“By Water and the Spirit:”
In Defense of Baptismal Regeneration
Sr. Rachel Marie Gosda, SCTJM
December 1, 2013
Were it true, the Reformers’ doctrine of Sola Scriptura—the claim that Sacred Scripture alone is sufficient to interpret itself and serve as the sole rule of faith for the Church—would be testified to by impeccable unity of belief amongst all Christians who ascribe to such a view of Scripture. However, Protestant positions on even the most fundamental of Christian doctrines are as varied as the innumerable churches and ecclesial communities that have splintered off from the main trunks of the Reformation centuries ago. One such doctrine is the question of baptism and its function in the life of the Church and in the life of the believer. For example, if you were to ask a Presbyterian why they baptize infants and what baptism means to them, you would hear that baptism is “all about grace,” and that it “enacts and seals what the Word proclaims: God's redeeming grace offered to all people [. . . it] is God's gift of grace and also God's summons to respond to that grace.” A Baptist would tell you that baptism is merely symbolic—but yet still important (for adults only), because it was divinely ordained. It symbolizes the salvation won by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and is a public testimony that the person baptized has chosen Christ as their Lord and Savior and experienced the forgiveness of sins. The Evangelical Free Church of America, an association of evangelical and Bible-believing churches which adopt the same Statement of Faith (upheld by most modern evangelicals today) believes something similar: that “The Lord Jesus mandated two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper [. . .] Though they are not the means of salvation, when celebrated by the church in genuine faith, these ordinances confirm and nourish the believer.” More modern evangelical churches would say that baptism is “just a symbol to show others about the commitment you’ve made to trust Christ as your Savior.”
As is evident from surveying the teachings of just three different denominations, there is no unity on this important doctrine in the life of the Church based on Scripture alone. However, since the Ascension of Christ, the Church has believed and practiced what she received from Her Lord: that baptism is much more than a mere outward ordinance or symbol, which has no real effect in one’s soul; rather, it is “what saves [us] now” (1 Peter 3:21 NAB), “undoubtedly the sacrament of regeneration.” As Blessed John Paul II teaches, “Baptism is not simply a seal of conversion, and a kind of external sign indicating conversion and attesting to it. Rather, it is the sacrament which signifies and effects rebirth from the Spirit, establishes real and unbreakable bonds with the Blessed Trinity, and makes us members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.” Thus, when the Reformation began, Martin Luther ardently held to this teaching and practice of the Church. However, contemporaries were fast on his heels to deviate from this teaching (John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and the Anabaptists), which has led to the majority of Protestantism’s embrace of the reformed doctrine of baptism today. Zwingli went so far as to say, “In this matter of baptism—if I may be pardoned for saying it—I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles [. . .They] have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and the holy apostles did not teach.” Aside from an obvious misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching here on the saving grace of baptism (which takes place by the power of the Holy Spirit, not the power of the water), Zwingli does make the state of affairs quite clear: either the Church was in error regarding this fundamental doctrine for 1500 years, ever since apostolic times, or the reformed doctrine of baptism is indeed a tradition of men (c.f. Mk 7:13). In this paper, we shall examine the Biblical and historical evidence for the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, in order to prove that, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the merits of Christ’s redeeming death on the cross, the sacrament of baptism indeed effects in the soul what it outwardly symbolizes: the cleansing of original sin and forgiveness of all personal sins, incorporation into Christ’s mystical Body, and regeneration in the Spirit as new creations in Christ and as children of God.
Before we examine the Biblical and historical proof, let us first consider a few key issues at the heart of this doctrinal divide between Christians. One of the biggest errors that lies at the core of the reformed understanding of baptism stems from the Reformation’s misunderstanding of salvation by faith alone. If, as most Protestants believe, salvation is by faith alone (believing and confessing Jesus as Lord), then baptism could never be anything more than an important ordinance to fulfill, because it was divinely ordained and divinely practiced (since Jesus Himself both baptized and was baptized).Thus, in the reformed understanding, baptism and saving faith are mutually exclusive. However, the Church has always taught the cohesiveness of the two. Just as faith and good works—the natural fruit borne of a living faith—go hand-in-hand along the road to salvation (though good works do nothing to open the door of heaven to us), so too is the sacrament of baptism inseparable from saving faith. We see this clearly in the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus tells us, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (16:16). These words are the basis for the Church’s teaching that the sacrament of baptism is “the sacrament of faith.” The Catechism continues, “Always, Baptism is seen as connected with faith: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,’ St. Paul declared to his jailer in Philippi. And the narrative continues, the jailer ‘was baptized at once, with all his family.’” Baptism and saving faith, therefore, do not replace, but rather, uphold each other.
