“Getting Saved” as a Catholic: The “Sinner’s Prayer” and Other First Steps in Grace

Getting saved by a prayer
How do you “get saved” as a Catholic? This is something I’ve had on the burner for a long time, and have started writing more than once before. Now my dearest reader asks the question and I’m motivated to come up with a concise response.

“Getting saved,” in the parlance of Evangelical Protestants, refers to the experience of salvation by faith, being regenerated and justified by God’s grace, receiving the Holy Spirit, and becoming a Christian. It’s not a term that Catholics generally talk about: In the Catholic understanding, as I’ve discussed before, salvation is not a singular, one-time event, but a journey and a process, an ongoing series of events and encounters with God’s grace, especially through the Sacraments.

Southern Baptist baptism

The reader will know from my blog how one already a Christian becomes a Catholic; but how does one who has no relationship with God at all, the unchurched sinner, become a Christian in the Catholic Church? Does one pray a “sinner’s prayer”? I was taken aback by the question; I’d never really thought about it. The “sinner’s prayer,” in the Evangelical tradition, is a simple acknowledgement to God that one is a sinner in need of His grace and salvation, repenting of those sins and asking Him to come into one’s life and heart. In the traditions my reader and I grew up in, “praying the sinner’s prayer” is shorthand for salvation, after which one is “saved”; and while many even in those traditions would admit that God continues to work in our lives through sanctification, that is generally understood to be “it,” all there is to “getting saved.” (Interestingly, even in the Southern Baptist Convention there has been a recent turn away from this attitude.)

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

Generally speaking, no, Catholics do not believe that praying a “sinner’s prayer,” by itself, will “get one saved.” So if, in the Catholic understanding, salvation is a journey, how does one take her first steps? Sacramentally speaking, Baptism is the entrance into the Christian life of grace and into the Church, one’s initial justification and when one can rightly say to be “getting saved.” But generally, one must go through months of classes as a catechumen in RCIA before one can even be baptized — which seems to the Evangelical mind to be the very antithesis of evangelism and outreach, making it positively difficult, apparently, for sinners to come into the kingdom.

(The critic would raise, and he would be right, that the earliest Christians in Acts 2 didn’t have to endure through months of a catechumenate before they could receive Baptism. But St. Justin Martyr attests that by the mid–second century, some period of preparation and instruction in Christian doctrine was required. There are exceptions: Any priest can expedite the process of initiation if there is a good reason to, e.g. the catechumen demonstrates a thorough understanding of what she’s getting herself into; and in fact anyone, even a layperson, can baptize in cases of dire need, e.g. the sinner is in danger of death. Since the earliest times, the Church has understood that for the catechumen awaiting Baptism who dies in that desire, God works that saving grace anyway.)

What is the sinner supposed to do, then, who longs to know God and partake of His grace, but is told she has to wait and first be instructed? The Evangelical mode, at least, serves that immediate moment and desire — though there is then the danger of considering salvation “over and done.” And certainly there is that desire, and it can start with a moment, and in that moment and even before, God’s grace is working in the sinner’s life, calling her to repentance and faith.

I think one reason Evangelical Protestants so easily misunderstand the Catholic view of salvation, calling it salvation by works in contrast to salvation by faith, is because faith is immediate and cannot be put off. Saying that salvation begins with Baptism seems to dismiss the role of faith and place emphasis on what seems to be a work. But just as the Catholic understanding of salvation is that of a journey, the preparation for that journey is itself a journey, the journey to the baptismal font: and in those initial steps God’s grace is already working, cultivating the sinner’s faith. Marriage begins with a wedding: a pledge of faith, commitment, covenant, and espousal; but generally one does not choose to be married unless one already has faith in one’s betrothed: one’s relationship with the Bridegroom has already been building for some time. Catholics take a long and patient view of salvation; and we should: we’ve been ushering sinners down that road for 2,000 years!

catholic-adult-baptism

I would say, now that I’ve thought about it, that something like a “sinner’s prayer” is a good first step, even for embarking on the Catholic road: not that the formulaic words themselves are efficacious or “get one saved,” but that the confession that one is a sinner and wants to make Jesus Christ Lord of one’s life is an appropriate response to what is surely the grace of God already working in one’s life and bringing one to repentance and faith. Pray a “sinner’s prayer”; better yet, make that confession out loud to God and to others. Begin reading the Bible and the Catechism and attending Mass. Talk to a priest and enroll in RCIA. Through all this, God is working in your life, building you in faith, drawing you nearer to Him; and when it does come time for you to receive the graces of Baptism and the Sacraments, you will be saved by faith.

Falling from Grace, and God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

The conclusion of what I originally wrote concerning grace and justification and “Falling from Grace,” in preparation for a discussion of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There’s a lot more where this came from! [Part one. Part two. An aside. Part three.]

Baptism: Initial Justification

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

Our Baptism is the moment of our initial justification, the beginning of our road of salvation; and this is wholly a gift of grace, through our faith, not because of any work or action or merit on our part; there is nothing we could have done to deserve such grace. Even the preparation for that moment, our having been called and drawn to the baptismal font, is entirely a work of God’s prevenient (that is, coming before) grace. At that time we are regenerated, born anew in Christ, and we receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). We are also sanctified, washed clean and made whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7, Isaiah 1:18, Ephesians 5:26), as innocent as newborn babes. Regeneration, being made a new creation in Christ, is a grace that cannot be undone; one can never “fall” from being “born again.” In Baptism, our every sin, both the stain of original sin (in fact, our damaged human nature) and every actual sin committed in one’s past, is washed away by the Blood of the Lamb. We receive sanctifying grace, filling up our heart: we are therefore not only cleared of all sin in God’s heavenly court, but we are actually made righteous in His sight.

