with more than a little pride. He reminds them quite sternly that they weren’t baptized in the name of Paul (or the others) and that they all belong to Christ. He’s thankful that he wasn’t the one who baptized most of them so they couldn’t say they were baptized in his name. His point is not that it’s unimportant they were baptized. Rather it is quite unimportant who baptized them.
So if as Catholics we attest to the Scriptural truth professed by St. Paul that Baptism is what brings us into Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13, Romans 6:3-4, Galatians 3:27,Colossians 2:11-12), how can we profess that a person is not automatically damned if they are not baptized? That is covered in paragraph 1257 of the catechism: “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit.’ God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”
So, do Catholics believe that Baptism is necessary for salvation? Yes, because the Lord himself affirms it. It is therefore necessary for those who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. But the last sentence is also crucial to our understanding – that while God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, he himself is not bound by his sacraments.
Some will try to “box us in” a bit with these questions. “So, as a Catholic you believe that Baptism is necessary for salvation? Then you have to believe that anyone who isn’t baptized will be in hell right? To say no to that would be a contradiction.” From our perspective, while trying to box us into a corner, they are really trying to put God in a box and bind Him to the laws He gives us. And that is not how things work with God.
A good analogy for this I believe is to consider the physical laws that govern creation. God created them, and we are bound to them. For example, I am quite bound to the law of gravity. God however is not so bound, and for his own purpose can set this law aside. An example of that would be the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14). When God sets aside these physical laws of nature for His own purpose, we consider that to be a miracle. However, even though I know that God is capable of setting this law aside, wouldn’t I be quite foolish to presume he would do so? Should I choose to jump off a cliff knowing that God could indeed save me, so I presume He will? Or should I rather have the utmost respect for the physical law of gravity that God designed into nature?
In the same way, we are given spiritual laws and bound to them. Baptism is a spiritual law established by Christ for salvation, and we are bound to this law. “The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit.’” (CCC1257) And to ignore this law would indeed be foolish, even though we recognize that God is capable of setting it aside for His own purpose and perfect will. We should not try to box Him in with the limitations of our thinking.
For this reason, the Church recognizes what is called the “Baptism of desire.” A classic example would be the person who is on their way to be baptized and is killed in an accident. Would God really allow that person to go to hell because they didn’t make it to the church? Or would their desire to be baptized be a reason that God would set aside that spiritual law? As Catholics we would understand that yes it would be. But that example does not excuse those who profess Christ but make no effort to follow his command to be baptized. God, who knows the heart is not a fool.
Another example often given as to why Baptism isn’t necessary is the one of the good thief. We see him on a cross beside Jesus, and are given this encounter in Luke 23:39-43 — One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The claim is made that since the good thief wasn’t baptized, and Jesus promised he would be with him in Paradise, this proves that Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation.
From the Catholic perspective, there can be much said about this. But my first question is always, where does it say in Sacred Scripture that the good thief was never baptized? Because the Bible never says that. That is an assumption being inserted into the text that is not there. We know that Jesus baptized people (John 3:22), and it’s evident the good thief has some knowledge of Christ. To make a claim that the good thief was never baptized is not supported by Sacred Scripture.
Aside from that, there are two other relevant points. One is that the good thief died under the old Covenant, where Baptism was not required. Christ gives the commission to the apostles to baptize after the resurrection.
The other way to view the good thief from a Catholic perspective is to understand the concept of the Baptism of desire. It is quite likely that the good thief did have a conversion experience while on the cross. Matthew’s Gospel records that both of the thieves were mocking Christ; Luke gives us the perspective cited above which tells us that the good thief had a change of heart on the cross. So if we assume he had never been baptized, does the fact that Christ promised him paradise without Baptism contradict the Catholic view? Not at all. “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.” (CCC1257). Obviously the good thief was not in a position to be baptized; for him, the desire to be baptized would have been sufficient had he died under the New Covenant. His experience does not allow the rest of us who are capable of Baptism to ignore Christ’s command or assume it isn’t necessary. “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” (CCC1257) Our role is to take the words in Sacred Scripture to heart and conform our lives to them, and this is true about Baptism. Our role is not to use the words in Sacred Scripture to limit what God can do, or to find excuses why they do not apply to us.
My next post will explore how we are to baptize – specifically how the sacrament of Baptism is to be celebrated according to Sacred Scripture.