Baptism: The Sacrament as Clear as Water

Tintoretto, The Baptism of Christ (1581)

The Baptism of Christ (1581), by Tintoretto. (

In my RCIA class, Father Joe posed the question of which of the Sacraments is the most universal Christian sacrament. I guessed the Eucharist; just about everybody practices the Lord’s Supper, I figured. But no, the answer is Baptism, he said. My church growing up didn’t place much emphasis on Baptism, so I often tended to overlook it or underestimate its importance. But for the Catholic — for the historic Christian — Baptism is fundamental.

In Catholic theology, Baptism, Confirmation, and finally the Eucharist are called the Sacraments of Initiation. Through Baptism, the old life of the sinner is laid down and he is born anew in Christ. His sins are washed away; the very stain of original sin is erased. Baptism is the first and most important mark of initiation into the Christian community: The Christian initiate, or catechumen, is regenerated — becomes a new creation, washed clean and set apart — and he or she is prepared to share in the Body and Blood of Christ though the Eucharist. Since the earliest days of Christianity this has been the rite of passage into the Christian life. Even in Scripture, the absolute first thing that anyone did after coming to faith in Christ was to be baptized:

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will 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 2:38-41)

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:34-38)

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized. (Acts 9:17-18)

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

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

Even for St. Paul himself, the first thing to do upon believing in Christ was to be baptized. Baptism was clearly very important to the Apostles and to the earliest Christians, such that becoming a Christian and being baptized were intimately and inseparably joined. Being baptized into Christ is the act of becoming a Christian. For as Paul wrote, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).

So why was Baptism so crucial to the Apostles, from the very beginning, that they knew innately that it was the mark of becoming a Christian? Certainly, of all the Sacraments, it is the one most clearly taught by Christ:

“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 behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-5)

The Baptism of Clovis

The Baptism of Clovis (ca. 1500), by the Master of Saint Gilles.

Perhaps it is because it Jesus taught it so explicitly in Scripture that Baptism is so universally recognized by most Christians. But the Apostles evidently had a fuller understanding of what Baptism entailed — “the forgiveness of sins” — from the very first day of the Church. They understood its necessity and importance. This is one of the more obvious examples of Jesus clearly having taught the Apostles in greater detail during his earthly ministry than any of them ever wrote in Scripture. They passed this knowledge down to their own disciples — the beginning of Sacred Tradition.

Evangelicals have recently appropriated the term “born again,” but the Church from its very earliest days understood this new birth by water of which Jesus was speaking to be Baptism, and the Early Church practiced sacramental Baptism, the rite of initiation into Christ and into the Church, as St. Justin vividly attests:

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ . . . They [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, “Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5).

—St. Justin Martyr
First Apology 61 (ca. A.D. 150)

In this sense, every Catholic is a “born again” Christian.

I am sure I am preaching to the choir about the importance and sacramentality of Baptism. But I know in many Protestant communities, such as the one I grew up in, Baptism was relegated to a side show, a mere “public profession of faith” that was performed maybe one Sunday night out of the month, if that often. For so many Protestants, the efficacious Sacraments taught by Christ and the Apostles have become mere symbolic gestures, devoid of any real power and therefore of any real necessity. And some of them dare accuse Catholics of practicing “empty ritual”! This is running a bit long — but now that I’ve provided a scriptural foundation for the Sacrament of Baptism, I can move on next time to what I really wanted to talk about: Why have Protestants downplayed or even rejected the Sacraments? How can Protestant Christians be saved in these communities? No, I am not going to go off on a polemic again. I may be critical, but I intend to share a message a hope and mercy and love.

St. Justin Martyr on the Eucharist

Y’all love Justin, don’t you?

Here is the continuation of the quote from yesterday, from St. Justin Martyr (100–165), describing the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in his First Apology, about A.D. 150 (Chapter 66):

Justin Martyr

St. Justin Martyr (André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584) (Wikipedia)

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the Apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me (Luke 22:19), this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

How can anyone read this and fail to see that the Eucharist is central to our faith?

St. Justin Martyr on Christian Liturgy

Between work and school, I have a lot on my plate right now, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to delay another serious post for a few days at least. I am kicking around some ideas, and may tinker on them some — but for today I’ll leave you with a worthy patristic quotation.

Here is St. Justin Martyr (100–165) again, describing the Christian liturgy of the Early Church in his First Apology (ca. 150) (Chapter 65):

Justin Martyr

St. Justin Martyr (André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584) (Wikipedia)

But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president [i.e. he presiding] of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

St. Justin Martyr on Christian Baptism

St. Justin Martyr (100–165) was a second-century Christian apologist and one of our earliest testimonies to the worship of the Early Church. A pagan convert, he died a Christian martyr in Rome. In St. Justin’s First Apology (ca. 150), he writes regarding Christian Baptism:

Justin Martyr

St. Justin Martyr (André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584) (Wikipedia)

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they 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, “Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias [Isaiah] the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, says the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if you refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it” (Isaiah 1:16-20).

And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but 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; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.

—St. Justin Martyr
First Apology 61