What, then, of future sins? We have been washed clean, clothed in a robe as white as snow in Baptism. But our sins still very much affect our soul — as anyone who has struggled with sin surely knows. The Protestant view, preoccupied with God’s judicial aspect toward us, finds complacency in the idea that our sins are covered and will never be counted against us; but it fails to take into account the very real spiritual damage that sin can inflict, even upon the believer. When we sin — when we choose consciously and deliberately to reject God and betray His grace to us — we make a decision not to walk by the Spirit; we choose not to love and not to abide in Him. God’s grace, His love, cannot and will not live in a heart that chooses not to love: and so in serious, willful sin, we damage that love, perhaps even choke it out.

Falling from Grace

Caravaggio, Penitent Magdalene

Penitent Magdalene (c. 1597), by Caravaggio (WikiPaintings.org.

And this is what it means to “fall from grace”: to be in a state of grace — the righteous, sanctified state we are in following Baptism, filled with God’s love and grace — and to lose that sanctifying grace through deliberate, grave sin. What are we really losing when we lose grace? Are we “losing our salvation,” as Protestants suggest? Salvation, again, is not something we have ever fully received, and won’t fully receive until the end of life. The graces we received in Baptism — our spiritual rebirth — cannot be taken away. Our spiritual growth and progress, the degree to which we’ve been conformed to Christ, is not erased — we don’t have to start over from zero — though we could certainly compromise that progress through repeated and prolonged sin. So what have we really lost? If sanctifying grace is a clean, white robe in which God has wrapped us, falling from that state of grace is like tripping and falling in the mud. Stumbling does not change who we are: We are still the new creations God has made us to be, and His handiwork in our lives, molding and changing us, is still there. We have only fallen and sullied our robe. We are still God’s children, even if we have squandered our inheritance in a pig pen far from home.

Protestant critics who allege that “falling from grace” is equated with “losing our salvation” are operating from a mistaken, Protestant understanding of grace to begin with. They presume that falling into sin after justification entails that God, who has declared us righteous, imputing the righteousness of Christ to us, now somehow takes that away, goes back on His word, and revokes his promises. If He has promised us an eternal inheritance in “saving” us, he must then, they say, be taking that inheritance away when we sin — only to give it back when we are reconciled, then take it away again, and so forth — but this is not the Catholic view of grace, sin, or forgiveness. The idea that God is watching us with an ever wrathful, judgmental eye at all times, prepared to condemn us, take away our eternal reward, plunge us into the pit of hell, the moment we make a mistake, is strictly unbiblical, and does not describe the Catholic understanding of God at all. Scripture says repeatedly that God will judge us on the Last Day (Matthew 10:36; Acts 17:31; Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Peter 4:5; Revelation 20) or when we die (Hebrews 9:27). And if we are indeed predestined to our eternal reward (Romans 8:29), chosen before the world began (Ephesians 1:4), then God foreknows whether we will receive that reward in the end or not; it is only a narrow, temporal view that would presume that God, Who is outside time, would alter our eternal destiny based on every positive and negative action we commit in our own, earthly present.

El Greco. Penitent Magdalene. c. 1590.

El Greco, Penitent Magdalene, c. 1590 (WikiArt.org).

But for the important, eternal question: Can a believer in Christ who has been regenerated in Baptism, but who has fallen into sin, be condemned to hell, should he die in that state? In light of the scriptural warnings against falling away (e.g. Matthew 24:10; Mark 14:27; Luke 8:13; John 16:1) and living unrighteously (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10:12; Galatians 5:21; 1 Timothy 3:6, 6:9–10; Hebrews 10:29; James 5:12; 2 Peter 1:10), the Catholic Church believes that he can. Christ Himself warned that those who were in Him, who did not abide in Him, would be cast away into the fire. Is this not, then, “losing one’s salvation”? Is “salvation,” in the scriptural sense, something that is ever fully realized before the end of life? Protestants, particularly the Reformed and those in their tradition, who espouse a belief in the “perseverance of the saints” or “eternal security,” appeal to such verses as John 6:37–40 and 10:27–30, 1 Peter 1:4–5, and 1 John 4:16–18 to demonstrate the irresistibility of grace, the immutability of divine election, and the finality of the gifts already given; but these conclusions depend, in many cases, on presupposing a Reformed view of God’s sovereignty that limits or eliminates human freedom. Yes, God has willed that all those He gives to Christ shall not die but be saved; but does God not allow men the free will to choose life or death (Deuteronomy 30:19, Sirach 15:17)? Who is it who has really been given or elected? The Reformed themselves allow uncertainty about an individual believer’s election — such that if a believer should fall away from Christ, the conclusion is that he never really had saving faith in the first place. They allow that the body of the visible church contains many who are not elect, who appear to be regenerate but are not. In the Catholic position, the uncertainty is not regarding whether a believer has been regenerated, whether he has received God’s grace in his life — which is evident by his works; the uncertainty is regarding whether he will abide in that grace and love and allow it to save him (John 15); whether he will persevere to the end (e.g. Matthew 10:22). Ultimately, there is uncertainty in either case: even for those who claim “assurance,” there is the possibility of falling away, and uncertainty whether a believer is elected to final perseverance. (Not all those, say Catholics, who are elected to be regenerated are elected to persevere, a distinction that the Reformed do not make.)

