Baptism in the New Testament: Baptism now saves you!
By John Pacheco
The Catholic Church teaches that, at baptism, the soul is infused with the Holy Spirit and God becomes present in the soul. The person becomes a child of God and an heir of heaven. The baptized person is infused with sanctifying grace and receives the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. "Certain consequences of sin, however, remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, 'the tinder for sin'; since concupiscence "is left for us to wrestle with", it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ. Indeed, "an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules [Cf. 2 Timothy 2:5]" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pt. 1264).
The atonement which Jesus Christ made on the cross for original and subsequent sin is, therefore, applied to each person through baptism. Baptism has the power to 'wash away sin' and 'regenerate the soul.' Holy Scripture attests to this doctrine in both the Old Testament, as cited above, and in the New Testament. Saint Paul teaches: "And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name." (Acts 22:16). The Apostle again restates the teaching: "Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers. And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11-15). In his letter to Titus, Saint Paul writes: "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, that being justified by His grace we might be heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-7).
It is difficult for any Christian to escape the plain meaning behind these undeniable words. So let us rather "draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." (Hebrews 10:22). Not only is the clear allusion to baptism, but note that assurance of faith comes from baptism, not an intellectual acceptance of Christ as the Evangelical position holds.
The difficulty for the Protestant is how to reconcile salvation's link to baptism. Not only does the above passage from Paul's letter to Titus provide this link, but other passages point conclusively to the necessity for baptism. "And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21). According to Saint Peter, baptism is not significant because of the water (i.e. removal of actual dirt), but because God infuses His life into the person through baptism 'for a good conscience.' Likewise, the Gospel of Mark recounts: "And He said to them, 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned" (Mark 16:15-16).
Evangelicals try to escape the clear meaning of this passage by claiming that the emphasis should be on the belief not on the baptism. After all, it is the believer that shall be saved, while Jesus says nothing about the one who believes but is unbaptized. This interpretation of the passage, however, defies logic. In other words, Evangelicals suggest that since only those who disbelieve are condemned, those who believe can be saved independent of baptism. The passage in question, however, clearly teaches the necessity of baptism for salvation. The true significance of the last part of the passage, 'but he who disbelieved shall be condemned,' is adequately explained when one considers that those who 'disbelieve' are logically not going to be baptized in the first place, and consequently are not going to be saved!
Throughout the New Testament, baptism is associated with faith (Cf. Acts. 8:13, 9:18); many times its necessity is stated explicitly and at other times implicitly. Notice, for instance, Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch: "And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, 'Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?'" (Acts 8:35-36) The noteworthy point in this passage is the enthusiasm of the Eunuch's plea for baptism. If baptism had been a mere symbol, without any supernatural effects, or had not been required for salvation, then why does the Eunuch express such urgency for a simple ceremony? After Philip had related the Gospel, the Eunuch's first comments were 'Get me baptized!'. It appears, therefore, that Philip's Gospel message probably highly stressed the necessity for baptism. Why else would the Eunuch ask for this sacrament immediately after Saint Philip's preaching?
The command to baptize is unmistakable as evidenced by a number of passages in the New Testament. At Pentecost, Peter commands his listeners to "repent and let each of you be baptized 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). There are two significant points in this passage. Before Saint Peter gives this command, his listeners ask him what they should do. The question is obviously understood as applying to salvation, and therefore the Apostle's command that they go and be baptized is directed to salvation as well. The second point is even more forceful. Notice what the Apostle says is required for the forgiveness of sins: repentance and baptism. He does not say 'accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour for the forgiveness of your sins.' Moreover, the Evangelical notion that baptism is a mere symbol of salvation is totally repudiated by the above passage because the instrument of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit is not an intellectual acceptance of Christ. The biblical way of receiving the Holy Spirit, as the above passage clearly teaches, is through baptism.
The universal mandate to baptize is an unquestionable fact in the Gospels, and Jesus puts heavy emphasis on it ( Cf. John 4:1-2). One of the last things Jesus taught in the Gospels was to "go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Cf. Matthew 28:19). In this passage, Jesus is reminding the Apostles how to 'make disciples'. Disciples are 'made' by baptizing and teaching them. If baptism was not important or just a mere symbol, then why would it be the last major doctrine repeated by Christ before His ascension, both here in Matthew's gospel and in Mark 16:16?
"While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 'Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?'" (Acts 10:47). The Holy Spirit fell on the uncircumcised believers and they were given the gift of tongues. This gift of the Holy Spirit was given to show the circumcised believers that God shows no impartiality between the Jew and Gentile (Cf. Romans 2:11, Acts 11). The fact that Saint Peter asks the circumcised believers not to refuse baptism to the Gentiles is, in itself, a considerable proof for its importance, and certainly not something to be taken casually.
Saint Paul develops the doctrine of baptism and its relationship to original sin. "How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father so we too might walk in the newness of life" (Romans 6:2-4). The remission of all punishment of sin is indicated here: through baptism the old man dies and is buried and a new man arises. Moreover, the only 'sin' that 'Christians die to' is original sin, and this sin is 'wiped away' (Cf. Acts 22:16) through baptism. The Apostle reinforces this point, teaching that Christians "having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead" (Colosians 2:12).
Christians are made temples of the Holy Spirit (Cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19), and form the mystical body of Christ through baptism "for by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13). This theme of 'being baptized into the body' is one which is evident throughout Saint Paul's letters, and teaches that baptism is not merely a symbol but rather is a real incorporation into the body of Christ (Cf. Galatians 3:27, 1 Corinthians 12:27). "There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith , one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and thorough all and in all." (Ephesians 4:4-6).
At baptism, the soul receives a special mark or 'seal' which is a permanent and distinctive quality that can never be removed. Mortal sin results in the loss of the sanctifying grace received at baptism, but the distinctive mark received at baptism is never lost. The soul has been forever transformed, although not necessarily saved. Two metaphors characterize the mission and function of the Holy Spirit: He is the seal stamped on our souls at baptism as the mark of ownership; He is the pledge (the word denotes an actual portion of a whole) of the blessed life paid in full in Heaven. "In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation - having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory." (Ephesians 1:13-14). Note the three distinct acts which Paul mentions: first listening to the Gospel; then believing it; and then being 'sealed'. To 'seal' means to have been baptized. The Holy Spirit has marked us with the seal of the Lord "for the day of redemption" (Ephesians 4:30).
Evangelicals sometimes interpret the phrase 'to seal' to mean that our salvation is irrevocable; that it cannot be broken under any circumstances. 'To seal', however, really means 'to attach or mark with a seal'. Baptism is therefore God's outward sign for us that He has honoured His promise to grant us eternal salvation by 'sealing us' and giving us His Spirit (Cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22). God will not break this seal; He will not dishonour His promise to offer us eternal life through baptism, which wipes clean the punishment of original sin. Therefore, the child of God receives his inheritance at the very moment of his adoption, that is, at the very moment of baptism. Nobody can take it away from him; not even God, who has bound Himself by an irrevocable promise never to take back what He has given. The heir himself can renounce his rights, but no one but himself can deprive him of this heritage. Hence, the pledge is a conditional one, dependent on following Jesus and His commandments and remaining faithful to Him.
Before the Fall:Why We Need Baptism
Infusion vs. Imputation: Two views of justification
Water in the Old Testament: A sign of God's presence
Answering the Evangelicals: A biblical response to objections
Infant Baptism: A family affair
A Visual Image and Some Closing Thoughts
Return toApologetics of Baptism
Return to Sacraments and Sacramentals Page.