A further error connected to this is the issue of repentance. Salvation, for most Protestants, is an “event” that happens to them: hearing the Gospel preached, moved by the Holy Spirit to understand their sinfulness and the immense love of God, most pray some form of the “sinner’s prayer,” which asks forgiveness for their sins and invites Jesus to be Lord of their lives. In this understanding of salvation, repentance must precede confessing Jesus as Lord. However, salvation is first and foremost a gift that is received. And the manner of receiving that gift we find from Jesus in Scripture through faith and Baptism. The Apostles carefully guarded this mandate from the Lord, both teaching and imparting it as they had received it—not mutually exclusive of, but intimately connected with, repentance. For example, after the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter preaches to the Jews in Jerusalem the powerful message of the Gospel for the first time. The climax of his message is precisely how to receive the gift of new life in Christ. He cries, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, emphasis added). From this verse, we can see that the Apostles knew clearly that baptism is the means by which the Holy Spirit imparts Christ’s forgiveness of sins to man and makes of him a new creation.
Perhaps the reason why many Protestants today object to any real efficacy of baptism in the soul is due to the lack of the fruits of repentance in the lives of Catholics (and other Protestants) who were baptized as infants but fail to live in accordance with the demands of their baptism. As Pope Paul VI first noted, this phenomenon (of the non-practicing baptized person) is not new in the life of the Church; there have always been those “who for the most part have not formally renounced their Baptism but who are entirely indifferent to it and not living in accordance with it.” Today, however, there are an ever-increasing number of such people, and each of the Successors of St. Peter after him have spoken about this particular group as an important area of activity for the New Evangelization. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa explains well why, if received as infants and not nurtured as it should be, baptism is a “sealed” sacrament, so to speak. He writes,
For most of us, baptism is a bound sacrament. That means that while we have received baptism in the church, the church gave it in the hope that at some point in our adult life we would confirm our "I believe" in a personal, free act of faith. Until there is this act of faith in the life of a Christian, baptism remains a bound sacrament. Baptism allows us to receive Holy Communion but it also reveals why there are so many inactive Christians, passive and lacking any power.
Fr. Cantalamessa makes an important distinction here: until a free and conscious act of faith is made in the life of a Christian, baptism remains a bound sacrament—but its powerful effects are not thereby negated due to a lack of mature fruit in the life of the baptized. For this reason, baptism must always be taught and understood as both the doorway to the Christian life, as well as the grace of actually becoming a Christian.
Another objection made by Protestants in this regard is the fact that, if they have made this personal and free act of faith, have truly repented and are striving to live a new life in Christ, they experience all of the graces which baptism imparts to the soul: sanctifying grace (the grace of justification), the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, the moral virtues, as well as the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. “Why then,” he or she will ask, “do you think that baptism produces such effects in the soul, if I experience them myself without believing my baptism is to be the cause of them?” The answer is simple. As the Catechism teaches, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” Baptism is therefore necessary for salvation “for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.” To these separated brethren, the Gospel has been proclaimed, but not in the fullness of the faith of the Church. It is according to the manner in which they have received the Gospel, therefore, that will God impart the same graces of regeneration to them. For, as the best of Fathers, how could He withhold this grace from them who do not believe in baptismal regeneration, yet truly believe in a spiritual regeneration that comes through repentance and the proclamation of “Jesus is Lord?” All this being said, however, does not relativize the uniqueness and importance of baptism being the vehicle of this regeneration; it simply shows how God’s hands are not tied by what He has set forth for His Church.
Having considered a few of the objections to baptismal regeneration, let us now see what Scripture teaches on the matter. The first verse to consider contains the words of Jesus Himself in the Gospel of John when He testifies, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5). As Catholic Answers explains, “In Greek, this phrase is, literally, ‘born of water and Spirit,’ indicating one birth of water-and-Spirit, rather than ‘born of water and of the Spirit,’ as though it meant two different births—one birth of water and one birth of the Spirit.” This is an important fact to remember, because just as at Jesus’ baptism in water, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him, so too at our baptism in water does He descend upon us to bring us to new life in Christ. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit alone, as many Protestants claim from this verse, simply cannot stand in light of this fact that the Greek text shows us that both water and Spirit go hand-in-hand for rebirth in Christ.
The second important verse that defends baptismal regeneration is found in the First Letter of St. Peter. In it, Peter speaks about how in the days of Noah, eight people were saved by the ark from the waters of the flood. He continues, “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 conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 3:20-21, emphasis added). Not only does baptism save us now, he teaches, but it does so by the power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. St. Paul’s theology on baptism reaffirms this same point made by St. Peter: that the saving effects of baptism are fruit of Christ’s redeeming death and resurrection. Two key verses are notable here. The first is Romans 6:3-4, where Paul teaches, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead [. . .] we too might walk in newness of life.” This teaching is echoed in Colossians 2:11-13, which he takes a step further to describe this burial and resurrection in baptism as “the circumcision of Christ.”