Finally, what does it say about the love of God, that He would allow his son or daughter to perish? Does it evince a failure of God’s sovereign will — or a condescension of that will, to allow His beloved creations the freedom to choose? Scripture testifies that He does not take pleasure in the death of a sinner, but desires that he turn from his way and live (Ezekiel 33:11, cf. 2 Peter 3:9): if only God’s will were at issue, than all would be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). It is a mark of God’s love, rather than a neglect or abandonment of that love, that He allows us the freedom to accept or reject His grace. If any man should perish, it is ultimately by his own willful choice to reject God.

God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665), by Rembrandt.

The correct view of the grace and forgiveness of God is the one presented in Scripture again and again: that of absolute, unfailing mercy, rather than perpetual wrath. Jesus presents it in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), in which the father sadly but freely allows his son to pursue a life of profligacy, but runs to meet him in the road and pours out his grace unsparingly as soon as his son repents and returns. The wayward son had been raised in the favor of his father, but ungraciously cast it away. Sin had destroyed his life, and so long as he remained in the far-off land, he was without recourse; he would have died a pauper. But the father’s love was unending and his mercy boundless. There is no note here that the son, who had cast away grace, was from then on forever in his father’s graces, irrespective of his future conduct; but certainly, whatever he should do in the future, the father’s mercy and love would ever meet him in the road. It is exhibited in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the face of God which He revealed to us. It is the same view presented by the prophets of God’s mercy toward wayward Israel — for a most vivid example, in the Book of Hosea. Even despite Israel’s repeated infidelity — even though she make herself a harlot — even despite God’s righteous judgment — the Lord, again and again, receives her back, cleans her, clothes her in clean robes, and again pours his mercy and favor and love upon her. “I will heal their faithlessness; / I will love them freely, / for my anger has turned from them” (Hosea 14:4).

Reconciliation

And that brings us, at last, to Reconciliation, the Sacrament of God’s forgiveness and mercy, by which the Lord receives those believers who have fallen, picks them up, heals them, and restores them to the flock. From this point we will begin our discussion.

But wait, there’s more! A further reflection on Catholicism and assurance of salvation: Assurance for today: God works through the Sacraments.

Catholicism and Being “Born Again”

Part two of a longer piece on “Falling from Grace.” [Part one.]

Catholics: Salvation is a Journey

Baptism of Christ, from Mariawald Abbey

The Baptism of Christ, stained glass from Mariawald Abbey, by Gerhard Rhemish, The Master of St. Severin, Germany (Victoria and Albert Museum)

So then, Catholics view salvation not as a single, momentary event, but as a road, a journey, a pilgrimage, a race (Hebrews 12:1). We have not yet arrived at our destination, the heavenly Jerusalem. There is certainly, in the Catholic mind, a sense in which we have been saved: at our Baptism, we are born again in Christ (John 3:3,5). We are buried with Him in death and raised to newness of life in His Resurrection (Romans 6:3–6); the old has passed away, and we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Catholics do not often speak of being “saved” in the present tense or of “getting saved” as a momentary event, as especially Evangelical Protestants do — for this we are often criticized. “Catholics don’t believe in being ‘saved’! They say they will not know if they are ‘saved’ until the end of their lives!” That isn’t quite true. We know that we have been saved from our former life and given a new life in Christ; whether we will be saved in the end is something that not even Paul could state with certainty (1 Corinthians 4:3–5).

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (The Kiss of Judas), c. 1306

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (The Kiss of Judas), c. 1306 (WikiArt.org).

Why could Paul not, and why can’t we, know our final salvation for certain? Paul himself tells us that although he knows of nothing against himself, it will ultimately be God Who judges him, “[when] the Lord comes” — and that he is, in his belief of his own innocence, not thereby acquitted — οὐκ δεδικαίωμαι [ouk dedikaiōmai], from δικαιόω [dikaioō], the same verb that is more commonly translated justified. Protestant apologists readily stress that δικαιόω, “justify,” has a primarily forensic meaning, of acquittal — which it does — but they are quick to gloss over instances such as this that do not fit their interpretation of a “once and for all” event. Paul, then, understands that his present and future sins can still be held against him, even the sins of his heart (v. 5); and he knows the danger of falling away — of which Jesus often warned (e.g. Matthew 24:10; Mark 14:27; Luke 8:13; John 16:1). Frequent, too, are the warnings, even from Paul, against falling into sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10:12; Galatians 5:21; 1 Timothy 3:6, 6:9–10; Hebrews 10:29; James 5:12; 2 Peter 1:10).

Being “Born Again”: Renegeration and Conversion

Painting of infant baptism from the Catacombs

A painting of the baptism of a child from the Catacombs of Rome.

