By Water and the Spirit

Why do you baptize children?  A child can’t confess his faith in Jesus, and it’s accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior that saves us, not baptism. 

Evangelical Protestants and Catholics don’t see eye to eye on the subject of sacraments.  The Catholic faith is sacramental; Evangelicals reject the idea of sacraments. If you are going to understand why Catholics baptize infants (and adults, for that matter) it’s important to come to grips with the notion of a sacrament.

The textbook definition of a sacrament is an outward sign that conveys the grace that it signifies.  Unlike ordinances—purely symbolic manifestations of an inward movement of grace—a sacrament consists both of the symbolic aspect and a very real conveyance of grace by participation on the sacrament.

The idea that matter or physical acts can convey grace should be familiar to any student of scripture.  Throughout salvation history, grace and the power of God were manifest through various actions and physical objects:

The Angel of Death passed over the houses of the Israelites who killed the lamb,                  painted their doorposts and ate the lamb.

Naman was cleansed of his leprosy only after bathing in the Jordan, as directed

Those who touched the tassels of Christ’s garments were healed

Christ used a paste of mud to heal the blind man

The touch of Christ healed the deaf man.

Most important of all: God became man to effect salvation through the                                   crucifixion.

The Catholic faith is sacramental because the Christian faith is incarnational.  God used matter to bridge the gap between Himself and man, through the incarnation of His son.  In fact, God has always used matter to convey the grace that is a participation in His divine life.  So the possibility that baptism could, in fact, transmit grace in the same sort of way should not be a problem to the Christian.

Evangelicals and Catholics, however, read the scriptures differently regarding the need of baptism for salvation.  Catholics would agree with their Evangelical brethren that faith is necessary for salvation but believe that baptism is a real and effective and ordinary vehicle for that grace.  (It is important to note that the Church does not teach that anyone dying without benefit of baptism is condemned to Hell, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion).

In support of the Catholic position, consider the following:

Christ taught that one must be born of water and the spirit (John 3:5)—a clear                      reference to baptism, which He later enjoins on His disciples as He sends                            them out into the world (Matthew 28:19).

St. Peter, in a position to be something of an authority on the subject, taught                         that baptism saves you (1 Peter 3:21).

St. Paul taught that baptism is burial in the death of Christ so as to be                                   resurrected with Him (Romans 6:4).

Couple these with the fact that the earliest writings of the Church Fathers emphasize baptism as conveying grace, and it is clear that the Catholic position is well supported in scripture and by the history of the Church.

How Baptism conveys grace remains ultimately a mystery, as God’s grace always is.  Catholics believe Baptism removes the stain of original sin inherited as a result of being part of the race that fell into sin with Adam.  It restores the soul and infuses a life of grace into the soul.  Protestants may disagree with interpretation, but must admit that it is not unbiblical—it just admits of a different interpretation of the Bible than most Protestants adhere to.

And it’s important to recognize that there is no single Protestant opinion on baptism.  Even among Evangelicals, there is considerable difference in what baptism means and how it is applied.  Some Protestants hold that baptism is merely symbolic, others define it as a sacrament.  Some baptize only adults, some baptize children.  Some assign almost no significance to baptism in the order of salvation; others hold it important  to one degree or another, still others claim baptism is essential to salvation.

It’s also important to understand that Catholics believe that we are saved by faith and through grace.  However, we believe that living faith is always faith in action, not just an intellectual assent to a spiritual proposition.   In this case, faith that is active seeks the grace of the sacrament of baptism, in accordance with the teachings of Christ through His Church.  And again, scripture supports this.  When Paul and Silas were asked by their jailer what he needed to do to be saved, they replied Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ…but then immediately baptized him to convey that grace to him.  It seems that belief and baptism were inseparable in the practice of the early Church.  It’s hard otherwise  to imagine why baptism would have been so important as to be administered in the middle of the night (or in the middle of a river while traveling, in the case of Phillip and the Eunuch) if it were merely a symbol.

As for the baptism of infants, the Church has always baptized infants, and scripture supports that as well.  The jailer and his whole household were baptized; it’s hard to believe there were no infants or children under the age of reason.  Likewise, Lydia’s household was baptized.  More importantly, Christ himself told His disciples not to forbid children to come to Him.

Catholics believe that by baptism, we are truly made part of the body of Christ, citizens of heaven, and this is a great good that we do not want to delay for our children.  Like circumcision, baptism marks us as part of God’s household.  And just as the circumcised infant did not make for himself a request to be brought into the covenant, but was brought in on the profession, faith and action of his parents, so it is with the baptized infant.  Once again, Protestants may disagree with the interpretation, but cannot claim that the practice is somehow novel or unbiblical. It is grounded in scripture and steeped in history.

In short, we baptize children so as to bring them as quickly as possible into the household of God.  We baptize them to give them the infusion of grace that, with proper nurturing by participating in the sacramental life of the Church and hearing and contemplating the Word of God will bring them into the fullness of the life God intends.

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