Three centuries later, the Church was still teaching this same truth about baptism, as seen in the words of St. Ambrose, one of the Fathers of the Church, “See where you are baptized, see where Baptism comes from, if not from the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved.” This quote is but one of, literally, thousands that can be brought forth from the writings of the early Church fathers to demonstrate the universal understanding of baptismal regeneration throughout the history of the Church. Although there is not time for a treatment such as that here, we shall still consider a few key teachings. As early as 74 A.D.,Christians were teaching that in baptism, “we have stepped down into the water, burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it bearing fruit, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls.” Speaking of the process of Christian initiation for catechumens around the year 151 A.D., St. Justin Martyr writes, “Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn: ‘In the name of God, the Lord and Father of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit,’ they receive the washing of water. For Christ said, ‘Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’” In the year 191 A.D., St. Clement of Alexandria taught that baptism “is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins, a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted, an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in 350 A.D. that in baptism, “You go down dead in your sins, and you come up made alive in righteousness.” This teaching was affirmed by the Fathers of the Church in the Nicene Creed, confirmed at the First Council of Constantinople in 380 A.D. The only sacrament mentioned in the creed is baptism, and of it, we profess, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Finally, in 420 A.D., the great St. Augustine spoke prolifically on baptismal regeneration, stating that it “washes away all, absolutely all, our sins, whether of deed, word, or thought, whether sins original or added, whether knowingly or unknowingly contracted," and that “whether it be a newborn infant or a decrepit old man—since no one should be barred from baptism—just so, there is no one who does not die to sin in baptism.” This powerful testimony is just a drop in the bucket of the unanimous testimony of the early Church—and this is but a sampling from the first four centuries of Christian history!
The more one understands the great gift that the sacrament of baptism is, and the great gift of new life and grace which was imparted to many Christians from their earliest days, the greater one’s responsibility to truly cherish this gift, guard it, and allow it to bear abundant fruit in his own heart, and in the hearts of many. May the radiance of this gift shine forth in each of our hearts and lives, to help bear witness to all Christians that this sacrament is no mere ordinance, but rather, the means through which we become new creations in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
An important disclaimer is made by Catholic Answers on this point: “Notable individuals who recognized that Scripture teaches baptismal regeneration include Baptist theologians George R. Beasley-Murray and Dale Moody” from Catholic Answers, “Are Catholics Born Again?”, at Catholic Answers, (30 November 2013), at http://www.catholic.com/tracts/are-catholics-born-again.
4 William Pinson, “Article 17: Baptists: Two Ordinances: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper,” at Baptist Distinctives (29 November 2013), at www.baptistdistinctives.org.
Among many places: Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio, §33; Pope Benedict VI in Homily at Mass for the Conclusion of the Synod of Bishops (28 October 2012); Pope Francis in Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World Evangelii Gaudium (24 November 2013), §15.
Raniero Cantalamessa, “Take Courage, I am With You: If You Want to Proclaim the Kingdom of God, Leave Everything and Come,” at ChristLife: Catholic Ministry for Evangelization, (30 November 2013), at http://www.christlife.org/resources/articles/C_reflectionspart5.html.
Augustine. Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants. At New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
Butin, Phillip. “The Waters of Baptism,” Presbyterian Survey (2005), at Presbyterian Mission Agency, www.presbyterianmission.org.
Cantalamessa, Raniero. “Take Courage, I am With You: If You Want to Proclaim the Kingdom of God, Leave Everything and Come.” 30 November 2013, At ChristLife, http://www.christlife.org.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic
Catholic Answers. “Are Catholics Born Again?” 30 November 2013, At Catholic Answers, www.catholic.com.
Catholic Answers. “Baptismal Grace.” 30 November 2013, At Catholic Answers, www.catholic.com.
Evangelical Free Church of America. “EFCA Statement of Faith.” 29 November 2013, At Evangelical Free Church of America, http://go.efca.org.
Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter on the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate Redemptoris Missio (7 December 1990).
Pope Paul VI. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (8 December 1975).
Pinson, William. “Article 17: Baptists: Two Ordinances: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” 29 November 2013, At Baptist Distinctives, www.baptistdistinctives.org.
Passion City Church. “Baptism.” 29 November 2013, At Passion City Church, www.passioncitychurch.com.
Zwingli, Huldrych. “On Baptism.” In Zwingli and Bullinger, ed. G.W. Bromiley, 130. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953.