Many Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, object to the Catholic identification of Jesus’s call to be “born again” with Baptism — despite the fact that this was historically the universal understanding of the Church in interpreting John 3:3,5, even in Protestant traditions, dating from the earliest times (see especially Justin Martyr, First Apology LX, quoted in this post). The objection that this “new birth” refers to a spiritual rebirth and renewal, not only to a physical washing, reflects a misunderstanding of the concept of sacramentality. A sacrament is an outward and visible manifestation that both represents and actually accomplishes an inward and spiritual grace: so in Baptism, the outward washing and covering with water both represents an inward spiritual cleansing (Ephesians 5:25–27, Hebrews 10:19–22) and a burial and resurrection with Christ (Romans 6:3–10, Colossians 2:11–15), but also actually accomplishes the grace of the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16) and spiritual regeneration (Titus 3:3–5).

Benjamin West, St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost, by Benjamin West (1738–1820) (Wikimedia).

But it is indeed a truth that there must be a genuine, inward conversion to Christ, a renewal in faith and turning toward Him, in the believer’s life. Catholics, in affirming the efficacy of Baptism in regeneration, in no way detract from this necessity. Especially in adult believers, regeneration in Baptism generally coincides with a faithful conversion to Christ — but it is not necessarily the same thing. The most strident objections come from Baptists and other opponents of “Paedobaptism” (the Baptism of infants), who argue that infants have no faith and cannot truly convert to Christ, and therefore cannot be regenerated: but it is not our faith alone that justifies us or regenerates us, but the working of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit; and He can work no less ably in the life of a child than in anyone else’s. For children, this regeneration in Baptism must be followed by growth in faith and conversion; and the good faith of the child’s family, his or her parents and the Church, in pledging to raise the child as a Christian, is a surety in this.

We must be born again. This is as true for our rebirth and regeneration in Baptism as it is for our sincere and faithful conversion to Christ. Catholics believe this as surely and certainly as do Evangelicals or any Protestants. We may not always have stories of sudden, life-changing “conversion experiences” — though very many do. Consider St. Augustine, St. Francis, or St. Ignatius of Loyola! For my part, my conversion to Christ has been a lifelong and ongoing journey. I can say that, being raised by godly parents in a godly church, God has always embraced me; and over the years, as I’ve learned and matured, I’ve grown in faith, and never converted to Him so wholeheartedly or passionately as I have as a Catholic.

Next up: An aside on Catholicism and Assurance of Salvation. Then, The Catholic View of Grace and Justification.

Baptism with the Holy Spirit or Fire?

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

Titian, Pentecost

Pentecost (c. 1545), by Titian.

In my last post on Baptism, a commenter raised an important question that I had overlooked: When John prophesied that the Messiah would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire,” did he refer to an efficacious Sacrament of Baptism in water, by which believers would be immersed in the Holy Spirit and filled with His fire; or was this merely a figure for the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, with no implications for the Christian Sacrament? In short: Is Water Baptism the “Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” prophesied by John?

I conclude that “Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” refers to an efficacious Water Baptism — but the fire of Pentecost itself is also an image of this. These events are essentially connected. It was the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, manifested in tongues of fire and miraculous signs, that most visibly marks the greater miracle that coincided that day spiritually: The spiritual regeneration the Spirit wrought in the waters of Baptism; the washing away of sins, and the burial of the sinful man in Christ’s Death and Resurrection in His new life. Certainly it is this redemption and rebirth, the greatest work of Christ, to which John referred in his prophecy. The charisms of the Holy Spirit in tongues and wonders are only a visible effusion of the fire within.*

* This is reminiscent of the Pentecostal doctrine I grew up with. In fact, it is a plank of the “fundamental truths” of the Assemblies of God that the charism of speaking in tongues is the initial physical evidence that a believer has been fully immersed in the Holy Spirit (“baptized in the Holy Spirit”).

There are several key verses that point to this interpretation, that necessarily connect John’s prophecy to Christian Baptism. Prior to His Ascension, the Lord told the Apostles:

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4–5)

Certainly this is — and the Apostles understood it as — a promise of the descent and outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They thus entered the Upper Room to pray, and then:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1–4)

And it followed that all those who came to believe were commanded to repent and be baptized in water (Acts 2:38).

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

But the prophecy of John and of the Lord were not limited to this. For after the Holy Spirit came to Cornelius and the Gentiles, Peter reported to the other Apostles and brethren:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:15–18)

Peter specifically relates the falling of the Holy Spirit on these Gentiles to His falling on them at Pentecost — which was prophesied by Our Lord’s prophecy, and before that, John’s. The gift He gave to [the Apostles] was the Holy Spirit; and He has here given it also to the Gentiles. But note the key here: In this passage, the gift of the Holy Spirit promised in the prophecy is definitively connected with repentance unto life — that is, with salvation. And in the initial narration of the story, that repentance unto life was marked by Baptism:

While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:44–48)

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore (WikiPaintings).

Repentance unto life: John preached a Baptism of repentance, but Christ’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire — also marked by repentance and a washing away of sins (Acts 2:38, 22:16) — brought new life (John 3:3–5). It is with this same language of immersion into life that St. Paul described Baptism:

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 by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. (Romans 6:3–8)

John’s Baptism as Prophecy

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

In my study of Baptism so far, I’ve taken for granted that the baptism of John the Baptist was somehow irrelevant to Christian Baptism, since all Christians agree that it was merely a foreshadowing of Christ’s. I now think my omission was a mistake. All combined, the accounts of John give us the most voluminous treatment of Baptism in the New Testament. All four Evangelists found John’s Baptism to be of central importance to their Gospel narratives, and necessary to understanding the person of Jesus and His work. That John is known to Christian tradition as “The Baptist” places a special emphasis on his role in connection with Baptism. To grasp a full understanding of what Baptism is and what it does, then, we should turn first to John.

