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Catholic Baptism: More Than Just A Bath

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What is baptism and why is it important? Before explaining what baptism is, we must establish its importance. For Catholic, Orthodox, and most every Protestant Christian, baptism is a very important act, and often takes place in a church or other sacred space. However, just how important is it? Look at the quote from the Gospel of Matthew below, and you decide.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. Matthew 28:19, 20 (RSV-CE)

Baptismal Font, photographed by Jonathan Bennett

Thus, baptism is an incredibly important act, so much that Jesus connects it to the mission of the Church to the whole world. First and foremost baptism is a Sacrament. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of sacraments:

[they] are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions." (1).

In other words, God gives his invisible grace and power through the visible water, and God guarantees this action. There are no baptisms that don't "take." Baptisms are always done with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we are baptized into the fullness of the holy Trinity. Different Christian groups baptize differently: some sprinkle; some pour, and others use full immersion. Although full immersion is the biblical model, the Church has always recognized the validity of baptisms where water flows over the head of the one being baptized. Many see baptism as a subjective experience or just an ordinance, but the Church has always viewed it as more than that. It is a sure and certain way we receive God's grace. So, what actually does happen at baptism? These answers, as well as much of the theology in this article, are based in part on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Adoption as God's Children- St. Paul mentions that we become joint heirs with Christ, that is children of God. Because we are adopted children of God, in baptism, God becomes our Father and Christ becomes our brother (Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 3:26-28).

Incorporated into Christ's Body, the Church- A baptized person is incorporated into and becomes a member of Christ's Body, the Church. We no longer belong to ourselves, but to Jesus (1 Corinthians 12).

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Receive an Indelible Spiritual Mark- Baptism makes a permanent imprint on our soul. We are sealed forever as Christ's own. Even if we fail to live for Christ and choose a life of sin a person will never be re-baptized. Only one valid baptism is necessary (2 Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 1:13, 4:30).

Buried and Raised with Christ- In the Sacrament of baptism we are buried with Christ and also raised with him. Our old self is gone and we are new creatures. What a wonderful sacrament where we are unified with our Lord in his incarnation (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).

Forgiveness of Sins- In the Sacrament of baptism, God forgives all of our sins, both original and personal [Editor's Note: The Eastern Churches have a slightly different concept of Original Sin. As such, Baptism is not necessarily viewed as washing away an inherited sinful condition]. This doesn't mean we stop sinning or we no longer need to confess our sins, just that God in his mercy makes us new creatures and removes the barriers keeping us from the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, 22).

Illumination/Enlightenment- The Church believes that at baptism (and in the learning process preceding baptism) we become enlightened in our understanding of the Faith. As we grow in our Christian life that illumination continues.

New Birth- In baptism, we are born again, that is, we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and receive the same Spirit. As newborn children of God we become partakers of the divine nature, a joint heir with Christ, and a temple of the Holy Spirit (John 3:1-5, Titus 3:4-8).

Mark of Sacramental Unity- The Catholic Church teaches that baptism is a bond of unity among all Christians even those not in Communion with her. It allows Catholics to call other validly baptized Christians, "brothers and sisters."

When talking about baptism, many ask: "what about infant baptism?" First, it may be helpful to mention that it is universal and practiced by the vast majority of the world's Christians. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and many more practice infant baptism. It was not until the Anabaptists during the Reformation that infant baptism was completely rejected. Most of the prominent Reformers strongly condemned the Anabaptist view on infant baptism. Second, it was practiced by the early Church and seems to have been a nearly universal practice even then. Adult baptism was the norm, but Christian families often baptized their children. Third, it is implied in the Bible, which frequently speaks of household baptisms (Acts 16:14,15; 16:30-34; 18:18, 1 Corinthians 1:16). It is reasonable to expect that children of some sort were in the household. Fourth, Jesus said "let the little children come to me" so why should the church deny children the full benefits of the Church and membership in Christ's body because they are too young? Thus, infant baptism is a strongly supported Catholic practice reflecting the will of God.

Another question people often ask is: "if baptism is necessary for salvation, what happens if _____ believes in Christ and dies before baptism will s/he go to hell?" We think the question itself is a bit misguided, but since it's so common, we'll try an answer. God works in mysterious and diverse ways, and above all judges the heart, which humans cannot do. Baptism has always been the normative method of salvation in the Church, but God can work outside his Sacraments in special situations. Those who die for the Faith without receiving the Sacrament are said to be saved by "baptism of blood." Similarly, the catechumens waiting to be baptized who repent, want to be baptized, and live in charity are assured of salvation. This is called "baptism of desire." With unbaptized children we just have to trust them to God's infinite, loving mercy (from the Catechism).

Another common question is this: "is baptism enough?" In other words, can a person be baptized as an infant and do nothing else? That's a lot like asking: "Can I just say my marriage vows and do nothing else in the marriage?" The answer of course is "no." Baptism is not magic, but a sacrament of faith. All the baptized are expected to grow in faith after baptism. Baptism isn't the end of one's life of faith, but the beginning. Similarly, since we sin after baptism, we also have to confess our sins after baptism. It's not a blank check for the rest of our lives! That's why the Church has provided the Sacrament of Reconciliation for her faithful, which many of the Fathers called "the second plank after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace."

Sometimes people ask about Protestant baptisms, in other words, are Protestant baptisms valid? The Catholic Church teaches that those validly baptized in separated communities are incorporated into Christ and are rightly called Christians. Their communities can be a vehicle for salvation, but that grace comes from the fullness of grace and truth God entrusted to the Catholic Church. So, Protestant Christians can receive grace and salvation from baptism, but that grace comes objectively not from their own churches, but from the grace entrusted to the Catholic Church (from the Catechism).

Last updated 4-11-2011

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Footnotes
1.Catholic Catechism, 1131

Ancient and Future Catholics