Giotto, The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305)

The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305), by Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

“To give knowledge of salvation to His people”

The Evangelists understood John (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4), as John understood himself (John 1:23), to be the immediate forerunner of the Christ, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the LORD,’” in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3). In what way was John supposed to prepare Christ’s way? John’s father Zechariah prophesied in his Benedictus:

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
through the tender mercy of our God… (Luke 1:76–77)

So we see that John’s mission is to give knowledge of salvation to [the LORD’s] people in the forgiveness of their sins. John gave knowledge of salvation — an understanding of how people could be saved — in the forgiveness of their sins. What in John’s message would have given that understanding?

From John’s first appearance, he preached a simple message: a baptism of repentance. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11). It is implied, then, that if John’s message was to convey “knowledge of salvation,” that knowledge had an intrinsic connection to his baptism and to repentance.

Baptism of Christ, from Mariawald Abbey

The Baptism of Christ, stained glass from Mariawald Abbey, by Gerhard Rhemish, The Master of St. Severin, Germany (Victoria and Albert Museum)

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”

John is also plain in his message that his baptism was only a precursor of a greater Baptism that was to come: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16). Certainly the key aspect of this Baptism was to be “with the Holy Spirit” (cf. Mark 1:8), since Mark refers to only Christ’s Baptism “with the Holy Spirit,” while both Matthew and Luke refer to the same Baptism as being “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Now, I have heard some Protestants, particularly from my own Charismatic tradition, suppose that this refers to two different baptisms, “with the Holy Spirit” and “with fire.” But what is John actually saying here? It’s evident in the original texts that the two terms refer to the same object: although many English translations include “with” twice, there is only one preposition here in the Greek: ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί [en pneumati hagiō kai puri], with the Holy Spirit and fire. This is a literary device called hendiadys (Greek for “one by means of two”), by which two words connected by a conjunction are used to express a single idea, where an adjective and a substantive might otherwise be used. Christ’s “baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” is one and the same: baptism with the fiery Holy Spirit. In the words of the great Jesuit commentator Cornelius à Lapide, far more eloquent than my own:

By the Holy Ghost and fire is meant the Holy, Fiery, and Inflaming Spirit, who is fire—that is, like fire—and, as fire, burns, and kindles. It is a hendiadys. The Holy Ghost, as it were fire, purges the faithful from their sins, kindles and illuminates them, raises them towards heaven and strengthens them, unites them closely to Himself, and, like fire, transforms them into Himself. (The Great Commentary of Cornelius à Lapide, Volume 1: S. Matthew’s Gospel, trans. T.W. Mossman [London: John Hodges, 1887], 122)

Conclusion

So what is the upshot of all this? John declares plainly that his baptism is merely with water, a symbolic washing away of sins from repentant sinners. So Jesus’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is clearly something more. John himself associates Christ’s Baptism with the work of the Holy Spirit. So the logic seems to me:

  1. John baptized with water.
  2. John said the Christ would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” — not “with water,” leading to a possible symbolic interpretation.
  3. But Jesus also baptized with water (cf. John 4:1), and water baptism became a Christian sacrament.
  4. No other movement of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is referred to as “baptism.”
  5. It appears, then, that the Baptism John prophesied would be “with the Holy Spirit and fire” was the only Baptism Jesus is known to have administered, in water.

By the testimony of John, Christian Baptism was to be something much more than merely “with water.” Baptism itself was to be a movement of the Holy Spirit.

Baptism in the Early Church: Proof of Extrascriptural Tradition

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore (WikiPaintings).

[Part of a series on Baptism in Depth]

One of the clearest evidences to me of the existence of Sacred Tradition — of the idea that the Divine Revelation of Christ is not contained wholly and exclusively in Sacred Scripture, and that essential elements of Jesus’s teachings were not written down explicitly by the Apostles but continued to be passed down by their own oral teaching — is this: Despite only a few, arguably ambiguous statements from Jesus regarding Baptism in the canonical gospels — despite no recorded teaching of Christ stating clearly what Baptism is and how and why Christians should practice it — on the Day of Pentecost, upon the first proclamation of the Christian Gospel to the multitude, Peter knew just exactly what to do: “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” (Acts 2:38).

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

The conclusion that Peter knows something we don’t know is inescapable: He knows that (1) Baptism is an imperative that should be carried out immediately, now rather than later, upon believing in Christ; it is the answer to the question “what must be do?” to become a follower of Jesus; (2) Baptism in Jesus’s name is “for the forgiveness of your sins,” rather than merely “for repentance” as John the Baptist’s baptism was (cf. Matthew 3:11, Acts 19:4); (3) after Baptism, believers will receive the Holy Spirit. Not only does Peter seem to have a fuller understanding of what is happening in Baptism than the gospels indicate, but neither is a detailed explanation of this forthcoming in the remainder of the New Testament. The reader is left to infer Baptism’s meaning from context. In fact, the New Testament’s apparent lack of perspicuity on this matter is manifest enough that various Protestant sects proceeding from a basic reading of Scripture alone, shorn from Christian tradition, have come to widely differing and contradictory understandings of the doctrine — a doctrine of primary enough importance to the Gospel as to mentioned more than twice as often as “justification” (some 170 instances in 75 verses of “baptism” or “baptize”, as compared to only about 80 instances in 40 verses of “justification” or “justify”).

On the other hand, where Scripture is less than clear, Tradition, from the earliest times, evinces the same, full understanding of Baptism and its importance that the Apostles displayed in Scripture. There are no theological or exegetical debates or contradictory claims regarding Baptism found among the orthodox writers of the early Church. As a received doctrine, instructed and passed down by the Apostles themselves to their own disciples, and thence to each succeeding generation of Christians, the meaning and urgency of Baptism were completely understood:

Let us further inquire whether the Lord took any care to foreshadow the water [of baptism] and the cross. Concerning the water, indeed, it is written, in reference to the Israelites, that they will not receive that baptism which leads to the remission of sins, but will procure another for themselves. … [The words of another prophet] imply, Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water; for, says He, they shall receive their reward in due time. … Further, what says He? “And there was a river flowing on the right, and from it arose beautiful trees; and whosoever shall eat of them shall live for ever” (Ezekiel 47:12). This meaneth, that we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit. “And whosoever shall eat of these shall live for ever.” This meaneth: Whosoever, He declares, shall hear thee speaking, and believe, shall live for ever. [Epistle of Barnabas XI (ca. A.D. 120)]

Then [the catechumens] are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). … And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. …[In order that we] may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe… [Justin Martyr, First Apology LX (ca. A.D. 155)]

On the fifth day the living creatures which proceed from the waters were produced, through which also is revealed the manifold wisdom of God in these things; for who could count their multitude and very various kinds? Moreover, the things proceeding from the waters were blessed by God, that this also might be a sign of men’s being destined to receive repentance and remission of sins, through the water and laver of regeneration,—as many as come to the truth, and are born again, and receive blessing from God. [Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus II.16 (ca. A.D. 170)]

Baptism, which is regeneration to God, was instituted by Jesus for the remission of sins. [Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies I.21 (ca. A.D. 180)]

Giving to the disciples the power of regeneration into God, He said to them, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. [Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies III.17 (ca. A.D. 180)]

The sins committed before faith are accordingly forgiven by the Lord, not that they may be undone, but as if they had not been done. … It ought to be known, then, that those who fall into sin after baptism are those who are subjected to discipline; for the deeds done before are remitted, and those done after are purged. [Clement of Alexandria, Stromata IV.24 (ca. A.D. 200)]

Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life! [Tertullian, On Baptism I (ca. A.D. 200)]

From the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible. … What then? Is it not wonderful, too, that death should be washed away by bathing? [Tertullian, On Baptism II (ca. A.D. 200)]

Denying Original Sin (Baptism in Depth)

Hendrik Goltzius, The Fall of Man

The Fall of Man (1616) by Hendrik Goltzius (Google Art Project, via Wikimedia).

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

Growing up as an Evangelical Protestant, I didn’t have much of a theological foundation. But if there was any doctrine that I knew well and understood, it was Original Sin: Because Adam and Eve chose to reject God and sin, we have all inherited a fallen nature, such that we have no power in ourselves to resist temptation: we do the thing we do not want to do, and the thing we want to do, we do not do (Romans 7:15). I always thought this was an essential, universal Christian understanding — the reason why we need a Savior.

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore (WikiPaintings).

The first time I encountered someone rejecting the doctrine of Original Sin, I thought it was the bizarrest thing I’d ever heard, and presumed that it must be an isolated dissenter, an overzealous Bible student carried away with his own interpretation. That was some months ago. But since then I’ve encountered Evangelical after Evangelical — whole denominations, in fact — who deny this central tenet of the Christian faith. I remain stunned and puzzled.

Historically, the denial of Original Sin has been associated with the heresy of Pelagianism. This entails that we don’t have a fallen nature — that we, in our own ability, are entirely capable of resisting temptation and avoiding sin, and we can approach God and attain to salvation on our own without the aid of His grace. If we are to believe that Adam’s sin did not result in a fallen nature for all humanity, that men today have no greater a propensity to sin than Adam in his original state, that we can choose in our own free will alone not to sin — then ultimately we are left to wonder why Jesus needed to die for us at all. Couldn’t he simply have beckoned for us to come to Him, if there were no insuperable divide between God and Man to bridge? I do not think — I sincerely hope not — that those who deny Original Sin mean to argue this. My sense is that these people fundamentally misunderstand what Original Sin means — that they don’t understand what they are rejecting.

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

What they actually intend to reject, I suspect, is what they understand of the Catholic Sacrament of Baptism. The people I’ve talked to who have expressed a rejection of Original Sin have spoken of it as if it were something physical or biological that needed to be physically washed away, as one would wash away dirt or a stain. It is true that we, from the Church Fathers forward, often speak of Original Sin as a “stain” or “contagion” — but this in no wise entails one of a physical or biological sort. As it so often is with sacramental theology, non-Catholics are unable to make a distinction between something being physical and something being real. I have been around in circles so many times in discussions with non-Catholics, they not grasping that something can be both spiritual and real; both symbolic and actual; both through faith and through action.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome — of a small child, by effusion (pouring).

St. Peter tells us that “Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21). In contrast to what I’ve often been told, Catholics do not ignore this Scripture, or any Scripture at all. We have never argued that Baptism works physically to remove physical sin from the body. Sin, both original and actual, is a spiritual affliction to the soul. St. Paul calls Baptism “the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5) and “[a cleansing by] the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26). St. Luke tells us that Baptism “[washes] away our sins” (Acts 22:16). But none of these statements means to imply that we obtain remission from sins by means of a physical washing alone. Many Protestants argue, then, that these references are symbolic, or that they don’t refer to Baptism at all. But then, why are the multiple New Testament authors so insistent on this language of a washing? Why did the earliest extrascriptural Christian writers understand, to the exclusion of any purely symbolic interpretation, that Baptism itself somehow washed away our sins?

This all goes to the very heart of why I began this series: the rejection of infant Baptism by many of the same Christians who affirm the sacramentality of Baptism (i.e. that it actually washes away sins). The reason why they do is that they also reject Original Sin. If a Christian believes in both Original Sin and the sacramentality of Baptism, he cannot in good conscience deny that Sacrament to his children.

I had planned to dig a bit deeper into Scripture with Original Sin this time, but I got sidetracked by exegesis of 1 Peter 3:21 — which turns out to be a very meaty verse for this discussion, full of exegetical controversy. So I want to devote a whole post to that verse, either next time, or after I give an exposition of Original Sin in the writings of St. Paul. Stay tuned; I’m excited about this!

St. Ambrose on the Baptism of Desire

St. Ambrose, by Matthias Stom (c.1600–c.1652)

St. Ambrose, by Matthias Stom (c.1600–c.1652) (WikiPaintings).

Here’s something I just transcribed for the sake of linking to it in a discussion. The Catholic Church has consistently taught that God in His mercy can save those who desired to be baptized but were unable, or who would have desired to be baptized had they been aware of its necessity (CCC 1257–1261). This holds particularly true for catechumens, whose explicit desire for Baptism, repentance from sins, and growth in charity and faith, have already joined them to the Church (CCC 1247–1249, 1259). The following is an excerpt from St. Ambrose of Milan’s funeral oration on the death of the emperor Valentinian II (371–392), who fell victim to the common practice of deferring Baptism until late in life or even to one’s deathbed. At the time of his death, he had requested for Ambrose himself to baptize him — but before the bishop could arrive or the emperor could travel to Italy, Valentinian was murdered. In Ambrose’s consolation, he declares the hope of Valentinian’s salvation despite his failure to be baptized, and God’s mercy upon him because of his desire for the Sacrament. This demonstrates both the Church’s firm belief in baptismal regeneration and its necessity, and in God’s mercy upon those who failed to be baptized.

Valentinian II

Valentinian II (Wikipedia).

(51) But I hear that you grieve because he did not receive the sacrament of baptism. Tell me: What else is in your power other than the desire, the request?* But he even had this desire for a long time, that, when he should come into Italy, he would be initiated, and recently he signified his desire to be baptized by me, and for this reason above all others he thought that I ought to be summoned. Has he not, then, the grace which he desired; has he not the grace which he requested? And because he asked, he received, and therefore it is said: ‘By whatsoever death the just man shall be overtaken, his soul shall be at rest’ (Wisdom 4:7).

(52) Grant, therefore, O holy Father, to Thy servant the gift which Moses received, because he saw in spirit; the gift which David merited, because he knew from revelation. Grant, I pray, to Thy servant Valentinian the gift which he longed for, the gift which he requested while in health, vigor, and security. If, stricken with sickness, he had deferred it, he would not be entirely without Thy mercy who has been cheated by the swiftness of time, not by his own wish. Grant, therefore, to Thy servant the gift of Thy grace which he never rejected … He who had Thy Spirit, how has he not received Thy grace?

(53) Or if the fact disturbs you that the mysteries have not been solemnly celebrated, then you should realize that not even martyrs are crowned if they are catechumens, for they are not crowned if they are not initiated. But if they are washed in their own blood, his piety and his desire have washed him, also.

Baptism of Constantine (1520–1524), by the school of Raphael

Baptism of Constantine (1520–1524), by the school of Raphael (Wikipedia). In the Vatican Museums.

(54) Do not, I beseech, O Lord, separate him from his brother, do not break the yoke of this pious relationship. Now Gratian, already Thine, and vindicated by Thy judgment, is in further peril, if he be separated from his brother, if he deserve not to be with him through whom he has deserved to be vindicated. … (55) Your father also is present [Valentinian I], who under Julian spurned imperial service and the honors of the tribunate out of his love for the faith. Give to the father his son, to the brother his brother, both of whom he imitated, the one by his faith, the other equally by his devotion and piety …

(56) Offer the holy mysteries with your hands, with devoted love let us ask for his repose. Offer the heavenly sacraments, let us accompany the soul of our son with our oblations. ‘Lift up with me, O people, your hands to the holy place’ (Psalm 133(134):2), so that at least through this service we may repay him for his deserts. Not with flowers shall I sprinkle his grave, but I shall bedew his spirit with the odor of Christ. Let others scatter lilies in basketfuls. Christ is our lily, and with this lily I shall bless his remains, with this I shall recommend for his favor.

Source: Roy J. Deferrari, translator. “Consolation on the Death of Emperor Valerian.” Funeral Orations by Saint Gregory Nazianzen and Saint Ambrose. The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1953. 261–299, at 287–289. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, 23 September 2013.

* Pardon my interruption: But I wanted to point this out. Baptism is not a human “work” as Protestants charge; it is a work of grace by the hands of Christ (cf. Colossians 2:11), and, as Ambrose says, our desire for it is the only thing within our own power (cf. “an appeal (or request) to God for a clean conscience,” 1 Peter 3:21). Does this sound like “works’ righteousness”? —JTR

Justified by Faith: Paul and Baptism (Baptism in Depth)

Guido Reni, The Baptism of Christ (1623)

The Baptism of Christ (1623), by Guido Reni.

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

A few days ago, I had a startling realization about St. Paul.

I’ve always been frustrated by Paul’s lack of emphasis on Baptism. If Baptism is what saves us (1 Peter 3:21), why does Paul so seldom mention it in conjunction with salvation? Reformed Protestants are quick to point out that according to Paul, we are saved “by grace through faith … not because of works” (Ephesians 2:8–10) — and Baptism, according to them, is a “work”; and they stand on this to the exclusion of all other Scripture, even the words of Jesus Himself, demonstrating the necessity of Baptism (Mark 16:16, John 3:5). Many times I’ve had niggling doubts: What if the Protestants are right about Paul — about “salvation by faith alone” (sola fide)? What if the critics are right about Paul, that he teaches a different message than Jesus?

But then the other day, it hit me like a Roman chariot:

Paul takes for granted that all of his readers have already been baptized.

de la Tour, St. Paul (1620)

St. Paul (1620), by Georges de la Tour.

Of course! Just as Jesus exhorted us to believe and be baptized, believing and being baptized formed two inseparable halves of the same thought and action for the earliest Christians. In the Acts of the Apostles, Baptism immediately followed a believer coming to faith in Christ in every single case of conversion, as I showed yesterday. Believing and being baptized were so inextricably connected in the apostolic mind that one even came to imply the other. The idea that a believer could come to believe in Christ and not be baptized was unthinkable.

Each of Paul’s letters presume a Christian audience. They are not evangelistic in nature, but written rather to existing Christian communities to counsel, instruct, and correct. Therefore Paul assumes that all of his recipients are baptized Christians:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:25–27)

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 by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4)

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt.

For St. Paul, just as for St. Luke in the Book of Acts, believing and being baptized were inextricably connected. Just as being baptized implied that one had come to believe, believing entailed that one had been baptized.

And so it is only with this crucial context that Paul’s declarations regarding salvation by faith can be properly understood:

We ourselves … who know a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. (Galatians 2:15–16)

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. … God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. (Romans 3:28–30)

The essential response to having faith in Christ is being baptized. Paul understood that his recipients had already come to faith in Christ and been baptized. The two are inextricably connected — and so a crucial component of being justified by faith, the operative component, is Baptism.

Believe and Be Baptized (Baptism in Depth)

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth. Get ready, y’all! I have a burst of inspiration, and thoughts coming out my ears — both to finish my thesis and to share on Baptism.

The Acts of the Apostles, the continuation of St. Luke’s Gospel narrative recounting the earliest history of the Christian Church, is the clearest record we have of the faith and practice of the Apostles. With that in mind, we look to it as a clear window into the Apostles’ understanding of Baptism.

The most important observation we can make about the Apostolic Church and Baptism is that in every single case of Christian conversion in the Book of Acts, Baptism immediately followed the believer’s having faith in Christ — as if believing and being baptized were a part of the very same thought and action. In this we hear an echo of Jesus’s words: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). For the earliest Christians, believing and being baptized were inextricably connected.

Benjamin West, St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost, by Benjamin West (1738–1820) (Wikimedia).

We see, from the very first apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, that Baptism was connected both to believing in Christ and to repenting of one’s sins. To the people’s question of what they should do, St. Peter answers, “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” (Acts 2:38). The purpose Peter names of being baptized, we should note, is for the forgiveness of your sins; and the outcome is to 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 2:41).

Numerous other cases connect faith and Baptism necessarily: In St. Philip the Deacon’s preaching to the Samaritans, we see that “when they believed … they were baptized” (Acts 8:12). When the Ethiopian eunuch believed, he exclaimed immediately, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). In St. Paul’s ministry in Corinth, we find that “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).

Paul and Silas and the Philippian Jailer

In fact, the act of Baptism was so closely connected to the act of believing that baptism implied belief: In a number of cases, Scripture does not specify explicitly that the converts believed, only that they were baptized. When Paul preached to Lydia, the text tells that “the Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul. And … she was baptized” (Acts 16:14–15). Likewise with the Philippian jailer, we read that “[Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and all that were in his house,” urging him to believe, and “he was baptized at once, with all his family” (Acts 16:32–33).

At the very least, we can say that Baptism was a necessary part of salvation in Acts: for no one became a Christian without having been baptized. Baptism was the next step to having faith, the necessary response, no doubt a central part to apostolic preaching, and the completion of the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” As I will show next, in a closer examination of Baptism in the thought of St. Paul, not only did Baptism imply having faith, but having faith came to imply Baptism.